The Partition was a singularly traumatic experience in the subcontinent, both politically and emotionally, for people of all faiths and social standing.
From poets to politicians, great thinkers on both sides of the border have dwelled on the anxiety of separation and starting a new life amidst a landscape of violence, loss and nostalgia.
On the 72nd anniversary of the Partition, we bring you a selection of poems to commemorate the event by reliving the memories handed down to us in verse.
Laments and memoirs were written in many tongues, but the selection here is from regions most affected by the split in 1947 and the separation since. This is to offer many vantage points to the same event and to understand the nuances of the story as it unfolded for different lives.
Possibly the most popular poem associated with the dismay of Partition was written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His explosive first line rings loud every time we think of the much-awaited morning of freedom.
ye daagh daagh ujala ye shab-gazida sahar
vo intizar tha jis ka ye vo sahar to nahin
This stained, pitted first-light
this day-break, battered by night
this dawn that we all ached for
this is not that one
(Translation Mustansir Dalvi)
Two nations were rendered apart by bitterness and yet remained conjoined by memory and tradition. A cartographer’s whimsical division shaped millions of lives and identities, leaving traumatic legacies in its wake.
The infamous Cyril Radcliffe, who split an unfamiliar territory "having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition", is often held responsible. One of the best criticisms of him and his disastrous move is by the poet WH Auden. It is both amusing and horrifying to think how one Englishman’s bowels are to be blamed for the mass displacement and devastation.
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
We often imagine that these carelessly drawn lines had the most severe consequences in the north, particularly in Punjab. However, there were equal ripples felt in the east as well. A simple Bengali rhyme by Annada Shankar Ray questions the logic of Partition and mocks the "man-children" who engineered it.
Ray sketches a vivid imagery of what life in 1940s Bengal was like, and lists the various people and institutions that would be ripped apart due to this vicious act of Partition. It is interesting to note that this rhyme is often taught to children early on, perhaps easing their introduction into the world of adult politics — seemingly foolish from the outside.
Khoka O Khuku
teler shishi bhanglo bole
khukur pore raag koro
tomra je shob buro khoka
bharot bhenge bhaag koro
taar bela tar bela taar bela
When the little child breaks the vial of oil,
She incurs your wrath as if it were an act of despoil…
What about the many ways in which
you petty man-children have broken up India, so verdant and rich
What about that?
(Translation Debasmita Boral)
The first rumours of Partition brought about a wave of denial and disbelief. Displacement from one’s home and identity is not an easy concept to accept and we find in Jibanananda Das’s poetry a natural form of coping: romanticisation of home and the desire to stay in the comfort zone of familiarity.
Go where you will – I shall remain on Bengal’s shores
Shall see the jackfruit leaves dropping in the dawn’s breeze;
Shall see the brown wings of shalick chill in the evening,
Its yellow leg under the white down goes on dancing
In the grass, darkness — once, twice — and then suddenly
The forest’s oak beckons it to its heart’s side,
Shall see sad feminine hands — white conch-bangles
Crying like conch-shells in the ash-grey wind
The ground realities of Partition, however, were far more brutal than abstract notions of home. The stories of violence and cruelty is captured well in this Punjabi rhyme by Shiv Kumar Batalvi and evokes a visceral image of killing a mother and the death of childhood.
Dudh Da Qatl
Mainu te yaad hai ajj vi, te tenu yaad hove ga
Jadon dohaan ne dil ke apni maan da qatl kita si
Meri dudh di umar maan de qatl sang qatl ho gayi si
Te thande dudh di oh laash tere ghar hi soan gayi si
I still remember it today, and you must remember it too
When, together, we murdered our mother.
My childhood was killed with the murder of my mother
And its cold corpse was left behind in your place.
Even now, I become quiet when I remember that
And lose myself in the thoughts of that half-a-body that was your share.
(Translation Suman Kashyap)
Another Punjabi poet, Amrita Pritam, immortalised Partition in her poetry. In Waris Shah, she evokes the Punjabi saint to put an end to this senseless violence. The pain and agony in her verse is evident — her own Punjab is soaked in the blood of innocent lives and she can only plead to make it stop. You can hear Pritam reciting the poem in her own voice here.
Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nuu,
Kiton qabraan vichon bol,
Tey ajj kitaab-e-ishq daa,
Koi agla warka khol
Ikk royi sii dhi Punjab di,
Tu likh likh maarey wain,
Ajj lakhaan dhiyan rondiyan,
Tenu Waris Shah nuu kain
Uthh dard-mandaan diya dardiya,
Utth tak apna Punjab
Ajj bailey lashaan bichiyaan
Tey lahoo di bhari Chenab
Waris Shah I call out to you today to rise from your grave
Rise and open a new page of the immortal book of love
A daughter of Punjab had wept and you wrote many a dirge
A million daughters weep today and look at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
The imagery of blood lurks in almost all poems on Partition. It isn’t surprising because the same blood that bound us was mercilessly shed in those dark months. This evocative poem by Agyega is also one that makes us wonder about the depth of trauma inherited and remembered by generations to come.
Yah idhar baha mere bhai ka rakt
Vah udhar raha utna hi laal
Tumhari ek behen ka rakht
Beh gaya mili dono dhaaraa
Ja kar mitti me huin ek
Par dhara na cheti mitti jaagi nahi
Na ankur uss me phoota
Yah dooshit daan nahi leti
Kyunki ghrina ke teekhay vish se aaj ho gaya hai
Ashakt nistej aur nirvirya hamara rakt
Shed here was my brother’s blood
It remained as red as
As your sister’s blood shed there
Swept away, both these bloodstreams met
And became one in the soil
But it could not awaken the soil
Neither did it sprout a bud
The soil does not accept a corrupted gift
Because tended by the bitter poison of hatred
Our blood has become infirm, languid and infertile
While most poets lamented the bloodshed, some celebrated this hard-won freedom from the coloniser. They espoused hope, encouraging the common man to enter this brave new world with courage and dignity.
However, they may have been too quick in their celebrations, unsure of what to do with this newfound liberty and how to deal with the new battles that ensued. This hope and despair come together in Kasmiri poet Mehjoor’s Azadee.
Dapaan vanahav panun ahvaal asi maa laayi aazaadee
Even in armpits seven times, they skin searched her for a handful of rice
In a basket under her rags, the market gardener’s wife snuck home freedom
They are all broken hopeless, inside their hearts is restlessness
They say if we dare speak, won’t we be punished by freedom?
At the end of it all, it was these artificially imposed boundaries, splitting rivers and mountains or friends and family, that we have continued to live with for over seven decades. Agha Shahid Ali relives this and asks the pertinent question: what is this strange "separation’s geography?"
By the Waters of Sind
So what is separation’s geography?
Everything is just that mystery,
everything is this roar that deafens:
this stream has branched off from the Indus,
in Little Tibet, just to
find itself where Porus
miles down (there it will join the Jhelum)
lost to the Greeks. It will become,
in Pakistan, the Indus again.
Are we not the same in the end — the same people who share traditions and languages? After his first visit to Pakistan, Indian poet Nida Fazli was struck by the idea that people’s suffering and its articulation was similar on both sides of the border. He thus composed the following lines:
Yahan Bhi Wahan Bhi
Insaan me haivaan yahan bhi hai wahan bhi
Allah nigehbaan yahan bhi hai wahan bhi
Khoonkhaar darindo ke faqat naam alag hain
Shehron mein bayabaan yahan bhi hain wahan bhi
The beast within the human is here, as well as there
Allah is the protector here, as well as there
Only the names of blood-thirsty monsters are different
Wastelands within cities exist here, as well as there
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Onaiza Drabu is an anthropologist and works on Kashmiri folklore. She curates Daak (daak.co.in), a weekly newsletter and website. It is a collection of unknown stories, artworks and ideas from women and men who have shaped South Asia's cultural heritage.
Prachi Jha studied literature and runs an NGO called Life Lab Foundation. She curates Daak (daak.co.in), a weekly newsletter and website. It is a collection of unknown stories, artworks and ideas from women and men who have shaped South Asia's cultural heritage.