Dr. Abhijit Khandkar, a dalit poet and doctor by profession curates the works of seven contemporary dalit poets, who speak about various issues that concern their lives and as a result reflect in their writings. To be able to recognise, participate and understand such poetry is going back to the very roots of our culture, our angst and all that encompasses our literature.
A Dalit is someone who has historically, socially and culturally, been defined by the act of being an untouchable. So, when such a person writes a poem, it becomes a vehicle not only of self-expression (as in other poets), but an inevitable exploration of the circumstances that have defined the poet knowingly or unknowingly, and a record of sorts takes place, whereby the poet puts down every such emotion and occurrence that they not only use to fight their circumstances, but also make those around them aware of the events that lead up to such consequences.
The poems presented here by seven Dalit poets, showcase their journey of discovering their purpose in life through reading and writing. In these poems you will find not only a slow processing of generational trauma, but also a need to share with others these experiences, that helps in building a discourse around what it means to be a Dalit, that will eventually lead to a complete breakdown and disruption of the basis of the caste system.
MANA MANDI (OUR PEOPLE)
The city-heart pulsates dream lights
(most strikingly in bright fluorescent green of plus sign with Medical
written on it) –—
by the labour of mana mandi. Its many veins spreading
like net or forest fire
(but on low flames to keep chicken parottas from burning)
skirting plastics on the edges into hibiscus curls
collected in winnowing fans.
Street is a field cultivating many tongues that lick everyone into action–—
moving against the despotism of tar.
Here, this hunger unconfined to the borders of our bodies,
we carve our own ways, so here we can walk not feel like trespassers.
The roads crack into shops under the light of the bulb used to pass
threads in eye of the needle
as wise tailors seam piles of worn saris, sheets offcuts of satin together
into thick warm quilts outsizing
even the length of our homes, if the road fights back through
our third-person reflections on the leather shop’s glass doors,
it is melted into the sideways
by a child’s first perceptive touch;
the looking sharp as mascara,
soft as rain questioning the road.
At the juncture–—
two vehicles collide, we gather in a circle
arm in arm to watch the spectacle of dying languages speak
unclogging at the valve in the middle,
under the skin spread like blue tarpaulin
with holes the size of our eyes over the metal-ribbed bridge.
This street that once was a threshold, is our body too.
Mana mandi have died here.
The tongues invite us: Come, you can spit here.
Bio: Shripad Sinnakaar is a poet from Bombay & a philosophy post graduate from University of Mumbai, a former urban fellow at Indian Institute for Human Settlements & Ashoka University. His poems are published in The White Review, Dalit Art Archive and Sassoon Docks Art Festival. He runs a literary project called Flamingos in Mithi.
Curator’s remarks: The poem’s gaze isn’t just revolutionary but celebratory. Revolting and celebrating the existence, struggles and lives of people who are pushed to live on the margins due to societal hierarchy. In the present times when the powers that be, under the pretext of redevelopment (Dharavi Redevelopment Project), seek to displace people from their homes, this poem stands out as a frontier of resistance and solidarity. The poets last line, sums up the defiance, the resistance.
“Mana Mandi have died here.
The tongues invite us: Come, you can spit here.”
–Aashika Shivangi Singh
I light a candle in my room
Incessantly staring at the statue of Buddha placed on my table,
you come from behind;
staring at me
your hand on my shoulder
its weight erects an Amphitheatre of ancient Greece on my collar bones
and on its stage, you are performing
pushing your body wrapped in rags into the well
screaming stories of women – chewed raw,
children massacred in wars.
I watch with my eyes closed
On the other side of the stage; you reappear
crying, calling out my name.
I get up from the audience, walk towards you
but then your lover arrives, kisses you.
I hold your hand
return back from Greece; to my room
I turn towards you, incessantly staring
like when your voice pierces the horizon
You on the stage, singing songs of longing
I ask, ‘Which character are you playing now?
Out of which story have you emerged?
This melancholy – Are you sad?
Lost in the study of some composition, are you?’
You don’t answer any of my questions.
I get up from my chair
hold your wobbly fingers,
they echo of tremors
Your eyes are dry, lips splintered
the body silent
I blow out the candle thus
This numbness is the sign
My theatrist needs love.
Bio: Aashika Shivangi Singh is engaged in poetry from the age of 13. At present, she works in freelance journalistic writing and is pursuing masters in Sociology.
Curator’s remarks: This poem juxtaposes devotion to the Buddha with the devotion to one’s lover. It builds upon the theme of meditation and takes flights of fantasy, longing, acceptance culminating into desire. Dalit poetry is as much about sensuality as it is about rawness and rebellion. The poem evokes these very sentiments.
Ma, I Won’t Call You a Witch
Your milk is my nectar
Ma, how can I call you a witch?
I will forgive those who’ve deserted you and flown abroad for Green card.
I won’t envy their white suits and shining shoes.
Let them enjoy the warm vicinity of White House.
I will echo whenever you call me.
I will forget my pregnant wife carrying night soil on her head.
My father toiling, tilling in the farms under the scorching sun.
My brothers migrating with stove of atrocities on head.
I will forget everything, won’t speak a single word.
Your modesty is priceless, Ma.
I will be displaced in forests and valleys and on the city streets.
Allow them to build Sardar Sarovar, shopping centres,
amusement parks and sanctuaries on my chest.
I won’t harass you.
Though you’ve betrayed me and favoured him.
He is my brother, my father, my master, my saviour.
His chappal in my mouth, Ma.
Let his urine brighten your Secretariats, August Houses and Parliaments
I will be crucified on the cross of patriotism
in every Kargil war, Ma.
My untouchable blood salutes your dust.
Ma, would I ever call you a witch?
Bio: Raju Solanki is a renowned Dalit activist, poet and writer from Gujarat. He has authored a few books including Blood Under Saffron, Tell this to your Kids and The Torch bearer of Human Rights: Veer Meghmaya. He has also initiated to translate Dr. Ambedkar’s writings and speeches into Gujarati.
Curator’s remarks: The poet on an exhausted, restrained yet crisp sarcastic note, vows to be there for his Motherland even after she has always discriminated against him, caused him much trauma.
He in his sarcastic magnanimity pledges his devotion to his motherland though she has betrayed him and favoured her ‘other’ children who have left her shores.
Listen, my soon-to-be-born baby,
Be prepared for the battle
Like we all were.
I’ve found a manhole mightier
Than the black hole,
Light cannot escape from the latter
But your rights continue to be
Absorbed unfailingly by the former,
The black hole absorbs everything but your rights.
The battle for dignity is spirituality to us.
Be the star in the endless dark matter,
Don’t let your nuclear fusion fade.
Shine brighter and brighter.
If you collapse, do not worry, my child.
A supernova will occur out of you,
New stars will be born.
Shock waves and cosmic rays
Will agitate an age-old structure.
Stars, my child, can’t be fettered.
Bio: Gautam Vegda is a Dalit poet writing in English, illustrator and a PhD scholar from Gujarat. He has authored a couple of poetry collections namely ‘ Vultures and Other Poems’ and ‘A Strange Case of Flesh and Bones.’
Curator’s remarks: The poet explores a rarely explored theme of Dalit identity and science fiction. The poem is an advice cum resolve of the father to his yet to be born son. The manhole for the marginalised is a more real and dreaded reality than all the black holes out there. The poet in spite of his despair is hopeful for the future and upholds his identity and its dignity.
Agitation, Agitation, Agitation
–(Original poem in marathi by Anjali Tayade translated by Shardool Thakur)
I said to him –
“Now come and join the agitation
Take up some role in the agitation.”
He said –
“Only recently have I finished my education
And am looking for a job
He got a job, started working.
I went back to him
and repeated –
“Now come and join the agitation
Take up some role in the agitation.”
He replied –
“Only recently have I got a job
Now I’m thinking of getting married
You roam around so much
Why don’t you help me find a rich bride to get married to?”
Eventually he got married.
His children grew up
And they got married,
Making him a grandfather.
He purchased a car
and a Bungalow.
I visited him in his Bungalow.
And just as I was about to plead him to join the agitation,
He called everyone into the living – room.
He introduced me saying
“Here’s a selfless volunteer who spent his entire life for the agitation”
What was more
He felicitated me with a shawl and also a coconut!
I came home.
Removed the shawl, threw it
Slammed the door behind me
Tightly embracing the portrait of Babasaheb,
I cried with anguish –
Curator’s remarks: As it often happens, the routine life comes in the way and people find reasons to stay out of a movement or a calling. Standing on the side-lines, they never fail to applaud the ones who are entirely committed to a cause. Working in the marginalised spaces demands great conviction, sacrifice. This poem is a paean to people who don’t just feel Dr. Ambedkar’s words but live it.
Oh Great Poet.
– Daya Pawar
(original poem in Marathi translated by Dr. Abhijit Shahaji Khandkar)
so, I should sing your praises?
You the greatest poet of them all.
On witnessing the death of a crane,
your sympathetic heart was overfilled to the brim.
You too were born outside the village
where only sadness was birthed.
The sombre faces of the men in the village
ploughed by worries
never saw a flowery bloom.
Their piercing screams for liberation
did you really not hear?
Even a single drop of your blood
why didn’t it come alive, rise in mad anguish?
You singing praises of Ram – Rajya,
oh Great Poet!
There too a mountain of inhumanity
Oh Great Poet!
How do I even call you a Great Poet…
To lay bare this injustice, oppression
if you had written even one shloka,
I would have engraved your name
on my heart instead.
Curator’s remarks: Daya Pawar, one of the prominent Dalit voices, in this scathing poem expresses his anguish over Valmiki, how he could write the great epic Ramayana and the many thousand verses but could not write one shloka laying bare the injustice of caste, varna. It is a seething take on how there has always been an invisible appropriation of the marginalised and their struggles in every day and age.
The poet hence refuses to acknowledge Valmiki as the Great Poet.
Almost a Father’s Day poem
What do you do
when you are the first man
in the farthest reaches of space?
A place no man before you
Where you look back
only to see your own footsteps.
Your whole universe,
a million miles away
looking at their lives through you.
Some of them shed sweat,
tears and blood for you
to be where you are now.
What do you do
when you are the first
in your family
to get a job,
to ever rent
a glass balconied house
in the same city where your father
slept by the lake.
What do you do
when you look around
to see no one as you drift
into uncharted territories
of this social world,
a place no man in your family
A place that can kill you
for one mistake?
What do you do
when you have no role models
and suck at being one too?
There is only so much pressure
from guilt your heart can take
before it gives up,
like a torn space suit
inside a dying star.
Bio: Daniel Sukumar is a poet based out of Bangalore. His works mostly revolve around the proclamation of unspoken, uncomfortable truths that plague us. Daniel has trained students across India in the art of stage poetry.
Curator’s remarks: The poem goes into unchartered territory of the dilemma, a person from marginalised spaces feels, the realisation, weight of how far he has come, and the guilt of his brethren that have been left behind. The immense gravity of it and the perpetual inadequacy, struggles he experiences on his path to his emancipation and that of his community.