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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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:
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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.
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