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Review: Sonata for Four Hands, by Amarjit Chandan

Deeply Intimate and Self-Reflective

Sonata for Four Hands is a collection of poems by Punjabi poet, Amarjit Chandan. Spanning three decades of the poet's writing this collection is deeply intimate and self-reflective. The poet's encounters, memories and observations are recurrent themes of the book. Chandan's poems are underpinned by his commitment to leftist politics. While some poems literally emulate class dynamics, his political commitments inform the very ambitious span of the book that navigates between innocuous instances such as a button fallen in a London underground tube to inexpressible encounters as say with the Divine word in a religious text. Written as if addressing the reader directly in conversation, the poems go onto reference history of the last half century.

Amarjit Chandan was born in Nairobi and at a young age moved to Punjab. In his youth he was engaged with the Maoist politics of the Punjab. In 1980 he migrated to Britain where he has lived since. The complexity of defining Punjabiyat - Punjabiness - after India's brutal partition; creating lyricism from the language of a people associated principally with a martial tenor; resuscitating at once the splendour and austerity of the Sikh way of life in years when that religion got reductively associated with separatism; displacement from homeland, working class consciousness, a passion for photography and cinema - Chandan's compositions evocatively dwell on these themes, weaving one with the other. Sonata for Four Hands is meticulously structured, lending to the writings a sense of a cohesive and comprehensive whole. The book is bilingual; original poems in Gurmukhi appear with their English translations. Poems composed in English are indicated as such.

The first six poems make a compelling opening to the text wherein Chandan claims a situation for his body, the poet's body in history and culture that his writing emphasizes as closely enmeshed with the familial. The opening poem, Roots most imaginatively conjures reminiscences of the word 'roots' for Chandan. He states:

Roots remind me
The hand of father lying dead.
The roots of my poems are in his heart.
I am made in his own image.
He is alive in me.

Roots remind me of my woman -
Her naked body covered with my sight.
Roots remind me of
Thousands of raised hands
Reasserting the dignity of labour.
Roots remind me of root infinite.
The source of everything.

Through a reflexive gesture the next two poems, The Paper and The Book reverse our gaze and invite us into appreciating the surface where words come into being. In these poems Chandan delicately democraticises writing, positioning in it a solemn prerogative of spiritual seeking on the one hand, and a subtle call for the dignity of creative pursuit on the other. The Poem commences thus:

Man made the first ever paper with the skin of his soul.
That is why it is blessed.
Nanak scribbled the word on it.
May you be forever paper.
May you be forever the papermaker.

In The Book Chandan states,

the book embodies God.

blessed be the alphabet
the word blessed
blessed the scribe
the calligrapher blessed
blessed the one who contemplates
and meditates upon the word
blessed the ears
that fill with its music

blessed are the hands that touch the book...

Chandan's poems ever so often dwell on the sense of touch, particularly as actualized through the human hand. The sensuality of touch is not purely carnal or abstracted from the social world. The sense of touch is linked to multiple efforts and forms of industry. It is as if existence could not be explored without touch. A rich register of textures and tactility is evoked by Chandan: the touch of hands in prayer, sensuality, ancestry, love and work. In The Song of the Bike dramatically and metaphorically Chandan records the loss of touch, of texture from human experience suggesting this loss as directly proportionate to the advancements of capitalism in the last century. He states:

As I cycle along
I thank God a thousand times
that I could not be bought off for a scooter
plus petrol allowance
nor sold off for stacks of newspaper waste.

While cycling
I am reminded of Comrade Vidya Ratan
who from the communist party stage
would celebrate his bike, in a long poem
he had no arms -I've not heard of him for ages
and when out of nowhere a car overtakes me
I swear and curse in a fit of class hatred...

There are two distinguishing aspects of the form of Chandan's poems. Chandan's writing involves ruminations: after introducing a moment, an encounter or memory he dwells on it, garnering detail, depth and associations; and then he moves on from experience to expression. A quality of minimalism characterises this, what John Berger in his foreword to the book refers to as the quality of 'intense reduction.' What is the effect of this? Minimalism as an aesthetic strategy has served, as say in the Zen or contemporary art to facilitate abstraction. The minimalism in Chandan's expression allows us to pause, to observe - qualities increasingly abstracted from human experience of the world today.

A second feature of his aesthetic is his emphasis on memory and temporality. Every instance or encounter that Chandan's writing engages with is clearly situated in the wider context of history. An astute sense of observation formulates in an acknowledgement of how an individual subject may not decisively intervene to shape the course of history; but equally history may not be able to march forward without being subjected to the critical gaze of those on whose bodies it gets performed. Chandan's writing is an articulation of that critical gaze - a gaze that is sometimes remorseful, on others enraged but never indulging in any form of co-option or lacking in dynamism. Lasan exemplifies this:

I came on it once, the Punjabi word Lasan ਲਸਣ
written upon a huge billboard
For women farm workers
In a far-flung corner of California
And I felt
My language had welcomed me
Shaken my hands
Embraced me
Wished me good luck
For a moment the taste of the word
Lasan was like
A sugar lump on my tongue

Only words die
As a fish dies out of water
They lose their meanings
And gather new ones
Here the word Lasan means -

Fifteen dollars a day
Bricks of the house
Ticks of the clock
A crane left behind in anguish
Gold ornaments
dresses and rings
The deep troubled waters of greed and indulgence

And very few fish escape the net

Though situated in the leftist tradition Chandan aligns with no single cause. An internationalism underpins his writing and this is a vital move to restrict the celebratory and divisive overtures of late capitalism. Thus in the Sonata we traverse numerous landscapes and historical instances where Chandan assumes the voices of those silenced subjects who have been absent-mindedly overlooked in the pages of history textbooks. A Hard Woman Cried evokes one such voice:

I'm laughing now.
You know, I'm a hard woman, I never cry.
But that day I cried.

We were in Holland Park
Protesting for four days
For the man in the glass cage.
We call him Apo - Uncle.

We sang the songs of goze and irmak - water spring and river.
We chanted slogans of our mountains.

When it was over
All went silent.
As if our flag had fallen to the ground.
We were stunned.
We didn't know where to go and what to do.

Then the hard woman, named Seher Yıldırım, started
crying that day.

As Chandan's poems document the last half-century they also provoke a modernist cultural imaginary in South Asia. He repeatedly references the media of photography and cinema in his poems. In 2010 perhaps it is inconceivable to think of these media as people's media wherein big and profit-oriented industries do not colonise or commodify people's narratives through commercially viable and by that very token reductive and institutionalised modes of representations. In Uncle Mohan Singh we are transported to the early decades of silent cinema. On a late night, we are in Nakodar, Punjab where a silent film is played to musical accompaniment of a harmonium. The people Nakodar experience film intimately, as a communal mode of cultural expression and entertainment. Another gripping rendition of the photographic experience occurs in To Father where Chandan calls forth:

I'd like to take my self-portrait sitting next to you
With a glint in my eyes.
Remember that photograph you took with the self-timer
Of us together many years ago
You holding me cheek to cheek?

The photograph doesn't show the lump in your throat.

We'll exchange pictures I have taken
of faces you haven't seen
and of places you never visited
and you can show me yours taken in the valley of the dead.

Many critics have argued that photography is fundamentally an encounter with death. As photographs freeze and encapsulate instants of time, they render death. Death like birth is perhaps the most sanct of all human experiences. Chandan's thoughts on the photographic medium radically remind us of this fundamental quality of the medium - that in today's day and age, with the proliferation of commercialised digital media has been rather obscured. Reinscribing in photography a subjective and personal prerogative coincides with the social status of the photographic and the cinematic media in the early decades of their coming about. Only now, as in Chandan's work that sense of subjectivity and association assumes the status of radicalism as it posits the practice of photography as intimate - a term strikingly alternative to the mass production dynamic of characterising image-making in our times. This radicalism is not confined to Chandan's writing on photography or any individual themes in the text only. Taking Chandan's poems as a whole, we start to get a sense of a subtle cultural discourse that is people-centered, grounded in human experiences and how humans interact with history. Sonata for Four Hands is a very lyrical body of work whose strength many critics have pointed is its quality of silence. This collection carves a distinct place for itself within the rubrics of contemporary South Asian literatures on account of its critical and crucial reflection on the contemporary world articulated from a cosmopolitan Punjabi perspective.

Aparna Sharma PhD is a film maker and film theorist. She teaches in Department of World Arts and Cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles, Nov. 2010