The poem, ‘Purdah-I’, appeared in Dharker’s first poetry collection, ‘Purdah and Other Poems’ (1988). ‘Purdah’ provides an interesting perspective on the way people’s ideas about female subject relate to the way she is seen in public. ‘Old enough to learn some shame’: the line is deliberately kept ambiguous as the situations which girls face in the world may be different. It implies that when the world (especially the male gaze) starts seeing her as an object, the girl ought to respond by taking recourse to purdah. ‘The cloth fans out against the skin’: this is an interesting aspect of the purdah that during the early phase of having the purdah, a girl sees it as being separate from her, but as the final lines of the poem make clear, it soon becomes part of her identity and comes to be associated with her perception of herself and the outside world.
‘But they make different angles in the light, their eyes aslant, a little shy’: since the girl is seen by the world as a woman, the entire perspective changes as she is seen by people even by those who have known her , with different eyes. Here, Dharker is trying to suggest that for men, irrespective of the way they may relate to a woman in age or station, there is a process of objectification at work; men who look at her may not do so directly as the words ‘aslant’ and ‘sly’ indicate, and this is a sign of men’s hypocrisy. ‘She stands outside herself’: the girl is able to distant her personality from her physical state and consider herself as a subject; in doing so she realizes how heavily dependent she is on the patriarchal structures that govern social norms and conventions; the purdah in a way, enables her to develop this kind of critical perspective, but she also knows that it is extremely limiting because it prevents her from exercising her freedom as an individual. ‘The first and second rib’: the rhythm of the heart, which is located between the ribs; even the purdah is no defense against the peering eyes of men, and movement in such company is fraught with tension and concern.
‘While doors keep opening inward’: her space is figuratively limited to her own world. The purdah restricts her vision of the world as well as her experience of life in the ordinary sense, which is available to others but not her. Central to the poem is the issue of gaze, which Dharker approaches both from the viewpoint of the girl and from the position of those who objectify and situate her accordingly. The ‘veil’ or the ‘purdah’ serves to secure her condition or safety from prying eyes, but the fact that it is also a cultural weight that she cannot easily overwhelm is apparent here. Such ambivalence is deliberately embedded into the textual fabric of the poem, which demands a nuanced reading of the complex circumstances in which a girls’ adoption of the purdah is located. Thus, she is constantly engaged in the process of self examination, trying to make sense of her own situation and the world around her.