Poets of Partition

Jan 2016

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This possibility for such total identification, for a kind of subsumption in the poet, is astonishingly universal. I identify with the “Hum” of Faiz’s poetry, even though (on the face of it) I am a woman, a Hindu, and an Indian Punjabi (where he was a man, a Muslim, and a Pakistani Punjabi). Urdu poetry is “queer” in this sense: a space of non-normative identity and politics.1 And yet, it could not attend to the plight of Heer. When Jagannath Azad was leaving Pakistan after a visit to return to India, Muhammad Tufail, editor of the Pakistani Progressive literary journal Nuqush, took sweets to him at the station, quipping, “Tumhein to yun rukhsat karte hain jaise beti ko rukhsat kiya jaata hai” (“You we send away in the way one sends off a daughter”2 ). Instead of separation from a beloved of unspecified gender, he rendered Azad’s exile from his homeland in the more clearly gendered form of the daughter leaving her parents’ home to join her new family after marriage—a rite common to Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim weddings in the region. Playing on the land-as-mother trope, the departure becomes forward-looking, a rite of passage to adulthood—progress itself. It is more final than the beloved’s separation, but also less rigid, in that a girl can and does go back to her old home at times, albeit to be indulged as a guest with few substantive entitlements. But Tufail’s line also reminds us that, however vaguely gendered the poetic terms in which Faiz and others wrote about it, Partition’s violence was deeply gendered. Amrita Pritam’s plea to Waris Shah and Manto’s stories, like “Khol Do” (“Open It”). acknowledged that reality. So too has scholarly work on Partition by Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, Veena Das, and others. They diagnose the complicity of the two new states in appropriating the violence that was done to women within an ideology of community and nation.

Shiv Kumar Batalvi (born in 1936) may have been activated by such themes in his recuperation of women’s agency and sexuality in Loona, his celebrated retelling of the ancient epic of Puran Bhagat in 1965. Stylistically, he was influenced by the qissas as well as European epic poetry. The legend goes that the Sialkot prince Puran Bhagat spurned the advances of his young stepmother, Loona, a sinfully lustful seductress, who wreaked violent revenge: his arms and legs were amputated and he wound up exiled from his home, becoming an ascetic who later forgave and blessed his punishers. But Batalvi tells the story from Loona’s point of view: the disgust of this lower-caste young girl from Chamba at being married to an old king against her wishes, her entirely reasonable desire to be with a man her own age, Puran’s rejection of her out of suspicion of the merely sexual rather than spiritual nature of her attraction, and her self-sacrificial revenge. For, her destruction of Puran is her own, too; she knows she will live in infamy for it, but hopes that her infamy might prevent society from producing forcing future Loonas to marry against their will. Having borne the blame for Puran’s death for centuries, Loona finally finds peace in Batalvi’s play. Known for his passionate expression of the agony of separated lovers, here Batalvi redeems worldly love and the rebellion of youth.3 Here the punishing violence of partition is visited on a male body, with Puran’s dismemberment and exile. In blaming society rather than Loona for this tragic outcome, Batalvi at once exonerates the individual perpetrator of violence (whatever her gender) while validating all Punjabi women’s need and desire for such revenge. He renders the Punjabi subject of history as female. Notably, he published this earthily Punjabi work on the eve of the repartitioning of Indian Punjab on linguistic lines, when other Punjabi Hindus claimed Hindi rather than Punjabi as their mother tongue, a choice made possible by the longstanding elision of Hindi with Urdu.


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Loona was the “Patakha Guddi” (“Firecracker Kite/Girl”) of her time (a song penned by the poet Irshad Kamil, a Muslim from Malerkotla in Indian Punjab and sung by Jyoti and Sultana Nooran (Punjabi Muslims from Jalander)).4 She is the poet of her own destiny. She lives her contradiction as a means of superseding loss, a way of living as if in exile even when at home, as Maulana Azad felt he did, given his particular background and education and relationship to “Muslim” and nationalist politics in his time.5 Modern Urdu writing, having displaced the relationship of language and self to place as Mufti tells us, is a vehicle for exilic thinking, an awareness, wherever one happens to be, that modern history has been one of marginalization and uprooting on a massive scale, that split selfhoods are typical, in South Asia, but also in Germany, the Balkans, Cyprus, Palestine/Israel, Ireland, and elsewhere.6 

What is the poet’s role in history? Of course the question is romantic. Byron was Romantic; Thompson was Romantic; Faiz was romantic; Punjabis are romantic; land is romantic. And Romanticism has its dangers: the British were Romantic; Nehru was Romantic; Silicon Valley is a Romance. Dams and drones are romantic. The Hindu Right and the Islamic Right offer romances of their own. There is a marketplace of Romance, but the Romance of the Left has too long been out of stock. Bollywood can’t do it alone, and it too after all is bound up in the worship of profit, god, and nation.

*                                *                                *

Priya Satia is Associate Professor of History at Stanford University and the prize-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008). She has completed a new book provisionally titled, “Empire of Guns: The British State, the Industrial Revolution, and the Conscience of a Quaker Arms-Maker.” Her work has also appeared in Past & Present, American Historical Review, Technology and Culture, Humanity, History Workshop Journal, and several edited volumes and in popular media such as the Financial Times, the TLS, Nation, Slate.com, and elsewhere.


  1. I thank Ana Minian for her ideas about queer politics and exile. []
  2. I thank Hamida Chopra for sharing this story. []
  3. For more on Loona, see Sa Soza, Shiv Kumar Batalvi (2001), 58-90. []
  4. Composed by A. R. Rahman for Imitiaz Ali’s film “Highway” (2014). []
  5. On Azad, see Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 179. Certainly, it is also a luxury of class. []
  6. Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony, 243-4, 257. []

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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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