Why Paash Still Matters

Why Pash still matters

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

The Tribune (09-09-2007)

Pash would have been 57 today if, 19 years ago, his life had not been cut short by those who found his pen far deadlier than their guns. The warrior-poet that he was, he would not have allowed his pen to rust either. Indeed, one can say that the last two decades would have inspired him to even greater heights of that lucid fury which always marked his poetry and thought.

The world has greatly changed over the last two decades. A new world order, beginning after his death in 1988, has overtaken the old. The complexity of this order is matched only by its sheer magnitude. In comparison, the old world in which Pash moved seems much simpler. And yet Pash continues to speak to us. He might have died quite a long time back but he surely has not come to an end.

Pash speaks to us with as much urgency as he did in the 1970s and ’80s. He still matters, with undiminished urgency. The reason is not that Naxalism—of which he was the finest poetical fruit in the Punjab of the 1970s—has been able to survive in the 21st century. Naxalism, in his case, is only a point of departure for a larger awareness of history and of man’s relation to it. Although grounded in it, his work therefore cannot be reduced to a mere elaboration of a specific ideological position. If readers with different ideological inclinations, situated entirely remotely in place and time, feel moved by his work, it is because it possesses the illuminating power of an extraordinarily perceptive mind. It comes from a man who had the rare capacity to understand a situation beyond its immediate horizon of meaning and also had the inventiveness to respond to it with an even rarer combination of intellectual freedom and human compassion.

His Conversation with a Comrade is a remarkable testament of intellectual freedom. He is suspicious of ideas waiting to twist themselves into ropes of ideology. This suspicion of ideology is a grim warning against our own ideological complicity in a so-called post-ideological world which is, in fact, all the more surreptitiously ideological. Against ideological straitjacketing, he pits existential experience. He must save the innocent power of words against the depredations of ideologues who would distort and pervert all language. He loves the earthly world without pretending to fall in love with some transcendental vision of it. The world of his work is the ordinary, beautiful world of ordinary people but rendered harsh by institutionalised injustice, greed and violence. His heart, thus, is incapable of harbouring class hatred. Indeed, it can’t but love the human being hidden painfully behind a policeman’s insensitive mask. It was this love of life, particularly of human life lived in freedom, which drove Pash to fight tooth and nail the assault on life’s sanctity by religious fanatics. The scenario has become far more grim than it was in his lifetime as the scale of the assault assumes global dimensions. His wailing widow’s ironic song, rendered as her petition for religious initiation, can today be heard echoing across continents ravaged by fanaticism and war.

And yet he was not a champion of nationalism or statism. Few other poets can equal him when it comes to a surgical examination of the discourse of national security. What mattered the most to him was human dignity and life’s sanctity. And what frightened him the most was, quite appropriately, the ethical deadness that makes a person insensitive to his own dehumanisation:

The most terrifying is
the night
that falls upon the skies of living souls
the night
in which owls shriek
jackals howl
in which
a never-ending dark cleaves to doors
that never open.

It is significant that he was not naively optimistic of finding in knowledge an antidote to ethical deadness. He was wary of the claims that institutionalised education often makes of imparting truth. He very much suspected that instead of being man’s third eye, education may only be a squint distorting even his natural perspective. Such a critical understanding is today all the more important as education comes to be seen increasingly as either an ancillary economic activity or an ideological battleground. In these and many other ways, the work of Pash continues to make sense. What is even more important perhaps is that it continues to make sense of a world order that arose after his death and in which we tend to see ourselves as helplessly thrown.

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