Reflections on Chandramohan S’s poetry
By Aaron Sherraden
Chandramohan S’s strength comes with his ability to connect. Chandramohan connects his poems to each other, he connects his poems to the work of other poets, he connects his readers to the world of oppressed experience at a number of levels, and he connects struggle to struggle. Chandramohan is unapologetic in his treatment of humanity. He stands by his conviction and will not let the reader make excuses for hypocrisy, inaction, or injustice done to oneself or others. His poems depict the pain and frustration that he himself feels and that which he observes around him. As a Dalit writer, much of his subject matter naturally relates to caste, but leaving him in this category is unfair. He devotes the anger and vulnerability in his art to addressing and empowering victims of patriarchy, globalization, sexism, objectification, greed, violence, exploitation, homophobia, and casteism. It is this quality that makes all the titles that could be attributed to him – Dalit poet, English poet, feminist, activist, advocate, ally – appropriate but none of them wholly sufficient.
No single perspective has the monopoly as Chandramohan writes his poems. Some of his poems are voiced to portray the oppressed, others for the reformation of the oppressor or the activation of the observer. Whatever the narrative strategy may be in a particular poem, all paths that span Chandramohan’s body of work lead the various streams of his readership to the same destination of justice and equality for the oppressed.
The aggressive bluntness of Chandramohan’s poetry is often punctuated by a pointed brevity and numerous references to the legal injunctions, mythology, and history of his surroundings that have converged into a long-building momentum of oppression aimed at the communities he features in his work. He invokes, among many other things, the misuse of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the whiplash of High Court and Supreme Court rulings associated with Sec. 377 of the IPC, the casteism behind Shambuka’s death, and the revolutionary actions of prominent historical figures in Kerala like Ayyankali and Nangeli, the 19th-century Ezhava woman who cut off her breasts in protest of the breast tax in Travencore. With such clear references, subtlety is not what Chandramohan is after. He wants his reader to know exactly what his message is and exactly what stance he takes. But a de-emphasis of subtlety is not to be mistaken for a scarcity of craft, which permeates every aspect of his work. I will give one of my favorite examples:
Chandramohan delivers his most recent work, Letters to Namdeo Dhasal (Desirepaths 2016), with a precision in his art that is demonstrated through the interplay between the book’s cover and its opening poem, Killing Shambuka. The cover evokes a fury of violent anger, helplessness, struggle, and elitism in its imagery.
- There are men suspended in the air recalling the infamous photo depicting Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith after they were mercilessly lynched and heartlessly gawked at in 1930. This is the same photo that inspired Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit”, to which Chandramohan pays homage through the lines of his “Killing Shambuka”.
- Ceiling fans hover above the lynched victims, draped with blue flags, an image of the Ambedkar Students’ Association banner that Rohith Vemula used to hang himself from the hostel ceiling fan at the University of Hyderabad.
- A blue-skinned, multi-armed figure frantically and violently decapitates a condemned man kneeling before him with a cartoonish flood of blood spilling out across the entire cover –Shambuka is killed for his transgressions during Ram Rajya.
All of this imagery is, in turn, perfectly strung together in a mere five lines of poetry and a title:
Jim Crow segregated hostel rooms,
Ceiling fans bear a strange fruit,
Blood on books and blood on papers,
A black body swinging in mute silences,
Strange fruit hanging from tridents.
A single poem of so few words has the ability to travel the world to find a powerful resonance of common experience. “Killing Shambuka” reanimates the horror of the racial injustices during 1930s America, while condemning the caste atrocities happening in India today, all within a framework set by a title borrowing the connotations of a 2000 year-old mythology. The connections are now permanently with me. The way I hear Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit is forever changed. This is the power of Chandramohan’s poetry.
Aaron Sherraden is a PhD Candidate in Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
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