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Review: Sonata for Four Hands, by Amarjit Chandan

This collection of poems by Amarjit Chandan is a most unusual and valuable book,in more ways than one. It puts together poems, some written originally in English and some written originally in Punjabi, and each translated into the other language. The translations are not all by the poet himself but by other scholars and poets, close associates of Chandan. So one can read the same poem simultaneously in both languages and let the mind, mostly the unconscious mind, sift images and compare rhythms across continents and countries. Ultimately, despite superficial differences that sensibilities of different languages invariably inflict, one comes upon the same unified landscape: this is the landscape of the poet's mind, inescapable, harsh, dappled with warm shadows of memories, irrigated by pain and loneliness.

Chandan's verses are enriched by the heritage of classical Punjabi poetry.

Chandan too is an unusual poet: born in Nairobi, he grew up in rural Punjab. An active Maoist Naxalite in his youth, he spent two years in solitary imprisonment. After working for a while in India in political and literary magazines he migrated to England in 1980. His poems reflect this varied experience and are enriched both by the heritage of classical Punjabi poetry and lyricism as well as by an awareness that is entirely global, a spirit that is homeless and rooted at the same time. Himself translated into several languages, he has brought several international poets like Neruda and Brecht to Punjabi readers through his translations. Memories, treated with sensitivity but not sentimentalism, are the rich soil from which many of Chandan's verses spring forth. There's no forgetting/ Whatever happens, becomes forever. Because memories are not isolated incidents; for those who seek memories are part of an unbroken heritage of the soul, like his memory of his mother's sandook, full of rugs, sheets and hand woven quilts with its smell of age-old tahali rose wood and the rust of nails / and the fragrance of six seasons. Or: Roots remind me / The hand of father lying dead / The roots of my poems are in his heart.

One can quote many of Chandan's poems to show different aspects of his treatment of language, nostalgia, loneliness and the eloquent silence. But if one must choose then I would rather illustrate his relationship with Punjabi, the mother language, to which I daily cling / In fear of my being / And then / The worrying yesterdays / The anxious tomorrows/ Recede from me...

And he goes on:

In my mother language
My forefathers sleep
Dreaming of me awake.

In my mother language
Mirzas and Heers invoke God
In my mother language
Angels invoke the Gurus' hymns.

Novelist Navtej Sarna is presently India's ambassador to Israel and has earlier served as a diplomat in Moscow, Warsaw, Thimphu, Geneva, Tehran and Washington DC as well as most recently at Delhi as the Foreign Office spokesperson. He contributes regularly to the Times Literary Supplement and several Indian journals. His English translation of Guru Gobind Singh's Zafarnama (Penguin India) was published last year.