Discovering Ramchandra Siras: Beyond pathos, knowing the AMU professor through his award-winning poetry
Anish Gawande talks about translating a poem by Ramchandra Siras, and what his story means in the larger narrative surrounding Section 377.
To say that a poet can be identified by their disposition would be to indulge in cliché. And yet, with professor and linguist Ramchandra Siras, the signs were all there: a subversive way of looking at the world, a personality that stood out, melancholy, and a preference for solitude.
All of these found a place in his poetry, a part of his identity that is recognised less often than the ‘tragedy’ of the end of his life. First he was forcibly outed, and then deprived of his teaching job when the Aligarh Muslim University, where he taught Marathi, suspended him. He fought and won a court case against the university, to get back his job. People remember the cruel irony of his death – that he died the day before his suspension would have been revoked. Few know of his poetic genius.
His poetic outlook was part of his characterisation in Hansal Mehta's Aligarh, where he was played by Manoj Bajpayee. The film was most people's first acquaintance with Siras. In a memorable scene, he is seen chiding a journalist for reducing love to a "dirty word" by asking him about his lover. He also asserts that his feelings cannot be contained in a term such as 'gay'. "Poetry is found between the words, in the silences, in the pauses," the character says.
Siras was awarded the Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad for his collection, Payakhali Hirval. A poem from this collection has been translated by Anish Gawande and included in The World That Belongs to Us, an anthology of queer poetry edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal.
A Rhodes scholar at Oxford and Director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship, Gawande embarked on a chase to find the elusive collection, driven by a need to know more about Siras. What he found was a subversive style, a “mad love” for solitude and nature metaphors that are a departure from more simplistic interpretations. He has a particular fondness for the moon. "The poem, after which the book is named, talks of the loneliness of a man looking at the full moon, yearning for his lover… The full moon represents a gay lover: all poems are about the love of one man for another," Siras had said in an interview to journalist Deepu Sebastian.
“Siras is very interested in defying the canon and pushing against norms of style and form… His poetry is not queer just because it was written by a gay man, but because it takes the notion that everything must be questioned and translates it into poetry almost,” Gawande says.
He was helped in his search for the collection by Akhil Katyal, who also encouraged him to translate it. Though he has studied Comparative Literature, Gawande says translating the poem (‘Rooms to sleep in’) was quite the challenge, owing to Siras’ flamboyance coupled with his unconventional use of words. Gawande was supported in the process by Ranjit Hoskote, who is a noted poet and translator himself, and Ramdas Bhatkal of Popular Prakashan, who helped with the nitty-gritty.
Apart from his poetry, Siras’ story is also an important aspect of the conversation surrounding Section 377, parts of which were read down two years ago in a historic judgment by the Supreme Court of India. Siras’ court case and eventual death both occurred when Section 377 was not part of the law (before the Delhi High Court's 2009 verdict was overturned by the apex court in 2013).
“Siras offered a counter-narrative which said 377 is not your only fight, that even after the law is gone, your fights will continue. He remained a pivotal figure in re-imagining what a queer fight looked like at a time when I, like all other young people, was deeply invested in this fight against 377 and the narrative around it which positioned it as the most important fight,” Gawande explains.
Ultimately, knowing Siras through his poetry is to know him as he may have perhaps wanted to be known. When asked why his life story may have overshadowed his life’s achievements, Gawande says that such an outcome is indicative of deep-seated homophobia. “It stems from this idea that queer people are only useful as props. That’s what gets attention, because their work is not important, only their identity is. This plays out across marginalities – it is a common experience queer people, Dalit people, the differently abled, and very often women face. It is erasure by omission and erasure in commemoration,” he says.
Terming the poem he translated as being revelatory in moments, he says it is an example of poetry as building alternative imaginaries. “It’s a way to create a different discourse, but it’s not fantastical. It’s creating something tangible – it’s ‘I want peace, I want silence, a sort of aloneness’.”
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