Poets of Partition

Jan 2016

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[Work in progress] Eraser on Paper iv, Graphite on paper, 52 x 35 inches, Imran Channa, 2015, Lahore.


[Final Work] Eraser on Paper iv, Eraser on paper, 52 x 35 inches, Imran Channa, 2015, Lahore.


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What is the poet’s role in history?1 For a historian of Britain like myself, this question calls to mind the work of E. P. Thompson, who read the history of the English working class with one eye on the Romantic poets who sensitively captured the social and cultural transformations of the revolutionary late eighteenth century. Their notions of place, people, and conflict were also shaped by the imperial expansion unfolding in precisely the same moment, and they waxed orientalist even in their defenses of freedom. Thompson’s favorite among the Romantics was the prophetic William Blake, partly for his consistent anti-imperialism; he disapproved William Wordsworth’s eventual disenchantment with the revolutionary spirit. As an activist and aspiring poet himself, Thompson saw poetry and politics as related pursuits. For him, poetry stood for “deeply inspired action…The poet was crucial to revolutionary politics, for he could articulate the longings that, along with practical programs, inspired men to act.” Blake “embodied the possibility of poetry and politics, romantic yearning and rational resistance in a single movement.”2 This understanding shaped Thompson’s sense of purpose as a historian as he set out to recover the creative — poetic — radical capacity of eighteenth-century English workers. His faith in creativity also made him allergic to the rigid “scientific” materialism of the British Communist Party in his own time, and his discovery of the imaginative play in earlier British socialist movements gave him some hope for endurance of those values in his time.

In 1960, as Thompson wrote his landmark work, The Making of the English Working Class, he criticized W. H. Auden for retreating from the political engagement that had once taken him as far as risking his life in the Spanish Civil War —Auden repeating Wordsworth’s fall. A few years later, Auden ventured into political terrain just enough to pen a satirical poem about Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s role in partitioning India “Between two peoples fanatically at odds/ With their different diets and incompatible gods.” Partition was nearly 20 years old by then. But, India remained on the minds of twentieth-century Britons, not least the Thompson family: Thompson’s father was the poet and historian Edward John Thompson, whose friendship for Indian nationalists and nationalism earned him the title “India’s prisoner.” This elder Thompson also loved the Romantics and was particularly inspired by the heroics of Lord Byron, who died fighting for Greek liberation from the Turks in 1824. This is perhaps why he himself displayed such heroic force in ministering to the wounded under fire during the British Indian conquest of Iraq during World War I, for which he was decorated. Indeed, Byron, the poet who sacrificed for a beloved enslaved people and redeemed the sins of British imperial power, was an iconic figure to his entire generation, although few had the chance to enact such heroism in their mass war of attrition. Among Thompson’s nationalist Indian poet friends, whom he perhaps saw as modern incarnations of the Romantics he so admired, were Rabindranath Tagore and Mohammed Iqbal, both also deeply knowledgeable about Western Romantic poetry (the latter particularly influenced by Goethe). E. P. Thompson recalled cadging stamps from the Indian “poets and political agitators” who visited their home in Oxford in the 1930s and his knowledge that these were the “most important visitors” to their home.3 One senses that for both father and son it was as much the life that such poets lived on the frontlines of history as the poetry they wrote that made them so admirable.

Largely because of his father’s influence, the younger Thompson, whatever his preference for Blake, took on a Byronic role in his attempts as a writer and activist to lead the British working classes out of the darkness of his own time.4 In other words politically engaged anti-colonial Indian poets of the 1930s helped produce the iconic British notions of the poet’s place in history—and helped shape the work of arguably the most important social historian of the last century. But more importantly, for the purposes of this essay, they articulated alternative, if impossible, visions of the subcontinent’s future during the period of nationalist struggle ending in the partition of India.

Their diverse visions of social equality, communal harmony, internationalist nationalism, and so on might have been utopian; but recovery of them may yet light a way forward in our time in of social inequality, communal strife, and chauvinistic nationalism. In writing history, Thompson urged, “Our only criterion for judgment should not be whether or not a man’s actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves.” The “lost causes” of the past might yield “insights into social evils which we have yet to cure.”5 


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My attempt at excavating Urdu poets’ lost causes here is far from exhaustive; I will leave out major writers and thinkers, I will fail to distinguish between “Urdu” and “Punjabi,” I will wax personal in places.6 Indeed, I focus entirely on Punjab without scruple although an enormous Bengali story runs parallel to and intersects with it, which I have neither the space nor skill to address. But still the exercise of recovery, however uneven and admittedly self-indulgent, is useful precisely insofar as it raises the possibility of countless alternatives, on which more at the end of this essay.

The late historian of British India Christopher Bayly was slightly disappointed when I told him several years ago that I was planning a book on Partition. Too many people were working on it, to the exclusion of other urgent topics, he said; it had become a “cottage industry.” This concentration was despite the fact that collection of evidence and testimony about the event has been a belated project (now rigorously pursued by organizations like the Berkeley-based Partition Archive and the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP).) But, this stubborn preoccupation with Partition tells us something: wherein lies the unending appeal of this story? I think the answer is that Partition resonates at an almost visceral level as a moral narrative, a moral tragedy. It appeals in the same way that the Western Front does for the British, an event in which all the folly of human history was briefly and tragically on flagrant display. This is why poetry remains a primary recourse in remembering and understanding the Western Front and why Partition is a similar poetic mine. And the paths of poets from these two related worlds crossed here and there. World War I was the subject of my first book, and the period of the Romantics the subject of my second. Now I turn to Partition and find many of the characters in both those works haunting its unfolding.

Partition is poetically irresistible partly because of its resonance — not accidental I think — with older cultural commitments to ideas of “division” in the region where it occurred. Among Punjabis (like myself), it plays on culturally deep, mystical-poetic notions of birha, the longing for union with the divine, which morphs over time into the pardesi’s nostalgia for an increasingly imaginary watan (homeland, country). (Literally, “pardesi” means someone from another land but poetically it also indicates someone simply away from home.) Indeed, I have found it difficult to extricate these inherited layers of nostalgias in my own psyche; hence perhaps my dilatory approach to the subject of Partition, which I have in various ways attempted to work on since I was 19 years old. What I offer here builds on that dawning personal insight and is more speculative and hypothetical than rigorously empirical. It is the fruit of long reflection but short research, a beginning for thought.

I do not think my family is unusual in reading its history through the lens of nostalgia and loss, even as it embraces the future as the path of “progress.” The Satias were a solidly Congress family from Muktsar in Ferozepur district (now on the border with Pakistan). My great-grandfather was jailed for nationalist activities. In 1947, they were not sure which side the town would fall in. I heard flattering stories of efforts to protect terrified Muslims. I wondered about the masjid opposite our house — “Angooran Wali Maseet” (“Grape Mosque”) — which gave the town its romantic skyline, a dignified yet ghostlike centerpiece of a town famous for gurdwaras (Sikh temples) marking Guru Gobind Singh’s battle against the Mughals in 1705, a monument to an absent people. My father left Muktsar for the United States like many Indian doctors in the late 1960s. (His first roommate in Chicago was a Pakistani doctor.) All but one of his brothers also left Muktsar, settling in Rajasthan, New Delhi, and Haryana. Their father distributed them thus because of the partitions of Indian Punjab in 1967 which produced the new states of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh: He knew from experience that partition meant uncertainty and sent his sons abroad to insure against that uncertainty, making them pardesis cherishing memories of Muktsar. Punjabi history took a turn for the worse in the 1980s as Indira Gandhi drove Sikhs into a militant separatist movement. When my grandfather died in 1983, his sons and brother engaged in a property dispute that turned violent against that backdrop. The rent familial bonds added more pathos to the nostalgia of those long since dispatched from Mukstar. The home they longed for grew increasingly imaginary, and longing itself became a permanent part of their identity as Punjabis.

My mother’s family hailed from Multan in West Punjab. Perfumers, they determined to stay in Pakistan, but circumstances forced their departure some time in 1948. Those “circumstances” remain cloudy—a kidnapping, a fire, a murder, a disguised escape. In India, they landed in the empty homes of departed Muslims in Old Delhi, eventually moving to New Rajinder Nagar. More embittered than the Satias, they were less nostalgic, and gravitated to the Hindu Right, blaming Congress for causing Partition. Still, my grandmother let fall nuggets of wistful memories, of her father’s fabulous serais (caravansaries) outside Multan where she spent her childhood. Uncles drew maps of a lost city in which their house once stood and may still stand today. In Darya Ganj, surrounded by the remnants of Muslim Old Delhi, my mother grew up with “Hai Allah” on her lips more readily than “Hey Ram,” whatever the family’s antipathy for Islam.

These are just my personal stories. The 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, 2000s produced countless stories of displacement among Punjabis, not to mention those who left even earlier, during colonial times, in the service of the British Indian Army or to escape British rule and poverty by becoming farmers in North America, especially California. Heavy military recruitment from the second half of the nineteenth century and emigration to North American farmlands from the early twentieth century fuelled the poetic tradition around the pardesi and the cult of nostalgia for a homeland that the British transformed into a “resource for supporting a security regime in northwest India.”7 Poetry seems an obvious recourse to expressing the loss and grief experienced by those affected by the redrawing of international borders, as it was in Bengal, Germany, Palestine, Ireland, and elsewhere; in Punjabi and Urdu poetry, partition already existed as a theme, through mystical traditions and earlier emigrations. Displacement became central to Punjabi identity as it is to Jewish and Armenian identity, but it is distinct in the Punjabi’s awareness of his own role in his tragic severance from his home and repeated division of his homeland. His (and I do mean “his” here) is a self-imposed exile guiltily justified by one or another promise of modernity—personal prosperity, for economic migrants; national prosperity for partition refugees. He self-consciously martyrs the homeland for the progress of its children, secure that in dutifully pursuing his worldly ends he nevertheless maintains a timeless bond with it, a bond made more transcendently spiritual at each remove from the geopolitical reality of a place called Punjab.8

Of course this is a stereotype. There is too much variety across sub-region, caste, class, nation, and gender, for this style of Punjabi identity to be true across the board. And yet it is a stereotype we all recognize, quite apart from Punjabi folk traditions, partly thanks to the Indian film industry. The poet and lyricist Gulzar, a son of Punjab’s Partition, immortalized the vision of the northwestern Indian carrying his homeland in his heart wherever he may be in the patriotic anthem, “Ae mere pyaare watan,” (“Oh my beloved homeland,”) sung by the Pashtun selling fruit in Calcutta in the 1961 film “Kabuliwala” which was based on a Tagore story. The films of another Partition refugee from Lahore, Yash Chopra, also made that Punjabi “type” iconic. In his last, posthumously released film, “Jab Tak Hai Jaan” (2012), the Kashmir that figures as heavenly abode in his romances of the 1970s and 80s (“Kabhi Kabhi” and “Silsila”) is the site of bomb-removal for a broken-hearted hero, a son of Indian Punjab with the requisite Pakistani “brother” in London, who determinedly tests fate and cheats death by engaging in ungloved bomb removal because his beloved Meera has put her love of god above her love for him—arguably what many Punjabis did during Partition, putting religious bonds above social ones. “Meera” is of course named for the medieval poetess who expressed her longing for spiritual union with Lord Krishna. The separation of Meera and Samar and their undying mutual longing represents the summit of worldly love made divine.9 Through such translations of Punjabi experience, Bollywood tells us love lies in separation. Pardesi — the one gone from home — is a name for the beloved.


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I owe my understanding of the place of poetry in E. P. Thompson’s work to the historian Joan Scott, who sensitively teased out its significance in the course of criticizing Thompson’s gender blindness in his work on the English working class. She noted that he included the art he so admired in “the masculine, in opposition to a set of unacceptable excluded terms — the domestic, the spiritual, the expressive, the religious, the undisciplined, and the irrational — all of which are coded as feminine.”10 The gender politics of poetry in Punjab are perhaps not dramatically different, but the layering of social and political content on often highly gendered motifs of spiritual and worldly love in the poetry of Punjabis who wrestled with revolutionary change just when Thompson was writing about eighteenth-century activism suggests a more complex gender story; themes of love and society were more separate in most Romantic English poetry. In Urdu poetry, the vocabulary of birha comprises vasl and hijr (union and separation), eliding romantic or erotic allusion with religious devotion. Articulation of love of homeland through the religiously syncretic cultural heritage of birha collapsed art and the spiritual, masculine and feminine. This poetic universe itself is highly gendered, in those erotic connotations, but also un-gendered in its often ambiguously gendered first-person subject; fully grasping its gender politics would require close examination of the poetry well beyond the reach of this essay. For present purposes, I simply want to highlight the centrality of bodily gendered worldly love as allegory in even the most politically-engaged poetic work of the period, as we shall see further below.

Bollywood films packaging our stereotypical Punjabi-who-transcends-Punjab also play on that gendered Sufi idiom: the centuries-old poetic romances of sundered yet mystically united pairs: Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal, Sassi-Punnu, Mirza-Sahiba. There are others — Shirin Farhad, Laila Majnun — inherited from further northwest. The most famous narration of Heer Ranjha is Waris Shah’s from 1766, based on a true story that transpired some two centuries earlier in Jhang. The tragic ending depicting the two lovers, dead before the chance at union, at once sought to express divine love, in which the most intense experience of union with the divine lies in interminable longing. Is it coincidence or destiny that a region that for so long depicted love through partition should have been the site of violent partition itself? Or is the intense Punjabi preoccupation with these romances a cultural legacy of 1947? The Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, who left Lahore in 1947, explicitly invoked this cultural coincidence to express her anguish over Partition, particularly the violence done to women, in her much loved poem “Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu” (“Ode to Waris Shah”). Her sentiments and those gestating in the film industry were connected; many of the poets of the world I want to describe were part of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), which was closely tied to the Indian People’s Theatre Association; and actors and writers in these groups were tied to Bombay’s film industry; indeed, Partition brought an influx of displaced artistic people there (some migrating to Pakistan but then returning to India), including the object of Pritam’s love, Sahir Ludhianvi, as well as Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ismat Chugtai, Bhisham Sahni, Sajjad Zaheer, and others. After a detour through this artistic universe, I will return to the plight of Heer that Pritam invoked. Read on > | Single page >


  1. This essay has benefited from conversations with countless individuals over time, but I would like to thank here particularly Guneeta Singh Bhalla, Hamida Chopra, Arie Dubnov, Sadaf Jaffer, Aishwary Kumar, Aprajit Mahajan, Ana Minian, Ishmeet Narula, Nazir Qaiser, Jazib Qureshi, Jagat and Indira Satia, Sudipta Sen, Nishita Sharma, Edith Sheffer, Bikramjit Singh, Pashaura Singh, Poonam Singh, Tashie and Naheed Zaheer, Anam Zakaria, and the editors at Tanqeed. []
  2. Joan Scott, “Women in The Making of the English Working Class,” in Gender and the Politics of History (New York, 1999 (orig. 1988), 80-81, citing Henry Abelove. []
  3. E. P. Thompson, “The Nehru Tradition,” in Writing by Candlelight (London, 1980), 138. []
  4. I have written about this at length in “Byron, Gandhi, and the Thompsons: The Making of British Social History and Unmaking of Indian History,” History Workshop Journal, forthcoming 2016. []
  5. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1966 (orig. 1963), 13. []
  6. I am painfully aware that I write cursorily here about subjects that others have researched at great length.See for instance the work of Veena Das, Ashish Nandy, Ravinder Kaur, Bhaskar Sarkar, Gyanendra Pandey, Mushirul Hasan, Yasmin Khan, Neeti Nair, Jisha Menon, Faisal Devji, Lucy Chester, David Gilmartin, Vazira Zamindar, to name just a few—not to mention the vast corpus of work on Kashmir and the Bengal side of Partition. []
  7. James Hevia, description of his research project, https://history.uchicago.edu/directory/james-hevia. []
  8. Alpana Kishore told Anam Zakaria that certain Punjabi cultural traits, like irreverence, help explain why they do not take Partition “seriously” and instead push it aside. Their grandparents had moved abruptly beyond it, and a long history of invasions through the region also desensitized them. The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians (New Delhi, 2015), 165. But the sensitivity captured in volumes of oral histories Zakaria and the Partition Archive have collected belie this suggestion. The cavalierness towards Partition is more complex; it is certainly rooted in the sense of a long history of displacement, but there is “baggage” aplenty. On Afghans as “imperial cosmopolitans” too, see Robert Crews, Afghan Modern: A Global History of a Nation (Cambridge, MA, 2015). []
  9. On Partition in Indian cinema, see Bhaskar Sarkar, Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition (Durham, NC, 2009). Sarkar also notes the Partition-inflected personal backgrounds shaping cinema (119). Yash Chopra did not see any connection between Partition and “Waqt,” his 1965 film in which a family is separated by an earthquake, a natural cracking of the land that might easily be read as an allegory for Partition. Nor did his brother B. R. Chopra, who produced it. Yash did think many Hindi films dealt with Partition but could name only a few. His brother, on the other hand, felt the industry avoided the topic, confirming Sarkar’s impression of the paucity of films about Partition. Still B. R. agreed with his brother in discounting allegorical interpretations of popular films. Sarkar concluded that Yash’s impression that Partition had often been an explicit subject of Hindi films was based on the many oblique depictions of it (120-21). He diagnoses the industry as simultaneously repressing and representing Partition (124). Most well known among films addressing Partition directly are the films of Ritwik Ghatak, the TV film “Tamas” (1988), based on Bhisham Sahni’s 1974 novel of that name, and the film, “Garam Hawa” (1973) (based on a story by Ismat Chugtai). Deepa Mehta’s “Earth”/”1947” based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel, CrackingIndia, is also in this category, as is “Train to Pakistan” (1998), based on Khushwant Singh’s 1956 novel of the same name. The close bond between literature and these films is notable. Of course, there has been a spate of more recent film on the Indo-Pak border, such as “Gadar,” “Veer Zara,” “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” besides the more military-focused ones like “Border,” “LOC,” and so on. The “split self” described later in the essay finds its echo in the double-roles that have been so popular in Hindi films. []
  10. Scott, “Women in The Making,” 83. []

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One Response to Poets of Partition

  1. Surindar Nagpal on Jan 2016 at 3:38 PM

    Dear Sir/ Madam,
    I was born at Kasur now in Pakistan in 1934. I moved to india in 1947 at the time of partition of India at that time I was studying in 8th grade. As such I have some good memories of the partition. I am now a retired Architect. I devote my time to my hobbies photography, water color painting and urdu shayari. I post my Shayari at Yoindia.com a web site in India. One can read me on the site as Umda Shayar. I had the good fortune of having acquainted with one shayar of partition 34 years senior to me. He went by the name/ takhalus Yaktaa Alwari. He was a very educated person retired as divisional magistrate. Most of the people having moved from Pakistan settled very well and easily barring few that could not settle at all. I am writing below some poetry by him which proves my poet. Poetry is in Urdu, I am writing in roman english.
    Title: TAB
    Ey peer-e-falak yun bhi badaltaa hai zamaanaa
    Hai chaand sitaaron kee zuban pe yeh fasaanaa
    Ik chot sii lagtee hai jigar par merey Yaktaa…
    Punjaab kahan aur kahan Rajputanaa…

    Title: ABB
    Jurat wohee hai shauk rindaanaa bhi kam nahin
    Kismat kaa apnee ek paimaanaa bhi kam nahin
    Pujaab jab chutaa thaa bahut ranj thaa humein
    Abb dekhtey hain Rajputaanaa bhi kam nahin…
    Both these rubai’s were written within a span of 1 year. I had to write something as my niece/daughter included me on her essay at face book.
    Surindar Nagpal.

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