Namdeo Dhasal and Poems of the Streets

“The needle probes for the artery;
Enemies of poetry gather in your city.
Your town is cursed with power;
Roses flow in this stream of blood;
The waters of your Yamuna stand exposed.”

Marathi poet, writer and Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal wrote these lines in his poem New Delhi, 1985. A lot has been said and written on Dhasal, so much so that every write-up on him feels like reading about a new person. After all, in him lived many. And in many, lived him.

Born on February 15, 1949, in the Mahar community in Pur-Kanersar village near Pune in Maharashtra, Namdeo Dhasal’s family had shifted to Bombay (no Mumbai) while he was still a young boy. His father worked as a porter in a butcher’s shop in central Bombay and the family lived in a chawl. Having grown up amidst a life of constant struggle and drudgery, his poems not only reflect but belligerently question the hypocrisy and cruelty of this caste-ridden society.

Dhasal had started publishing his works in the 1970s, and continued to write for decades. His first collection of poetry Golpitha, published in 1972, not only created a permanent dent in the hitherto upper-caste dominated world of literature, it, in fact, eroded its pre-defined constructs of taste and talent. His work Gandu Bagichha does not only state, it also exposes.

His free verses, vocabulary which was used in the marginalised places he grew up in, didn’t endeavour to wear the coat of ‘so-called class’. It emancipated itself in its authenticity. It didn’t try to hide its beleaguered environment, it, in fact, exposed the reality. It was not ashamed of its reality and knew that his poetry had not created his reality, it had only revealed it. His works have been translated in English by Dilip Chitre under the title Namdeo Dhasal—Poet of the Underworld, Poems 1972-2006. Dhasal had radically changed the ornamented vocabulary of the hitherto upper-caste dominated literature. That his poems, instead of being sharp manifestations of a cruel past, instead stay sadly and strikingly relevant today, is a failure of this wretched caste-ridden society.

Amidst upper-caste dominated elite educational institutions constantly telling Dalits to write as flowery as the ‘elites’, and to behave in as elegant, or rather as unfathomable a fashion as the dominant castes, Dhasal didn’t dim the inherent light of his raw pen. Nor did he ever switch spectrums to fit into pre-defined wavelengths of literature. He didn’t aim to fit into what the aristocrats considered refined, he asserted his realities as ragingly as he felt like.

Also read: Why Do Caste Gatekeepers Not Tell Us About Fatima Sheikh?

Long before Dalit Marathi literature asserted itself, elite writers had established a rosy image of Bombay as a ‘city of dreams’. Dhasal came and shook these concocted castles by writing about the labour which builds and runs the city. Dalits whose dreams had been trampled upon by these same fancy writers. His sharp prose and ruthless honesty questioned everything which claimed to be civilised. For the civilised lived on a heap of lies and further, called anyone different as uncivilised.

Dhasal never gurgled old narratives of oppression and inferiority. He instead commanded respect, he went ahead and asked for a revolution. People who say that Dhasal broke norms in his writings, believe that the dominant-caste norms are the norms. Dhasal wasn’t breaking norms. He was making his own norms. His literature was not a counter. His literature was his existence. He desacralised the pen and turned it into a weapon. Dhasal had once said about poetry that it “is just as natural as eating”.

Awarded the Padma Shri and the Sahitya Akademi Lifetime Achievement Award, both his poetry and prose were unapologetic and uninhibited. Whenever a first-generation Dalit learner who hasn’t received posh education, attempts to write poetry, they are corrected for their pronunciation before any attempt is made for their context being understood. In such a discriminatory literary scenario, where language is used not as a means of communication, but rather as a form of epistemic brutality, Dhasal belligerently used words which are exclusively heard, understood and spoken by Dalits in their vernacular tongues.

He, for once, made the so-called upper caste gatekeepers of the pen, learn a new vocabulary, the vocabulary of the chawls he grew up in. He didn’t write to escape, he wrote to assert, to challenge, to embrace. Exactly how in his poem, Cruelty, Dhasal had written:

“Release me from my infernal identity, Let me fall in love with these stars.”

Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.

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