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“Writing poetry is a mystical experience”

Interview with Amarjit Chandan

“Writing poetry is a mystical experience”

Amarjit Chandan is a Punjabi poet and essayist whose work exists untethered to a specific moment in time. This trend has been lent impetus by the two elements of his poetry: the startling contemporary appeal of his subjects and his straightforward style. Author of eight collections of poetry, five books of essays in Punjabi and two bilingual collections Sonata for Four Hands (with a preface by John Berger) and The Parrot, the Horse and the Man, he tells us in a remarkably prescient way that the journey is always more important than the inevitable destination. As for the style, he shuns conventional poetic devices in favour of far richer and more musical nuances that alchemise his life, times and obsessions.

With his intense eyes, the ectomorphic physique, the deep, sonorous, stentorian voice, Amarjit Chandan is effortless in life as well as in poetry. Widely translated into several languages, he was selected by Andrew Motion among ten British poets for the National Poetry Day in 2001. He has participated in various literary festivals including the prestigious Poetry Parnassus, London, UK (2012), International Literary Festival, Didim, Turkey (2006), and Al-Marbed International Poetry Festival, Basra, Iraq (2017). His poems have been anthologised in All That Mighty Heart: London Poems, edited by Lisa Rus Spaar, University of Virginia Press, 2008.

One of his short poems stands installed in Slough, England, carved in stone. Many of his poems have been set to music, notably by Madan Gopal Singh, Mrityuanjay Awasthi, and Ali Aftab Saeed and more recently by Bani Abidi as part of her sound installation Memorial to Lost Words. He was the subject of Gurvinder Singh’s short film Awazan. His forthcoming book Lahore Diyan Porhiyan is a collection of more than 50 poems inspired by Lahore.

In the interview below with The News on Sunday, conducted on the occasion of Karachi Literary Festival (KLF) 2018 in Karachi, he talks about what memory preserves and desire cannot sustain, ‘the aching cargo of loss’, and his radical ideas unravelling strands of a many-splendoured Punjab

The News on Sunday (TNS): Should we begin the conversation with Kenya — your birthplace?

Amarjit Chandan (AC): I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1946. My father, Gopal Singh Chandan, came to Kenya, for the first time, in 1929. Initially he worked in the Railways department, and later on, adopted photography as his full-time profession. While living there, he also became leader of the Communist Movement encompassing Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike, and an active member of the War of Independence.

Above all, he was a poet — I believe the reason why poetry runs in my blood. When he retired, I had to join him to Nakodar, my ancestral village, in Jalandhar, East Punjab, India. I secured my initial education there, and later at the Punjab University in Chandigarh.

TNS: What propelled you to cut off your ties with Punjab, at least in physical terms?

AC: In 1967-68, I joined the Naxalite Movement for 10 years, spending the last 2 years in imprisonment in Amritsar jail. I indulged in all kinds of ventures, labouring hard and taking pains that would lead towards a revolution. I was the editor of the Movement’s paper called Lok Yudh taken out in Punjabi. By 1980, I had realised that no one was going to offer me a job, especially with the kind of background I had. (They were all afraid of me because I was never the type who would compromise).

Since I was born in Kenya, I had a British passport. I decided to leave for England where I fended for myself, without help or support, living an honest life. At least, I did not have to plead for charity. I did, however, sever my physical ties with Punjab.

No one seemed to realise what the division of Punjab actually meant. One of the reasons stated is that it was such a huge trauma that no one could initially come to terms with it.

In the 19th century, he who had not been compelled by the force of circumstance to leave home must have been  a very fortunate man — those living in villages left for towns while those living in towns left for bigger cities; and those who’d come to live in cities or even villagers, left for distant shores, across seven seas. Punjab has always been indisposed with separation and exile. The English drafted Punjabis into the British Army, and more than 60,000 Punjabi soldiers laid their lives on the battlefront during the World War I (WWI) but no one ever lamented the loss. 10,00,000 soldiers were inducted into the army from Punjab, including Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs but no one cares to know. The only vestiges that can be found are in folk songs sung by women, that are eventually forgotten.

TNS: What was the agenda of the Movement?

AC: Naxalite Movement was based on what you call ‘individual terrorism’. It is the kind of agenda adopted by Marxists and Leninists that says you cannot enforce revolution by killing a handful of people; there has to be a mass movement. Punjabis have always had the indisposition of falling martyr, especially the Sikhs. During the last century, they had a fit of martyrdom after every 20-25 years, whether it was as the leftist Naxalbaris or as Khalistanis. When a Sikh child is coming of age, he’s taught to recite ardaas daily in the gurdwara — a crash course in Sikh history or the history of Punjab against violence and tyranny — so much so that when he grows up, as a sensitive and conscientious young man, he wants to prove himself. It’s an extreme form of individualism. Much has been written about it. Trotsky, Lenin, and all other men of wisdom associated with the Marxist philosophy mused about it. They were all opposed to the trend of ‘individual terrorism’.

I see no point in reiterating that my association with the Naxalites was a failed experiment. It takes courage and honesty to admit that. Those who still adhere to its romantic ideology will be upset to hear me speak. As long as the human conflict between classes and societies remains, violence will prevail. But my belief is, it doesn’t solve any problem. Since I’ve been part of a movement based on violence, I know for one that it doesn’t improve situations; it is anti-human in essence. In his message to Lenin on the birth of Russian Revolution, Gandhi wrote: Don’t ever trust anything based on violence and terrorism.

TNS: How did you survive in the United Kingdom?

AC: I joined a corporation in the local government that had plenty of material to be translated. There was a growing demand for translation of literature into the Punjabi language among the immigrant population residing in the UK. Translations helped me butter my bread through those long years. During this time, I translated Bertolt Brecht, Pablo Neruda, Yiannis Ritsos, Nazim Hikmet, and many others. I did not translate Milan Kundera on purpose because he did not belong to the space occupied by the revolutionary Marxist group. In simpler words, he was not part of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s legacy. On the contrary, he was part of a group of anti-socialist intellectuals who had a separate history. Of course, I translated Lorca — victim of the fascist regime.

The geo-physical distance from Punjab deepened the spiritual bond with it, as one reminisced about the land of one’s birth while living miles away from home. Baba Guru Nanak once advised someone: Be desolate; desolation will add up to your spirit of humanity. It’s a blessing for the Punjabis, not a curse. It’s a challenge to invoke the spirit of Punjab (read Punjabiyat) among people while living abroad. It yields a special flavour. Punjabis are divided; they lack unity. The Muslims are confined to their mohallas, and the Sikhs to theirs while the Hindus are practically ‘invisible’. They don’t even count themselves among the Punjabis because it doesn’t make them feel proud.

TNS: What did you learn from Punjabi literature per se, produced around Partition?

AC: Talking about the poetry written around 1947 — a large part of it by the Sikhs — the Muslims did not write much, either because they were not distressed or perturbed by Partition, or because they refused to express it in verse. It is, however, a matter of extreme dismay why they didn’t. What is even more disturbing is the fact that none of the Muslim painters of the time painted the subject of ‘The Great Divide’. For that matter, why haven’t the Sikh painters made it their subject? Whereas  the Hindu painters did, right from Satish Gujral to Krishen Khanna to S L Prasher to Pran Nath Mago. I’ve kept looking for an answer to my query: Why hasn’t a single painter from Punjab of his time painted the Punjabi landscape? Paramjit Singh’s landscape, for instance, is not necessarily a Punjabi landscape. He’s a great painter but his painting does not reflect Punjab. His talent and skill speak of an ethereal landscape; there is no Punjabiyat in it. Why didn’t Chughtai paint the upheaval of 1947?

There was a Sikh artist called Eeshwar Chitrakar who left Lahore for Simla. He painted Nagasaki but nothing based on his own experience of displacement in 1947. Was he more concerned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki than his hometown? Even in poetry (I have compiled and read the entire literature of the times) save a couple of poems here and there, nothing much exists. There’s a poem by Faiz, Subh-e-Azadi: “Yeh Daagh Daagh Ujala, Yeh Shub-Gazeeda Seher” and there’s one by Amrita Preetam, “Aj Aakhan Waris Shah Noon Kitoon Qabraan Wichon Bol”. Ahmed Rahi lamented the rape of Sikh women in his writings though.

The best example is that of Feroze Deen Sharaf. Sharaf wrote the most beautiful song, Sohna Desan Andar Des Punjab Ni Sayyo, sung for the film Heer Sial in 1937 by baby Noorjahan. He passed away in 1955 eulogising Pakistan while, on the other hand, he was declared ‘honorary Sikh’. No one seemed to realise what the division of Punjab actually meant. One of the reasons stated is that it was such a huge trauma that no one could initially come to terms with it. The trauma that the Jew went through was more or less equal to ours, yet they produced wonderful literature.

TNS: What is your take on the role played by Punjabi film industry in cultivating a Punjabi milieu?

AC: If you look at the kind of Punjabi films that have been made generally, their dialogues are crude and vulgar, and their sound, ear-splitting. It appears Punjabi actors don’t speak, they only shout. Why do Punjabis revel in being loud? Why can’t they learn to speak lovingly and patiently?

Talking about playback singing, Noorjehan reigned supreme as the prime female voice, but I truly believe that the industry failed to make the most of the potential she had been gifted with songs like Jadon Holee Jayee Lainda Ae Mera Naan are beautiful but they are a few and far between.

In my opinion, I can’t think of a greater ‘classical’ singer of our century in Punjab than Tufail Niazi. Often referred to as a folk singer than a classical one, we tend to denigrate him to a level below the classical cadre. He came from Jalandhar as I did, maybe  that’s why I sound emotional when I talk about him. Only a fellow Jalandhari can appreciate the tone and timbre of his vocal chords, and the accent. He was an ustad in his own right, whether people acknowledge that or not.

Once, at a clinic in London waiting for the doctor to arrive, a lady walked in and sat beside me. We started talking. She was a Muslim woman who conversed in Punjabi — a fact that made me feel happy. I couldn’t help asking her: Do you belong to Nakodar? She affirmed, leaving both of us astonished. I can’t explain to you now what helped me arrive there. It’s a refined spiritual sentiment. Punjabi is not in conflict with any other language. How one relates through one’s mother tongue — ma boli, as they call it — is amazing. One should stop thinking about chauvinism and nationalism because these are, as it were, English terms. We should instead invent another word for our proud adherence to our linguistic identity which should not necessarily mean that we intend to threaten or belittle other languages.

TNS: What has been the impact of Marxist ideology on Punjab?

AC: Three men introduced the Western thought to Punjab: Bhai Santokh Singh brought the Marxist theory. He was leader of the Independence group in San Francisco, joined by Dada Ameer Haider and many other Punjabi activists. He translated Marx into Punjabi, coining new terms. Puran Singh translated Nietzsche; while Dharam Anant Singh, scholar of Greek and Sanskrit, translated Aristotle and Plato.

These three men made the crowning effort to take the Western thought to Punjab. But the seeds sown by them could never thrive. Soon after, Stalinism took over and the Marxist doctrine failed to reach out to public in its purest form. Stalinism caused tremendous damage to the Punjabi thought. With the sole exception of Sajjad Zaheer and Sibte Hassan, the rest were Punjabi like Abdul Majeed, Dada Ameer Haider, Eric Cyprian, and Mulk Raj Anand who were groomed during the Stalinist regime. Stalinism was a prejudiced ideology that harmed not only Punjab but also the entire world.

TNS: What was your association with John Berger like?

AC: I had a long association with Berger. He was a generous soul unlike most English authors. He was a self-proclaimed Marxist who never abandoned the Marxist ideology. As they say “Once a communist, always a communist”. But he was better known as a “spiritual secularist” a la Spinoza. There have been two ideologies, and one of them was the Theory of Dialectical Materialism expounded by Marx to understand human nature and history. The biggest reason why the Marxian dream of social reform shattered is the Gnostics.

Around the time of Berger’s 90th birthday, I co-edited two books in English. One of them is a compilation of 90 poems by 90 different poets in the world. A Jar of Wild Flowers is a compilation of essays based on the contributors’ impressions on Berger. The volume also includes a very interesting essay by Professor Salima Hashmi based on her experience of teaching Ways of Seeing at the National College of Arts, Lahore.

Berger was more than a friend; he was like an elder brother or father to me. I attended his funeral in France. Like you can never forget your parents, I cannot forget Berger. He invades my thoughts. There’s an essay by him on Partition, probably inspired by his camaraderie with Victor Anant. He was also very close to Arundhati Roy.

TNS: Which of your books is the best distillation of your sentiments and experiences?

AC: The books authored by a writer are like his children — each one is close to him, each one loved. But he also knows his children’s weaknesses. I started writing poetry at the age of 20, even though I would admit that I began to write maturely in 1995, and the first book of poems to come out then is called Jaraan. After that, I’ve published seven books of poems in addition to prose. A book of selected poetry is already in the pipeline. I would say that the poetry written after ’95 is, as an Englishman would put it, ‘not too bad.’ Before that, I was still a poet manqué.

The sense of being an ‘outsider’ or a ‘foreigner’, of exile, has had a major role to play. You earn your bread in another language; spiritually you live in one land and physically in another.

Writing poetry is a mystical experience, almost like a revelation. I don’t distinguish between prose and verse. Poetry is revelatory but writing prose is an act of tapasaya like hardcore meditation. One has to go through the divine agonies of creation. Jab Aankh Hi Se Na Tapka To Phir Lahoo Kya Hai.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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