Authors

Laughter, from streams of pain

To borrow from what the late critic D.R. Nagaraj said about the first Kannada Dalit poet, Siddalingiah: “I trembled in surprise when I read my friend Siddalingiah’s poetry. The reason being the difference between the poet’s persona and his poetry. This picture of humility was all of 25 kilos, to put it at the higher side. But his poems, they were fireballs. So this humility was just a facade, I learnt very soon. Behind this veneer of politeness was his mischievousness...” This is such an apt description of Siddalingiah that no one can better it. It captures the twin nature in his personality -- the aggression and the humour. His “Ikrala, Odirla” (Hole Maadigara Haadu, 1975) or “Ninne Dina Nanna Jana” (Saaviraru Nadigalu, 1979) shook the Kannada world with its anger, and altered the direction of Kannada poetry for good. His poetry built such moral pressure, writes critic H.S. Shivaprakash, that even a poet like Gopalakrishna Adiga had to write a poem on Ambedkar. The same Siddalingiah could leave you in peals of laughter with his sharp wit and unusual sense of humour. His autobiography, Ooru Keri (1997), a widely read book, is testimony to this. Siddalingiah in 2018 published the third part of Ooru Keri, which though doesn’t speak of the Dalit world like the first part, is full of episodes and people from the later years of his life. He continues to laugh and beguile his readers with his spirit. Siddalingiah also published a collection of poetry in 2018 -- Ooru Saagaravagi -- after several years.

A conversation with the writer.

You wrote your autobiography Ooru Keri in 1997. The third part was published recently, 21 years after the first part, and 13 years after the sequel. As a writer how did the process change for you in these 21 years?

My childhood experiences used to haunt me. The memories that most of us are fond of are those from our childhood, and not that of our middle age or old age. I used to narrate it often to my friends, and invariably, they would ask me to repeat it we met the next time. My friend S. Japhet, currently the vice-chancellor of the Bangalore Central University, asked me to write a memoir, he even gave me a Residency. I wrote for a week, and I showed the first two chapters to my close friends. The late critic, D.R. Nagaraj was very excited when he read it. Some portions were translated into English and published in journals. It received a very good response. U.R. Ananthamurthy who edited the journal, Rujuvathu, published it. Enthused by all these responses, I felt I should go ahead and write it.

I used to go very often to the Swami Vivekananda Ashrama, Prashanti Kuteera in Jigani. One afternoon at lunchtime, I was washing my plate and saw H.V. Seshadri, who was a social activist and an author. At that time, he was the secretary general of RSS. A little later, a person came to my room and said that Seshadri wants to meet me, and I willingly agreed. He spoke at great length about my poetry and other writings, and was very generous in his appreciation. We discussed the Upanishads for a long time. In an article that he wrote after that, he mentioned the conversation we had.

Though I used to go to Prashanti Kuteera and had deep interest in different kinds of meditation, yoga etc, I am never the one for physical labour. All my friends would toil at the classes and I, like a thief, would quietly skip and hide in my room. It was here that I finished Ooru Keri. D.R. Nagaraj (DR) who was the chief editor of the Akshara Chintanamale, published it in that series, and I offered the work to Ramakrishna Hegde, whose follower I was. DR wrote a poignant foreword, “Badavara Naguvina Shakti”, and the book saw a huge success. So far it has had 20 editions and sold 50,000 copies, it even became a text book. Even the English translation (by S.R. Ramakrishna) ran into two editions. In 2006, I started writing a column for the weekly, Agni, that became Ooru Keri 2. I started writing Part 3 in 2018. Ooru Keri has received an overwhelming response. It has been translated into several languages – Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil. In Tamil, it has been widely read, and they have even translated my poetry.

Clockwise from left: With lexicographer G. Venkatasubbiah, critic L.S. Sheshagiri Rao, with writer U.R. Ananthamurthy and critic Ki. Ram. Nagaraj Photos: (cover and centrespread) Murali Kumar K., V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Clockwise from left: With lexicographer G. Venkatasubbiah, critic L.S. Sheshagiri Rao, with writer U.R. Ananthamurthy and critic Ki. Ram. Nagaraj Photos: (cover and centrespread) Murali Kumar K., V. Sreenivasa Murthy   | Photo Credit: V Sreenivasa Murthy

Many people say autobiography should be written in old age, but I feel memories get blurred. The innocence also gets lost.

As a writer gets older, he becomes image conscious and begins to look at everything through the image he likes to project and preserve. Did you have such problems when you wrote Ooru Keri 3? Particularly, because it deals with your adult life.

I did face this problem. I was conscious of what I was writing, how it would be accepted etc. But I tried hard to overcome it, I can’t say that I was entirely successful. For instance, there are some episodes where I talk about how we friends hung around together in bars, drank like fish, problems we ran into etc. There were more, and many of them funny too, but then I felt that the youngsters who read my work and look upon me as a role model, may begin to think this is the ideal way of living! Having said that, I don’t like to wear the mantle of solemnity and abandon all playfulness and joy there is to life, despite the hardships.

Dalithood, as Ambedkar defines, is a kind of life condition that characterises the exploitation, suppression and marginalization of a people by the dominant classes. Most Dalit autobiographies speak of pain, suffering, oppression… in a manner that’s pitiful. For instance, Uchalya, Baluta etc. While the pain is a fact, your autobiography defies this model. You couch all the suffering in laughter and irony.

There is a lot of pain in the life of a Dalit, true. But there is also so much laughter. There is an abundance of jokes about landlords, middle men, exploiters etc. There is this term called Black Laughter. Just as the white men laugh with condescension, the oppressed have their black laughter too. Similarly, there is something called the Dalit laughter. I’ll tell you a story. During the Peshwas rule, the lower castes went around with brooms tucked into their backsides, and a pot for spittle hung around their necks. When this wretched system refused to look at them as fellow human beings, you know what they said? “When we spit, it rains pearls. And when we walk lotuses bloom. So we spit into our own pots, so that others do not make away with the pearls, and we sweep clear our footsteps so that others do not trample upon the lotuses!” Look how they created counter myths. If it was not their sense of humour, what was it? My mother used to crack a lot of jokes, and I have got her sense of humour. That is what has saved me. We laugh and it helps us endure pain. Some Dalit scholars didn’t think my method was right, but I felt this was the only way to rejuvenate ourselves. We have to grow over and above of all those who humiliated us.

Bangalore 05/05/2011 : Writer Prof G Venkatasubbaiah inaugurated Book Fair organised by Kannada Book Authority at Ravindra Kalakshetra in Bangalore on Thursday. Authority Chairman Dr Siddalingaiah looks on. (Supplied Photo)

Bangalore 05/05/2011 : Writer Prof G Venkatasubbaiah inaugurated Book Fair organised by Kannada Book Authority at Ravindra Kalakshetra in Bangalore on Thursday. Authority Chairman Dr Siddalingaiah looks on. (Supplied Photo)   | Photo Credit: Email Handout

I will narrate one incident, it happened in Doddaballapur some years ago. I was the chief guest for this meet of coolies. Someone asked why we were called AKs (Adi Karnatakas)? A young woman stood up and said: “We Dalits are always in the habit of asking a hundred questions – adeke, ideke, heegyaake, haagyaake…, that’s why we are called AKs (ekes)!!” Everyone burst into laughter. This may not be the best answer, but look at her presence of mind, I really appreciated it.

I always wanted to be an activist. When I was 14, I made my first public speech. I was a debator at school. Someone had given me a book, Avatara Purusha Ambedkar. I had read it so many times that I could just reel out stuff from the book. The Tamils of Bangalore who heard me were very happy. It was actually the Tamil Dalits who propagated Ambedkar in Bangalore, and started celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti also. My teacher, Siddhartha Arakeri, who was an MLA liked me a lot. He used to get a lot of invitations to preside over public functions and invariably he told the organisers to give me a chance to make a speech. I, a little boy, in shorts and shirt, went with him and made fiery speeches. I used to be surrounded by the Tamils in the audience. They would thrust coins into my pockets and hands. I, feeling very rich with all those coins, would stop eating at the hostel for several days. I would eat masala dose!

Why didn’t you become a full time activist?

I wanted to be a full time activist. Devanuru Mahadeva, Krishnappa and I started the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (DSS). I have travelled all over Karnataka spreading the cause and the movement. I saw the suffering of the people from close quarters, and being an emotional person, it flowed out of me as poetry.

In South Arcot district in Tamil Nadu, a senior professor at IIM, Bharath Jhunjhunwala organized a camp. About 15 social scientists from all over the country were invited to live the life of a Dalit. Sleeping in the courtyard of a school, eating at their huts etc. During the day, many Tamil dalits narrated their stories; I cannot explain to you how disturbed and pained I was. I immediately wrote “Ikkarla, Odirla”, a poem that captured the imagination of Dalits across the country in the days to come. I showed it to my friend DR who was with me, and he asked Shudra Srinivas to publish it in his journal, Shudra. It shook a lot of people. In the next few days, at Central college I met the great scholar Chidananda Murthy, and he told me he was awed by the poem and its language. I, who, set out to be an activist, became a poet.

Your language of prose is so different from your language of poetry. In prose, you are humourous and light hearted, but in poetry you are a fire ball, as DR puts it.

As I said before, the Dalit world is very colourful. It has fun, anger, treachery, the fair, festivals… all kinds of people are there. Do you remember that episode of my mother in Ooru Keri 3… ?

Yes, she was waving the broom from the first floor!

My mother was a sweeper at my hostel. And when all my friends and professors wanted to celebrate me becoming a poet, she was right there, sweeping on the first floor of that hall. I saw her there as I made my speech, and immediately said that it was she who gave me a life through her hard work. She was so happy that she started waving to the applauding audience with her broom. Till she died, she remembered this episode.

My prose is more reflective, thought provoking. If I become emotional in my prose then I will lose focus. But poetry can be an outburst. I faced humiliation, poverty, and all that gets said in my poetry.

Laughter, from streams of pain

In those days I was a militant speaker, that is how I earned the name ‘bandaya poet’. Later, I felt that I should be calm. The Dalit issue is dharma coming face to face with adharma. If we have to ably fight this issue then we have to bring into the ambit of our movement everyone who wants to fight adharma and that can be non Dalits as well. The categories of your opponents are not always clearly defined. Ambedkar and Marx have been a huge influence on me.

Many people from the upper classes showered their affection on you…

A lot of them, in fact. Foremost on my mind is Nagappachar, my teacher in Magadi. My father left home and my mother was struggling to keep things together. He knew of this. Everyday, as soon as I entered class, he would call out to me and ask: “Oota maadiddiya magu…?” I had a taste of humanity very early in my life.

In a way, you could continue your activism as an MLC by taking up Dalit issues.

I am grateful to Ramakrishna Hegde. He gave me a free hand and did not put any kind of restrictions on me. I took up a lot of the problems Dalits were facing, and in those days they did take us seriously. They tried to attend to problems and rectify mistakes.

The Pourakarmika issue was discussed for three hours. Even the case of the fire fighters, slum dwellers and more. Most Dalit leaders, MLA or MLC, have not been able to raise Dalit issues because they fear they will lose in the next elections. Since most of the deciding votes are by the upper classes, a Dalit leader hardly speaks for his brethren. In fact, many of the Dalit leaders would come to me and say, ‘there is this problem in our constituency, can you please raise it?’.

Clockwise from left: With lexicographer G. Venkatasubbiah, critic L.S. Sheshagiri Rao, with writer U.R. Ananthamurthy and critic Ki. Ram. Nagaraj Photos: (cover and centrespread) Murali Kumar K., V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Clockwise from left: With lexicographer G. Venkatasubbiah, critic L.S. Sheshagiri Rao, with writer U.R. Ananthamurthy and critic Ki. Ram. Nagaraj Photos: (cover and centrespread) Murali Kumar K., V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

This is exactly why Ambedkar in the 1932 Round Table Conference said that Dalit leaders have to be elected by Dalits itself. Now since non-Dalit electorate decide the fate of Dalit contestants, a true Dalit leader will not emerge. This is exactly why Ambedkar lost the elections twice!

You were one of the founding members of DSS. The organization has come a long way since its founding days. How would you look at it now?

There are too many factions within the group now. It is no longer a pressure group that can make the establishment take note of it. It lacks mature leadership. I wish that all the splinters group would come together and fight for a common cause. Sadly, there is very low ideological awareness. But that is the state of all progressive movements – be it the farmer’s, the labourers, the Left… all of it.

They have been very critical of you, as someone who became comfortable with the powers that be. How do you respond to this?

Such thoughts have emerged while I was an MLC and now. It became very shrill when Mr. Amit Shah came to visit me. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had put me on a high power committee as a non-official member on the occasion of the 125th Ambedkar Jayanti. I agreed to be a part of it so that I could make some suggestions, people were angry with me.

BANGALORE: (L-R) Noted Critic, Ki Rum Nagaraj, President, Kannada Development Authority, Dr Siddalingaiah, administrator of St. Joseph's College Hedwig D'Costa and former judge A.J. Sadashiva at a seminar on "Vachana Sahitya" organised by Basava Samithi, in Bangalore on March 05, 2007. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

BANGALORE: (L-R) Noted Critic, Ki Rum Nagaraj, President, Kannada Development Authority, Dr Siddalingaiah, administrator of St. Joseph's College Hedwig D'Costa and former judge A.J. Sadashiva at a seminar on "Vachana Sahitya" organised by Basava Samithi, in Bangalore on March 05, 2007. Photo: K. Murali Kumar   | Photo Credit: K_Murali Kumar

When Amit Shah came along with four central ministers, I told him that there should be reservation for Dalits in private sector, banking and railways exam had to take place in Kannada, and the Atrocities act had to be strengthened. I never asked him for any personal favours, but people said all kinds of things to me. Some even threatened to finish me off. I have said nothing against society or people. It is time progressives think beyond their own comfort zones, they have become intolerant and conservative, something that they accuse the Right of. We have to be open, if we can push our agenda, we must try. After all, the issue is more important.

You have turned to spirituality these days….

I always went to Vivekananda ashrama and spent a lot of time on meditation. I was also a regular at Osho Ashram in Pune. I am interested in pranayama, yoga, and meditation, but I am not interested in God. I believe in secular spirituality, the one that Ramana Maharshi practised. I go to Tiruvannamalai to the Ramana Maharshi Ashram often. The nouveau spiritual gurus are costly: gurus must be like Ramana, simple, inexpensive and open to all.

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