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Review: Sonata for Four Hands, by Amarjit Chandan

Ruth Thompson, Envoi 159, June 2011

The first poem in Chandan's collection is Roots, and roots, in the sense of being connected and recognising connections, is a strong theme running through many of these poems:

Roots make me think of my forefather Dhareja -
The root of my family tree.
His roots are flowing in my veins

However, connections are not only in terms of family and country; he also writes about the importance of connections with people, poets, words, the past, humanity, - the source of everything.

Amarjit Chandan was born in Nairobi, but he lived in the Punjab until 1980 when he migrated to London, where he has lived ever since. This collection is an anthology of his poems from the 1980s to the present day. The poems are presented in Punjabi as well as in English, and this is the first bilingual volume of a Punjabi poet ever published in the UK.

There are poems about Chandan's family, his mother and father and their life in the Punjab. In the poem, To Father, he recalls his father teaching him to write his first letter and to take a photograph, and uses the idea of photographs to express loss, the inexplicable absence of someone who has died and the sense of life going on, things changing, the loved one being left behind. He asks his father 'Can you take some time off from death?' He goes on to promise that, if so:

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.

As well as the Punjab, there is also a strong focus on London life, and Chandan can look at small everyday incidences, picking up the humour and the humanity. For example, in 24 October 2003 he begins:

What an engaging day.

I gave up my seat to a pregnant girl in the tube
Thinking of my son's girlfriends and their kids

and later in the poem recounts how, on his way home, he found a button lying on the tube floor, trailing broken threads like the roots of an onion separated from the earth:

A tramp sitting opposite me gave me a blank look
And grinned when I thought of reporting the button to Lost Property.

It is in this poem, too, that Chandan writes about lunching with a fellow poet and friend, and writes these extraordinary lines:

We talked about our umbilical cords -
Lucky are those who know where their cords are buried.

Writing poems both in Punjabi and English, language, mother tongue, is of great importance to Chandan; yet his use of language is unsentimental, uncluttered, and so restrained that it has a unique delicacy. Words are used with a quiet focus, time and place are layered with multiple, subtle, searching meanings.

Poignant, humane, delicate and layered, this book is a rich record of Chandan's work.