12 years old.
Come here, he said. Look what I’ve got for you, he said. I wanted it to be a surprise, he said. I’ve been planning to show you for days, he said. I’ve made sure it pops out as soon as you unwrap it, he said. I bet you’ll open your mouth as soon as you see it, he said. You might scream, he said. You might cry, he said. You might say I shouldn’t have, he said. But I know you wanted it, he said. So don’t be shy, he said. Come here, he said. Come and lie down with me, he said. It’s under these sheets, he said. Get your head under there, he said. Start looking, he said. Don’t come out until you find it, he said.
I hadn’t come out
What will be left behind?
A barbwire fence.
A giant iron gate.
An apartheid wall.
with barely visible
“Made in _____” details.
Missing pairs of shoes
found on either side
of the border.
Smell of the human flesh.
Letters left behind
by our ancestors
that no one can
The script dying
its slow death.
The close connection
with the language(s)
our ancestors spoke,
The battered suitcases
that bear the marks of
gruesome violence and
the narrow escape;
that bear the marks of
everything once one owned;
relationships that were built and
nurtured over generations;
the connection to the land;
the land of our ancestors;
the land that birthed them;
the land where we buried,
laid them to peace,
all of these memories and
so much more
When each one of us
all of these things
will still be
Let’s leave them behind and
build a better world
in the other world
where we might be.
This poem was written keeping the Partition of Punjab/India in mind. My parents are the children of Partition. Partition that was responsible for causing the greatest transmigration in the history of humankind. When the Partition happened, both my maternal and paternal grandparents and their families became what’s commonly referred as the ‘stateless people’ overnight. This poem is dedicated to Punjab. This poem is dedicated to all the children of Partition. To all the stateless people. To all the people on both sides of the border. To the people of India, Pakistan and beyond.
My Uncle tells me when the calls
for Partition filled the anxious air,
everything was up for partition,
not just the land.
Nothing remained outside
Everything was to be partitioned.
On a railways platform,
shouts of Hindu water, Muslim water
could be heard as fleeing refugees
searched through their ragged pockets
to fish out a few coins in exchange for water.
The journey was long. Not everyone
made it to the other side
Those who did had their thirst quenched
but what about the water? What quenched its thirst?
If water could speak,
it would confess its thirst.
Its thirst for peace.
Thirst for sanity.
Thirst for to leave it
the fuck alone.
A recurring question
“Where from Punjab?”
I get asked wherever I go.
I pause for a while and
start all over again
like taking a detour.
Some of us have been on the road
with no memory of the name of the place
we first began our journey from.
The rising flames of the Partition
burnt many memories. Burnt them to ashes.
Burnt them to the ground.
Ashes is now all that remains.
A handful of these ashes
from on an urn of lost history
is what I offer
each time you ask
“Where from Punjab?”
My grandparents’ letters
I lost my grandfather
when I was only nine months old
so I don’t have much memory of him.
But I do have several memories of my grandmother
as she was around for many of my growing years.
She was fiercely independent.
A strong and phenomenal woman.
My uncles and aunts say that I
remind them of her.
This is to say that I kind of
keep her memory alive.
There was something else
that kept her memory alive.
Her handwritten letters to
my grandfather that she wrote
when he was working away
early in their marriage.
Both my grandparents exchanged
letters in Urdu – the language of love,
as they say.
When the calls for Partition echoed,
overnight, the long-inhabited home
turned into an empty house.
An empty space.
A soon-to-be abandoned place – the walls of which
stored the last echoes of my grandparents’ cries.
When they fled West Punjab, and
came to Delhi, they brought
those letters with them.
Luckily, those letters had survived.
They had escaped being
stained with blood, unlike
millions of other people, who
were not so lucky.
I was always intrigued by those letters
that my Grandma kept locked in her almirah.
I wanted to see those dancing letters
of my grandparents’ love language – Urdu.
Even if I could not read anything.
(It only two generations to make people estrange)
I wanted to hear the crispy sound
of those pages when being turned.
I wanted to feel the dried ink
resting on those pages
before they ran the risk
of getting smeared all over
by the red ink of Partition.
I wanted to smell those letters
which still carried with them
the scent of the golden wheat fields
of the land my grandparents left behind,
the land I can never return to – the land
that is now on the other side of the border.
But I could not do any of this.
I never saw those letters.
I never held them in my hands.
They existed and yet
they did not.
When my Grandma passed away,
she took those letters with her.
She did not want others to read them.
On the banks of the holy river Ganga,
her ashes merged with the waters,
as did those letters
that slowly floated away.
Perhaps, merging on the way,
with countless other such love letters,
from across the border,
making the waters
just a bit more sweet.
Gone and buried
They floated away
like flimsy paper boats.
Like lost fireflies.
Like chiffon saree pallus and duppattas
with the wind.
They were buried like unsent letters
hiding away, stuffed at the back of a wardrobe.
Like trapped bodies
under a pile of disaster rubble.
Like precious treasures buried in the backyard by a refugee
before they eventually have to flee.
These floated away, buried stories
of the many women – when will they be heard?
When will the smell of their stories
fill the stiff air?
When will their stories get dug
out of the rubble
so they could bear witness
to the past and present.
Let women narrate their
Let the bloody stench of their stories
gag you a little.
Let the secrets be unburied.
Let the demons of these women’s lives
haunt you a little.
Prerna Bakshi is a sociolinguist, writer, translator and activist of Indian origin, presently based in Macao. Her work has previously been published in over three dozen journals and magazines, most recently in Silver Birch Press, Wilderness House Literary Review, Kabul Press, Misfit Magazine, Peril magazine: Asian-Australian Arts & Culture and Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability Poetry and Literature. Her full-length poetry collection, Burnt Rotis, With Love, that was recently long-listed for the Erbacce-Press Poetry Award in the UK, is forthcoming from Les Éditions du Zaporogue (Denmark) later this year. She tweets at @bprerna
***What will be left behind?, Thirst, A recurring question, My grandparents’ letters and Gone and Buried are based on the theme of Partition (and on refugees) during India’s independence struggle from British colonialism. The Partition of Punjab/India was responsible for the deaths and displacement of millions of people across South Asia. These poems are deeply personal (as much as political) as my family, just like several others, was directly affected by it, and I hope that these poems could offer a little bit of insight to those who may not be familiar with this very significant part of history.****