Shankha Ghosh, one of the “Pancha Pandavas” of modern Bengali literature, wrote “Rehabilitation,” a poem of displacement and heart-wrenching nostalgia. The date was 17th August 1947. A death toll of “partition” was aired across undivided India. “One step denying another” and suddenly millions of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were on the streets, haphazardly running for a place to be safe. Some of them could save themselves while others were lost, in the pages of history and in the passage of time. Ghosh’s poem centers on a narrator whose country was not separated, but his mind was.
- Read the full text of “Rehabilitation” below:
Rehabilitation by Shankha Ghosh Whatever I had around me Grass and pebbles Reptiles Broken temples Whatever was around me Exile Folklores Solitary sunset Whatever was around me Landslides Arrows and spears A homestead All shiver with their faces turned west. Memories are like a serpentine crowd Under the mango trees, broken boxes One step denying another And suddenly all are homeless. Whatever is around me Sealdah station High noon Pockmarked walls Whatever is around me Blind alleys Slogans The Monument Whatever is around me The bed of arrows Lamp-posts The Ganges flowing red The bones and the darkness within Surround them all Inside a tune plays on The Howrah Bridge is holding up high The void Under my feet drifts Time. Whatever is fountain around me Flying hair Naked path The stormy torch Whatever is transparent around me The sound of the dawn The body after a bath The Shiva of the cremation ground Whatever is death around me Each day A thousand days A birthday All return in the palms of memory As the beggar who sits in the fading dusk What was and what remains, Two flintstones that scrape each other And ignite my daily rehabilitation. - from Looking Back: The 1947 Partition of India, 70 Years On (2019), translated by Sankha Ghosh and Debjani Sengupta
Ghosh’s poem “Rehabilitation” begins with a reference to the things the hapless speaker had. He can remember the things in a chain of flashing images like someone has started rolling an ending loop of indefinite images concerning places, things, or faces. In the first stanza, the poet says how all the speaker once had was lost like the sun in the western sky.
The next stanza depicts the things the speaker had after the partition. Being displaced from his own land, he found himself lost in the crowds. He was in the middle of nowhere, in a new city, caged inside the endless suffering.
The last stanza specifically deals with the reality of partition. Ghosh uses a number of images in order to hint at the effect of partition. In the last two lines, he ironically remarks that his speaker is now a beggar. He strikes flints of the past and present to ignite the gloomy memories of rehabilitation.
Structure & Form
“Rehabilitation” is a free-verse poem that does not have a specific rhyme scheme or meter. It consists of three stanzas. The first, second, and third stanzas have a total of 17, 18, and 17 lines, respectively. The line count per stanza differs in the translated version. Most of the lines contain a word or a compound word. For example, in the first stanza, lines 2-4, lines 6-8, and lines 10-12 contain a single term or compound word. Such a structure makes one quickly read the lines. This scheme resonates with the mental state of the speaker. Apart from that, the sound scheme of the poem is dull and mechanical, aptly reflecting the theme of the text.
Poetic Devices & Figurative Language
Ghosh uses the following literary devices in his poem “Rehabilitation”:
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. Ghosh enjambs the lines in order to connect the ideas in succession.
- Repetition: In each stanza, the poet repeats the line bearing the idea thrice. For example, in the first stanza, the line “Whatever was around me” is repeated for the sake of emphasis.
- Allusion: This piece alludes to the Partition of India, a tragedy that shaped India’s political and communal future. Besides, in the seventh line, Ghosh alludes to Vidyasagar’s primer “Kothamala”. In the translation, this line alludes to Bengali folklores.
- Personification: It occurs in the following lines: “The bones and the darkness within/ Surround them all”, “The Howrah Bridge is holding up high/ The void/ Under my feet drifts Time.” Here, inner “darkness”, “bones”, the “Howrah Bridge”, and “Time” are personified.
- Imagery: Ghosh uses visual imagery throughout the text in order to depict several things that the speaker lost. He also uses tactile and organic imagery as well.
Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation
Whatever I had around me
Grass and pebbles
Whatever was around me
Shankha Ghosh’s poem “Rehabilitation” centers on a speaker who had lost everything during the partition. It is not clear whether the person is a Hindu or a Muslim, a male or a female. In this way, Ghosh depicts the pangs of all the people who were affected by the partition. What a sufferer unfolds, is not only his own pathetic story but of all. Millions of people lost everything in the turn of a night. What they had and what they got later are revealed in this poem.
In the first stanza, Ghosh’s speaker depicts what was around him. The person only utters names, nothing else. It gives a hint at the broken and suffering side of the speaker. A traumatic mind keeps rolling the scenes of the past in a broken manner. The speaker can visualize the grass and stones, reptiles crawling on the ground, and broken temples. What he saw was in his own land, currently on the other side of the barbed wires. Everything seems like watching the lonely sunset of one’s life. The sun setting in the west is a symbol of death and pessimism.
Whatever was around me
Arrows and spears
All shiver with their faces turned west.
Memories are like a serpentine crowd
Under the mango trees, broken boxes
One step denying another
And suddenly all are homeless.
Ghosh uses the symbols of “Arrows and spears” to signify destruction, killing, and bloodshed. The speaker becomes nostalgic while thinking about his own land. He says that everything trembled together and vanished leaving him in total darkness. His memory is like the refugees who set out for an arduous, long journey after partition. All he had was a broken box that was left beneath the mango tree. He did not know that everything was going to change at such a rapid pace.
Whatever is around me
Whatever is around me
In the second stanza, Ghosh talks about the things the speaker has with him in the present scenario. Now he can be found somewhere near the Sealdah Station at high noon or beside the tattooed walls of some unknown alleyways of Kolkata. He leads a life of a destitute after losing the things he once cherished. Sometimes he can hear the political slogans that give him sudden starts. The tall monuments of the city reminded him of his smallness. Everything that is around him is nothing but an illusion of reality.
Whatever is around me
The bed of arrows
The Ganges flowing red
Furthermore, the speaker refers to his bed in order to hint at the streets where he sleeps now. He can be found lying under the lamp posts by the river Ganges. Ghosh uses these references to portray the fate of several homeless people who were forced to leave their own land.
The red color of the “Ganges” symbolizes the bloodshed that happened in Bengal after the partition. Ghosh can visualize the blood of several Hindus and Muslims dyeing the Ganges red. Here, the poet uses metonymy to hint at the cause by referring to its consequences.
The bones and the darkness within
Surround them all
Inside a tune plays on
The Howrah Bridge is holding up high
Under my feet drifts Time.
The “darkness of the marrow”/”darkness within” is a metaphor for the dark and devilish instinct of those who killed their brothers in the name of religion. This darkness of brutality, hatred, and bitterness surrounds everything around the speaker.
Amidst this darkness, the waves of the river Ganges babble by, mourning the loss of several lives. Here, the poet uses pathetic fallacy and invests the river with the idea of mourning the tragedy of partition. Ghosh depicts the Howrah Bridge as a witness to the killings.
He personifies the bridge and thinks that it stands like a human being. Its top touched the sky. Beneath the speaker’s feet, the river, metaphorically portrayed as “time,” drifts by. In this way, the poet describes a picture of hopelessness and bleak absurdity.
Whatever is fountain around me
The stormy torch
In the third stanza, Ghosh describes the scene after the end of turbulence. Each line that is used in the form of a refrain contains a specific term to look into. For example, the first line contains the word “fountain,” which hints at how the things around him fall and collapse into the ground.
The speaker can find the flying hair of those who were killed. Ghosh personifies the path beneath the speaker’s feet. It is another witness to the sufferings of displaced people. He can visualize men storming with torches to find anyone who was left behind. If they could find one, they knew well how to get their job done.
Whatever is transparent around me
The sound of the dawn
The body after a bath
The Shiva of the cremation ground
In the following line, the speaker describes the scenes that are transparent in his mind. It includes the memories of dawn’s soothing sound, his soaked body in rain, and an idol of Shiva. From the reference to “Shiva of the cremation ground,” it can be inferred that the speaker is one of the Hindu migrants from West Pakistan. He took shelter in the streets of Kolkata after the partition.
Whatever is death around me
A thousand days
All return in the palms of memory
As the beggar who sits in the fading dusk
What was and what remains,
Two flintstones that scrape each other
And ignite my daily rehabilitation.
All he can remember is the death of his own people. There was not a single day that passed without seeing lifeless, blood-drenched bodies. Each scene came together in the hands of his memory. Here, Ghosh personifies the abstract idea of “memory”. It seems the speaker plays a puppet at the hands of memory.
The speaker has turned into a beggar. He sits on the dim-lit pavement of a street and strikes the stones of the past and present. Here, the memories prior to the partition and after the partition are compared to stones. These stone-like memories still hurt the speaker. He strikes the stones to throw light on the events occurring in his rehabilitated life. Through the last line, Ghosh ironically comments on how the refugees were rehabilitated after the partition.
Shankha Ghosh’s “Rehabilitation” alludes to the fates of millions of people who had to leave their own land after the Partition of Bengal in 1947. Following the partition of Bengal between the Hindu-majority West Bengal and the Muslim-majority East Bengal, there was a rapid influx of refugees from each side. Nearly 5 million Hindus left East Bengal and about 2 million Muslims left West Bengal immediately because of violence and rioting. In this poem, Ghosh describes how they lost the things they had and what they got afterward. By contrasting the before and after scenarios, he points to the irrevocable loss of refugees, irrespective of their religion.
This poem was originally published in Bangla as ‘Punorbashon’ in Shankha Ghosh’s Shreshtho Kobita in 1970. It was translated by Sankha Ghosh and Debjani Sengupta and published in Looking Back: The 1947 Partition of India, 70 Years On in 2019.
Questions & Answers
Shankha Ghosh’s poem “Rehabilitation” is about a refugee from East Bengal. Ghosh describes the things he lost during the partition and what he had with him after the tragedy. To be specific, instead of memories of the past, he had nothing left with him.
The title of the poem refers to the action of restoring refugees to their former country after the partition. In this poem, Ghosh ironically comments on how they were rehabilitated after the partition.
The speaker of this poem is a Hindu refugee from East Bengal, previously part of unified Bengal. After the partition, he had to leave everything behind and settle down in the streets of Kolkata.
It is a free-verse lyric poem written from the first-person point of view. This piece is one of the partition poems that highlight the suffering of refugees during and after the partition.
This poem explores the themes of partition, memory, suffering, and loss. The main theme of this piece centers on the aftermath of partition, especially in Bengal.
Explore More Partition Poems
- Full Bengali text of ‘Punorbason’ — Read the Bangla text of Ghosh’s poem first published in Shreshtho Kobita in 1970.
- About Partition of Bengal — Read about the events occurring before and after the partition in 1947.
- Partition and Rehabilitation — Refer to this crisp document featuring the list of events revolving around the partition.
- About Shankha Ghosh — Learn about the poet’s life and works.
- Shankha Ghosh Dies of Covid-19 — Ghosh tested positive for Covid-19 on 14 April 2021 and passed away on 21 April from comorbidities.