LITERARY REVIEW

Taste of freedom

ARUNDHATHI SUBRAMANIAM

Vigorous, high-voltage, bruising poetry on the festering innards of Mumbai.

There is a tough and unsentimental quality to Dhasal’s vision. It crackles with both rage and compassion.

Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld (Poems 1972 – 2006); Selected, introduced and translated from the Marathi by Dilip Chitre, With Photographs by Henning Stegmuller, Navayana, Rs. 350.

Both my individual and collective life have been through such tremendous upheavals that if my personal life did not have poetry to fall back on,…I would have become a top gangster, the owner of a brothel or a smuggler.” It’s a colourful range of choices. For most poets the alternatives are far more staid: academic, journalist, copywriter, perhaps, but that’s about it. But then Namdeo Dhasal is not most poets. He is Maharashtra’s leading Dalit poet with nine collections of poetry to his credit. He’s also the only Indian poet to have received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sahitya Akademi.

Spacious layout

The first thing that strikes one about this book is its spaciousness. An elegant hardbound volume, it doesn’t offer the dense maze of print to which poetry readers are accustomed. Although the content alludes to cramped, embattled urban chawls and brothels, the poems are allowed generous amounts of white living space on the page. This hospitality of approach extends to the book’s agenda as well. It’s not a mere book of translations. It offers instead a portrait — textual and visual — of the poet, his life, his times, his city.

Dilip Chitre writes evocatively and passionately of his engagement — of close to five decades — with Dhasal’s poetry, offering the perspectives of a fellow-poet, translator and friend. He speaks of his first meeting in the late 1960s with ‘a young taxi driver who wrote cutting edge avant garde Marathi poetry in an unusual idiom’.

The two have had their political differences over the years. But Chitre says he was riveted by the ‘unique ethnolinguistic cocktail’ that shaped the young man’s poetics: the mix of Marathi, Urdu, Telugu and Kannada absorbed from a world of bordellos and opium dens, integrated with the Mahar dialect of his rural origins.

This unique linguistic inheritance was then creatively processed by Dhasal to produce an original, multi-layered idiom — a fascinating archaeology of language. Chitre proceeds to share the frustration and euphoria attendant on his translation of Dhasal, offering a glimpse into the cultural and artisanal aspects of translation as well.

The introduction also traces Dhasal’s life — from his beginnings in the hamlet of Pur-Kanersar to his growing years in Dhor Chawl on the fringes of Mumbai’s red light district; from the vigilante organisation, Dalit Panther, he founded in 1972; to his long-term struggle with myasthenia gravis; from his personal and political challenges to his growth as a poet (who fashioned his prodigious oeuvre from eclectic forms — ovi, bhajans, kirtans, varkari music, tamasha and modern European poetry).

Power and fury

Above all, there is the poetry — vigorous, high-voltage, sensual, associative, bruising. It flows with the power and fury of Mumbai’s drains into the festering innards of the city. This is the city of the sex worker, the drug dealer, the daily wage earner.

This is Mumbai without her makeup, her botox, her power yoga; the Mumbai that seethes, unruly, menacing, yet vitally alive, beneath the glitzy mall and multiplex, the high-rise and flyover. The Mumbai of the non-gentrifiable, the untamable, the non-recyclable.

There is no doubt that the book’s sledgehammer scatology — what Chitre terms the dominance of bibhatsa rasa — isn’t for the fainthearted. Consider this extract: ‘Man you should explode/…Jive to a savage drum beat/Smoke hash, smoke ganja/…Cuss at one and all; swear by him mom’s twat, his sister’s cunt/….Turn humans into slaves; whip their arses with a lash/ Cook your beans on their bleeding backsides…’

Hypnotic tug

But when does suspect testosteronal overdrive and sensationalism, it helps to remember that the work is clearly intended to flout what Dhasal sees as lily-livered bourgeois aesthetics. And whatever one’s misgivings about this blistering rant, there is a hypnotic tug to this city-sewer perspective of the universe. ‘I am a venereal sore,’ says the poet in one of the book’s most arresting images, ‘in the private part of language.’

It is certainly not a world of beaming communitarian outcastes and harlots with hearts of gold — and Stegmuller’s city images testify to that. But neither is it a world of unredeemed bleakness.

There is a tough and unsentimental quality to Dhasal’s vision. It crackles with both rage and compassion. There is an acrid bitterness: ‘Death is a better alternative to fear/Rather than get buggered, butcher them back’.

But there is also what Chitre terms a ‘spiritual clarity’, born of looking the dark and the foetid square in the face:

‘O Kamatipura/Tucking all seasons under your armpit. You squat in the mud here/I go beyond all the pleasures and pains of whoring and wait/For your lotus to bloom./- A lotus in the mud.’

A high point of the book is the interview with Dhasal — a treat, given how seldom one hears poets’ voices in our celebrity-oriented mainstream media. There are interesting insights here. Dhasal battles the charge of propagandist poetry. He also discloses the secret of his success, which, he says, lies quite simply in never comparing himself with anyone else.

It was an early love affair blighted by caste and communal opposition that evidently drove Dhasal to a life of ‘booze and brothels’. That was when a change occurred in his poetry as well. “..I threw all the rule-books out… My poetry was as free as I was.” Even in translation, with all its necessary refractions and negotiations, the taste of that freedom is unmistakable.



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