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‘This border that drinks blood and spits sparks’: Voices of Urdu poets on war and peace

Selected and translated by Rakhshanda Jalil.
Updated Jun 19, 2019 05:37pm

“... as a writer or an artist, even though I run no state and command no power, I am entitled to feel that I am my brother’s keeper, and my brother is the whole of mankind. And this is the relevance to me of peace, of freedom, of detente and the elimination of the nuclear menace. But out of this vast brotherhood, the nearest to me and dearest are the insulted and the humiliated, the homeless and the disinherited, the poor, the hungry and the sick at heart.”

Faiz Ahmad Faiz spoke for an entire generation of Urdu poets when he wrote this. It is against this background of making common cause, of speaking up, that these poems on war and peace culled from a broad swathe of poetry — from the First World War to the War of Independence and then the wars India fought with Pakistan — must be read. From Jang-e Europe to Jang-e Hind-o Pak, it has been a long journey.

The War in Europe and Indians

Shibli Nomani

Consumed with pride, a German said to me:
“Victory is not easy but it isn’t impossible either
The army of Britannia is less than ten lakh
And on top of that it is not even prepared
As for France, they are a bunch of drunks
And not even familiar with the art of warfare.”
I said your arrogant claim is all wrong
If not mad you are certainly not wise
We the people of Hind are ten times the Germans
You have no sense to differentiate big from small
He listened carefully to what I had to say
Then he said something that can’t be described
“By god, anyone will lay down their life for such simplicity
You are willing to fight but without even a sword in your hand!”

(Original title: Jang-e Europe aur Hindustani)


A warrant of arrest was issued against Shibli Nomani for writing this poem. However, he died on November 18, 1914 before the warrant could be used.

From Collected Works

Akbar Allahabadi

Real goods are those that are made in Europe
Real matter is that which is printed in the Pioneer
Though Europe has great capability to do war
Greater still is her power to do business
They cannot install a canon everywhere
But the soap made by Pears is everywhere

The Cleverness of the English Mind

Ahmaq Phaphoondvi

Look at the turmoil and the bloodshed among our people
The cleverness of the English mind is used up in all such schemes
This murder ’n mayhem, wars ’n battles, cruelties ’n malice
The country’s garden is barren, with nothing but dust and desolation
There are no flowers here nor any freshness or fertility
There is bloodshed in every direction and piles of corpses
Tyrants like Dyer and O’Dwyer rule in the manner of Changez
Shuddhi and Tableegh movements here, conch and calls there
Had these not been in our midst the British Rule would have been difficult

(Original title: Angrezi Zehn ki Tezi)


Thank You Europe

Agha Hashar Kashmiri


O earth of Europe, O cherisher of outer raiments
O rival of Asia, O lover of the spark in the harvest
Your idea of healing is throwing out everything
Because of you the world is a place of mourning
The eyes of freedom are damp with the tearsof longing
The tale is blood-drenched people are destitute
Your philosophy is contained in your Book of Oppression
Humanity is the passion of your civilised barbarity
Ancient greatness laments your recent behaviour
Your old beauty has been washed away by splashes of blood
You have turned the dignified theatre of the east into a wilderness
You have turned heaven on earth into a model of hell
A shout is rising from the dust of the downtrodden
Asia is crying out and telling the world at large
On my poor grave there are neither lamps nor flowers
And not the wing of the moth or the sad song of the nightingale

(Original title: Shukriya Europe)


After the two Great Wars, there seemed little doubt in the mind of most Urdu poets, especially the progressives, that war was justified as it would bring freedom. And, so, there was Makhdoom Mohiuddin, the poet from Hyderabad writing in Jang-e Azaadi (War of Independence):

Look, the red dawn is coming, the red dawn of independence
Singing the red anthem of independence, freedom and independence
Look, the flag is waving of liberty, freedom and independence

And there was Kaifi Azmi writing an ode to the new woman who must walk hand in hand with her mate, in Aurat (Woman):

Arise, my love, for now you must march with me
Flames of war are ablaze in our world today...
You must burn in the fire of freedom with me

But by far the most famous comment on the blood-soaked end to a prolonged war for freedom is contained in the immortal lines from Subah-e Azaadi by Faiz Ahmad Faiz:

This patchy light, this night-bitten dawn
This is not the dawn we had been waiting for

In a poem titled Maatam-e Azadi (The Lament for Freedom) written in 1948, Josh Malihabadi strikes a sombre note when he takes stock of the peace that comes at the end of a long and bloody struggle:

O friend, don’t ask me for the tale of Hindustan
Our throats were torn by the scratching of our songs
When we escaped the sword, we were beheaded by the veins of the rose

Majaz too had lost some of his youthful ebullience by 1948 when he wrote:

Hindu Muslim Sikh and Christian will shed tears of peace
Having played Holi with blood, they will now wash off these stains

By the time India celebrates its first Republic Day, Sahir Ludhianvi’s disenchantment with the new republic is already palpable.

In a poem titled Chhabees Janwary (26 January), Sahir invokes the beautiful dreams the nation had seen, dreams of a better tomorrow and asks some important questions.

Twenty-sixth January

Sahir Ludhianvi

Come, and let us ponder over this question
What happened to those beautiful dreams we had dreamt

When wealth increased why did poverty also increase in the country
What happened to the means of increasing the prosperity of the people

Those who walked beside us on the street of the gallows
What happened to those friends and comrades and fellow travellers

What is the price being set for the blood of martyrs
What happened to the punishable ones for whom we were ready to lay down our lives
Helpless nakedness does not even merit a shroud What happened to those promises of silk and satin

Cherisher of democracy, friend of humanity, wisher of peace
What happened to all those titles we had conferred upon ourselves

Why is the malady of religion still without a cure
What happened to those rare and precious prescriptions

Every street is a field of flames, every city a slaughterhouse
What happened to the principles of the oneness of life

Life wanders aimlessly in the wilderness of gloom
What happened to the moons that had risen on the horizon

If I am the culprit, you are no less a sinner
O leaders of the nation you are guilty too

Ali Sardar Jafri in Subh-e Farda (The Morning of Tomorrow) speaks of standing on the border (obviously between India and Pakistan) waiting for a new morning, the morning of tomorrow:

On this border of blood, tears, sighs and sparks
The sun, broken in pieces, had set on this border
On this very border the dawn of freedom was wounded yesterday
Where you had sown hatred and grown swords
This border that drinks blood and spits sparks
It slithers on the bosom of our soil like a serpent
It enters the battleground bedecked with the armaments of war

The wounds of Partition were revived after every war with Pakistan. Each time, the poet cautioned against war. Sahir, the most vocal pacifist said in a nazm titled Ai Sharif Insanon:

War itself is the problem
How can it then provide the solution?
Today it will give fire and blood
Tomorrow it will bring hunger and beggary

To end with Faiz, let us remember his epochal poem on the 1965 war India fought with Pakistan entitled Sipahi ka Marsiya (Ode to the Soldier):

Rise from the earth, wake up, my son

This beautiful elegy (hauntingly sung by Nayyara) is a tribute to the soldier who lays down his life fighting for the country. It is, to my mind, a fine example of the essence of the progressive spirit in Urdu poetry, of the poet’s humanity and concern for individual life that is precious.

Faiz’s elegy is for all the soldiers who die in war — any war.



This article originally appeared on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.