TSC Essays | Dalit poetry in the wider world of literature today |

Poets at the meet: (from right) Yogesh Maitreya, Aruna Gogulamanda, Cynthia Stephen, Chandramohan Sathyanathan, and Aruna Lanjewar Bose

To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself.” – Karl Marx.

Dalit poetry, or poetry written by Dalits, in English, finds itself in the spotlight today in the wider literary world. Or what is euphemistically termed as the Mainstream for the want of a better word.
In August last year, for example, a landmark initiative was undertaken by the Sahitya Akademi, something that had never happened before in the history of the venerable institution established in 1954, now more than 60-odd years old. It invited five Dalit poets writing in English for an exclusive symposium-cum-reading. The poets invited were Chandramohan Sathyanathan, Cynthia Stephen, Yogesh Maitreya, Aparna Lanjewar Bose and Aruna Gogulamanda. 

 In a press release afterwards, calling it a ‘first-of-a-kind’ event, the Akademi noted the salient features of the poems that are being written today as it sees them: “Elements of protest, resistance, pride, assertion of identity”. A radical poetics, in brief.

What is truly radical is the insistence on caste by these poetsDalit in their case, all of whom have different backgrounds and inspirations. And it is radical – according to Marx’s formulation – simply because they understand, and deal with caste, as the root of Indian, or larger Hindu society and culture. This understanding, or insight, imbues their poetics with the radicalism which is actually not new. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, and before him Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule, had also advocated the same understanding and it is what reflects in the poetics of the Dalit poets who read that day at the Akademi.
What is new, however, is the confidence on display in writing poetry in English, the language of privilege and power in Post-independence India and that might be behind the startling effect it may produce on some who are caught unawares by this well-thought out linguistic as well as social assertion, a storming of the gates of the Literary Mainstream Culture, so to say. Then, the charges of it being high on ‘rhetoric’ are sometimes thrown around, like it happened at the Akademi reading too but more on that later.
Out of the poets who read that day, Chandramohan Sathyanathan, is probably most popular today. An outlier in the sense that he did not study humanities like most writers/poets – he has a degree in engineering – and who started writing poems only after the December 16 Nirbhaya gang rape, his second book Letters to Namdeo Dhasal sold well It also received good reviews, including one by Kavita Krishnan, noted Leftist activist, who hailed him as a ‘unique voice’ http://cpiml.org/feature/letters-to-namdeo-dhasal/ . All of 32, and from Kerala, he was also invited to IOWA University for a writing fellowship of two-and-a-half months from which he has just returned.  Previously, he was shortlisted for the prestigious Srinivas Rayaprol prize. Curiously, he finds his first book of poems Warscape Verses to be ‘juvenilia’.
However, a close reading of both the books reveals a poet slowly but steadily at work, chiselling away at his craft, polishing it to perfection. The themes he takes up in both books – caste, Marxism, family, community and other events of socio-political importance – are similar but indeed, in the second book, his metaphors become more refined; his symbols more striking; his language more potent.
For example, it can only be a measure of the confidence of the poet that he can describe with such wry humour a degrading and demeaning encounter in a train with a casteist bigot insistent on reducing him to his caste identity – a phenomenon that Rohith Vemula had noted with such moving pathos in his suicide note.  
“Caste in a local train can be deceptive/ like the soul / of a Pakistani fast bowler camouflaged / in a three piece suit / and an Anglicized accent.” – he writes, in the poem Caste in a Local Train in the collection Letters to Namdeo Dhasal, describing the person looking outwardly modern, but still bound by caste in establishing social relations. He describes his own approach, trying to dodge his inquiries, hoping his interlocutor would get it. “I try to find myself a place/ in his skull/ beyond his caste mark, between his eyebrows: trying to find my way around/ an ever changing map! / He tries assessing me with an inswinger first/ “What is your full name? / Then he tries an outswinger that seams a lot / “And what is your father’s name?” / By this time, he loses his patience / And tries a direct Yorker / “What is your caste?”
For someone who grew up ‘aspiring to be a mathematician’, in whose family environs ‘Ambedkarite ideals had not seeped in’, and who grew up reading newspapers and magazine articles instead of literature oriented towards the goal of social justice, Sathyanathan expresses satisfaction with his journey so far. “My own journey so far has been quite swift. Being Dalit naturally politicizes us and drives us to nascent themes hitherto unwelcome in Indian English Poetry. I believe, I have made my presence felt in the Indian English poetry ecosystem.”
It was not easy. As he says: “Indian Writing in English in my opinion is too elitist and panders to the urban, upper class, caste, heterosexual male gaze. It would take a long time for Indian Writing in English to (be) inclusive enough.”   
He cherishes his IOWA experience, for which he was nominated by the US consulate, where he also received the rare honour of having a poem of his grace a building in the University campus, as an exhibit blown up and illuminated. “My experience has been enthralling. We were 28 writers from 27 countries, (and) it was a pleasure to know and familiarize myself with these writers. The playwright from Pakistan Usman Ali was a revelation, he represented the non-elitist strand of Pakistani Writing in English…The American Poetry ecosystem has much to offer- it’s very diverse with many Afro-American and Queer voices in the "mainstream"…I am eager to watch the unfurling of Indian English Poetry along these lines.”
Namdeo Dhasal, is an inspiration for Yogesh Maitreya too, who is currently finishing his PhD from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, on the Dalit shahirs, or  bards of Maharashtra, another inspiration for him. As someone who grew up in a Dali basti, with books not readily available, the shahirs were his first introduction to the world of art and knowledge. “The songs of shahirs have not only filled my mind with imagination of the history of the struggle of my community, it also introduced to mepoetic rhythms and vocabulary of life which depicted our identity, belongingness, which has been totally deformed by school education and their books in India.”
Maitreya whose debut collection The Bridge of Migration was published last year by Panther’s Paw Publication, which he helped setup himself, writes in his ode to Dhasal in his poem titled To Namdeo Dhasal: “Panther, you only said / “Let them live happily by naming their life / after penis, I won’t live like that”. / Then how do we comprehend / Your end? / How do we tolerate / The changing colour / of that furious ink? / But let me tell you / One thing, / You will always be recalled as a panther, / A man who / Not only wrote poems / But their meanings too.”
Yogesh, too, in some poems like Dhasal did, makes the ‘meaning’ or the poem’s intent clear. Like in the poem On 9th Oct, 2015, at Communists’ Union office in Fort Area: “Today I see / Lenin’s bust on a table / In a union office, / beside it / There is a tiny statue of Ganapati. / I thought to tell the man / Who sits on that chair / that / There is some contradiction I just observed / But then / I suddenly realised: / Brain Cancer is incurable.” The bitter irony of a Ganapati idol and Lenin’s statue sitting together draws this sharp rebuke from Maitreya who writes in another poem consisting of one line, called When Meeting, Marx: “Jai Bhim, Marx.” In these two poems, his view of the Marxist struggle for equality in the Indian context is abundantly clear.
In fact, this is a view largely shared by others in Dalit intelligentsia. Chandramohan too makes his ambivalence towards Indian Marxism clear in a poem in the second collection: “A comrade with a red flag / Visited our god forsaken colony / My Grandfather parroted his slogan / “Land for the tiller.” / The old man / Tilled the land, / Poured out the sweat from his body, / Erected the flag hoist firmly on the ground. / And the flag was hoisted sky high. / He watched it with moist eyes from 64 feet away.”
Yogesh does not feel that writing in English may reduce the reach and access of his work. “It is true the discourse of ‘English’ in India has been so far dictated, governed, and manipulated by Brahmanical writers, or whose sensibilities are Brahmanical, reflected through the narratives they have been producing. The history of English in Maharashtra, with regard to dalits, is however different. Anti-caste crusaders and founder of the nation, Mahatma Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar had written widely in English. In fact, it is with the advent of British in India, the means of education had been opened to Shudra and ex-untouchables in Maharashtra. Thus, the presence of English through British, became a medium for Dalits to elevate in the domain of what is loosely said as ‘knowledge’ or education, to imagine a differently possibilities of life which was prohibited to them by Brahmanical society. I don’t believe that English can’t do justice to Indian reality. It depends on who writes what,” he asserts.

Like Chandramohan, he too sees the elitism inherent in the literary circles, especially in Indian Writing in English. “It depends whose narratives in English in India are considered as ‘Indian Writing in English’. If English writings of Mahatma Phule and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar whose writing had changed the discourse of India forever, are not considered as ‘Indian Writing in India’ then, I think, Indian-English-writing suffers from Brahmanism (Brahmanvad). I believe that more and more Dalits writing in English would only change the discourse of English in India. However, it would take several decades from now as I can foresee. But the process has begun.”

Keenly aware that Dalit writing is now a ‘saleable commodity’, he resents the intervention of those from the ‘upper-castes’ still dominating the publishing industry and academia, disseminating ‘knowledge’ about Dalits. “I do not like to be explained by others; I do not like to be misrepresented and misunderstood,” he declares boldly. The reason he gives is: “Dalit narratives are primarily social than personal. They are being produced by Dalit writers to imagine a possibility of a society based on equality, liberty and fraternity.” This is one reason – the irrelevance of ‘upper-castes’ to the Dalit discourse – why he could nor care less how his work is received by IWE circles.
Who are his favourite authors? “Mahatma Phule, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arthur Schopenhauer, Charles Dickens, Namdeo Dhasal, Baburao Bagul, Arun Kale, Sharad Patil, Gopal Guru, Tony Morrison, R.S. Thomas, Nagraj Manjule etc”.
A love for Charles Dickens is something Cynthia Stephen, journalist-poet, and social activist as well as a feminist, shares with Maitreya. Her literary tastes are more attuned to the classical sensibility, she says. Her other favourites are the Bronte sisters, and Jane Austen, for example.
In her own words, she is not a ‘prolific’ poet. Something needs to happen for her to be moved enough to write a poem. Like the gut-wrenching suicide of Rohith Vemula. She paid her tribute to the Ambedkarite activist thus, in a poem that she read at the Akademi event called 2016 Space Odyssey, adapting T.S. Eliot’s landmarkpoem The Wasteland’s beginning for the purpose of hers.
“January is the cruellest month.
The sun began its climb, but darkness
In the heart and mind did not decrease.
The stars still shone. They shone brighter on the night of the 17th.

A new star reached the horizon, leaving
Mere humans, mere stardust, mere minds, mere thoughts and words.

We were unworthy of your presence among us, our lives are fatal accidents,
You escaped the orbit of meaningless Sysiphean labour.
We now scan your work, your life, your words, your pictures.
For guidance on how to move forward.

Your are now a comet, blazing a shining path beyond this earth.
2016 Space odyssey.

But we have a long and lonely path to blaze on this earth.

Our destinies, and those of the children after us - beckon.
We look up. The sky is dark, but the dawn!
It comes every morning.

January is the cruellest month.”

Stephen, who hails from Karnataka, sees the exclusion of Dalit writers and poets from the wider literary circles as a ‘fact.’ “Tell me at how many literary festivals and gatherings, do you see the presence of Dalit or Adivasi writers? Do they get the same space to speak even if present?”, she asks. Calling it a ‘closed situation’, she mentions that in her experience, she has seen sometimes the same family members writing books which are then picked up and promoted by publishing houses. “There is a very strong sense of clannishness…There is a huge void of Dalit voices in the English literary world.”
 She also finds the growing interest in Dalit literature to be a complex phenomenon. While noting that there is indeed more attention now from mainstream intelligentsia towards the literary output of Dalits, there still exists a form of ‘subliminal rejection of concerns raised by Dalits” by the same sections, she believes. “There is an automatic defensiveness which blocks out the discourse of Dalits in academia, politics, media or literature.” But at the same time, she also sees Dalitscoming together and forming a discourse of their own where their own points-of-view are acknowledged and accepted without the mediation of the mainstream intelligentsia. And she finds social media to be a leveler in that sense. In the media, she finds Dalits depicted often as helpless victims; the ‘upper-caste’ angst also vitiates against Dalits who no matter how accomplished they are always get viewed as less, she notes.

Is the rise of Hindutva playing any role in Dalit literary voices becoming more prominent? She does not see a direct link. “The Dalit and Adivasi youth acted as stromtroopers during Godhra riots in 2002 so the Hindutva ideology has made inroads into their psyche too.” But she also finds worthy the efforts made by Gujarat Dalitleader Jignesh Mevani and Chandrshekhar Ravan of Bhim Army to organise against Hindutva politics, “though they have chosen different issues.” So she does see an ‘indirect impact.” “People are using their lived reality to attempt a resistance.”
For Aruna Gogulamanda, the rise of Hindtuva politics has had a more deeper impact on Dalit politics as well as literature. “When injustice takes the place of justice, resisting it becomes the weapon. When secular and democratic spirits are taken over by religious fanaticism and casteist attacks, the oppressed won’t keep quiet for long. Every action has equal and opposite reaction. It’s the Hindutwa forces that are the reasons behind growing up social consciousness among the Oppressed communities. The revolt can be thru literature or massive protests. But revolt has started for sure,” she explains.
A research scholar at the University of Hyderabad studying ‘Select Dalit and non-Dalit Women’s autobiographies’, Aruna comes from a middle-class background with her father being a government servant. Her poetry, she says, is for mainly oriented towards the concerns of women from her community who are doubly marginalized due to their caste as well as gender status. “Dalit women are placed differently, too. While majority of them are still agricultural laborers and domestic helps or daily wage laborers in the rural India, two-three percent are educated and working at different places, in different kind of jobs. To the former, “No Bra Day or Me Too” is not understandable as big problems, as, they have no proper blouses or clothes to cover their bodies. They live in (fear of) regular sexual assaults at fields and construction sites; the latter suffer the similar abuse and harassment in a passive manner and this is the problem faced by even the women from the other fortunate sections in the society.  So, I’m needed to write for all these women,”  says Gogulamanda who writes in both Telugu and English. She started writing poetry only a couple of years ago, often posting her work on Facebook directly. 
As she writes in her poem, She Was Told: “She was told
Not to wear a blouse
To allow every male
Watch her as a device.
She was told
To bend her back, not walk straight
To fill the tender tummies, keeping herself a bait.
She was told
To toil all day long in the fields
As a human machine
Deprived of food and water.
She was told
To swallow the pain of not feeding her baby
Though her lactating breasts pine to sate its hunger.
She was told
To take the insults, jeers, beatings and assaults,
For being born a woman, in a cursed clan.
She was told
To take the daily thousand cuts
Of sexist remarks, acts and assaults
Of her man and master.
She was told
That she is bad omen.
A bloody sanitary pad, useful but a disgusting topic.
The relentless sun beats oh her
Her dreams, beauty and youth
Sacrificed in the service of the land, the hut, the master.
Her eyes two dry hollows bear silent witness
To hundreds of deaths of her mothers, daughters, sisters
Their dreams, respect and their bodies.
Her calloused hands, her unkempt hair
Her cracked heels, her wrinkled hair
Tell the tales of living through fears and years
Of centuries and millennia of violations and deaths.
She was told
That she was dirt,
She was filth and
In this sacred land of thousands of goddesses
She is called a Dalit.”

V. Divakar is the editor of The Baroda Pamphlet, a bi-monthly print journal that he started with others, funded by friends, to publish articles essentially ‘critical’ as well as ‘assertive’ in nature. The journal also publishes  articles that critique the caste system and address caste in general, like an issue dedicated to Dalit poetry, edited by Maitreya. He also published Sathyanathan’s second book of poems from the small press publication Desirepaths.
Aware of the work of both the poets, he says while Sathyanathan is more subtle and 'sophisticated' when it comes to language, Maitreya prefers the direct approach. He too believes that English is more of an advantage than disadvantage when it comes to writing poetry even if in itself English is not an ‘egalitarian’ language. He also prefers it over translating Dalit poetry into English as he feels “that translation leads to the absence of a certain subjectivity. You lose something  if you are not part of an imagination.” While Dalit poetry existed earlier in folk form, and was printed extensively for cheap during the time of Ambedkar and Phule, he is nevertheless excited about the new possibilities. Citing Roundtable India, an Ambedkarite  online platform, he calls the trend ‘phenomenal’ as new writers from the Dalit community break the notions of ‘academic’ poetry. “Both Yogesh and Chandramohan have claimed English and made it their own.”
He notes the critique made by Maitreya and Sathyanathan, of Indian Marxists and says that while Dalits continue to serve as the foot-soldiers of the Left movement, they are still denied leadership roles by ‘upper-castes’.  

I ask Divakar what he has to say to the criticism or charge that Dalit poetry is mostly rhetoric; the same charge was levelled by a ‘renowned’ – as the press release put it – poet at the Sahitya Akademi meet. He says this has been the attitude of ‘progressive’ writers from before. “They have a stereotypical understanding of poetry. They do not understand that the anger will exist and will be expressed in poems as long as there is exploitation.”
 Ajay Navaria, who is a professor at Jamia Milia Islamia university in Delhi and a promiment Dalit writers in Hindi also finds the charge objectionable as it ignores the fact that the ‘rhetoric’ comes from the lived experience of the poets. “The same charge was levelled at Namdeo Dhasal too.”
According to Navaria, craft is of great importance too. He sees Sathyanathan in particular paying attention to it and praises him for his command over language. “Language itself protests in his poems. He knows that in order to survive, protest must be registered. Otherwise like the Jarawa tribe, we will lose our identity along with our language. Even his love poems rise above the circumstance of being only about two individuals and express larger concerns.”
As far as the angry rhetoric is concerned, he says it was more a part of the first wave of Dalit poetry and that it was justified. “If someone rapes another’s sister and beats others up, he will get to hear abuses in return. But now we see more compassion in place of anger in these poems. These poems are more balanced, and restrained. The earlier phase of raw anger – as seen in Dhasal’s poetry – is now over.”
Will the new Dalit poetry also be as powerful as Dhasal’s verses and have a similar socio-political impact? We have to wait and watch as newer talents slowly but firmly take over the mantle.   

(A shorter version of this piece was published here: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/read/new-dalit-poetry-carrying-on-the-resistance/article26091001.ece 

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