Prakash Subedi made his mark in the Nepali literary scene with his first anthology of poems, Stars and Fireflies in 2009. Two years later, in 2011, he, along with five other young poets, published a joint poetry anthology, Six Strings. His writings have been prescribed in Master Level syllabi at Tribhuvan University and Kathmandu University. He is the General Secretary of Society of Nepali Writers in English (NWEN), and the co-editor of its half yearly English literary magazine, Of Nepalese Clay, 20 issues of which have been published so far. Subedi now teaches at Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu.

Prakash Subedi

Images of War in Contemporary South Asian Poetry

(A working paper for presentation at the SAARC Literary Festival, February 2014, Dhaka, Bangladesh.)

 Formal education, even in the classical period, started in the form of what we call the humanities today, and the study of literature remained as the crux, not only of the humanities, but also of education as a whole for a significantly long time. As pedagogy advanced and the natural sciences evolved and progressed, questions on the utility of the study of the humanities in general and literature or poetry in particular, were raised umpteens of times; yet the humanities somehow survived and moved on. But in more than three millennia of the history of education that we know, either in the West or in the East, humanities perhaps had never been on such a low tide as it seems to have been towards the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century of the Christian Era[1]. Questions on the worth of the humanities seem to have been raised no more, as if its uselessness needed no further reiteration. This essay is not about the decline of the humanities and does not seek to prove the worth of the study of literature as such. However, at a time when the tone of overarching social, political and ethical questions that face us are increasingly set by powerful political and diplomatic institutions, this essay seeks to serve as a reminder that art and literature remain areas where creative, incisive and radical attempts to tackle, reframe and reimagine these issues take place.

Of all the problems that face us today, war is undoubtedly one of the oldest, and the most insensitive of human traditions and one that continues to demand an urgent response. However, given the nature of our times, those who are at the forefront of seeking solutions to the problem of war tend to be affiliated with politically and financially motivated institutions whether they claim to be academic or diplomatic. At such a time, it seems imperative to turn to the realm of art as it is one that offers the harshest criticism of war, and the clearest vision of a world devoid of it.

            As in every part of the world, war has been an incontrovertible reality for South Asia, and in the last few decades almost all the countries of the region including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and India have been extensively affected by wars. In response to past and current wars in the region, South Asian poets have attempted not only to portray the cruelty and the futility of war but also to actively protest against it and imagine a world without it. Unsurprisingly then, almost every literary journal or poetry anthology in recent times includes at least some poems on and about war. In this essay, I look at the portrayal of war in selected poems by South Asian poets as a way to remind readers everywhere that poetry and art can still give us the necessary insight, vision, inspiration and indeed the clarity to aspire for a world and a region where people and nations are connected not by conflict but the aspiration for peace. For this purpose, I have chosen a few poems written in recent times by some well-known poets of the region, namely Shreedhar Lohani (Nepal), Renton de Alwis, Asgar Hussein, Daya Dissanayake (Sri Lanka), Adil Jussawallah (India), Naseer Ahmed Nasir (Pakistan), and Mohammad Nurul Huda (Bangladesh).

Shreedhar Lohani, whose perceptive and observant poems have been regularly featured in the English language literary journal, Of Nepalese Clay[2], has written frequently on war, owing perhaps not only to the ages-old ruthless tradition of war but also to the ten-year long Maoist insurgency Nepal underwent in late 1990s and early years of the 21st century. His poem “Daman Musings,” for instance, portrays a picture in which small everyday acts of violence in effect expose the more cruel realities in the world out there. This is how Lohani begins his narrative: “A gray half-moon dimly / lit the muggy morning sky; / The pines whistled sadly / as the metal blue bird / flitted on the tree top heavily: / My heart missed a beat / when the clang of the knife / created a tiny uproar; / Only the ghost mountains watched / the parade of the dying stars” (2). We come to know later that a dove has been killed, and, while everyone else remains indifferent, only her mate knows the pain of her death: “…only the dove / watched his mate dying, / flapped his wings, / dropped down like stone / on the ground, red with blood” (2). This leads the poet to a realization that “We’ve lost our selves, and here / comes this day of reckoning” (2). And, he ends with a declaration: “Rejoice, you stars! / This land is waste again” challenging the indifferent forces of nature to bear witness to the violence of war and the loss of empathy and sensitivity that has resulted from the decade-long conflict (2).

Another poem by Shreedhar Lohani, “Peace Memorial,” presents a more direct protest against the inhuman realities that the war embodies. It’s a poem in which one plans to set aside a “commemorative space / to build a peace memorial / in the conflict torn land / in defiance of the murderous logic /of the live and let die race” (2). The poem portrays a picture of war in which people have been “rifled for trinklets” and “their dead lips [grin] out / suffering, experienced not caused, / sad reminders of intolerance”(2).The peace memorial that has been built somewhere near the death grounds “stands silently/ free from any presence of murderers” (2). It “[l]oudly, it mocks the participants / engaged in the killing process” (2). The poem becomes even more poignant when Lohani turns to those who come to see the peace memorial: “though not the actual killers, / these virtuous bystanders/ identify themselves with the victims / only to understand / what it means to be voyeurs of murder” (2). And, he grows more harsh on them when he says, “Do they care for a system that classifies/ certain people as less human / and so expendable and unworthy to live? / Do they realize / what it implies to gaze at people / not at the moment of their death / but at the moment of death imposed?” (3). The series of rhetorical question continues in the same vein: “Do they have courage to look / into human face of evil? / Do they understand / the moral choices made by ordinary people / who were not victims?” (3). And there are even more pertinent questions that come at the very end of the poem to be answered by those who come to see the memorial: “Do they ever ask: / is the process of death important? / Or, do they even dare to ask:/who makes it possible to construct / a society in which death is its definition?” (3).As in the previous poem, through challenging the spectators of the monument, Lohani questions the insensitivity that characterizes a war-torn society. He portrays war and the pain that results from it as products of an impersonal and disinterested society that is fixated on dead images rather than on a creative engagement with reality.

Whether in its depiction in the Hindu epics Mahabharata or Ramayana or in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, or indeed any modern day patriotic poem, war has been glorified and valorised for a considerably long time in human history. Soldiers fought with a mission, and were martyred for a cause: sometimes patriotic, sometimes, religious, and sometimes for self-respect and love for fellow being; and for this they were guaranteed heaven. This spirit, summarized in Horace’s line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori“(“It is sweet and fitting to die for your country”), seems to have pervaded the understanding of war for a longest time. Though voices against war were heard every now and then, mainstream discussions of war, including literary ones seem to have fundamentally glorified war until World War I. This line of thought was suddenly overturned upon itself after World War I, as can be witnessed very powerfully in poems published in its aftermath such as, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” written by the renowned British war poet Wilfred Owen during World War I, where he first gives a horrendous picture of war before severely disapproving of its Horatian conception: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, / My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent / for some desperate glory, /The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/ Pro patria mori” (294). Owen’s critical stance towards war prevails and modern war poems rarely eulogize war. Rather, they vividly portray the horror and cruelty it involves, as well as its meaninglessness and futility.

Just asthe ten-year long armed insurgency is portrayed in a number of Nepali poems written during that time, the three-decades long dreadful civil war the island nation passed through finds expression in the poems of almost every Sri Lankan poet of the recent times. For instance, Kaleidoscope: An Anthology of Sri Lankan English Literature[3] includes twenty-four poems in its second volume, and a significant number them deal with war in one way or the other. Renton de Alwis’ poem “IDP” (an abbreviation for Internally Displaced Person), to begin with, portrays a frightful picture of a family caught in between two warring sides and finally displaced. The poet persona expresses his agony and his helplessness thus: “They laid mines, / all around us, / made a hell on earth / for me, my wife, my little son. / For my daughter…it was a deeper hell, she was sixteen last year, / when the ‘Boys’ came to take her away…” (189). When nothing seems to work, there is no other way than to run away from the place “with whatever, wherever/beyond the muddy water” (190). Though many join in the attempt to escape from the place to save their lives and their families, not all of them are successful in doing so, and many die on the way. Hence, the IDP ends his retrospection with ambivalent questions turning towards himself, “Do I feel guilty? / Do I feel bad?” (190), and cannot come up with definite answers.

“Modern Warfare” by Asgar Hussein in the same anthology, as the title suggests, compares modern wars with the traditional ones, and shows how modern war is far more insensitive, inhuman and destructive. He writes, “War / Is discarding its old adornments / It knows the comfort of the modern age /  Just press the button for victory / The missiles are ready / The bombs are waiting …” (195). For Hussein, “War is losing its memory” (195), and has forgotten all its glory.  In the present war, “you can die without a fight/ or kill without risk” (195). One can wait for the war “at the wrong place / at the wrong time / And die without the chance” (195). Hussein concludes: “War does not want to inspire epics anymore. / But it still needs the horror” (195). Be it “Nineteen Thirty-one” by U. Karunatilake, “Bang Bang” by Asgar Hussein, or “A Thousand Ships” by Vivimarie Vander Poorten, every other poem in Kaleidoscope exposes the brutality of war in one way or the other.

Another Sri Lankan poet, Daya Dissanayake, in his poem “food for thought” describes a poet persona who seems to be living a privileged life in the midst of a war-torn nation, but suffers badly from a guilty conscience. The poem unfolds thus: “The face of a / Starving child / Stares at me from each grain of rice / On my plate / Curries made hot / With blood / Flowing from bodies of / innocent children / Wounded, maimed and killed / In the name of country, religion or / freedom…” The narrative moves throughout in the same vein, and Dissanayake concludes the poem with these lines: “All the food on my plate / Grew on soil / fertilized by the bodies / of those who sacrificed their lives / to keep us alive” (12). Like the other poems discussed so far, Dissanayake’s poem forces us to think about the complicity and responsibility of those who are not directly involved in war but whose very ability to remain uninvolved bears a perverse relationship to the violence in the battlefield.

Another fine anthology of poems recently published from the region, Both Sides of the Sky: Post-Independence Indian Poetry in English,[4] includes a number of war poems though fewer in comparison to Kaleidoscope. Adil Jussawallah’s poem “Connection”, for instance, draws an explicit portrait of the divisions that war creates even between those who are intimate. The writer juxtaposes two disparate conditions, of those who fought the war and those who were clever enough to reap its harvest. I quote the short poem in full:

My father asks for mercy on the phone.

His voice is thin. I ask

Who is it speaking? An old soldier

Back for talks, thrusting a bandaged stump

Against a door that hides a fat deserter.

I hold his last manuscript,

Not having read a word this war-filled month. (37)

This time the son doesn’t seem to suffer from a guilty conscience; rather, he is smart enough to comprehend the vicious reality of war and finds desertion to be a far more desirable condition than that of a maimed soldier.

Giving voice to one of the most alarming possibilities for war in the current context, Pakistani poet, Naseer Ahmad Nasir, in his poem “Dreams Lost in Water” paints a vivid picture of a world annihilated by atomic warfare. He writes, “In a nuclear unit / names are forgotten / codes are remembered. / By atomic explosions / of radiant generations / dreams are fanatical / cities go down / nuclei dissolve / orbits fall off
in the spectation of dance / the earth and the sun are there / but God becomes a martyr!”
And, Nasir’s greatest fear is that, after the total devastation, “Who will see flowers / in the spring-fresh hands / of small children!/ Who will see / dreams, yours and mine, / in the centuries to come?” since “No one [will know] / of dreams lost in water!”[5]Where there may have been the possibility of a personal search for redemption or even simply one of voicing a complaint in Lohani’s and Dissanayake’s poems, here the world has been reduced to the smallest and most impersonal fragments possible. It has been razed, flattened and remains without foundation.

 And, with that we move to the last poet selected for this brief discussion,, i.e. Bangladeshi poet Mohammad Nurul Huda. His latest anthology moon alphabet and other poems includes at least half a dozen of poems that unswervingly protest against war and cry for peace. In “Hood for Flower,” for instance, the poet weeps at the birth of the “killers wearing devil’s masks, / who never read the message / hidden in spring blossoms.” Huda laments, “Alas, / Killers never read the text of a spring Hibiscus” (42). In “Cartridge and Tuberose,” he aptly says, “Cartridge and Tuberose / never stem from the same stalk, / the hand that grips a dagger / never hugs a book of poetry” (45). In “Peace and Peace and peace,” Huda writes: “Peace is the first lesson humans must learn / Peace is the first lesson humans must teach / Peace is the first lesson humans must earn” (45). And, in the same vein, “Peace is the last conviction is humans must preach / Peace is the last motivation humans must turn / Peace is the last destination humans must reach” (45).  And, in the last short poem of the anthology entitled “For a while” Huda urges the readers, “If Buddha’s full moon is / Buddha’s unfading smile, / Let all of us in the universe / smile with him for a while” (46). Combining a critique of war and the hope for a peaceful future, Huda’s poems can be read as the artist’s rallying cry for using our heritage and imaginative resources to the best of our abilities to come up with a peaceful future.

 While it was not possible to attempt an extensive analysis of war poems of the region in this essay because of its scope (and its anticipated length), even a cursory reading of poems written in recent times, shows us that poetry has been a space to deal creatively with war and its outcomes in the South Asian region where war has been the lived reality for many people for a long time. It remains for the thinkers and artists of the region as well as politicians and policy makers to take note of the complex reality of war and the psychological and spiritual distortions it creates and that I believe literature and art are the most suitable vehicles to reveal.

 Works Cited

Alwis, Renton de. “IDP.” Kaleidoscope: An Anthology of Sri Lankan English Literature (vol.

 2). Ed. D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2010. 189-90.

Dissanayake, Daya. “food for thought”. inequality. NP: Battaramulla, 2005. 12.

Huda, Mohammad Nurul. “Hood of Flowers.” Moon Alphabet and Other Poems. Dhaka:

            Kabitabangla, 2013. 42.

– – -. “Cartridge and Tuberose.” Moon Alphabet and Other Poems. Dhaka: Kabitabangla,

            2013. 45.

– – -.  “Peace and Peace and Peace.”  Moon Alphabet and Other Poems. Dhaka: Kabitabangla,


– – -.  “For a While.” Moon Alphabet and Other Poems. Dhaka: Kabitabangla, 2013. 46.

Hussein, Asgar. “Modern Warfare.” Kaleidoscope: An Anthology of Sri Lankan English

            Literature (vol. 2) . Ed. D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications,

 2010. 195.

Jussawallah, Adil. “Connection.” Both Sides of the Sky. Ed. Eunice De Souza. New Delhi:

            National Book Trust, India: 2008. 37.

Lohani, Shreedhar. “Daman Musings.” Of Nepalese Clay 11(April 2009). Kathmandu:

            Society of Nepali Writers in English. 2.

–  – -. “Peace Memorial.” Of Nepalese Clay 16 (October 2011). Kathmandu: Society of Nepali

            Writers in English. 2-3.

Nasir, Naseer Ahmed. “Dreams Lost in Water.” Poems (Festival brochure for South Asian

Poetry Festival for Peace 2013). Trans. Bina Biswas. Kathmandu: 2013. 42-43.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” Norton Anthology of Poems (5th edition). Eds.

Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, Jon Stallworthy. W. W. Norton &

Company, 2004. 294.


[1] “A report released by Harvard University in June [2013] has stirred up some debate on the state of the humanities in education. The report focuses on the change in humanities majors enrollment at Harvard since the 1960s, a whopping 50 percent decline.” – See more by Samantha Pettifer at: /2013/10/02/humanities-trade

[2]Of Nepalese Clay is a biannual literary journal published from Nepal by the Society of Nepali writers in English (NWEN). It primarily includes creative writings by Nepali writers written originally in English, but also occasionally features writers from other countries too. Twenty issues of it have been published so far. See more at: Nepalese Clay

[3]Kaleidoscope: An Anthology of Sri Lankan English Literature, edited by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke, is available in two volumes, the first volume published in 2007, and the second in 2009. It is, according to Dr. Tilak S. Fernando, “the first publication of its kind to celebrate Sri Lankan literature in all its diversity ranging from fiction, non-fiction, poetry, to drama, a cross-section of how Lankan authors deliberated and wrote from the colonial era to modern times.” For more details, see:

[4] Published as a part of the Golden Jubilee Series of National Book Trust, India, Both Sides of the Sky: Post-Independence Indian Poetry in English, edited by Eunice De Souza, puts together poems by 17 Indian poets writing in English, and aims to fulfill “the long felt need to have an authentic and comprehensive anthology of Indian poetry in English written in the post-Independence era.”

[5] The poem appears in the festival brochure of South Asian Poetry Festival for Peace 2013 held in Kathmandu, Nepal, in December 2013. More on the festival is available here: