Reckoning with Dark Times is an anthology of seventy-five poems of Pash (1950-1988), eminent Punjabi poet and revolutionary whose real name was Avtar Singh Sandhu.
His rural background, political activity journalistic career and revolutionary ideology rendered life and colour to his poetic art. The poems in this collection range from his earliest in Lohkhatha to his latest in Khilre Hal Verke, published posthumously. His earlier poems overflow with intense rage that the poet felt on seeing the deprived. His later poems reflect his poetic negotiation with all aspects and facets of life. In his last collection, we find Pash’s poetic negotiations in all its richness and maturity.
The English translation is authentic and at the same time
Tejwant Singh Gill (b. 1938) is a Professor of English and literary critic in Punjabi. In English and Punjabi he has authored several books on critical theory, cultural discourse, historiography and literary practice. His papers on Neruda and Lorca have also appeared in Spanish. He is a prodigious translator of Punjabi Literature into English and vice versa. Besides poetic compositions he has also translated novels and plays. His critical book Pash: Jeeven te Rachna is a much acclaimed study for the poet. He is the former editor of Alochana in Punjabi and Bharati Journal of Comparative Literature in English. He is currently Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla.
The book comprises seventy five poems of Pash (b. 1950; d. 1988) in English translation. More than any one else, he, in his short life, embodied the image of a revolutionary poet. On the basis of influence imbibed from Pablo Neruda and Bertolt Brecht, he was also credited with writing ‘poetry from below’ in Panjabi. For all this, his poetry did not sound subaltern. After all, a great deal of dexterity had gone into the negotiating of it. No wonder, by the time of his untimely death, this influence had become invisible. It seemed as if correspondence prevailed between his and Neruda’s autochthonous and Brecht’s estranging poetry.
Pash was, infact, the pen-name of this highly gifted and deeply innovative poet. His real name was Avtar Singh Sandhu that he appended only to a couple of his poems in the beginning. All his poetry in the three books to appear during his life-time and in another after his death, bore his pen-name only. For all the religious and ethnic appellations predicating it, his real name did not define his creative core that with its semantic zone his pen- name was to do. In the Farsi language from which it originally comes as noun, the word ‘Pash’ denotes fragrance. For Pash this was to connote experience of a deeper kind. Used twice in the same breath, it, as adjective, stands for sprinkling that for a poet underlines communication. Thus, this pen-name stood for communicating awareness which by reflecting and refracting the epic side of truth could grow into wisdom. Surely, this was a vocation very much after his heart.
To contend that, at the time of assuming this pen-name, Pash knew all this will be a misnomer. It was perhaps the name of a village-girl from which he coined this pen-name through declension. Interfacing it is the fact that a lady-teacher for whom all his adolescent adoration went had name sounding somewhat alike.
Be as it may, the past significance and present meaning of the pen-name was tremendous for Pash at the time he assumed it. The poetiç art he visualised was meant to articulate wisdom by reflecting or refracting the actual, bare and raw experience of life. To delve into its ethnic or religious mystique was none of its business.
Various factors drawing upon his rural background, political activity; journalistic career and revolutionary ideology sought to give this colour to his poetic art. The basis was laid by his rural background i.e. his birth and nurture in Salem, his native village. Situated on the southern fringe of the Doaba region, the native village at the time of Pash’s birth presented altogether a picture in contrast. Part and parcel of the region hailed for its optimum literacy and prosperity, this village had scarcity and illiteracy as its hall-marks. Factors to impinge from beyond its vacinity, further augmented this contract. How policemen, petty officials and marketeers cast their shadow upon life in the village could not miss Pash’s discerning eye. Thus was laid the basis of his impulse to rub every fact against the grain of actuality so as to cultivate his memory and imagination.
The family in which he took his birth was also marked by this contrast. So far went the land it owned, the family belonged to middle rung in the village. Approximately ten acres in all, the land owned area wise by his father was not meagre to cultivate for a living. Barren and sandy as of other families in the village, it was not adequate enough as to ensure a self-sufficient life. So his father, Sohan Singh Sandhu, had joined the army finally to retire as honrary captain. Thus supplemented by his pay, produce from the land ensured a self-sufficient living for the family. His long absence was however a factor that Pash’s mother, Nasib Kaur, had to face while bringing up her four children growing in, as it were, a row. Wayward as he was, Pash worried her the most. At this age, his waywardness did not seem promising at all. What to talk of being original in the etymological sense of going to the roots or origins of things, it did not seem so even in the metaphorical sense of being different in a sustaining way.
As was the practice then, Pash was put to school at the age of x or so. Though he was good in studies, yet formal learning and teaching did not much enthuse him. As a career it, even later, did not find favour with him. This was how the contrast of life in the village left its mark upon him. The earlier impulse to sacrifice ones career for the motherland gone into the background, career-making through formal education had come to occupy the foreground of life. Pash had no strong wish either to advocate the residual or sponsor the dominant impulse. It was a proof of his wayward nature. None could then guess that the impulse to write revolutionary poetry would emerge later on with such power.
With effortless ease, Pash did earlier classes in that school of the neighbouring village. After passing the middle examination, he joined the next class for matriculation from the same school. For reasons overtly unknown but covertly drawing on life in the village, he left the school for a training centre in vocational education. Without doing ft the whole hog, he then got recruited in the Border Security Force. After discharge, he was back in the village where, if not anything else, he could at least have a roof over his head. It was clear that he was not cut out for career in the conventional sense.
From then, he embarked upon self-education as much for ideological as creative anchor in life. Acquired through his own initiative and will, it equipped him with intellectual awareness. Even academic acumen did not lag behind. With his sharp intellect to sustain him, he launched several journals one after the other. Rolie Baan (Raging Arrows) in the first and Siar (Furrow) in the second instance, were noteworthy for the specific reception they drew from and the particular effect they exercised upon the young readers. If ideological fanaticism of those in the venture forced him to close the former, then financial constraint it was that did not let him continue with the latter.
Around the time of editing the first journal, Pash got embroiled in the Naxalite movement. For some time its ideology of (a) armed insurrection (b) individual killing (c) city versus countryside dichotomy and (d) pristine fervour to turn the world upside-down cast almost a spell upon his inquisitive but engaged mind. It was under this spell that his poetic art took a leap forward. However, the type of orientation he had, it was only a matter of time for him to outgrow this spell. Creditably enough, he did not take long for that and more so to launch his career as a revolutionary poet. The jail term he suffered for a murder committed by some votaries of Naxalism and the torture he went through cemented his resolve further. As a result alignment with life became his anchor, particularly in the writing of poetry.
This alignment went beyond commitment, so fashionable then.
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