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The Exceptional

Nadir Ali

Guthlee is a selection from two of Amarjit Chandan’s collections published in India. The selection has been made by Zubair Ahmed, himself a poet and critic, and can be considered a representative selection of the author’s poetry. The author started his poetic and political career as a young Naxalite. He also edited a research magazine of the left in Punjabi Dastawez (Document). But at the age of thirty he changed his creed; the times too had changed!

He explicated in his interview published in the News on Sunday last year, that being a leftist was a part of the hot-blooded young age. Now in his own words, he is busy "exploring self and sex". There are still traces of the left in this collection for those who read it closely; the two poems on Pash pp. 58-60, Kasa on pg 116 to name a few. The claimed sexuality although explicit has no element of the erotic; it is deadly serious business for Amarjit.


Guthlee, (The Pouch) Punjabi  Poetry
Author: Amarjit Chandan
Pages 175 Rs 100/-(hard cover)
Publisher: Rut Lekha, Lahore
Distributors: Kitab Trinjan
Mian Chambers, 3 Temple Road, Lahore

Two shadows move on the wall in the candlelight / Dhareja is kneading the body of his companion, with his drunken hands / His field is ready to be ploughed today. He is ploughing the field / He puts the seeds uncountable of scented sandalwood. He now levels it (leveling of the land and ‘nuptials’ – ‘Suhag’ – is one word in Punjabi). And now he puts his hand on the heart of the Mother! (page 19)

I consider Amarjit Chandan’s poetry a very important work for the understanding of Punjabi poetics of today, especially in East Punjab. But the collection also includes poems with rhythm and rhyme including one written purportedly in "Raag Sohni" (page 53) Jan gai meri jan gai.

He is a serious poet with immense poetic potential. But the so-called modernism has taken such a grip over poetry writing in East Punjab that they are becoming very obscure, if not outright nonsensical. Chandan is an exception among this lot but one could take issue with his poetics.

I feel every human being is a poet but, fortunately, most of us do not know it. The expression of our yearnings and the dance of our yearnings and the dance of our dreams and desires will, naturally, be very individual. But language by its very nature is a shared heritage and experience. Its symbolism unlike the visual arts cannot be entirely abstract. Our own tradition of song and poetry in Punjabi may be too straight-jacketed by the meter and rhyme but this constraint in the hands of the masters, facilitates, rather than handicapping, the poetic expression.

Amarjit Chandan at the other end of the spectrum is very modern but so rooted in the history and experience of the Punjab, that you are taken along on his distant flights. The poem I liked best in his collection is Aa jao (Come On). The poet’s father suffered from  dementia and he forgot all language except the phrase Aa jao . Chandan makes it a poetic metaphor and wrote a beautiful poignant poem.

Come on fathers!
Come home from alien lands!
Come back again, to die!
The tracks found their feet,
The light found its candle,
But- the music missed its instrument!
Come on fathers! Come on memory!

Amarjit Chandan’s only failure is his utter faith in spontaneity. Not that anyone is going to make out that some of these poems were written in their entirety while running about on the humdrum business of the day. I feel the poetic craft needs some polishing even among the best of poets. Nobody can deny what is called ‘aamed’ in Urdu. Many world masterpieces have been written in this creative surge. Chandan is a craftsman par excellence.

Last year while reading selections from his book, he took the Lahore Press Club audience by storm. Poetry can be performed. Most of the classic poetry of Punjabi was sung and performed but now pritnted poetry is a different genre.

In cold print you may not be able to breathe the life that one feels in a live reading. There is also a vision that you can feel and may not be able to convey in words; something that a painter may be able to do but a poet may not.

In Punjab and in the Punjabi language our experience is so well shared and symbiotic, that we do not need the abstraction that an alienated western poet needs. The shared words, metaphors and experiences in Punjabi are endlessly evocative. The failure to see this difference is common among the East Punjabi poets. The idiom of some of them is also excessively ‘Sanskritised’ and ‘Hindi-ised’ as it is ‘Persianised’ and ‘Arabised’ in Pakistan.

But Chandan is an exception on this score too. Barring some quotations from Granth Sahib, it is our misfortune that we haven’t read its great poetry; the rest of Chandan is easy to follow.

His poetry is a veritable feast of a variety of experiences. One of his recurrent metaphors is ‘Dhareja’ a long dead distant forefather of Amarjit Chandan, who is of the ‘Dhareja’ clan. The play of shifting focus from the forefather to the scion, that is the poet, is a powerful symbol. Family and clan are a very apt metaphor for the immigrant poet for whom it is memory and pain as well as joy, hope and continuity. He contemplates some very unusual themes in a style that is very individual and new in the Punjabi poetry.

I quote from one of his more personal poems, In Memory of Kewal Kaur (a revolutionary leftist who committed suicide).

Is like the screen of a TV turned off
In which I only see my own face.
Is like a broken goblet,
Like a shaking hand that held the cup,
The wine is already spilt and absorbed in the ground. (pg27)

The experimentation with a variety of themes and forms is a hallmark of Amarjit’s poetry. He contemplates the muse (pg 111), the word (pg 144-147) the rhythm (pg 157) the nature of memory and remembrance in numerous poems. Here is one in which he contemplates the nature of the muse:-

The poet reads his just written lines
Backwards from the end
The eye moving from right to left
Is surprised at his choice of words
The eye had never seen it like this before.
When the word reaches the poet
He laughs; he is not surprised,
Sometimes, when the word gone awry, falls in place,
He is dumbfounded! (pg 111)

The muse is of the nature of revelation to Amarjit as he reiterates in a number of poems. I do not entirely agree with him; but then everyone is not as gifted as he is. Even this very prosaic piece has made me plod hard. I wrote this piece with trepidation and now while I read it backwards, unlike Amarjit, I am not laughing!

I hope I will do better while reviewing his next book, that he wrote during his two week visit to Lahore. All the poems are about Lahore or inspired by Lahore; that is the immigrant poet in Amarjit. Not that London moves him any less. He is a poet of love, peace and freedom. His weaker themes are Punjabi pride and its nature. Finally, in this kaleidoscopic labyrinth the real Amarjit seems to stand up; a bitter, immigrant, Punjabi!

What a condemned land Punjab is
Where mothers gift their sons to the pain of alien lands
What a condemned land Punjab is
Where parents dispatch their sons
And then come home and cry
A day finally comes when the locks of silence seal the doors!
What a condemned land Punjab is
It is ever lost in repentance,
There is no dream in the eyes,
Where even death brings no reunion – of the friends.
And the dear children are no more! (pg 165)

[Courtesy: The News, Lahore, 28 November 1999]


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