The Mohona: A Confluence Of Identity

Pakistan was formed on 14 August 1947, and on the 15th of August, the Indian tricolour was hoisted in Red Fort in Delhi. In his famous unwritten, spontaneous speech to the nation, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru said:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

As day dawned, kites were flying in the free skies of India and Pakistan. Yet freedom had come at a cost: India was divided on the basis of religious politics, with Partition creating two mindless borders which led to the biggest displacement of people the world has ever seen, an estimated eighteen million. But in any estimate of the Indo-Scottish colonial encounter and its effects vis-à-vis today’s reality, ‘India’ conjures a vast sub-continent, the land that extended from the Hindukush to the borders of what was then Burma. And today’s South Asia, as we know, encompasses this pre-Partition India which includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In the UK India Year of Culture1, we celebrate a long association between our two nations – Scotland and India — in our co-edited anthology, Thali Katori (2017)2. For me, India signifies a vast sub-continent with a shared history, a South Asia to whose shores the Scots came to administrate, do business and build their careers. One can say that a disproportionate number of Scots served as Viceroys and Governor-Generals, and were predominant in various fields like the Indian Medical Service, Indian Forestry Service, the British Indian Army and in business.

In our anthology, Thali Katori, we look into the complexity of identities and relationships that not only characterize Scotland and India, but also the relationships between them, over more than two centuries. The title of the book is taken from Shashi Tharoor’s chapter on Salman Rushdie in his collection, Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers, where he describes India as a thali, a large plate with many katoris on it, little bowls of different dishes, what we summarise as ‘a feast of many flavours’.3 The title celebrates difference, as Indians are used to multiple identities and loyalties, and it also fits the Scottish context, reflecting the Scottish nation’s pluralism.

Many of the Scots posted to India served the East India Company as surgeons, administrators and military personnel, and many of them wrote poetry, publishing in local journals. They are known as the Company Poets. They were dismissed at ‘home’ as amateurish, but some were slowly taken seriously in literary circles. With the implementation of Macaulay’s (a Scot) Minute on Education in 1835, English was introduced as a language in schools and higher education to produce a tribe of brown sahibs who took up subordinate administrative and professional jobs which helped the governance of British India. English remains a thread that connects the two countries today.

In this land, where younger sons were sent to make their fortunes, their career, we find John Leyden’s (1775-1812) ‘Ode to an Indian Gold Coin’, a lament on The perish’d bliss of youth’s first prime’, as he conflates the Esk and Eden where he left behind ‘a heart that loved me true!’ for the sake of ‘thy yellow light’, ‘vile yellow slave’. Here the speaker is far from society, camping:

The tent-ropes flapping lone I hear
For twilight-converse, arm in arm;
The jackal’s shriek bursts on mine ear

– the wild country where the ‘wanderer’ is ‘forlorn’ ‘in climes unkind and new’. The ‘here’ is inhospitable and isolating, while ‘there’ ‘loves of youth and friendships smiled’.

We find a different note in the wanderer who finds peace in his surroundings, in James Ross Hutchinson’s (1796-1870) ‘Moonlight Scene’ where on the Ganges’ stream ‘All is fair and still, at rest’. David Lester Richardson’s (1801-1865) wanderer  in his ‘Sonnet – On Hearing Captain James Glencairn Burns Song (In India) His Father’s Song’, brings the here and there together with a deep acceptance of the past and present:

How dreamlike is the sound of native song
Heard on a foreign shore! The wanderer’s ear
Drinks wild enchantment — […]
While in the sweet delirium, deep and strong,
The past is present and the distant near!

We see the Orientalist myths about the savage East disappear in his ‘View of Calcutta’, where

no vast hollow wood
Rings with the lion’s thunder – no dark bower
The crouching tiger haunts –  no gloomy cave
Glitters with savage eyes!


all the scene
Is calm and cheerful […] on Hoogly’s breast serene!

Violet Jacob’s (1863-1946) Poems on India are rooted in her rolling plains, her bazaar, her jungle tracks, her opium fields, her mosque, her temple. Her artist’s palette evokes clammy tropical nights, the blazing sun, the champa flower’s perfume, the dazzling beauty of the pomegranate against the bright white light. We hear her respectful sense of oneness with the unnamed man buried in her poem to ‘O dead Mahommedan’ to whom she says, ‘Salam, O bhai’, my respects oh brother, and identifies with the call to prayer,

Allah hu akhbar!
L ‘ilaha illalah!

Born in colonial India with Urdu as her first language, Tessa Ransford went back to the sub-continent to live for a few years as a missionary’s wife in Pakistan. In poems like ‘With gratitude to India’, she recalls being:

handled by slim fingers
Bounced by bangles
And held high among the turbans,
Surrounded  by the light sari
Black knot of hair
Suggestion of spice
and the sweetness of sugarcane.

She recalls hoopoos on the maidan, flashes of minivet, oriol and bulbul peering through the flowers. She can hear the bargaining in the bazaar in ‘abundant India’. In ‘My Indian Self’ she affirms:

Let me be
Myself my
Indian self
That goes to extremes
From garland to ashes
Himalaya to desert
Mango to maize. For her,
Happiness is tropical and
Love is a house with wide verandahs.

For Tessa, the elsewhere is India, and it stays with her and is part of her, her joyous present. Jane Bhandari too remembers the child who was the wanderer, who ‘went far away, / But always returned to the memory of blue’ … the blue of Indian skies? The blue of the ocean crossed?

We are all, to extend Salman Rushdie’s description, post-midnight’s children. Valerie Gillies went to India to do her Masters at Mysore University as a Commonwealth Scholar. In ‘Fellow Passenger’, she zooms through South India with the diamond buyer and the Anglo Indian whose ‘own sounds were pidgin’ but who played ‘that tune of “Beautiful Dreamer”‘ on the monsoon-warped instrument that he restored in ‘The Piano-tuner’ — one who had come some two hundred miles to tune a relic of imperial time, while he himself was a relic of the same era.

Indian poets write about their encounter with Scotland as in Deb Narayan Bandyopadhyay’s ‘Homage to Jim Alison’:

Who says Jim is no more?
He travelled to the Orient
Like a shooting star, like a dream, like a new-born planet.

And Scottish writers write about picking up fragments of a past relationship, and this past-ness imbues the present with a familiarity which makes Alan Riach say:

My father has been here before.
It is a dream.
But later he concedes
But it is not a dream.
These lives are real, the river, bridge, the people

In Suhayl Saadi’s ‘Paradise Gardens Carpet’, images from another culture are transferred to Glasgow — a magical garden with rivers of wine, honey, water, milk which flow through palms of water wheels and cypresses and citrus groves. He adds a glossary and words like baadal, badam, bagh, darya, ferdaus – words from Urdu and from Kufric, the Arabic script — seep into his Scottish consciousness in a narrative that reads like a tale from the Arabian Nights, only this is about the aesthetics of the carpet making craft.

Yet recent history, too, permeates the Scottish-Indian consciousness. Jameela Muneer in ‘The Scottish way’ in post-9/11 Scotland writes of a daughter’s ‘choice’ to wear hijab, ‘Shabina Begum unleashed’, an assertion of an identity. Yet when no questions are raised at home or school, ‘she stopped of her own accord’ and her parents ‘heaved a sigh of relief’. An internal displacement is dealt with and integration becomes the final choice.

How others view you often determines who you are, but Jameela does not accept this. She asserts that she did not apply for Medicine, Bhangra is not her birth-right, her father is not a restauranteur, she did not have a forced marriage and has two children, yes only two. She affirms:

I’m an Asian Woman but —
Don’t patronise me
Categorise me
Finalise me
I’m an Asian Woman but
I’m ME.

The here and there coexist in Shampa Ray’s ‘Scent of Memory’ where the untold stories rest on the underside of a stone in the moss: ‘the print of gathered past’. However, the East and West coalesce in Tariq Latif’s ‘Sweet Nothings’ as the news of the death of a twenty-three-year-old love reaches him and he returns to the books she had gifted him by Neruda, Rumi and Tagore. The Ganga flows here in his memory, beside whose waters he imagines her funeral pyre and the scent of cinnamon.

These are bilingual poets, like many of the Scottish counterparts who write/speak English and Scots and or Gaelic. Hamid Shami concedes in ‘Mother Tongue’ that he speaks Urdu fluently, but when he curses, he does so in the Queen’s English. We see bilingualism retained, the choices, the switching from one to another language, dictated by exigency. As Irfan Merchant confirms the untold mixture that makes this generation of broon Scots in ‘Masala Child’ who is:

Not just any mixture
But the right combination,
Though if you want the recipe

You’ll hear the usual thing –
A bit of this, a bit of that:
You’re meant to understand.

But do we? We see the one chapter closed and another opened in Nalini Paul’s ‘Cat, yaar’ (friend) – where a chicken curry palette is ‘cleansed’ by ‘a mouthful of frozen blueberries’. Burramummy’s breath is a whiff of the past, but a secret language lingers in ‘the one who has my tongue’.

There are poems in Scots and Gaelic and many more poets in Thali Katori who cannot all be covered here. But what is striking is that language which carries the flavours of another shore, lets the elsewhere dwell in the interstices of experience, evoked, recalled and retained in poets who have moved between Scotland and India and captured the rhythms of the world they left behind and the world they have entered, enriching and widening the boundaries of English. Like my daughter in the poem, ‘The Affirmation’, they explicitly confirm they are ‘from here and not just there’, they are pre- and post-midnight’s children who have inherited a long shared history of intimate association, experiencing a transformation engendered by the diasporic experience.

The Scottish-Indian encounter and association embodies a Mohona, a confluence where the sea and river, where streams meet, mingle and are transformed, a confluence commemorated in my poem:

‘The Meeting Point’


Here by a reflective river
Reminiscing on a boat building past
The turquoise hull of Buena Vista5
Stands still, its journeys over.
Here I am a heron taking flight
On a wing of fancy
Able to dream of a riverine terrain6
And conjure a mohona
Of meetings the boats once intended.


End Notes

  1. The UK India Year of Culture was declared for the seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence by David Cameron and Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, during the former’s visit to India when he was Prime Minister of the UK.
  2. Thali Katori: An Anthology of Scottish and South Asian Poetry, eds. Bashabi Fraser and Alan Riach (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2017).
  3. Shashi Tharoor, Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writing and Writers (2005, New York: Skyhorse Publications, 2012).
  4. A confluence of rivers, or a river with the sea. Here it signifies Glasgow’s link with the world in her boat-building days during the Empire, and the migrations that have happened as result of its globalised status then, and the effects of it today.
  5. An old container ship, waiting to be scrapped.
  6. The Bay of Bengal with its eve- changing waterways is at the mercy of the tide which brings the salt water in and submerges landscapes in moments.
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