Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Pash's Afterlife: Re-reading Pash in Our World

Pash would have been 58 now if, twenty years ago, his life had not been violently cut short by those who found his pen far deadlier than their automatic guns. The warrior-poet that he was, he would not have allowed his pen to rust either. Over the short period that he lived to write (1970-1988), he had matured so quickly that one can only speculate what all he would have accomplished had he survived those mean bullets. One thing is certain: the last two decades would have deeply troubled him and aroused in him even more of that lucid fury which so distinctively marks his poetry and thought.

The world has greatly changed over the last two decades. What has been called a new world order has, beginning immediately after his death in 1988, 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 to have been much simpler.

And yet Pash, gone though for such a long time, continues to speak to us. For he has only died, not come to an end.

For one thing, the new world order is not all that new. In systematic greed and entrenched hypocrisy, in ideological primitivism and the savagery of disproportionate violence, in the conflict of brash power and basic human dignity, it remains unthinkably unjust.

But it is also dramatically new. One could perhaps say that its distinction lies very much in being both old and new in a way that so efficiently covers up the traces of its old self. The promise of globalization, with its high technological fireworks and post-bipolar rhetoric, is probably the happiest facemask pulled over the old face inside. The real novelty lies elsewhere: in the sophisticated refinement of oppressions that only a relentlessly reflective way of thinking can tear out of invisibility. It is as if every venerable institution and practice were capable of complicity with oppression. Education, religion, nation, state . . . none can be trusted.

Feuerbach said once that what makes a work truly philosophical is its potential to be developed. If Pash speaks to us with as much urgency as he did in the seventies and eighties, if he still matters, the reason is not that Naxalism –of which he was the finest poetical fruit in the Punjab of the seventies– has survived into the twenty-first century. Naxalism in his case is only a point of departure for a larger awareness of history and of the human being’s relation to it. Although grounded in it, his work therefore cannot be reduced to a mere elaboration of its specific ideological position. If readers of varied ideological persuasions and situated entirely remotely 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 who had also the inventiveness to respond to it with an even rarer combination of intellectual freedom and human compassion.

A greater testament of intellectual freedom than his “Conversation with a Comrade” has perhaps yet to be written (Sampooran Pash Kaav 182-92). Cast in the form of a dramatic monologue, this long poem in six parts is a dialogue of the poet with not only his ideological brethren but also himself. What is most remarkable about it is its structure that is also a performance of its theme: the dialectic of existential images and ideological polemics. And it is a dialectic riddled with disturbing ironies. Consider this, for instance:

Comrade, do you know?

The bourgeoisie is old

like vintage wine

and we are old

like a piece of meat.* (183)

Similarly, when the poet cannot discover a fit between the ideologically motivated violence and the mindless singing of his younger sister, the discrepancy upsets –by virtually undermining it– his whole vision of ‘knowledge’. So he turns again to irony:


this Guddo is

utterly anti-revolutionary,

an out and out class-enemy.

She playfully hides her checkers

beneath my books of knowledge. (184)

In fact, the poet is deeply suspicious of ideas waiting, to use an image from the poem, to twist themselves into ropes of ideology (192). He would therefore have Diamond, Newton’s famous dog, knock again into a candle and burn down all those bits of information that might take the shape of an ideology in his unsuspecting mind.

This suspicion of ideology is a grim warning against all ideological complicity, including our own in a so-called post-ideological world which is probably all the more surreptitiously ideological. Against ideological straitjacketing, Pash pits existential experience which the poetic language for him has, as it has for Heidegger, the strength to protect. He must therefore save the innocent power of words against the depredations of ideologues who would distort and pervert all language:

You do not understand, Comrade,

what you have done to words,

to the sensibilities alive in them

I have suffered words,

have endured their pointed arrows.

When they ran to escape the wrath of seasons,

I have let them take refuge in my blood. (189)

With pride then he wears his poet’s calling on his chest. And it is no ordinary chest but one in which every direction is the west, so that the suns of demagoguery must all inevitably sink here, along with any flames of class hatred.

With a heart incapable of class hatred, he therefore cannot but love the oppressed human being struggling painfully to conceal himself behind a policeman’s insensitive mask (“To a Police Constable” 112-16).

Like the man behind the uniform, the world too that Pash loves is the common, earthly world of everyday experience, not some enthralling idea of it, whether transcendental or ideological. It is the beautiful ordinary world of ordinary people but rendered cruel and ugly by institutionalized injustice, greed and violence:

This does not look like a dawn.

It looks rather like the stiff smile

on death’s palm,

like the tear-swollen eye

of the night.

There is nothing like the Sun anywhere here. (“This Day” 138)

But while he empathizes with human beings brutalized by their situation, he cannot but empathize, obliquely though, with the mute brute also:

I have lost every wager on life.

I only wish to be a horse now,

not man.

For the saddle hurts too much my human bones.

This mouth cannot bear

the bit’s spiky torture.

And my human feet do not move

to the beat

of a poem’s rhythm. (“My Nightingale” 200)

But for the violence done to it, this world that we have is a wonderful world. And it cannot but inspire our spontaneous love. Hence, blowing gently like breeze across his entire work is a kind of spirituality of this-worldliness, a spirituality that Heidegger and Nietzsche among others hoped to recover after slaying the metaphysical monster:

Mine is perhaps

a foolish-mad love of the earth.

That is why it seems

I shall pass

like breeze

over everything. (“Some Truths” 211)

Not explicable in terms of reasons, this love of the ordinary-beautiful world, and not of some metaphysical idea or vision of it, comes to be his ultimate reason to live and struggle for:

What anyway is it?

The evening sinking into mute stones,

The music of bricks rubbing against a donkey’s body,

The ashen sunlight poised

on autumn leaves that could not fall.

Come to think of it, Comrade!

What all is it anyway?

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 today has become far grimmer than it was in his lifetime as the scale of the assault assumes global dimensions. The wailing widow’s ironic song by him, rendered as her petition for religious initiation (251-52), can today be heard echoing across continents ravaged daily by fanaticism and war. The poem’s power lies perhaps in its complete transmutation of utter surrender, through blade-sharp irony, into unqualified rebellion against fanatical regimentation and repression. The widow’s wail resounds as a battle cry.

At a time when, in the discourse of global war on terror, all positions against religious fanaticism seem to have been usurped by the state or rather by the de facto trans-national United State(s), Pash speaks from an alternative position. He would fight religious fanaticism but without joining the camps of nationalists and statists. Such a position as Pash occupies may alone allow a critical view of the current situation that would be otherwise unthinkable: the global terror and the war on it feeding each other in “a state of permanent exception” (to use an expression from the contemporary Italian thinker Giorgio Agamben) that progressively eats away all resources of the world’s people, including their basic freedoms, security and even lives. The new global legitimacy of the state, to which Zygmunt Bauman has also drawn attention and which is routinely justified on the basis of unprecedented threat perceptions to private citizens’ lives, comes packaged with almost planet-wide retreat of the state from its most fundamental social and economic obligations. Not surprisingly, the retreat of the state is accompanied by rising levels of the stridency of patriotic nationalism. It would not require much effort to guess what Pash might have made of this situation if he were alive and writing today. In an act of ultimate tragic parody he might have simply rewritten, word for word, for most of the liberal democratic world today several of the poems he once upon a time wrote for India at a specific historical juncture. If one can visualize Pash doing such a thing today, it is because there is an essential bond between his thought and our world, a bond that etches its subterranean historical trajectory across time and invests Pash’s work with a resonance far beyond its actual historical motivations.

For instance, few other poets can equal him when it comes to a surgical examination of the discourses of nationalism and national security, a task that radical theory has assigned to itself in recent years. Writing as early as 1970 in his first collection of poems titled Loh Katha, he interrogates the sign of ‘India’. By the time the short poem ends, the sign has been exposed as profoundly embattled:


the most revered of words

in my roll of honour.

Wherever put to use,

it leaves every word meaningless.

To me it means those children of the fields


even today

measure time with trees’ shadows

and have no problem

except hunger.

When they are hungry

they can chew up

even their own limbs.

For them

life is a matter of sheer custom

and death

freedom. (“Bharat” 33)

He challenges the self-professed right of a few to define the nation and national security in such exclusive and narrow terms that the invocation becomes a threat to their compatriots (“Murderer” 56; “Border” 73; “Out of My Insecurity” 173). His own idea of India is quite plain, homely and expansive, and it reveals a profound affection for the home-country:

We had thought the country to be

something sacred

like one’s home,

free from all sultriness,

a place where man moves

like the sound of falling rain

in the streets,

where he sways

like stalks of wheat

in fields

and makes

the heavens’ magnanimity

meaningful. (“Out of My Insecurity” 173)

Of course, these lines of Pash repeat themselves with fateful inevitability every time the Supreme Court of India has to re-read to the lower judiciary and the prosecution the absolute imperative of fair trial against dubious accusations of anti-nationalism. But they also resonate at another level with a renewed universal distress because we today live in a world in which ever more people are becoming homeless because of wars, religious fundamentalism, ethnic cleansing, harsher immigration laws and the unbridled corporatization of natural resources like land and water. The distress is particularly poignant in countries like India where corporate empires, aided by the state in the name of some undefined and obscure national interest, have been weeding out and killing poor peasants by virtually treating them as wild intruding pests on their own lands. And the murders are written off as self-explanatory, as the collateral damage of an inevitable regimen of economic restructuring which continues to be sold, after over two decades of spreading disaster and widening inequalities, on promises of coming prosperity for all inhabitants of the planet. History, perhaps, does not repeat itself, but it does accumulate new pains around old articulations.

Not hidden from Pash’s vision was the other side of the assault on life’s sanctity and human dignity. This, he saw clearly, not only complemented the assault from without but was complicitous with it. And he definitively fixed the responsibility for this act, or non-act, on each person: he obviously believed that we cannot be dehumanized except through our own consent and actions. If, then, what mattered most to Pash was life’s sanctity and human dignity, what frightened him the most was the ethical deadness that makes a person insensible of his own dehumanization:

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.

The most terrifying is the direction

in which

your soul’s sun plunges

leaving a splinter of its dead sunshine

to fester

in your body’s east. (“The Most Terrifying” 253-54)

And he knew that an antidote to the creeping malaise of ethical deadness was not available off the shelf. Not knowledge but critical knowledges were required if the colonization of conscience was to be resisted. It is interesting that he probably had not even heard of Althusser and Foucault yet he understood very clearly, with his existentially grounded common sense, that truth is often a production of the regimes of knowledge and power in which Plato, Aristotle, Kautilya, Adam Smith, Stalin and others have had as much stake as the imperial powers (“Against Diplomatic Language” 178; “Conversation” 187; “Untitled Poems” 214). Hence he was wary of the claims that institutionalised education often makes of imparting truth. On the contrary, he very much suspected that instead of being a person’s third eye, education may only be a squint distorting their vision (“Where the Poem Does Not End” 127). Such a clear-sighted and critical understanding as Pash had is today all the more important as education comes to be seen increasingly as either an ancillary economic activity or an ideological battleground. He would have been deeply disappointed with today’s human resources professionals (read education experts) who are progressively losing the sense of the ludicrous even in the face of the most obviously grotesque. Take, for instance, their inability to register the explicit irony of “knowledge economy”.

In these and many other ways, the work of Pash continues to make sense. But what is even more important is that it helps us make sense of a world order that arose after his death and in which we are continually persuaded, through suggestion as well as statement, to see ourselves as helplessly thrown.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attell. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Bauman, Zygmunt. “The Unwinnable War.” Interview with Lukasz Galecki. Trans. Alex Shannon. Eurozine Review. 13 December 2006. <>.

Pash. Sampooran Pash Kaav [The Complete Poetry of Pash]. Edited and published by Pash Memorial International Trust. 2000. Ludhiana: Chetna Prakashan, 2002. All references are to this book.

*All translations are by the author of this article.

** This article has been published in the Punjabi journal Hun (May-August 2008).

Rajesh Kumar Sharma



Daljit Ami said...

Revisiting Pash’s poetry is reciting his words, "ਮੇਰੇ ਲੰਘ ਜਾਣ ਤੋਂ ਮਗਰੋਂ ਮੇਰੇ ਿਫ਼ਕਰਾਂ ਦੀ ਬਾਂਹ ਫੜੀ ਰੱਖਣਾ ...." As a reference point his poetry has eternal value to interrogate ‘realities’ and draw sketches of alternatives. The structure of his poetry is such that it creates spaces to engage the reader as a thinking being. This underlines his capability to handle specifics (time, space and language) and universalities, simultaneously, in poetry.
This article has refreshed his concerns in contemporary world situation.

Dharamjeet said...

Understanding Pash's poetry in today's globalized world is very significant as it has the range and depth which transgresses its own situatedness and specificity, and which is the hallmark of every great artist. The article hepls the readers, specially the Punjabi reader, to look at Pash's poerty in a much of broader contemporary social, political and cultural framework. For me, Pash was one of the great poets of the twentieth century. The charateristic quality of his poetry was its rootedness in the contemporary social, cutlural and poiltical dynamincs of his times.

harmanjit said...

Pash had a great way with words, and his words can arouse and provoke an oppressed soul to act in anger, his own words are filled with rage.

He had little understanding of how humans have the in-born propensity to try to dominate each other, both at a personal level and at the collective level.

His poem after the death of Indira Gandhi is stinging but ultimately belies the words in the article above that he had no "class hatred". If rejoicing at the death of another human being is not hatred, then what is?

And his use of the surname Bishnoi after the name of Bhajan Lal speaks volumes about his jat self-identity.

I think he was brave in many ways, but we must also not forget his petty squabbles with others in the US, and his devious ways to get back to the US when he was deported despite all the capitalist-hate that he had.

Dr. Teginder and Dharamjit said...

Pash's poetry is not only about words or a reaction out of anger to provoke the oppressed people. In one of Govind Nihalani's movies, a character says to his companion while they are visiting a village inhabited by poor people: "Kya ho gaya hai hame, ke hame gussa hi nahi aata" ("What has happened to us that we no longer feels angry at anything?"). Pash's anger is a visceral kind of anger that fills a human being when he/she sees injustice. It is an attempt to think a better tomorrow out of the utter helplessness of people, a kind of utopia as Zizek says to imagine a way out; that is, 'imagination' becomes a survival instinct. Pash's whole poetry is fated to keep alive this instinct to imagine and act.

Pash does not rejoice in the murder of Indira Ghandhi but he treats it as a natural reaction to her deeds. It was not an act out of nowhere but a culmination of the dynamics of Punjab politics of her times. He identifies himself with the innocent people that were brutally killed after the assassination of Mrs. Ghandhi in Delhi and other places of India. It is a characteristics quality of his poetry that he directly names those who are involved. He is straightforward and tries not to keep people under any illusion in his poetry.

His whole life and poetic journey tell that he was not conscious of his caste as being a superior one. But he used clear names so that the reader could vividly understand his poetry and the context and dynamics out of which it emerges. We would be doing injustice to Pash if we did not see these names in a wider perspective. As a result, one easily comes to understand the social, political and historical situation in which Pash existed.

lucky said...

This is a beautiful space. Truly random as claimed in your preamble. Here I can just stroll, laze about or be Pash-ed. I sometimes wonder about Pash's intensity and doubt it can come about without some kind of death wish; or its premonition.