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Book Review: Chandramohan S’ ‘Letters to Namdeo Dhasal’

By Rochelle Potkar

In a 1982-interview, Namdeo Dhasal said that if the aim of social struggles was the removal of unhappiness, poetry was necessary because it expressed happiness vividly and powerfully. Later he stated: Poetry is politics. It is possible that as I engage with Chandramohan S’ poetic constructs in his collection of poetry, Letters to Namdeo Dhasal, I keep referring to the world through the anatomy of poetry and the form gets deformed, contours blurring into a physiological illusion, as strong frames of social references emerge of the place this poet has in the world, as also his profound thoughts.

Take for instance:

That in a riot unapproachable and the untouchable/would exchange bodily blows with one another

or A black body swinging in mute silence,/Strange fruit hanging from tridents.

or Some poems self-immolate/resisting unsolicited advances of a translator

There are unseen lines that cut across the globe of Chandramohan’s poems, making little concession to metaphor, idiom or insinuation. Wisdom accrues long after the reading-time of his poems, sourced from a triangulation of lyrical exposure, political circumstance, and tacit historic and forensic truths. His ink courses through the flesh and bone of Dalit and Avarnas history in Kerala. A retrospective of centuries-worth of asperity, straddling mythology to postmodernism, one stanza at a time.

Chandramohan documents subaltern life with precision and pluck, encountering two enforced exiles simultaneously – one, the injustice meted out by humans to humanity, the other of being a poet writing in Indian English.

Take for example:

I try to find myself a place/in his skull/beyond his caste mark, between his eyebrows.

Or, They ask me what new artillery I had invented?/Heckler poems—dynamite at election rallies.

The obsession over possessing a perilous last name or family name is a palpable one, and appears as a militant thread in terrorized subtext.

The poems in this book have to be read multiple times. One for the pleasure of poetry itself: its freshness, pungency, and word-music; next for subaltern encryptions; then for the unleashing of allusions from mythology to global-day myth that brim with their ferocious edgings.

A thing that comes to my mind is cultural appropriation.

P. Sivakami, the prominent Dalit writer, at the last interface, had mentioned how it was time mainstream and non-Dalit writers included Dalit characters into their narratives.

On one hand, while this incorporating into imaginative milieus is necessary, on the other, my inquiry is if we can really understand the dynamics beneath generations of hostility and oppression. It is easier to handle what we know with perverse deftness and reckless ease, not something that needs delicate attention. But how do we navigate interpretation then? Maybe, only cultural absorption will offset cultural appropriation, in form, critique, and manner.

I have read an average amount of poetry, much less Dalit literature, but the other poet who comes to mind when reading Chandramohan is Meena Kandasamy. I won’t compare their poetry, because we need voices as strong as these and more to make for a compelling discourse that can affect the shifting of mindsets, and thence physical milieus and manifestations.

After reading Letters to Namdeo Dhasal, I feel rage. It is an emotional journey that begins with the question: how have they borne this for centuries? What if we were them? The debris of disparity settling under the dermis of tolerance. And while Chandramohan is not burning the earth, but just pages, line break after line break, am I supposed to engage with his writings just intellectually?

Is it because we are habituated to linguistic-sophistication for the heeding, or music in the missionary style, pre-digested erudition?

This book, for me, goes beyond literature. Life through literature rather than the other way around, where I am reminded of us being spiritually-deprived in the way we have allowed discrimination, displaying gaps between gleaming intellectualism and real-life choices, through a gamut of actions that promote and perpetrate continuing inequalities.

We are one people
We are one voice.
Our life is a journey through a barren desert
Like a mail less courier
On the outskirts of humanity.


We were alphabets of the same vernacular
With different phonetics
With curly vowels and black skin.


Our immortal language
Tastes like
The ambrosia transcending our deaths.

I am not sure which realm I inhabit as I read this book.

Letters to Namdeo Dhasal is available on Amazon India.

Author of The Arithmetic of breasts and other stories and Four Degrees of Separation, Rochelle Potkar was a writer-in-residence at Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), 2015.  She conducts creative writing workshops, and blogs at:


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