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For My Father, Karachi 1947 by Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander’s “For My Father, Karachi 1947” alludes to the tragic partition story of India and Pakistan in 1947. This poem appears in Alexander’s poetry collection Birthplace with Buried Stones. The poet dedicates this peptic recapitulation of the things past to her father. It looks back at those days when the course of millions of people’s lives changed within a flash of a second. Though this poem does not depict any historical event verbatim, it speaks of its impression on the speaker’s father’s mind.

For My Father, Karachi 1947 by Meena Alexander


Summary

“For My Father, Karachi 1947” is a poem about the partition of India and Pakistan. The first few lines of the text give readers an overview of the time and context. It was set in the middle of May, or in the midsummer. The speaker’s father was a meteorologist. The year which the speaker hints at, her father turned twenty-six. So, this story was heard by the speaker after she was born. At that time her father saw how fighter planes raked havoc throughout the country. However, the man raised her child with all his effort, shielding her from the troubles.

In the following lines, the speaker details another story. It was that of another man whose child was burnt with oil. The speaker’s father witnessed this shocking scene while crossing Chand Bibi Road in Karachi. Later the child was brought to a local hospital named Lady Dufferin’s hospital.

In the last few lines, Alexander focuses on the aftermath of the partition in 1947. Her father was returning from Karachi. All the scenes that he watched happening around him made him so exhausted and knelt down on the stone. On his head, the ripples of rain poured.

Meaning

As the title of the poem describes, Alexander wrote this poem for his father who was working in Karachi at the time of partition in 1947. She details the aftermath of the partition and how it had a lasting impression on her father’s mind. Her father, who was a meteorologist, was working there. He saw several tragic scenes that were happening one after another in the city. It made her so depressed that he lost the ability to walk. Hence, at the end of the poem, readers can find an image of him kneeling on a stone. This depressing posture broadly depicts the mental state of all those who were hurt by the tragic event of partition.

Structure & Form

“For My Father, Karachi 1947” is written in free-verse. It consists of 12 couplets or stanzas having two lines each. Each couplet centers on a particular idea. They are barely interconnected with regard to their theme or main idea. Like a person going through traumatic experiences of his life, this poem presents several incoherent pictures. This style creates a sense of absurdism. Besides, the poem is written from the perspective of the poet in a first-person narrative style. Hence it is a lyric poem.

Poetic Devices

This poem showcases the use of the following poetic devices:

  • Alliteration: It occurs in “Mid-May,” “fickle clouds, ferocious winds,” “sap and shoot,” etc.
  • Enjambment: This device is used in the second couplet. It also occurs in the following lines: “Fissured air baring the heart’s intricate meshwork/ Of want and need—”
  • Metaphor: The “intricate meshwork/ Of want and need” is a metaphor of the human mind. Alongside that, “Springs of cirrus” is a metaphorical reference to the cirrus clouds seen during the months of Spring.
  • Rhetorical Question: It is present in this line “Grille work of light in a partitioned land?”
  • Imagery: Alexander begins this piece by using visual imagery. Besides, she also uses organic imagery to depict the emotional turmoil inside the speaker’s head while describing the scenes.


Line-by-Line Analysis

Lines 1-4

Mid-May, centipedes looped over …

… fickle clouds, ferocious winds.

The poem “For My Father, Karachi 1947” begins in a picturesque fashion. Meena Alexander introduces an image that aptly applies to the theme of this piece. In the first line, there is an image of centipedes coiled over the netting at a well’s mouth.

It was the month of May or summer when the scene was discovered. During that time girls grew playful in their frocks, unmindful of the event that was going to occur in August 1947. A few lilies bloomed. Their bloody color symbolically portrays the horrors and bloodshed that happened during the partition.

The following lines talk about the speaker’s father. He was a meteorologist. Interestingly, the poet describes meteorology as a science of studying “fickle clouds” and “ferocious winds”. Through this line, she conveys that though her father forecasted the weather of the upcoming days, he was not able to sense what was going to happen in the upcoming months in India.

Lines 5-8

The day you turned twenty-six …

… sap and shoot you raised me.

The first line of the third couplet contains an alliteration in “turned twenty-six”. Here, the “t” sound is repeated to create an internal rhyming. In this line, the speaker says that in 1947, her father turned twenty-six. During that year, India and Pakistan got separated. Millions of people were made to either their homeland or were killed due to their religion.

The poet presents an image of fighter planes in the latter part of this line. Those planes fissured the calm air. The scene portrayed the intricate meshwork of “want and need” in one’s heart. These lines present a contrast between greed and need. It was the greed of the rulers that led to the partition. They did not ponder over what the common people wanted.

In the last line, the poet describes how her father raised her amidst the turmoil. She compares his care to that of mother nature. The sap nourishes the cells of the shoot. Likewise, her father nourished her with all his energy and effort.

Lines 9-12

Crossing Chand Bibi …

… on polo fields,

These lines of “For My Father, Karachi 1947” depict another scene. This quick shift of subject matter hints at the mental state of the speaker. She depicts how her father crossed Chand Bibi Road in Karachi. His father had been living there during the partition.

The road was named after the sultana Chand Bibi. She was an Indian ruler and warrior. She is best known for defending Ahmednagar against the Mughals in 1595. The speaker describes how she rode with hawks and slept with a gold sword. She raced on polo fields. This description of the Chand Bibi is meant for creating a contrast between the bruised girl in the following line.

Lines 13-16

You saw a man lift a child, …

… Lady Dufferin’s hospital.

After the digression of the previous lines, Alexander delivers another picture. Her father saw a man lifting her child. The scene belongs to several of such broken images of the partition, 1947. In that particular image, the poet describes how a child’s chest was burnt with hot oil. Her small thighs were also bruised. The girl’s father was lifting her child and went straight to Lady Dufferin’s hospital in Karachi.

The father bore her child through the “latticed hallways”. Otherwise, someone might again hurt them. People were ferocious enough to hurt anyone who belonged to a different religion than theirs. That’s why the person had to be cautious. Besides, the term “latticed” symbolically portrays the barbed wire between India and Pakistan.

Lines 17-20

How could you pierce …

… in a partitioned land?

In the following lines, the speaker rhetorically asks how one could pierce the “acumen of empire”. The term “empire” points to the British colonial rule. In this line, the poet holds the colonial rulers responsible for the partition of 1947. Historically, the seed of racial and religious discrimination was sown by the British rulers. They started dividing people in the name of their religion, caste, or creed from the early 20th century.

The poet compares their “acumen” or shrewdness to the “Mesh of deception through which soldiers crawled”. Here, the “soldiers” are compared to the policies of the colonial government meant for breaking the unity of Indians. Like soldiers, they entered into people’s conscience and sown the seeds of hatred, brutality, and discrimination.

In the following couplet, the poet describes how several trees were burnt with petrol. Here, “trees” are a metaphorical reference to the people of India. The term “Grille” means a screen of metal bars or wires, placed in front of something as protection. Light peeped through the grille wires at the border. The poet asks whether the acumen of colonizers was similar to the grille wires in a partitioned land.

Lines 21-24

When you turned …

… monsoon poured.

The poet’s father tried to turn away from the sufferings of people. His blue and black hair was crowned with the smoke of destruction. Here, readers can find an alliteration of the “b” sound in the phrase “blue black”.

The poet’s father was weary physically and mentally by seeing the scenes during partition. So, he knelt down on a stone and remained there with his bent head. The monsoons poured over his head. Here the poet describes the impact of partition on her father as well as those who were in Karachi at that time. Like her father, millions of people were exhausted. Some of them died or were killed. The last two lines specifically hint at the death of the speaker’s father.

Historical Context

Meena Alexander’s poem “For My Father, Karachi 1947” was published in her poetry collection Birthplace with Buried Stones. It was published in 2013. Meena Alexander’s poems in this collection portrayed the fragmented experience of a traveler. For him, home is a concept that is not centered on a particular place. It exists everywhere. Besides, the poem “For My Father, Karachi 1947” alludes to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The poet Tracy K. Smith’s view regarding this collection is enlightening. According to her:

Whether they spring from memory, history, that which lives in the world, or that which lives chiefly in the imagination, the poems in Birthplace with Buried Stones lead us into the presence of stark, unmitigated, uncontestable beauty-a beauty capable of “swallow[ing] us whole.” But they also prove something unsettling — the violent evidence of history, the inescapable reality of death, the scars inflicted by desire. Alexander expertly casts her gaze upon the places where poetry-and here I mean deep feeling, weighty insight, inexhaustible inquiry-exists: in “that which is all around and will not let us be.”


FAQs

When was the poem “For My Father, Karachi 1947” published?

The poem “For My Father, Karachi 1947” was published in 2013 in Meena Alexander’s poetry collection Birthplace with Buried Stones.

What is “For My Father, Karachi 1947” about?

This poem is addressed to the speaker’s father who was in Karachi at the time of partition. Meena Alexander how her father witnessed some haunting scenes there and what their impact was on his mind.

What is the meaning of the poem?

The title of the poem hints at the partition of 1947. Meena Alexander’s overall idea centers on her father and how the happenings during partition lead to his mental breakdown at the end.

What type of poem is “For My Father, Karachi 1947”?

It is a free-verse lyric poem that is told from the perspective of a first-person speaker.

What is the theme of the poem?

This poem taps on the themes of partition, suffering, and brutality.


External Resources


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