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Round About: John Berger’s Punjab connection

chandigarh Updated: Mar 15, 2015 09:56 IST
John Berger

When the collected poems of a living legend like John Berger (born in 1926) are published by a less-known and very new niche publishing house for poetry called Copper Coin, started by an enterprising Punjabi young man in Delhi, one is bound to wonder that how did it happen?

Berger is a world-acclaimed art critic, painter, novelist, activist and poet, of course. But the answer is not hard to find.

It has something to do with our homegrown Punjabi poet, Amarjit Chandan, who in his immigrant years in the UK formed a close friendship with Berger who read his poem ‘Lasan’ (garlic) in a film on the BBC.

Just a pungent poetic taste of ‘Lasan’ before one moves on: ‘In a distant country/ When you come across a compatriot/ You’re thrilled to the bones/ Your eyes and your hands reach out to him/ And a chain of words is formed/ I came on it once, the Punjabi word ‘Lasan’ written up on a huge billboard/ For women farm workers in a far-flung corner of California/ And I felt my language had welcomed me/ Shaken my hands/ Embraced me/ Wished me good luck/ For a moment the taste of the word ‘Lasan’ was like/ A sugar lump on my tongue…’

This indeed would be a poem after Berger’s heart, who besides being famed for his novel ‘G’ won the Booker Prize, and his celebrated visionary art almanac, ‘Ways of Seeing’, is also the author of ‘A Seventh Man’, a study of immigrants in words and visuals. It was Berger who coined the term: ‘the myth of return’.

Copper Coin publisher Sarabjeet Garcha says: “Getting in touch with John Berger was again sheer happenstance. Berger had written the foreword to Sonata for Four Hands, a bilingual edition of Amarjit Chandan’s poems in Punjabi with their English translations published by the UK-based Arc Publications”.

I had long wanted to read this book, but didn’t get it in India.

So I got in touch with Chandan himself, and he sent me a copy. On reading Berger’s perceptive foreword to Sonata, I felt that the man must be a poet, too — and an excellent one at that. I straight away asked Chandan about Berger’s poems, and he told me about the ‘Collected Poems’ was being published by Smokestack Books.

I got hold of a few sample poems, which delighted me. I said as much to Chandan, and through him, I reached out to John’s son Yves, who in turn pointed me to John’s literary agent in Barcelona, and thus we obtained the rights to publish the Indian edition of the book.

Well, it has happened to the joy of the many admirers of Berger, a well brought out slim book below `300, with a cover design by filmmaker and painter Gurvinder Singh, for the Indian market. Now just a teaser here from a 1980 poem by the octogenarian legend called ‘Learning by Heart’: ‘My heart born naked, was swaddled in lullabies/ Later alone it wore poems for clothes/ Like a shirt/ I carried on my back/ the poetry I had read’.

Well, clothes of poetry are light to wear but carry weighty thoughts.

This is the third poetry collection by the multi-lingual Copper Coin, who had earlier published the poems of Manohar Shetty in English and Amarjit Chandan in Punjabi. So keep it up folks!