Also known by the sobriquet The Nightingale of India, Sarojini Naidu was a poet as well as a prominent figure in the Indian National Movement. Her poetry is replete with her patriotism.
The Gift of India is an emotionally charged response to the martyrdom of Indian soldiers in foreign lands, during the First World War. During this period, India was still squirming under the atrocities and exploitation of British Rule. Its hegemony had usurped our sovereignty. They projected themselves as the rulers and denied us our legitimate rights in our OWN country, through immoral methods. Sarojini cries out that though the English had taken over our entire country and monopolized its prosperity, this loss is insignificant in comparison with the ruthless killing of Indian soldiers, who were duty bound to serve the self-assumed monarchs of India. The Indians were in no way involved either in the cause or the outcome of the war, but they were unscrupulously deployed for the benefit of the English against the Germans and their Allies. Naidu has personified India as a Mother and her fervent patriotism is revealed in Mother India herself speaking of the love, devotion and heroism of her children. She speaks of the precious gifts that she has offered to the world, the most important being the gift of her children’s lives.
The very word “gift” raises expectations and arouses curiosity about the nature of this “gift”—who is the giver and who the receiver? And one wonders—is this impartment spontaneous or forced? This poem, which commemorates the sacrifices of our countrymen, begins with a Rhetorical Question. Mother India cries out impassionately to the British colonisers and asks in a rhetoric tone,
Is there ought you need that my hands withhold
Rich gifts of raiment or grain and or gold?
The gifts of India are abundantly extravagant, and she has bestowed them generously. “Raiment” (garment) perhaps symbolises culture, “grain” stands for energy and “gold” wealth. The quantity and quality of gifts that the Motherland has endowed the British with, inspires us with awe at her sheer magnanimity. The receiver’s hands are replete with the resources that she has been bestowing generously. This suggests the loss of material resources for the Motherland and yet their demands remain unquenched. More precious than these worldly riches, the sons of India, referring to the priceless Indian soldiers(metaphorically compared to the” priceless treasures”), have been sacrificed to the British war cause, ruthlessly “torn from” their Mother’s “breast” and “yielded”
To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabers of doom.
This suggests the loss of sons. The mother-son relationship is brought out poignantly by words and phrases like “torn from my breast “and “stricken womb”. She has surrendered the sons born out of her “womb” to serve the British. The word “stricken” depicts how She has had to suffer great pains when giving away her sons. She laments the loss of her beloved, brave sons, who were summoned abroad by the British to fight on their behalf. She alludes to Persia (now Iran), Egypt, Flanders (Belgium) and France, the specific lands, wherein the Indian soldiers were sent. In the Orient and Occident, the drums reverberate as these brave sons march into the Valley of Death, into the mouth of Hell.
Over one million Indian troops from Britain’s colonial empire served in the British army in World War I. Nearly 75, 000 died on foreign fields, never returning home, and over 70,000 were wounded. Serving in the Ypres Sector and other sites on the Western Front, as well as in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli, Indian troops were of vital significance in many battles of the First World War.
Naidu paints a heart rending picture of the pathetic dead soldiers through touchingly apt similes. The Indian soldiers, who fought for the Allies, never returned home and the lifeless soldiers “like pearls” lie buried in “graves” in “alien” lands. Some silently “sleep” along the Persian shores, while others are
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands.
The poet goes on to say,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
The soldiers with severed limbs, and bodies relieved of courage, resemble “shells” that have been deserted by the living creatures within them. The soldiers lie motionless and dishevelled with their beauty stripped off by the hands of destiny like the withered flowers scattered in a sun parched meadow.
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders (Belgium) and France
suggests that the soldiers have bled so much, that even the fields are soaked in their blood. The warmongers have imposed on them the burden of war that they strategize on a table. The Motherland watches in grief as the bodies of her sons lie helpless -–victims of war but not of their own making. Grief tears her apart but pride in her sons’ heroism overwhelms her despair. Her “gift” proves to be too unbearable for her to part with.
Sarojini declares that in the annals of history, none other than our sacred India can be honoured for having made such a “priceless” gift to any country. Mother India rhetorically puts forward the question
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
The heart of Mother India is heavy with the immeasurable sorrow and boundless grief of sons lost. We are horrified to see how the soldiers have been subjected to the futile carnage of war. When She talks about
…the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer,
She means that hopeful prayer is the only solace even while our anguished hearts with overwhelming sorrow swell with pride at the thought of our gracious and valorous soldiers.
And the far sad glorious vision
that comes to her are
Of the torn red banners of victory
The use of “banners” suggests that she hopes that a successful war of independence would be waged by the Indians against the British. “Sad glorious” is an Oxymoron which her longing for freedom, but at the same time she would be “sad” at the prospect of her sons, who would die for the cause, as signified by the banners lying “torn” and coloured “red” with blood.
But She envisions, a day
when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease
And life [will] be refashioned on anvils of peace,
The surge of hate and terror will come to an end when one of the warring countries will be crowned with victory. This seems to be her only ray of light at the end of the gory, dark tunnel of war. People will realize the worth of peace and choose it over hatred, which takes a toll of human lives. An “anvil” is a heavy block of iron on which, a metal is tempered. Similarly, once the pain and suffering is over, life will be “refashioned” anew with love of peace harmonizing the world. Love, respect and honour will be an inextricable part of the new world, laid on the foundation of the gift of India—the blood of her martyred sons. She hopes that one day the world will be relieved of the scourge of war
And then shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,
And [you]they honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,
and cenotaphs will be built in the memory of the soldats inconnus and people will whole heartedly offer their reverence and prayers to the men who had fearlessly charged at the altar of death.
Mother India demands the commemoration of
the blood of my martyred sons!
insisting that they remember the courageous soldiers of India, who sacrificed their lives—a call to honour her martyred sons. Their names engraved in history with the indelible ink of their own blood, will speak volumes of their greatness for aeons to come.
Mother India’s crying over the loss of her children can be seen as a reflection of every mother lamenting the loss of her martyred son.
According to a critic, “It is India only, the great India, which represents itself as eternal Mother India, who loves her sons and daughters as a real mother does…”
Literature has glorified war since time immemorial making it seem worthwhile and a romantic endeavour. This sham was shattered by the horrors of World War I—the inhumane nature of trench warfare, the conditions under which the soldiers were made to live and fight, when lethal chemical weapons were the order of the day. This was an antithesis of what a civilised existence was supposed to be.
The Gift of India can also be read as an anti-war poem. Naidu has reinforced this through the brutal killing of the soldiers, their being used as mere cattle fodder (pawns) and their inability to reunite with their country and their families. Their lifeless corpses bear testimony to it. The soldiers and their families are thus victims of any war resulting in loss and bloodshed. Mother India’s anguish reflects Naidu’s anti-war attitude.