Letters to Namdeo Dhasal: Meditations of a Dalit Mystic
S. Chandramohan, ISBN: 978-93-81030-75-2, Desirepaths, 2016
Over the last decade, India has been experiencing a major geo-political shift with respect to class, caste and communal relationships. The younger generation, irrespective of their socio-cultural belongingness, is adamant to break away from their respective caste, religious and communal orthodoxies and embrace a multidimensional form of existence in the contemporary era. This form of existence not only interrogates the persisting socio-religious and mythological compartments, but also re-interprets them with respect to the contemporary habitual experiences. Such is the creative oeuvre of Keralite Dalit poet and thinker Chandramohan S. Instead of confining his voice within the geographical contours of Kerala, his poems generate a wider socialscape ranging from prominent Indian mythologies to deconstructed Western and Westcentric ideologies. A collection of forty-nine poems, the book, Letters to Namdeo Dhasal: Poems by Chandramohan S intertwines the past and the present, the traditional and the contemporary in a captivating manner.
The book initiates in a thunderous manner with “Killing Shambhuka,” drawing inspiration from American poet and song-writer Abel Meeropol's Strange Fruit (1937):
Jim Crow segregated hostel rooms,
Ceiling fans bear a strange fruit,
Blood on books and blood on papers,
A black body swinging in mute silence,
Strange fruit hanging from tridents.
This poem contemplates on the systematic subjugation of the Dalit (outcast) students in the higher education institutes of India which force them to commit suicide and here, Rohith Vemula from University of Hyderabad appears to be a recent victim. This river of painful contemplation manifests itself within the “hourglass of time” like “aborted revolutions” and continues to flow through the “tread landscapes of tongues,” unsettling dusts, “locked lips,” “love letters,” “a smiling face,” and innumerable “nameless faces.” But the aborted revolution of the nameless faces cannot be silenced for a long time. Therefore, the fettered emotions of eternal sufferings are brought back to life and unshackled by Chandramohan through the ferocity of Nangeli's spirit.
Nangeli of Cherthala cut off her breasts and sacrificed her life to end the inhuman practice of collecting tax from Avarna women who covered their breasts in public. Chandramohan uses this heart wrenching historical story as a metaphor to unveil the power and pride of a Dalit being and the process of becoming a “semi-divine fury” in his poem “Nangeli.” This uncontrolled fury gets reflected in the following words:
The district collector ordered
The streams to be hand-cuffed
And tied to a giant banyan tree.
The streams refused to budge.
The priest of a local temple
Decreed that the streams go dry,
The streams did not coagulate. (My italics)
This anger continues to maintain its rhythm through the verses of “Portrait of the Poet as a Young Woman” whose “freshly harvested dreadlocks” and “unedited gospel of love” promise a fresh air of liberty for the Dalit community. Through this poem Chandra rightly identifies the importance of uprooting the different internal and external hierarchies that have been infecting the community over the past several years. It is not only the upper castes who subjugate the Dalits, but also the Dalits who get affiliated with the elite ethics and exploit their own community members. This turmoil is smoothly countered by the unbraided, untethered and the disheveled language of the young woman.
With every turn of pages, Chandramohan's expressions gain an unparalleled sharpness. Gradually, his poems appear to shed their shields of metaphorical witticism and unfurl the existential pangs of every common being. In fact, a significant portion of this book exposes the different imageries of patriarchy that keep on imperializing the contemporary Indian society. This is why; when a girl from an elite class family with high political influence is raped and murdered it invites all forms of moral attentions from the television channels, newspapers and social activists. But, if the same incident happens with a tribal girl, then:
No newspaper carried a headline or a photo feature,
No youth were roused to protests,
No city's life came to a standstill,
No furore in the parliament,
(“The Rape and Murder of a Tribal Girl”)
According to the 2016 reports of National Crime Record Bureau, India experienced 106 (approx.) rapes per day. The reports also claimed that around 25.5 percent incidents have been left unregistered and they mostly happened in the rural and the tribal regions. But, the phenomenon of rape portrays those highly confusing ideologies which are vehemently countered by the poet in the poem “Crimson Stains of Caste Honour.” Chandramohan steers the readers to a wider epistemic space by redefining the term 'rape' within the perspective of marriage.
In the poem “Crimson Stains,” Chandra talks about the “concatenated baggage of lineage” which every married woman has to bear. Irrespective of their caste and geographical origin, the femininity of a woman continues to be identified “between her legs.” No matter how much immoral a man is, an Indian woman is bound to prove her virgin chastity to her husband on the very first day of the wedding night, irrespective of her likes and dislikes. But, forceful sexual communions after marriage are never identified as rapes because in Indian customs marriage functions as the 'green card' for men to appease their sexual desires. The poems are not exclusively limited within Dalit, caste and feminine issues, for they also mock the moral interference of state apparatuses within the private affairs of the individuals. The poem “Love in the Time of CCTV-1” critiques the functioning of CCTV cameras in a sarcastic manner. This sarcastic mockery continues in “Love in the Time of CCTV – 2,” “Moral Police,” “Beef Poem,” “The Muse in the Market Place,” “UAPA Reloaded,” and several others.
Altogether, the wide range of themes being addressed by Chandramohan S. encompasses the multifarious layers and sub-layers of habitual existential experiences of human civilization. This poetic revolution is well complimented by the provocative cover design by Jithinlal N R that marvelously summarizes the entire content of the book.
Sayan Dey is Lecturer, Department of English, Royal Thimphu College.