Book review: ‘A Clock in the Far Past’ by Sarabjeet Garcha

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Reviewed by Shikhandin

A Clock in the Far Past

Title: A Clock in the Far Past – Poems
Author: Sarabjeet Garcha
Publisher: Dhauli Books
Price: INR Rs 250/ $14/£ 11

Human bodies are heavy, slaves of Earth’s gravity. Human hearts, on the other hand, weighing little more than sparrows, are still strong enough to pull the weight of memory. Perhaps this is where poetry is born.

Sarabjeet Garcha’s book of poems, A Clock in the Far Past, leaves one immersed in a certain feeling. Something more like residue, or a whiff of a sensation, almost like distant memory, or the memory of a memory, ticking away for the sake of what is here and now.

As the titular poem of the volume says:

It wasn’t 10:10, as images of clocks

are fond of showing, but some hour
that’s been swallowed by some windy
darkness of a tunnel, now extinct.
But what you can’t figure out now

Is the sudden urge to make
That stopped clock tick again-
As if a few tweaks to it
in the far past would set at least
something in your present right.

The clock’s hands move. Sarabjeet Garcha’s poems ferry the reader across like a time machine, albeit an astral one. This can be, and is already, disconcerting. These memories do not belong to the reader; and at times they seem not to belong to the poet. Then why this recurring sense of turning back the hands of one’s own clock? Is it because Garcha has made

a handful of lines
out of a lifetime’s work
shine…

These lines speak to me of Garcha’s humility before his muse. And this too – when he recognises with thanks that

seated
figure of some rare unknown
reader of his paltry work, he wants

to snoop on the underscores
and thank her for doing
what was almost
undoable for him…

(From “Radium”, the last poem in the volume)

But why has he addressed the reader as female? Is Garcha’s reader also his muse? What is the ‘undoable for him’ that she was able to do? Readers enter the scene only after the poet has finished the work and has already presented it to the world of readers, but Garcha claims greater intimacy, as if his reader is able to change or uplift his work. That could almost be seen as arrogance. However, by referring to the poet in the poem in the third person (‘he’) and not ‘I’, Garcha removes any vestige of ego; this is the depth of his care.

Those who lean towards spirituality, as Garcha’s poetry amply suggests, tend to be modest. They seek to create just because the object of their creativity requires it. Nothing more. So the reader can easily be taken to the threshold, a thin raised line in this case, on which to stand and teeter towards what he calls a “Frugal Narrative” – which also happens to be the title of the first poem.

“Frugal Narrative” requires multiple readings, as if each is a threshold to be crossed, leading to the next., The poem remains elusive though, unwilling to reveal its depths completely, just as

the whites
of the A4 page would crackle
with a flurry of smudges
no amount of correction fluid
can inhale to the full. 

This poem  draws the reader in again and again. Younger readers may find its elusiveness more physical; may even have trouble relating to the vision of the poet at work on a typewriter, requiring correction fluid and all, which is why several readings are necessary, and even more so for them. The poem’s intent is more than the images conjured from Garcha’s words. Through it, he takes his reader/s to the far past.

The past that Garcha pulls his readers into is neither pure biography nor absolute history. Undoubtedly, the poems recall past events, situations and images, but they are more than the sum total of memory. It’s like journeying to another portal, still on earth, and yet also other worldly. Take the almost prayer-like poem “Unlearning Kabir”. At one level, the poem weaves an image of the saint-poet singing as if only to the poet, with the reader listening in from the outside. The reader can feel the image rather than actually see it. A reading experience such as this can easily rob one of tranquillity, exactly as the poem warns. And then the poem asks if the reader is willing to give up his/her “accrued sum of infinitesimals,” and

continue to turn the silt
that once was one
with the voice of the river


And

Let closed eyes read
…what you know
is always lurking
in the dark interior…

Disquieting and spiritual. The two terms are oxymoronic, but Garcha makes them coexist.

Another poem, “Attire”, takes an old fable and turns it around, as if correcting or re-directing a piece of ancient history, or a belief that has been held on to for too long. “Cry” speaks of the boy who cried wolf but speaks of it with greater empathy, while yet another, “Telltale,” is a reimagining of the forty thieves, with a warning for the readers – those who are outside the portal. Garcha’s poems are fables too – fables  whose skeletons seem to have been laid bare, telling the reader not to return to old fairy tales, at least not blindly. As he says (in the poem “Charged”),

…I’ll unburden your soul
of all earthly information…

and
soothsay the evolution

of a world not governed by
if this-then-that.

Garcha also springs surprises, alters the mood suddenly. For there, from the midst of his serious reveries, out jumps a poem that seems purely tongue-in-cheek, full of irony. “Two Lives” portrays two sides of the same metaphorical coin. This prose poem, a relatively rare form in Garcha’s collection, reflects on a surgeon’s failed attempt to save a person’s life in the first paragraph. In the second, it is the editor who ‘tried his best but couldn’t save the poem’s essence.’ Each line of the previous paragraph replays itself in another avatar in the second, even as the adjectives remain the same or retain the same movement and rhythm. And then it hits you, “Two Lives” is not two sides of the same coin, but two mirrors facing each other, reflecting their own stories, almost lobbing them at each other, with a dark and mischievous glee.

Another prose poem (the penultimate one in the collection) – “roly cow poly cow [with minor interventions]” is also entirely tongue-in-cheek, and takes a dig at our infamous Indian-road culture. It’s a vividly written poem, written with irony and humour.  It lightens up the mood even as it addresses a serious issue, deadpan.

The volume settles down again into reposeful ponderings. Poem after poem give the impression of a minstrel walking ahead, singing his songs that call out to the soul, even in the poems that make use of today’s technicalities, like “Hoof”. In “Home”, Garcha asks questions that many readers will relate to, and this one too, like the others in the book, refers to memory and nostalgia –

…the very place
where dreams become
letters without addresses.

“Urban Memory” is a poem that deals the far clock’s hand and revives a sad and unsettling incident. The seemingly simple and straight forward lines work like a perfect foil for Garcha’s anguish. Poems like “Lodgers” and “October” leave behind an oblique warning like a half dusted-off question mark on a blackboard. “Well-Grounded” is a surreal poem, almost sci-fi in its approach. Garcha, of course, is speaking in ironies here, crafting it into a ‘lush illusion’ that should ‘seem more real and everlasting’.

“Slow Seesaw” is an evocative poem that deals with an unplanned building rising to dwarf ‘detached houses’. It delivers a chilling message of urban horror but through lines so meditative that it is only after the poem sinks in does one understand its intent –

It’s on the slow
seesaw of secrecy and discovery that
the fantastical balances itself while a void
grazes our mundane gaze hurled through
a faraway windowpane.

“Touch” draws upon the serenity of water to create an intensely spiritual dialogue. The deity has been relocated; the original temple is now half-submerged. The poem tells us that true worship is also about touch – one that needs no image; no physical body to cross the lake and reach its spiritual destiny.

Speaking of spiritual, while the volume as a whole resonates with otherworldliness and is mostly meditative in approach, it is the poem “Keeper of the Granth” that produces a near trance-like state as one reads it. This is one of those rare poems that is able to bring the sublime within the reader’s grasp. Reading it again and again, I felt that I would not feel any awkwardness at all if I recited this poem to myself on the steps of a place of worship, preferably near ‘a pond pressed like a child’s drawing/between two leaves labelled earth and sky.’

In A Clock in the Far Past, Sarbjeet Garcha urges his readers to keep a childlike sense of wonder and a heart that is ripe. So he /she may stoop without hesitation to pick ‘a leaf from the collective memory…’

Just as our Raagas have their own hours for singing, poems too seek specific times of the day. I felt Garcha’s poems would be best enjoyed early in the morning, when the day has not quite begun, though birds have already begun to claim the sky.  Air is purest at that hour; inhaling it as one dips into these poems would make the first breaths of the day sweeter.

 

Bio:

Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection Immoderate Men was published by Speaking Tiger, 2017 (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). Vibhuti Cat, her first children’s book, was published by Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad; she has been widely published worldwide. https://www.amazon.com/author/shikhandin

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