On a first reading, this poem left me feeling somewhat confused. I surmised that someone (the cousin of the speaker, presumably named Tasleen) had some kind of encounter and died as a result. But the what and the why and the who remain rather oblique. There seems to be a sequence of events, but the link between the events raises questions rather than presenting answers or reasons.
Girl Talking7 01 2010
There are some Islamic references in the poem, though these do not necessarily assist with the logical assessment of what happened that resulted in the tragedy of the girl’s death.
Eid day (Eid-al-Adha) refers to the Festival of Sacrifice, and is about the celebrating of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son at God’s command. There is another day also referred to as Eid day, albeit it’s called the ‘smaller Eid’ or Eid ul-Fitr to distinguish it from Eid-al-Adha or the ‘greater Eid’. The death of the girl can then be perceived as some kind of sacrifice on the occasion. It’s particularly interesting as her name, Tasleen, sounds like the word ‘Tasleem'; the Tasleem is the Salutation of Peace. This seems to reinforce the possibility that the death of the girl on Eid day is in keeping with the notion of sacrifice.
At the same time, the reason given for her death by the Holy Man – She went out at noon and the ghost took her heart – adds to the mystery of the death while creating a rather confusing symbolism. The ‘ghost’ which appears at ‘noon’ rather than at midnight as might be expected creates a sense of the presence of a sinister threat which cannot be anticipated. It also seems to be a specific ghost that is being referred to from the choice of the article ‘the’ rather than ‘a’, while at the same time, it doesn’t indicate who or what this specific ghost is. A possible reading might be that the ghost is reference to the devil, who attempted to interfere with Abraham’s sacrifice. This creates a kind of sinister contrast between the incident of this girl dying and the original story from which the festival arises, because there was no intervention from God to save the human sacrifice; in the case of Tasleen, there was no substitution of the human sacrifice with an animal sacrifice — there was no salvation for the girl. Instead, her death becomes a warning to the others, or a way to keep the other girls subservient to the rules, even though the rule stated can be interpreted as being rather vague, or restrictive: one can either interpret ‘this’ in the last stanza as ambiguous or as a reference to ‘went out at noon’, an action which supposedly contributed to Tasleen’s demise. This is effective as seen from the very last sentence of the poem, “We guard our hearts”, emphasizing the compliance of the other girls through the use of assonance to create a sense of finality.
The use of the reversal of the original story is quite clear from the parallel of a father and son (Abraham and his son) with the mother and daughter (Tasleen and her mother) and the way in which the mother ‘held her down’, like one might hold a sacrifice for slaughter down on the altar. The tears of the mother and the event as a negative replay of the original story are brought to our attention by the use of internal rhyme in the first line of the final stanza, a rhyme which also emphasizes the death of Tasleen as the source of her mother’s grief as a reversal of the joy and relief which Abraham felt when he was instructed to sacrifice the ram caught in the bush in place of his only son. The Holy Man is regarded as an unquestionable authority in the poem, emphasizing the influence of religion or religious and superstitious beliefs as sources of information or explanations for mysterious circumstance, even though Tasleen’s problem seemed to have been a physical one (‘She made blood’). The nature of Tasleen’s ailment is deliberately kept ambiguous, though the mention of ‘something burning her stomach’ seems to suggest that the source of the blood might be the abdomen or, more specifically, the womb or the vagina, reinforcing the possibility that Tasleen was raped or that she lost her virginity.
The manner in which the mystery is built up is also interesting: The use of caesura with the short statement in the middle of the second line, ‘Something happened’, begs the question ‘what happened exactly?’ but the answer given to the unspoken question is merely a guess (“We think it was”) that itself concludes on a note of ambiguity, raising more questions, such as “pain” from what and how? The simple act of giving wheat to the miller to be ground seems to take on some sinister overtones, brought out by the repetition of the phrase ‘the miller’ in the same line, even though he seems to have done nothing more than to give her flour. “Afterwards” creates the impression of something having occurred, particularly given the information that ‘it did not hurt’ so that we know then ‘pain’ that happened was gone. By this means, a sexual encounter — Tasleen’s first sexual encounter — is suggested and made to appear as a threat of mysterious origins, indicating a degree of bewilderment and confusion in the speaker regarding what befell her cousin.
The use of the every day activities and events which are definite and clearly stated – ‘made chapatis’, ‘planted melons, spinach, marrow’ – create a contrast for the unstated mysterious event which caused ‘pain’. The bleeding (‘She made blood’, stanza 2), as well as the associated image of the ‘small red fruit’ and ‘hearts’ (last stanza) allows us to postulate that what took place between the miller and Tasleen might have been a sexual encounter resulting in the loss of Tasleen’s virginity, hence the bleeding. This reinforces the effect of the warning to the other girls: the guarding of their hearts could also mean a guarding of their virginity. By extension, the invitation by her friends to ‘come out’ could then also represent the temptation of the girl away from her chores or duties to engage in an activity, ostensibly meant to be fun or enjoyable but turns into something unpleasant because it makes her sick. Hence, it is possible to read that there were two moments of temptation in this poem, once with the miller and once with the friends, and Tasleen’s giving in to the latter is an indication of how she responded to the earlier temptation as well, and by extension, her response to the latter activity is a parallel to whatever took place between her and the miller.
The tone and flow of the poem itself is as the title implies: it’s a girl talking about something that she knows has happened, which probably accounts for the gaps in the information provided. As a ‘girl’, she would probably not be supplied with all the pertinent details, particularly if she is not of an age to be privy to certain information, such as about sexual relations between men and women. This presents quite an interesting perspective regarding the treatment of women, how they can be over-protected (as indicated by the absent ‘gory’ details and the new restrictions on the other girls ensuing from the incident), and how this form of protection perhaps does not really work because the girl is left not really knowing what she is guarding herself against, only that she has to ‘guard (her) heart’.
The various actions and activities that the girl describes (‘made chapatis’, planting, painting their hands, visiting, etc.) clearly indicate the kinds of activities or engagements the girls are allowed or perhaps expected to have. The girls / women in the society provide some kind of support system for each other (‘We take each other money.’) but they also seem to be part of the enforcement of restrictions (‘Her mother held her down’) while also being helpless to save each other. No proper help is rendered to the bleeding Tasleen; her friends tasked with finding help do not find her a doctor. In fact they seem to be caught up in more frivolous concerns – ‘We visit. We paint our hands.’ – than in truly rendering aid.
By the end of the poem, the line ‘We guard our hearts’ gives the impression that within their society, ultimately, each of these girls stands alone against an unknown enemy who might ‘steal (their hearts)’, even though it has been made clear through the poem that the girls are not empowered with knowledge in their own defense and are instead restricted to performing domestic, cosmetic or social tasks between women. The speaker’s knowledge of interaction with men is one of servitude in the description of Tasleen carrying water from the well to the Mosque. Men are also not known as potential threats because they merely ‘washed and prayed to God’, which completely neglects the aspect of men as a sexual threat to the young girls.