Salil Chaturvedi the Poet, Not a “Wheelchair Bound Disability Activist Attacked by Self-Avowed Nationalist Couple”
November 1, 2016
Salil Chaturvedi recently entered our broader imagination as a victim of jingoistic nationalism. In late July (and not on 19th October, as has been widely reported), he went to watch the film Kabali at a multiplex in Goa, when a couple hit him on his head for not standing up when the national anthem was played. They did not know that he was on sitting on his wheelchair, and has not been able to stand since 1984, the year he suffered a spinal injury. He came back dismayed, and wrote a letter to an editor of a newspaper. Soon the national media took up the incident as a warning against jingoistic, irrational nationalism.
When I wrote to Chaturvedi for a comment, he was, quite justifiably, tired. He said he had "somehow [he had] had enough for now", and asked me to read his article on the matter.
Now that the dust has settled, it is perhaps time to think of the incident a little more introspectively. We have to ask if our outrage had been instigated because the person who faced the brunt was differently-abled and "a fauji's son"? What if a person who could stand on both their legs decided not to stand up during the national anthem? And what would happen if a person chose not stand up for the national anthem, as a sign of protest? We have to ask what our reactions would be if the person was a Kashmiri, or a dalit? Would we remain as unified in our collective outrage?
I had hardly known Chaturvedi was a "wheelchair bound disability activist". The term made me cringe every time he was introduced in that manner. We are all bound to our specific needs owing to our physical capabilities. The term "wheelchair bound" signifies an inability that is particular to Chaturvedi's situation. This makes him differently-abled uniquely, when, in reality, we are all differently-abled in our own ways.
He was, and will remain, a writer. He has been sharing his poems with us for quite some time now, and so he responded to me in a manner he could best. He sent me a poem, a poem for the "unenlightened couple":
To the unenlightened couple
Listen, don’t pay attention to the nation
But keep an eye on the limitless light
The light that falls on your skin and mine
The light that the patient plants chew on
The light that enlightens
The unhindered light that penetrates the ten quarters
Is the light that gives birth to our eyes
So we may see the destruction of lives in the slums of our nation
So we may see the hope in the eyes of our children
And, most important of all, so we may see the green fire:
This is the light that escapes from a felled tree trunk
We know now that the Universe is mostly dark matter
But still, we would know nothing of it
if it were not for the light
So, stand back and look—
We are less of a nation
More of a rainbow
This is what had happened on 19th October at a multiplex in Goa: a poet's cherished vision of a rainbow was attacked. What was attacked was this idea of India where we are "less of a nation/ More of a rainbow."
Perhaps it would help us more if we hear Salil Chaturvedi's own voice in his poems. He writes of birds, trees, and rivers with the eye for detail that only a poet can have. Writer Githa Hariharan, when asked of Salil Chaturvedi, said he was collecting various stories by writers on trees:
The first time that I met Salil Chaturvedi, he told me about he was collecting stories by various personal stories from several people on trees. That's the sort of person he is — a sensitive poet and photographer who responds to nature and the ways in which we relate to it. It's ironic that he has overcome his disability with courage and intelligence so that you barely notice it. It's those people who reduce citizenship to a flag or religion or violence who are really disabled.
Apart from the motif of nature, he has also written of his broken back in a poem "here i am". However, it is written from a perspective that is completely obverse to how this fact has been portrayed in the media:
having broken my back in two places
twenty kilometres south of a river
six kilometres west of another
directly under a flight path
on the eastern edge of an old mountain range
that seems to have tired of civilisations
and wonders what the word ‘civil' is doing there.
The poem is not one that laments the passing away of any ability. Instead, it abounds in movement. Notice that he marks the moment of injury with respect to space, not time: he is " twenty kilometres south of a river/ six kilometres west of another" when he breaks his back. The entire poem is driven by markers of space. In a previous line he tells us he has gone round the sun forty seven times:
in the month of October
having gone around the sun forty seven times
but always, always, through new territories
Here is a poet who is overjoyed by movement, who cannot be bound either to a wheelchair, or a singular idea of a nation.
In another poem he speaks of the sacred space of a temple in terms of the sheer amount of activity around the place: there are " ELEPHANTS ROAMING WITHOUT CONTEXTS", "CLOTHES DRYING ON A CLOTHESLINE TIED TO A TREE" and "a KITE CIRCLING OVERHEAD". It is titled, quite significantly, "in my always temple". This temple too has "184,000 deities" and "open skies". Writer Kiran Nagarkar, in an earlier interview, had said, "We must all aspire for the sky, its openness". Chaturvedi's poems stand for that yearning, a yearning for the openness of the sky, and the numerous colours of the rainbow.
Read his and Priya Kurien's poem-image in Guftugu here.
Souradeep Roy is part of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers Forum.
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