Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Art of Living like a Lighthouse

 This article was published in the monthly magazine Identity, December 2012

It had been an inexplicable psychological complex with me for a long time whenever I had to undertake a journey from Ahmedgarh, the town of my rented tiny home during my schooling from 1951 to 1959 and my periodic stay up to 1971.Travelling towards Malerkotla, 15 Km in the south, seemed to denote as if I am taking steps towards darkness; while going towards Ludhiana, 20 km towards North, looked like pursuing the Light- in the right direction of the Pole Star and towards some dream destination! I may confess that even when I was a daily commuting student of the Intermediate classes in the Government College, Malerkotla (1959-61), this indefinable impression had somehow got even further reinforced. When in March 1960, I could afford to buy some books of my general interest from the then famous Lyall Book Depot, Ludhiana, I had penned in the inside cover of one of my most consulted books, 'English Idioms and How to Use Them' by William McMordie,“O God, I need thy Light to illuminate this dark life!”

It is, therefore, with a soulful pride that more than 52 years after praying for the guidance by the Divine Light, I am essaying to express my deeply felt thoughts about the resplendent and illuminating personality of Professor Dr S. Tarsem of Malerkotla. He has indeed been for me a personification of a unique human lighthouse in an area of darkness pointed out in the opening paragraph. Dr Tarsem has become an incarnation and a metaphor for super human determination and titanic courage in his epic struggle against the relentless infirmity of visual impairment. He has triumphantly emerged an Olympian hero as the foremost poet, critic and an extraordinary scholar-teacher of Punjabi with an encyclopedic range of knowledge of the world of literature. He intuitively reminds me of the great classical poet-scholar John Milton whose celebrated poem, 'On His Blindness' lights up  thousands of 'lamps' of memories among mine and Dr Tarsem's contemporaries when we studied it in our text book of B.A. titled 'Living Lyre', also mentioned by  Tarsem in his much celebrated a autobiography, 'Dhritrashtra'.

It was September 1984. I was on leave in India from Romania. Punjab was a picture of an uneasy calm and scary confusion in the wake of military action in the Golden Temple, Amritsar. I paid a visit to Govt. College Malerkotla to meet some lecturer friends who had been my colleagues during my own most enjoyable spell as a young lecturer. It was Prof. C.P. Singh of the Dept. of Physics who conjured up an instantaneous poetical session in the lawn near the main entrance. Prof. Tarsem and Prof, Jagdish Mohan Sharma delighted us by reciting their select poetry of Punjabi and Urdu respectively. The next day, I requested an old student friend of mine to record their fine verses for me in my tape recorder. A bond of lasing personal and literary friendship with Dr Tarsem was firmed up soon when he respond-ed, vide his loving letter dated Feb.7,1985, in his touching poetic prose, to my letter of Dec. 25,1984 from Romania. He also forwarded to me his book of stories titled, 'Paatiya Duddh - the Split (spoiled) Milk'. Some of the stories in the collection indeed impressed me for their fresh themes, genuineness of characters and the use of the typically authentic diction of our area of Malwa.  Most interestingly, I handed over the recorded cassette of 1984, still in good audio quality, to Dr Tarsem during my long cherished meeting with him at his home in Malerkotla in November 2011 after more than 27 years! He told me that Prof Jagdish Mohan had died many years back and that the cassette might, perhaps, be the only one containing his highly popular satirical poems in his own voice!!

Looking back and reflecting  over the many years of our affectionate interaction while I continued to move on to the various countries, I must say that Dr Tarsem has been one of my few friends who was always meticulous in responding to my letters and keep me informed about the goings on in the realm of Punjabi literature. It was a particular delight and instruction for me to receive when I was posted to Pakistan (1992-94), his two collections of poetry titled Kirmchi Harf Kaale Hashie and Soohi Mehk Siah Mausam. A number of Ghazals and poems had subtle poetic allusions to the extremist violence and communal fire raging in Punjab and how they were treacherously stoked from across the border. He had dared to challenge the tyrannical forces of darkness. He had skillfully employed the symbols of bombs and explosives, curfew and censure, gun and bullet when the body and soul of his beloved Punjab was being torn apart by those who had proclaimed themselves to be the custodians of the inheritance of the legendary land of five rivers. I may quote Tarsem's lines:

Jis samein ton soch ikk, aaee kiton barood kha,
agg khani tik ke ouh, behndi nahin hai, dosto!

Ever since mind was poisoned with a deadly fire,
Destruction does not seem to stop, friends!

The poem titled, 'Suneha (message), Page 67 of Soohi Mehak siah Mausam' was indeed the most insightful:

Tusin bhole ho, barhe hi bhole ho; tuhanun pata hi nahin lagan ditta ke kadon Washington te Islamabad da computer tuhadi khoprhi 'ch tika ditta giya; te tusin saare Girjhan di joon vich pai gaye, sappan di joon…hanere di joon pai gaye!

It was a touchingly nostalgic experience for me to receive from him, in 1997, when I was in Panama, an anthology titled, 'Aapne Aapne Khambh (Wings of Their Own)' containing the Ghazals by 23 poets of the ilaqa of Malerkotla. The names of Shankar Mubarakpuri (Ambrin uddiie te haase Chhirhkiye /Dharti Phulkari Bana Ke challie); Ram Lal Premi (Ethe tan vasde Sikh jan Hindu jan Musalman / Kitthon milange lok hun Nanak de naal de); ex-MP Bhan Singh Bhaura (Hanjuan sang morhda han viaz apne ishak da / peerh saari umar di lekha chukavan vaaste) and Naaz Bharati (Ai meri ham nafas; zindagi hai kashmakash) transported me to my dream-like days of the school and the circle of the intimate friends of my dervesh Comrade Chacha Shankra Nand Ji. The Sahit Sabhas, local literary associations, were indeed at the best of their creativity and dedication during those 'distant' days! The meticulously researched introduction of the book by Dr Tarsem had introduced me to the promising scholar-critic in him.

And then finally I returned as a pensioner of Bharat Sarkar in 2004 after a long innings of 'lying' abroad in the service of the nation. After completing the process of settling down in my new little nest on the bank of legendary Yamuna, I set out seriously to pursue in the sun-set years, 'what I always longed to do but could not do' i.e. to indulge full time, in a disciplined manner, in the pursuit of 'Three R's - reading, reflecting and writing'. Dr Tarsem has been quick to emerge again in my distinct category of those friends who fit into my scheme of things - ham umar, ham safar, ham khyal, ham khwab - same age, same pilgrimage, same thinking, and same dreams. He had been quick to introduce me to the Quarterly, Nazaria - Point of View - the vehicle of high quality literary expressions published under his watchful and benign guidance. All the special issues of Nazaria, I may mention among those on Lal Singh 'Dil'. Prof. Mohan Singh, Faiz, Hasan Manto, must be ranked among the collectors issues for their excellence of literary standard. They invite comparison with similar journals published by institutions with far more resources at their disposal. I have indeed been overwhelmingly impressed by his prolific literary output since his retirement: it is surely an inspiration for me, 'the Niagara of creativity often springs up and rushes forward when you become your own boss, 24x7!' We have further discovered that we, quite surprisingly, have several common inspirational individuals from my uniquely knowledgeable school guru Ashni Kumar, to the teachers'- teacher Prof. Pritam Singh and the poet-philosopher futurologist Krishan Ashant. I was simply amazed by his deeply insightful portrait of Prof. Pritam Singh in Nazaria and he was delighted to publish my review article on Ashant's swan song anthology of poetry, 'Beete nuun Aawaazan - Calling up the Past' and even couple of my personal recent letters to him.

The first public event of our  literary togetherness was destined to take place in Chandigarh in Oct 2011 when I attended the session of discussion on his recently published monumental book of 496 pages titled, 'Punjabi Ghazal Shastar'. I must admit that having long been a student of the traditional craft, modern practice and the huge popularity  of Ghazal in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi - not to mention English Sonnet - I was genuinely impressed by this detailed compendium of research and critical appraisal of an important genre of oriental poetry. To read the book was a personal voyage of discovery in the evolution of the art of one of the most enduring forms of poetry, particularly in the background of my having lived in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan where I was privileged to listen to the finest lyricists of the south Asian countries. I had also been fortunate to enjoy an intimate friendship with one of the most respected poet and literary historian, Shri Ali Jawad Zaidi. I am confident that the importance of this scholarly work will be appropriately recognized sooner than later by the relevant institutions in India and Pakistan.

Nourishing an ambition - with the usually attendant dreams and night mares- of penning my autography, I have studied Tarsem's two volumes of autobiography, Katchi Mitti Pakka Rang (152 pages) and Dhritrashtar (308 pages), with a much deeper empathy and extra attention. Katchi Mitti first published in 1990 and as a revised edition in 2002,  covers the period of the first fifteen and a half years of Tarsem's life. The book captivates the reader with its lyrical and restrained prose style, wit, humor and pathos. The details of childhood and early youth of author's life in a semi-rural area of Malwa region are dramatically unfolded. The chapter,  'Sarbala Banan da Sawad - The Taste of being the Best Man of the Groom'- gives a hilarious account of the pleasures and perils of the marriage as they were solemnized in the romantic era in Punjab when there were no proper roads and the engines of vehicles were also quite moody in functioning. The second volume of the autobiography, 'Dhritrashtra', published in 2009, is dedicated to the loving memory of author's devoted life partner who had passed away, at 49, on the night of the Karuva Chauth, on October 8, 1998. The 40 chapters of this work of Tarsem's mature vintage might be considered highly valuable socio-cultural documents and an authentic running commentary on the cross currents of the happenings in Punjab that shaped the author's life during the five decades since 1958. The book has  indeed been of fascinating interest for someone like me who had spent his life during the most of this period in far off lands but had also remained emotionally attached to so many of those very places and people mirrored prominently in this book.

While reaching the mile stone of three scores plus ten years of his life, Dr S. Tarsem can surely look back and forth with legitimate pride and satisfaction over his constant struggle and regular success. The versatility of his literary output, his global circle of admirers, his gigantic capacity for sustained hard work and his nerves of steel in the face of any challenges make him much taller and more farsighted among all those who are luckier to know him and work with him. The title, 'Dhritrashtar' for his autobiography has itself an interesting background  when he had to contest –and he win- an election against his  much admired friend, late Gursharan Bhaji for the post of President of Kendri Punjabi Lekhak Sabha.  He has not hesitated to tell the truth about the evolving characters of his close relations and the sweet-sour realities of family life. He has described, without any streak of anger and hatred, how he and his family were subjected to serious threats to their lives and a few narrow escapes during the dark period of extremism in Punjab. The 21 year long career in Govt. College, Malerkotla, in the words of Charles Dickens, had its moments of, 'the best of time and the worst of time' for Dr Tarsem. The chapter titled, 'Wasiat - The Will, Page 301' tells how Tarsem has categorically instructed that after his passing away, his mortal remains must be donated to the Dayanand Medical College, Ludhiana, “for transplant  of any organ for the needy patients and the remains of his body should be utilized by the students for their education…I hope that my sons and inheritors would not entertain any doubt or fear in doing so…I shall not frighten any one assuming the form of a ghost-in reality, there are no ghosts…they exist only in the imagination of the sick minds…”

Dr Tarsem's intense and never ending struggle in all his life and his shining success indeed make an inspiring saga for all. The blind and visually impaired people have contributed immensely not only in the realm of music and literature of the world, from Homer to Milton to Surdas, but in ever increasing new area of human endeavors in the recent past. Dr Tarsem has been in the forefront in the forums for fighting for the rights of the blind. He has dwelt on his dream-plan to build 'Home for the Old and the Blind' in his Autobiography. The modern medical technologies have certainly scored notable successes in treating the scourge of sightlessness but India has the dubious distinction of having 15 million, with 26 percent being children out of the total of 37 million blind in the world. The national program by the Govt. of India to control blindness expects to reach its blindness elimination target of 0.3 percent by 2015, five years before the WHO deadline of 2020. The shortage of ophthalmologists and optometrists is appalling, just one eye surgeon for 100,000 people! We need many more determined soldiers of Tarsem's caliber and commitment to wage war against blindness in India in terms of cure and care.

I salute my soul mate friend, Dr S. Tarsem, on his stepping into in the club of senior citizens of seventy plus. I pray for his health and happiness and a more vigorous output of creativity and scholarship! I look forward to my next engagement of enlightened discussion on life and literature with him in Malerkotla, a city whose reputation for me appears to have been much redeemed by his lighthouse persona, his learning, his social commitment and above all his genuine fondness for friends, including me. It is another matter that the shadow of the dark and feudal values of the PEPSU, I apologize, if I hurt someone by saying so, seems to have lengthened to cover the entire Punjab -and to my dismay- Punjab has been more 'PEPSU-fied' than the vice versa during the last four decades. It requires a moral courage to make a clean breast that the further truncation of Punjab was a game of petty politics by the pigmy politicians and had nothing to do with the cause of development Punjabi and the heritage of Punjabiat. I, however, have full faith in the optimistic note in Tarsems's lines:

Koee tarshul vande,
Jan koee kirpaan lishkaae
Magar mein kol apne,
dostee di dhal rakhanga.

They may distribute tridents
or sharpen swords
I shall strongly hold my
shield of friendship

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