“I have learned and dismantled all the words in order to draw from them a single word: Home,” wrote the exiled Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in “I Belong There”. Exile has long been a recurring metaphor in poetry and, much like love, has resonated across the boundaries of language and time. From the first-century poet Ovid who was banished by the Roman emperor Augustus, to the 19th-century poet-emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who was exiled to Rangoon (now Myanmar) by the British, poets have often used their verses to talk about their displacement, respond to migration caused by war and politics, and question man-made boundaries.
The 19th and 20th centuries saw the expansion of nation states and the birth of what the Irish political scientist, Benedict Anderson, called “imagined communities”. Numerous mass migrations took place around the world; families were separated and people were left longing for their homelands. The Indian subcontinent witnessed the horrors of the Partition, the migration of Tibetan refugees, the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits. Naturally, many poets from the subcontinent reacted to these tragedies. These poets – some in exile, some in translation and others who witnessed calamity befall their loved ones – shed light on the plight of losing a home and the experience of living as refugees.
The 1947 Partition caused the largest human migration in recorded history. Around 15 million people were uprooted, and the Punjab region – a part of which was incorporated into Pakistan – was one the worst-affected areas in the subcontinent. Punjabi poet Amrita Pritam, born in Gujranwala in modern-day Pakistan, became a refugee as a result of the catastrophe. Like millions of others, she moved to New Delhi and, at the age of twenty-eight, penned her iconic poem “Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu” (Today, I Call Upon Waris Shah) on a scrap of paper. She wrote:
A million daughters weep today and look at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved, just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods, Chenab overflows with blood
Someone has blended poison in the five rivers of Punjab
This water now runs through the verdant fields and glades
This fertile land has sprouted poisonous weeds far and near
Seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere
Translated from the Punjabi by Nirupama Dutt
Ajj Lakhaan Dhiyan Rondiyan, Tenu Waris Shah Nuu Kain
Uthh Dard-Mandaan Diya Dardiya, Utth Tak Apna Punjab
Ajj Bailey Lashaan Bichiyaan Tey Lahoo Di Bhari Chenab
Kisey Ne Panjaan Paaniyan Wich Diti Zahar Rala,
Tey Unhan Paniyaan Dharat Nuu Dita Paani Laa
Iss Zarkhaiz Zameen Dey Loon Loon Phuttiya Zahar
Gitth Gitth Charhiyaan Laaliyan Fuut Fuut Charrhiya Kaher
Another poet whose voice is considered synonymous with the Partition is Sampooran Singh Kalra, or Gulzar as he’s popularly known. Like Pritam, Gulzar too was born in Pakistan and migrated to India after 1947. The horrors of the event resurface in his writings, be it his heart-wrenching short story “Ravipaar” (“Across the Ravi”) or poems such as “Aankhon ko Nahi Lagta Visa” (“Eyes Don’t Need a Visa”), an ode to Pakistani poet Mehdi Hassan:
Eyes don’t need visas,
dreams have no borders;
With closed eyes
I cross the border, every day,
to meet Mehdi Hasan.
Aankhon ko visa nahin lagta
Sapnon ki sarhad hoti nahin
Band aankhon se roz main
sarhad paar chala jata hoon
Milne Mehdi Hassan se!
But the embers of the fire that started in 1947 burst into flame again in 1971. The Bangladesh Liberation War, which witnessed the dissolution of East Pakistan, left millions homeless and forced thousands of people into exile. The historical event was not only recorded by writers from the Indian subcontinent, but also caught the attention of Western poets such as Allen Ginsberg, who was in India right after the war. In “September on Jessore Road”, he wrote:
Millions of souls nineteen seventy-one
homeless on Jessore Road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan
On Jessore road Mother wept at my knees
Bengali tongue cried mister Please
Identity card torn up on the floor
Husband still waits at the camp office door
Another part of the subcontinent, the Vale of Kashmir, has witnessed a continuous exodus since the late 1980s. Since then, over one lakh Kashmiri Pandits have been forced into exile, becoming refugees in their own country, straining the relationship between Hindus and Muslims. In “I See Kashmir From New Delhi at Midnight”, the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote about the homelessness of the Kashmiri Pandits:
One must wear jewelled ice in plains
To will the distant mountains to glass
In “Farewell”, lamenting the loss of the ‘other’, he wrote:
I’m everything you lost. You won’t forgive me.
My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.
Not too far away from Kashmir, another community was being subjected to life in exile. In 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, along with millions of Tibetans, fled to India after their homeland was annexed by China. They found temporary shelter in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, hoping to find a way home in the future. But even today, almost 60 years later, “home” is only a memory for most Tibetans. For others like poet Tenzin Tsundue, who was born in exile, home is a distant dream. In “I am Tired”, he sheds light on what it is like to fight for a home that one has never known:
I am tired,
I am tired selling sweaters on the roadside,
40 years of sitting, waiting in dust and spit.
I am tired,
I am tired fighting for the country
I have never seen.
Admittedly, these poems don’t have the power to alter boundaries or change the course of history. But, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, they are what make people sing in dark times.
Manan Kapoor is a writer with Sahapedia, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. Sahapedia offers encyclopaedic content on India’s vast and diverse heritage in multimedia format, authored by scholars and curated by experts – to creatively engage with culture and history to reveal connections for a wide public using digital media.