Partition by Sujata Bhatt depicts the simple tale of a woman going to a “railway station” to provide for distressed people, while her niece stays “in her garden” and “wish[es]” “she” could be brave enough to do the same. In the end, though, her patriotism lingers, and “she” assists in letting her homeland live on by not letting go of its memory. Her lack of “courage,” as it is labeled, does not keep her from proving to be a patriot. This, as well as critical commentary regarding a tragic moment and its consequence, are the themes of the poem.
In order to fully understand the ideas behind this poem, the reader must learn of the historic concepts at work within it. Generally speaking, the poem regards the “divi[sion]” of British “India” into Pakistan and “India” due to tension and dissention among groups within the territory. All of this poem is based around these moments of separation, though from the method of focusing on a pair of women. The full poem can be read here.
What this series of lines depicts is a sense of juxtaposition in that this woman is “in her garden,” an idea that could create visions of lovely flowers and scents, as well as calm and livelihood. This is paralleled by “the cries of the people” that “she could hear” in “noise” that seemed “endless.” Within this juxtaposition, the reader could infer that the concepts presented are a representation of the dissent that took place within this time period in the territory. Whereas a greater calm once existed, like a “garden,” the tension proved shaking and “endless.”
This is not to say that the territory was in a perfect state beforehand, but there is little room to argue against the idea that this time period seemed to hold a heightened amount of stress. Whatever tension was prior could be noted as a snake within a “garden”—dangerous, but small—and what was currently happening was much larger with “noise” and “endless” stress. This concept is mirrored in that this chaos was “a new sound added to the city,” which indicates that previous turmoil existed. The current distress was “new” and elevated it.
In regard to the story line, it begins through vague terms—specifically, “she” experienced these things, though the reader has no understanding about who “she” is. In fact, other than general terms like “cries” and “garden,” the only particular information provided is “Ahmedabad railway station.” The choice of specificity in this detail only is important since it denotes that only the location and the idea that people were leaving are of importance. Who this happened to does not matter, given the totality of the situation. Likely, many other people endured distress, so details about this “she” could be interchangeable with other people in the territory. Since this is a story of “Partition” in a defined area, however, Bhatt could not allow that information to be treated as completely universal. The story had to be about this territory and situation.
The anonymity of this person could also be noted as a representation that the “divi[sion]” of the territory was done without individual people in mind, but categories. In this, the pain of separation was overlooked for the sake of the decision to “divide,” meaning no individual citizen mattered—much like this woman is only referred to as “she.”
This woman’s “aunt” on “her father’s” side took action against this concept in a very small way by “go[ing] to the station every day with food and water” for those “stranded” there. By doing so, this “aunt” displayed strength and care in the midst of turmoil that is quite admirable. From there, however, the narration returns to the “she” that is not labeled as of yet, and in a confusing way.
When the first “she” happens in this series of lines, the most currently noted female is the “aunt” rather than the original “she.” However, given the context provided to this “she,” the reader can infer that the “she” is the originally mentioned one. This sudden and unclarified shift in focus could mirror the chaos and confusion of this time of “Partition.” Just as the reader may not instinctively know who “she” is, many people may not have known all of the details of what was happening around them.
After the shift back to the initial “she” happens, the narrator notes that “she felt afraid” and “could not go with her aunt.” That “felt” is used to address both of these concepts reinforces how strong her hesitancies were in regard to the situation. Her “fear,” essentially, was so strong that it needed to be reinforced with a second “felt” that was connected to her reaction—that “she could not go with her aunt.” This word choice also lets the reader know that “she” probably wanted “to go,” but “could not,” potentially because of the “fear.” In fact, the narrator notes that “each day she wished she had the courage to go.” Rather, “she stood in the garden listening.” This entails that “she” knew, but did not react, which could indicate a lack of bravery or strength on her part, unlike the “aunt” since “each day passed with her listening to the cries of the people.” “[S]he felt,” but did nothing.
Even though “she” did not assist her “aunt” and instead waited on the sidelines, “she” was still impacted by “the birds sound[ing] different” while “she” was in “the shadows.” “She[‘d]” hidden herself away from the situation as best “she” could, but “she” was still impacted. This comments on the territorial universality of the harshness. No matter if people fought against it or acted in a complacent manner, they were impacted.
The story now shifts to first-person perspective and reveals the identify of this “she” as the “mother” of the narrator, giving this tale a reach beyond those who were around at the time the “Partition” was created. In particular, this son or daughter hears the tale from his or her “mother” “at midnight in her kitchen,” though the “mother” “is seventy-years old.”
This age is far past the “nineteen” that was addressed in the first line of the poem, so this memory has seemingly haunted her for over “fifty” “years.” It still haunts her so much that “she” offers the son or daughter the story, like a weight is on her that must be lifted. This is reasonable given the amount of patriotism a person could have that is boosted because of a tragedy like this, and the patriotic notion gains merit when “she” takes the time to note that “India is older than” the “years” that have passed since the “Partition.” No matter her stress, “she” must defend her home to remind her child that its history goes back farther than this time of chaos.
That the turmoil haunts the “mother” is even more apparent in these final lines since “she” admits “she” “feel[s] guilty about” not having “gone with [her] aunt.” As soon as this detail is cemented, though, “she” reverts back to her lament for her homeland, “ask[ing]” her child why something would be permitted to happen—“How could they have let a man who knew nothing about geography divide a country?” This shows the conflict is bigger than her own feelings since the separation is provided as the final thought of the poem.
It is interesting that her qualm about the “man” who “divide[d] a country” is noted as him not understanding “geography,” as if this is the detail that disqualifies him as being able to make such a call. More likely, however, Bhatt is referring to the man’s lack of understanding of the tension in British “India” that happened prior to the “Partition.” The trivial detail being used to express this idea shows how too-simple the decision was to “divide [the] country.” Just as something as basic as “geography” is a small reason to label this man unqualified in comparison to other faults, the separation into “India” and Pakistan was a solution to the tension that was not necessarily thought out and potentially lacked sensibility. Basically, it was an easy solution, but Bhatt believes not the correct one.
This seems to be the theme of the poem: commentary on the tragic time and solution, as well as a lingering patriotism that the “mother” had not let go of. Overall, “India”—as it was—lives on in this woman’s memory and account.
About Sujata Bhatt
Sujata Bhatt was born in 1956. She is an Indian poet, but graduated from the University of Iowa and later moved to Germany. In regard to her writing, she is the author of several volumes of poetry and has been noted for her translation work as well.