By Tom Mellon
Author: Amarjit Chandan
Publisher: Arc Publications
Review by Tom Mellon first published in Morning Star as ‘Riding Towards Revolution’
Since moving to London in 1980 after serving two years in solitary confinement for his role in the first Naxalite uprising in India, Amarjit Chandan has become one of today’s most celebrated Punjabi poets, with a large following both in India and among the Indian diaspora in Britain and across the globe.
Former poet laureate Andrew Morton selected him as one of the 10 British poets for the National Poetry Day in 2001 and his work has appeared in translation in scores of journals and magazines. A short poem, Far Away (On a Distant Planet) has been carved in 40-foot granite by Alec Peever and installed in Slough High Street Square, both in Punjabi and English translation.
The poems are almost a form of secular spirituality. Some are magic keys that open doors onto the spiritual from the mundane. ‘I never write overtly political poetry,’
Chandan says. For Chandan the poetry and the legacy of colonialism were intertwined from his earliest days. ‘My father was a poet and so was one of my grandfathers so poetry is in my blood.’ Dislocation is a persistent theme in Sonata For Four Hands - the sense of being a stranger in a strange land. At the end of the 19th century,
when India was under the yoke of British colonial rule; Chandan’s grandfather and his brothers left their impoverished village in the Punjab to make their living abroad. ‘My grandfather and his brothers worked as agricultural labourers in Canada, but they were not allowed to settle there and had no rights. My father a carpenter and a communist trade unionist, went to Kenya in 1929 where he opened a photographic shop. You could say he was upwardly mobile in class terms; but he remained a worker in his attitude and outlook all his life.
Chandan idolised his father and read his books and journals. In the sixties he joined an ultraleft Maoist group known as the Naxalites in India, much to the disgust of his father because of its anarchist tendencies. Chandan headed the Naxalite’s Punjab branch until he was captured by police and locked up in a miniscule cell for two years.‘Prison sharpened my appreciation of the inner life – combined with the loneliness I experienced in Britain; these two things made me a poet,’ he says.
He finds solace in his mother tongue and in poking fun at the absolute certainties of today’s dogmatists. ‘I think, feel and dream in Punjabi my language,’ Chandan says, adding wistfully. ‘After living in this language, English, for so many years, I cannot get into the soul of words. ‘I can read the surface maybe a little deeper, but not the soul,’ he goes on. ‘Maybe I have entered the house, but I am not asked to sit down and feel at home.’