Ajit Sat-Bhambra laments the passing of acherished friend and much admired poet whose work bridged cultural and religious divides
‘God has given us everything we enjoy in life,’ the poet and broadcaster Chaman Lal Chaman once told me. ‘We know that one day we’ll have to go, but we might as well go happily.’
True to his philosophy, Chaman did go happily. Hisinfectious sense of joy stayed with him right up to the moment he passed awayon the morning of February 4, following routine hospital treatment.It was a shock to all of us who loved him because he had not been ill; he was still full of life and fun and, although he was almost 85,it felttoo soon to lose him.
How can I convey in a few lines the enduring charm of Chaman Lal Chaman?His name is a good place to start: it means ‘a blooming garden’ in Urdu, which encapsulatesthenatural brightness of the man and his calmingaura, like the soothing scent of flowers. Chaman was spontaneous, open and sincere, always saying what he thought but in a diplomatic way that was never hurtful.With his large, expressive eyes and warm, ready smile, heexuded a youthful playfulness and humour, frequentlypoking fun at himself.He was also one of the kindest people I knew, willing to help everyone even if it meant going out of his way. Once Chaman had met someone,they often became a cherished and life-long friend.
He might have given a more colourful description because words were his passion. A gifted journalist, playwright, broadcaster and lyricist, he was the author of three anthologies of poetry,wrote the lyrics for the 2004 Gurinder Chadha film ‘Bride and Prejudice’, and one of his most popular poems, ‘Saun da mahina’, was made famous as a song by the renowned Ghazal singer Jagjit Singh.He was also a talented presenter who interviewed countless celebrities and politicians, most notably Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, in 1962.
Chaman’s life was a blend of lightheartedness and depth that saw him immersed in some of the great cultures of Asia, Africa and Europe. He was born in 1934 in the village of Partabpura in Punjab’s Jalandhar district, though I did not meet him until 1962, when we both lived and worked in Kenya: he in Nairobi at the Cable and Wireless radio station and I at a school in Nakuru, where I was a headmaster. As we chatted, Chaman – in his inimitable, expansive way – expressed great delight on hearing that I had spent much of my young life in Banga, his wife’s home town. Another surprise awaited me when I met his wife Pushpa,whom he had married in Nairobi, as I learned thatmy father knew her well and had long treated her as a daughter, making heralmost a sister to me and Chaman a brother.Thisfurther strengthened the bonds of my friendship with Chaman and his family, which remain solid to this day.
From then on I was a welcome guest at his home during my regularvisits to Nairobi, where Chaman was making his mark on the world of broadcasting with his wit and comic flair. When I left Kenya in 1969 Chaman stayed on and, while we kept in touch,it was 1973 before our pathscrossed physicallyagain, this time in London, where Chaman’s ability and diligence were fast making him a household name among East African Indians in Britain and the wider Asian diaspora.
One day, on arriving at his house in Middlesex, I found him with his close friend, the singer Jagjit Singh, whom I later interviewed for my Punjabi weekly newspaper Sandesh. Thanks to Chaman’s introduction, Jagjit and I also became firm friends and he was later to be a patron of my Urdutahzeeb website.
Many of usregret that we allow the hectic whirl of daily life to impinge on our friendships. Chaman and I were no different and, as our lives grew ever more occupied with family, work and other commitments, our meetings became more sporadic, although we never lost that spark of affection and respect for each other.
We began to see more of each other again when Chaman, the late Pritam Chaggarand other artists established the Voice of Kenya group in London, which reunited artists and writers from Kenya’s Asian community.When I began a publishing business in Delhi and then, in 2009,founded The Democracy Forum, Chaman agreed to be one of the Forum’s directors and was always there for me, offering invaluable support in so many different ways.He attendedmy various functions in London and India and, despite a host of other prominent participants, it was often Chaman himself, with his mischievous smile and amusing one-liners, who was the glittering star.
Even with the passing years Chaman’s lustre barely dimmed andhis reputation as a writer and media figure continued to flourish. At poetry readings and symposiums across the country, from churches and mosques to Sikh and Hindu temples, he was a much sought-after contributor ashis work and outlook crossed all cultural and religious divides.
Recently, he had completed a book of his most memorable interviews, which he gave to me for editing and publishing. I clearly remember theday in late January, shortly afterthe death of his fellow poet, Sathi Ludhianvi, Chamanturned to me and urged me to finish the project as soon as possible. ‘Wejust never know when we might go,’ he said. Then, unable to resist a quip, he added with a twinkle, ‘I wonder who’ll go first, you or me? Shall we bet on it?’
This perfectly sums up Chaman’s attitude to death. Hehad no fear of it, even as he must have felt itsadvancing shadow, perhaps due to his daily practice of yoga and meditation, and his spiritual beliefs.
His material selfhasnow departed but, like the garden he was named for, his bright essence will forever linger on to comfort those who loved and will never forget him.
Chaman leaves behind his wife Pushpa, a daughter, two sons and five grandchildren.