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

"I am the soldier; I am the battlefield." Part 3: Final Section
Dalit poet K. G. Satyamurthy ( who wrote under the pseudonym 'Sivasagar').

Nabina Das interviews Naren Bedide who has been translating Telugu Dalit poetry for some time for a Dalit literary platform. This literary drive is gaining momentum as more and more of this body of poetry is becoming available, ably challenging mainstream poetics. The PS blog featured Part 1 and Part 2 of the Q&A earlier. We round up the conversation with Part 3.

 

Naren Bedide is Contributing Editor of Round Table India (http://roundtableindia.co.in/), a news, information, and opinion portal dedicated to the building of a caste-less society by ushering in an “informed Ambedkar age.” He writes and blogs (http://kufr.blogspot.in/) mostly on caste issues, loves Dalit poetry, and also likes to translate Dalit and anti-caste writing (in Telugu) into English.   

 

 

So there definitely is the involvement of the Dalit left in shaping this literature?

 

Dalit youth have been the propellant of all kinds of left movements, from those that have opted for parliamentary politics to those that have gone the Maoist way in India. Sikhamani sees the left radical as a parrot that “hadn't even seen eighteen springs” in this poem:

 

This parrot

Hadn’t even seen eighteen springs.

Leaving the world, the cage of swords,

And its paper springs

It flew away to the faraway jungle,

Eating guns and bayonets

As tender leaves.

It played ball with bombs.

 

He likens a parrot flying away to the jungle, its natural habitat, to a young Dalit joining resistance, his natural impulse. But he also seems to be asking, What’s natural or normal about a world in which the young play with bombs and bayonets? What happened to the parrot later was also the “natural” fate of many radical youths:

 

It hadn't even completed

Practising on leaf slates

The alphabet of its experiences

To read and rule the world

When hunters, spotting its red beak,

Shot it down.

The parrot died

But the jungle is still spreading.

 

Dalits have had to face a highly disproportionate share of state violence unleashed to quell dissent and protest. But the violence of caste society, of which state violence has been only one particular manifestation, has always been disproportionately meted out to Dalits. One of the causes for many Dalits’ disenchantment with the left has been its inability or unwillingness to attack caste, to strike at its roots.

 

 

And how has the left’s reception been to Dalit activism?

 

Apart from the larger caste society, the left has been supremely reluctant to change even the upper caste character of its leadership, and hence agendas. J. Gautam articulates the simmering anger among the Dalitbahujans against the chicanery of the savarna left, and savarna politics in general, in a hard-hitting poem: a breathtaking counter-history that traces the Brahmanized classes’ conspiracies, betrayals, and repressions against the lower caste masses of India from the earliest times to the present. Towards the end, the poem also expresses the growing realization among politically-conscious Dalitbahujans of the need for autonomy, of freedom from savarna leadership and agendas:

 

In the beginning, they came to the banks of the Sindhu for livelihood

With deceit, they drove out the Moolvasis[1] who welcomed them

 

Next, with a sense of defeat, they infiltrated Buddhism

With treachery, they uprooted its foundation of equality

 

They penetrated Jainism, Shaivism as spies

And upheld the Manuwad[2] of penal codes as the universal truth

 

In the guise of avatars they suppressed all Shudra emperors

With an axe they decimated all dynasties and seized control

 

Where they lost, they waited as ministers where they won

They became prophets and lords of Agraharas[3]

 

Frightened by British cannons, they ushered them inside

Brought down those who resisted with bullets

And sent the heroes to the gallows

 

When the time was right they called for a struggle for freedom

Through the scheme of transfer of power they became the rulers..

And also the opposition

Sporting a red rose, they spread a red carpet

For capital

They penetrated Marx's beard and Lenin's button

And called themselves the left

 

If they approved it was progress and casteism if they disagreed

Russia's the weapon they said, China's empowered they said

The mind's Mao's, they said, and the patent is ours, they said 

 

G. V. Ratnakar also emphasizes autonomy and self-respect:

 

I, swearing by labour,

                  Shape wood with my adze

You, with nothing to do,

                  Are scratching my face

                  With pitiless malice

I, swearing by labour,

                  Bring a sparkling shine

                  To your soiled and dirty

                  White clothes

You, with nothing to do,

                  Are infecting my child's child

                  With untouchability 

 

There has also been a wider exploration of the Dalit self and evaluation of Indian democracy. Taidala Anjaiah presents a crisp progress report: 

 

My grandfather,

The starvation death

Which occurred during the drought when men were sold;

My father,

The migrant life

Which left home in search of work to pay off debt;

I, in ragged shirt and shorts,

The salute to the flag hoisted in school.

 

Any final comment?

 

Dr. Ambedkar had called “Hindu society” a myth. One can hear in the cultural outpourings of the Dalit movement the birth pangs of India’s democracy, of a possible Indian society.

 

 

Nabina Das, an MFA (Poetry) from Rutgers University (U.S.) and an MA (Linguistics) from Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi), has a debut poetry collection, Blue Vessel, and a novel, Footprints in the Bajra, which was longlisted in the prestigious Indian prize Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2011. Her poetry collection Into the Migrant City is forthcoming. Das’s poetry and prose have been published in several international journals and anthologies, and she is a member of the peer review committee of The Four Quarters Magazine literary journal published in Northeast India. Winner of several writing residencies and fellowships, Das has won prizes in major Indian poetry contests and has worked in journalism and media for about 10 years. Trained in Indian classical music, she has performed in radio/TV programs and performed in street theater. Das blogs at http://nabinadas13.wordpress.com/ when not writing, teaches creative writing classes and workshops, and dabbles in unschooled art on paper and broken objects.

 

 



[1] . In anti-caste politics, the term ‘Moolvasis’ or ‘Moolnivasis’ (‘original inhabitants’) is used to refer collectively to the lower castes or Shudras, the Dalits or former untouchables, and the Adivasis, or tribals.

[2]. Manuwad (‘the ideology of Manu’, literally) refers to the ideology of caste laid down by the ancient Brahmin law-giver, Manu.  

[3]. An Agraharam is the Brahmin quarter in any village; members of others castes have only limited or no access, depending on their place in the caste hierarchy, to it.