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Real home of man is where he has dignity

Self Portrait, London 1989
Self Portrait. Amarjit Chandan, London 1989

HE is a Punjabi to the core, but his Punjab does not stretch from Amritsar to Chandigarh or from Lahore to the banks of the Yamuna. For Amarjit Chandan the leading Punjabi poet and former Naxalite, the entire world is Punjab. In one of his poems he says ‘not five but many rivers flow in my Punjab’. His poems have appeared in The Independent, the Poetry Review,  Critical Quarterly, Race Today, Artrage, Bazaar, Papirus (Turkey), and Erisma (Greece). They have been translated into English, Romanian, Turkish and Greek. He was awarded Young Writer Fellowship by the Lalit Kala Akademi in 1980.

Before moving to the UK, Chandan was a correspondent for the Bombay-based Economic and Political Weekly. Since 1986 he has been working as coordinator, Translataion and Interpreting Unit, London Borough of Haringey. He has also worked for the BBC. Chandan was in Chandigarh this march on his way to Lahore for the release of his book Guthali, a collection of 101 poems. He spoke to Kuldip Dhiman about his poetry and his past.

Even in your self-imposed exile, you haven’t forgotten the nuances of the Punjabi language. This must have been difficult.

I think, feel, and dream in Punjabi. My language is my real home, my last retreat. I feel most secure, and at one with my own self in my ma boli. Freud says it is not possible to return to the womb. My poems bear witness that the return is possible through the ma boli, mother language. But sadly, we are losing our language, and this loss has been a severe blow to me. I may sound a bit paradoxical when I talk about language. Memories have been the recurrent theme in my recent poems, but what are memories? They are slow-motion images that come back in sonic codes. If I find my memories tormenting how can I feel secure in my mother language? And in one of my recent poems, I expressed the desire to go beyond language, and feel free and be silent forever.

Poetry that is written for a cause is in danger of becoming propaganda. How did you manage to save your work from becoming a mere rhetoric of Naxalism?

I had this artistic concern from the very beginning. It saved my work from becoming mere propaganda. Most people remember me for my association with Dastavez, the magazine that I edited during my Naxal days. Although a lot of poems by other Naxal poets were published in Dastavez, I never lowered my literary standards. I have always tried to break taboos in my poems. I have written about sex, I have written a poem about the time I was conceived No subject is a taboo for me, but I try not to cross the limits of decency. Love and compassion is the main theme in my poetry.

People who turned to the Naxalite movement were usually from the lower rungs of society. You were born in Nairobi into a middle class family, what drove you to become a Naxalite?

In my younger days my heart was aflame with an uncontrollable revolutionary zeal. I joined this movement as it was a raging fad in those days to be a leftist. Can you imagine a youth carrying a very crude gun made of a bicycle handle? Quite often it killed the user rather than the target. Symbolically, Naxalism was a suicidal movement; it was never a people’s movement. It was a movement of murder and martyrdom.

Why didn’t you opt for other democratic means instead of opting for Naxalism?

It is a historical problem associated with the Punjabi youth that compels them to take to violence. There seems to be a pattern of violence, especially in the present century, that keeps repeating itself every 20 or 25 years. There was the Ghadar movement, and then there was the Babbar movement, then Bhagat Singh, then Udham Singh, then Partition, followed by the Naxalite movement. In the 80s it was the Khalistani movement. It is vicious cycle, and I have tried to examine this in my essay Shaheedi da Romance — The Romance of Martyrdom. Our blood is imbued with martyrdom. If you listen to the Sikh ardaas that is repeated every day so many times; it is a crash course in Sikh history. How the Sikhs suffered, how they died, and how you too can become a martyr, a shaheed. Sometimes ago I wrote a poem that said "youth is the time to enjoy life", A critic wrote back saying, "No, it is the time to die". That sums up the psyche of the Punjabi youth.

Naxalism thrived among the tribal people of Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. Most of your foot soldiers were uneducated. Did they really understand Marx, or the cause they were dying for?

You can’t teach theories or philosophies to the common man. We told them a few basic things such as we must fight against oppression by the use of violence; that was enough. But now I realise, violence for the sake of violence doesn’t solve any problems. Violence may be necessary in certain circumstances, but violence shouldn’t be your guiding philosophy.

The tribal people were uneducated and backward, but people like you were well-educated and politically aware. Didn’t you ever try to question the oppressive methods of Stalin, Mao?

No. The quest for martyrdom makes you an extreme individualist. You are possessed by the revolutionary zeal. You cease to be a rational being. A rational being will never murder a fellow human being. A rational being will never commit suicide.

At the age when most young men fall in love, you took to revolutionary ways. Being a poet, didn’t you ever surrender your heart to anyone?

No. I did fancy some girls but my love was never reciprocated. I have never experienced this sort of relationship with a Punjabi girl, and I miss that. To talk with your beloved in your own language is a totally different experience. Even the silences speak in Punjabi.

You were very close to your parents, especially your mother. Didn’t she ever try to stop you or goad you to mend your ways?

No, she was too naive politically. She didn’t know what communism was, what Naxalism was. But she knew I was into something that would get me into trouble. I know she suffered a lot because of me. She used to cry all the time, and I really feel sorry for her. She used to often taunt me: "If you think you are so brave, then why are you hiding from the police?’ or she would say, "My son has become a saadh (a saint)." I have written so many poems about my father and mother. I think, they were the only true friends I have ever had. Their love, I now realise, was totally unconditional and selfless. I feel terribly sorry for having hurt them.

You have dedicated some of your poems to Kavi Puran Singh.

He is my role model, and I think he is the greatest poet of this century. A disciple of Swami Ramtirath, he was a great humanist inspired by Gurbani, Sufism, Vedanta, and Buddhism.

On the one hand you had a saintly figure for a guru, and on the other you indulge in this extreme leftist movement. Would Kavi Puran Singh have approved of your ways?

No he wouldn’t have. I know I may be holding contradictory views and philosophies. You see, man is made of contradictions. There are so many beings in the mind that vie with one other to take hold of you; that to dominate your psyche from time to time. I have written a poem about it called — A man with ten shadows.

Some people call you a post-modernist poet.

They don’t know what they are talking about. I really feel uneasy when somebody calls me a post-modernist. I want to make it absolutely clear through this interview that I am not a post-modernist poet. The post-modernist ideology says that history is dead, class struggle is dead — everything is finished. It is all humbug. My work is being misinterpreted and misused by some vested interests who are using my name for their own convenience.

Once you have been brought up under the influence of a certain ideology, it takes tremendous courage to give it up and admit that you were wrong all along. You must have done a lot of soul-searching.

Thanks very much. Please tell my ex-comrades about it. Nobody dares to think why this dream of Utopia has failed. There must have been something terribly wrong. The system was rejected not by a tiny section, but by millions. Recently I got hold of a book by Maxim Gorky, titled Untimely Thoughts. These essays were written in 1918, and he says that the Bolsheviks don’t know the soul of the people. What I am writing now, Gorky had already written in 1918. It was an eye-opener for me. But people with closed minds do not want to read that book.

Don’t your ex-comrades accuse you of being a heretic, a renegade?

They dare not look at me in the face and call me a renegade. I haven’t made any compromises to this day. But look at them: on the one hand, they are enjoying all the benefits offered by the government they call oppressive, authoritarian and corrupt; and on the other hand, they fancy themselves as revolutionaries. I am not afraid of questions. I even question myself in my poems. Even Marx said we must doubt everything. And these blind followers of his ideology don’t doubt anything. These guys say their ideology is scientific. Now, if an experiment fails, what does the scientist do? He conducts another experiment. He does not try to justify his failure, or say that his failed experiment has not failed at all. So, in the true scientific spirit, the Marxists must admit their failure. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Will this prodigal son ever return?

No, I don’t want to come back. I think man is in exile everywhere, and that’s his fate. The real home of man is where he has dignity. A place where he can afford to say no without the fear of being punished.

[Courtesy:  Sunday Tribune, Chandigarh, June 6, 1999]


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