Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 25, February 2011

Communalism and the Poetic Imagination:
A Study of Indian English Women's Poetry

Anup Beniwal and Amrita Mehta

  1. With the advent of globalisation, communalism has undergone a change. Aided by technology, economic linkages and the information revolution; communalism has assumed global proportions. Terror strikes and communal carnages are no longer sporadic or localised occurrences. Riots and recurrent bomb blasts impinge uncomfortably on everyday physical and psychological reality. The contours of communal violence have been suffused with cold-blooded planning, remote, and at times suicidal attacks, that infiltrate all national boundaries. An insidious web of terror has turned the contemporary world into a highly porous and unstable socio-psychological space. In the Indian context, the nation was fathered by communal conflict and its birth materialised in 1947 through the trauma of Partition. The tension between nationalistic euphoria and traumatic existential reality, especially in the northern and eastern part of the country, has become a living legacy manifested throughout contemporary Indian history. Communal violence has turned into an atavistic phenomenon revisiting the national consciousness in 1971, 1984, 1992, 1993, 2002 and 2008; apart from in-between occurrences.[1] Each episode of communal violence is motivated and engineered by varying ideological-political situations. As a result a number of debates have arisen around the issue of communal violence and its changing configurations from 1947 to the present. However, the veneer of amnesia desperately aimed for by both the state and citizenry post-1947, is ruptured with every cycle of communal violence that pries open schisms embedded in national memory. Literature, in being an imaginative chronicle of the contemporary, has intervened creatively and critically into the communal space. In a scenario of reoccurring violence, the socially-sensitive creative imagination is impelled to explore the ramifications of living with communally targeted fear and uncertainty. Contemporary writing takes into its ambit an exploration of the changing economic-political-cultural conditions that have caused mutations in communal violence from the time of Partition, and its social and individual repercussions.
  2. Contemporary women's writing has also moved away from the confines of domesticity to engage with the historical, political and economic dimensions of the public space. Communalism is no exception. Women's poetry in India has responded to communal violence with increasing poignancy and this has also been noted by various critics.[2] The woman writer weaves in a plethora of issues like secularism, gender, fundamentalism and nationalism to problematise the contemporary contours of communalism. The creative response from women poets is not merely a gendered response to escalating violence in the contemporary world and its devastating toll on women; but is multifocal, complex and nuanced. The present paper seeks to understand women's literary engagement with communalism against this backdrop of a perspectival shift in the nature and scope of communalism. In this paper we seek to probe into the text and context of communalism as it obtains in contemporary Indian English women's poetry. In the process, we will also examine the implications of the creative transmutation of violent events and focus on the diverse aesthetic responses to the communal predicament within the poetry of Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Seeme Qasim, Imtiaz Dharker and Meena Alexander. The paper focuses only on present trends. Post-Partition poetry serves only as a reference point and is not problematised in the paper.

    From Partition to the present: changing contours of literary responses to the communal problem
  3. The Partition serves as the emblematic moment within the subcontinental history of communal conflict. Its atavistic dimensions radiate and reverberate in continuing communal violence in post-independent India. The Partition was viewed as a period of 'insanity,' and cordoned off both in social memory and in literary space as an aberration.[3] Partition literature became a means of articulating the inarticulatability of the enormous trauma of the partition. It foregrounded the emotional and psychological sundering of the human psyche and was marked by bewilderment, melancholia and nostalgia. Early fictional representations portrayed utopian communities built on religious harmony and underscored the shared nature of the tragedy of a people rooted in a common culture.[4] They vocalised the public refusal to accept both arbitrary political divisions and the ethno-national rhetoric of difference imposed by the post-partitioned nations. The historical fact of a violent partition was refracted through myriad personal histories of its individual victims and survivors. The aesthetic responses to the Partition sprung from intimate firsthand experiences of violence and devastation that most of the writers closely witnessed and from the subsequent mourning for the loss of family and friends.[5] In her appeal to the eighteenth-century Sufi mystic Waris Shah; Amrita Pritam, forced to flee Lahore and reach Delhi as a refugee, drew on the literary and the oral culture of an undivided Punjab and appealed to readers on both sides of the religious divide.[6] Her work drew on the spiritual and emotional appeal proferred by a syncretic and diffuse mysticism within Sufi philosophy. The poetry did not make any mention of the assertive display of religious identities that triggered the Partition and caused the subsequent violence. Instead it attempted to gather a cultural community by imbuing Punjab's history, legend, common rural landscape and everyday practices with emotional significance. Such an aesthetic representation evoked a wide approbatory popular response that 'made her immortal, both in India and Pakistan.'[7] However the elision of unpalatable causative realities within Partition literature has recently come under critical scrutiny. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita register this shift of critical emphasis within Partition writing:

      As they [writers] represent the Partition in 'universalist' terms as outrage, and its effects as a metaphysical disorder that can be restored to equilibrium only by the artist (who is imaged as a magician-healer), these texts evade engagement with specific conflicting identities and interests that comprise the event and address only what they designate as its effects … such works lend the mystic authority of art to the project of mainstream nationalism.[8]

  4. The lopsided focus only on the consequences of communal violence is sought to be rectified by the contemporary responses. Instead of focusing exclusively on the trauma generated by the event, these poets try to lace their responses with a determined probing of the causes. They portray dystopic communities divided by the politics of hate and resurgent fundamentalisms. In this move from the personal to the collective, the traumatised writer; unlike her erstwhile counterparts, shuns the tendency to aestheticise her own private experiences. There is a move towards a dispassionate dissection of the collective psyche. In the process, the issue of communalism no more remains a personal struggle but acquires ideological and academic overtones. While the earlier literary manifestations privileged the experiential, contemporary aesthetic responses privilege the ideological and the thought. Contemporary poets writing on communal violence rely more on descriptive and analytic strategies that combine the intellectual with the emotional and engage with the socio-economic-political ramifications of the communal problem rather than concentrate only on the effects of the violence it generates. It makes their oeuvre more nuanced and explorative although less emotionally moving, and the responses to it are also not as impassioned.

    Location and outreach
  5. Contemporary Indian English women poets are members of a class not touched directly by communal riots. However, they have some grasp of ground realities by virtue of their interactions with the poor and the powerless. Rukmini Bhaya Nair visited Ayodhya in 1992 in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and the visit served as the catalyst for The Ayodhya Cantos. Imtiaz Dharker's work as a documentary film maker took her frequently to the slums of Dharavi. For a number of years, Seeme Qasim has extensively toured Gujarat and rural areas as a journalist-photographer and observed the pre-and-post-Ayodhya and 2002 socio-religious realities. Meena Alexander visited Gujarat in September 2002 to interact with the riot-affected and to visit riot-torn places. The poets are members of specific religious-ethnic communities—Muslim, Hindu-Bengali, Kerala-Christian—they however transcend their class-religion-region affiliations and adopt a cosmopolitan liberal-humanist secular stance to document their anguish. They utilise their means and mobility to visit and interview the survivors of collective violence. They enter the trauma through some personal link that makes it immediate and firsthand. Seeme Qasim searches for friends and acquaintances from her earlier visits to Gujarat; Nair and Alexander draw on their personal experiences from their visits to Ayodhya and Gujarat. Since the poets are neither victims nor survivors, but merely distant post-event witnesses, they foreground the intellectual rather than the emotional response. They negotiate with history and ideology and locate policies that make communalism a lived reality in India. Their multi-layered identities at the intersections of class, religion, gender and professional training interact with and respond to the various ramifications of the victims' experiences. The poetic vision is crisscrossed not only by its motivations and commitments but also by paradoxes and ambivalences it constructs within the aesthetic.

    Motivational triggers
  6. Poetry may not be possible after holocausts and their mind-numbing, agitating effects; but the recurrent re-enactment of the politics of hate has impelled the poetic consciousness to grapple with language in order to document unspeakable social pain. Early aesthetic responses to communal confrontations/antagonisms had found expression within Indian English writing mainly within the genres of prose and fiction while poetic responses had been few and far between. No writer could summon the imaginative resources to address the issue within Indian English literature for nearly a decade.[9] The lack of records; either photographic or in media or in official documents, necessitated that the events repeatedly played out in the individual and the collective memory. The creative responses relied subjectively upon individual and community recollection of the traumatic experiences. The responses to the communally charged events of 6 December 1992 (Ayodhya), 11 September 2001 (USA), 27 February-June 2002 (Gujarat), frequent urban-centric rioting and bombings, have been immediate and numerous.[10] Contemporary writing relies on the wealth of media reports, official records, organisational documentation, archival material and on personal interactions with survivors to present a more inclusive and composite response. The immense variety of responses — multimedia visuals, newspaper reporting and activist investigations — ensures that the trauma is repeatedly revisited, dissected and categorised. On the one hand, it saturates the public space while on the other hand, it is rationalised quickly and is ironically in greater danger of being distanced faster from public focus. Literature steps in through deliberate de-familiarisation of mass media responses and seeks to put the communal incidents in an inclusive perspective. Women's poetry seeks to act as a voice of conscience against the gross vulgarisation of issues. It is both an antidote to the de-sensitisation to media-generated images/numbers of the dead and mutilated; and a reproach to the lack of public and official efforts to prevent re-occurrence of communal violence. Seeme Qasim articulates this urge:

      But forgetting
      will make it happen
      again. And that's
      the main problem.[11]

  7. Rukmini Bhaya Nair similarly points out the amnesia that follows the shock of terror attacks and asks whether the relentless media images of violence and disaster 'actually dehumanize rather than sensitize us? Has an emotional saturation point been reached, resulting in a loss of our ethical compasses?'[12] It becomes imperative for the poet to re-inscribe the events in cultural memory in order to prevent public amnesia. Poetry becomes an alternative space, apart from the minimalist official acknowledgement of horrific events and from the glut of media coverage. While the former provokes outrage at its denial mode, the latter repels by its incessant feeding on misery. The poetic reconstruction of trauma serves as an ethical space that fulfils the 'need to allow private experiences of pain to move out into the realm of publicly articulated experiences of pain' wherein a society laments the loss of moral community and confronts its own evil.[13]
  8. The poets stress the interconnectedness of violent incidents repeated temporally at different geographical locations. They record the pervasiveness of contemporary violence—as an extrinsic occurrence and an intrinsic phenomenon that pervades and permeates everyday life. Terror hovers at the doorstep:

      Outside the door,
      lurking in the shadows,[14]

    and inveigles itself into the inner circle of the family, as the title of Imtiaz Dharker's collection of poems The Terrorist at My Table suggests. No place is insulated from the possibility of sudden violence:

      Suddenly it does not matter
      The riots happened here;
      This could be a riot, anywhere.[15]

  9. The world is intimately connected by its vulnerability to the politics of hate. Meena Alexander weaves a quilt of 'fragile places' shattered by war and violence, by 'guns, grenades, blisters of smoke / on market place and mosque.'[16] Violent events whether in Khartoum, Bombay, Sudan, Gujarat, New York or Ayodhya point to a world yoked together by devastation and fear, in which 'we are bound in the terrible intimacy of war.'[17] Willy-nilly, strife and unrest invade the poetic consciousness and take hold of the poetic discourse,

      What happens in my poetic production is that almost without knowing it, the violence of history enters in. Creeps in through the back door as it were, enters my consciousness' and 'awakens us to the fragility of place, fragile places which we inhabit as human beings, places that we make in order to be persons, in community, in communion and how very easily that civil pact can be broken, the key to our existence tossed away.[18]

  10. Her poetic inspiration springs from the need to deal with human suffering to 'evoke grief, restore tenderness so that we are not thrust back into abject silence. As if we have heard and seen nothing.'[19] She prioritises the ethical impulse within her creative oeuvre and underlines the need to gather a reading community that listens sensitively and acts to promote social healing.[20] Rukmini Bhaya Nair's highly stylised aestheticisation of the Babri Masjid demolition produces defamiliarisation and distance and provides an objective perspective to an otherwise volatile event. 'Instead of the usual kind of liberal political posturing or wringing of hands, a witty and powerful drama is invented, drawing on the popular Ram Lila as much as the Ramayana itself.'[21] The ironic re-creation of events is, according to Nair, both her 'comic-tragic attempt at a “national allegory"' and her use of the poetic license 'to answer questions very differently from history.'[22]

    Current debates and the poetic response
  11. The recurrent communal conflagrations in the Indian sub-continent have provided a fertile ground for political scientists, social theorists and anthropologists to study of political-cultural-economic-matrices that undergird the seemingly sudden violence that rips apart the social fabric. Paul R. Brass theorises the production and perpetuation of communal violence in India. According to Brass, a divisive history of India, defined in communal-religious terms, has acquired a hegemonic place in the national mythology of the country. Thus within popular majority perception the glorious 'Hindu period' needs revivification / re-instatement after the 'Muslim period' of destruction and decay. 'The process of historical rectification has also been accompanied by a demonisation of the Muslims as a separate people, a foreign body implanted in the heart of Hindu India.'[23] The only redeeming features of the marauding outsiders are their language (Urdu), literature, food (biryani, kebabs and kheer) and art and architecture.[24] The systematic demonisation of Muslims as invaders, as responsible for the Partition and as violent and dangerous to Hindu India, is an aspect of the communal discourse diffused politically within Indian consciousness to entrench communal polarisation. Seeme Qasim translates sociology into poetry to etch the stereotyping of Muslims, the 'othering' they regularly experience even in casual conversations and the conflation of past events of Indian history with contemporaneous reality.[25] As soon as she speaks her name:

      expressions change
      and within seconds
      I become another race,
      with my centuries old shroud
      of invasions and
      44-year-old guilt of partition.[26]

    She catalogues the manner in which Muslims are ridiculed as 'backward,' 'bigoted,' uneducated and unwelcome outsiders who must be banished to Pakistan; unclean beef-eaters always needing government pacification, 'not integrated,' proliferating 'like mice,' ghettoised in their separate mohallas.[27] Muslim women are pitied, as victims of scripturally-sanctioned polygamy and easy divorce, burdened by large families. The poem 'Indian Muslim,' written in 1991, forebodes the consequences of the socio-religious schism. The Report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India presented to the Prime Minister of India records that:

      the social, cultural and public interactive spaces in India can be very daunting for the Indian Muslims …They carry a double burden of being labeled as "anti-national" and as being "appeased" at the same time ... Muslims need to prove on a daily basis that they are not "anti-national" and "terrorists" … Muslims complained that they are constantly looked upon with a great degree of suspicion not only by certain sections of society but also by public institutions and governance structures. This has a depressing effect on their psyche. Many also felt that the media tends to perpetuate this stereotypical image of the Muslims.[28]

  12. Seeme Qasim painfully records the manner in which the consistent persecution of Muslims and the anti-Muslim rhetoric is built up to a crescendo. She re-creates the politically-manufactured surcharged atmosphere of terror and communal animosities:

      You watch the churned bitterness,
      The broken day shaking hands
      with triggers, exploding into loudspeakers,
      into the flags unfurling, into trishuls.[29]

  13. Ashis Nandy observes,

      In all of South Asia, communal riots are becoming a kind of expertise, even a profession. You can organise ethnic or communal violence anytime you like, provided someone gives you enough cash and political protection. You can order a designer riot to bring down a regime or change voting patterns or advance the cause of a political faction. The activists are known, so are their fees and their political patrons. The leaders who deploy these activists are also increasingly blatant about their profession.[30]

    The deployment of riots as an electoral strategy is also corroborated by political scientist Paul R. Brass:

      It appears both from reports of the campaigning as well as pre-poll interviews and the election results themselves that the Gujarat killings were used effectively to consolidate Hindu sentiment and voting behind the BJP, a party that was in decline in the state before the pogrom. Press reports have indicated that, despite Election Commission restrictions on direct exploitation of the Godhra and Akshardham killings, the BJP made use of slogans and videos designed to inspire fear and hatred of Muslims among Hindu voters.[31]

    The poetry echoes the social theorists' view that socially traumatic events are not the handiwork of ordinary citizens engaged in the daily struggle for survival, but carefully unleashed by political / religious leaders for political and economic gains at precise moments when 'the slide of the rupee, / the tumbling stock, / the taxi driver's strike' agglomerate around a flashpoint:

      The price of onions has gone up
      the men around the table
      decide it is appropriate
      to go to war.[32]

    Social upheavals are politically planned by 'the hypocrites, the prudes / running our lives / with their holier-than-thou–prissy attitudes, the bigots with offended sensibilities, the bastards who'll put on / any party shoe that fits.'[33] The worst barbarisms are flagged off from 'quiet, civil rooms'. Amidst a 'shower of niceties' in the 'corridors of power, / … / permission has been given / for the carnage to begin.'[34] A similar observation of riots being a product of political expediency is made by Qasim:

      What happened in Gujarat
      may be repeated
      in other places too,
      not just now
      but before
      the general polls.[35]

  14. Communal riots are not inevitable eruptions of anger between divided communities but are intentionally 'staged' by a 'network of specialists' for political and economic reasons.[36] The poets also reiterate the planned nature of the violence unleashed in episodes of communal frenzy by repeatedly referring to lists:

      and the final weapon:
      The list,
      to be read aloud.
      Your name is there.
      It settles on you like a shroud.[37]

    The home becomes a death-trap and the familiar neighbourhood 'the most dangerous place':

      Your house like
      others in the city
      will be marked
      on special lists.[38]

    Any kind of official record, whether electoral rolls, car registration records drum up the death-dance:

              your likely death
      already waits there,
      matching the names
      on its list
      with your car's
      number plate.[39]

  15. Seeme Qasim repeatedly underlines the meticulously organised nature of the Gujarat carnages orchestrated by 'systematic gangs' who looted, raped and murdered while 'the police watched.'[40] The prolonged massacres continuing over months also indicate official collusion and governmental apathy. 'The State / makes its citizens refugees'[41] in a country where 'Fascism becomes nationalism.' Qasim's Muslim identity, so palpably present in the poems, emerges as the anguished voice of a minority community member who has been let down by the inability of the State to guarantee her constitutional rights and to protect its citizens. The sentiment of utter despair and abandonment amongst Muslims is borne out in the Interim Report published by the Panel for the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat on March 26, 2004:

      The state continues to abdicate its responsibilities to the Muslim citizens of Gujarat in terms of support for survival needs, rehabilitation and reconstruction in the aftermath of the violence. It has left this process almost entirely in the hands of NGOs and charitable organizations. The fact that at present it is primarily Muslim organizations that are providing resources for relief and reconstruction in Gujarat points to shrinking secular spaces and heightens feelings within the Muslim community that they have been abandoned by the state and by fellow citizens and that it is only within their own community that they will find support and security.[42]

    Qasim records her own haplessness and helplessness as a distant observer of events unfolding in Gujarat:

      From Delhi, I watch hate,
      carefully nurtured,
      revealing itself.[43]

    and of the ineffectual and impotent official redress offered in the face of enormous tragedy:

      I observe the podium,
      officials and police
      waiting for President Kalam. (“Naroda Village". ibid, 31).

    Poetic strategies
  16. The poets deploy diverse strategies within their poetry to delineate the stranglehold of religion on the individual and social psyche. Seeme Qasim uses the first person narration to recount the hitherto cosmopolitan, secular professional's shocked recognition / reinforcement of her religious identity when she visits Ahmedabad after the genocidal decimation of Muslims in 2002:

              I'm feeling
      more Muslim here
      than anywhere else.[44]

    She narrates the fear of violence and death that dogs the minority community and makes the poor among them adopt desperate survival strategies; replacing Muslim names with Hindu-sounding ones and adopting practices of the majority community:

      Zubedia's children are now called
      Paro and Raj.
      Her walls are covered with calendars of gods.[45]

  17. Rukmini Bhaya Nair documents a similar naming phobia that besets the girls selling garlands around Ayodhya after the Babri Masjid demolition. 'One of the things which struck me when I visited Ayodhya after 1992 was the way in which young girls making / selling marigold garlands for the temples there refused to tell me their names anymore. It was as if their names would betray them. I found this one of the subtlest forms of social intimidation that I had come across.'[46] The fear of communal carnages has become a part of the Muslim consciousness and 'the fact of carrying a Muslim name is to involuntarily share in this consciousness.'[47] The phobia of bearing a Muslim name that had earlier haunted only the slum dwellers, percolates upwards to the elite. Qasim debates booking a hotel room under an assumed name, 'How will I deal / with things / in Gujarat now / whenever I disclose / my name?'[48]
  18. A card-carrying Muslim is a social aberration since the atmosphere of hate has compelled Muslims to conform to dominant community expectations of an unassertive identity display:

      One of the major issues around the question of identity for Indian Muslims is about being identified as 'a Muslim' in public spaces. Being identified as a Muslim is considered to be problematic for many. Markers of Muslim Identity—the burqa, the purdah, the beard and the topi- while adding to the distinctiveness of Indian Muslims have been a cause of concern for them in the public realm. These markers have very often been a target for ridiculing the community as well as of looking upon them with suspicion.[49]

  19. The negation of identity expected of an average Muslim in public space signifies the lived contradictions of the community struggling to be a part of the mainstream while simultaneously keeping faith with their religion. Qasim's assertion of her Muslim identity within her poetry is an activist strategy to protest the effacement of religious identity expected of Muslims and the claustrophobic labelling and ghettoisation imposed upon them. It is an inversion of the pseudo-secular ideal being thrust upon a multi-religious population by the fundamentalists who seek to assimilate the minorities within the dominant ethos. The poet implicitly appeals for a revisionist understanding of political and religious secularism wherein the social significance of religion is diminished to a private, individual level. Qasim critiques the discourses of othering that serve to produce the categories they define:

      I start to argue, then defend.
      Feel angry and oppressed.
      I pretend.
      I fight. I kill.
      I become that minority
      you talk about in the end.[50]

  20. If Qasim foregrounds her religious community, she also stresses her Indian lineage and the compositeness of her cultural heritage. She aims towards an understanding of secularism as multireligious pluralism evolved through history:

      my roots
      can be traced
      to the plains of Uttar Pradesh
      in the eighteenth century. I keep recalling
      my long-dead grandfather,
      a Sanskrit scholar,
      composing his songs in Braj Bhasha
      and seeking pandits,
      and astrologers.[51]

  21. She negotiates and diffuses the 'separatist,' 'foreign,' 'non-integrated' image of the Indian Muslim propagated by the fundamentalists. The poetry aims at expanding the slowly shrinking positive space of the Indian Muslim in the public sphere and represents the consciousness of the law-abiding Muslim citizen. Elite members of the community now feel impelled to speak and vocalise the anguish of their co-religionists. Through the poetic narration of the physical and psychological trauma inflicted on Indian Muslims, Seeme Qasim establishes a sense of bonding with members of her community. Despite ethno-cultural and linguistic differences among the regionally-scattered Muslim population in India, 'what provides the basic impetus to the political unification of Muslims around a common discourse, of equal significance wherever they may be in India, is the regularity of riots and a pervasive perception of being discriminated against and a sense of being unwanted in society.'[52] Qasim's poetry establishes an anguished solidarity, which when expressed by the hitherto insulated, a-religious, cosmopolitan elite contributes to an empowering sense of unified community, across socio-economic-regional divides. The twenty-two poems in the 'After Gujarat' section of AGOP, written between March and September 2002 in the form of a diary, can be read together as an uninterrupted outpouring of the poet's anguish at the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. The poet recalls her journey into riot-torn Ahmedabad to narrate a poetic travelogue of mass murder, wherein the poetic aesthetic is overtaken by the need to articulate the community's brutalisation. Qasim does not waver in her poetic focus on the physical, emotional and psychological violence unleashed on the Muslims of Gujarat. She employs a terse, direct diction stating facts baldly—'burning, rape, / loot by men / who were brought / in vehicles/wearing shorts, T-shirts, / saffron bands.'[53] She recounts the massacres at Ehsan Jafri's home and at Naroda Patiya; even names the BJP, without fear of a backlash either personal or towards her art.[54] She thus evolves multiple strategies which are activist, contextual, negotiatory and empowering in order to thrust community-specific suffering in the arena of public discourse and to realign the increasingly pejorative connotations of 'Muslim'.
  22. While Seeme Qasim deploys her religious identity within her poetry to express the unspeakable pain of her community and to reiterate its claims to full citizenhood, Imtiaz Dharker deconstructs all affiliations and allegiances as divisive, restricting and constraining and rationalises the excesses of religious fervour:

      I pick up a piece of mud,
      hold it in my fist,
      and call it mine.
      You put your foot here,
      pick up the same piece
      of mud and call it yours …
      When did a handful of mud
      turn to God?[55]

  23. For Dharker; nationality, religion, socio-ethnic markers, even the body are accepted 'more out of habit / than design' and must be peeled off as they produce a false consciousness—'this black veil of a faith / that made me faithless to myself.'[56] Unlike Qasim, Dharker refuses to name any religion / community as aggressor-aggrieved, thus implicating all and none; only preferring to stress the common humanity of victims. Within her poetry, 'faces' are hacked, 'limbs' are broken, 'flesh' gets burnt off 'bodies that were inconvenient' to the powerful.[57] Human suffering is abstracted and conveyed at the primal level— it is a 'child' who burns alive trapped in his home, a 'man' afire in his locked car, a 'daughter' fleeing from attackers in the middle of a hair wash. She frames communalism as a metaphor for the human capacity for violence and bestiality rather than the clash of religions. The poetry circumvents polemics to zoom into the human condition, which is viewed not through a binary lens of clashing convictions, but as inevitably structured by power and powerlessness. The nuances are subtle and wherever religious markers are inserted into the poetic vision; they serve only to highlight a shared vulnerability and fragility. In response to the events of 1992 in Ayodhya, the poet visualises everything as turned to glass, even humans 'circumcised or not, / they are all glass.'[58] Thus if Qasim concretises incidents and events, Dharker veers towards abstractions:

      The ugly face is in these days,
      crusted with hate and prejudice.
      Power has come to roost in grasping hands.
      Monsters stand patiently at our doors.[59]

    She appeals for the decline of the hold of religion on popular consciousness in general viewing it as one more divisive force that allows power to the unscrupulous. She prefers to assume a cosmopolitan, secular outlook and positions herself at the interstices, at 'the cracks/ that grow between borders' with 'no name, no nationality.'[60]
  24. Rukmini Bhaya Nair underlines a non-binary vision and envisages Sita as a young girl, 'perhaps Hindu, perhaps a Muslim girl called Sitara,' collapses religious boundaries and reiterates the interconnectedness of Indians:

              Each other's shadows, Muslim&Hindu,
      Nehru&Jinnah, MathuraMecca, NamaazAarti, KoranGita, Pir&Sadhu.[61]

    She reminds her readers of a shared colonial past and the united struggle for independence, 'United in 1957 (sic) against the Firang, which was which?'[62] She aesthetically conceptualises the Babri Masjid demolition in an epic framework inspired by the Ramayana. 'My story of modern Ayodhya certainly could not have been written without an implicit reliance on the Ramayana and the Puranas.'[63] The action of The Ayodhya Cantos is situated in Ayodhya / Faizabad and the recurrent invoking of Hindu gods, sacred scriptures and places–Hanuman, Rama, Vishnu, Narasimha, Parasurama, 'Ram Rajya', Bhavani, the Gita, Kailash, Badrinath–seems comical-farcical; a contemporary parodic retelling of the ancient epic. She is at one level lampooning the zealous kar-sevaks and their inciting leaders who have failed to imbibe the essence of the epic and re-enact its distorted and grotesque version. The poetic re-telling reduces an ominous event to cinematic melodrama:

              the sadhvis lift their frenzied
      Eyes heavenwards, ecstatic. Groovy, man! Yet they do not suspect
      How meticulously Visnu's planned this operation.11.40 Dhoom!
      11.43 Dishum! 12.05 Dharam![64]

    The mock-heroic narration of the demolition punctures the fanatical religiosity of the 'rag-tag troops' assembled by 'this Iago, spouting hate and ersatz reason in one breath.'[65] However the poetic re-telling of an event—that is historically significant and traumatic, especially from the point of view of the minority community—within the framework of the majoritarian religious epic, imposes the dominant cultural ethos on the aesthetic narration of the demolition. Rukmini Bhaya Nair attempts to integrate minority traditions and cultural icons to secularise her poetic discourse—Humayun, Babar, Mir Baki's mosque—are invoked to suggest a composite culture. The 'Prelude' describes the syncretic traditions that have gone into the making of a modern and secular India—symbolised by the Sufi saints, Meerabai and Mahatma Gandhi.
  25. Meena Alexander feels that the horrors of communal violence can only be revisited aesthetically. 'When I started to write the Gujarat poems, I knew I had to rely on beauty. Otherwise the rawness of what had happened, the bloody bitter mess would be too much to take.'[66] She mourns the loss of history in the destruction of monuments:[67]

      Where is the tomb
      of Wali Gujerati?
      … … … …
      Surat has forgotten him[68]

    as also the perversion of a nation's founding ideals:

      What has happened to ahimsa?
      Is it just for the birds and the bees?[69]

  26. Sagari Chhabra expresses the outrage of non-fanatical Hindus who watch the inhuman atrocities perpetrated in the name of Hinduism, unable to stop the rabble rousers from 'using my own faith / to rape, maim and loot.'[70]

    Narrating communal violence
  27. Within the Indian sub-continent women's identities are complexly constituted at the intersection of the discourses of gender, religion, community and nationhood. Women poets document the ambivalence associated with feminine sexuality and the patriarchal objectification of women's bodies that converges to bracket women with wealth and property as the primary root of all conflict within popular consciousness:

      'Behind all the fighting are three things',
      says the boy from my village,
      'Zar, Zan, Zameen'.[71]

    Women's bodies become 'an instrument and a symbol for the community's expression of caste, class and communal honour. Chastity, virtue and, above all, purity are extolled as great feminine virtues embodying the honour of the family, community and the nation.'[72] Consequently in a communal riot, sexual violence enacted upon women's bodies becomes the principal means for the humiliation and desecration of a community's honour. Women and children bear the burden of brutalisation whether through physical torture, rape, or in being forced to witness the gruesome torture and murder of family members. If earlier either silence or censored / euphemistic language was the defining trope for women's experiences of communal violence, now a vocalisation of the trauma of women victims, witnesses and concerned citizens is increasingly evident both in investigative accounts and in literary discourse.[73] Seeme Qasim remembers the 'hacked breasts' and 'torn clothes' of women during the Partition to historically link the brutal targeting of women in communal clashes. Women are also the most burdened in the aftermath of riots to rebuild shattered lives, provide nurture, strength and support while suppressing their own traumatic memories:

      of blood, of swords
      inserted into
      ten-year-old girls.[74]

    Meena Alexander's poetic locus is women victims of violence, 'a mother killed on the street,' 'a girl child pinned to a bed / as ancient hands cut at her,'[75] women raped in communal violence, and the pregnant woman whose stomach was slashed to pluck 'a tiny heart beating with her own.'[76] Imtiaz Dharker narrates violence as human tragedy that unfolds before her:

      Root out the eyes
      that see too much.
      Burn the flesh. Break the limbs.
      Crumple them between your hands.
      Toss the remnants into darkened rooms.[77]

    The vocalisation of gendered violence within women's poetry signals the move from shame to outrage at the continuing sexual violence inflicted upon women and the total failure of the state to protect them. The effects of traumatic and violent events on communities have been an area of study for anthropologists. In a study of social trauma and the remaking of everyday life, Veena Das and Arthur Kleinman remark, 'One may ask, though, if communities ever heal such wounds, or are the memories simply buried for one or two generations, until such time as the perspectives and experiences of those living through the shadow of death can be articulated?'[78] Seeme Qasim laments the vicious circle of violence that is initiated with each communal clash. Although the survivors learn to co-exist, it is a superficial surface calm in order to propel the business of daily life, with unhealed unforgiving scars hidden till such time as revenge can be obtained. The poets display a fine awareness of the dynamics of revenge and retribution wheeled in with each cycle of violence. The survivors lie low but 'the hate / just a jab away'[79] seeps into future generations, 'The children wait / for the next time to retaliate.'[80] The retaliators are termed 'terrorists' effectively branding them as anti-national and dangerous while those who initiate the sequence of hate are amorphous rioters / mobs. The siege at Akshardham Temple in Gujarat on 24 September 2004 springs from 'the remains of Ayodhya' and will in turn spawn other retaliatory gestures:

      How many more
      will be killed
      before we can say
      civil war was averted?[81]

    Imtiaz Dharker warns the perpetrators of violence of the retribution extracted by the dead and the mutilated:

      And then you too
      (who knows?)
      may begin to scream,
      as they do, for freedom,
      for a choice.[82]

  28. The poets ironically dissect middle-class moralities and document the swift erosion of friendship ties and neighbourhood networks.[83] Qasim sarcastically sketches the 'friend' who is perturbed by the close proximity of a madrassa to his house and his double worry of either being attacked by Muslims or, that his Muslim neighbour 'might run with my [his] family / to his house / and he with us / end up burnt.'[84] She mourns the loss of other friends 'who crossed over to the other side'[85] and wonders what it is like to live with 'memories of those you know / murdering your family.'[86] She narrates violent events along with their psychological consequences and documents the manner in which social cleavages induced by terror get entrenched in the social relations and in the personal imagination of the participants.
  29. Violence, especially communally-directed violence, has been preserved in the memory of the people of the Indian sub-continent since the Partition, and the series of communally-charged violent events following the demolition of the Babri Masjid have inevitably invoked the horrors of the division of the country. Every instance of social violence arises from specific socio-cultural-historic formations at a particular juncture, but memories from each instance get conflated and collapsed together within popular consciousness.

      Sometimes violence in one era is grafted onto memories of another, as the ethnic and communal violence that occurred in Bombay after the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in India has become entangled with memories of the Partition of the country in 1947. As stories are layered upon other stories, the categories of history and myth collapse into each other. Thus spaces become imbued with these mythic qualities, narrations not only representing violence but also producing it.[87]

    Within Indian English women's poetic discourse, the shadows and reverberations of Partition both darken and illumine the poems:

      After Gujarat, I remember
      those other death trains,
      the screech of slaughtered animals
      and the silence
      of besieged places.[88]

    Trains and travelling are recurrent images that reverberate and transact with communal carnages. The Godhra violence originated with the burning of the Sabarmati Express and Qasim's train visit to Gujarat evokes distant and recent memories of cities ravaged by communal violence:

      The train will pass
      stations with names
      of shattered places
      till it finally reaches

    Poetic blueprints
  30. The aestheticisation of trauma is not entirely unproblematic and the poet is aware of being implicated / imbricated in the politics of representation:

      When it comes to survival,
      all your pretty words
      and delicate observations
      boil right down
      to politics.[90]

  31. Literary aesthetics too are hammered and moulded by current ideologies and expediencies and driven by compulsions that are political, commercial and/or personal. When the powerful decide to re-write history, re-name roads and lanes, erase familial ties, censor and ban writing and art; poets and poetry cannot remain immune from the violence:

      Your words have packed their bags
      and gone. New ones have crawled
      all crumpled
      and small
      like jailbirds
      into cages,
      to fit
      the times
      we live in.[91]

    The poets wish they never need to turn to trauma as subject matter of poetry:

      I wish these were imagined things.
      I wish I could put them
      safely in another poem,
      reconcile them with this
      paper and this pen
      so I could never smell the burning
      or the breaking glass again.[92]

    However all hope is not lost as poetry still proffers the hope of redemption in an increasingly violent world:

      Tired of war and threats,
      looking for a safe haven,
      peace, a promise of rest,
      a hope of poetry.[93]

    For Rukmini Bhaya Nair, poetry 'is pure voice and it is a route to understanding.'[94] She propounds the theory that poetry can be effectively deployed in the ideological war against terror since poetry provides a prime defence against the 'death instinct' from ancient times and across cultures. It provides a 'stubbornly indelible space for interpretive license,' delights our imaginative capabilities and gives us relief from 'the painful bestiality of our id-natures.' Poetry is a potent weapon against self-hatred and despair, the 'most effective of talismans against terror.'[95]
  32. Meena Alexander views poetry as salvation in times of turmoil, 'In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.'[96] Language becomes an imaginative refuge from the harsh material realities of the world, 'flute music guiding me through the vertigo of history.'[97] 'Writing poetry for Meena Alexander is as much an act of personal cleansing as it is a medium of confronting history.'[98] Although the horror of contemporary events is overwhelming enough to silence the most mellifluous of bird-poets, the poetic enterprise consists of 'the search of language that could tell of love.'[99] A similar enabling understanding of poetry is however unavailable for Seeme Qasim and Imtiaz Dharker who record their despair and ineffectualness in their poetry. As a photographer-journalist, Qasim can merely click and record 'shattered places' after the event and mark 'One year after' anniversaries. The personal sense of horror can be somewhat alleviated through writing, 'Some hours to escape / with words on paper'[100] yet the traumatic memories refuse to fade and news of any traumatic event around the globe reopens wounds. In the personal poems, the despair surfaces and gulmohar petals seem 'like barbecued flesh' to the poet even when normalcy returns to her city.[101]
  33. Imtiaz Dharker re-iterates the value of mundane, everyday existence:

      The things we want are clichés:
      Peace and brotherhood,
      sanity, the goodness in ourselves.[102]

    She situates art and culture above all claims of religion—'Songs make more sense to me / than holy books.'[103]
  34. If women's embodiment is ‘the site of violence, exclusion and abuse … it is the site also for agency which allows for the possibilities of negotiation, intervention, contestation and transformation.'[104] Women in contemporary Indian society, although aware of and largely compliant with cultural roles they are expected to perform, nevertheless, form the core of the changes within the Indian middle class. ‘Hers is the driving force in the changes taking place in the Indian family, an institution that is inherently conservative and changes at a much slower pace than the political, economic and other institutions of society.'[105] The greater self-awareness and confidence of the Indian woman, as reflected within her poetic oeuvre, augurs well for the movement towards a multicultural social ethos that condemns religious hatred and violence since ‘Cultural traditions—including the beliefs regarding the devilish ‘Other'—are transmitted through the family and have a line of development separate from the political and economic systems of a society.'[106] Imtiaz Dharkar advocates a self re-fashioning to all women:

      Smash the mirror
      Smash the face that lives in there …
      You once had an idea of yourself.
      Kiss it goodbye.[107]

  35. Within women's poetry, despair and hope are amalgamated with utopic and dystopic visions of the world in the attempt to present the forces shaping human destinies to the reader. The poetic interventions in the public sphere encode an implicit appeal for a violence-free world. ‘Indeed, it is possible to redefine our public domain as an arena wherein different visions of the future fight for space, survival, and dominance. Everyone is a futurist in some small way, for an idea of the future allows us to cope with the present, to critique it or open it up for radical transformation.'[108]
  36. Women may be considered appropriate cultural representatives for the narration of social trauma as they are its worst sufferers. Women poets sift and sieve communal violence in their poetry in an effort to understand the dynamics of the communal problem and to generate a dialectical awareness between the poetic transmutation of social suffering and its referent in the real world. They assume the ancient role of poet as prophet and seer, narrating and warning of tragic possibilities. They also appropriate women's cultural work of mourning human loss but move beyond the mere articulation of private grief to assuming public stances of outrage and disgust. The poets refract the problem of communalism from their own ideological and professional positions and proffer nuanced solutions that are neither a blind imitation of universally-understood secularism nor do they view secularism as a failed project in India, in the manner of certain social scientists.[109] Poetry is simultaneously a fulfillment of the social responsibility to bear witness and to project alternative futures, and an imaginative refuge from an increasingly violent world.


    [1] 1971 witnessed the birth of Bangladesh again through large scale migration and violence; 1984 marked a new dimension of communal frenzy with anti-Sikh rioting; 1992 saw the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya followed by violence against Muslims; a series of bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993 were carried out seemingly in retaliation for the enormous Muslim casualties and widespread damage to the Muslim-owned businesses and properties which occurred during the Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay in the fall-out of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The 2002 Godhra train burning in Gujarat resulted in brutal violence against Muslims through February – May 2002. The November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks were carried out by Muslim fundamentalist organisations.

    [2] Pramod K. Nayar remarks, 'With recent changes in global geopolitics–especially after 9/11—the postcolonial woman writer from "Third World" nations has to negotiate a new set of tensions: between global capitalism and fundamentalist terrorism' (see Nayar, Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction, New Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2008, pp. 146–7). Prof. Akshaya Kumar comments, 'Indian women poets of the 1990s step into the outer domain of contemporary politics marred by the rhetoric of civilisational clash, global terrorism, retrogressive nationalism and communal genocides.' See Kumar, Poetry, Politics and Culture, New Delhi and London: Routledge, 2009, p. 315. In Raw Silk, Meena Alexander 'writes poems on political events and contemporary incidents, like Gujarat,' says Nishi Pulugurtha in her article Meena Alexander's 'Quickly changing river,' in Muse India, 30, (Mar–Apr 2010): n.p.

    [3] The metaphor of madness has been used both by survivors of Partition and within Partition literature to communicate a sense of incomprehension and to denote a refusal to understand. Partition was therefore dismissed as an aberration and the responsibility of owning up to its ugly reality was denied. See Anup Beniwal, Representing Partition: History, Violence and Narration, New Delhi: Shakti Book House, 2005 and Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint (eds), Translating Partition, New Delhi: Katha, 2001 among others. Ashis Nandy's view also echoes this perception. He says that 'many victims considered the carnage and exodus as part of a period of madness. This helped them to locate the violence outside normality and disown the relevance of its memories.' See Nandy, Time Treks: The Uncertain Future of Old and New Despotisms, Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2007, p. 46. Most literary representations render 'this crucial event in Indian history monstrous, irrational, intractable.' See Susie Tharu and K. Lalita (eds), Women Writing In India: 600 B.C. to the Early 20th Century, Volume II: The Twentieth Century, London: Pandora Press, 1993. p. 67.

    [4] The immediate response was about order-disorder-reordering the nationalist frame through mainly fictional works such as Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan, Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1956; Balachandra Rajan's The Dark Dancer, London: Heinemann and the Book Society, 1959; A Bend in the Ganges, Delhi: Orient Paperbacks, 1964 by Manohar Malgaonkar, Attia Hosain's Sunlight on a Broken Column, New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, 1979; Chaman Nahal's Azadi, Delhi: Vision Books, 1975; H.S. Gill's Ashes and Petals, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978. Poetic responses such as Subh-e-aazaadi (The Morning of Freedom) by Faiz; and Amrita Pritam's Aj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (Ode to Waris Shah, an elegy to the 18th-century Punjabi poet), are expressions of anguish over the turbulent partition of the Indian sub-continent.

    [5] Amrita Pritam recalls 'In 1947, Lahore was turned into a graveyard. It was the politics of hate that swept Lahore in flames; at night one would see houses being in flames … could hear those shrieks that got suppressed in the day long curfew.… I would watch Lahore burning from my rooftop.' See Nonica Datta, 'Transcending religious identities: Amrita Pritam and Partition,' in Partitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement and Resettlement, ed. Anjali Gera Roy and Nandi Bhatt, New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley (India), 2008, 1–25, p. 5. Bapsi Sidhwa, though only eight years old at the time of Partition says the images and emotions of that time were imprinted on her mind. See Feroza F. Jussawalla, and Reed Way Dasenbrock, Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, Jackson and London: University Press of Mississippi, 1992, 199–223.

    [6] In 'Aj Akhan Waris Shah Noon,' written in 1949, Amrita Pritam invokes the popular eighteenth century Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah to express her anguish at the bloodbath that followed the Partition. Waris Shah had penned the much loved Heer based on the tragic sixteenth century romance of Heer and Ranjha, a tale enshrined in the folk culture of Punjab. The poem is a long-impassioned cry of one creative artist to another lamenting her inability to encapsulate the grief of the women of their shared homeland and culture. She asks Waris Shah to step out of his grave and hear the Partition cries of a million bereaved Heers and view the devastation of his beloved homeland. Amrita Pritam shares not only her birthplace, Gujranwala now in Pakistan, with Waris Shah but also weaves references to cultural practices, symbols, motifs, landscapes and idioms and sayings within her poetry. See Amrita Pritam, 'Aj Akhan Waris Shah Noon,' from Amrita Pritam: Selected Poems, Delhi: Bhartiya Jnanpith Publications, 1982, pp. 93–95.

    [7] Khushwant Singh in an article on Amrita Pritam, 'An unstamped ticket,' Outlook Magazine, November 14, 2005.

    [8] Tharu and Lalita (eds), Women Writing In India, vol. II, p. 69.

    [9] Anup Beniwal, Representing Partition: History, Violence and Narration, New Delhi: Shakti Book House, 2005, p. 1.

    [10] Several major incidences of religious violence such as the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the riots in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, the Mumbai bomb explosions in March 1993, the prolonged violence in Gujarat in 2002 evoked quick literary responses. See Imtiaz Dhaker's Postcards from God, Delhi: Viking, which appeared in 1994; Seeme Qasim published Beyond October New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications in 1997; while After Gujarat and Other Poems, New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, was published in 2005; Rukmini Bhaya Nair published The Ayodhya Cantos: Poems, New Delhi: Viking in 1999; and Meena Alexander's Raw Silk, Evanston: Triquarterly Books, Northwestern Press, was published in 2004.

    [11] Seeme Qasim, 'In Ahmedabad,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 2005, p. 9.

    [12] In the Preface of Rukmini Bhaya Nair's collection of essays Poetry in a Time of Terror: Essays in the Postcolonial Preternatural, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. xx.

    [13] Veena Das, Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 193.

    [14] Imtiaz Dharker, 'The right word,' in The Terrorist at My Table, New Delhi: Penguin, 2006, p. 25.

    [15] Seeme Qasim, 'Bombay Diary-2,' in Beyond October, New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1997, p. 23.

    [16] Alexander, 'Raw Silk', in Raw Silk, p. 34.

    [17] Alexander, Notes, Raw Silk, p. 91.

    [18] Alexander, Notes, Raw Silk, pp. 91–4).

    [19] Alexander, Notes, Raw Silk, p. 95.

    [20] Ramu Nagappan examines the intentionalities and implications of fictional narratives involving social suffering in his book Speaking Havoc: Social Suffering and South Asian Narratives Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2005.

    [21] John Oliver Perry, Review of The Ayodhya Cantos. World Literature Today, 22 September 2000, online:, accessed 26 May 2008.

    [22] Nair, Author's Note, The Ayodhya Cantos, p. 3.

    [23] Paul R. Brass, 'The body as symbol: history, memory and communal violence,' Manushi, no. 141 (Mar–April 2004): 22–30, p. 22.

    [24] For a detailed discussion of the historical and psychological aspects of the Hindu-Muslim conflict see Sudhir Kakkar and Katharina Kakkar, 'Conflict: Hindus and Muslims,' in The Indians: Portrait of a People, New Delhi: Viking, 2007, pp. 152–79.

    [25] Qasim's literary imagination transcreates and transcribes sociology into literary discourse. Although literature is not the mere translation of social realities, they write themselves tangentially into literary texts.

    [26] Qasim, 'Indian Muslim,' in Beyond October, p. 15.

    [27] Qasim, 'Indian Muslim,' in Beyond October, pp. 15–17.

    [28] Rajindar Sachar et al., Report on Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, November 2006, pp. 11–12.

    [29] Qasim, 'Ayodhya,' The Ayodhya Cantos, p. 18.

    [30] Ashis Nandy, 'Freud, modernity and postcolonial violence: analytic attitude, dissent and the boundaries of the self,' in The Little Magazine, vol. IV (5 & 6) (2003): 9–18, p. 14.

    [31] Paul R. Brass, 'The Gujarat Pogrom of 2002,' in Contemporary Conflicts 26 Mar 2004, online:, accessed 30 June 2007.

    [32] Dharker, 'Saviours,' in The Terrorist at my Table, p. 72.

    [33] Dharker, 'Announcing the arrival…,' in I Speak for the Devil, New Delhi: Penguin, 2001, 23–25, p. 23.

    [34] Dharker, 'Seats of power,' in Postcards from God, p. 78.

    [35] Qasim, 'Don't stay … go,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 24.

    [36] Roshni Sengupta discusses the explanations for communal riots propounded by sociologists and political scientists Brass, Varshney, Ahmad and Wilkinson. The views of social scientists are echoed in the poetry. 'Numerous features of these killings and destruction of property suggest the validity of the term pogrom and its systematic character … the marauding mobs of killers carried lists of voters and other documents with them, which made it possible for them to identify the homes of Muslims who were to be killed and whose property was to be destroyed.' Paul R. Brass, The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, Washington: University of Washington Press, 2003. p. 389.

    [37] Dharker, 'The list,' in Postcards from God, p. 93.

    [38] Qasim, 'Don't stay … go,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 22.

    [39] Qasim, 'Don't stay … go,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 24.

    [40] Qasim, 'The museum of death,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 14).

    [41] Qasim, 'Even now, a month later,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 10.

    [42] Panel for the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat, The International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat: An Interim Report, in Contemporary Conflicts, 26 March 2004, online:, accessed 30 June 2007.

    [43] Qasim, 'Riots-2,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 27.

    [44] Qasim, 'In Ahmedabad,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 8.

    [45] Qasim, 'Bombay Diary-1,' in Beyond October, p. 23.

    [46] Nair, Author's Note, The Ayodhya Cantos: Poems, p. 2.

    [47] Javeed Alam, 'The contemporary Muslim situation in India: A long-term view, in EPW, (12 Jan. 2008): 45–53, p. 48.

    [48] Qasim, 'Going there,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 6.

    [49] Justice Rajindar Sachar et al., Prime Minister's High Level Committee, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, 'Report on social, economic and educational status of the Muslim Community of India,' Government of India Ministry of Minority Affairs, November 2006, online:, accessed 07 January 2010.

    [50] Qasim, 'Indian Muslim,' in Beyond October, p. 17.

    [51] Qasim, 'Being an Indian,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 11.

    [52] Alam, 'The contemporary Muslim situation in India,' p. 48.

    [53] Qasim, 'In Ahmedabad,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 8.

    [54] Ehsan Jafri was a former Congress MP who was burnt to death in his own home during the Gujarat riots of 2002. In a note to the poem 'Naroda village' Seeme Qasim writes 'Naroda Patiya is a suburb of Ahmedabad, where it is believed more than a hundred people were killed in the communal carnage on 28 February, 2002. President Abdul Kalam visited it in August. Naroda village is some distance from this place.' See After Gujarat and Other Poems, New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 2005, p. 31.

    [55] Dharker, 'Mine. Yours.' in The Terrorist at my Table, p. 16.

    [56] Dharker, 'Honour killing,' in The Terrorist at my Table, p. 5.

    [57] Dharker, 'Cloth,' in Postcards from God, p. 95.

    [58] Dharker, '6 December 1992,' in Postcards from God, p. 79.

    [59] Dharker, '1993,' in Postcards from God, p. 82.

    [60] Dharker, 'Not a Muslim burial,' in I Speak for the Devil, p. 29.

    [61] Nair, 'August 15, 1947,' in The Ayodhya Cantos, p. 25.

    [62] Nair, 'August 15, 1947,' in The Ayodhya Cantos, p. 25.

    [63] Nair, Author's Note, in The Ayodhya Cantos, p. 3.

    [64] Nair, 'Narasimha,' in The Ayodhya Cantos, p. 38.

    [65] Nair, 'Vamana,' in The Ayodhya Cantos, p. 39.

    [66] Alexander, Notes, in Raw Silk, p. 94.

    [67] In Ahmedabad, the dargah of the Sufi saint-poet Wali Gujarati in Shahibaug and the sixteenth-century Gumte Masjid mosque in Isanpur were destroyed. The Muhafiz Khan Masjid at Gheekanta was ransacked. Police records list 298 dargahs, 205 mosques, 17 temples and three churches as being damaged in the months of March and April 2002.

    [68] Alexander, 'Searching for a tomb over which they paved a road,' in Raw Silk, p. 76.

    [69] Alexander, 'Slow dancing,' in Raw Silk, p. 78.

    [70] Sagari Chhabra, 'In Gujarat, again,' in We Speak in Changing Languages: Indian Women Poets 1990-2007, ed. Ramakrishnan E.V. and Anju Makhija, Sahitya Akademi, 2009, p. 53.

    [71] Qasim, 'Nights,' in Beyond October, p. 45.

    [72] Thapan: full bibliographical details please, 1997, p. 6.

    [73] See Urvashi Butalia, Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

    [74] Qasim, 'In Ahmedabad,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, pp. 8-9.

    [75] Alexander, 'Raw Silk,' in Raw Silk, p. 35.

    [76] Alexander, 'In Naroda Patiya,' in Raw Silk, p. 75.

    [77] Dharker, 'Cloth,' in Postcards from God, p. 95.

    [78] Veena Das, 'Introduction,' in Remaking a World: Violence Social Suffering and Recovery, ed. Veena Das et al., Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2001, 1–30, p. 15.

    [79] Qasim, 'Aftermath,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 35.

    [80] Qasim, 'Bombay Diary-4,' in Beyond October, p. 21.

    [81] Qasim, 'Siege,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 32.

    [82] Dharker, 'Cloth,' in Postcards from God, p. 96.

    [83] In contradiction of Ashutosh Varshney's hypothesis that the greater the patterns of inter-communal civic engagement in a city, the lower the likelihood of violent conflict and communal riots, propounded in his essay. See 'Understanding Gujarat violence,' in Contemporary Violence, 26 March 2004, online:, accessed 11 February 2011.

    [84] Qasim, 'Friendly ties,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 25.

    [85] Qasim, 'The friend who crossed over,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 19)

    [86] Qasim, 'Riots-3,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 28).

    [87] Das et al., 'Introduction,' in Remaking a World, p. 7.

    [88] Qasim, 'After Gujarat …,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 3.

    [89] Qasim, 'Going there,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 5.

    [90] Qasim, 'The devil to the poet,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 75.

    [91] Author, Dharker, 'These are the times we live in III,' in Terrorist at My Table, p. 49.

    [92] Dharker, Untitled, Postcards from God, p. 99.

    [93] Dharker, 'Train to Granada,' in Terrorist at My Table, p. 67.

    [94] Nair, Author's Note, The Ayodhya Cantos, pp. 1–4).

    [95] Nair, 'Postscript,' in Poetry in a Time of Terror, p. 219.

    [96] Ruth Maxey, 'An interview with Meena Alexander,' in Keynon Review, XXVIII(1) new series (Winter 2006), online:, accessed 24 February 2009.

    [97] Alexander, 'Raw silk,' in Raw Silk, p. 35.

    [98] Akshaya Kumar, Poetry, Politics and Culture, New Delhi and London: Routledge, 2009, p. 342.

    [99] Alexander, 'Triptych in a time of war,' in Raw Silk, p. 66.

    [100] Qasim, 'Escape,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 18.

    [101] Qasim, 'Arrival-2,' in After Gujarat and Other Poems, p. 47.

    [102] Dharker, '1993,' in Postcards from God, p. 99.

    [103] Dharker, 'Blackbox,' in I Speak for the Devil, p. 109.

    [104] Meenakshi Thapan, 'Introduction,' in Embodiment: Essays on Gender and Identity, ed. Meenakshi Thapan, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997, 1–34, p. 3.

    [105] Kakkar and Kakkar, The Indians: Portrait of a People, p. 68.

    [106] Kakkar and Kakkar, The Indians: Portrait of a People, p. 178.

    [107] Dharker, 'A short detour from dying,' in I Speak for the Devil, p. 93.

    [108] Nandy, Time Treks, p. xiii.

    [109] Ashis Nandy believes that 'secularism in India is unlikely to flourish, at least in the near future. It might have staged an academic comeback in the Indian haute bourgeoisie, as a form of rebrahminisation and as resistance to the growing violence' but will be politically unsustainable. He is critical of 'the patronising, arrogant Brahminism that has tinged South Asia’s academic secularism' and of scholars who, 'insist that we affirm, even more aggressively, the ideology of secularism from our salons in metropolitan India, class-rooms and academic seminars, and through middle-class, urban movements. They expect their shrillness and stridency to clinch the issue. Strangely, even in these instances, to give teeth to their ideology, ideologues of secularism routinely fall back on Sufi and Bhakti poetry, medieval saints like Kabir, Lalan and the Baul singers of Bengal, and names from history like Ashoka, Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Narayan Guru, none of whom drew their principles or values from the ideology of secularism.' See Nandy, 'Unclaimed baggage: Closing the debate on secularism,' in The Little Magazine, vol. III(2) (2002): 14–19, p. 17.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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