By Chanchal Kumar
When Namdeo Dhasal published his first volume of poetry Golpitha in 1972, nothing of this sort had been written until then. Neither the sensibility nor the language matched the work of poets writing before him. He helped usher in modernism in Indian poetry, much like Baudelaire in French poetry, writing in Paris more than a century before him. Dhasal had much more in common with the Parisian – the “poet of nerves” – than with his countrymen. Both wrote about the underbelly of the city, the squalor, the filth, about prostitutes, sex, drugs, poverty in a way that offended the prudish, shocked the conservatives and angered the bourgeoisie. The reason for this, in the case of Dhasal, was his social and caste location. Born into a Mahar household, he wrote about what he saw and experienced. And his themes ranged from assertion in the face of violent subjugation and exclusion, to sympathy with the marginalized – be it women engaged in sex work to members of his own community who still performed the menial tasks imposed on them by their caste – skinning dead animals, disposing garbage in the city, as well as back-breaking manual labor. Dhasal found reading liberating, and went through books at the local library like someone starving for knowledge. He read widely and voraciously, from Kabir to Marx to Mayakovsky. Dhasal was truly a world poet, whose work belonged to, and resonated with the subaltern masses around the dingy streets of the teeming cities. In his poems, we find a violent break from what had been so far considered the “proper” issues that could be talked about in poetry. He dumped the mysticism and metaphysics of Tagore, the flowery rigidness of Sarojini Naidu, and the general obsession of Indian poets with all that is good and beautiful in nature. His language, in contrast to the grand, baroque imagery, overblown phraseology of those writing before him, was earthy and immediately relatable. He wrote in a sharp, conversational style as opposed to the convoluted rhetoric of the mainstream poets.
Namdeo Dhasal’s work inspired and influenced Dalit poets in Maharashtra, for his language was Marathi, and heralded the golden period of Dalit writing, a renaissance in the Dalit world of letters, if you will. Now that his work is translated into major Indian languages, including English, he is read by lovers of poetry around the world, and often imitated, even to this day. Much like Allen Ginsberg and the other Beat poets who wrote and published around mid-20th century in San Francisco.
So far, the preoccupations of Dalit poets – both those writing in regional languages and in English – have been the Hindu social order, the rigid caste system, and how it manifests in their everyday lives. They write about violence, about resistance, and their poems depict unvarnished reality in independent India. They pay homage and respect to Babasaheb Ambedkar and hope to do their part in their primary aim, which remains the process of annihilation of caste. This literature sustains a counterculture in literary aesthetics to which there has been no parallel in Indian literature, much like the work of Blacks in the US. Dhasal is pretty much the Langston Hughes of Indian poetry, albeit with more spice and bite. The poetry of both Hughes and Dhasal carry a sting that the younger generation of writers and poets love and admire.
However, the scene of Dalit poetry writing in English in 2018-19 has traversed its old, customary path. It is now at crossroads, where, although the old preoccupations remain, it’s itching to break free and find solace in literature and craft as their primary muse. A new generation of Dalit poets have emerged on the horizon of Indian literature who, in addition to writing about caste, also deal with the politics of the world. These poets are published in popular literary journals in the English-speaking countries, are chosen for writing programs and are offered residencies in the West.
One of these names today is Chandramohan S, who is the author of two volumes of poetry – the most recent being the critically acclaimed Letters to Namdeo Dhasal. He has returned to his hometown in Kerala after spending months in the Iowa Wrting Workshop in America. Chandramohan has been working on a chapbook called Love After Babel, copies of which have been circulated among friends and admirers of his work. In this small collection, the primary issues his poems deal with are the intricacies of language, the process of translation, as well as love and desire. As the title of the collection suggests, he writes about what it means to translate a work of literature from one language to another, and the problems that might beset a person concerned with such a task. This work shatters the myth about Dalit poets, namely that they are occupied with the theme of caste oppression at all times, and their work has no relevance for the disinterested, unaffected readers of poetry whose concerns are literary. Although Love after Babel remains searingly political, as all the other works of Chandramohan are, it moves away from staring at the many-headed monster called Brahminism in the face. The poems from this collection instead delves on and initiates a conversation with his poetry icons in the world of literature. He writes about the relationship between the vernacular and the foreign tongue, about the Empire, about the marketplace, about poetic inspiration, quotes from the poems of Derek Walcott and Arun Kolatkar, resulting in a work which is immediately arresting, supremely relevant and enduring. Chandramohan’s poems defy academic and lyrical expectations, weaving a worldview that does justice to the specialized themes he chooses to take up and write on, which include but are not limited to grammar, meter, rhyme, and clichés in poetry-writing. He intersperses the idea of the translated poem and the original with the female form, writing:
“A poem and its translation are
Like a pair of lopsided breasts
One of them- a well- rounded cuss-word
The other- a pear-shaped sagging cliché.”
Chandramohan’s Love After Babel is significant not only because it breaks new ground for Dalit poets writing in English, inspiring them to take up subjects never before explored, but also because it’s an achievement when seen through the lens of literature that focuses on the process of translation. Translation and language as unexplored territories need more pathways built into them so that the uninitiated is not lost in the hoary landscape of Babel (literally, the city of Shinar in the Bible, where the confusion of languages took place). Love After Babel will be remembered as the prime example of a poet’s love letter to language, which can be a reluctant, unyielding beloved. Its appearance in our midst couldn’t have been timelier. We needed a Love After Babel to remind us why Dalit poetry has always been far superior to Brahmin-savarna’s, in other words, the mainstream’s attempts at writing verse, not that we had any doubt to begin with.
Writing in English does help in reclaiming agency for Dalit poets, since regional languages are not free from the influence of a worldview shaped by Hindu religious texts. Even if a person from the Dalit community does not consciously participate in the tenets or beliefs of the dominant Hindu culture, they cannot escape its tentacles which almost weigh down on the public subconscious, sometimes unobtrusively and at most times, overtly. Somebody writing in English, in contrast, looks for references and is influenced by a temper and mythology that has roots in the anglicized world, and eschews the local. The poet becomes more universal in his sensibility and temperament and tries to draw parallels with a life that they find most affinity with. Translating a poem from one language to another, on the other hand, leaves out the original’s sublime power. There is always something lost in translation. A work of translation is like a woman, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet said. If it is beautiful, it cannot be faithful and if the work is faithful, it cannot be beautiful. Pardon the misogyny in this expression.
Chanchal Kumar (Dalit poet writing in English) currently lives in Delhi. He received his Master’s degree in English literature from the University of Delhi in 2018. His articles have appeared in Round Table India and his poems have found a place in the Sunflower Collective, Hamilton Stone Review, Welter Journal and in other websites.
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