| Henri Cartier-Bresson, Punjab, 1948
As a historian, I know only too well that in capturing a place, a time, a mood or a people, humdrum works of history come a poor second to works of the imagination. No non-fictional book about India’s capital city is half as evocative or insightful as Ahmad Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. For an understanding of the early phase of militant nationalism, Rabindranath Tagore’s Ghaire Bhaire is worth more than a shelf of scholarly monographs. And if asked to recommend a book about the last days of princely Hyderabad, I would suggest a reading of Asokamitran’s Eighteenth Parallel in preference to the host of academic papers and theses available on the subject.
I have deliberately begun with Indian examples, when, of course, there are other and possibly better Western ones. Which historian can come near Charles Dickens in getting to the heart of Victorian London' Or which one match Leo Tolstoy in his descriptions and analyses of the Napoleonic Wars' When it comes to depicting the anxieties and antinomies of life on earth, when it comes to more richly exploring human characters and their social contexts, novels and novelists are often more revealing than history and historians. It may be, however, that in this respect poets and poetry work even better, distilling in a few words and lines a whole range of complex experiences.
Consider the literature on the most momentous event in modern Indian history: the Partition of 1947. This is a subject much mined by historians. Hundreds of books already exist and new ones appear all the time, purporting to present new evidence about the causes and consequences of Partition. It is also a subject much mined by novelists writing in Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Sindhi, Hindi and English — again, the flow of novels about Partition has scarcely abated.
There is a veritable ‘Partition industry’ at work in south Asia, comparable to the Holocaust industry at work in Europe and North America — an industry which, here as there, shows no signs of shutting down or laying off workers. To the contrary, sixty years after it was first established, the industry continues to be a source of productive employment for talented scholars and writers in search of a job, a career, a mission or a passion.
Most men and women moderately well-read in the subject would probably agree that the best novels about Partition tell us more than the best works of academic and popular history. But there is more to be said — namely, that the best poems about Partition probably capture its traumas and dilemmas even better than the most finely crafted novels. Consider, first, this extract from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Subh-e-Azadi [Freedom’s Dawn], as translated from the Urdu by V.G. Kiernan: “This leprous daybreak, dawn night’s fangs have manged —/ This is not that long-looked for break of day,/ Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades/ Set out, believing that in heaven’s wide void/ Somewhere must be the stars’ last halting-place,/ Somewhere the verge of night’s slow-washing tide,/ Somewhere the anchorage for the ship of heartache.”
Consider, next, this excerpt from W. H. Auden’s “Partition”, which is about the work of Cyril Radcliffe, who was given the task of dividing the provinces of Bengal and Punjab between the newly-created Dominions of India and Pakistan: “Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day/ Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,/ He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate/ Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date/ And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect./ But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect/ Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,/ And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,/ But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,/ A continent for better or worse divided.// The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot/ The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,/ Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.”
Here are two poets — one Asian, the other European — both writing at the top of their form. These extracts show us how in a few, well-chosen words, Faiz and Auden explain as well, or better, than novels or works of history hundreds of pages long do how Partition was not just a false dawn but a very bloody one, how an event meant to fulfil long-cherished hopes instead served only to dash and crush them. These poems show up the amorality of the British, but also the venal passions of the contending parties of disputatious Indians.
Now, contrast these poems by poets acknowledged to be great with a poem by a man obscure in his day and wholly forgotten in ours. As far as I can tell, the poem is being published here for the first time. I found it in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in London, in the papers of General Francis Tuker, the officer in charge of the British Indian Army’s Eastern Command at the time Bengal and India were divided. (Tuker’s book, When Memory Serves, is among the more widely quoted eye-witness accounts of Partition.) The poem was written on April 1947 by a district officer in Bareilly faced with the prospect of a religious riot. This is how it goes: “Just listen to the handicaps/ I have to labour under, chaps!/ Whene’er there’s trouble in the offing/ I seem to get attacks of coughing./ If there’s a riot in my area,/ Why then I’m sure to get malaria;/ And when some Muslim seeks the blood/ Of Hindus all because some sod/ Has gone and tweaked the old boy’s beaver/ I’m sure to get a bout of fever;/ And when there’s stabbing in the city/ I get such pains in my dicky;/ No sooner Night resounds with howls,/ I get a gripping in my bowels.”
How this poem found its way into Sir Francis Tuker’s papers I do not know. It was not intended for publication; had it been submitted for publication, it would almost certainly have been rejected. For even a man who knows as little about poetry as I do can tell that, in terms of craft and language, this is a very poor poem indeed.
For all it lacks in poetic qualities, the poem is not without its value as a historical document. From other works, imaginative and documentary, we know a great deal about the emotions and motivations of the participants in the rioting of the Forties —whether Hindu or Muslim, leaders or led. But this poem captures, more vividly than any memoir, novel or historical work I have seen, what it was like to be a guardian of law and order in that blazing hot summer of 1947, when illegality and disorder were rampant all around. The viceroys and governors of the Raj bear some, perhaps much, of the responsibility for the religious polarization that resulted both in the violence of the Forties and the Partition of India. But in the end, it was the lowly district official who had to cope with it. I think that even the most dogmatic anti-colonialist will find it hard not to sympathize with the sentiments of the poem or with the peculiar and even tragic location of the man who wrote it.
A consideration of this poem compels me to amend the thesis offered in the first paragraph of this article. It is not just that poets and novelists are often more insightful about history than historians. In fact, even bad poems by bad poets can sometimes tell us more than the finest works of history. No doubt I will be crucified by my fellow historians for pointing this out.