About the Poet
Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) is a leading Indian-English poet. She was born in a Bengali family but she spent most of her early time in Hyderabad. She began writing poems quite early in life. At the age of thirteen she surprised everyone by writing a narrative poem of two thousand lines in English. She received her education in England. It was in England that she came into contact with such eminent critics as Edmund Gose. Edmund Gose, in particular, advised her to write on Indian themes reveling the heart of India. She began to follow this advice in earnest, and wrote on many common familiar Indian scenes and experiences.
When she returned to India, she came to take part seriously in the ongoing freedom struggle. She became popular as the finest orator and poet. She came to be known by the sobriquet as The Nightingale of India. She became the first woman governor of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh from 1947 to 1949. She was the second woman to be become the President of the Indian National Congress in 1925. During the freedom movement she came into contact with renowned people such as Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Rabindranath Tagore, Annie Besant, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, etc. During her travels across the country she delivered lectures on social welfare, women’s power and nationalism. She helped establish the Women’s Indian Association (WIA) in 1917.
Her Persian play entitled Maher Muneer won the admiration of many people including the Nawab of Hyderabad. Her first collection of poems, The Golden Threshold, appeared in 1905, followed by The Bird of Time (1912) and The Broken Wing (1917), The Sceptred Lute (1943) and The Feather of the Dawn (posthumously published in 1961). Her poetry is marked by rich imagery, symbols and metaphors and melody. Written in traditional stanza forms, using rhyme and metre, it lacks complexity of form and structure. That is why, modern poets and critics are not very appreciative of her kind of poetry.
About the Poem
‘The Gift of India’ is an elegy written in a lyric vein. It pays glowing tribute to those brave Indian soldiers who fought bravely during the World War I (1914-1918). About a million Indian soldiers were sent to fight in distant land in Asia, Middle-East and Europe by the erstwhile colonial masters, the British, in India. These soldiers listened to the call of their duty and did their best, even without knowing why they were fighting. In the poem ‘The Gift of India’, Sarojini Naidu underlines the fact of Indians being slaves of the British before being Indians. She refers to the exploitation of Indians in the hands of the white colonialists. Then she laments over the gruesome killings of thousands of Indian soldiers in the East and the West on battlefronts during the World War I. She visualizes the horrible scenes of dead bodies of Indian soldiers lying scattered on the fields. She pays a glowing tribute to their bravery. She declares that in history non other country than India has made such a priceless gift to any other country. The heart of Mother India is heavy with grief at the deaths of her brave sons.
Towards the end of the poem, the poet hopes that soon good sense with prevail, and there would be peace in the world. The sacrifices of the Indians would be remembered with pride for many generations to come.
Brave Indian Soldiers : The poet addresses the erstwhile rulers of India, the British, in an anguished tone. The British, as they ruled India, took away many precious things from here – rich clothes, grains and gold. These things were a sort of gifts from Mother India. But the priceless gifts the British snatched away from her were her dear sons – Indian soldiers whom they sent to fight one their behalf to distant lands. In an emotional tone, the poet, as Mother India, says :
Lo! I have flung to the East and the West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabers of doom.
In other words, the Indian soldiers thought that being soldiers it was their duty to go and gift. They were parted from their death mothers who were brave enough to send them to the jaws of death.
Dead Bodies of Indian Soldiers : Indian soldiers were sent to fight the enemy in Persia and Egypt. They fought bravely and many of them were killed. Their dead bodies are likened to scattered pearls and shells on the sea beaches and in the sandy deserts. They were in bad conditions with pale foreheads and broken hands that fought bravely. They were like flowers scattered in the meadows of Flanders and France. The similes used here only reinforce the fact that those soldiers were as priceless as pearls.
Grief-stricken Mothers : The poet expresses the deep sense of sadness and grief felt by all Indians at the brutal killings of Indian soldiers. No one can measure the tears of grief of their mothers. Their grief surpasses the despair in the poet’s heart and the hope that comforts the anguish of her prayer. She has a sad vision of the bloody fag wavering, proclaiming victory for their masters.
The Poet’s Hope : It is the poet’s hope that a day will soon come when the war caused by hatred would come to an end, and peace would prevail in the world. Then the sacrifices made by brave soldiers would be remembered with gratitude. They would be honoured for their valorous deeds. Coming generations would remember their sacrifices.
Stanza by Stanza Explanation
‘Is there ………. doom.’
Is there anything that I have not given you? I have liberally given you the richest garments, grain or gold. More precious still, I have given you my sons (soldiers) whom I gave birth after suffering great pains. My sons heard the ‘drum-beats’ of duty and reached the valley of death.
‘Gathered like pearls …… Flanders and France’
My brave sons (soldiers), as valuable as pearls, were killed and buried in the graves by the shores of Persia (Iran). their dead bodies lay scattered like shells on sand in Egypt. They lay there with their pale brows and broken hands. The dead bodies of my sons were spread like casually cut-down flowers in the meadows of Flanders (Belgium) and France.
‘Can ye measure ………….. banners of victory?’
Can you (the British who ruled India) ever measure the tears of my grief and sorrow at the deaths of my brave sons? Can you ever know the extent of my woes at their deaths? Can you ever know the extent of my pride over their bravery, the pride that makes me forget my despair? Can you know the hope in my heart that comforts me in my anguished prayer? Can you know of my sad vision of their bloody flag wavering, proclaiming victory?
‘when the terror ……… martyred sons!’
The day is not far when the surge of hate and terror will come to an end, and life will be refashioned on the foundation of peace. That day you will remember with love and in gratitude those who fought bravely and laid down their lives, and honour them for their brave, selfless deeds. You will remember the martyrs of my land, who shed their blood for you.
War, Destructive and Painful : The main theme of Sarojini Naidu’s poem ‘The Gift of India’ is that war is basically painful and destructive. It snatches precious sons from their mothers. During the First World War (1914-1918) which forms the background of this poem, thousands of Indian soldiers perished in alien lands on the bidding of their British masters. They fought bravely even though they had no cause, but only a duty to fight. They laid down their lives. Their dead bodies lay scattered in fields, unattended. The sorrows and sufferings of Mother Indian can never be comprehended.
The poet hopes that soon the surge of hate and violence would come to an end. Life would be refashioned on the strong foundations of peace :
when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
Bravery must be Honoured : The poet has the feeling that the rulers have forgotten the sacrifices of Indian soldiers who fought and laid down their lives on the battlefronts, far away from their country in distant lands in Asia, Middle East and East. Their sacrifices cannot and should not be forgotten. Brave soldiers who die fighting deserve to be honoured and remembered. The poet believes that those Indian soldiers who fought for their British rulers should be remembered for generations to come. Their sacrifices would not go in vain.
To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,
Remember the blood of my martyred sons!
Literary Devices used in the poem
Similes : Sarojini Naidu is known for the use of brilliant similes in her poetry . In ‘The Gift of India’, she has used these three similes with a telling effect:
- The dead soldiers are compared to pearls by the sea beaches :
‘Gathered like pearls in their alien graves’
- The dead soldiers are compared to shells scattered on sands:
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands
- The dead bodies of soldiers lying unattended are like the scattered cut-flowers who nobody cares for:
they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
Metaphors : In this poem a few metaphors have also been used:
- Indian soldiers have been metaphorically likened to ‘priceless treasures’ in line 3.
- ‘the sabres of doom’, is a metaphor for the destructive weapons of war in line 6
- ‘the tumult of hope’ is a metaphor for hateful war in line 19.
Alliteration : Some examples of alliterations are:
- Priceless treasures torn from my breast (‘r’ sound)
- they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance (‘n’ sound)
Rhetorical Questions : Such questions are meant not to make enquiry but to emphasise something :
- Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
- Is there ought you need that my hands withhold, Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
An Elegy : ‘The Gift of India’ is an elegy written in a lyrical vein. It expresses grief over the deaths of thousands of Indian soldiers who fought bravely in World War I, and a large number of them were killed. The sorrow of their mothers can never be guessed. What is sad to note is that the dead bodies of these soldiers remained scattered in the fields, unattended. They did not have proper last rites. The British who ruled over India then conveniently forgot the sacrifices made by these soldiers. Even the present Indian rulers remained silent about these brave sons of Mother India for long. Some academics, of course, remembered them occasionally.
Anti-War Sentiments : The poet uses brilliant similes to convey her dislike of war and what it stands for. The lines that strike us the most are:
they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France
One is moved to read the snatching away of sons from the bosoms of their mothers and the mothers’ intense grief over their demise. The rhetorical questions provide the answers themselves:
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
The dead bodies of the soldiers lying unattended on the bloody fields of Flanders (Belgium) and France are compared to the scattered flowers that nobody cares for. That they have been as precious as pearls scattered by the sea-beaches conveys the enormity of the loss.
Suggestive Title : Naidu has chosen quite a suggestive title for the poem – ‘The Gift of India.’ What is this gift? This is a gift, among many others, which India gave to the Britishers, her colonial masters once upon a time, and this gift refers to the precious lives of her soldier-sons. This gift was, of course, not given willingly; rather it was snatched. The title of the poem is apt also, as it is linked to the main theme of the poem.