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The Lahore-born Moniza Alvi, one of Britain’s foremost contemporary poets today, has a new collection, At the Time of Partition, shortlisted for the 2013 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. The volume consists of 20 poems which flow into each other to create a single haunting and lyrical narrative, welding the personal and the public. The result is a stunning, skilled and controlled work of immense grandeur.

Alvi, daughter of a Pakistani father and an English mother, wrote the poems shortly after her startling discovery that her father’s younger brother, brain damaged by a childhood accident, had disappeared at Partition. In 1947, while crossing from Ludhiana to Lahore, Alvi’s widowed grandmother had entrusted him to friends. She never saw him again. Alvi researched Partition compulsively to write about this family episode, drawing on her imagination to recreate incidents and characters, including the grandmother she had never met. Her poems, she states, are “a version of what might have taken place.”

The book begins with newly divided India and leads into newly created Pakistan. In the process it encapsulates many great migrations throughout history: a story of conflict, trauma and loss, followed by adaptation, mutation and change, alongside intangible dreamlike images of memory.

The first and last poems, ‘The Line’ and ‘Going Back,’ respectively, revolve around that invisible, surreal boundary line drawn so arbitrarily between India and Pakistan. Both poems include the words, “a line so narrow a sparrow might have / picked it up in its beak”. Framed within ‘The Line’ is the story of her uncle Athar’s childhood accident: a bright young boy, Athar, playing outside in the dust and “the gay painted lorry / that struck him.” This fateful moment and its denouement, the brain-damaged child, that the best of physicians, including his father, could not cure, resonates with the tragedies that follow the subcontinent’s defining ‘midnight’s hour’: “The land itself at its most calmest and most dignified / yielded to the line, lay still — / it didn’t know what was coming.” ‘The Line’ continues with references to Sir Cyril Radcliffe and Nehru’s independence day speech celebrating India’s freedom, interwoven with the dilemma of the poet’s grandmother, “widowed now, in Ludhiana, / a son in England, / five of her children / with their mother / on the wrong side of the line.”

In ‘Must We Go?’ the poet imagines herself in her grandmother’s place: the decision she has to make while her children complain and protest, as the neighbourhood empties out and as rumours of rape, murder and suicide spread. ‘Better by Far’ describes her resolve to leave, in an overcrowded bus in the scorching summer, with five children — Ahmed, Athar, Rahila, Jamila and Shehana — a foil to fairytale imaginings of a flying magic carpet with “Nehru to wave them on / and Jinnah to welcome them.” ‘Ever After’ dwells on that critical moment when friends offer to take care of the young Athar: “We’ll take him, Shakira. / He can travel with us. / You’ve enough on your hands / with the other four. / There are places still / on the second bus, inshallah!” The poem dwells on the grandmother’s turmoil, and desperation with the benefit of hindsight, to reverse time, to undo those words: “Take him.” The poem describes her farewell to her known familiar world: her house “And Ludhiana itself, the Old City and the New — / Civil lines with its flowering trees.” These peaceful images belie a harsher reality: “Bleeding internally, the city / tried to appear whole / for a final goodbye — / as they would gather and wait, / appear whole / under Muslim rain and Hindu sun, / Hindu rain and Muslim sun.”

The next poem, ‘At This Time,’ contemplates illusion, friendship and trust in an unreal climate of fear and hope while ‘They Took the Bus’ details that arduous journey, the smells and sounds of the congested bus, children clamouring “how much further?” And the danger: the stories of terrible atrocities and trains filled with the dead and no young women. “Those tales which had no beginnings / or had swallowed their endings / tales which recoiled from / or feasted on themselves.” No one dares leave the bus, not even a woman giving birth. The approaching dark brings more fears; morning reveals deserted villages, dusty anonymous landscapes. Alvi’s interplay on the words “tales” and “nights” in ‘Not A Thousand and One Nights,’ heightens the terror. The tenth poem, ‘No,’ tells of arrival — in that nameless, waterless, “no-man’s land,” a strip flanked with walls of barbed wire separating India and Pakistan.

The second half of the collection begins with ‘The Camp,’ “a vast parody of a city,” a teeming cluster of tents and shelters constructed from rags, bamboo, sheet metal. There is rejoicing at loved ones re-united, lamentation over the missing and dead; incidents of cholera, theft and murder. Alvi’s use of repetition and rapid rhythm heightens the desolation and unreality: “Holes in shelters. / Holes in families / the losses / trickled out, / poured out, / in the queues, in huddles / around the fire.” There the poet’s grandmother tends to her four children, queues for rations — and sends messengers for news of Athar. Then comes the revelation: “We’re sorry they said, / the friends of friends. / So very sorry — / He isn’t with us — / he disappeared at — / He vanished — between — / The last time we saw him. / We did what we could —” Alvi moves between the specific to the collective, to tell of thousands who suffered likewise, as she describes her grandmother’s agony, her quest for Athar.

She cross-examines, desperately, people who claim that they, or someone they knew, “had seen Athar / or someone just like him.” Sometimes she thinks that she has glimpsed of him nearby. And she prays, and prays, and prays.

‘On the Brink’ begins with the words, “The camp was on the brink of the city / the city was on the brink of the camp.” The poem considers the changing face of Lahore, the influx of refugees, the exodus of Sikhs and Hindus, the solid edifices of the High Court and Assembly buildings, schools and colleges and the abandoned and gutted houses, havelis and hovels, “worlds within worlds, / microcosms of the beleaguered, / expectant city. / Lahore, still-beating heart of the Punjab.”

This contemplation of violence and resilience welds in with ‘And Now?,’ the story of the poet’s grandmother and Athar, “the family / began / to reconfigure / around an absence, / this ripeness / of his loss. / Ripe as if some / fruit / must fall / but hour by hour / month by month / no fruit fell.” There is the offer to share a house, a constricted space compared to their Ludhiana home. They move in and feel they are trespassing: it is filled with someone else’s furniture, clothes, food: “Everything as it was / when a family mirroring / their own had grasped the / future — and fled.”

In ‘Settling,’ Alvi’s descriptions of the family adjusting to Lahore are intertwined with Pakistan growing older, a country divided between East and West “And always there was India its immense shadow / forever fixed to its heels.” Alvi tells of her grandmother’s applications to the authorities in search of Athar; the certainty and uncertainties of a new life in a new country. ‘And Where?’ conjures up photos of the founder of the nation, his vision of freedom, followed by his death: “Mohammed Ali Jinnah. And her lost son / At rest in the afternoon or waking / she might picture them both, / one superimposed on the other.” ‘Continuing’ describes the poet’s grandmother re-assuming the rhythms of daily life: the children join school, there is cricket and social gatherings, and her son in England marries an Englishwoman: “What was there to cling to / but hope? / The fine escarpment of hope. / Hope in her children / her sons — her daughters. / Hope in the future, of some vestige / of the-past-in-the-future.” The book culminates with ‘Crossing Back,’ a meditation of time, imagination, memory, the process of writing and the blurred edges of divisions and dividing lines, life and death.

At the Time of Partition is a truly extraordinary collection, a work which succeeds in being spare, compelling and timeless. Furthermore, for the subcontinental reader, it captures a moment of time, a memory, so visceral that it has an extraordinary power. This book should not be missed.

The reviewer is a literary critic

At the Time of Partition


By Moniza Alvi

Bloodaxe Books, UK

ISBN 978 1 85224 984 7