Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Nabina Das chats with Naren Bedide, writer, translator and commentator in Telugu Dalit literature.

"I am the soldier, I am the battlefield, too" Part 2
Naren Bedide

 

What are the sources that the poets are drawing from currently? Is there a conscious rejection of mainstream rendering of texts, especially the traditional epics, etc.? If so, how?

I am reminded of something Dr Ambedkar had said in his book, “Untouchables or The Children of India's Ghetto.” Let me quote:

"It is usual to hear all those who feel moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables unburden themselves by uttering the cry "We must do something for the Untouchables." One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying  “Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu .” It is invariably assumed that the object to be reclaimed is the Untouchables. If there is to be a Mission, it must be to the Untouchables and if the Untouchables can be cured, untouchability will vanish. Nothing requires to be done to the Touchable. He is sound in mind, manners and morals. He is whole; there is nothing wrong with him. Is this assumption correct? Whether correct or not, the Hindus like to cling to it. The assumption has the supreme merit of satisfying themselves that they are not responsible for the problem of the Untouchables. How natural is such an attitude is illustrated by the attitude of the Gentile towards the Jews. Like the Hindus the Gentiles also do not admit that the Jewish problem is in essence a Gentile problem."

When the Dalit speaks of democratizing Indian society, the “Touchable Hindu” talks of nationalism; when she speaks of equality and the spread of education and opportunities, the Hindu posits it against merit; when she talks of rights and justice, he dismisses it as identity politics; when she argues for diversity and inclusiveness, he pays it lip service and dreams of Hindu supremacy in the region and a spot in the elite club of world powers.

The “Touchable Hindu” still remains utterly clueless about the Hindu problem. He is the one who is consciously rejecting the Dalit discourse all the time.

Whereas the conscious Dalit now attempts to speak of all—from the Shudras to Adivasis to Muslims and other religious minorities to women to the disabled to the sexual minorities – and does it by actually going on the streets to demonstrate, build solidarity, produce advocacy literature and wrangle with political society, the Touchable Hindu becomes ever more self-absorbed, obdurate and privilege-focused.

So the sources are diverse: lived experience, the wada and the world. Pain, deprivation, humiliation, inequality, oppression, festivity, faith, protest, celebration, battles, revolution, pogroms, love, nature, labour, hopes, genocides, lynching, victories and losses from the wada, the village and the world. As Sikhamani expresses it very lucidly in his poem, “Seashell:”

Though you've separated

My ocean from me

I've assimilated the whole ocean in myself.

Whatever inference

You may draw from that roar,

I speak that language.

Listen to the Dalit segregated from his fellow men, the poet seems to be saying: “you can listen to the infinite roars of the ocean,” just as you do when you hold the seashell, separated from the ocean, close to your ear, and listen “with patience.”

When you listen to her, you’ll also hear the roaring pain of history, as in the words of Kalekuri Prasad:

I was Shambhuka  in the Treta Yuga

Twenty two years ago, my name was Kanchikacherla Kotesu

My place of birth is Kilvenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda

Now Chunduru is the name that cold-blooded feudal brutality

Has tattooed on my heart with ploughshares

From now on, Chunduru is not a noun but a pronoun

Now every heart is a Chunduru, a burning tumour;

I am the wound of multitudes, the multitude of wounds:

For generations, an unfree individual in a free country

Having been the target

Of humiliations, atrocities, rapes and torture

I am someone raising his head for a fistful of self-respect.

In this nation of casteist bigots blinded by wealth

I am someone who lives to register life itself as a protest

I am someone who dies repeatedly to live

Don't call me a victim

I am an immortal, I am an immortal, I am an immortal

(Shambhuka, in the Ramayana, was a Shudra who was beheaded by Rama because he had learnt the Vedas, a privilege accorded only to the higher varnas. Treta Yuga is the second of the four yugas, or ages, in Brahmanic lore. Kotesu was a Dalit farmhand who was burnt alive in 1969 by upper caste villagers in Kanchikacherla, Krishna district. Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu, Karamchedu , Chunduru and Neerukonda in Andhra Pradesh are villages where upper caste mobs killed Dalits in brutal, organized incidents of violence.)

Kilvenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda and Chunduru dot the geography of atrocities that’s Dalit history after independence: sites where brutal repression was unleashed by caste society to silence heads that were raised for a “fistful of self respect.” But the Dalit, in the words of Wilson Sudhakar Thullimalli, still tells the village (and the world), very calmly, reasonably:

Those who say that one race

Is better than another

Or one man has more merit than another

Are history's last surviving Nazis.

Challapalli Swarooparani, also very reasonably, asks in her poem “Untouchable rape,” pointing to the pandemic sexual violence against Dalit women in India:

Now tell me

In this land

Are even murders and rapes

Free of untouchability…?

Darise Shashinirmala, in the voice of a Dalit maid in an upper caste home questioning her mistress, expresses simmering but still reasonable anger:

Your man

When he turned me

Into a chicken shorn of feathers

Do you remember what you said?

In your home

In your hands

Do you know how many times I was treated cheaply?

The moment I wake up

Such great distances emerge between us!

The Dalit poet doesn’t live only to “register life itself as a protest” but she also braves “lathis and bullets,” angry at the “great distances” that emerge every day. Guda Anjaiah sings:    

Lathis and bullets

Can’t stop the people's song

Bayonets and bullets

Can’t stop the song's refrain

Every hour, a song will be born

And build graves for the exploiters

Every hut will give birth to a song

And bring down the exploiters fortresses.  

She also attempts to build alliances, leaping with hope over imposed social distances, with the Shudra working castes to claim the whole village:

The village is ours! This wada is ours!

The village is ours! Every job needs us!

The hammer is ours! The knife is ours,

The crowbar is ours! The hoe is ours,

The cart is ours! The bullocks are ours!

Why do we need the Dora! Why do we need his tyranny over us?

Why do we need the Dora! Why do we need his tyranny?        

( Dora, pronounced “dora”, is a term of address used for upper caste landlords, mostly in Telangana.)

The verses you quote amply illustrate your point. Dalit poetry comes across as highly political.

Yes, Dalit poetry is extremely political, because the realities of oppression, segregation, genocide, slavery and exploitation that haunt the Dalits are of a scale not present in most parts of the world now.

So her critique of traditional brahmanic epics is very radical. But it is not only the Dalits who have questioned the epics, many upper caste thinkers, writers and social reformers – ranging from liberals to Marxists to feminists – have also subjected the epics to very meticulous scrutiny. But those have been efforts to reform, not discard the epics altogether or seek their destruction.

The Dalit critique of the epics and scriptures is as different from the upper castes’ mild interventions as the Bhagvad Gita is from the Indian constitution. Their implicit, and many times explicit, demand is the destruction of the ‘authority of the Shastras and the Vedas’ and, of course, the epics.

Sivasagar’s scathing indictment, in the poem “Kan’s computer,” of “modern,” “progressive” Hindus’ attempts to justify the scriptures through open endorsement of the alleged science, logic and reason in them reflects most Dalit writers’ skeptical attitude towards Brahmanic scriptural heritage and is also very illustrative of the way Dalit critique of the religious texts is different. He had written the poem in the 70s when a veteran communist leader in the country had tried to argue that the Vedas hold a lot of wisdom, including seeds of thought similar to Marxism (and so they should be still venerated.)

Kans

Had a computer

(Why do you laugh?)

Menaka

Got down from a 'helicopter'

In the Kurukshetra

(Please don't laugh)

Where they didn't use nukes

(At Krishna's command):

Wasn’t that good

Or

Wouldn’t Bharat's nation

Have been wiped out?

Oh, I forgot

Forgive me

Just as Kans had a computer

Our Vedas contained Marxist theory

Believe it or not

(That’s your Karma!)

(Kans is Krishna’s maternal uncle, in the Mahabharata. Menaka is an Apsara, or celestial courtesan, in the god Indra’s court. The Mahabharata war took place in Kurukshetra, according to the epic.)

Yendluri Sudhakar’s “New dream” is about a world in which his grandfather, to whom caste tradition had assigned the function of the “impure” job of leather tanning and footwear making, wears the sun and moon gods as his sandals! 

For having skinned the five spirits

By driving a nail into the sky

Another into the patala

And soaking the hide in the seven seas you

Deserve those sun and moon gods

As sandals for your feet!

Pagadala Nagender asks the Dalit, derided as “Chandala” and by other derogatory names in the scriptures, to walk into his poem (“Come as a herald”) to “pour boiling lead into the ears of the history that boycotted you” (punishment prescribed by the scriptures for Shudras who ignored the norm excluding them from all education):  

Now, defying the dwija's role

“Chandala”!

Walk into my poem as a herald!

 

Come, to pour boiling lead

Into the ears of the history that boycotted you!

 

Come so that you can

Pee into the current Manu's mouth!

Come!

Madduri Nagesh Babu feels “nausea stirring” in his stomach when he hears holy slokas

I have no Jandhyam, no Sandhya

You won't find a letter if you cut open my stomach,

I have no faith in prophets or reformers

And, especially, no loyalty either;

 

Feel hot

Feel a nausea stirring in my stomach

Feel like I am listening to Sanskrit Slokas

(Jandhyam is Telugu for janeu, the sacred thread worn by Brahmins. Sandhya, or sandhyavandanam, is ritual prayer offered by Brahmins and other higher varnas at dusk.)

Suryavamshi isn’t impressed at all with the powers and magic the Brahmanic gods are endowed with, according to the scriptures, dismissing them as a child would dismiss a playmate’s boasts:  

You've Rama's bow,

Anjaneya's tail,

Parasurama's sword,

Good for you.

 

You've power, you've glory,

Good for you

You've that..this..

Good for you

That..this..you can keep.

 

We've only Ekalavya's

Left thumb

Still left with us,

This is enough for us

To fight with you.

(Ekalavya, in the Mahabharata, is a tribal warrior whose skills in archery and the martial arts make the Kshatriya Kuru princes jealous. Drona, their Brahmin guru, who had once rejected Ekalavya as a student because of his low birth, demands his right thumb as gurudakshina (to please his high born disciples), or fee due to a teacher, because Ekalavya had come to accept Drona as his guru despite never receiving any training from him.)

Netala Pratap Kumar expresses relief, in a way, at the disappearance of Brahmanic icons from Dalits’ lives in this very short poem: 

Dalits

Are a little lucky

There’s no Drona

In Ambedkar's story

Dalit critique of scriptures is purposive and is rooted in Ambedkarite thought. It was Dr. Ambedkar who had pointed where the roots of caste lay: 

“Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or a line of barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of the mind. The destruction of Caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change. Caste may be bad. Caste may lead to conduct so gross as to be called man's inhumanity to man. All the same, it must be recognized that the Hindus observe Caste not because they are inhuman or wrong headed. They observe Caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste. In my view, what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy, you must grapple with, is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste.”

He moved the debate from fighting for reform of irrational and inhuman ritual practices, which had been the concern of the majority of the social reformers through history, to a path which advocates the destruction of “sacredness and divinity with which Caste has become invested,” or revolution:  

"To ask people to give up Caste is to ask them to go contrary to their fundamental religious notions. It is obvious that the first and second species of reform are easy. But the third is a stupendous task, well nigh impossible. The Hindus hold to the sacredness of the social order. Caste has a divine basis. You must therefore destroy the sacredness and divinity with which Caste has become invested. In the last analysis, this means you must destroy the authority of the Shastras and the Vedas."

That was the goal which Dr. Ambedkar had charted: the annihilation of caste through dismantling the authority of Brahmanic scriptures in Indian society. In Ambedkar, Indian history had finally found the answer to both Manu and Kautilya, the sacred and the secular faces of Brahminism. If Manu and Kautilya together represented the fusion of the sacred-secular principles of hierarchy and power which enslaved Indian society through centuries, Ambedkar rose as the philosopher of justice and equity.

Among all the extensive influence from and by Dr. Ambedkar, what other thinkers have impacted Dalit writers?

Buddha, Phule, Marx, Mao, and many other thinkers from across India and the world have influenced Dalitbahujan writers. But Ambedkar and his thought figure as an ever pulsating undercurrent, the soul that animates all Dalit poetry. Or as, in the words of Jugash Vili, the “endless roll of drums” that’s stirring to Dalit consciousness the many, varied voices springing up in cities, towns and villages across the Telugu country:  

There's only an endless roll of drums

For now, they might be diverse voices

So what? They're all defiant voices!

Friend!

Now, here

The waves are crossing the shore

Open the doors wide…

They’ll flow into you

Or they'll cross you too.

Marathi Dalit scholar Gangadhar Pantawane had defined Dalit as:

"To me, Dalit is not a caste. He is a man exploited by the social and economic traditions of this country. He does not believe in God, Rebirth, Soul, Holy books teaching separatism, Fate and Heaven because they have made him a slave. He does believe in humanism. Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution."

Since independence, the Dalit has been more than a symbol of change and revolution, she has been at the forefront of all the social and political protest movements in India, more so in Andhra Pradesh.

You use the term “revolution.” Where is the Dalit writer positioned vis-à-vis Maoism or the left movement in general? Have things changed, if so, how?

From the ultra-left armed Maoist movement to all protest and agitational movements for civil and human rights, against state atrocities, against superstition and oppression of women, for wages and social security, against big capital and imperialism, for social justice and affirmative action, against communalism and extra-judicial killings, for land reforms and peasants’ rights, against corruption and lopsided development and for freedom struggles, peace and nuclear disarmament across the world: the Dalit has fought, been wounded and killed in all those battles. 

But she had been left utterly alone most times she was fighting for her own rights.

Dr. Kathi Padma Rao captures this tragically ironic situation in these pithy lines:

Returning from cutting ribbons at all doors

I realized I had not opened the door to my own room

Someone’s calling me, repeatedly,

I thought I was being called

I realized later that they were calling themselves.

Whenever I climbed up

They invited me with applause

But when I started for the next step

I heard someone asking me to step down.

Dr. Kathi Padma Rao, Telugu scholar, poet, thinker and activist had led the Dalitbahujan protest movement for justice after the Karamchedu massacre in 1985. Karamchedu was followed by Chunduru, Padirikuppam, Vempenta and so on. But Dr. Padma Rao continues to express eloquent faith in the Ambedkarite dictum, “Educate, Agitate, Organize:”

I roamed all over the garden

A jasmine creeper caught my attention

It had its own personality

Whatever it clung to was covered

It could look at the world on its own.

I will win the whole world

Some victor

Would arrive and win me,

It’s useless

 

Therefore

First, I will

Win myself

Then

I'll run the world.

Gaddar, who is described by the Telugu media, social and political activists as “Praja Yuddha Nauka” (“The People’s Battleship”), has been associated with the Naxalite/Maoist movement since he was a student over forty years ago: as a singer, poet, cultural activist and as an armed guerilla in the Dandakaranya. For being the indelible face of resistance for decades, the state’s goons barged into his home in Hyderabad on April 6th, 1997 and pumped six bullets into his body. Regaining consciousness in the hospital, his first action was to check his voice, his weapon. He will not stop because, according to him, it will not stop:   

It will not stop, it will not stop, it will not stop

This war of the hungry will not stop

It will not stop, it will not stop, it will not stop

Until the exploiters’ rule ends

This armed struggle will not stop

It will not stop, it will not stop, it will not stop

The plough that tilled the fields

Says these fields are mine

The hands that planted the saplings

Say these saplings are ours

The sickle that cut the crop

Says this harvest is ours

It will not stop, it will not stop, it will not stop

K. G. Satyamurthy (“Sivasagar”) was one of the founders of the radical left, or Naxalite movement, in India in the late sixties. He was the chief ideologue of the party (“People’s War Group” which later became the now largest Marxist-Leninist party in India, the CPI-ML (Maoist) he had co-founded, and one of its top leaders until the eighties when he left because of the upper caste leadership’s refusal to acknowledge the caste reality of India. He did not stop either, until he died in April last year, breathing resistance that embraced both Ambedkar and Marx. He was the soldier and the battlefield too:

I am fire, water

I am one soldier

Among the lakhs

Fighting in the battlefield

I am the soldier!

I am the battlefield too!