Avtar Singh Sandhu ‘Pash’ was born on 9 September 1950 at village Talwandi Salem in Punjab’s Jalandhar district. A poet who became a martyr at the age of 38, Pash’s poetry is a reflection of his revolutionary ideology and ambition to write poetry from below – people’s concerns, their joys and sorrows take centre stage in his poetry. If the Naxalite movement of the late sixties was Pash’s political awakening, he was later influenced by the Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky and poets, Pablo Neruda and Bertolt Brecht. As an ardent believer in the unity of theory and practice as a fundamental Marxist postulate, Pash actively participated in people’s struggles and experienced both state and non-state repression in its most direct and violent form. Falsely implicating in a murder case, the state arrested him for the first time in 1970 for his association with the Naxalites and put in jail for almost a year. In the eighties, Pash drew the ire of the Khalistanis when he countered their fundamentalist propaganda and had to leave India for the United States in 1986. When he came back in the beginning of 1988 to renew his visa, he was assassinated by Khalistani extremists on the day of Bhagat Singh’s martyrdom, 23 March.
Like his nom de plume, Pash, which is taken from the Farsi language that means ‘fragrance’, Pash’s poetry exudes the fragrance of earth and mustard flowers while at the same time equally emphasising on inequality and exploitation, conditions of everyday life for an ordinary person in the country. Yet, there is an unmistakable hope in his poetic oeuvre that celebrates ordinary people’s everyday struggles against inequality and exploitation, or in Trotsky’s words, the long, permanent revolution that begins on the local, national arena under specific local, national conditions. Remembering Pash’s legacy, his daughter, Winkle Sandhu wrote in The Tribune ahead of his 70th birth anniversary in September 2020, “Pash’s poetry provides succour and strength, sustenance and hope to carry forth and guide the next generation to carve its own path. Such powerful and progressive poetry is and should be recognised, celebrated and lived by.”
The four poems translated here – ‘भारत’ [‘Bharat’], ‘घास’ [‘Grass’], ‘उनके शब्द लहू के होते हैं’ [‘Of Blood Are Their Words’], and ‘हमारे लहू को आदत है’ [‘Our Blood Is Conditioned’] – are available on the Kavita Kosh website in Hindi translation. In today’s India infested by a rhetoric of aggressive nationalism and pro-corporate ‘development’ propagated by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP government in power that vilifies, antagonises, and leaves no stone unturned to punish any dissent as ‘threats’ to national integrity, the selected poems by Pash not only question a mythical “idea of India” apathetic about everyday realities but also highlight struggles, aspirations, and hopes of the people living in the land, in the face of oppression and exploitation at the hands of those in power and with privileges.
Biswajit K. Bora
the greatest word of reverence
wherever and whenever it is uttered
all other words are rendered meaningless
The meaning of this word
resides with those sons and daughters of the land
who, even today, measure time
by looking at the shadows of trees.
They do not have a problem but that of the stomach—
they could chew their own limbs
when they suffer from hunger pangs.
Life is but a tradition for them
and liberation the meaning of death.
Whenever someone talks about
the ‘national unity’ of the entire country
my heart wishes to
deflate their balloons of vanity
and tell them—
the meaning of Bharat
is not related to some Dushyanta*;
rather it lies in the fields
where food grows
and so do robbers.
*King Dushyanta or Dushyant is a mythological character who is the father of the Emperor Bharata, the ancestor of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, as mentioned in the epic, the Mahabharata. Hence, Bharata or Bharat is also a name of modern India.
I am grass
I shall grow in every part of your world
Even if you throw bombs in universities
and transform hostels into heaps of debris
even if you demolish the roofs over our heads
what will you do to me?
I am but the grass, I shall envelop everything
and grow on each heap.
Make Banga a heap of waste
erase Sangrur from the maps
annihilate the district of Ludhiana
but my verdure will accomplish its task…
In two years, ten years
passengers will ask the conductor—
“Which place is this?
Drop me at Barnala
where there is a jungle of green grass.”
I am grass, I shall do my work
I shall grow in every part of your world.
*The poem was inspired by Carl Sandburg’s poem, ‘Grass’, included in his second book of poetry, Cornhuskers, published in 1918
Of Blood Are Their Words
Those who have sung ballads of the blade throughout their life
Their words are of blood
And of iron is their blood
Living on the edge of death
The journey of life begins with their death
Whose blood and sweat fall on earth
They grow in that soil again
Our Blood Is Conditioned
Our blood is conditioned—
without looking at the weather or the gathering
it starts the celebrations of life
and teases songs of the scaffold
Words get eroded flowing over rocks,
blood still sings.
who coaxes upset and cold winter nights
who takes care of ruthless moments!
It is blood that kisses the lips of streams every day
and breaches the walls of dates.
This celebration, this song, aplenty for someone—
who till yesterday were trying to practise swimming
in the silent river of our blood.