Songs of Separation: The Nostalgic Tunes of Divided Punjab

by Saloni Poddar

“Je aithon kadi Ravi langh jave,
Hayati Punjabi ban jave,
Main bediyan hazaar tod lan,
Main pani cho saah nichod lan.”

If the magnificent river Ravi flows through here, I will feel the presence of Punjab. I would break all constraints and extract life from its sacred waters.

This song, originally sung by Sajjad Ali (a renowned Pakistani singer) and currently trending on Instagram, has all my heart. It is indeed a poignant, heartfelt song describing the longing of those who live away from home; people who crave for their familiar surroundings, childhood, food, friends, family, and the familiar warmth of their land. It certainly reflects the pain felt by a ‘Punjabi’ who is away from Punjab. However, if one delves deeper and analyses the song at grass root level, something else can be heard too.

“Je Ravi vich pani koi nai,
Te apni kahani koi nai,
Je sang beliya koi na,
Te kise nu sunani koi nai”

I will have no legacy, no story to tell if ever Ravi runs dry.  If my friends are no longer with me, then who would listen to my stories anyways?

Punjab is the amalgamation of two Persian words, ‘Punj’ (five) and ‘aab’ (water); the Land of Five Rivers, namely; Beas, Ravi, Satluj, Chenab, and Jhelum. While Beas and Satluj essentially flow in Indian Punjab, Chenab and Satluj stream in Pakistan. Ravi is the only one that flows in both countries. Hence, its reference is often heard on both sides of the borders when talking about our shared cultures and heritage.

Often, the ghosts of the partition of India are witnessed roaming through the graveyards of heartbreaking music and poetry on either side of the border – those about lost love and broken dreams, about rivers and stories told on their banks, about children and kites they flew in shared skies, about a bride’s wail on leaving home and about friends who reminisce the past on cold winter evenings. These lyrics turn the chains of geographical boundaries and words blur the lines fraught with political upheaval and communal hatred.

‘Ravi’, the shared river, flows in countries born of the same mother, but are now scarred and wounded and separated by losses of cultures and languages, food and festivals, having common roots but nothing that binds together them. This song, ‘Ravi’, is a reminder of our shared heritage and culture. Superficially, it can be said that it is an ode to ‘Pardesis’ (people who leave their homelands and settle elsewhere) but at a deeper level, it comes across as a lament, a cry at the loss of familiarity of homes, people, dreams and hopes, of lost legacies and friends left behind. The halves that remained lost to them and the halves that they were able to gather and carry with them. The lives and emotions that were left behind and the materialistic belongings they brought along with them.

The rivers of Punjab aren’t just rivers, they have a metaphorical significance: borders might have been drawn, movement restricted, pain and pathos and turbulence created for man, by man but the free flow of nature has superseded geographical boundaries and rivers flow on their path, just the same, for you in Lahore and me in Amritsar. A melody like ‘Ravi’ is a sparkling example of this. As is evident from the warm response it got in India.

Nonetheless, ‘Ravi’ is not an isolated example. In 2015, Gurdas Mann and Diljit Dosanjh added a whimsical reference to the song ‘Ki Banu Duniya Da’ which was originally sung by Pakistani singer, Sarwar Gulshan, years ago.

“Sanu sauda nahi pugda
Ravi to Chenab puchda
ki haal e Satluj da…”

We had to pay a very high price for partition. River Chenab asks her sister River Ravi about the well-being of their brother Satluj.

“Painde dur Peshawar’an de oye
O Wagah de border te
Raah puchhdi Lahore’an de haye…”

The road to Peshawar is far and distant to reach. At the Wagah border, I look for paths that once led to Lahore but sadly don’t exist anymore.

Again, what comes across is the intense longing and pain of being separated from loved ones who were once very dear but now are lost forever. The song says Chenab asks Ravi about Satluj… isn’t this symbolic? Doesn’t it render a feeling of nostalgia? Imagine the plight of people who traveled across borders and made lives for themselves in a foreign land but could not forget their roots, yet did not have any hope of visiting their loved ones or ancestral homes again, ever. Think of the twin cities of Amritsar and Lahore, having the same culture, shared languages, and similar food habits. Isn’t it torturous that although they still share the same seasons, speak a similar language, and experience the same emotions, these people are ‘supposed’ to feel animosity rather than camaraderie? Shouldn’t love and nostalgia be the most natural emotions they should be feeling for having lost what they valued the most?

There’s another rendition by Piyush Mishra called ‘Husna’ which is about a lover remembering the old times spent with his beloved. Now they are separated by borders, but everything, even the shedding of autumn leaves, reminds him of her. He goes on to ask her whether trees shed leaves in the same way in Pakistan also. Does the sun rise there in the way it does here? He Still thinks about the folklores of ‘Heel-Ranjha’, Bule Shah’s poetry, the festival of Eid, celebrations of Diwali, and the taste and texture of ‘seviyan’.

“O Husna meri ye toh bata do
Lohri ka dhuan kya ab bhi nikalta hai
jaise nikalta tha
us daur mein vahan…”

He talks about the pre-partition times and cannot come to face the reality that they are in different countries which were once undivided. The man, Javed, wants to understand what has changed and how?

“Ye Heeron ke Ranjhon ke nagme
Kya ab bhi sune jaate hain vahan?
aur rota hai raaton mein
Pakistan kya vaise hi
jaise Hindustan ?”

I don’t see the need to translate these lines. They are so tragic and melancholy, yet so true! They bring out the pining for the times when there were no borders, no animosity between religions, and no hatred. When love and brotherhood were essential communal codes. When Holi and Eid were celebrated with equal fervor. When Akash and Ali were brothers.

Over seven decades have elapsed since India and Pakistan were carved into separate entities. Punjabis were compelled to leave everything behind and uproot their lives, a distressing consequence of the decisions taken by a cadre of divisive politicians, advocating for a separate Muslim state. Years later, people eventually moved on with their lives, yet they never lost the looming sense of helplessness and grief at having left parts of themselves behind. Some of them penned down their nostalgia in the form of stories and poems and those who could not do so take refuge in such melodies, as writers and poets are their spokespersons who put popular feelings and emotions into words.

Makes me ponder, though, how different would things have been had there been no borders. No doubt, people would have been happier and more grounded but what about these hauntingly beautiful melodies and verses? Would they be as heartfelt if there was no pain of separation? Would nostalgia still clutch at our hearts and eyes fill with tears had Chenab and Jhelum still flowed in Indian Punjab? Would Javed be happy if ‘Husna’ had not been left behind in Lahore? Would there have been expressways today, with speeding vehicles, between Amritsar and Lahore instead of barbed wire borders and ‘no-man’s-land’? I wonder…

Saloni Poddar

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