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from the July 2018 issue

Standing on Ashes: Three Punjabi Poets on Aging

Time never forsakes memories. It just preserves them in quieter pastures. While preserving a culture through literature, the familiarity of daily life sometimes gets forgotten. Capitulating to changes around us, we change our creations. We are afraid of perceived mistakes and consequences, since life’s trials and errors present frequent dilemmas along the way. And as we become exhausted in our journey, we tend to become seekers—seeking the very nature of the energy that makes us, sustains us, and breaks us. The poets from the region of Punjab in India refuse to succumb under political suppression, but this hasn't incited them to pen confrontational and vengeful pieces. Instead they have preserved the seeker in them over centuries of not fearing probable predicaments in their quest to experiment with their literature. Treating conflict with restoration has enabled Punjabi poetry to survive years of it. Ruin has been a metaphor for rise, and hope never feels like a stranger in their poems.

Almost a thousand years old, Punjabi poetry stands on ashes, reinforced by a blend of spirituality and dissent. Life-friendly and full of natural resources, the terrain of India attracted expansionist rulers from around the world. Located in northwestern India, the state of Punjab has been subjected to numerous attacks, primarily by Muslim invaders for whom it was the principal entry point into India. The repeated conquest of the region resulted in disintegration of the sociopolitical and cultural scene in this part of India, and the reaction was literary dissent and the emergence of Punjabi poetry. Saints and Sufis used it against the invading rulers, while the masses used it to challenge the influence of Arabic and Persian, languages that were imposed upon them. Guru Nanak's Babarvani tells of Babur's conquests of India through four hymns. Nanak was a witness to the attacks by Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India. His poems depict the atrocities inflicted by the army on the conquered population. From the forebears of Punjabi poetry—Baba Farid to the last Sikh Guru—Guru Gobind Singh—and from Bhai Vir Singh during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780–1839) to Amrita Pritam, Punjabi poetry has traveled far and wide, through wars, spiritualism, experimentation and  frequent political upheavals. From the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, its influence extended even to Sufi poets like Bulle Shah and Ali Haidar. While Shah became prominent for his Kafis, short poems of about six stanzas, Ali Haidar was known for his Si-harfis—poems of thirty stanzas. The Muslim Punjabi poets wrote in Shahmukhi script, while the Hindu poets wrote in Hindi script. Though many Punjabi poets came under the sway of Persian and Urdu, the language stands strong, and of late translations of Punjabi poets have enabled us to re-explore and reexamine this region of India.

This issue features three veteran Punjabi poets still working today: Amarjit Chandan (1946), Ajmer Rode (1940), and Navtej Bharati (1938); each of their literary careers lasted four decades. They allow us to explore yet another aspect of Punjabi poetry: the metaphysical treatment of age, memories, and nostalgia. All three of them make us taste the burden of age as experience—clinging to elements and words that allow us to explore its intimacy through fissures in the body of time. Led by their past as we all are, these poets are sensitive to emotion, and their verses mend the wounds of the past, like time assuaging the heartbreak of mothers who have lost sons. They preserve the memory of bygone days in the layers of their intellect and perceptions.

Before moving to England, where he now lives, in the 1980s, Amarjit Chandan worked at Punjabi dailies, was the editor of an official Maoist publication, Lokyudh, and lived two years in imprisonment due to his Maoist activities in his youth. Chandan received a lifetime achievement award from the Punjab government in 2004. With his salvo of lyricism, Chandan pushes us to the depths of life, taking us on a tour through clocks, books, and bowls, projecting them as elements of remembrance. He tells us of a past reflected through inanimate objects. He pours nostalgia into everyday objects like a metal bowl and makes us hear voices of memories through it, and allows us to reflect upon the worth of living thus far. The poet meditates through his poems—upholding the significance of the unforgettable in his life through an indigenous astrological tradition in which the donor looks at his or her reflection in the mustard oil contained in the reflection vessel called chhayapatra before dropping a coin into it to counter the effect of malefic planets. Amarjit's poem "Chhanna, the Metal Bowl" offers an intimate shade to readers from the hard sun of forgetfulness.

Ajmer Rode's responsiveness to his muse and his poetic narration explore sundry subjects from daily life. Rode's first collection of poems, Surti, was published in 1979 and is considered a forerunner to Punjabi postmodern poetry. All throughout his poems, Rode measures the distance of his philosophy with themes that walk around us with a hush. The poet rides on practicality and daily objects in a thoughtful expedition of life​—digging deep inside a brooding mind. His poem “Mustard Flowers” is a cavernous contemplation on one's declining years and agelessness.​ ​The poet has an interesting take on taming agony in the second stanza of the poem,​ and implicitly acknowledges the postmodern philosophy—everyone is a slave of his own perspective. One of his poems, “Stroll in a Particle,” can be seen inscribed in bronze on a public wall outside the new office complex of Bill and Melinda Gates in downtown Seattle. ​He adroitly employs surprise at the end of his poems, hanging the conclusive lines in the space of ambiguity so that various ideas and feelings occur simultaneously.

Navtej Bharati​ ​does not shy away from exploring the pain​ ​of aging,​ ​and​ ​opens the envelope​ ​of​ ​dullness toward the end of life in his poem “While I Slept.” Words like rocks speckled with resolve populate his poems, and the poet delicately projects a narrative to declare age a myth. Bharati summons nature as a protector against the dark will of time. Elements of the natural world such as grass and drops of water are presented as possible evaders of time. His poem suggests that the end will certainly come but the exact time of its arrival is not certain. Many of his poems can be found in the book Leela, coauthored with Ajmer Rode, which is considered one of the most​ ​​​formidable​ ​works of twentieth-century Punjabi poetry.​ ​The Anᾱd Foundation jury of scholars​ ​stated that "​Leela remains unparalleled in the history of Punjabi literature for its courage to explore and experiment with poetic word, cultural memory, and our day-to-day existential struggle​."​ 

These poets never allow anyone or anything to ​​rob ​them of their​ ​personal identity. The conspiracy of time remains as an ​​allegory​ ​in their creations and speaks much about contemporary Punjabi poetry—​that often goes beyond mere word​-​play, to a place where imagining, nostalgia, and wisdom coincide. They do not​ ​interpret dreams​, ​but explore paths of​ ​dreaming. Compassion, tenderness, and a strange silence prevailing in their poetry lift us from our inner dilemmas to a more peaceful world. Their language​ ​is generous,​ ​rich​ ​in simplicity, and they are vigilant about the interplay of light and shade in life.​ ​The poems presented here are​ ​a subtle outburst, a​ ​powerful tribute to the past, a forgotten melancholy, and the will to restore the past and the melancholy. The​ ​eloquent mysticism​ ​through​ ​their​ ​thought-provoking gaze​ ​extends beyond the boundaries of the current combative world.

© 2018 by Sonnet Mondal. All rights reserved.

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