Must We Go?



    Part Two of ‘At the Time of Partition’

    To place myself in my grandmother’s shoes,
    her chappals paired in the bedroom cool,

    the mahogany dark,
    lying on the prayer mat, facing Mecca,

    awaiting her smaller, browner feet –
    to plant my feet there,

    or here, in a line of words
    securely on the page.


    To move house is one thing.
    To leave your country another.

    But to leave it because it
    no longer wishes

    to attach itself to you,
    doesn’t at all desire

    to be the ground under your feet,
    to feel compelled to leave it

    for one which you had always known
    to be a corner of your own,

    but has become swiftly and deliriously
    another –

    and which beckons
    as if it had a hand to beckon with,

    and which calls you,
    as if a country had a single voice.


    Amma they demand,
    her clamouring children.
    Amma, must we go?

    Can I take my cricket bat to Pakistan?
    Will we go to school?

    Only Athar had no questions.

    My grandfather, himself a doctor,
    had travelled far and wide,

    taken him to the best physicians,
    but none could cure his son.


    The cards had been dealt
    by a firm, if not a sure hand.

    Ludhiana to India. West Punjab to Pakistan.
    West Bengal to Pakistan.

    Amritsar to India. Srinagar to India.
    Lahore to Pakistan.

    The Empire held fast like a sheet –
    and shook out.


    Doubt was an awkward thing –
    there was no room for doubt.

    At the margin of the great convulsion
    her small household convulsed.


    Pakistan was what it amounted to


    In the salting of lassi
    in the knuckledents in dough


    In the pleating of a sari
    in the sweeping of the doorway


    Between the question and its answer



    Rumours flew on the wind –
    Nails of steel on the wind –

    Honour was the jewel,
    not mother, sister.

    Bonfires were lit
    and the women burned.

    They asked me to do this,
    but I ran away.
    I couldn’t set fire to my sister.


    Ninety women jumped into a well.
    There wasn’t enough water
    to drown them all.


    The wisdom was to go.


    the noble,


    hopeful thing –


    her neighbourhood was emptying –
    large families had stolen away.

    Which way to face?
    She wrote to her son in England:

    I pray for our safety at this time.
    We will go by bus to Lahore.