Death of A Dream

Death of a dream ‘sabhton khatarnak’
by Harjinder Singh

Reckoning With Dark Times : 75 Poems of Pash translated from the Punjabi original by Tejwant Singh Gill.

Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi. Pages 126+xxviii. Rs 80.

AT a time when educated people, especially the privileged among the youth in this country, are choosing to be blind to realities, it may seem inappropriate to remember that years ago, a young poet was killed in broad daylight. He was killed because he dared to dream of a world where man would not cause misery to man; where Nature and the humans will harmonise.

He said it in muse that the torture by a policeman’s lathi is not a thing to fear, what is scary is the death of dreams. The cessation of dreaming is the scariest thing for us all. As many of us continue dreaming, in our dreams comes Pash, the poet of Punjab who died so young for he dreamed.

Pash has been known in Indian languages for a long time. Even when he was alive, his works appeared in translation in leading Hindi magazines. Progressive writers and thinkers all over the country had read something or other by him.

That his work should also appear in English could not have made any sense then, because those to whom he mattered lived in native cultures. Still a number of translations of individual poems in English appeared occasionally. Pash himself went across the seas and naturally must have indulged in translating his work sometime or other, but no known translations in English existed in a book form until this work by Tejwant Singh Gill was published by the Sahitya Akademi.

For the admirers of Pash, this is a thing that should have happened much earlier. Pash was a revolutionary poet not simply because he shared an ideology of rapid transformation of our society with radicals of his time, but also because he went deep into the world around a word. Prominent among his contemporaries, he indulged in passionate dialogues with poets like Amarjeet Chandan and Amitoz about what poetry means. Together with them he changed the idiom of Punjabi poetry as it grew into a shape that it had never before. That he should be recognised beyond the borders and by people of all corners of the world is a natural desire of anyone who has read and admired him.

Tejwant Singh Gill has selected 75 poems mostly from the three anthologies that Pash published while living — namely “Loh Katha” (The iron; 1970), “Udd de bajzan magar” (Follow the flying hawks; 1974), “Sadde sameyan wich” (In our times; 1974) and a few that appeared after he died in two anthologies, “Ladange sathi” (Comrade, we will fight) and “Vartaman de roobaroo” (Facing the present). In a fairly comprehensive 20 page introduction Gill introduces Pash the person, Pash the early poet and Pash the mature creative writer obsessed with developing new forms of committed poetry.

‘‘Pash’’ is a nickname that Avtar Singh Sandhu chose for his indulgence in muse. A true son of the soil, a fighter against the oppression of the state, he had the experience of a varied background and active participation in radical politics. For those who knew him from close, he remains a bohemian, a representative of his times and one ideally suited for legends that live on for later generations.

A rationalist at heart, he wrote in prose about the eclipses, superstitions and sundry other things. In verse, he grew fast and indulgently. The intensity of passion that he and his revolutionary comrades left behind is history that we relive as we find ourselves amidst the perpetual struggle of those below to claim a share of the surface.

Certainly Pash, more than anyone else, deserves to be translated in English. His works document a reality of our times and of the years preceding ours. Let it be known to the world that we are part of the howl of protest which engulfed the world of the sixties and seventies. It is in this context Gill’s translation acquires significance. Gill’s selection is laudable. The 75 poems he offers are a near Pash omnibus.

Translating poetry is an extremely difficult task, even if you have taught it all your life and by and large, Gill has done an excellent job. Having said this, one needs to point out that there are areas where a bit of disappointment awaits the reader. Pash used free verse (mostly) for what he had to say was too real to be tied down to meter. Naturally, a translation of free verse will most suitably and conveniently be in free verse only.

Gill seems to attempt a structure here and there that makes Pash less real than he is. For instance, when Pash writes “Roz hee ese taran hunda hai”, it simply says; “Everyday this is what happens”. Gill twists it to “This is what daily does happen”; it seems more convoluted than the original. Sometimes, the translator seems to be culturally too remote from a English-speaking environment (which he is), as in the lines: “Daily dutiful daughters/ Bury in wet dung/ The fire of their virginity.” One ought to do better than that.

Occasionally, in literal translation, presumably to retain whatever structure already existed, the power of the original is lost. Take the title ‘‘Loh Katha’’ for instance. Katha is a complex word that has almost the same meaning as tale. Gill’s translation (in his introduction) reduces it to “iron’s tale”. It leaves one dissatisfied and restless.

Pash, like most poets, in his early years was louder than later in depicting the agonies and struggles of ordinary people. This “vyatha” of the struggling masses and their rising together is more than a tale and is also part of the “katha”. In a sense, Gill is a bit old fashioned and he may be using “tale” in a Dickensian context. The first 25 poems in Gill’s selection are from “Loh Katha”. The next 24 are from “Udd de bajzan magar”.

The best of Pash is in the poems that appeared in the later years, the eighties. In “Application for disinheritence”, he challenges the communalised consciousness of the national mainstream in a loud and clear voice: “If the whole country mourns the death of one/ Against whom I thought and wrote all my life;/ Then my name off its register do strike (strike off my name from its directory).” This poem, in spite of its loud rhetoric, is one of his best works in its form and aesthetics.

Similarly in “Most ominous”, a poem that is perhaps one of his most used work and perhaps translated in most languages of the world, he reaches his peak in craft: “Most ominous is the moon / That after each killing / Rises in courtyard muffled in silence/ But does not rancour like peppers in the eyes.” Gill comments in his introduction on the changing forms in Pash’s later poetry and his response to post-modern trends.

The choice of the word “ominous” for “khatarnak” is too simplistic. It is also difficult to find a better alternative. When Pash says that the death (or dying) of dreams is “sabhton khatarnak”, it seems to carry a horror that is in orders of magnitude more intense than “most ominous”. And what integrity that bright-eyed handsome man had that he worried more the death of his mind than the body; we learnt that all across Punjab as we gathered in small numbers near libraries, in class-rooms and elsewhere after his murder on the day that also saw the hanging of another visionary 57 years before. Pash died at the age of 37 in 1988.

Overall, this is a timely and long awaited work. Gill and the Sahitya Akademi should be lauded for this. Especially, for a book in hard cover and a nice design, its price is very reasonable.

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