Dalit writing, global contexts: In Days Will Come Back, Kamal Dev Pall unmasks an unseen, unspoken of Punjab

  • To read Kamal Dev Pall’s poetry collection Days Will Come Back, is to enter a Punjab which most of us would have hardly imagined.

  • Originally written in Punjabi and recently translated into English by Rajinder Azad, what makes Days Will Come Back significant is not only its status as the first Dalit Punjabi poetry collection to be translated in English, but also the literary imagination it offers.

  • Indeed it change the very way in which we look at the idea of Punjab.

Editor’s note: In India, the use of English is a product of colonisation. It is a language that embodies colonial narratives about the country and its people.

Notably, it remained exclusive to Brahmin and Savarna writers until recently, and close examination of their writing reveals that they were often elitist and frequently prejudiced in their depiction of society. Where Dalit characters find mention, they appear as ‘subjects without history’, to use the term coined by Edward Said. Indian writing in English, therefore, rarely did serve the purpose that good literature is supposed to: to depict the lives of people through literary imagination.

With the emergence of Dalit literature, the lives and histories of the marginalised have gained representation. Since Dalit literature is written in several languages, translation into English is the only way its collective vision and ideals can be made available for the world to read. It has more to gain from translation than it has to lose.

This series will take a close look at 10 Dalit writers across Indian languages, and their works which have been translated into English. Read more here.

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To read Kamal Dev Pall’s poetry collection Days Will Come Back, is to enter a Punjab which most of us would have hardly imagined. Originally written in Punjabi and recently translated into English by Rajinder Azad, what makes Days Will Come Back significant is not only its status as the first Dalit Punjabi poetry collection to be translated in English, but also the literary imagination it offers; indeed it change the very way in which we look at the idea of Punjab.

Punjab — the land of prosperity and plenty, lush and fertile, moulded by the Green Revolution: This is the idea of the state that has been manufactured in the popular imagination over the decades by Brahmanical/romantic literature produced from and about the state. This visual imagination has been reiterated by cinematic narratives as well.

Hidden for the most part were the realities, stories, and aspirations of Dalits from Punjab whose labour and love have contributed immensely to whatever prosperity the state claimed to have achieved. Their contributions were not romanticised or idealised — not in literature or the movies; in fact, it was barely even acknowledged.

 Dalit writing, global contexts: In Days Will Come Back, Kamal Dev Pall unmasks an unseen, unspoken of Punjab

To read Kamal Dev Pall’s poetry collection Days Will Come Back (Panther's Paw Publication), is to enter a Punjab which most of us would have hardly imagined

Days Will Come Back introduces us to the value of their labour; it makes clear their role in the history of the nation, it details the aesthetics of their love and labour, their dreams and aspirations, and how crucial their imaginations were, in planting the seed of beauty in a land that has internalised the cruelty of caste. Vividly illustrated by Kamal Dev Pall in the last poem of this collection, the verses state —

Neither the lawns nor the flowers

Exist in our courtyards

Like in a King’s palace gardens

We can hardly fit a camping bed here

However, our relationship with flowers

Is as old as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro

That is why we grow roses

In the bottom of broken pots

With an expectation

That days will come back

When we will fulfill our dreams

We will grow the same roses in our backyards

Then lawns will not only exist in palaces

But also, in our courtyards

The poem serves as an anthem of hope for the Dalit community across the globe, fighting the existing structural oppression around them. At the same time, these verses also offer a blueprint of the Dalit literary imagination. It reiterates that Dalit literature is not devoid of hope and aesthetics, while also explaining the correlation of theory and empiricism exercised by Dalit writers across generations and linguistic states.

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In the birth of such an immaculate and dialectical imagination, a poet’s social, economic and cultural conditions play an inevitable role.

Born in 1957 in Hoshiarpur, Punjab, Kamal Dev Pall now resides in California, America. Before moving to the US, he earned an MA in Punjabi from Punjab University, during which time he also published two books of poetry and one of ghazals.

Working closely with Kanshi Ram during the BSP’s heyday in North India, Pall’s literary imagination was shaped by anti-caste political awakenings as well as anti-caste literary perceptions.

According to Punjab University professor Sukhdev Sirsa, “The central character of Kamal’s poems is not a worker who has accepted inhuman behaviour as his final destiny, or a middle-class man who only complains and cries. The main character of his poems is an enlightened man who comprehends the reasons behind his oppression and communicates his understanding to his fellow community members...”

Going a step further, Days Will Come Back poses a question to the reader, explains the trajectories of oppression, and throws up a vision to get rid of the oppressive present. For Pall writes:

Congratulations; for the hard work without benefits

Sermons for next birth and war among brothers

If not a disguise, indeed it is a betrayal

Sermons are given every day to untouchables

Acceptance of dominance, ignorance of exploitation

The life devoted to God

If not slavery, it is indeed a surrender

In another poem, he transforms hope into a vision for a just and fraternal life —

We are transforming hands into steel

We are enlightening brains

We are sowing seeds of conscience in dead bodies

We think that a life without struggle

Is the absolute silence of the graveyard

Even as he lays bare brutal structural realities through his poems, Pall’s verses have a narrative background-ed in history and identity. Witness the poem titled Freedom, from this same collection:

Migration is our destiny

That time when the owners

Separated a calf from its mother cow

Just for the greed of milk

Fundamental rights remained silent

However, the ancestors of slaves

Kept learning the art of liberation from animals

The literature about Punjab that we have encountered has been, overwhelmingly, the product a Brahmanical literary imagination. Even the discourse of Partition has not escaped. Our visual and literary imagination of Punjab is devoid of the existence of the Dalit community and their stories. In a state where the Dalit population is highest but members of the community hold hardly any land of their own, the dichotomy makes their narrative even more profound and needs greater attention to be fully understood.

Days Will Come Back sings for us the songs of those who were deliberately not heard. It enshrines the song that has been historically muted and avoided. In these pages, this song is sung in all its vigour and honesty. Days Will Come Back encapsulates the history of the love and labour of Dalits, and a blueprint of their future. Rajinder Azad’s succinct yet soulful English translation of these Punjabi poems multiplies the verses’ meanings, removes the barriers of literary imagination, and presents an idea of a new life conceived by the person — a Dalit, a landless worker, dreaming of a life of dignity in foreign land.

Reading Days Will Come Back is like experiencing a hitherto unseen, unspoken of Punjab.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Updated Date: Jul 24, 2019 09:43:10 IST