The poem Lion is about my father.
He was very religious and knew a huge amount about Sikh history, and studied the Sikh holy book – the Guru Granth Sahib. Many Sikh men felt forced to cut their hair and give up their turbans when they came here, in order to get work. Dad refused to do that and I was fascinated to watch him tie it.
My mum got a job to tide us over until Dad managed to get a desk job. I was puzzled by his mood swings though – his mood could flip really easily. This is a similar experience in lots of South Asians, post-Partition.
I have come to realise over the years that this Dad must have been deeply traumatised by what he saw during Partition, and carried the weight of it with him always.
The work Fractured Earth accompanies Lion. The work symbolises the deep divisions caused by Partition, and by all global events which displace and divide families.
My Daddy is a proper Sikh, his turban is
so elegant, his beard is always neatly tied
I really think he’s dashing
he wears his suits with such aplomb, I
think he is more handsome than
any other daddy
I love it when he’s chanting prayers,
so rhythmic and mysterious
he loves us more than life itself
sometimes though, I am perplexed, his mood
swings right from day to night, sweeps away
our peacefulness, in just a millisecond
I sense an ancient hurt inside, which
I’m too young to realise, is grief and
rage for all that he has suffered
he never speaks about his trials
though, one day I will understand the
wounds done to his soul and land
he had to leave his childhood home
his early life and all he’d known,
to flee from those he’d long
for men in charge of India’s Fate
made choices which turned love to hate
untold millions fled their homes
rivers flowed with blood and bones
roads were paved with bodies,
daily, horror-trains arrived,
no-one on them left alive,
whilst wells turned into coffins
though Dad survived and life
is good it’s not that long since
India keened her dying song,
divided, wounded, never healed
as Daddy never will be
Listen to Suman reading Lion:
My mother started telling me shocking stories about Partition and Colonial rule when I was very young.
This story is about my great uncle, his family were trapped and feared being caught so he offered them the terrible choice in the poem. But one of Mum’s cousins decided to take her chances and survived, which is how we know the story.
I used to wonder why Mum thought it suitable to tell a 12-year-old such a tale, but then recently realised that that is how old she was when her cousin reached the family, and told them what had happened.
This story is one that both sides of the border know. It is well documented that many families killed the womenfolk rather than let them be caught by the other side, and perhaps explains why there has been so much silence about this horrific event.
The artworks of Story accompany this poem. Life is unpredictable, a single event can change the course of our lives and our landscapes are reconfigured permanently, giving us new maps to navigate by.
Mumma’s excavations rip up my peace, unflinching
words draw past into present, my third-hand
tears do not relieve me, each hearing
etches pain more deeply
she conjures up her Chachaji, giving
his family a grievous choice,
quick death at his loving hand
or else tormented capture
one cousin saw a third way, six shots
ringing out behind her, mourning
as she ran, bringing us this love-story,
this horror-story, her-story
The film Lion was recorded for St Albans Museum and Gallery at Dig Well Arts. Thanks to Arts Council England.