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Saturday, August 8, 1998

This above all
regional vignettes



A handshake with Chandan’s poetry

By N.K. Oberoi

THE polemics unleashed by the review of Punjabi poet Amarjit Chandan’s meditations in prose, Nishani, the rejoinders of the poet himself and his critics throw up questions unintended by anyone of them. In the reviewed work, Chandan traces the making of the poet in the way-wardness of his self-exile. Chandan’s proclamation that he is a poet and not a semiotician did not clinch the issue for his critics. Making references to Bhartharihari’s theory of meaning or Roll and Barth’ess thoughts does not fall within the privileges of his poetic licence, they say. If he considers the poetic meaning as a flash of lightning he cannot be accused of any semiotic violation. Who is making sense — the critics or the poet — makes sense-making of poetry itself questionable. Besides, the lyrical and the critical have to be understood in a mutually reinforcing rather in an incriminating relationship. The unintended question, however, is whether what the poet says or what his critics say, admit of any reference to us.

A contemporary of poets Pash, Patar and Amitoj, Chandan now is a contemporary of Amarjit Kaunke, Jaswant Deed and Sarvjeet Savi. His poetry anthologies Jarhan and Beejak have not been duly recognised. Now when Chhanna, another anthology of poems is about to be released, it is time we came to terms with the nature of his poetic achievement.

Reading Chandan’s poems we are seized with a sense of lost intimacy. It is a slide back on the memory slope, revisiting the sights and sounds, flora fauna and ambience which constitute one’s cultural upbringing. We enter a landscape of absences, silences and the ebb and flow of an awareness that rarely surface up. One feels deeply touched by a voice, a mood, a poignant memory. The poet seems to be in complete command of where the memory takes us. It is not a conducted tour. It turns into an encounter with one’s lost self. Through the reverberations from Gurbani, Kabir, Bulleh Shah, Bhai Vir Singh, Puran Singh, we are led into this encounter with what we are increasingly getting alienated from. The encounter is so well monitored that we are rarely left alone with what the poem is doing to us.

Chandan seems to believe that there is structural kinship between the coming into existence of a poem and our culturally being born. The adventure of the poem originates in the silence and the absence within us struggling to be born in language similar to the cosmos shaping itself out of chaos. His romance with his prenatal existence represents his struggle to reach out to the unspoken and the unexpressed. His father who cannot read or write is known and is shy of putting his thoughts on the paper is known as Gianiji by the people for having got Ekonkar inscribed on his arm. The entire creation is a paper for the elements — earth, air, fire, water and sky-- to write their poetry on. His mother figures in many of his poems. The image of mother stands for cosmic creativity. In one of his poems his mother while cleaning them, kisses the pair of shoes on the steps of a Gurdwara like her new born babes. In the snatches of folk songs and tales heard from his mother he discovers the place called his home. In another poem he says his village is where the memory of his mother throbs within him. The village as an image encompasses mother earth itself. The mother embodies a home grown humanism emanating from her grounding in the scriptures. While listening to Lata Mangeshkar’s song the poet experiences vibrations of his mother’s love for him. Being out tune with his outside and the inside, he recovers his bearings through the memory of his mother. His mother becomes the space and time of his forgotten milieu and his present sense of displacement. Loitering in the bylanes of London he becomes aware of his loneliness, the feeling of being lost for not being able to express himself in his mother’s tongue.

If there are poems delving into the substratum of memory, there are also poems which express political content. In the melodic pattern of a nursery rhyme, Chandan brings out with impishness and poignance the hurt racial pride of the villagers over a Punjabi girl marrying a Chinese, in preference to a Punjabi, even an Englishman. The ironic comparison of Guru Gobind Singhji’s blue stallion on run without anyone on its saddle to the legendary Ashwamedha horse is a soul-stirring indictment of the bloody terrorism let loose in Punjab for a decade or so. Chandan may or may not consider such poems as representative of his achievement. His loud denunciation of his Naxalite past and poetry, whether he may like it or not, only helps us to understand the development of his poetry from the Naxalite to its manifest spirituality of the here and the now, Spasht Adhyatamvad, as he or someone else describes it.

In between the poems as memory crystals and the poems with political undertones there is a whole range of overtly romantic, naughty poems. While taking tea with his girl friend in Covent Garden or weaving fantasies of running into his lost girl friend by chance or God’s grace or imagining the shape and curves of the body of a woman from the clothes drying up in the sun may appear frivolous but are innovative in distilling hi-fi romance from the familiar non-events of one’s routine life. A young boy flying a kite in the sky is shown conversing with the flying birds and fixing a patch on the sky with his kite. The poet Chandan elsewhere defines poetry itself as a patch of sky.

Play of memory is the key to understanding the working of Chandan’s imagination. Inhabiting his poetic universe we have a feeling of turning the pages of a family album. The pictures in the album seem to resemble us. They become us in a way. The audio-visual space appears at moments to be exclusive and private, and public and impersonal at other times. With an air of brashness Chandan describes his poems as narratives of his quest. Both the quest and its narrativisation become public property after they get transformed into credible poetry by him. Turning to inner spaces of the human heart besides, is a phenomenon not circumscribed by Chandan’s poetic struggle alone. Seeing the desire-image as the world in itself or the desire-image in the world are ways of seeing the forms of creativity have not been able to exhaust. Without under-mining the magic of his transformation one cannot help questioning the larger-than-life blow-up of his quest. One wishes if one’s ancient, primeval and cultural self were to strike an exploratory rather than a wistful dialogue with one’s contingent, historical self. Through the ritualistic use of visual and auditory images he lends to the harking back to the past, a sense of mystery, a halo and an aura. In one of his poems, where do the images in his poems come from, a dry leaf gets green, with her breasts heavy with milk a mother Tripta is christening her new-born and a father fondly preserves the bullet which killed his poet-son. The images do establish and celebrate the mysterious origin of poetry. What one cannot help wishing is, if the bullet were to, besides the making of the poem, speak to us of our eventual unmaking under the terror struck by it.

The tenacious truck drivers

By Joginder Singh Bedi

THE truck drivers occupy a crucial position in the economic infrastructure of the country, simply because transportation of goods makes them run from one end of this subcontinent to the other. These drivers mostly belong to the class of small time agriculturists in the northern states, namely Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Pressure on land and fragmentation of holdings have made a large number of such agriculturists seek employment in industry and transport. A close look reveals that they are hardy, well-disciplined, and adventurous. Indeed, tenacity and their pursuit of an independent vocation has made them ply their trucks to every nook and corner of the country. And this has indeed liberated them from the narrow shackles of sectarian and regional considerations.

Recently at Chandigarh, a Sikh driver from Nagpur said his job had provided him the opportunity of seeing the whole of India. "We are not parochial in our outlook. We are neither Sikhs nor Hindus nor Muslims nor Christians. We operate as Indians. Our vehicles carry these messages:

Be Indian, buy Indian.

From Kashmir to Kanyakumari India is one."

Almost on the face or side of every truck one can see these phrases.

"The phrases painted on our vehicles project our sentiments", says a Haryanvi driver. Perturbed over the increase in the number of divorce and bride-burning cases, drivers rebuke the dowry-seekers with this phrase on their vehicles:

Kutto, dahej mat maango.

Dehej lena ya dena juram hai.

The drivers actively propagate the family planning drive too, and express concern about the growing army of the poverty-stricken rural youth who have to work either as landless labourers or accept other menial jobs for a living. That’s why they write on their vehicles:

Do hi kaafi, hor ton maafi.

Asseen do, saade do.

The truck drivers are known to be a superstitious lot. To counter their fears or to reassure themselves, they paint the following phrase on their vehicles:

Buri nazar waley tera munh kala.

Then, one might see a broken pair of desi juttis hanging in the front and back of their vehicles to ward off evil.

I was taken aback to see the following phrase on a truck:

Buri nazar waley tera bhala hovey.

When I asked for a clarification, the truck driver said: "Janab, aap to pade likhe lagte hain, aap ko malum nahin Baba Farid ne keya pharmaya tha?: (Sir, you appear to be an educated person, don’t you know what Baba Farid had said?) Then he recited the couplet:

Farida, jo tain maaran mukian,
tina na marin ghum,
apanre ghar jaye ke,
paiir tina ke chum.

(Farid, should any man smite thee, return not blow for blow. Nay, kiss his feet that smiteth thee, and go home calmly.)

The driver community has firm faith in God. They are strongly opposed to communalism and fanaticism. In front of the driver’s seat, one can find the portraits of Sikh Gurus, Muslim saints, and of Hindu gods and goddesses, before whom they bow their heads before starting their vehicles. The phrase on the truck invariably reads:

Chal meri rani, tera rab rakha.

Their dress is simple. Though the transporters provide them with summer and winter uniform, they wear a loose-sleeved kurta and a lungi or tehmat. Sikh drivers wear a loose turban or pugree as head-dress. Like the Brahmins of Amritsar and Varanasi, they keep a towel on the shoulder to wipe off their sweat.

The drivers are, however, particular about their diet. A Punjabi driver says: "It is a must for the driver to be an expert cook as the road-side dhabas and hotels do not provide nourishing food. That’s why we carry a mini kitchen with us."

These widely travelled persons can speak and understand most, of the regional languages. They read newspapers with great interest. "It is essential for nomads like us," says a driver from Srinagar. "The insecurity and instability makes it necessary for us to be well-informed about the day-to-day law and order situation in areas we have to operate in", he says.

In fact, the life of a truck driver is an interminable cantata of music reverberating with the romantic notes. In their trucks they make provision for playing cassettes which let out Punjabi, Haryanvi and Rajasthani folk songs. In the morning hours, they listen to bhajans, shabads and bhentein to get solace.

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