Poets of Partition

Jan 2016

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Gyanendra Pandey calls on historians to explore the meaning of Partition in terms of what it produced — the social arrangements, forms of consciousness, subjectivities it created — rather than focusing obsessively on causes, a focus betraying Indian historians’ commitments to particular utopic visions of India.1 Curiously, as Rakhshanda Jalil notes, Urdu poets focus more on the consequences of Partition than its causes.2 To me, their preoccupation with effects reveals their sense of the epiphenomenal and possibly transient nature of Partition — their preoccupation with other utopias, unfinished business that Partition traumatically disrupted. Pandey might find in poetry if not historical writing the earliest analysis of what Partition did to subjectivity and consciousness — quite apart from the human destruction it unleashed.

Here again we find intriguing intersections with shifting subjectivities in Europe. Enlightenment notions of a coherent, rational self had long since smothered notions of an internally split self among Europeans. Early versions of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments had described a divided or doubled self which became more metaphorical and less literal in later versions, once the notion of an individuated, internally coherent modern self took hold in the late eighteenth century.3 The turn of the twentieth century saw new testing of this concept, most conspicuously in metropolitan occultist circles who experimented with the relationship of self to Other, albeit now locating the “split” internally, in the psychology and neurobiology of the individual, rather than in the operation of social claims on the individual. Theosophists were part of this cultural world, most notably Annie Besant, whose journey from turn-of-the-century British socialism (she famously led the matchgirl strike in London in 1888) to prominent leader in the Indian nationalist movement was inseparable from her explorations of spirituality and selfhood.4 She too was mixed up in the world of poet-activists, joining the poet Sarojini Naidu in representing in London the case for Indian women to vote. (Naidu was a Bengali from Hyderabad who joined the national movement after the 1905 partition of Bengal and became the second woman to preside over Congress after Besant. She was governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh in 1947-49 when Urdu poets there deliberated staying or going.)

Now, the subject of Urdu poetry had long been understood as split. This was what Sufi longing for union was about. Momin’s much-loved couplet is exemplary: “Tum mere paas hote ho goya/ jab koi doosra nahin hota” (You are with me thus/ as when no second person is there). In true mystic union, the self becomes extinct. This idiom seems ready-made to address the post-Partition condition of a partial, parted, or divided self. Urdu as a poetic language figured critically in the articulation of this subjectivity. As Mufti shows in his beautiful analysis of Faiz’s poetry, Indianness has come to encompass the disavowal of Indianness (like the electron that both is and isn’t). Mufti cites, paradigmatically, Faiz’s “Marsia” (“Elegy”) from a 1971 collection: “Dur ja kar qarib ho jitney/ ham se kab qarib the itne/ Ab na aoge tum na jaoge/ vasl o hijran baham hue kitne” (“The extent to which you are close now that you have gone far/ when were you ever so close to me/ Now you will neither come nor go/ how as one union and separation have become”). In this four-line poem, Mufti perceives a dialectic of self and other in which the subject and object of desire do not so much become one but simultaneously come near and become distant and are rendered uncertain. It recalls Zakaria’s story of a man in a Pakistani village who daily sees his old village across the border5—it is at once near and far. This is the reality of modern Punjabi subjectivity: contradictory, tense, antagonistic. Faiz’s grasp of this dialectically produced self clearly resonated; his work has remained phenomenally popular across the region. As Mufti explains, he articulated an “Indian” experience of the self that took division seriously and yet transcended borders and communal and national divides, much as he tried to do in his own literary and political commitments. After all, he worked within an idiom in which indefinite separation from the beloved was the only ground from which to contemplate union. He subversively renders the abandoned home as the beloved, rather than a heathen land virtuously abandoned—inverting the religious interpretation of Partition as hijrat (in the sense of the Holy Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina). Urdu could uniquely convey the reality of this split self, nurtured in Pakistan where it was cut off from its homelands in Delhi, the Deccan, and UP, where Urdu’s status simultaneously declined. Poets’ worldly experience of exile and refuge gave hijr (separation, departure) a range of new, secular connotations, notes Mufti.6 Faiz’s agonistic embrace of that inheritance is a South Asian expression of modernity, at once reminding us of the worldly basis of religious experience itself—what early Punjabi romances expressed as allegory, or, in the language of the Punjabi tappa (folk lyric): “Milna taan rab nu hai, tera pyaar bahaana hai” (“It is with God that I seek to unite, your love is merely the pretext”). For long, poets have grasped the instrumental nature of worldly experience for the sake of higher spiritual experience. The persistence of that mystical idiom, and the love successive generations profess for it, reveals the continued intimacy of the secular, modern self with its religious inheritance. In this too, modern South Asian subjectivity senses its incompleteness, its exilic existence.7 In short, we can’t think of post-Partition identity only in the terms of the normalized vocabulary of the new nation-states, presuming autonomous national selves based on the European template. (Progressive Writers attached to such requirements of normality were the kind who, Mufti speculates, suddenly turned against Manto, whose work and affect fell beyond that pale.8 )


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The possibility of transcending national identity within oneself is powerful. For E. P. Thompson (in Scott’s luminous interpretation, again), poetry’s role was to “leaven politics with imagination,” to suggest a “middle ground between…disenchantment with perfectionist illusions and complete apostasy. That ground is the demanding, yet creative place of continuing aspiration.”9 The work of continuing aspiration is the work of Azad’s deewane. The split South Asian self is the middle ground poets gave us between disenchantment and apostasy. It is Beckett’s, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” and Gramsci’s mantra-like, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” The New Left that Thompson helped form in England after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 attracted the communist, atheist, and anti-imperialist Pakistani Tariq Ali, the grandson of Sikandar Hayat Khan and an important interlocutor of Edward Said, another deep thinker about exile and anti-colonialism who met Faiz in Beirut. Ali’s anti-imperialist critiques were as globally sweeping as Faiz’s poetry about Chile, Palestine, Namibia, and the Rosenbergs. Talal Asad, son of Mohamed Asad, has emerged a major thinker about religion and secularism. The chain of inheritance and restless, continuing aspiration is long.

Thompson went to India for the first time in 1976, after our poets’ alternative visions had long expired. He was warmly welcomed by Indira Gandhi and her government in acknowledgement of the friendship between their fathers. But it was the time of Indira’s Emergency. He was horrified by the government’s repression of dissent and by the CPI’s support of it and noted the strange convergence of Western “modernizing theory” with orthodox Moscow-directed socialist theory: Both imagined a modern urban intellectual elite with know-how imposing modernity and progress upon the nation. Both prioritized top-down, capital-intensive technologically-driven developments depending on a disciplined workforce for national economic take-off. Through a vulgar (i.e. un-poetic) economic determinism, Marxism echoed utilitarian and positivist ideas.10 Politics without poetry is lifeless, and poetry without politics tends to the self-indulgent. It is the same in Pakistan: I was fortunate enough to meet Jazib Qureshi sahib recently, through the genius of the Bay Area’s Urdu Academy, and he commented on the absence of poets of real standing in today’s Pakistan, no one to fill the shoes of Josh or Iqbal. If modern Urdu poetry evolved as critique — of empire and nation — it is no surprise that as the Left has crumbled so has poetry’s most powerfully transcendent function. Modi’s India is bent on suffocating the Left further. India’s poets are returning their national awards in the face of the government’s thuggish attacks on dissent of all kinds, rediscovering their role in history and outside exclusionist mainstream nationalism.11 As we continue to look to technology to save us, despite the unending disasters that pile up before our eyes, it is time perhaps to revisit and reinvent the possibility and promise of poetic action. Poetry is a social and collective endeavor; the writer alone cannot make poetry or poetic action. In Urdu poetry, the reader identifies entirely with the first-person voice of the poet. The poet’s place in history becomes the reader’s too. Read on > Single page >


  1. Pandey, Remembering Partition, 50. []
  2. Jalil, Liking Progress, 334. []
  3. See Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, CT, 2006). []
  4. Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, 1992), 70. []
  5. Zakaria, Footprints of Partition, 29. A similar phenomenon transpires on the German border towns Sheffer describes. Burned Bridge. []
  6. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 211-2, 216, 221-4, 239, 243. []
  7. On this see also Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 222, 238-9. This is not a uniquely South Asian quality, of course. See for instance, Thomas Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, NJ, 2015). []
  8. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 208. Manto was disowned by the Pakistani Marxist-leaning literary set. Charged with obscenity, he avoided his sentence of prison with hard labor on appeal. []
  9. Scott, “Women in The Making,” 81-82. []
  10. Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: E. P. Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics (Manchester, 2011), 159-62; Hamilton’s 2007 talk at the History Department of the University of Auckland, available at http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2007/03/appetite-for-archives-new-light-on-ep.html. []
  11. See David Barstow and Suhasini Raj, “Indian Writers Spurn Awards as Violence Flares,” New York Times, Oct. 18, 2015, p. 1, 4. []

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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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