To be sure, Partition itself was the product of a utopic plan enacting Enlightenment notions about the rational ordering of society. It promised to produce order out of a religiously and linguistically mixed society. It promised a homeland to those out-of-place in nationalist India.

Many who moved did so out of faith in this project, out of conviction, at times against the wishes of their families (most famously, Jinnah’s only daughter did not move). Indeed, the deliberate sacrifice of home and bonds was the price that made the result – participation in the creation of a new nation-state – all the more sacred. (See oral histories in Anam Zakaria, Footprints of Partition. On Pakistan as a utopian ideal, see also Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition.)

The poet credited with launching the Pakistan movement, Muhammad Iqbal, was shaped by education in Germany and Britain. Among his closest friends in Lahore from 1932 was Muhammad Asad, the Austro-Hungarian Jew who opposed Zionism but supported the creation of a Muslim state in South Asia. He had been an advisor to Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud in the 1920s – one of that world of European “spies in Arabia” I described in my first book.

Like them, he collapsed the tasks of reinventing the Middle East and himself. He would go on to shape Pakistan’s constitution and head the Middle East Division of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs. My point in invoking Asad is to highlight the cosmopolitan intellectual context in which the idea of Pakistan took shape, however much it was also about the local mission of saving Muslims from domination by non-Muslims.

Enlightenment and romantic notions are dialectically related in this intellectual history. I am merely skimming the surface here, focusing on the chain of influences and sociological bonds to offer a sense of the global production and payoff of these ideas over time, up to our present, as we shall see.

In promising a national homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, Iqbal’s Pakistan also tried to move beyond nationalism. It was utopic in that ambition, too. Like Tagore, Iqbal denounced the European “modernity” exposed on the Western Front, the way competitive nationalism produced militarism, imperialism, and indifference to religion. His call for Pakistan was intended as a critique of nationalism and an important first step towards a post-nationalistic postwar world.

Muslim political autonomy would foster in one place a less divided and exploitative society on the basis of an Islamic moral system that would serve Muslims and non-Muslims alike. His notions of the unity of Islam were authentically his but also shaped by romantic orientalist notions he absorbed in Europe. (Barbara Metcalf, Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom.)

Muhammad Iqbal. Photo credit: Walikhanphotography, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Was Partition inevitable?

Indeed, although we take Partition as synonymous with the mass migration it entailed, mass migration was not part of the plan, even as late as the early 1940s. The idea was rather to create autonomous Muslim-majority areas in which Hindus and Sikhs would remain, while Muslims would remain in areas in which they were minorities.

Then came the idea of splitting Muslim-majority provinces. The idea of mass eviction and migration only came in March 1947 when riots in Rawalpindi enforced the notion that minorities did not belong in the lands that had now been designated Muslim or non-Muslim (Pandey). In the 1930s, Iqbal was thinking outside the box of nationalism, whatever the ironic appropriation of his goal for nationalistic purposes.

The India that was to result from the creation of Pakistan was also imagined through the lens of modern rationality. Even Indians who regret Partition speak approvingly of a purer nation formed through the sacrifice of dismemberment.

The journalist Alpana Kishore argues that without Partition, India would have gone on wrestling with an unresolved demand for a Muslim nation-state. It would have been haunted by the spectre of partition and the very different vision of national development embraced by Pakistan’s founders. (Zakaria).

This recalls BR Ambedkar’s views on Pakistan. He too was an anti-colonial thinker who was simultaneously critical of the nation-state. Yet, he saw Partition as unavoidable once the demand had been raised (and given his own notions of Muslim difference). To refuse it would simply endanger the new republic with the constant threat of civil war. (Ambedkar, Thoughts on Pakistan, 1941; Pakistan, or Partition of India, 1944; Aishwary Kumar, Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, and the Risk of Democracy.) Arguably, in the end, Partition has haunted India anyway.

But besides these rationalist-idealist visions of a postcolonial Pakistan and India, other utopic visions were also available, for a time. Some saw an equally post-nationalist utopic prospect in the challenge of unifying a subcontinent that, they acknowledged, was divided. The poet Mohammad Ali Jauhar emerged as a leader of the Khilafat movement.

As president of the Congress party in 1923, he said:

I had long been convinced that here in this country of hundreds of millions of human beings, intensely attached to religion, and yet infinitely split up into communities, sects and denominations, providence had created for us the mission of solving a unique problem and working out a new synthesis, which was nothing low than a federation of faiths… For more than twenty years I have dreamed the dream of a federation, grander, nobler and infinitely more spiritual than the United States of America, and today when many a political Cassandra prophesies a return to the bad old days of Hindu-Muslim dissensions I still dream that old dream of “United Faiths of India”.

— Mohamed Ali Jauhar, 1923, reproduced in 'Sources of Indian Tradition: Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh'.

Like Mohani and Bismil, he became disillusioned with Congress and Gandhi’s leadership in the early 1920s. He attended the First Round Table Conference in London in 1930-’31 (Gandhi attended the one later in 1931, visiting the Thompsons while there). He died in England and was buried in Jerusalem, at his own request. Would he have remained in India or moved to Pakistan in 1947? Or later? Or would his survival have made his utopic dream a more viable possibility?

Mohammad Ali Jauhar. Photo credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lost utopia

Others perceived a different utopia: the idea of an India that possessed an inherent unity even in its diversity, that was a single nation, which Partition violated. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the senior party of Indian ulema, saw imperialism as the disrupter of religiously plural societies that had their own integrity. Iqbal argued that it severed ethnically distinct Muslims who might otherwise have been united around their shared religion. (Aamir Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony; Metcalf.)

Much Indian historical writing is in this vein and has found it difficult to escape the obligation to demonstrate that oneness. This is partly because, apart from the Ambedkar approach, it was difficult for Indians to read Partition as anything but loss. Pakistanis, however nostalgic, could at least pin hope on the strength of having created something new.

To some Pakistanis, India is a dreamlike homeland, an origin story more than a land from which they are exiled. (Zakaria). Still, many survivors of Partition on both sides recall untroubled pre-Partition times marked by inter-communal harmony.

At times for elites from cosmopolitan settings, nostalgia for the Raj is part of this mix. At times joint resistance to it. At times the Unionist Party’s popularity under Sir Sikander Hyat Khan, a close associate of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, in the 1930s is recalled as proof of the existence of a culturally and politically unified Punjab betrayed by higher politicians (at other times its social conservatism and loyalty to the Raj recalled as liabilities), even though the pressure of maintaining that unity against the competing forces of the League, Congress and the British was probably what killed Sikander Hyat Khan in December 1946.

We have no way of gauging the accuracy of memories untroubled pre-Partition harmony, but as Anam Zakaria and other collectors of oral histories note, “memory and how people choose to remember certain events is as important as historical facts themselves”. (Zakaria). Indeed, some memories were shaped by dismay at the violent change Partition wrought. Even those who did not move witnessed the destruction of their communities and the arrival of new, tormented faces, a transformation that made some see the struggle as a waste.

At the same time that the Pakistani state whitewashes Sikh history in Punjab – literally in the case of the frescoes at the entrance of the Dera Sahab complex in Lahore – we hear of Pakistanis who miss Diwali and Eastern Punjabis who miss Eid. (Nadhra Khan, Lahore Revisited: The City and Its Nineteenth Century Guidebook, lecture.)

It is true that many communities have coexisted in India and that Partition included many acts of inter-communal kindness. But equally true is the fact that in the end, Congress agreed to Partition, and that, since 1947, the community has again and again been constituted through violence in India – impossible facts for those committed to the notion of an eternally unified India betrayed only by Jinnah and the Muslim League. (As Pandey notes, violence did not “accompany” Partition; it was constitutive of it. See also Mufti, Enlightenment in the Colony.)

Cross-border exchanges

But apart from nostalgia for a lost utopia, even after Partition, many imagined the possibility for a unique international friendship between the two nations, in which the border was in fact a bridge permitting connection and communication.

Deferrals or reversals of the decision to stay or move, indicated by late departure or ongoing maintenance of bi-national existence for business and family reasons, are perhaps most symptomatic of this outlook. They represent a willful and wishful belief in the prerogative to remain locally and privately rather than nationally embedded as long as it was practicable.

It was certainly not obvious that Partition would mean total severance of connection. And in fact, many crossed legally without much obstruction until the 1965 war. Border communities continued to engage in common celebrations of Baisakhi. Others crossed illegally between bordering villages, like Germans in the early years of the Cold War.

A refugee special train at Ambala Station during the Partition. Photo credit: Photo Division, Government of India

Zakaria’s collection of oral histories includes the poignant case of Muhammad Boota who repeatedly crossed from his adopted village in Pakistan into his old village in Indian Punjab to search for a Sikh girl he had loved. As in the great qissas (romantic epics like Waris Shah’s), he never found her but remained devoted to her. (Zakaria; See also the story of Ghulam Ali in Zamindar, Long Partition.)

The border became more clearly demarcated and impassable after the wars of 1965 and 1971, but even then, through 1986 no line or wire demarcated the border near Kasur villages, and people crossed accidentally. (Zakaria.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was the utopic belief that borders did not change anything, even when they became impassable, that an un-severable regional unity transcends the experience and fact of Partition.

Here it is crucial to remember that the Indian and Pakistani dream for nation-statehood was fulfilled in a moment in which the entire system of nation-states was in severe crisis, with displaced minorities emerging in West Asia and Europe. (Mufti notes that nationalism has historically been “a great disrupter of social and cultural relations”, setting forth “an entire dynamic of inclusion and exclusion within the very social formation that it claims as uniquely its own and with which it declares itself identical”. By rendering some part of that formation as “minority”, it renders that group potentially movable. Thus, it has historically been a force for violent displacement. Enlightenment in the Colony.) This context shaped calls to rise above both nationalism and borders.

Incomplete pursuit

Maulana Azad (who tried his hand at poetry too in his younger days) insisted even after Partition on the existence of a “composite culture”, shared among all and possessing secular and cosmopolitan dimensions. He was a nationalist, in the sense of believing in the reality of an Indian nation that could stand independently of British rule, but also grasped the dangers nationalism produced for minorities.

His solution was to refuse politics based on fear – to refuse to fear for the fate of a Muslim minority in independent India and to refuse the very notion of a Muslim “minority”. This “leap of faith” marks the “secularism of Azad’s public life”, explains Aamir Mufti. He articulated this complex vision in a speech in October 1947 in Jama Masjid in Delhi, which persuaded many Muslims there to stay, just when nationalism was violently reorganising the region into new nation-states.

Those who articulated such visions at once perceived their vulnerability, their increasingly outdated utopian nature. They knew that refusing nationalism’s disruption of pluralism was its own kind of madness, reminiscent of Bishan Singh’s stubborn attachment to the no man’s land of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh.

But while Manto’s story encapsulated that madness in a dark, Chekhovian manner, such madness found a different kind of sanction in the Urdu poetic tradition, where it seemed less the breakdown of reason than the typically hopeless (but no longer melancholic or politically passive) idealism of the poetic subject, the lover.

They were the farzaane (learned, wise men) who double as deewane (mad, inspired men) in Jagannath Azad’s ghazal titled, 15 August 1947: “Na puchho jab bahar aayi to deewanon pe kya guzari/ Zara dekho ki is mausam mein farzaanon pe kya guzari” (“Don’t ask what befell the mad (the lovers) when spring came/ Just look at what befell the wise in this season”).

With the plural “deewane”, the sher [verse] embraces the world of Azad’s fellow poets, his friends, as the losers of this history. And indeed the friendship among poets was one critical way in which the border was rendered meaningless, at least for some, especially those who chose to see it as a temporary inconvenience on the way to a future goal that they knew would transcend all borders.

While Faiz continued his political and poetic pursuits in Pakistan, his friend Makhdoom Mohiuddin of Hyderabad pursued poetry, lyric-writing for the film industry, labour activism, Communist Party of India leadership, trades union activism and activities with the Progressive Writers’ Association and Indian People’s Theatre Association and was a primary leader of the Telangana Rebellion from 1946-’50, the rebellion of peasants against Telangana landlords and the Nizam of Hyderabad.

He also inaugurated the short-lived Paritala Republic. Jailed in 1951 – like Faiz in Pakistan – he wrote the poem, Qaid (Imprisonment). On his release, he fought elections and joined Parliament, participating in the national political process as a member of the Communist Party of India.

For these poet-activists, Partition was a tragic yet transient event in a long struggle for far more radical ends. It was inconclusive. And their agreement on that across the border, their continued solidarity, was a mutual affirmation.

When Makhdoom died in 1969, Faiz composed a poetic homage adapting his friend’s celebrated ghazal, “Aap ki yaad aati rahi raat bhar. [Your memory came to me all the night long.]” Both versions can be read on multiple levels, as all ghazals, but let me offer a suggestive reading of the maqta (last verse) in each.

Makhdoom’s ended, “Koi deewaana galiyon mein phirta raha/ Koi awaaz aati rahi raat bhar. [Some madman (lover) wandered in the streets/ Some sound came all the night long],” evoking the eternal beckoning of some ideal in the darkness, towards which the poet-as-agent-of-history fumbles, perhaps never reaching it.

It is at once near yet out of reach. Faiz’s version ended, “Ek umeed se dil behelta raha/ Ek tamanna sataati rahi raat bhar. [The heart amused itself with a hope/ A wish tormented (me) all the night long],” evoking the desire for communion with a friend who is now impossibly far, in classic Sufi fashion, but also perhaps a memory of their shared, incomplete pursuit: the soothingly idealistic hope for a more humane future that is simultaneously agitating, despite our knowledge that it is ideal and thus unachievable.

The journey continues

For those entangled in this border-transgressing literary and political community, Partition was not a stopping ground. It could not be allowed to become a stopping ground. As Faiz wrote, reflecting on 1947 in 1951, “Chale chalo ki woh manzil abhi nahi aayi. [Let us keep going, for that destination has not yet come].”

Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Photo credit: Amarjit Chandan via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

To be sure, the notion of a long, joint journey ahead, despite borders, was also a mechanism for coping with the actual trauma of Partition, which Faiz genuinely felt. He considered it “too big” to cope with in poetry apart from his attempt in that 1951 poem, Subah-e-Azadi (Freedom’s Dawn) – although in allusive ways he did in other works too, I believe. (Rakhshanda Jalil, Liking Progress. Faiz did not think he wrote about Partition beyond this 1951 poem.)

One might reasonably interpret this indifference to borders as a form of denial, as fantasy. Arguably works like Toba Tek Singh engaged in precisely such fantasy, as literary form, whatever Manto’s commitments to social realism.

Fantasy is a “departure from consensus reality”, in the words of one literary scholar (Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature, quoted in Karline McLain, “The Fantastic as Frontier: Realism, the Fantastic, and Transgression in Mid-Twentieth Century Urdu Fiction”, Annual of Urdu Studies 16), and belief in the immateriality of the border was a departure from the consensus reality of Pakistani and Indian nation-statehood. More than fantasy, however, it was romance, as articulated clearly in Faiz and Makhdoom’s couplets above. The unattainable end – utopia itself – was a reworking of birha in its own way, as was the experience of Partition itself.

Poets’ aloofness from Partition helps explain why post-Partition Urdu poetry continued to invoke extra-national geography: the Leftist Pakistani poet Ibn-e-Insha (born in Jalandhar in 1927), composed Tu Kahan Chali Gayi Thi (Where Had You Gone) in the 1950s, gesturing with equal ease towards Karachi and Delhi.

Nazir Qaiser’s poetry is as ecumenical in its geography. Shiv Kumar Batalvi (often referred to as Punjab’s Byron) drew on the ancient epic about Puran Bhagat of Sialkot for his epic verse play, Loona in 1965. Jagannath Azad came to India, but his poetry dwelled on memories of his homeland, his lost chaman (garden).

While in Pakistan on his first post-Partition visit in 1948, he wrote the celebrated couplet, “Main apne ghar mein aaya hoon magar andaaz to dekho/ Ke apne aap ko manind-e-mehman leke aaya hoon [I have come into my own home, but look in what manner/ For I have brought myself like a guest].”

It remained his home. Alienated as he was, he was still not a guest but guest-like. He was split into both host and guest, at once at home and not at home, desi and pardesi.

Divided selves

Pakistani poets also continued to reach for the non-Islamic but (idols) and puja (worship, implying idol worship) on which the ironic idiom of Urdu poetry depends, despite the vanishing, ghostlike presence of such things in their midst.

Indeed, in a sense, the entire Indo-Islamic poetic tradition presumes a world of Muslims coexisting with non-Muslims to dramatise the ironies of worldly and unworldly faith at its core. (Sikh identity markers similarly presume a mixed social context. Else why the need for distinguishing markers?) This literary transcendence of Partition mirrored socio-cultural continuities such as the celebrations of “Indian” festivals among Pakistanis near the border. (Riyaz Wani, interview with Anam Zakaria.)

As Zakaria notes, even those who left out of conviction felt a bond with the “home” they abandoned because of ongoing relationships and memories: “There is no clear line for these people. It is difficult to decipher what they love more, where they belong more. This confusion is the only truth for them.” (Zakaria.)

If the goal was a coherent national self, the result was a population of divided selves. The exile, the refugee, the orphaned, the converted, the abducted-and-reclaimed – all these survivors were in different ways split – in many cases violently split, even shredded selves.

Permit me a metaphor from physics: In quantum theory, the uncertain, non-deterministic, smeared nature of electrons helps explain the stability of atoms; similarly, the stability of South Asian identity depends on a kind of indeterminacy.

Punjabis in particular seem smeared through space. Nations are like the impossibly rigid atomic structures of classical mechanics. They cannot contain such uncertainty: Makhdoom and Faiz were both literally in captivity in independent India and Pakistan in 1951.

Meaning of Partition

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. (Pandey, Remembering Partition.)

Curiously, as Rakhshanda Jalil notes, Urdu poets focus more on the consequences of Partition than its causes. (Jalil.) 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 18th century. (See Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self: Identity and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England.)

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 a prominent leader in the Indian nationalist movement was inseparable from her explorations of spirituality and selfhood. (Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London.)

Annie Besant. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

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.)

Longing for union

Now, the subject of Urdu poetry had long been understood as split. This was what Sufi longing for the 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 is not).

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 border – it is at once near and far. (Zakaria. A similar phenomenon transpires on the German border towns Edith Sheffer describes in Burned Bridge.)

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 Uttar Pradesh, 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. (Mufti). 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 the 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. (On this see also Mufti. 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.)

In short, we cannot think of post-Partition identity only in the terms of the normalised 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. (Mufti. Manto was disowned by the Pakistani Marxist-leaning literary set. Charged with obscenity, he avoided his sentence of prison with hard labour on appeal.)

The possibility of transcending national identity within oneself is powerful. For EP 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 a creative place of continuing aspiration”. (Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History.)

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 Left and poetry

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 Muhammad Asad, has emerged as a major thinker about religion and secularism. The chain of inheritance and restless, continuing aspiration is long.

Thompson came 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 Communist Party of India’s support of it and noted the strange convergence of Western “modernising 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 prioritised top-down, capital-intensive technologically-driven developments depending on a disciplined workforce for national economic take-off. Through a vulgar (ie un-poetic) economic determinism, Marxism echoed utilitarian and positivist ideas. (Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics; Hamilton’s 2007 talk at the History Department of the University of Auckland.) 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 in 2016 (2021 note: he has sadly just passed away), 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. (See David Barstow and Suhasini Raj, “Indian Writers Spurn Awards as Violence Flares”, New York Times.) 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.

Non-normative identity

Poetry is a social and collective endeavour. 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.

This possibility for such total identification, for a kind of subsumption in the poet, is astonishingly universal. I identify with the “Hum” (collective – and first-person subject) 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. 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 were send away in the way one sends off a daughter].” (I thank Hamida Chopra for sharing this story.)

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.

Amrita Pritam. Photo credit: Amarjit Chandan, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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. (For more on Loona, see Sa Soza, Shiv Kumar Batalvi.)

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.

Loona was the Patakha Guddi (Firecracker Kite) 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 Jalandhar). (Composed by AR Rahman for Imitiaz Ali’s film Highway.) 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. (On Azad, see Mufti. Certainly, it is also a luxury of class.)

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 marginalisation 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. (Mufti.)

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 cannot do it alone, and it too, after all, is bound up in the worship of profit, god and nation.

Part one of this essay: Priya Satia: Why poetry remains a primary resource in remembering and understanding the Partition.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008) and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution (Penguin, 2018).

The ideas in this 2016 essay helped shape her latest book, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire (Penguin, 2020).

This essay has benefited from conversations with countless individuals over time, but the author 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.

This article first appeared on Tanqeed.