My first overseas journey was to Hyderabad, India at age one. I slept under the kind of net that you cover cakes with, a holdover of a home that once filled with the smells of baking. In my senior year of high school, I wrote an essay about the relationship between my nana – my Baba – and his house. The piece may well have been about Hyderabad, where the house is located; so inextricable are person and home and place. Losing Baba in 2017 was incredibly hard, and now grief seeps through all my thoughts of the city.
Sham-e-Ali Nayeem’s debut poetry collection City of Pearls teaches us how to tenderly approach this difficulty of grief. In her book, she leads readers through the history of Hyderabad, our shared hometown. She remembers her father with clarity and wisdom.
Nayeem also released a companion EP online. As she speaks her poems out loud, soft music by composer Qais Essar accentuates her breath and pauses. Her reading is forceful in its quietude. It has the physical power of guided meditation, taking you further into yourself while also connecting you to the world.
Encountering the poems on the page, the minimalism of her writing comes through with even more power. Sound fills up a visual starkness, and it is a gift that we have so many ways of accessing her poetry.
“I really love an economy of words, and I really love when a few words capture the world,” Nayeem told Kajal. “Dreams are like that, two minutes can feel like a lifetime.”
Pairing her writing with music was something she had planned to do for a long time, Nayeem said, because musicians have historically accompanied South Asian, and especially Urdu, poets. She also wanted to retain a specifically Indian Muslim aesthetic for this work. Nayeem met Essar when they were both invited to perform at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. They decided to meld their sounds, and rehearsed long distance before meeting.
“I was trying to make it sound like you’re in the lap of an elder, almost like a bedtime story but not in a saccharine way,” she said.
Having her work recorded online makes it easy for listening across borders.
“Some of us born there can’t live there. But our first breaths were there, that cannot be taken,” she said.
And Hyderabad is part of her summoning of family, the geography of her heart mapped onto the geography of her city. The line “at the river musi, my city becomes whole,” is full of familiarity. I too feel the need to cheerlead for my neglected River Musi that meanders slowly under bridges, that creates one of my favorite vistas of the city where it flows in front of the Salar Jung Museum.
It is also significant because the Qutb Shahi rulers of Golconda founded Hyderabad at the banks of the River Musi to access water. This river retains a talismanic quality for the city, as a kind of memory. So, when Nayeem writes, “my beginning lies by the river musi,” it is a collective incantation.
I was trying to make it sound like you’re in the lap of an elder, almost like a bedtime story but not in a saccharine way.
And for Nayeem, home goes beyond the city. It is also her father, and his passing was a layered loss. He was a “divine masculine,” a gentle strength, a wonderful, Muslim dad.
“My father was my country, he was what I know of Hyderabad,” she said.
Nayeem said that writing these poems helped her not be afraid of the grief she was feeling. Having written them, she sees how she has become a home to her son, another journey that the book traces beautifully.
Yet, despite all of the book’s strengths, a few poems lack the precision that marks Nayeem’s best writing. And “City of Pearls,” Hyderabad’s nickname, currently pops up as a tourist tagline more than anything else.
But, as Nayeem said, “the pearl is created from debris, created from disturbance, disturbance for the mollusk. In order to deal with it, it self-soothes. Through self-soothing, it changes this disturbance, or debris, or grit, into a jewel.” In the same way, her writing transforms pain into art.
For Nayeem, the pearl represents Hyderabad’s Muslims, its Dalits, and Bahujans, as well as those who are displaced. Indeed, pearls are family heirlooms, carrying stories from generation to generation.
Ultimately, Nayeem said, her book resolves that to be free you have to make yourself your home. And as she travels with her work, it will continue to create room for people to sit with loss and to slowly, gently, heal.
Photo by Les Talusan