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Language after Babel

Photo: Asian Signature

By Ravi Shanker N

Love after Babel is neither about love nor about Babel, but about language. The central premise is the Lord’s command that the people have one language, so, let’s move in to confuse their language so that they may not understand another’s speech. Since understanding each other is a must for any joint action, the Lord’s preference is one language and if it’s not possible to confuse them by misreading each other’s languages.

The mistake that the Lord makes is that he himself has ordained the plurality of language, in place of just one language, and this action has backfired on him. With each language, there is a new community and state and form of society adding more to the Lord’s confusion.

Colonialism tries to impose the coloniser’s language on the natives. All societies that claim to be superior (like the Savarnas in the case of Hinduism) have tried to do so in the past. So, communication was limited to Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and later the English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc. But, the roots of language grew and spread defeating all their efforts.

In the case of India, even language was denied to the lowest classes of society, viz Dalits. Thus a Dalit learning Sanskrit was killed on the spot. What they used for communication came to be termed as crude dialects unfit for a higher form of civilization, culture and literature. Even Dalit experiences were termed unfit for cultural exchange.

Dalit literature in India uncapped this vision after the rise of the Dalit Panthers and Dalit literature in Marathi. Translation was the medium through which it gained currency in other parts of the country. Slowly, Dalit writers emerged who could directly transfer their experiences in the colonial language and to the world at large.

The original wave of Dalit literature passed through a phase of communicating direct experiences of Dalit life. In vast majority of the vernacular states, this is still the norm. Attracting empathy to the plight of the Dalits was the main tool. But, in more developed languages like Malayalam, one could find Dalits writing about their experiences in a vastly different way. Their exposure to word literature was so much that they employed many modern devices of literature that Dalit writers in other parts of the country did not even attempt.

Even in the case of Dalit literature originally written in Indian English, the same is relevant. Initially, Dalit poetry in English showed the same characteristics and same reasonings of vernacular Dalit literature (with the exception of Malayalam). But, are we witnessing a change? Since these poets mainly operate from metropolises and other urban areas, their concerns primarily revolved around the well-worn images of Dalit oppression as met in the cities. They also took the help of the epics and myths to talk about it. They were more and more associated theoretically with Ambedkerite politics.

But, social commentator and writer Arundhati Roy goes on record: “When Dalit literature has blossomed and is in full stride, then contemporary (upper caste?) Indian literature’s amazing ability to ignore the true brutality and ugliness of the society in which we live, will be seen for what it is: bad literature. It will become irrelevant.”

How far this will hold true is yet to be seen. But, there are indications that a change to the contrary is what is happening as far as Indian English poetry is concerned. Rather than mainstream literature succumbing to Dalit literature, an opposite trend is discernible. The same had happened with the so-called Marxist literature in Malayalam. Marxist literature now plays second fiddle to mainstream literature so much so that the Marxists have been appropriating it. An example is that of O.V.Vijayan, who was a stringent critic of the Marxists, for whom the Marxists are now busy running memorials. Whether this happens with Dalit literature remains to be seen.

The poetry of Chandramohan Sathyanathan, an Indian English poet from Kerala, is a case in point. In his first two collections Warscapes and Letters to Namdeo Dhasal, he was following more or less the familiar pattern of Dalit writing. By using images of mythical characters like Ekalavya, Soorpanakha, Shambooka or Tataka to assert the resistance of the Dalits to Brahmanic hegemony, he was able to throw light on the dark regions of history which Dr. Ambedkar had opened up to scrutiny long back. Modern day Dalit symbols like Nangeli have also found their way into his poetry. But, a marked difference was discernible in poems like “Caste in a suburban train” in which he was able to record the persistence of caste even in a normal train ride in a metropolis in these globalized times through the medium of a cricket talk. Given his social and educational background, he never wrote poems about the urban slums or the villages.

But, when we come to his new collection Love after Babel, which is yet to be published, one can see the emergence of a new poet with a series of poems which can barely be qualified as Dalit poetry. A big divide has opened up. From the rudiments of academic or theoretical perceptions, a shift has happened to a discussion of language itself. Thus, the title and the meaning it conveys. This is poetry concerned with the art of language and translation. If he has not already been celebrated as a Dalit poet, it will be difficult to find strains of ‘dalitness’ in these poems. Yet ‘dalitness’ in Indian English poetry is what he tries to explore. Some samples:

“A translator is perennially in pursuit
Of his own rhythm, unweaving his voice from the
Rhythmic wave strokes on either shores”

What we find here is a poet who cannot choose between two languages, his own and the other and hence caught between two shores. These two shores could be the vernacular and English or the language he wants to be used for expression of Dalitness and the language he has chosen which is unable to express it. As far as I see it, the poet is likely to swim away from the shore of ‘dalitness.’

“Repetition like the dawn at every time zone,
Another utterance at another longitude –
A new hemisphere annexed to the empire
With every new translation.”

The poet says that every translation is a new hemisphere annexed to the empire. The word Empire is a direct reference to the phenomenon of globalised literature that the poet cannot escape from.

“A poem and its translation
Terse rearrangement of semantics
With asymmetric body-texts like
A wife taller than her man,
Missing appointments in cohesion”

The difficult in translating the ‘dalitness’ is expressed here as asymmetry and lack of cohesion.  At the same time, the poet who is more concerned with ‘dalitness’ shows his ignorance of gender politics in a usage like ‘a wife taller than her man.’

“Some poems are usurped from
From their natal homes
They adorn their attire and learn the accent,
Of their new homes
Shape-shifting themselves along the shadows of their better-halves
Like being inscribed into traditional meter and rhyme
With a vow of not uttering
A word in an alien tongue
Even at the pinnacle of ecstasy.”

The analogy of two bodies in coitus is used to express the process of translation – ‘shape-shifting along the shadows of their better halves.’ ‘Not uttering a word in an alien tongue even at the pinnacle’ shows the lack of fulfillment in translating the ‘dalitness’ and taking the easy way out of ‘shape-shifting.’

“A poem and its translation
Like a pair of lopsided breasts,
Not identical but fraternal vertices
In parallel streams of genesis”

Lopsided breasts is again an odd usage in the context of gender politics. It also shows up one language to be inferior.

“Two love poems
From two different languages
Elope on a moonless night
Storming the Bastille
Of “apparently impregnable fortresses”
Of their syntax”

This sounds like the elopement and marriage of members of two different castes, one being dalit. I think this is a poem where the ‘dalitness’ comes out in a lucid way. It is quite appropriate that impregnable fortress of the caste system is shown to be analogous with syntax.

“The translator approaches
The poem like a boy approaching
A girl on the dance floor.
They share a pelvic giggle,
A grinding dance
To the rhythm of their poems read aloud.”

This is another bad example of gender politics. The boy apparently relates to the language to which dalit poetry is sought to be translated.

“Fibre-optically link the world like canals of
Online trade, Google-translate oneself
And trace yourself on Google earth,
It could take a long time for you to know who you are
Amidst the web traffic along world’s sea routes.”

This is a clear cut admission of his poetry succumbing to the lure of world literature, shedding its basic character of ‘dalitness.’

“My language is an extinct variety of paddy.
It doesn’t sprout in the clay used to sculpt my body.
I am a martyr of my language.”

These are lines that run contrary to what Arundhati Roy said in the sentence quoted above. The clay used to sculpt his body is the dalit background from which he comes, but the poet admits that his language does not sprout from it anymore. His language is extinct. By calling himself a martyr of his own language, he is expressing his anguish.

As I said at the very outset, Love after Babel is neither about Babel nor about love. It is a study of the process of the poet’s use of language as he develops as a poet. It is also a study of the growth (or otherwise) of his poetry as a medium of conveying his ‘dalitness.’ Admittedly, the way he has used language in the poem and as a metaphor inside it is admirable. This marks it out as a unique collection worthy of more interpretations.

Ra Sh has published English-language poems (both original and translations) in many national and international online and print magazines. Architecture of Flesh and The Bullet Train and other loaded poems are his two collections of poetry. Another titled Death shows me snow is getting ready. His translations into English include Mother Forest (the biography of tribal leader C. K. Janu); Harum Scarum Saar and other stories (stories of Tamil Dalit writer Bama); Waking is Another Dream (Sri Lankan Tamil poems); Don’t  Want Caste (Malayalam Dalit stories); and  101 contemporary Malayalam poems under the title How to translate an Earthworm.


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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Hatred and Mass Violence: Lessons from History”, edited by Navras J. Aafreedi, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.

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