Literary Shelf

Literature about Violence

A few weeks back while cleaning my bookshelves I came across a book, ‘When the British Left’. It’s a collection of short stories based on Partition of then India, in 1947. It has stories written by 13 prominent short story writers, edited and selected by Saros Cowasjee and late Kartar Singh Duggal. The book was published in 1987.

I had just joined, now defunct, Arnold Heinemann publishing house in early 1986. As an Assistant Editor, I was assigned the task of coordinating with the editors of the anthology, read the galleys and proof read it before sending it for printing.

A couple of days later, I read the foreword and a story by Saadat Hasan Munto titled ‘Exchange of Lunatics’. The ultimate insanity of partitioning of India, (write the editors in the foreword), is best summed up in the above mentioned story. ‘The decision to exchange lunatics by the two Governments was the final act of lunacy, matched only by the initial act of creating two states from a single people.’

Ever since language was invented, war, violence, its futility and devastation caused by it, has been a subject that has preoccupied creative writers all over the world. When one talks of literature against or about violence, one wonders what its broad implications are. A good creative writer in the process of writing does not merely bring focus of the readers on the subject, but compels the reader to get out of his/ her comfort zone, shake off apathy, think how best to deal with it, engage in a discussion, most of all look within oneself for answers. Although, primarily, the objective of writing is self expression, in the process of writing, a writer also deals with his/her conflicting emotions, turmoil and angst. At some point, a writer has an epiphany that he must live with the questions and uncertainty about future.

British writer Alan Watts in an excellent 1951 volume The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety argues that

‘the root of our human frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future, which - If to enjoy even an enjoyable present we must have the assurance of a happy future, we are “crying for the moon.” We have no such assurance. The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end.’

Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, stressed, ‘everything comes in time to him who knows how to wait . . . there is nothing stronger than these two: patience and time, they will do it all.”

This anxiety about future is the cause of all differences, misunderstandings, conflict at home, work among relatives and violence across borders among countries. We really need to cultivate patience, tolerance and acceptance.

We live in a society today where families destroy each other for property. We are utterly impatient, have no frustration tolerance and always want instant gratification of our desires.

Violence is defined by World Health Organization as, ‘intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against another community.

Violence, according to WHO, doesn’t necessarily mean physical harm or death. More people die due to other factors. It poses a substantial burden on individuals, community, and health care system worldwide.

W H Auden, expressed his deep anguish and sense of rage and futility of war in – An Epitaph for an unknown soldier.

To save your world, you asked this man to die
Would this man, could he see you ask why?

A renowned, versatile poet, Naseer Ahmed Nasir from Islamabad writes in his poem-- Lullaby for lost generations-

Come give a call to those
Who had heard Israfael’s bugle
And gone to eternal sleep on battle front
Their children remain awake.

Naseer has captured his deep anguish over the futility of war, aborted lives and orphaned children, who have no clue what happened to their families.

Palas Kumar Ray, from Agartala, Tripura, shares the disillusionment, pain and declares - everything is unfair in life. No one plays fair. As is evident from the title ‘Everything is not fair in love and war’.

Everything isn't fair in Love and War.
Deceived and
denounced in love,
defeated in war
They fear to plead
the truth
they bear
they suffer
they scorn.

They know
Everything is not fair in love and war.

In George Bernard Shaw’s four Act Play- Man and Superman- there are many famous , memorable quotes which show Shaw at his philosophical, satirical best.

The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”

Shaw in these two lines tersely expresses with scornfully, how depraved, judgemental, arrogant and intolerant we have become. The key word is intolerance, not allowing any one freedom to live the way they want to live.

However, before acts of violence are committed on the borders, spill over on the streets, inside the homes, they are conceived by human mind, executed through speech and actions. I would like to add to this, the body language. Even silence at times can be deafening, cause a lot of heartache. It is a form of passive aggression. Today acts of violence are committed against young, infants, lovers in the name of honour, elderly, for insatiable greed, obsession with male child and more often than not simply out of impotent rage. Writers all over the world have been expressing their concern on all the issues.

Dating from around 300 BC, ‘Tao Te Chang’ is the first great classic of the Chinese school of philosophy called- Taoism. Within its pages is summed up a complete view of the cosmos and how human beings should respond to it. A profound mystical insight into the nature of things forms the basis for a human morality and vision of political utopia.

In Chapter nine- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

Stretch a bow to the very full,
And you will wish you had stopped in time;
Temper a sword- edge to the sharpest,
And you will find it soon grows dull.
When bronze and jade fill your hall
It can no longer be guarded.
Wealth and place breed insolence
That brings ruin in its train
When your work is done, then withdraw!
Such is Heaven’s Way.

In world literature we can find many prominent writers who have talked about peace, compassion, simplicity of desire, silence, meditation and reverence for nature.

Philosophical ideas do not last so long or affect so many aspects of life unless they are of considerable profundity. Works which we call profound have, among other properties, the ability to touch some deep and abiding chord in human nature, and further to stimulate creative and insightful reflection.

A work that leaves a deep imprint on the mind, gets etched on the spirit, we go back to it again and again for solace, answers and to deepen our understanding of life.

Pablo Neruda in his poem- Keeping Quiet- poignantly and sombrely draws the reader’s attention to the state of our minds, forever cluttered, never experiencing silence, and a quiet moment of introspection.

Now we will count to twelve
And we will keep all still
Let’s stop for one second
And not move our arms so much

And then he slowly shifts to another thought

Those who prepare green wars
Wars of gas, wars of fire
Victories without survivors
Would put on clean clothing
And would walk alongside their brothers
In the shade, without doing a thing.

Life alone is what matters
I want nothing to do with death.

Neruda is referring to unnatural deaths in war. The poet uses the number twelve that probably represents the dial of a clock. Let’s not speak in any language. Here the poet is encouraging a unified movement among people, with no discrimination based on race or language. This would be a mass movement for the first time on the face of the earth, and would greatly enhance unity. Let us stop for a moment and not move our hands so much in violence i.e. Let us not fight and argue so much.

The whole of humankind is in a mad rush to finish off their existence and achieve whatever goals they set. People are so occupied with the daily rush of things and the flurry to accomplish their various goals that they never take the time to look into themselves and understand themselves. Mankind has been personified as the salt gatherer in the poem. In an exotic moment of peace, people would finally slow down and look into themselves in an act of introspection, identify their follies and rectify them, making them better human beings. Death is a threat to many of us because it means that we will not be able to fulfil all the targets that we create. We will not be able to accomplish the task of survival in peace. This stanza is possibly empathetic toward human beings, persuading them to take a lesson from nature. During winter, the earth is blanketed with a coat of ice, and it appears as though there is no life in the environment. Even the air is frigid (frosty) and draughty. However, this is not the end and this does not last for long. The earth gets itself refined of all these trivial discrepancies, counting them all as a part of the rejuvenation process. Despite all natural disasters and calamities, the earth continues its journey. After a certain period of time, the cycle of reconstruction continues. The earth rejuvenates itself and moves on, alive once again.

At some point in a bust day, we have to drop our projects, taking a cue from nature, slow down, relax, connect with family, ourselves, take stock of our day, express gratitude and retire to bed to sleep and rejuvenate. We must nourish ourselves, keep our lamp oiled, and take care not to feel burnt out.

A one act play ‘Zoo Story’ written by Edward Albee in 1958, was recently staged in Delhi.The playwright has dealt with the modern society. The play set in America, comments on the world we live in. It explores themes of isolation, loneliness, miscommunication, social disparity and dehumanization. Although it concludes with death and absurd events that build up tension, yet ends on a note of hope, faith and compassion. The zoo represents the world we live, in imprisonment, behind bars.

The protagonist is so starved of human contact, that he strikes a conversation with a complete stranger, reading a book in the park. He tries to hold his interest, by insisting, he had yet to tell him what happened in the zoo, on his way to the desolate park.

This one-act play concerns two characters, Peter and Jerry, who meet on a park bench in New York City's Central Park. Peter is a middle-class publishing executive with a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets. Jerry is an isolated and disheartened man, desperate to have a meaningful conversation with another human being. He intrudes on Peter’s peaceful state by interrogating him and forcing him to listen to stories like "THE STORY OF JERRY AND THE DOG", and the reason behind his visit to the zoo. The action is linear, unfolding in front of the audience in “real time”. The elements of ironic humour and unrelenting dramatic suspense are brought to a climax when Jerry brings his victim down to his own savage level.

The catalyst for the shocking ending transpires when Peter announces, "I really must be going home;..." At the same time, Jerry begins pushing Peter off the bench. Peter decides to fight for his territory on the bench and becomes angry. Unexpectedly, Jerry pulls a knife on Peter, and then drops it as initiative for Peter to grab. When Peter holds the knife defensively, Jerry charges him and impales himself on the knife. Bleeding on the park bench, Jerry finishes his zoo story by bringing it into the immediate present: "Could I have planned all this. No... no, I couldn't have. But I think I did." Horrified, Peter runs away from Jerry, whose dying words, "", are a combination of scornful mimicry and supplication.


Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist philosopher, nominee Nobel Peace Prize in his book ‘Teachings on love’, talks about American veterans of the Vietnam War. Many of them couldn’t sleep at night because they saw children die in front of their eyes due to land mines. A veteran told him that everyone in his platoon had been killed by the guerrillas. Those who survived were so angry that they baked cookies with explosives in them and left them alongside roads. When children saw them, they happily ate all up. They died an extremely agonizing death in front of his eyes.

Thich Nhat Hanh proposed to him to Begin Anew, a very powerful Buddhist practice. He calmly proposed, “The past is gone, I understand your anguish, it can’t be undone, and this is the moment to make most of what you are left with. Why not work for abandoned children now, there are many who need his help and are still dying of malnutrition, war and exploitation”. The veteran, who must have been receptive due to his sense of desperation, took the advice and was able to transform his guilt, which is an extremely debilitating emotion (it corrodes the soul). There is a possibility of transformation and healing from ones’ emotional turmoil. One can never deal with pain by burying it or trying to escape from it.

It again brings me to a story on Partition of India, ‘Peshawar Express’ by Krishan Chander. It is narrated in the person of the railway engine, the non human machine which alone, while men kill one another, is capable of human feelings.

I quote the concluding paragraph -

‘I am made of wood and steel. There is no life in me. And yet rather than witness bloodshed and be burdened with dead bodies, I want to carry grain to the famine stricken areas. I want to visit coalmines, steel mills and fertilizer factories. And transport in compartments happy and care free peasants. Women with their eyes longing for their men folk, children with smile on their face. People who would salute new world where there would be no Hindus or Muslims, just human beings’.

Story was written more than sixty years ago, but it expresses what every creature wants- peace, coexistence, a life of dignity, laughter, simplicity, family, love, and a community that nourishes.

There is an ancient African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. This proverb was used as a title by Hillary Clinton for her book ‘ It takes a village’, where she points out how crucial it is for all round development of a child to have support of community and society. It takes me back to the times, when as a child, I could walk into my neighbours’ house, have cousins, uncles, aunts visiting during summer vacations, play outdoors till twilight with friends without fear. One never felt lonely or alone.

It just shows we haven’t learnt any lessons from history.

Sarwar Chowdhury, an eminent poet from Bangla Desh writes

We bring misery
we bring peace
we break ourselves piece by piece.

A famous young poet, Munia Khan from Bangla desh writes in her poem-

Where is the seed of love and trust
For the earth needs it to fix the crust
Where is the way through door of peace
When hate is rife and wars never cease

So many questions, but no answers, the poet is in deep anguish.

Abhishek Dua, another young poet from Noida, Uttar Pradesh writes

Douse that ignition that sparks within
In acceptance, of the prevailing circumstance,
There are no ceilings, to the ends,
Ah! In the means, you still have a chance.
Let peace dawn and travel to the heart,
stop then this violence, the bloodshed, burning lives and homes apart.
‘Coz you are, where it ends,
When from you it starts.

If you drive along Ring Road in New Delhi, there are poetic messages on hoardings at bus stops, with beautiful pictures- plant a tree, respect your elders, love the girl child and so on. Have we become so irresponsible, that we need to be reminded of our moral duties? Only yesterday, I noticed a new message on a traffic light at a crossing- ‘Stop Raping’.( I was aghast, I began to speculate, what if young, curious children asked their parents what it meant). In the light of grim and gruesome acts of violence among women of all age groups, Ministry of Social Welfare and Justice is trying to raise awareness about values amongst the citizens, which for centuries were deeply embedded in our psyche- our spiritual inheritance. These are desperate measures in extraordinarily distressing times.

I wonder why Moral Science has been taken away from school curriculum?

A renowned multi lingual poet, Dr Satyapal Anand, based in USA now, writes in the poem

The city of blind
My friends, says the poet
This is the town of plenty and penury
Is the city of complacent blind man,
And they see nothing but themselves

Here again the poet laments over complete lack of empathy, shocking moral bankruptcy and self preoccupation in modern society, more so among urban populace.

Many renowned writers, poets, playwrights have written for children. Oscar Wilde, in his book ‘The Canterville Ghost’ narrates a tale which combines the ingredients of humour, wicked characters, innocence and a message which portrays the significance of love over life and death.

Wilde writes, ‘Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me, you can open for me the portals of death’s house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is.’

From the same tale

When a golden girl can win
Prayer from out of the lips of sin
When the barren almond bears
And a little child gives away its tears,
Then shall all the house be still
And peace come to Canterville.’

Such profound lines- full of wisdom, innocence, love, prayer, belief, longing for silence and peace!

Aldous Huxley, best known for his ‘ Brave New World’ has written only one short story for his niece, Olivia- The Crows of Pearblossom’ , a very endearing, witty tale of two crows, an owl and a rattle snake. The message in the tale is about triumph of cleverness over greed. When you can’t reason with your adversaries, you are left with no choice but to protect your interest in some way. It’s a delightful new glimpse at the imagination of the famous novelist. It’s heart warming tale of Mr. Crow, Mrs. Crow, a rattle snake and a wise Owl. The snake eats up the eggs of Mrs. Crow by sneaking into her nest every day. Mr. Crow reaches out to wise owl for help. They come up with a plan and make eggs of stone. The snake swallows them and dies of cramps. He concludes with the following lines. You just can’t help smiling. I am sure his niece must have had a hearty laugh.

Since that time Mrs. Crow has successfully hatched out four families of seventeen children each. And she uses the snake as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers’.

I have noticed some writers of children’s fiction add poems in the narrative. In this delightful book also there’s a poem

Here’s the song being sung by the rattle snake

I cannot fly- I have no wings;
I cannot run- I have no legs;
But I can creep where the blackbird sings
And eat her spangled eggs, ha, ha,
And eat her spangled eggs

The destructive, selfish snake uses his imagination only to satisfy his greed. Of course in the end he pays for it, and gets entangled in webs of his own making. Oscar Wilde is in his element in this story, with a clear message delivered with wit.

Chandra Prakash Sharma, in the poem- Awake O Man, Awake has a conversation with Lord Krishna about the fate of mankind, overcome with despair at the grim reality- utter chaos and madness. Are we even aware what we are doing to ourselves?

Awake O Man, Awake
When I am on polo ground
Many a poem I have found
Friend Krishna there I meet
Him with a new query I greet
I put him two questions straight
Cows eat grass and man meat ate

Another young poet from Kerala, Premji Premji Premji, a champion of Human Rights, who writes with extraordinary frankness and passion on the subject, has written a poem, ‘ We have to retrieve that’ With focus on Bhanwari Devi, from Rajasthan, who is still working for women’s empowerment, though she and her family are still treated as outcaste.

How can an upper caste man rape a low caste woman
A District judge asked?

Her long skirt,
The only proof of rape,
Is still safe in the dark room of evidences!
We have to retrieve that!)

One can’t help but notice the poet’s rage, disillusionment delivered with sarcasm and pathos.

However life is a paradox, full of contradictions. Where there is indomitable human spirit, there is also as Buddha pointed out, if push comes to shove, our basic instinct for self preservation takes over, and does not stop us from taking lives of our loved ones. I n fact, many creative writers whose work inspires millions of readers, took the extreme step of putting an end to their own lives. All of us fight wars in the deep recesses of our soul, looking for answers, carrying on with courage to stay afloat, talking ourselves out of despair. Perhaps at times the effort becomes too much. Who are we to sit on judgement?

The world over, poets, thinkers are getting together, they realize instead of focussing on what’s wrong with the world, they have to be the agents of change.

Many creative writers have expressed we need hope, courage, will and faith to make it a better world.

I quote from Emily Dickinson’s poem – Hope

Hope is a thing with feathers-
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune without words-
And never stops at all-

Perhaps this is what late Rabindranath Tagore had in mind when he wrote-

‘Every time a child is born it brings
With it the hope that God is not yet disappointed in man ‘

Above all, many unanimously agree we need an ability to act the fool and laugh at the contradictions in life.

I quote again from ‘At home in the world’ by Tagore.

Better surely, to laugh away the world than flood it with tears. That is, in fact, how the world gets on. We relish our food and rest, only because we can dismiss, as so many empty shadows, the sorrows scattered everywhere, both in the home and in the outer world. If we took them as true, even for a moment, where would be our appetite, our sleep?’

At times when I don’t feel at home in the world, I have to go back to the teachings of Lord Buddha, look deep within, calm my body and feelings, examine what is making me feel scattered. Occasionally, I do experience a lightness of being, love and compassion. But I don’t do it regularly enough. I know destiny plays an important role, but at the worst of times we can make choices and nourish ourselves.

Affirmations, intentions, prayers do get translated into actions. They bring about healing and transformation for the well being of all.

Robert Alun Blackwell, a welsh poet, settled in South Africa, speaks in his poem- In my Garden for all of us who want peace, joy, happiness, connection with nature, a slow pace of life.

Relaxing in my spring garden full of hope,
surrounded by lovely flowering shrubs,
I mostly hear the black crows cry but I
have just one wish that a red eyed dove brings
peace, commonsense, love, understanding,
and compassion to the peoples of our world.

At times when I don’t feel at home in the world, I have to go back to the teachings of Lord Buddha, look deep within, calm my body and feelings, examine what is making me feel scattered. Occasionally, I do experience a lightness of being, love and compassion. But I don’t do it regularly enough. I know destiny plays an important role, but at the worst of times we can make choices and nourish ourselves.

We have to resolve to work with due diligence, learn to live mindfully and practice reverence for all as proposed by sages.

Originally published September 27, 2012
Revised and Updated April 8, 2014


More by :  Mamta Agarwal

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 3438      Comments: 6

Comment This is a well researched and written essay on the literature of violence. It is also a fine tribute to those amongst who Abhor violence in any form; the poets and writers whose words plead for a world of peace.

Bob Blackwell
09-Apr-2014 09:29 AM

Comment Excellent post. Enjoyed reading it.

29-Oct-2012 11:42 AM

Comment wow, thanks RAJ

Warm Regards


mamta agarwal
07-Oct-2012 13:33 PM

Comment Well articulated. Elequent.
~ Bowing in salutations~

07-Oct-2012 12:37 PM

Comment Thanks Chandra Mouli ji

Warm Regards


mamta agarwal
07-Oct-2012 11:54 AM

Comment Very profound and inspiring article, ma'am.Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
07-Oct-2012 07:19 AM

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