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Review: Sonata for Four Hands, by Amarjit Chandan

An Outstanding Work: Worthy of Celebration

In his foreword to Amarjit Chandan's collection Sonata for Four Hands, John Berger speaks of the 'hospitality' of Chandan's poetry, and of his ability to reach and evoke the 'arena of timelessness' where true poetry is found, not by either expansion or crystallisation of a given moment but by the creation, in written form, of what physicists would call 'curled-up dimensions'. If I were to borrow another term from the lovely lexicon of physics (clearly with no pretence to any knowledge of the subject but simply as a way to synthesize my own perception), I would perhaps say that the vibrational energy of these dimensions lies in Chandan's deep sense of language as the life-giving force releasing a quietly joyful voice capable of the greatest tenderness and wonder from a hard-suffered, unsparing awareness of displacement and loss.

Returning home to the Punjab as a child from Nairobi, where he was born in 1946, Chandan, whose language was imprinted with the richness of the oral tradition and deep reading of the classics of Punjabi literature, was painfully aware from an early age of how the disruption and denial of native language is one of the main modes of colonial aggression, and of how every language act is inevitably a political act.

Following his imprisonment for two years in solitary confinement at the time of his militancy in the Naxalite movement, Chandan was forced to confront the failure of both words and silence in the attempt to remake reality after such trauma. What emerged, and what, for me at least, gives this collection its poise and liveliness, is the sense of a renewed commitment to poetry as an act of further resistance, understood and practised not through the old 'words as weapons' model but through the daily work of reasserting the beauty and power of language by giving exact and loving attention to its many different levels. This includes the ongoing process of integrating English, the language Chandan has lived and worked with on a daily basis, writing, translating and interpreting, for the last thirty years since he began living in London, and in which he wrote a few of the poems in this beautiful book: his eighth collection, but (and one of the several important points Stephen Watts makes in his fine-tuned introduction is the significance of this fact) although Punjabi is statistically the second most widely spoken language in the UK, and although Chandan is widely recognised as a major voice in contemporary poetry, only the first full bilingual Punjabi collection printed in Britain - making the author and translators' outstanding work, and Arc Publications' decision to add it to its fine catalogue, all the more worthy of celebration.