Moniza Alvi’s latest collection, At the Time of Partition, frames a narrative of what “might have taken place” at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan. The poems, detailing the movement of her father’s family from Ludhiana to Lahore in the newly formed Pakistan, combine to produce an overarching tale of political failure and family loss.
The opening poem, “The Line”, marks many lines – the physical border between the two countries, the line of heredity and the family story. Alvi peoples her line – Athar the uncle damaged as a child by “ the gay painted lorry”; the grandmother separated from her children on the wrong side of the line; the British officials drawing up the line with random indifference “in the time it takes to sort out a school timetable”. Alvi examines this line, trying to assign meaning:
A line so delicate a sparrow might have picked it up in its beak;
A line between birth and non-being.
A line that would bring death to so many.
Finally, the poem apotheosises the line: “The line was its own religion, / it seemed to have its own God”. The line has become the thing.
The poems that follow focus on the consequences of the line: the division of India, the separation from country, family, and life itself:
To protect their honour
ninety women jumped into a well.
There wasn’t enough water to drown them all. (Must We Go?”)
Alvi’s voice is potent. Everyday language is charged with the horrors of the division:
A train packed with the dead
and no young women among them.
Two sacks on board, filled
not with the curves of mangoes or melons,
but with women’s breasts. (“So They Took the Bus”)
Conversations between family and neighbours are punctuated by the grandiloquence of political speeches:
At the stroke of the midnight hour
when the world sleeps
India will awake to life and freedom
which Alvi then unsettles with compelling metaphor:
Strong speech, yet fragile
as a bouquet
flung out to Delhi’s
cheering oceanic crowds. (“The Line”)
Packed with detail, the poems take us on the bus journey that “smelled of pressed-in bodies / and garum masala and incense” (“So they took the bus”) to the temporary camps erected to house the new arrivals: “Tents – and patchwork shelters / of sheet metal, rags and bamboo” (“The Camp”). Reflecting on the very nature of story-telling, Alvi considers the fragility of stories:
which had no beginnings
or had swallowed their endings,
tales which recoiled from
or feasted on themselves.
Invoking folk tales such as “The Thousand and One Nights”, she asks:
Who could rival the tales of the dark
with no enchantment, no genie?
How to arrive at one overarching story? (“So they took the Bus”)
Just as Scheherazade must recount her tales to stay alive so these poems relate their story of survival. The narrative ensures their continuance – their life.
Amidst all these losses, the loss of Athar, “the young man with the damaged mind”, is central. Persuaded by well-meaning friends, the mother entrusts his care to others. But he disappears on the journey, “his name sounded in the mile-long roll call of the missing” (“The Camp”). The later poems trace the mother’s grief as she searches for her son “so doubly lost”; and the family’s attempt
around an absence,
of his loss. (“And Now?)
Although they settled: “slowly they slipped / into the folds of the neighbourhood” (“Settling”), Athar’s absence becomes a metaphor for the trauma caused by this “Partition of Hearts”. Alvi voices this profound fracture with exquisite clarity that moves and inspires:
Only the sun rose every day
with no sense of loss–
overcame its spectacular death
of the evening before