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Roundabout: The year 1947 for better or verse

Echoes of the cruel month of August reach out in poems in the first inclusive anthology of poetry published in Punjabi, with recitations at Chandigarh’s Rose Garden.

punjab Updated: Aug 19, 2018 09:05 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
Round about,sunday read,partition
Editor of the book on partition poetry San Santali (1947) - poet and editor Amarjit Chandan(HT Photo)

In my hand is a well-bound book of Partition poetry in its continuity from then and now, edited by poet-editor Amarjit Chandan, titled San Santali (1947). It has the sketch of an agonised migrant, made in the Ambala Refugee Camp by SL Prashar, then vice-principal of the Mayo College of Art, Lahore, before the mass migration of 1947.

On the timeline page is the invitation to an evening of poetry recitation in the city’s Rose Garden on a cracked ceramic plate put together again with clay, announcing Pieces of Harmony: India and Pakistan. This comes from Cross Connection Poetree and its bright young poet Amy Singh, who in a Letter to Lahore on Friendship day, wrote: “Lahore, I don’t know how to be your enemy. I only know the pain where once my limb was...Your own heart beating gently in Chandigarh...”

The famous early voices are there, from Amrita Pritam’s call to Waris Shah and Faiz Ahmad Faiz bemoaning the stained sorrowful dawn of freedom to Ahmad Rahi questioning the concept of the outsider. There are many lesser known poems by known poets too, but what makes the book very relevant is that there is a connection between the poets and Partition as they were witness to the unprecedented violence that accompanied Independence from British colonial rule and the division of Punjab to create Pakistan. It was indeed a dream turned sour for freedom and the birth of a new nation.

The book has poems by 53 poets scattered across India, Pakistan and the diaspora, in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English. Interestingly, the poems in Hindi and Urdu have been transcribed into Gurmukhi. Chandan says in the foreword that he considers all these poems written in different languages as Punjabi literature as the ethos of the language is such.

There are some interesting poets in English not usually associated with Partition poetry. A very moving poem by Imtiaz Dharkar compares the breaking up of united Punjab as a china cup that slips out of the hand and breaks. She says: “They never cried over split blood, at least not in front of us. It was as if you reassure a guest, ‘Oh don’t mind that, it was a cheap old cup and anyway broken China brings good luck’. And a whole generation swallowed the nightmares that sounded like trains”.

Yes, this is how our generation born a few years after the great divide remembers it. But now there are questions too from people who have over time garnered the strength to look at the past and somehow put together the pieces of china.

The book is very aptly dedicated to the workers of the Communist Party of Punjab who in the midst of the madness of mindless violence made an effort to save others, very often at the cost of their own lives, from their own people. It is a must-read because of the sheer effort and sincerity that has gone into its making.

Front cover of San Santali (1947)

In these times when communal polarisation raises its head in both countries, it is the third generation with activists like Amy and many others who are picking up the pieces of broken china with poetry. She asks of Lahore: “It’s been 19 years since our countries went to war. Is hatred in remission? Are we friends now? When I make tea and it’s the shade of your sunset, Lahore, I wonder if you are blushing at my hopeless romanticism. Or do you drink the peach of my skies too?”

London-based Chandan goes a step forward to say an ardas (prayer) that both the Punjab of India and Pakistan should be together again. Tall order but poets are dreamers always, and where’s the harm in dreaming of togetherness? Unity lies shattered like broken China on both sides of the border.

First Published: Aug 18, 2018 22:01 IST