The Gift of India: About the poem
The Gift of India is a poem written in 1915 by the Indian poet, freedom fighter and politician Sarojini Naidu. The poem is a tribute to the contribution of Indian soldiers in World War I. Over ten lakh Indian soldiers from the British Indian Empire served in the Allied forces in the First World War. A vast number of them sacrificed their lives. Indian troops fought in different locations of significance to the allied stronghold and had an important share in many of the battles throughout the course of the war. However, the contribution of the Indian soldiers is overlooked in the vast expanse of the War’s history. These selfless sacrifices of the Indian soldiers for the western agitation are captured in Naidu’s poem ‘The Gift of India’.
The poem not only concentrates on the theme of soldiers making their ultimate sacrifice for someone else’s war, but also talks about the numerous benefits the foreign countries reaped from India. The poet regards these benefits as gifts given by India to the colonisers.
The poem can be regarded as a kind of reminder or appeal to the allied forces to remember the Indian contribution to their victory.
Form and language of the poem
The poem The Gift of India has a simple and elegant rhyme scheme of aabbcc. Each of the stanzas have six lines, where the first two lines introduce either an idea or create a picture, the next two lines build up on them, and the final two present a sort of small conclusion for the stanza. (In many anthologies and websites the poem is treated as a whole undivided piece. Here is one site that makes the stanza divisions clear. And we will take that for the ease of reading.)
The poem as an entire piece has a subtle flow in it where Mother India herself proclaims proudly her gifts to the west. The first stanza introduces the various gifts India has bestowed upon the colonisers, which include both its riches and people. The second stanza focuses more on the wistful state of martyred Indian soldiers. The third stanza talks of the grief those deaths have brought. And finally, the fourth stanza is a sort of appeal to honour the sacrifices of the Indian soldiers for the cause of the war.
The Gifts of India: Stanza-wise explanation
Is there ought you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
Lo! I have flung to the East and West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of duty, the sabers of doom.
The first stanza begins with Mother India asking if there are any more sacrifices left for her to make. She has given the world rich gifts of cloth, food grains, and precious things like gold. India has flung priceless treasures of her land to the countries of the East and the West. Moreover, she has sent her sons, that is, the youth of her land in distant battlegrounds to fight someone else’s war. She questions what more can the nations of the world expect her to give them.
In order to understand these lines, we must look at India’s history — especially the time around which this poem was written. It was 1915, in the middle of World War I, when India was still under the British rule. A lot of Indian soldiers employed in the British forces fought in the World War for the allies. The poem can be seen as the poet’s homage for these soldiers. Under the British rule, India was exploited for its riches and resources. Here, the poet acknowledges this fact. The very first line of the poem shows India’s sentiment of anger and the question ‘Is it not enough that I have given everything?’
The words ‘sabers of doom’ especially catch our attention. They represent the nature of the war and the devastation it leaves in its wake.
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.
In the second stanza of The Gift of India, the speaker, Mother India, shows the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers from a different angle. These brave soldiers who fought and gave up their lives are buried in mass graves in the foreign countries where they died. They were away from their homeland, and even their bodies did not get the comfort of finally resting in their own motherland. The speaker says that “they sleep by the Persian waves, and scattered like shells on Egyptian sands”.
The speaker says that these dead soldiers “lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands”, further intensifying the image of death and devastation. The bodies are scattered like carelessly trimmed flowers (blossoms mown down by chance) in the battlefields of Flanders and France. The poet’s use of the words ‘by chance’ speaks that in her eye, the soldiers did not deserve to die. Also, the comparison (a simile here) of the warriors to ‘blossoms’ signifies how the motherland sees them as valuable human resource. ‘Blood-brown meadows’ expresses the horrors of war and warfronts in a rich poetic language. Though completely contrasting with the subject, it poses as an apt metaphor.
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of Victory?
In the third stanza of The Gift of India, the speaker talks to the foreign countries. She asks them if they can measure her grief and her tears or know her woe, her sufferings when she watches all these. She says that they can never fathom the pride that thrills through her heart, in spite of her despair. The poet suggests that the speaker, despite her sadness and deep rooted anguish, is proud of her sons who have fought bravely and brought victory. She gives expression to the voices of countless Indian mothers whose sons have fought in the war. The poet says that the people of the warring nations can never comprehend the small hope that comforts these mothers from the pain of praying for their sons’ safety.
She asks if they can understand the vision of glory she sees. It is a sad one, because she has lost her sons for it. The torn red banner of victory, which has come at the expense of so much blood, is sad and meaningless for her.
When the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the deathless ones,
Remember the blood of thy martyred sons!
In the last stanza of the poem, the speaker talks about the ensuing peace after the war and the martyrdom of the countless soldiers. The terror and tumult of hate which has created the war shall end and there will be peace. Life will be refashioned, it will go back to normal with drastic new changes. People will pay their respects to the dead who fought in the war, the comrades in many ranks who gave their life. They will honour the deeds of those soldiers, who will never be forgotten. When such a time of peace comes, the speaker asks that the blood of her martyred sons be remembered as well, that they be honoured as well.
What is curious here is the poet’s use of phrase ‘on anvils of peace’. This implies that the process of getting life back to normal will not be an easy one. It comments on the aftereffects of wars in general.
The poem ‘The gift of India’ started as a celebration of India’s contribution to the causes of others. But it ends up as a strong war poem, concentrating both on the evils of destruction wars bring, and the mourning, as well as the courage, honour and recognition of the heroes who fight in it. As always, Naidu’s poem arouses a sense of pride and patriotism in the hearts of his countrymen.