• From Khairlanji to Kopardi, a Poem by Neeraja

    Translated by Shashi Deshpande

    January 13, 2017

    Hussain, 'Gandhari' / mfhussain.com


    From Khairlanji to Kopardi
    via Dilli, Mumbai, and any other
    desolate spot in a town or village.
    Only the names of places keep changing.

    Flags of power are thrust
    into my moist, protected yoni.
    making candles of these, morchas are taken out,
    discs of news played, blaring out proofs of cruelty.

    Which is a woman’s caste, what is her religion?
    Does her caste make a difference to her suffering?
    What is it that gives these torturers of bodies pleasure?
    The enjoyment of a woman, or the enjoyment of her caste?

    Woman has been denuded for all time in your struggle for power.
    You have pushed your political ambitions into her body,
    fought battles and defeated your enemies
    by playing the game between her thighs.

    Those men who assess the soil by its colour:
    the earth has endured their plough for ages,
    a mangalsutra strung round the neck, bearing witness.
    But this has never become news.

    You collect large crowds to shout defiance
    at those who shredded my yoni.
    Can you see, anywhere, in that crowd,
    the agony tearing my insides apart?

    Can you hear the scream bursting out of my tiny womb?
    Can you understand the throbbing insult that lacerates my mind?
    In what class will you demand reservation
    For girls with mangled yonis?
    In a niche in the inner rooms,
    or at the bottom of a deep well at the backdoor?

    The places of death will constantly change,
    village and city will come together in this global village.
    And a primal product called woman will be seen in the culture of use and discard,
    providing daily news:
    Of dishevelled hair
    Of terrified eyes
    Of hands on her yoni trying to stop its destruction.


    Goya, 'Leocadia' / Wikipedia

    This poem was brought to my notice by two Marathi-reading members of my family. They were overcome, it seemed, by its power; and after reading it, so was I. I knew I had to translate this poem into English. The theme, the strong emotions channelled skilfully into hard-hitting words, the fearless clarity with which it spoke of women and caste, was something I had not come across before. This had to reach many more readers. And so we began to work on a rough translation, the three of us: a doctor, a Marathi college teacher and I, a writer in English.

    But first the title, which comes from two incidents that happened in rural Maharashtra. In Khairlanji in 2006, a Dalit family was massacred; the mother and teenage daughter were paraded naked in the village and then raped before they were killed. The assailants were Marathas. In Kopardi in 2016, a fourteen-year-old girl was raped with incredible savagery and then killed. The victim this time was a Maratha girl; the killers, Dalits. In both cases, the two caste groups protested with large morchas, asking for justice for the victim and also making political demands; the Marathas asking for reservation, and the Dalits for the application of the Prevention of Atrocities against Dalits Act for Khairlanji killings. The protests were more a show of strength by the two caste groups than an exhibition of sympathy for the victims.

    Reading and admiring this powerful poem was one thing, translating it was quite another. At first we, and then I alone, tried to negotiate a way through words, each one of which was used purposefully and deliberately, so that I had to be very careful not to abandon that particular sense. And I thought: this could not have been written in English. Just one example: vagina does not seem to be the right substitute for the word yoni, used in the poem repeatedly. Yoni carries a mystical sense of both femaleness and the origin of life, which the word vagina lacks. I decided to retain yoni.

    There’s also the caste factor, so boldly and clearly proclaimed in the poem. For various reasons, English writers have rarely grappled with caste. Perhaps it has something to do with the class most English writers belong to, where caste is not very important; perhaps it is being mainly urban, where again caste matters less than in rural areas. There’s also the fact that a particular caste brings in its own language. How do we render that in English?  And, for some reason I cannot describe or explain, there is immediacy when such a subject is written of in the language it belongs to. English creates a distance, an objectivity, not a subjectivity.

    Strange that I, who have always staunchly defended English against charges of "inauthenticity" (I still do) should say this. But the inadequacy of a language to convey what another language has done is a fact all translators have to take into account. I do not consider this a flaw in Indian English writing, but a lacuna, something all languages have to contend with in different ways.

    Despite all this, I knew I had to translate this poem. And for me, the distance was bridged by an instant sense of kinship with the poet, a feeling that what she was writing about was my reality as well, that these were the things I had been writing about for four decades. That I wrote in English did not distance me from what this poet was saying. For, I have not landed here from some exotic place merely because I write in English. My father comes from a landed family in Bijapur, my mother from a family in Pune; I have a gut connection with both their languages, Kannada and Marathi. And therefore, I could feel the passion, the raw anger, the grief in Neeraja’s poem, I could sense the skill with which she had depicted, in bare clinical words, the plight of women caught between  the ambitions and desires of men who use  women for their own political purposes. Realising these things, the problem of language fell off; it became something I could overcome. 

    And therefore this translation. Inadequate perhaps, yet as we ardent readers know, some kind of a translation is better than having nothing at all.

    Note: I acknowledge the help of two people who initially steered me through the choppy seas of this poem: Dr Madhuri Dani and another who wants to be anonymous. I am also grateful to Neeraja for readily giving me permission to translate her poem.

    The poem appeared first in the Marathi magazine Miloon Saryajani.


    Shashi Deshpande has written novels, short stories, essays and books for children over several decades. She has also translated work from Kannada and Marathi into English. Her most recent novel is Strangers to Ourselves.

    Neeraja is a noted and one of the most awarded writers in Marathi. She has several collections of poems, short stories, essays as well as some translations to her credit. Neeraja teaches in a college in Mumbai.

    Read the original poem in Marathi below:

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