Berger-iana: Finding the Master in India


Nabina Das talks about how the small poetry-publishing outfit – Copper Coin acquired the rights to print the Indian edition of John Berger's poetry collection.

When the intrepid editor of a relatively small poetry publishing outfit called Copper Coin read a handful of poems by John Berger (1926-2017), little did he know his thirst, instead of being quenched, would increase. So much so that Berger would oblige Copper Coin with the publication rights of his work in 2014.

“It all happened through serendipity,” said Sarabjeet Garcha.

One would imagine this publishing enterprise to employ a private eye of sorts to acquire a name as wondrous and world famous as Berger. Garcha laughed aloud at that. “We have no secret agent. In fact, we don’t have any agent.”

One would imagine this publishing enterprise to employ a private eye of sorts to acquire a name as wondrous and world famous as Berger. Garcha laughed aloud at that. “We have no secret agent. In fact, we don’t have any agent.” The first two books that Copper Coin published were Manohar Shetty’s Creatures Great and Small and Amarjit Chandan’s Lammi Lammi Nadi Vahey (The Long River Flows On), the latter being in Punjabi. “Both were solicited. Chandan is my favourite Punjabi poet,” said Garcha.

Post publication, Chandan sent the Copper Coin publisher, on the latter’s request, a copy of his bilingual selection of poems, Sonata for Four Hands. It had a brief yet perceptive foreword by none other than John Berger. That was when Garcha started mulling on Berger and began to talk about the illustrious scholar-writer with Chandan.

Soon it transpired that Chandan knew Berger very well. He told Garcha that Berger’s Collected Poems was being published in the UK by Smokestack Books. Curious, Garcha got hold of a few sample poems, and took great delight in reading them. Then an idea struck him.

“I asked him (Chandan) if we could get the rights for the Indian edition of the book, so he wrote to John’s son Yves, who promptly wrote back passing on John’s message, which was, ‘Poems for India? Yes, yes’!”

Following that assurance, Yves pointed Garcha to John’s literary agent, and thus Copper Coin obtained the rights to publish the Indian edition of the book. A serendipity of the most fascinating kind.

And in the proposed book, the deep hues of the master’s palette complimented a unique Berger-iana ready to be released for readers in India.

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn

and times of famine (II Earth, 59)


One is further fascinated by what Garcha calls “Berger’s Punjab Connection”.

Garcha had long wanted to read the book by Chandan, published by the UK-based Arc Publications. Until Chandan sent him a copy, the Copper Coin publisher had always thought of Berger as a world-renowned novelist and essayist. A writer he had long admired and defines as a “writer’s writer praised by none other than the one whose works I have worshipped unremittingly: Michael Ondaatje.”

Garcha found Berger writing a foreword for a Punjabi poet very interesting because by “doing that he established a firm connection with the heart of Punjab, which is its poetry”. This excerpt from the master’s collection perhaps is the clue to his universalism, in reaching out to cities and villages far and wide:


We with our vagrant language
we with our incorrigible accents
and another word for milk
who come by train
and embrace on platforms
we and our wagons
we whose voice in our absence
is framed on a bedroom wall
we who share everything
and nothing –
(Separation, 70)


He also pointed out that Berger has another great admirer in the multiple award-winning filmmaker Gurvinder Singh, who made a short film on Chandan. “The film ends at Berger’s apartment in Paris, where Chandan is shown reciting his poems to Berger. So, that’s the connection,” he added.

Many who adore Berger in India didn’t know that the late master was also a poet. Copper Coin’s Collected Poems of John Berger filled that void, felt Garcha.

Many who adore Berger in India didn’t know that the late master was also a poet. Copper Coin’s Collected Poems of John Berger filled that void, felt Garcha. The recent demise of the philosopher-critic-author had the literary world almost everywhere converge in respect and adulation. Ben Lerner said in The New Yorker: “All of Berger’s work—which includes poems, novels, drawings, paintings, and screenwriting—is to me a beautiful and bracing argument that political commitment requires maintaining a position of wonder. Sexual desire, the rhythms (or increasing arrhythmia) of the seasons, the mysterious gaze of an animal, the spark of camaraderie released by sharing a meal and story, the way certain art works transform an idiosyncratic way of seeing into a commons—such experiences promise us, albeit briefly, an alternative to a world in which money is the only measure of value.”

That position of wonder comes alive in these lines – in the iterations, in the lines that step up and down like a dancer, and in the realisation that the world we live in is a projection of our search for love, companionship and solace.


I’m going
to lie on the earth
the earth
will lay back both her ears
and with my forearm

between them
the fingers of my hand
will play
play around
with her muzzle
kept cool
by a wind from
God knows where.
 (Terrain, 111)


Somewhere, Berger is also reminiscent of the imagists in his short lines, crystallised images, and the soft juxtaposition of rhythm and ecstasy.


Stones still warm
Taste of your hands


Length and height lose
Their terraced scale


The light descends to the level sea


With the waters of the robe I do not wear


The dark examines us
By touch alone.
 (IX, 85)


Asked about his “favourite” poem in the collection, Garcha said he does have one in particular.

“The poem titled ‘Ladle’. Every single line of it is lovely. The tone is biblical, even benedictory. It doesn’t fail to enchant me each time I read it. It has imagery that trickles into your dreams.” To Garcha, it has an undercurrent of acceptance, the “beautiful feeling that you don’t always need to mourn the passage of time”. “Besides, I also see ‘ladle’ as a homonym of the phrase ‘lay dull’. So, in my mind’s eye I see that I ‘lay dull’ somewhere on a grassy knoll before this poem livened me up and showed me the many sunny paths going up the mysterious mountain I could make my own,” he said.

He feels many poems in the book have the seeds of such alchemy buried in their soil. Berger’s voice straddles time and space to ring deeper:


Put your garden to my cheek

your five fingered garden
in another city
to my cheek.


The haycart
loaded with thunder
is trundling across the sky.
 (Twentieth Century Storm, 46-47)


A co-founder of Copper Coin Publishing with Rahul Mitkari and the Marathi poet and translator Manoj Surendra Pathak in December 2013, Garcha, a poet himself, projects Copper Coin as an enterprise aimed at publishing voices in English, Hindi, Marathi and Punjabi poetry, as well as fiction and nonfiction. The art critic Vinod Bhardwaj’s collected poems, Hoshiarpur Aur Anya Kavitayein (Hoshiarpur and Other Poems) won the enterprise the 2016 Publishing Next Industry Award in the Best Printed Book of the Year (Indian Languages) category.

“But our real reward is the joy we get in honouring brilliant poetry. We want to preserve it for posterity, too. We are also open to publishing diasporic voices,” Garcha said.

Berger-iana in India from this independent press, meanwhile, will remain a benchmark. Now that Berger is no more, we turn to his Indian collection to cling on to each of his words.

And when we cite him
we do so
for we know the story is almost over.
 (Story Tellers, 15)

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Nabina Das, a 2012 Charles Wallace Fellow, University of Stirling, UK, and a 2012 Sangam House Fiction Fellow, has a poetry collection Into the Migrant City (Writers Workshop, Kolkata; cited one of the best readings of 2015) and a short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped (LiFi Publications, Delhi). Published widely nationally and internationally, her debut poetry collection Blue Vessel(Les Editions du Zaporogue, Denmark) was listed as one of best of 2012 and her first novel Footprints in the Bajra (Cedar Books, Delhi) was longlisted for the Vodafone-Crossword awards 2011. A 2011 Rutgers University MFA, a 2007 Joan Jakobson (Wesleyan University) and a Julio Lobo fiction scholar (Lesley University), and a journalist and mediaperson for about 10 years, Nabina teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops.

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