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Review: Sonata for Four Hands, by Amarjit Chandan

Sonata for Four Hands is a bilingual anthology of poems by Amarjit Chandan, a leading Punjabi writer with several volumes of poetry and prose to his credit. Sonata for Four Hands is his second book in English - the first was a chap book, Being Here - and is published by Arc Publications of the UK in soft and hard bound editions, something not very common in poetry publishing these days. The cover painting is done by artist Gurvinder Singh and the frontispiece is by Yves Berger.

Sonata, in western music, is a piece played on one or more instruments. Beethoven's Sonata #5 can be played with four hands: two on piano, two on violin. Chandan's poetic sonata also employs four hands: two for Punjabi, two for English, and seems richer than the two-hand one: English readers can have a feel of the Gurmukhi script besides enjoying the poetry. Those engaged in translation can see how the collaboration of the author with translators turns into a beautiful work. The book is introduced and edited by London based English writer Stephen Watts who digs into Chandan's poetry and brings off nuggets we had not seen before.

One of the delights of the book is the foreword by John Berger of the Ways of Seeing fame. It is no pat-on-the-back preface by a great writer. Berger tells us that a poet can extend a felt moment to oceanic dimensions or reduce it to a reflective crystal. But Chandan, says Berger, does none of these. Instead, he folds time in a way that the listener or reader is encircled by a multiplicity of times. Berger compares these folded times to curled-up space-time dimensions of the String Theory loops. To illustrate his point he picks up Chandan's poem To Father which may strike a conventional reader as a sentimental lyric moving back and forth in Newtonian space and time, not even in Einstein's space-time continuum. Berger, however, has his own 'ways of seeing' things and surprises us by drawing on the String Theory whose curled-up dimensions, if proven, will be billion times smaller than Chandan's folded times. It is perhaps the first time someone has seen poetry so vividly in the dance of sub-atomic loops. The great thinker inspires us wander the deepest level of our existence however scary and uncertain it seems.
These poems express Chandan's experiences in the Punjab as well as in the UK and represent his poetry and world view fairly well. They seem to balance intelligence, intellect and sentiment, and urge the reader to go slow. The author seeks his roots, acknowledges his ancestors, respects his background, loves his mother tongue and reflects on culture and happenings around him. However, his poems written during his early revolutionary days are not represented in this volume. In my view some of these poems are among his best - not loud political ramblings as one would expect.

Prison: some impressions
A dozen steel rods four walls
and a piece of the sky above.

***
This is not a day but a djinn!
We stare into each other's eyes
He doesn't give up
Nor do I.

(Translation: Ajmer Rode)

Several translators, Julia Casterton, Shashi Joshi, Amin Mughal, Ajmer Rode, Stephen Watts and John Welch have contributed to the work. Most of the translators themselves happen to be poets. Stanley Kootz (in his note on the translations of Poems of Akhmatova) says: when the translator is a poet he faces a paradox: One voice enjoins him: Respect the text! The other simultaneously pleads: Make it new! Fortunately in the case of Sonata for Four Hands, Kootz' paradox did not hamper the work as the author himself collaborated with the translators to strike the right balance in most cases.

And there is the famous quote by Robert Frost: Poetry is what gets lost in translation. It is hard to disagree with Frost, but then translation is the only art that enables poetry to cross the language barriers. In some cases the original does lose a lot, in others the translation could be as good as the original or even be better. The English language seems to have done very well in translating poetry from other languages. Some years ago, I asked a Sanskrit scholar teaching at the University of British Columbia to recommend me some good Hindi translations of the Upanishads. He said the recent English translations are better than the Hindi ones. As is well known, Upanishads are in Sanskrit poetry. I think translations in Sonata for Four Hands read as good as the originals.

Chandan has written a lot in recent years and has composed some of the best poems in contemporary Punjabi poetry; they deserve an international audience. The publication of Sonata for Four Hands is very welcome indeed. I would like to quote Stephen Watts' last para that best sums up this brief introduction:

It cannot yet be said that Chandan's week holds the place it deserves within British poetry. But Sonata for Four Hands - the first bilingual volume of a Punjabi poet ever published in the UK - will give readers wider access to his work, and allow a deeper assessment of his place as a writer of international stature and his significance as a poet living in Britain today.