Some months back, I gave a literary friend some poems I had translated from Marathi. The poems were by FM Shahajinde (read some of the translations here). In some Marathi literary circles he is well known as a dalit Muslim poet. He writes in free verse and all his poems spring from his experiences. I’ve known Shahajinde for about twenty years and through his poems, and through conversations with him, I have a fair idea of what he has gone through as a person who is labelled as a Muslim and treated as a dalit. I was keen to know what my friend thought about his poetry, and my translations.
My friend did not respond for weeks. Finally, one day he met me and blurted, “I find the poems…very ordinary.”
It is the last thing I would say about Shahajinde’s poems. Each one of them seethes with anger or pain—arising out of the difficulty of living according to some values—respect for human dignity, equality, democracy—in a social environment where these values are continually assaulted. For Shahajinde, the assaults are often personal: they are directed at him, his very attempt to live a life according to the values he cherishes. Other Indians, who are not Muslim or dalit, generally do not suffer such targeted assaults.
My friend did not get any of that.
I was stumped. He is a well read, sensitive person who has read a lot of poetry.
So, I read the poems again, sticking to the text, the aggregate of words following one after the other in strings of meaning. And I saw that the poems were indeed ordinary, in one way. Consider the opening lines of Loyalty:
A very big issue in my life
that troubles me constantly
How can I prove my loyalty?
This is pretty straightforward. There is no complexity, no ambiguity. No hidden meanings or layers of meaning. No subtle inter-textuality.
In that sense, the poem is ordinary and Shahajinde’s poetry is not unique. One often sees the same lack of complexity in other dalit Marathi poetry: Everything is said straight upfront.
I do not ask
for the sun and moon from your sky
your farm, your land,
your high houses or your mansions
I do not ask for gods or rituals,
castes or sects
Or even for your mother, sisters, daughters.
I ask for my rights as a man.
— from "White Paper" by Sharankumar Limbale, translated by Priya Adarkar
There is often a surfeit of hackneyed metaphors too. In the collection of poems titled No entry for the new sun published in the first anthology of dalit Marathi literature in English (Mumbai, 1992), — from where the above and some other excerpts in this piece are taken — “sun” appears dozens of times, along with images of waves and oceans, and other images usually found in the poetry section of school magazines.
Like an artist missing originality
the sky has lost its vision.
it wouldn't acknowledge
a light blue complexion,
the sudden rainbow
or a stray eagle,
and setting of the sun.
— from “The Sky with with Eyes Closed”, by Prakash Kharat, translated by Charudatta Bhagwat
One is expected to relate to such images suppressing such knowledge as the fact that the sun is frequently covered by smog in cities like Delhi. One is expected to see the vehicle/ source of the metaphor in its pristine form. One is also expected to read expressions of anger and pain in the same way.
Brother, our screams are only an attempt
to write the chronicle of this country
— this naked country
with its heartless religion.
The people here rejoice in their black laws
and deny that we were ever born.
— from “This Country is Broken”, by Baburao Jagtap, translated by Vilas Sarang
The elemental expressions of pain or anger have to be read as just that. Without using filters of academic intellectualism, one has to recognise the intensity of the emotion. To state this differently, one is expected to do a sort of pre-modernist reading.
But even that may not be enough. Read “simply” as poems, the poems may still seem “ordinary”.
Here, it is pertinent to note that, though there has been a lot of dalit poetry, academic discussion about dalit poetry has been restricted to a few works, such as that poetry of Namdeo Dhasal that is plainly modernist.
Another point to consider is that even some dalit Marathi litterateurs, like Arjun Dangle, the editor of the previously mentioned anthology, have said that a lot of dalit poetry is only loud and aggressive; it has, by implication, little poetic merit.
All that said, I find Shahajinde’s poems searing. But they had no such effect on my friend, who has read a lot more poetry than me.
Clearly, I am bringing a frame to Shahajinde’s poems that my friend does not use—the frame of the poet’s experiences in life, about which I know quite a bit. Without that frame, the poems would fall flat. As would these lines:
I swear to the Lord
I still can’t see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.
The lines were not written by a dalit Marathi poet, but by the well-known Black American writer and activist Langston Hughes—the extract is from a poem called “The Black Man Speaks” —and it is pertinent to note what many readers and particularly critics thought about Hughes’ poetry: they thought his verse “fails lamentably” to “satisfy the desire for a modernist literature attuned to the complexities of modern life” (Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, eds, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, New York, 1995, p 3).
A wide chasm separates the cultural, social and political environments of dalit Marathi poets and Hughes. There is also a wide difference in their approach towards poetry itself. Hughes wrote poems mostly for public recitation or singing, and his language mirrors the speech of people about whom he wrote poetry. In contrast, like most other poets in India, dalit Marathi poets write for a reading audience, and though they frequently use multiple registers—standard and “street” Marathi, Bambaiya Hindi, et cetera—, their language does not often evoke a specific social group. In English translation, the connection is even more tenuous.
Nevertheless, dalit Marathi poets and Hughes have something in common. In both cases, the birthplace of poetry is birth in a marginalised social group; and as the extracts above show, in both cases, the poetry is often “ordinary”.
A comparison with Hughes is useful on one more point: on what a reader has to bring to the poems if she wants to get into them.
To respect Hughes’s work, his editors said, “one must respect the African American people and their culture” (ibid, p 5). Dalit poetry arguably makes a similar demand. To the extent possible, one has to put oneself in the poet’s social frame before one starts to read his poems. Walking through the poem in this way, one can get at least an inkling of what the poet is expressing. If one stands at a distance from the poet’s social world, and tries to read the poem “only as a poem”, one may get nothing.
But this only brings us to a truism: The appreciation of any work of art requires the use of a particular frame. Seen without a matching frame, many works of modern art are infantile blotches of paint.
When we speak of Black American or dalit works, we are also necessarily speaking about “something more than art”. We are talking about politics. To use a ghastly verb liked by academics, politics is implicated in dalit poetry even if the poet is not avowedly political. It is in fact the political nature of the poetry—its challenge to a form of dominance—that makes it “dalit”. The dalit poet wants to shake up and open the eyes and ears of those who do not recognise the dominance and what it does to people.
The dalit poet has to often meet this challenge in unfavourable circumstances. Shahajinde was brought up in a home without books, and did not experience a literary culture till he went to university. That experience did not last long. The first and last job he got was in a college where none of his colleagues read poetry, in a small town where people did not care for literary effort. In one of his poems, he recalled:
The architect of my house told me:
Your book got a prize?
Use the money now to buy a toilet bowl.
The architect’s comment provides one clue to the “ordinariness” of expression in dalit poetry. When you try to express yourself in a society filled with people like the architect, who do not care about who you are and what you have gone through, you would be inclined to shoot straight.
However, as my friend’s reaction to Shahajinde’s poems shows, the straight shot may not make a mark on some targets. Because the target is looking somewhere else, with other expectations from poetry.
“Okay,” my literary friend might concede, “Accepted that dalit poetry should not be read the way we read other modern poetry. But then how is this poetry to be judged?”
Sharankumar Limbale, a prolific dalit Marathi writer, tried to deal with the issue, in a book that was ambitiously and promisingly titled Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature (New Delhi, 2004). Through his interlocutor, Alok Mukherjee, Limbale pointed out that many Marathi literary critics had failed to appreciate dalit literature because they were bound by conventional notions of “beauty”. Making a case for an alternative “aesthetic”, he argued that the motive of the Dalit writer—raising social consciousness—must be the standard to be used for evaluation. He also spoke about the “sociological” and “life-affirming” value of dalit literature.
However, if evaluative criticism is expected to be of use to the reader as well as the writer, Limbale’s standards are clearly not enough. Craft also matters—even when a writer is driven by a clear and noble purpose; good craft will help the writer achieve his purpose, bad craft won’t. Limbale himself talked about the craft of some writers in his review of dalit Marathi autobiographical works (Dalit Aatmakatha, 2008, Pune).
Craft also matters to poets like Shahajinde. In one of his interviews, he spoke about reading a poem again and again after he has written it, to see if “it touches the mind somewhere”, and to ensure that “one doesn’t stumble at any point when reading the poem”. Preparing an anthology of his previously published poems in 2015, he left out some poems because, he told me, “they didn’t work very well”.
"Loyalty", cited in the first part of this piece, passed the “works well” test for Shahajinde. In his assessment, the first four lines of “Loyalty” get to the heart of the matter he wants to highlight, with minimal words, and expressively. Readers who do not try to read through the frame of the poet’s social position—other Indians are not repeatedly asked about their loyalty to the nation—would probably not see that. So, even with recognition of craft, we are back to using a particular frame.
There are other frames to talk about too. Most dalit Marathi poets say they are inspired by the life and thought of Babasaheb Ambedkar. Others also invoke Jotirao Phule. A recognition of these sources lead to a better understanding of their poetry. In many poems, the core ideas echo the ideas of Phule or Ambedkar about the structure of Indian society.
At the same time, it must be noted that intellectuals like GP Deshpande, Gopal Guru and Anand Teltumbde, who are sympathetic to the dalit cause, have questioned the political clarity and value of dalit literature. There has been questioning from within the dalit fold too—not only on particulars, such as the quality of this or that literary work, but on fundamentals: on the kind of literature that should be produced, and the purposes to be served. The questioning within the dalit fold is reflected in a plethora of labels used for literary meets of Dalit Marathi writers. Several labels other than “Dalit” have been used, including “literature of enlightenment”, “literature inspired by Ambedkar”, “literature inspired by Phule-Ambedkar”, “literature for social transformation” and “protest literature”. The labels have overlapping connotations. Nevertheless, they indicate variations in ideological moorings and directions.
All in all, while the basket of dalit poetry — like any other basket of poetry — may have bad fruits, there is considerable complexity underlying the “ordinariness” of the poetry. Those who do not recognise this are obviously suffering a big loss. But their loss is also the poet’s loss, and the loss of a society as a whole.
Also by Ashok Gopal:
Who is the Dalit? by Saitya Brata Das