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A Major Landmark

Gurinder Singh Mann, Columbia University

Cover Jarhan
Jarhan, Amarjit Chandan, pages 112, Aesthetic Publications, Ludhiana.1995. Rs100

This book's pitch black jacket with its insert window that reproduces the painting "Urn and the Shadows" provides a striking introduction to the poetic imagination as it unfolds in eighty-four poems (a potent number in the Indian context). The visual representation parallels Amarjit Chandan's attempt to create a verbal urn (kumbh) whose function is to hold the experiential components out of which it is actually created (kumbhe badha jalu rahe jalu binu kumbhu na hoi, Adi Granth, p. 469), against the background of an overpowering darkness that the poet feels obliged to salute (namskar andhkar. . andhkar namskar, p. 28).

By printing the word Jarhan in green ink on the jacket, Chandan is also making a statement about the life and vitality of his own personal roots, and this issues deserves our attention. A search for one's roots is usually born out of a crisis situation, and this is what happened in Chandan's case. He was uprooted in the 1970s from the Punjab, where he had emerged as an important poetic voice and a political activist with a Marxist orientation. In the following decade, Chandan landed in London, a culturally alien environment that was also one of the most vibrant centers of Western capitalism. These poems in many ways are milestones along the way in Chandan's search for his roots, and can be interpreted in the context of his personal history.

In the opening section, he introduces us to the darkness that pervades his mind and his efforts to find sustenance. In the second section, beginning with "Man Boli" (The Mother-tongue), he successfully locates his roots in the cultural and spiritual context of the Punjab and celebrates the self-enlightenment that results. By way of conclusion, three poems representing his political views on Punjabi issues are appended.

The book begins with two poems in which Chandan attempts to reconstruct his family lineage (vel). The time collapses and Chandan meets his originator face to face: in some ways he feels that although continuing the tradition of creation, his urns of words are different from those of mud and clay of his ancestors, and his purpose for writing these poems is to situate himself and his literary predecessors within the paradigm of creation.

Chandan is aware of the problems that beset him in this enterprise. To express his experience in the thirty-five/ fifty-two letters of his language is undoubtedly hard (na penti na bavan akhari vich samandi/ lakkh chavan na dasi jandi, p. 21). But his hopelessly idealistic political vision (p. 24), and the metaphysical despair of the drama of life (je oh hunda sarab giaita/al-alim maha khilarhi/ eh ghate di khed na kade rachaunda, p. 26) are not helpful either.

Chandan's attempts to console himself in his present situation with thoughts that he is not alone and his rich store of memories can sustain him, seems like wishful thinking (p. 25). The poems Thames Kandhe (At the banks of the Thames) and Covent Garden London  portray the poet's sense of deep isolation in a relatively hostile landscape. His efforts to communicate with his female partner do not work. In addition to the basic linguistic barrier, there is a complete absence of any shared sense of significance. The foundational question for the poet in "the game of loss" is dismissed by his partner with "I do not know," (p. 32)"-- and perhaps do not care either.

Any attempts on the part of the poet to overcome these hurdles and establish an emotional communication with his European partner--even at the basic human level--are thwarted by the glaring blue lights of the signboards above and the hooting of the ships below, the two potent symbols of London's commerce. The poets' attempt to see himself in the image of God (jiun sagal srishati sajanh vale hoie, p. 32) is lost in the noise of the magic show all around him.

Next we have a set of poems beginning with the Nach (Dance), where Chandan tries to fully capture the boredom and the inner erosion of his self, on daily, weekly, and annual cycles of time: Saver (Morning), Dupaihar (Noon), Raat (Night), (pp. 50-52);  Somvar Savere  (Monday Morning), Shukarvar ("Friday"), (pp. 48-49); and 13 November 1994. The essence of all this is a complete dissolution of identity, and the anguish that becomes unbearable on his birthday (benam vi jind nu pirh ke rakhia, p. 53).

At this point, Chandan the poet reaches a new and higher level of realization. His identity has to be located in Punjabi culture. The culture he sucked from the breast of his mother, imbibed from the guidance of his father, and breathed from the Punjabi landscape. His mother-tongue is the only effective medium through which he can grasp experience. It is in Punjabi that he hears the flow of blood in the veins of his partner (man boli vich/. . . uhde narhin vagde lahu di dharhkanh sunhdi, p. 54), and, above all, it is Punjabi that connects him to his cultural and spiritual heritage (man boli vich/mirze hiran alakh jagavan/ man boli vich/ shabad guran de parian gavanh/ sabh kujh sirje binse man boli hi, p. 54).

The poet and his mother-tongue thus come together to give shape to his experiences in an alien land. Chandan beautifully expresses the dreams that he landed with in London (deson chal ke London utre/ jebin san tin khab/pahila khab si ghar da mittha/ duja ucchi jab/ tija khab si put dhian da fasia vich azab, p. 87), the bitter reality of racism, and the response it elicits (chhokarvadha galan kadhada: paki kala kanjar/. . . paki to phir panki banh ke/badle apanhe nem/ gurpal to gairi banhgei/ sarbjit to saim, p. 87).

Having come to this realization, Chandan seems to make peace with himself. Even in London, he has successfully recreated a Punjabi landscape of the interior, and is willing to live happily with it. When walking besides the Thames, his inner eye sees only the Punjab, which he later expresses in Punjabi images and metaphors. Chandan celebrates the music of the language (denh vadhaian/ sakhian aian/ pi ghar aia/ khushian chhain, p. 60); dotes on its spiritual heritage by echoing the words of the Sikh Gurus (kavanhu su janam da kihrha nata/ bhed kade na paunha, p. 65, aau subhagi nindarhie matu sahu dekhan soi, p. 103); and those of the Sufi saints (ese na si lekh lakhaie/ hoia ki menu samajh na aie, p. 61); recreates the Punjabi humor and rustic rhyme characteristic of Jallanh (kot nachhatar gah ke men us uto latha/ us apanha sir meri chhati par rakha, p. 102); reproduces Punjabi generic forms ("Pash da Marsia," p. 75); and reminds us of special Punjabi symbols associated with waiting ("Aunsian," p. 69).

Chandan's language now expresses the core of his being as it bursts forth with all the energy of the Punjabi landscape (nadi paharho utre/ na murh ke jai/ uh tan chhalan mardi val sagar dhai, p. 85). The description is in direct contrast to the static images relating to the Thames, and limited attempts at conversations we find there. Suddenly there is light, and the earlier salutations to darkness change into a victory for life (jai jivan jai jivan gaunha, p. 73). It is important to see that Chandan, in his zest for life, is willing to modify the tradition of sacrifice and militancy he has inherited from his Punjabi/Sikh culture.

In the recapturing of his cultural identity, one sees the heights to which Chandan's imagination can sore. Pardesian da Git (Song of the Aliens, p. 84) will remain a masterpiece of its genre. I doubt if any Punjabi of my generation who lives overseas can listen to this song without a tear coming to his or her eyes. The rhythms and visual images of the Punjab reconstructed in this song are a deeply valued treasure of all for all of us who grew up there in the 1960s. The parola (a whitish clay) covered cornices may not exist any more, but this poetic recreation of the Punjabi landscape is a singular achievement on Chandan's part.

At the end of the book, Chandan appends three poems that,respectively, celebrate an early freedom fighter (Baba Harnam Singh Tundilat . . .), challenge the murderers of the Punjabi people (Punjab de Katlan nun), and rember Sikh activists of the 1980s (Uh Jo Hunde San).

From my point of view, it is bit presumptuous for those of us living overseas to advise the inhabitants of South Asia as to what to do with their countries, and who to eulogize from contemporary history. This is, however, a very minor difference I have with the views of Chandan. The book reconstructs the struggle of an uprooted poet, and the eventual peace he makes with himself which results in a set of beautiful poems that blend an intellectual understanding of the agony of an immigrant (symbolized by the dark backdrop on the jacket of the book), and a deeply felt and alive understanding of the Punjabi cultural heritage (the green ink of the title).

The suffering that runs through these poems is powerfully expressed in the dance of a caged Peacock (jangle vich pel pai sarian ne dekhi/ nale nachada riha, nale jhurda riha, p. 77). Chandan's painful dance within the cage of an alien land rises above his personal predicament, however, to capture the pain of a whole generation of Punjabis living overseas. They too are all part of this dance and need Chandan's poetic mind to render their own pain into a beautiful and rich cultural idiom. Is there any Punjabi far away from the land of his or her birth who will not identify with the experience at the heart of these poems and be pierced with Chandan's helpless cry about the predicament of the Punjabis living overseas (saveran de bhulle hunh kithe javange/ jihrhe janhde si oh vi anjanh ho gai, p. 94)?

In my view this book is a major landmark and will secure its author a definite place of honor in Punjabi literature. I foresee much more to come; the peace Chandan has attained bodes well. Chandan must continue his dance in a self-created cage--like all first generation immigrants--and I personally look forward to the opportunity to read more of his cathartic "grouses" (jhurna) in the years ahead.



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