New | Book Review | Love After Babel (Chandramohan Sathyanathan) | Ankush Banerjee


Chandramohan Sathyanathan



Love, and more Love after Babel


"Jim Crow segregated hostel rooms

Ceiling fans bear strange fruit,

Blood on books and blood on papers,

A black body swinging in mute silence,

Strange fruit hanging from tridents."


- Killing the Shambukas, Love After Babel


Chandramohan S (CS hereafter)'s third book of poems, Love After Babel, won the prestigious Nicolas Cristobal Guillen Outstanding Book Award, in January this year. This review attempts to shed fresh light on CS's work, and analyse CS's highly charged political treatise as an expression, not only of resistance to Caste-based oppression, but also that of radical solidarity to other marginalised identities in contemporary Indian society.    


            CS identifies himself as a Dalit, Indian poet writing in English. I remember first coming across CS's poetry via his second collection of poems, Letters to Namdeo Dhasal in 2016. (We had briefly corresponded via Social Media, and he was generous enough to have sent me a copy).

            One distinctly remembers the poems of that collection and the fiery emotions they aroused. They were by turns angry, visceral, and poignant meditations, not only on the nature and texture of Caste-based historical injustice/violence in a specific context, but also on injustice of any kind in general. However, CS's main focus in that collection had been Caste, and Caste-based violence. In this regard, Ajay Sekhar locates CS's poetry in the Sahodaranist tradition "of subversive and iconoclastic poetry that aims at social critique and cultural change", inspired by Sahodaran Ayyappan, a social revolutionary and rationalist who staunchly advocated democratic ideals in Kerala in the early 20th century. I would go a step further and say that CS and his oeuvre falls in the greater tradition of political/protest poetry, championed by the likes of Argentine poet Juan Gelman, American poet Claudia Rankine and closer home, Meena Kandasamy.


            What CS had started in Letters... only expands in scale, scope, tone and depth in his latest collection of poems, Love After Babel (2020). By this, I refer to CS's myriad forays into the geographies of injustice foraged in the crucible of gender, caste, class, and religion. I also refer to the startling efficacy of the poems in capturing and articulating the many psychological after-effects of violence,  be they gender-based, caste-based, religion-based, or identity-based; and how dominant narratives of identity suppress, coerce, and attempt to obliterate, or worse, re-shape narratives of 'the other' in their shadow. CS's latest collection is an act of profound resistance to such cultural hegemony.   


            The first section of the collection, 'Call me Ishmail Tonight', with its four very politically-charged, evocative poems, sets the tone for the rest of the poems. In 'Thirteen ways of looking at a black burkini' (p3-p4)  age-old, patriarchal fear, and the control it exerts on feminine sexuality and the female body is sharply articulated and critiqued, when the poet writes, "cops patrol her tan lines/ like dams patrol/ rivers flowing above danger marks." The female body becomes both, a site of interrogation and resistance. What are these "danger marks", who are "the cops", what are these "rivers" that flow above those danger marks, needs no telling, given that the metaphor is so apt, it expands in the mind long after one has put down the book. Likewise, Plus-sized poem (p.47) simultaneously examines and resists prevalent gendered (read: women-related) notions and expectations when it announces to the reader, "this poem refuses to be/ the world's wife" [emphasis mine]. That is because "this poem is not pimple-free/ is printed on rough paper", neither does it need "introduction from veterans".


Why loiter? (p.25), inspired by Shilpa Phadke's seminal book, Why loiter?: Women and risk on Mumbai Streets, charts how market capitalism has somewhat distorted prevalent gender dynamics because "the era of open markets/ added colour to the stale world of white-only lingerie". However, the colour pink (the deliberate use of a colour with strong gendered connotations to simultaneously upend such connotations is both brave and noteworthy) spills "over white/ to scrounge for a rump-sized perch/ on the lingerie clothesline." The position of the poem is clear - while open markets may have distorted gender dynamics, the struggle to "scrounge for a rump-sized perch" is still on!


            But the interesting thing about CS's gender politics is that his political and aesthetic preoccupations take in its fold (and attempts to uplift through an empath's eye for details), not only women, but men and masculinities which find themselves at the receiving end of various injustices and hegemonies. In the ironically titled, 'Make in India' (p.34), while the brow sweat of the "lumpen proletariat" condenses on the bottles of the beverage corporation, "the frail frame of his wife/ is his daily punching bag". In a matter of two lines, we feel our sympathies 'for him' ebb away, and suddenly we aren't sure what to make of the poem. Finally, swallowing the poem with its ironically positioned title and uncertain morality leaves an acidic taste on our tongues. This unsettling, acidic aftertaste is the characteristic hallmark of much of CS's work.   


            In the same vein, 'Thirteen ways of looking at a black beard' (p5), illuminates the uneasy correlation between keeping a beard (presumably by a Muslim man), and being stopped for frisking "at the immigration office". The poet tells us, "all you need is in that bag:/ trim your surname,/ make it palatable for tongues/ at the immigration office". He further elaborates on the nature of such exchanges by saying, "frisking is not intrusive/ but very intimate like/ claws gloved with caresses/ patrol the nerve endings of my civilisation." The penultimate line, "claws gloved with caresses" [emphasis mine] is, one feels, a superbly evocative image capturing the inexplicable, but very real, prejudice lying at the heart of Islamophobia in specific, and any kind of prejudicial behaviour in general, masking itself as pedantic benevolence.  


            The range of CS's poetry also manifests in refashioning problematic history to represent, examine and critique the problematic present. The 'news' in William Carlos Williams lines, "It is difficult/ to get news from poems/ yet men die miserably everyday/ for lack/ of what is found there", grimly resonates with the terrifying image of "a black body swinging in mute silence" in Killing the shambhuka (p.13) {one of his most famous poems}, reminiscent of the suicide (or killing) of Dalit student, Rohith Vermula. In a more slanted way, in addition to protest, resistance and 'writing back to societal hegemony and oppression', what is found in these poems is empathy, affection and a need for dignity - the lack of which, at the hands of society governed by upper-class privilege and prejudice, kills vulnerable men (and women) every day.


            Likewise, the village-legend of Nangeli is resurrected in Nangeli (p.41), about an "intermediate caste" woman who supposedly cut-off her breasts to protest against caste-based breast-tax. "The streams [of blood] flowed unabated"...the streams did not coagulate", the poem tells us, "the cartographers always miss it".   


            CS's poems are some of the strongest poems of protest and resistance one can come across in the landscape of contemporary Indian poetry. Suraj Yengde, in his Introduction, aptly posits that at the core of CS's "stoic, rebellious, confrontational, revolutionary, feminist, humanistic, romantic" poems, sits the notion of "Dalitality", which is, "an essence of embracing the vulnerability of others".


            Indeed, one is tempted to reflect on the title of the collection itself - Love After Babel . One can read 'Babel' in its colloquial sense, as a mythic enterprise which fails owing to our inability to effectively speak to, communicate with, and thus understand each other, thereby giving rise to a sort of universalised 'otherness'.


            CS's poems attempts to map such mythic (but very real) otherness, borne from antagonisms and differences of Caste, religion and gender. However, it is unique in that it fashions an original aesthetic founded in the mould of startling imagery fused with an understanding, empathy and courage to reach out and touch the other, not through "gloved claws", but through love. That CS invents a completely original poetic idiom in doing so, simultaneously enriches and deepens the scope his project.


            As an endnote, Eduardo Galeano had once written of Juan Gelman, that "Juan has committed the crime of marrying justice to beauty".


I'd hazard and say, so has CS!





Author             :           Chandramohan S

Book               :           Love After Babel

Publisher         :           Daraja Press, Ottawa, Canada

Year                :           2020

ISBN-13         :           978-1988832371

Pages               :           90 pages

Price                :           INR 695.00

(Ankush is a mental health professional and poet based in Delhi. His first collection of poetry, An Essence of Eternity (Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi) was published in 2016. His poetry has appeared in Indian LiteratureEclecticaCha: An Asian Literary Journal and Linden Avenue Literary Journal. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Masculinity Studies from BITS, Pilani. )


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