A Lament for the Division of Hearts: Review of 'At the Time of Partition' by Moniza Alvi
Moniza Alvi’s book length poem in twenty parts, set in 1947 at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan, tells the story of a family’s migration to Lahore and is a lament movingly related which marries a personal story of loss with the fracture and trauma of a nation.
The poem, with a steady pace generated by the use of short lined couplets which captures the sense of a journey, weaves historical fact, ‘Sir Cyril Radcliffe finalized the line / ... in the time / it takes to sort out a school timetable.’ (p. 12, The Line), stark fact about the change of religion in the city, ‘… the mass departure / of its Hindus and Sikhs, / to cope with the influx / of a million Muslim refugees.’ (p.46, On the Brink); with metaphor, ‘A line so delicate a sparrow might have / picked it up in its beak’ (p.12, The Line); and sums up how this beginning is an end too ‘…but for my grandmother / India draws away, irretrievably/ like the tide going out.’ (p.13)
Although predominantly structured in couplets, several sections end in single lines, creating a pause to reflect before moving onto the next section. For instance, ‘Lahore, still-beating heart of the Punjab,’ (p.47, On the Brink); and, ‘Nothing was certain.’ (p. 62, Continuing). Occasional use is made of single lines to create fracture and a sense of a chorus of voices, for instance at the loss of Athar,
‘We’re sorry they said,
the friends of friends.
So very sorry –
He isn’t with us –
He disappeared at –
He vanished between –
The last time we saw him –
(p.39, The Camp)
One of the most powerful aspects of the poem is the use of contradiction and duality: ‘the-past-in-the-future’ (p.61, Continuing) ‘The risk of departing / and the risk of remaining’ (p.22, Ever After)
Alvi makes skillful use of repetition to create an incantatory effect. References to prayer, Allah, the sun, sky, and darkness, ‘Only the sun rose every day / with no sense of loss – / overcame its spectacular death / of the evening before.’ (p.46, On the Brink), along with a chorus of voices, form further refrains throughout the book. In Praying, reference to prayer becomes salvatory ‘she would build her house of prayer’, and ‘In the camp, the lifeline was prayer.’ (p.44)
It may seem strange to end my review of this book I highly recommend, with reference to the first section of the poem but the sense of an end being in the beginning was paramount to me as a reader. The first section, The Line, contains a seed of hope like a prophecy, ‘there will be a resurrection’; and although there isn’t what might be perceived as a happy ending to the poem; as we follow the grandmother’s story, her prayers and supplication, her movement through loss – from bewilderment – to ‘the fine escarpment of hope’ (p.61, Continuing), and the building of a life in Pakistan, there is a sense of some resolution in finding a new home, albeit not the same as that left behind, a sense reinforced by the repetition of lines from the first section, in the final section,
‘A line so delicate a sparrow might have
picked it up in its beak’.
(p. 63, Crossing Back)