Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.

Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley hosted a memorable evening of poetry titled Irshad: Echoes of Our Souls. The evening showcased fourteen poets who bared their hearts and their work to create a magical escape for their audience. The pieces were recited in English, Urdu, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Kannada, giving a voice to many tongues. It was a labor of love by a group of poets whose “day-jobs” include science, engineering, Yoga, business, and music, making the poetic enterprise even more commendable. It was no surprise to hear that many of the poets had previously written books, hosted YouTube recitations, and maintained poetry blogs.

Each poet took turns to recite their pieces against a beautiful backdrop to make the evening appear like a seamless on-stage performance. (And yes, in the zoom world, technical challenges are what make the performance perfect, because that’s what makes the endeavor human and so utterly real.) The poets also introduced each other, which lent a particularly endearing touch of camaraderie and mutual respect to the setting.

Sundeep Kohli, one of the main organizers, introduced the evening, reminding us how the world of poets and poetry-lovers has been able to come together to share a common passion and interest in this unique way. Vidur Sahdev, who believes that poetry must be expressed when it is felt, recited how “words…fall like incessant rain” when the clouds of emotion are adequately weighed down. Pragalbha Doshi, who uses poetry to heal with words, showed us that even loneliness can be rich with experience, a time to reflect on life’s sweet “symphony” –an apt reminder through isolating times.

The themes of the poems were varied. Jai Polapalli’s contemplative piece starkly contrasted the lives of the have’s and the have-nots in any American or global city: the homelessness in public parks and the wealth of the city’s fortunate inhabitants. He focused on the wishful refrain of an underling that it “must be a full moon night somewhere in America”. Moitreyee Chowdhary rendered a feisty piece on identity and belonging by Assétou Xango: Give Your Daughters Difficult Names. The audience was treated to a spiritual and introspective piece by Anuradha Gajaraj-Lopez. Saswati Das, in a gentle voice, contrasted the pain of loss and death in times of peace with the added burden of senseless loss in times of violence. Scientist Kamala Tyagarajan shared some original punchlines on life in the fast lane and included scientific humor in her short but tremendously powerful pieces. An evening of poetry must include the theme of romance, fittingly provided by both Jai and Sundeep, in the perfectly chosen Urdu language.

I loved that poetry was read in different languages. Jyoti Bachani read a touching piece in Hindi, originally written by Vinod Kumar Shukla, along with her equally elegant English translation on the power of togetherness in difficult times. Lalit Kumar, with great fervor and an enviable tempo, shared his original pieces on accepting pain and suffering, and another poem that offered hope and strength in adversity. Navaneet Galagali recited a stunning piece in Sanskrit on stage fright and kindly offered a translation for those less erudite. Shashank Dabriwal narrated an exceptional excerpt from Rashmi Rathi, written by Ramdhari Singh Dinkar in chaste Hindi, telling us a story of the brave Mahabharata warrior Karna and his high principles of warfare even an unprincipled option was available. Sundeep Kohli used the traditional Tarannum style for his Urdu ghazal.

Such an enriching experience would have been enough for one evening, particularly for a first attempt. However, Sujata Tibrewala took us to further heights when she used multimedia, boldly combining her original art, poetry and accompanied by Lakshmi Rao’s sweet and soft vocals in the background. Sujata’s writing focused on idealized feminism and the unrealized strength of women in a patriarchal world, a fitting theme for the ambitious presentation.

Lakshmi Rao concluded the evening with an original composition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry, emotionally rendered as the perfect climax to a magical evening. Her well-chosen piece was a classic: “Bol ke lab azaad hain tere” (Speak, your lips are free to do so) — whether that was meant to encourage the recitation of poetry, the singing of lyrics, or just freedom of speech was left up to the listener.

The evening ended on that beautiful note needing just one more word to be said: Irshad (Guidance).

Aarti Johri has had a long relationship with poetry, finding it both moving and empowering. She recently published her first pieces in Stanford’s Tangents magazine. She blogs on Indian history at https://industoria.org/ and currently serves as President of SACHI, Society for Art & Cultural Heritage of India.