Courtesy, People’s Forum Bargari, Punjab

Courtesy, People’s Forum Bargari, Punjab

Paash, whose real name was Avtar Sandhu, was gunned down by Sikh separatists on March 23, 1988.

It was a sheer coincidence that his murder came on a historic day that commemorated the martyrdom of Bhagat Singh and his two comrades, Rajguru and Sukhdev, who were hanged together by the British government on March 23, 1931. But the political ideology of Paash, who was born in 1950, made him inseparable from them.

True to his commitment toward the secular and progressive ideology of Bhagat Singh and his comrades, Paash was assassinated for his writings, which opposed religious fundamentalism. 

Much like Bhagat Singh, Paash was opposed to religious fanaticism of every shade and pulled no punches while criticizing both Hindu and Sikh extremists.

Yet the terrorists, owing allegiance to the Khalistan Commando Force seeking a separate theocratic Sikh homeland, shot him dead. 

His death shocked secularist Punjabi scholars in B.C. where a Paash Memorial Trust is still active and continues to hold events in his memory once a while.

Although Paash lived in California, he never made it to Canada. He was visiting India at the time of his murder.

It was thanks to Maxim Gorky’s Mother that Avtar Sandhu came to be known as Paash. Born in a peasant family, he loved to identify himself after Pasha, the hero of the classic novel by the same name.

This pen name gave him a new identity which remained with him until his assassination. There were some striking similarities between legendary Pasha and Paash as both stood for the working class and opposed both the establishment and theocracy.
Paash started writing poetry during his early teens and was an ardent reader, who had a personal library that housed books on range of subjects including science, philosophy, and literature. Though he wrote essays and published two Punjabi journals, Haak and Anti 47, as well as a “wall newspaper“, he gained much prominence as a poet. 

His poetry was so popular that its translation from Punjabi into other languages attracted attention widely, both outside Punjab and all of India. Even some Bollywood stars were among his admirers.

In the late 1960s he became involved in the youth wing of the Communist Party of India, but slowly he became fed up with its politics and instead joined with supporters of the ultra-leftist Naxalbari movement. It believed in an armed struggle for the sake of landless farmworkers.

He borrowed the idea of publishing a wall newspaper from Chinese revolution. It is a separate matter that he was not a sectarian leftist and remained critical of the flaws within Communist parties and groups.

Paash was briefly jailed for being a Naxalite but this did not deter him from writing for poor and against state repression. His poems were frequently smuggled out of prison and published. His rebellious poetry was widely circulated among the youngsters. Even a section of police and bureaucracy was influenced by his poetry.

It is not surprising that the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party of India, opposed an attempt to include one of his highly provocative poems in the school curriculum. 

Paash also opposed the state of emergency imposed by the Congress government from 1975 to 1977, and expressed his anger at the then-Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in his poetry.

He even returned a paycheque to a Hindi newspaper that censored lines about Gandhi in his poem as a mark of protest.

It was his journal Anti 47 that provoked the Sikh separatists. Since he studied a lot, he questioned and denounced their separatist ideology by quoting from Sikh scriptures. He shamed them by arguing that the real Sikhism was all about equality and compassion—and not fascism.

The title of the journal symbolized a challenge to another attempt to divide India on religious lines like in 1947, when Muslim Pakistan was separated from India.

As a result, he was gunned down by the extremists in his native village Talwandi Salem. As one says, you can kill a person but not an idea. Paash may have been murdered physically, but his rebellious rhymes will continue to live.


Translated from Punjabi, by Rajesh Kumar Sharma


1. Face to Face with the Present One Has Fought For


I am frightened of newspapers these days


that there must be in them


the news

that nothing has happened


You perhaps do not know

– or maybe you do –

how terrifying it is when nothing happens

when your eyes wait with baited breath

and all lies passive

like a cold woman


Even the talk of people in the village assembly

seems like a serpent

holding in its paralyzing clutch

the tree

that would sway in freedom


I am afraid

this world which looks abandoned and incomplete

like an assembly of vacant chairs

must be thinking how ridiculous we are


What a shame

that even after centuries

bread, work and death should think

we live only for them


I do not know how I should explain

to shy mornings and rallying nights

and to gentle evenings

that we have not come here to be greeted with a salute

from them

and that there is nothing to embrace

between equals

when one stands at arm’s length

from arms outstretched for an embrace


Even accidents arrive nowadays

like panting old men

on whores’ staircases


Why isn’t there anything

these days

like the first meeting

with one’s first love?


This country

the creation of great souls

– how long, after all, will it escape

the horned fiend of death?


When, at last, shall we return

to our homes

that happen to be

like happenings –


the exiles from life’s humble noises?


When shall we, at last, sit

around the smoke from smoldering fires

and listen

to the proud fire’s tales?


One day

we shall surely kiss

the cheeks of seasons


All earth will then become

a newspaper

and it will carry the news

of so many happenings

one day





2.  Against the Language of Diplomacy


When I faltered

and fell at your feet

you became the Buddha

but I am still trying

to balance my wounded flight


I call from a withered orchard

far away from beyond Lake Mansarovar


I speak not to you

but to the soldier breathing his last

in the battlefield of Kalinga


Why is it

that knowledge is only the twist of a rope

around our necks?


Soldier, can you tell me

why the way to salvation lies

through your and my

last hiccups?


Do not the footprints

that have left for the Banyan at Gaya

know that time is aging in my eyes?

Into those footprints will converge

one day


– but for me the Himalayas will extend interminably

moment after moment


Soldier, you have seen the country

expand and shrink this side and that

of rivers

but Lake Mansarovar

– which is like a deep far-off moonlit night –

never understood

why and how man became Dravidian sometimes

but at others Aryan

it never understood

why the verses of the Quran and the Vedas rose

like smoke

to choke the nostrils and eyes of men

and why the water from Mansarovar

never returned

to tell the tales of men dishonoured by knowledge


Soldier, Mansarovar would little know

why I, a drop of its vapours, did not return this time

from another merry wandering with friendly winds


Mansarovar is not an Abdali

nor did I bring, like Sabir, some threatening word

but let me tell you something –

wherever Shah Nawaz happens to be

a mere unsheathed bright silence becomes

for the sake of his speech

a word

but in my wings the nectar

oozing from the first-time mother’s tender breasts

has never changed into a shelter

of any one of the seven colours


And do you know, Soldier,

how impotence makes language a rascal

– which uses the word history for a wound

and civilization

for the pain of wounds untold?


It perhaps thinks all flying birds are swans

and pearls are merely peas, pulses or grains of rice


It knows just this much –

that Mansarovar engenders rivers for the sake of a folly called nation

it understands only this –

that the poetry of the Vedas and the Quran is just smoke


Mansarovar is, for it, a mere lake,

a dead quiet –

and the melting of embodied words

into sounds

by Harvallabh or Tansen or Ghulam Ali, music –

in the sound of death’s footsteps

it finds the song of swans


Soldier, it sounds, of course, awkward

to describe a dying man as one

who belongs to the race of swans


But all this is the mischief of language

– that poetry should be reduced

to mere smoke

and man, blinded and sneezing,

should submit to regimented obedience

and offer his chest – annoyed with his beating heart –

to the devil

for medals of valour

and that the devil should plant in his chest

nails of gold

and teach him the ways to turn gold

into grains

and food into vodka

and that vodka change man

into a jackal, a fox, and then a wolf

– and the pack of wolves

into society


Soldier, how can the swan say

that Tolstoy arrived too late

and that the real story had begun way before the day

the ploughman’s bread was stolen . . .


O Soldier, if you agree to rise

we shall leave this rascally language to die

in the battlefield of Kalinga

and proceed for the Siddhartha of Kapilavastu

on the way

we shall also meet Shankaracharya

before giving all knowledge back

to the East India Company


Later you can go and live

on any piece of the naked earth

– without telling the sea

that real history is the other one


My messages

the rivers from Mansarovar will carry

messages that shall be

like gypsy songs

or like the pollen of divinity

dropping sweetly from wanderer eyes

messages that shall have

the mystery of mountain springs


If you could just arise, O Soldier!

if you could only arise . . . .


Translated April 2005





3. I Ask


I ask the Sun

flying across the sky –

Is this what they call time?


That events should trample

like crazy elephants

over all human consciousness?


That each question should be

no more than an error

of absorption in thought?


Why are we retold the same old joke

every time?


Why do they say

we live?


Think for a moment –

How many here have anything to do

with the thing called life?


What kind of God’s mercy is that

which falls alike on hands cracked

and bleeding

from weeding a field of wheat

and on the pulpy bodies

stretched on divans in a marketplace?


Why is it

that a loud-crying silence lies frozen

on faces besieged

by the noise of ox bells and of engines drawing water?


Who is it

that devours the fried fish of biceps

of dreams chopped

with swaths on fodder-choppers?


Why does the peasant in my village

beg for mercy

from a mere police constable?


Why is it

that every time someone being crushed


the cry is disposed of as a poem?


I ask the Sun

that flies across the sky






4. My Nightingale!


Time is a bloody dog, my nightingale!

Come, leave the orchards

and watch the souls wandering homeless

on streets


Bark or howl

in mourning

for your song will cure no one now


Wasn’t this the song that sat like dew on twigs

but fled

terrified like vapours

before a mere flake

of sunlight?


Time is a bloody dog, my nightingale!

It has nibbled away

the hands of clocks

it has bitten off walls

and pissed on flowerpots


Don’t know

what else it would’ve done

hadn’t the government’s men put it on leash

and tied it

outside their bungalows


My nightingale!

My doings are of a different kind

I have lost every wager that looked

like life

I now wish to be horse

not man


For the saddle is too painful

on human bones

the spiky bridle hurts

and my human feet do not keep

the beat of a poem


Time is a bloody dog,

my nightingale!



Translated April 2005



5. Dreams


Not everyone dreams


The fire that sleeps

in grains of lifeless gunpowder

does not dream


Dreams grow

in hearts of courage


They spring

when sleep is merciful



that is why




Translated April 2005



6. Untitled


Deep inside me

the clouds thunder


I fear for you

lest you be blown away

with the innocence

of nests


I live in a world of savages

who do not know

what lightning can do



Translated April 2005



7. Words Dishonoured


You have


dishonoured words.

If they have lost their way

who else can you blame?


These trees want me to answer

what they should call the Sun

that neither burns

nor turns red.


I look towards the trees,

count the colours of wind,

and size up the seasons.


And I cannot say

the Sun is not guilty.

For the sake of the Sun

I make rude words sit

in Swayamvara.


You would think

I have flung myself

into a chasm

from some high peak.


The truth is I have changed the meaning

of chasms,

I have taken the wind

for a swing,

have made use of mountains

for a leap beyond.

I have changed

for you

what suicide means.


Comrade, life shall mean something else to you.


Even if, before dying,

you finally understood life,

who would trust you?

Who would forgive you?



who purposely violated

the innocence of meaning.