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Imtiaz Dharker could become England’s next Poet Laureate

Imtiaz was born in Lahore, where she lived for barely a few weeks, and grew up in Glasgow before shifting to what was then Bombay with her then husband Anil Dharker

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 29.04.19, 7:48 AM
  • Updated 29.04.19, 7:48 AM
  • 3 mins read
Imtiaz (left) and her daughter Ayesha Dharker (Picture: Amit Roy)

Here’s a question for the readers of The Telegraph to bring up this morning over Coffee House adda.

What do the following have in common: John Dryden, William Wordsworth, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Cecil Day-Lewis, John Betjeman, Ted Hughes and long-time Bombay girl Imtiaz Dharker?

If reports in the British media on Sunday are any guide, Imtiaz, 65, is set for appointment as England’s next Poet Laureate for a 10-year stint, succeeding Carol Ann Duffy, the first woman to hold the post.

The Queen makes the appointment on the advice of the Prime Minister. Theresa May had asked her culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, to conduct the search.

According to The Sunday Times, London, a 15-strong search committee of “poetry experts” set up by Wright picked Imtiaz to succeed Duffy, whose term expires on April 30.

Duffy, herself a member of the panel, had in the past praised Imtiaz for her “unique perspective in the diversity of English-language poetry”.

“Whether Imtiaz Dharker writes of exile, childhood, politics or grief, her clear-eyed attention brings each subject dazzlingly into focus,” Duffy had said. “She makes it look easy, this clarity and economy, but it is her deft phrasing, wit and grace that create this immediacy.”

On Sunday, Imtiaz would not comment and neither would her actress daughter Ayesha Dharker, whose journalist father Anil Dharker, Imtiaz’s first husband, now runs literary festivals in Mumbai.

Imtiaz once said: “Britain has opened its heart to many kinds of poetry and made space for the unexpected voice.”

There is not much money in the job — only £5,750 plus a “barrel of sherry”. But the post, which dates back to 1616, is prestigious and “there is an expectation that the holder will write verse for significant national occasions”.

Tennyson, who was appointed by Queen Victoria to be Poet Laureate and remained in the post for 42 years until his death in 1892, caught the national mood with a poem most children in India’s English-medium schools (but not in Britain) can recite by heart, The Charge of the Light Brigade. This was written in 1854, minutes after Tennyson had read a newspaper account of the British military disaster in the Crimea.

If Imtiaz’s appointment is confirmed, she may well spot paparazzi to her right, paparazzi to her left and paparazzi in front of her as she celebrates the arrival of Meghan Markle’s first baby.

Imtiaz was born in Lahore, where she lived for barely a few weeks, and grew up in Glasgow before shifting to what was then Bombay with her then husband Anil Dharker.

On Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, she joked: “I am a Pakistani-Scottish Calvinist Muslim, adopted by India and married into Wales…. Don’t try to put me in a box… I’m a cultural mongrel.”

A friend told this newspaper on Sunday: “She is more Indian than anything else.”

Imtiaz’s collections of poems on such subjects as religion, identity, culture and feminism have been published in Purdah (1989), Postcards from God (1997), I speak for the Devil (2001), The Terrorist at My Table (2006), Leaving Fingerprints (2009) and Over the Moon (2014).

She received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2014 from the monarch herself at Buckingham Palace. She appears frequently on the popular BBC Radio 4 programme, Poetry Please. Last year’s London Book Fair introduced a “Poet’s Corner”, with Imtiaz as its first occupant.

Her second husband, Simon Powell, who founded the Poetry Live organisation, passed away in 2009.

The Sunday Times said: “Dharker’s credentials could hardly be stronger. She already travels the length and breadth of the country for poetry recitals speaking to more than 25,000 students a year, her work appears on GCSE and A-level syllabuses and she is a former poet-in-residence at Cambridge University Library.”

The culture department said an appointment had not yet been confirmed and that the Queen would take the final decision.

Imtiaz’s last book, Over the Moon, which contains a poem about Mumbai, apparently clinched it for the selection panel:

Mumbai? Kissmiss?

Of course! Who is not knowing this,
that after Happy Diwali comes Merry Kissmiss!

Impossible to miss, when allovermumbai,
Matharpacady to A to Z Market, rooftops
are dancing in chorus
and alloversky
is fully full with paper stars.

Hear! Horns are telling at midnight on every street,
Happy Happy Happy! We know very well
to make good festival, and Saint Santa is
our honoured guest in Taj Hotel.
We are not forgetting.

And allovermumbai alloversky
is fully full with paper stars.

See! Tree is shining and snow (cotton
-wool but looks good, no?). Small child also
face is shining, licking icing, this
must be what snow tastes like
under the paper stars.

And allovermumbai alloversky
is fully full with paper stars.