Revisiting the fascinating strands of rich culture, Sarabjeet Garcha interlaces his personal experiences into universal experiences of humanity. Love is a recurrent theme in the anthology Lullaby of the Ever-Returing, a theme which is craftily manifested not only in finely- woven tapestry of poetry but also in prose which are at one level belong to the exclusive cultural experiences of the Sikh community but at another to the entire humanity. Both in the pieces of prose and in poetry, what Sarabjeet encapsulates is the multifacetedness of love which is beautified and made colourful by the powerful human agent. Although love is a universal experience, it has been aesthetically situated in the Sikh culture adding a unique cultural dimension to it yet preserving the universal character of it.
A significant aspect of love at Sarabjeet’s hand is the portrayal of its social manifestation, by and large, defined by the moral codes of a given society. Sarabjeet amply manifest and reinforces the universal adage that a writer or a poet cannot afford to be universal without being local or without being firmly rooted in one’s own culture. The contours of Sarabjeet’s discourse of love are defined by a diction enriched with powerful metaphors and imagery masterly employed in poems and in the pieces of prose in the anthology. In essence, it is a literary feast that one would partake with delight.
Garcha was interviewed by Sri Lankan journalist Ranga Chandrarathne.
In a way, your poems encapsulate not only your personal life experiences but also the milieu you live in and the complex system of beliefs and culture in general. For instance, the poem Your Handwriting, though a personal experience, evokes the universal feeling of love and also epitomises the rich imagination on the part of the narrator. Your comments..?
Garcha: Anything most personal is necessarily universal, and all universal feelings can be traced back to certain fundamental emotions. They are the same everywhere and so is their perception, but their expressions vary. It’s the permutations of these expressions that give rise to novelty and freshness, the key elements that make poetry work. Nothing’s more universal and more universally understood or misunderstood — depending on how you look at it — than love. And it is so much more than just a feeling. The poem you refer to does not just point to the handwriting of the person it is dedicated to, but also to that of the much dreaded but equally celebrated Moving Finger of providence or destiny, for which the Hindi word praarabdha sounds better to me. Besides being interested in what this finger writes, I am fascinated by the looks of what it writes, by how life unfolds itself to us layer by layer, by the way these micro, or say nano, revelations affect and change us, and change us for good, irreversibly.
One of the recurring themes of the collection is love, and in the poem Reawakenings, you grotesquely describe lovemaking using metaphors associated with Indian culture and geography. How would you revisit the poem?
All you need to feel the great power of love is a heart, and we all have one. Some of us give in to this power, while others just give up on it, but never so without a twinge of regret or, even, a pang of guilt. Nevertheless, the desire for love throbs in us as long as we have this body, and lovemaking is the most basic means for slaking the body’s primal thirst. I don’t call it hunger, because to me this word sounds like a hunk of something that can be attacked, destroyed, erased, done away with, and thus forgotten. But that’s not the case with thirst. It’s like a river that flows in us, and also a river that flows towards us—a river that carries this thirst. The river culminates its journey at a bigger river or the sea. But love begins its journey through lovemaking by reaching out for the sea of bliss you see in the one you love. For all you know, this might be a grand delusion, but you have to find it out for yourself. To do so, you need to experience it repeatedly.
One of the other evocative poems in the collection is In the Maze of a Gaze, in which a memorable experience has been recalled skillfully using powerful images such as glass and water and the union of lovers is craftily manifested. Among other things, the poem shows how important it is for a poet to use commonplace experiences to narrate a profound meaning of life. Your comments?
Most writing emanates out of everyday experiences and occurrences. When you associate these happenings with what transpires inside you, you begin to discover new perspectives and new realities, or realities which were always there but which you didn’t notice, or never gave thought to. In the Maze of a Gaze points to the appearances we put up, the masks we wear. We are rarely happy about such masks and pretensions, and least so in the presence of a loved one. You not only begin to see yourself in your true light, but you also want to see the real you. This you might not be your best image, but it’s one that confronts and, by and by, cleanses your private self of the deceptions it’s prone to clad itself in. We all love simplicity, but life rarely allows us to be simple. We may start simple, but become complex, and our masks add to our complexity.
Ghazal for the Vanishing encapsulates a powerful recollection of separation, and separation is manifested in the act of vanishing. How would you re-read the poem?
No one wants good things or good persons to vanish from one’s life, but all good things have a way of slipping away from us. So too the persons we cherish most. We might pretend to paint the ‘Good riddance’ sign on the big hot-air balloon of our ego, but we know that life’s never the same without the friends we’ve lost. We want them to come back to us, to fill our life with their joyous laughs, but usually don’t want to take the first step towards reconciliation ourselves. It becomes a never-ending wait in a lifetime of agony. This poem is a tribute to all those dear things and beings that are given to making themselves scant from our lives.
The poem Dharma conjures a series of montages about diverse facets of life where contrast is drawn between stark poverty and prosperity in a graphic manner. How would you unlace the complex scenario in the poem and the truth codified in it?
Poverty is the biggest curse of humanity, but a still bigger bane is our deliberate blindness to it. What can be starker and darker than poverty? Even the greatest of talents get crushed under the weight of this juggernaut. Every now and then, some great being born in poverty does overcome it, but we are generally not told the stories of those who don’t. Think of an impoverished genius who does not have the genius to transgress the ugly bog of want and wretchedness. Genius is generally specialised, but it does not always get realised. I’ll give you an example.
A friend was getting his shoe polished at a railway station when the shoeshine boy made a comment on the book that this friend was carrying. The boy said, ‘It’s a great book. Worth reading again.’ The book was Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Now, what was my friend expected to do? Of course he was surprised, and pleasantly so. But then what? As far as I remember, he had said some nice things to the boy, but I can’t guess what must have happened to that prodigy. In the stereotypical version of such a story, the boy would have ended up as an icon that the world worships, but in truth he might have been frustrated with the daily grind and the constant struggle to feed himself with two square meals a day, and his talent must have died a slow, painful death. Who knows. Also, can we say for sure how much of the world’s genius remains undiscovered? We can’t. What we see in ample is usually refined mediocrity, which has had the benefit of resources—resources that are in short supply in an overpopulated world.
The poem A Rustle in the Ruins offers a panoramic view of Punjabi culture, landscapes and humanscapes. How would you uncoil the message in it?
I have always lived away from Punjab, but my view of it is romantic. I am fascinated by Punjab’s folklore, but not so much with its present landscapes, because they are now defaced. If you see Punjab through the prism of lore and history, you will love it, but as soon as this prism drops, the magic of the land comes undone, and what you see instead is a dreary and depressing picture. It’s a shock that’s hard to overcome. Perhaps that’s why the most popular form of poetry in this land is the ghazal. After all, it goes so well with romance and nostalgia. In the poem you mention, I reminisce about the Punjab that the famous poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi celebrated in his melodious poetry. It’s a Punjab seen through his eyes, but a Punjab that has now become the stuff of memories. The message in this poem is that of hope underlying regret and despair.
Another interesting poem in the anthology is Scenes from Another Life, which describes an old man who spends his evening of life. What inspired you to write the poem?
I never had an old man in mind while writing this poem. It is about a man who is about to die prematurely. A few years ago, I tried dabbling in past-life regression therapy. The visions I saw then stayed with me for some time, and I worked them into this poem. As for this therapy, I neither accept it nor deny it. I simply don’t know about it, but it’s a rage in the so-called spiritual circles. For all I know, I could have dreamt up these visions. Many of my poems come to me as dream images. When an image persists, I tend to make a poem out of it, thus coming to terms with it in a way.
The title poem, Lullaby of the Ever-Returning, is couched with a deep philosophical message of life, love and ageing. Your comments?
A: To borrow a phrase from one of my favourite philosophical works, Tripura Rahasya, all of us are in search of ‘a happiness which extends to all the pores of the body’. Now the question is, where do we find it? We get different answers from different sources, but so far, none of them has worked for me. My search is still on, but at the same time I am not sure if I am looking for just happiness. All happy families that Tolstoy refers to might be alike, but that’s not true of individuals. All happy individuals are certainly not alike. The moment we bring individuality into the picture, the prototype of happiness crumbles. The simplest way to seek it is through love, but this search is conjoined with the fear of loss and dejection. And then, love is just a means, not the end. Those we love the most are also prone to be hurt the most by us. All of us have hurt somebody or the other. And we know that! Age should make sages out of us, but sages are rare and cynics omnipresent. This poem is my little tribute to soulmates. Those who find theirs in a lifetime are very fortunate. In this world of compromises, pairs abound, but not soulmates.
Christening a City is about diverse Indian cities. How fascinating is it to find the genesis of naming cities?
Actually, it is about one city only: Nasik, the city of my birth. I keep returning to it. I feel that the cities that live within us are different from their actual physical counterparts. Information on the latter is easily found in gazettes, but the former need to be delved more deeply. We need more city historians and chroniclers like Peter Ackroyd, in whom London breathes the way it doesn’t in anybody else I know about. More so today than ever, because modernisation is giving us modular cities. Modularity strips places of character. That’s why I understand when the older generation feels sorry for us. They feel we haven’t seen what they have. And they are right. What we do see of what’s lost is through their eyes, so the possibility of distortion, and thus dissatisfaction from what’s seen, remains.
The short story Where Those with Deep Eyes Go recounts a poignant love and the rich tapestry of emotions associated with it. Your comments?
It’s a story I wrote many years ago, but chose to publish only some time ago in this book. If you want to know whether it’s autobiographical, then I would rather that you kept guessing.
In the story The Betrothal, you have dealt not only with the theme of love but also the cultural practices associated with marriage. What is the pivotal role that cultural practices and rituals play in marriage among the Sikhs?
Rituals have their role, but they don’t alone make the motifs on which religions are based. A religion that is solely founded on rituals becomes tiring. The most attractive and uplifting thing about Sikhism is gurbani, the exceptional poetry of the gurus. I still vividly remember the time when I as a child I would get ready for school and there’d be this most soothing voice of Bhai Tarlochan Singh flowing out of the tape recorder and filling the house with the magical chants of the Japji Sahib, our morning prayer. I didn’t understand all the words then, but was hooked to them. That’s when I first became aware of the power and beauty of poetry. I believe that the founding fathers of Sikhism became gurus, masters of the self, because they were poets. And what inimitable poets! When I imagine Guru Nanak singing his poems to the rhythm of Bhai Mardana’s rabab, I get goosebumps. What glorious times he must have lived in. And what glorious verses he gave us. Marriage has its place in the world, but the marriage of words with the profundities and truths of life is more important. That’s the fount of timeless poetry.