Superstar Dhasal

Print edition : July 27, 2007

Dilip Chitre packages Namdeo Dhasal for the globalised reader, properly glossed and sanitised.

THERE is nothing that can quite describe the sensation of reading the poetry of Namdeo Dhasal. One's hair stands on end. One feels slapped and spat upon. Vijay Tendulkar, no stranger to street vocabulary, wrote the introduction to Dhasal's first collection of poems, Golpitha, about Mumbai's underbelly, Kamatipura. Tendulkar writes: "This is a world where the night is reversed into the day, where stomachs are empty or half-empty, of desperation against death, of the next day's anxieties, of bodies left over after being consumed by shame and sensibility, of insufferably flowing sewages, of diseased young bodies lying by the gutters braving the cold by folding up their knees to their bellies, of the jobless, of beggars, of pickpockets, of holy mendicants, of neighbourhood tough guys and pimps... "

Out of this "loathsome and nauseating universe" (as Dilip Chitre puts it in his Introduction to the present volume) emerged Namdeo Dhasal's voice, unique, shocking, searing: "Man, you should explode / Yourself to bits to start with / ... / You should carry acid bulbs and such things on you / You should be ready to carve out anybody's innards without batting an eyelid / ... / Launch a campaign for not growing food, kill people all and sundry by starving them to death / Kill oneself too, let disease thrive, make all trees leafless."

As a Dalit, Dhasal is plagued by memories of loss: "Generation after untouchable generation has resulted in me / And this is how I lost the village of my dreams / Its green mynah, its green tree." He engages with history, and identifies with every "outsider": "My original ancestors were dark Dravidian non-Aryans / Followed by Scythians, Huns, Kushans, Turks, Iranians and Afghans / Then white soldiers in uniform and the Firangs / Mixtures of races and castes / The soil of this country never practiced untouchability."

Dhasal can be tender as well, as for instance in his poem Mandakini Patil: A Young Prostitute, My Intended Collage: "I've been dazzled by your worn-down and lackluster face. / From that lackluster look you descend inside me; and stream inside me; and appropriate me. / Is that the scream of an ending; or is the end itself a scream beginning?" He can be vulnerable, too, as we see in a later poem: "What is it that coddles me? / Is that a tree, or a woman laden with many branches?"

Dhasal is also a political activist. He was one of the founder-members of the militant Dalit Panther. In Maharashtra itself, Dhasal is known as much for his poetry as for his activism. Indeed, he sees no distinction between the two: "I am a committed person and I am constantly involved in political activity. However, during these activities, I write poems too." As Chitre puts it: "Namdeo cannot separate his activism from his poetry, and his poetry is only the literary form of his activism." It is perhaps no coincidence that Golpitha came out in 1972, the same year that Dalit Panther was formed.

As an activist, Dhasal has repeatedly taken shocking political positions - in 1975, he supported the Emergency; in 1997, he allied with the Shiv Sena, to which the Dalit Panther had been violently opposed for decades; in 2006, he appeared on the RSS platform. Dhasal knew exactly which bed he had jumped into. Eleven years earlier, in 1995, Dhasal had published his collection Ya Sattet Jeev Ramat Nahi (The Soul Doesn't Find Peace in this Regime). In a poem on December 6, he had described the Hindu Right thus: "Yesterday they murdered Gandhi / Now they want to put the whole nation to death." He had then nothing but stinging contempt for the Hindu Right: "Not even a diseased dog would care to piss / On the cadavers of their forebears."

His personal life has been tumultuous. His wife, Malika, herself a leading poet, daughter of the legendary Communist bard Amar Sheikh, published in 1984 her autobiography, Mala Udhwastha Hoychai (I Want to Destroy Myself) in which she details her difficult relationship with her husband.

There is something of a rock star in Namdeo Dhasal. He delights in shocking, in shaking up the staid, in stirring up controversies. The more his critics are exasperated, the more he enjoys being outrageous. Which is why it is intriguing that Dilip Chitre completely sidesteps Dhasal's cozying up to the Hindu Right. Chitre writes a long introduction to the volume, follows it up with another essay on Dhasal's Mumbai, and concludes with his delight and despair in translating the poetry; while all three pieces discuss Dhasal's politics at some length, he never once mentions Dhasal's support of the Shiv Sena or the RSS. Ordinarily, this would be called intellectual dishonesty. But Dhasal's own political positions are so well known - at least in Maharashtra - and he is so unapologetic about them, that one is simply amused at Chitre's touching hope that readers would not notice.

Chitre is himself a major poet, adept at working two languages, Marathi and English. Dhasal speaks only Marathi. That Chitre does a fine job of translating the virtually untranslatable Dhasal is clear. The volume as a whole has been clearly planned and packaged by Chitre, to introduce this "lumpen" and "ruffian" poet to the wider reading public. Chitre has been Dhasal's friend for 40 years. One is apt to feel protective about one's friends.

But Chitre does more. He puts a spin on Dhasal's politics. Consider Dhasal's meeting with Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. Chitre puts it thus: "In 1975, the Maharashtra police had about 360 charge-sheets filed against Dalit Panther... and Namdeo Dhasal, who evaded arrest, was on their `wanted' list... . Indira Gandhi proclaimed a national Emergency... . Recognising the implications of this for Dalit Panther and him, Namdeo went to Delhi, sought a meeting with Mrs Gandhi - who gave him a patient hearing - and talked about atrocities committed against Dalits. Mrs Gandhi ordered the Maharashtra government to drop all charges against members of Dalit Panther and their leader, Namdeo Dhasal... . There was no hidden deal in this."

So, according to Chitre, Dhasal so moved Mrs Gandhi with descriptions of atrocities against Dalits that she dropped all charges against him and his party. No mention of the fact that Dhasal wrote his worst poem, Priyadarshini, a book-length paean to Mrs Gandhi, in 1976. Indeed, this poem is not even mentioned by Chitre in his introduction, except in passing, right at the end, only to tell us that it is the sole book that is unrepresented in the present collection.

Chitre's coyness is amusing, given his friend's bravado: "When Dalit Panther supported the national Emergency, we signed a written agreement with Indira Gandhi's Congress party... . Mrs Gandhi ordered all the pending cases and charges against me and the Dalit Panther to be withdrawn ... . Mrs Gandhi asked me repeatedly if she could do anything more for Dalit Panther or me. However, ... I did no bargaining with her. All I wanted was a revolution." On his poem, he says: "The poem on Indira Gandhi in the collection Priyadarshini is an ode. Every word in that poem bears the weight of responsibility."

The Dalit movement has been plagued by what Dhasal calls "the black and white / monsters of factionalism". Chitre knows this: "Dalit politics are in a shambles." He is uncomfortable with Dhasal's politics: "Namdeo and I do not see the political situation in India the same way... . I translate his human vision without sharing his political views, his strategies and his tactics as a political activist."

But that is not what one asks of Chitre anyway. Dhasal is a maverick; he changes political stance as often as one changes shoes, and often for the same sorts of reasons - they wear out, fashions change, prices drop. Chitre is Dhasal's friend, and could be forgiven for indulging him. To ask readers to indulge his indulgence is, however, a different matter altogether.

No analysis of the poetry of Ezra Pound or Filippo Marinetti can be expected to be taken seriously if it does not grapple with the question of collaboration with fascism. Chitre packages Dhasal for the globalised reader, properly glossed and sanitised. He obviously expects to get away with it. Such is the chasm between the globalised reader and Indian languages (one is tempted to say, Dalit languages) that he probably will.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with the Delhi-based Jana Natya Manch. He works as editor at LeftWord Books.

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