Wednesday, November 11, 2015

South Asian Ensemble - Vol 7

Cover painting by Jarnail Singh

With the proliferation of web-based and Internet publishing, the publication of any print journal is cause for celebration. When such a print journal is a Canadian literary journal with a focus on writing from India and South Asia and their related, recent and not so recent, Diasporas, this is doubly cause for celebration. The Winter/Spring double issue of South Asian Ensemble (SAE) is into its seventh volume. The appearance of the seventh volume of this journal is something of a miracle and no praise can be enough for its editors, Gurdev Chauhan (based in Canada) and Rajesh Sharma (based in India). With the demise of the Toronto South Asian Review (in its last years, The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad – quite a mouthful) more than a decade ago, the importance of SAE cannot be overstated. South Asian Ensemble is the only literary print journal in Canada, the USA and the UK with a focus on the work of Indians and South Asians.
Cover painting by Jarnail Singh

The latest issue arrived in the mail on the cusp of summer and it has graced every table in my home: my nightstands, side tables, kitchen table, computer desks, patio table, and even my sofa, and several chairs. And there is no more apt word that graced. This is an elegant volume front and back: two gorgeous, brilliant paintings of two women by Jarnail Singh from his series on women of Punjab. Jarnail’s genius is evident. Who is this artist, who are these women? It was as if the editors anticipated these questions. This volume includes an interview by Ajmer Rode with the artist. Jarnail Singh, who has exhibited his art in several cities in India and Canada and has received multiple awards, is based in British Columbia. He says that his art is “realism with a touch of idealism” and the women he painted were not models, but women and girls who posed for him out of respect for his art, “some of the most beautiful women” he has met. Almost, if not, all we do is a matter of choice. Jarnail answers the criticisms that his paintings do not deal with the squalor and dirt and ugliness in Indian villages with: “I want to paint the beauty of life, not its ugly side.” Jarnail makes no apologies for his obsession with Punjabi life in his art.

By contrast, Jaspreet Singh’s essay on his 1984 experiences in India deals with the bitter and the ugly: the radicalism and terrorism of Sikh separatists in the early 1980s resulting in the Indian army storming Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple of Amritsar, to flush out armed militants; the murder/assassination of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards and the ensuing anti-Sikh violence in Delhi following the killing of the Indian Prime Minister. In hindsight, it seems that a better way might have been for the army to surround, cut off, isolate and starve the militants into surrender etc. But this would have been no easy decision for any government in any part of the world, given a similar situation and faced with, as Naipaul might have put this, “A Million Mutinies.” What is striking about this piece is the raw emotion and bitterness, “when one walks in the Indian capital one actually walks on the ashes of Sikh citizens who perished some thirty years ago.” One is tempted to ask, what about the ashes of millions all over India who perished in 1500 years of brutal Muslim “pogroms” in India, which gave rise to Sikhism itself, or the continuing theft and appropriation of several Indian/Hindu historical buildings including the Tejo Mahalya (Taj Mahal). History is one-eyed. One of the striking things to an “outsider” reading this piece was this: How could Indira Gandhi be so stupid, or guilt-ridden-death-seeking, or naive, or some combination of these, to keep her Sikh bodyguards after invading Sikhism holiest shrine? Regardless of what one thinks of her, if there is one redeeming action in all of her reign, it must be this act of retaining her Sikh bodyguards - ultimately being murdered by them.

There are other questions: can any examination of the events of 1984 by a Canadian of Sikh/Indian origin exclude the resultant bombing of Air India Flight 182, originating in Canada, in 1985 in which all passengers and crew, 329 people, were killed by Sikhs, some still free, even celebrated in sections of the Indo-Canadian community? If Jaspreet’s intention in the piece in this issue is to break the silence on this period, perhaps, he has succeeded. And, so has SAE in fostering, like any good journal, discussion on hidden subjects. 

As has become usual for SAE, this volume abounds in translations: ghazals of Nazir Kazmi – a reminder that that which may make for good song does not necessarily make for good poetry, that axiom that poetry bound by form, meter and rhyme will produce inflated, bombastic, and fatuous lines; prose poetry by John Bandi – which begs the eternal question, what determines this art form, substance or style, or both, and what exactly is prose poetry; the poems of Harkirat Heer translated by Gurdev Chauhan are terse, pithy as in ‘Language of the Eyes’ and in ‘Suicide’ a wonderful, double edged poem and ‘Woman’ – all of her poems make us pause, and reflect in the way that fine poems make readers do; one poem from Usha Kishore, ‘Immigrant’ is especially poignant  - “I fly with monsoon skin that thunders in an alien sky”; short conversational poems by Ruth Vanita – ‘April Surprise’ beginning, “April will surprise you yet, she said”, taunting the reader; Fauzia Rafique’s pieces are polemic and stop just short of being rants – a difficult balance; Sukhpal’s poems translated by Chauhan add to the richness of this volume; Deepti Zutshi’s two pieces again returns the question of what makes a poem and are not without light touches on what could be a deadly subject  – the Indian state of Kashmir “that place to which I owe my notoriously long nose, / My complexion, my light eyes...”; from Kavita Jindal poems on women’s rights, again not quite rants; Zohra Zoberi’s last line haunts – “A mother delivers a child twice”; Gurdev Chauhan has a sequence of Village Poems with memorable lines, “The village now monkeys the city / and forgets its own walk” – the poem titled ‘6’ in particular a very evocative piece on the village; in Harminder Dhillon’s poem one can almost hear an Indian train, see the garbage, graffiti, junk along the tracks; with Diditi Mitra there is a pivot, a change in the tempo, the wonderful repetitions of taal, music/kathak in ‘Come Looking for Me’ overdone and losing its energy by the time we get to ‘Miniature Dreams’ – but a taut, fine piece called ‘Mourning’ making me stop and finding a poem also titled ‘Mourning’ and also consisting of five lines in my 2008 collection, In a Boston Night;  Swaran J. Owcawr’s fine translations of Bhupinder Preet’s poems each containing a little twist in the last lines – enough cannot be said about how translations sets this journal apart from literary journals; Papiya Lahiri’s “Changing times—dropping fast and steady / Like sand from a tight fist of a powerful man” reminds of the pleasures of simile – and you read it again; Rati Saxena, a translator herself, is translated by Seth Michelson  - her piece than stands out is ‘Before Leaving’, a haunting poem on farewell and, perhaps, that final farewell; Manmohan’s pieces seem uninspiring at first, but invites readings and re-readings; Pooja Miglani Arora’s poems – “There is a space of no sounds..” - end almost 100 pages of poetry in this journal. We have read every piece. 

It is not enough. The prose section that follows is as varied as the poetry. Enough said about the first piece, Jaspreet Singh’s 1984 already. M.L. Raina’s essay, ‘Literature and the Sacred’ based on observations at Kashmir University in 2014 is wide ranging and a piece that is intriguing in its lamentation, with possible causes, of the loss of the sacred in the arts. Poets and fiction writers alike may be well served by these observations: self-reflective, self-absorbed, deconstructionist postulations – can one call such art? – is the bane of visionary work. By contrast, Saitya Brata Das’ essay in celebration of Professor Harjeet Singh Gill’s 80th birthday – one of the highlights of this volume – is a piece that sings, and at the same time, is a profound tribute to language and art; the trembling and palpation of the heart, of life, of existence being found in the finest poetry. 

Rajesh Sharma writes on John Siddique’s Sohni Mahiwal and his meeting with Siddique, and Anoop K Babra’s ‘Parallel Journey’ on British Columbia’s majestic landscape and mountains are listed as essays – both are relatively short and defy neat categorization.      

Zubair Ahmed’s ‘Dead Man’s Float’ translated with Anne Murphy is a haunting piece - if the reader suspends a sense of reality - of fiction in every sense of the word, as are Angelee Deodhar’s ‘Coriander’ and Subhash Chandra’s ‘Naga Baba.’ 

To complete this volume, there are reviews by Cyril Dabydeen and Gurdev Chauhan. Dabydeen’s review of a book with the word “coolie” in the title has been the cause of strong views in the oldest Indian diaspora – that resulting from the period known as Indentureship to Mauritius, Fiji, South Africa, the West Indies and Guyana in South America. That there was a conference at the University of London last month on the usage of the word is a clear indication that, like the N-word, the time has come to relegate the C-word to the dustbins of history – where it belongs. During the colonial and early postcolonial period, the term “coolie” was an epithet of the deepest derogation – something I remember, know, and felt as a boy and teenager. That the term has gained some currency in the offspring of that earliest diaspora (migrating yet again), who were born, educated and/or raised in North America and the UK/Europe is due to ignorance, sloppy research, and an obscene disregard for - as the late Trinidadian novelist, Ismith Khan, would have put this - “the hell our people went through.”

Chauhan’s review, the last piece in this volume, is of my latest collection, Love in a Time of Technology – which was just shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature.

We have come to the end of this volume. But we are not finished. One of the great things, the great advantage of a print volume, is that once you shut down the computer, or e-reader, the volume is still there; the light doesn’t go out; the page doesn’t go opaque and blank. We end then, with that with which we started, the paintings of Jarnail Singh on front and back covers and the two women – or is she one differently – two slivers of genius, and the woman with ‘The New Necklace’, more beautiful than the Mona Lisa, and as intriguing; Who was she, who is she remaining, unmoved on my desk.