Street Fight Poet

June 7, 2007

[This interview first appeared in Tehelka.]

The words are a spume of raw fire — degradation, obscenity, filth and horror rage untamed; there’s a hymn to hear when they’re spent. Nothing cushions in the world of Namdeo Dhasal, poet feared and revered, founder of the Dalit Panthers, comrade of controversy, born ‘untouchable’. Selections from thirty years of his work, 1972 to 2006, brilliantly translated by fellow poet Dilip Chitre have been released by Navayana, an award-winning publishing house, dedicated to bringing out titles for social change. Dilip Chitre and Navayana’s S. Anand talked to Shyama Haldar about the exhilarations of finding Dhasal.

Dilip, you’ve been a friend, translator and champion of Namdeo Dhasal for over four decades. These poems, they rip through you — how is it they aren’t better known?

Dilip Chitre (DS): Namdeo Dhasal is known in Marathi as a major poet and is almost unknown beyond the language — he’s won awards and things like that, but very few critics have dared to delve into his works and say exactly what it is about him that makes him great. While I have no doubt that he is one of the world’s best 20th century poets, he hasn’t been translated even into other Indian languages because he is extremely difficult to translate.

There is, of course, the problem that India does not have any publishers worth their salt consistently publishing or promoting poetry, even in the English language. In fact, there are actually more publishers in the Indian languages promoting poetry than in English. In English, you have to be very close to your grave to be acceptable to most of your contemporaries, and then they may publish your collected poems. Then along comes this niche publisher who reads four translations of Dhasal in a magazine — Tehelka, as it so happened — and he contacts the translator, gets after him: do you have more?

S. Anand (SA): This was around the Sahitya Akademi’s golden jubilee in 2004; they gave Namdeo a lifetime achievement award. I didn’t know Dilip was on the committee, I just read this article he wrote. Navayana was very young then, and had never done poetry, but this was something I knew I wanted to publish. I hunted all over for a way to contact Dilip, googled madly, and somehow found his number.

That’s something the poems do, read just a few lines and you know you’re with an enormously exciting writer.

DC: And that’s what translation is about, sharing excitement. You can either share it in a very quiet, sober, scholarly way, or you can share it in a poetic way. Now, I am a practicing poet in two languages, English and Marathi, and I am committed to translation — I’ve been translating poetry from Marathi to English for the last fifty years, poetry from the 13th century right up to the 21st. With Namdeo, I found that he has it in him to be considered one of the world’s major poets, and the only way I could substantiate that claim was to bring the best of his poetry to the notice of Anglophone readers.

Namdeo’s a lumpen, as he describes himself, with no assets except poetry — he sometimes says he hurls his poems like stones, so they’re a street-fighting weapon as well. To convey the idea that poets can come from anywhere, that they bring from wherever they come something to the surface of the world — that’s a role he plays exceptionally well. Namdeo’s also an activist, and he’s been a good activist. But like most Dalit leaders, small-time and big-time, he knows he lives in India where Dalits cannot, by themselves, form a government anywhere. They can only act as a pressure group…

SA: Not until Mayawati.

DC: Even Mayawati has had to make that compromise with her ‘rainbow coalition’ — the elephant has been turned into Ganesha. These things will continue to happen, but let us not be deceived about the facts of the Dalit situation. No minority in India can ever come to power — and, in fact, there is no majority, not even the Hindus are an absolute majority, thank God. We are a land of minorities. And here is a minority voice, someone from the urban dispossessed, uprooted from his rural place, planted in the megapolis of Mumbai at the age of seven to grow up in that urban underbelly that no one notices. In the 19th century, the French poet Baudelaire wrote about Paris, wrote The Flowers of Evil, and started the trend of modern urban poetry. Baudelaire talked about decadence and so on, but he himself was a bourgeois trying to become a déclassé. Namdeo Dhasal is a lumpen, that is the difference, he’s already there. We also know that, although he was not dealing with cities and so forth, Dante in his Commedia was dealing with his contemporary world through the metaphorical frame of Paradise, Limbo and Hell. So you start with Inferno, you come to Purgatorio, and then you are elevated to Paradiso, in Dante’s framework. Now, here’s a person who gives that epic, mytho-poeic quality to Mumbai, and installs at the heart of his universe Golpitha, the red light neighbourhood of central Mumbai. It is an impenetrable world unless it can be illuminated by someone like Namdeo, illuminated from within. Golpitha, which was published in 1972, is, to my mind, a milestone in world poetry.

Anand, I’d like to go back to the point about Namdeo as a Dalit leader. What do you make of the issue of his aligning with the Shiv Sena?

SA: I really get cheesed off when people start talking about Namdeo Dhasal with the words, ‘Oh, but hasn’t he joined the Shiv Sena?’ It’s like people read a lot of newspapers and very little poetry…

DC: And he’s not with the Shiv Sena, this is factually incorrect. The Dalit Panthers supported the Shiv Sena for a while, and then in the last municipal elections in Mumbai, they supported the cpm. That’s the 360 degree world of Indian politics — why isolate Namdeo Dhasal? Just because he’s a Dalit? Why isolate Mayawati? Just because she’s a Dalit? I think there’s high hypocrisy at work here, upper-caste, upper-class, journalistic hypocrisy. And for people to use this to obscure the fact that he is one of India’s major poets, it makes me furious.

SA: He writes for Saamna, I’m told — I don’t read Marathi. And, yes it’s a thin line, being with the Shiv Sena and writing for their paper — but, again, it’s what you write that matters. I’ve been told Namdeo speaks his mind in his Saamna essays, and Bal Thackeray lets him. It’s not a Namdeo I’m interested in at all, though, right now. Are we to divorce him from forty years of his work and say, ‘Oh, now he is with the Shiv Sena’?

Namdeo’s wife is a Muslim, and the daughter of a Communist…

DC: Who was a well-known balladeer, Amar Sheikh. Mallika is about ten or fifteen years younger than Namdeo, and is an outstandingly good poet in Marathi in her own right. They’ve had a very turbulent marriage; in fact, Mallika wrote an autobiography, I Want to Smash Myself, about their relationship, how much she disapproved of his Panther movement, how difficult it was to live with this man, an activist with cases against him all over Maharashtra, many of them implicating him in crimes he did not commit. At the time they married, he was constantly underground, they were hounded from place to place.

Modern Marathi literature has this constellation of outstanding contemporaries: Vilas Sarang, Kiran Nagarkar, Namdeo Dhasal, Arun Kolatkar, yourself. There’s this strain of defiance, rage and relentlessness that runs through this group — where is it coming from?

DS: Well, one of the things that’s common to all of us is that we are rooted in the same metropolis, we are very much Mumbai writers, all of us are rooted in the maddening cosmopolitan mix of Mumbai. We have our different modes of approaching it — for example, in Vilas’ case, he is consciously located in the existentialist tradition of Camus and the nihilist tradition of Samuel Beckett; Kafka has also been a very significant influence on him. You cannot say that about Arun Kolatkar. Kiran Nagarkar has a variety of narrative voices, but you can also read the European influence in Kiran very distinctly. Putting Namdeo aside, Arun, Vilas, Kiran and myself are all bilingual writers who practice writing in English as well as Marathi. Namdeo is monolingual, he writes in Marathi, speaks in Marathi. He doesn’t read any French or Spanish or German or English, for that matter. Where does his surrealism come from, where does his existentialism come from? It’s something native, it’s part of his self-education. He is a self-educated, dispossessed Dalit, fighting his way up into the literary world of the megapolis. Everything he’s read, he’s read in Marathi translation, and if he hears of someone whose work is untranslated, he’ll say, ‘Who is this person, tell me more about him, will you translate him for me?’

SA: There’s something I’ve wanted to ask you, Dilip. His political followers — as you’ve told me — when he’s in hospital, there are some two hundred Panthers outside. Do they read his poetry, do they have an understanding of it? Or is there a split between Namdeo the poet, and this other, political, person?

DC: I don’t see it as a split in Namdeo; it’s the one-sidedness of his multiple audiences. His Dalit audience sees him as a charismatic leader, but they may not possess the literary sensibility demanded by his poetry. He’s not someone like Gadar, who will write these very simplistic poems, and some of them rank bad poetry, and express revolutionary sentiments and rouse people and so on. A middle-class person approaching his poetry does not know the Dalit situation, he does not even want to know. So he misses part of the poetry.

SA: So, is there’s no perfect audience for Namdeo’s Dhasal’s poetry? Nobody who’d have the sensibilities of his politics and be able also to appreciate his poems?

DC: Turn the shirt around and the shirt asks if it fits the audience as well. The shirt poem…

SA: I’d like to read the last three lines from that one, ‘Speculations on a Shirt’:

A human being shouldn’t become so spotless / One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt / One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin.

And just look at the beginning of it: Let’s change the sex of Eve / Let’s make Adam pregnant. And then you find it so odd that he should be with the Shiv Sena — maybe he’s saying, ‘Let’s do that, let’s go out and confuse you.’

DC: Namdeo dares you, as a reader, and as a translator. There’s something I describe as aesthetic subversion. Namdeo subverts bourgeois sensibilities, and that’s what appeals to me. A subversive act tries to undo the entire system on which your values are based. Namdeo is a guerrilla poet. In one phrase, one line, he’ll juxtapose dialect and the slang of Kamathipura with European references in very sophisticated Marathi. These shifts and transitions of register make translating him very hard. Translating someone like Namdeo is in a sense like Method acting — you have to find a space for him inside you, make room, and then act it out.

Viju Chitre (Dilip’s wife): At the time Namdeo started writing, his poems were the sort people couldn’t bear to go near. The words he used were the kind educated people would never even think of. That’s why most people can talk politics with him, but they don’t want to go into his poetry, because they get scared, even now. When you ask why he’s not better known, it’s because of that. He’s too rough for the sensibilities of even literary people like Vijay Tendulkar. We all pass Golpitha every day, but we try not only to not see what is there, but not to even feel it.

DC: You know, there are many Dalit poets writing in Marathi, none of them write this way. He’s far above them. It’s not as though he could be the leading light of Dalit literature when Dalit writers have such very small ambitions. They all have too many statements to make about being Dalit.

What you’re saying is this is past being an identity statement: I am Dalit, this is my voice. Maybe this is one way of getting over the question of audience — maybe the perfect audience for Namdeo Dhasal is the reader’s gut.

DC: How does he reach German audiences through a secondary translation based on my translation?

SA: Or how would I read one small excerpt and get so excited by it, and say I want to publish this, somehow, anyhow? When I show this book around, when people read just one poem, first they’re not sure they’re reading a translation, and then they can’t understand why they haven’t heard of him before.

DC: But it is also the case that you cannot really separate Namdeo’s politics from his poetry. On April 14 [Ambedkar’s birth anniversary], every year from 1972 onwards, Namdeo Dhasal has been writing one long poem addressed to Ambedkar, but also at the same-time a self-questioning poem. He is talking to Ambedkar and to himself, and is asking himself and all Dalits the question, have we lived up to the standards Ambedkar set us? These are self-examining poems that also point to several things that happened after Ambedkar passed away in 1956 that he did not have to face — the India that Ambedkar never knew and that Dalits have to face today is also part of those poems. There is this too in Namdeao’s work — if people were to read his poetry first and then read his politics, perhaps they will be less clueless than they are when they start with his politics and don’t even approach his poetry.

Jun 02 , 2007

 

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