"You need to find it in your heart that small spark of accountability...You poke that finger at yourself like Heather would have done, and you make it happen. You take that extra step. You find a way to make a difference in the world." -- Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed at a white nationalist rally in Virginia. Defiant in grief.
WHITE SUPREMACISTS in Charlottesville, a college town in Virginia, United States, charted a bloody trail of hatred, leading to death of someone opposing hate. Scores of peaceful protesters were maimed when they were holding the rally to seek removal of a statue of pro-slavery Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee’s military leadership against the forces of the Union, led by Abraham Lincoln, had brought the question about the ideological legacy of American civil war to the forefront with slogans of ‘Taking America Back’, eerily echoing Donald Trump’s electioneering slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Related to the Ku Klux Klan supremacist parivar and emboldened by the Trumpian moral equivalence posited between the victims and aggressors, these attackers have triggered a debate about what it means to be an American. The dead are summoned–once again–from the graves to legitimise contemporary struggles, ideological contests and political battles.
Syllabus formation is another such site of exercising power, where a suitable national tradition is imagined and thrust upon, through the construction of a corresponding scholarly canon. Criteria for inclusion or exclusion are, in fact, markers of power routinely carried out in almost every nation-state. Mr. D.N. Batra–Hindutva’s field marshal in educational sphere–has suggested to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to remove a poem by Punjabi poet Paash along with translations of Rabindranath Tagore, Mirza Ghalib and others from Hindi textbook. Paash's poem 'Sabh Ton Khatarnaak' (The Most Treacherous) is deemed unsuitable for adolescent learners of Indian schools in Mr. Batra's world.
The attempt to excise his work from national syllabi appears innocuous in the face of Paash’s cold-blooded murder almost thirty years ago for his fearless resistance to Sikh extremist movement. More than his physical elimination, his detractors are aware of their need to sully his image which has survived, rather thrived, after his death. So we have Gurbir (widely presumed to be a Khalistan ideologue who was at one time an associate of Paash) in Rajinder Rahi’s hatchet job ‘Jitthe Paash Rehnda Hai’ (2007) explaining away his murder as a logical outcome of conditions, where Paash, in fact, invited the wrath of extremists by employing provocative phrases in his writings. Moral equivalence is once more on display, when Gurbir (or you know who) virtually absolves the perpetrators. On yet another plane, many aspiring poets have sought to come out of his long shadow by labelling his poetry as ‘average but carried forward by slogan-shouting left-wing cadres'. Writer of epic poem ‘Ilaahi Nadar De Paindey,’ Harinder Singh Mehboob, gracelessly dismissed Paash's oeuvre as a "blatant copying of Pablo Neruda's imagery.”
Arrayed alongside these omnipotent armies of national, cultural, sectarian greatness is a Punjabi blog offering empirical evidence of Paash plagiarising 'The Grass' - a poem by American icon, Carl Sandburg (1887-1967) - and publishing it as his original work. With justice to bloggers, an editorial oversight is the culprit here, due either to the exceptionally tragic circumstances when the said anthology was first published or the editor was unaware of its origins. First published in 1988, roughly three decades have passed without any editor rectifying the lapse or adding a note to the Punjabi version. The editorial omission has contributed to this almost Trumpian muddle aimed at wounding Paash, contributing to the momentum that the campaign gathered and culminating, finally, in an attack by proxy on those who claim to uphold his legacy of ideas.
The hilarious, high-octane exchanges on the blogpost make for compelling reading. Self-righteous swagger of erudition on display at having consulted dusty files, compared texts and tallied multiple editions to substantiate this grave claim quickly leads to moralist hubris labelling others as dumb bhakts. Heart-rending concern at falling standards of Punjabi letters is accompanied by resolute declarations to further scrutinise modern Punjabi poetry by cataloguing such thefts. Expressions of dismay at Paash's trickery - in substituting proper nouns in the original poem, thus skilfully masking his literary piracy- are worthy of a Lalita Pawar act.
Paash never included this poem in his three anthologies published while alive. It was noted in his notebook and published posthumously without the requisite mention of its origins in Carl Sandburg. The evidence so heroically rescued by the blog scholars flies in the face of the fact that Paash never published this poem as his original work.
Paash never published this poem 'Ghaah' while alive. It was published posthumously without the requisite mention of its origins in Carl Sandburg. Did Pash refer to this connection to Sandburg? Those out to call him a plagiarist should have used this thing called Google. Shamsher Singh Sandhu, in his 'Ik Paash Eh Vi' (2011) narrates the crucial incident. It was never meant to expose some bloggers in the future, but does just that...If we are tuned in, both Carl Sandburg and Paash could almost be heard in conversation here.
The blogging researchers would have saved themselves much effort and tomfoolery if they had just run some search engine queries about books with the name ‘Paash’ in the title. Shamsher Singh Sandhu's collection 'Ik Paash Eh Vi' (2011) narrates the crucial incident while underlining Paash's immense popularity amongst students. Paash was invited for a recitation at a youth festival in Lala Lajpat Rai Memorial Science College Jagraon, where his recitation of ‘Jiddan Tun Pirthi Nuun Jammia Si Maan’ was rapturously received by hundreds of students. Later, a motley bunch of students followed him for yards on foot, pestering him to recite some more. In deference to their enthusiasm, the poet stood by the roadside and launched into an impromptu recitation of the poem Ghaah. As was his wont, he outlined the context of the poem. But read Sandhu's eye-witness account on page 63-64 of his book, wherein Paash said:
"The poem I am about to recite is a Punjabi adaptation of an English poem by Carl Sandburg 'The Grass', done while I was jailed. You could ascribe this (version – Ed.) either to him or to me, because it has come to be associated with my name.”
Composed in ironic mode by Carl Sandburg in 1916 when the First World War was deploying science, technology and progress to ratchet up destruction, ‘The Grass’ is a pacifist poem dwelling upon the wretchedly industrial manner of human loss, underlining the futility of war. Fated to be mere blips in time, fading from memory, all the decisive battlefields will be erased by grass that states’...let me work’. However, the ghaah in Paash’s adaptation is about remembrance of struggles by people in protest. But for the humble swaying of Paash’s ghaah, the memory of Moga, Barnala, Phagwara-Banga road, Ludhiana or Sangrur would be obliterated. If we are tuned in, both Carl Sandburg and Paash could almost be heard in conversation here.