Namdeo Dhasal, Poet of the Underworld, trans. Dilip Chitre, Navayana, hardback, ISBN 81-89059-10-6, Rs 350
Namdeo Dhasal is better known as a political activist, the founder of the Dalit Panthers in 1972. In the same year he published his first collection of poems, Golpitha. The two incidents are not unrelated.
I’m not concerned here with his political career, although it no doubt shares its psychological and experiential roots with the poetry. The reason I won’t discuss it is because politics belongs to a given time and place, to a pragmatic programme of action in response to particular social and ethical conditions. A critique of any particular brand of politics is necessarily a historicised and located project, whereas art, poetry, can’t be closely bound to any time or place, even though it may spring from it in a very direct and visceral way.
Now I know (none more than me) that the idea of universality in poetry has come under attack in recent times, and that the idea that any limited human being can speak for all, or most, of humanity has been derided. Nevertheless, as a practising artist, I have to behave as though the first is true, and the second possible. Critics can afford the luxury of doubting the artistic project: no one’s asking them to spit on their hands and hammer out a poem, and they certainly won’t lose tenure or their weekly column if they fail to do so. Artists, if they want to see another day on the far side of their deadlines, can’t be so adventurous. We have to believe in each other and our art, or the imagination totters.
Furthermore, I think it’s even more important that we make this claim for universality for Dhasal’s poems, precisely because he speaks from a beleaguered particularity, that of the Dalit. Nothing would be worse, both for Dhasal and for literature, if these poems were to be pigeonholed as ‘protest’ or ‘minority’ or (worst of all) ‘propaganda’ poems and ignored by the mainstream. As such, they are a litmus test for the critic: as you read them, they are just as carefully reading you. If you can see them as poems first of all, then you have crossed a line, beyond which the discussion of their import, style and meaning can happen in an atmosphere cleansed of the ad hominem discourse of caste and class. And Dhasal knows this: he writes like a man throwing bombs at a dungheap because he desperately hopes that under it is a shining vision that he may one day live to see uncovered, if only he can blast if off the earth and people’s skins before he dies. Sometimes it must feel as though the world doesn’t have enough bombs.
That dungheap is the place where the world thinks the Dalit ought to be. This means that Dhasal must also throw bombs at the pieties of his own people; that he must shock and shake even those who think they are his friends. This resolute refusal to spare anyone, least of all himself, is the mark of the true poet, and one that is rarely seen these days. No poets after Pablo Neruda have it: some singers do, but music always sweetens the pill. In the world of Dhasal’s poetry, sweetness is running scared.
How can he write poems like this? both his fans and critics ask. Not unnaturally, he was accused in the past (and is still accused) of having no sense of decorum. In India, that is usually a code for not respecting the hidden rules of gender, family, caste, sex, social and class behaviour that have strangled people’s souls since Manu.
After making love to oneself there wasn’t another sky to marry
And over there the merchants have already anchored their ship
The intense core of the passionate self is freeing itself from self-pity’s promises
The path was easy to walk but the magic jewels of self-indulgence didn’t fall away
I do not wish to get chained to this God-created hell
For me every day brings a smile to hte lips of fortune
Whether the ambrosial clouds rains immortality or not.
I don’t wish to entomb myself here in a trance
As for me I still have to worry
About tomorrow’s bread.
That’s just a random poem I picked by letting the book fall open in my hands. It is by no means the best of them. Dilip Chitre’s translation sparkles: he has clearly been inspired to soar by the original, and how powerful must be the Marathi if the English is like this?
I am a venereal sore in the private part of language
The living spirit looking out of hundreds of sad, pitiful eyes
Has shaken me
I am broken by the revolt exploding inside me.
There’s no moonlight anywhere;
There’s no water anywhere.
A rabid fox is tearing off my flesh with its teeth
And a terrible venom-like cruelty
Spreads out from my monkey-bone.
Release me from my infernal identity
Let me fall in love with these stars
A flowering violet has begun to crawl towards the horizon
An oasis is welling up in a cracked face.
A cyclone is swirling in irreducible vulvas
A cat has commenced combing the hairs of agony
The night has created space for my rage….
Navayana’s production of the book is outstanding; it has the look and feel of a coffee table book while being a meagre three hundred and fifty rupees, and the design sets each poem like a rare jewel on the page. One wishes that all poetry could be printed like this. But then, very few poets would perhaps deserve such treatment today. Henning Stegmuller’s photography follows the coffee-table idiom, and is very beautiful and thus the only sweetener you will find in the book. Dhasal himself looks every bit the don. No doubt he is a very abrasive person, the sort that would rule any group or circle with the force of their personality, and as such, his poetry reflects that pull-no-punches aggression. But remove the man and the poems only look bigger. If his reputation overshadows them now, coming eras will see the poems towering over our time.