Dalit writing, global contexts: In ND Rajkumar's poetry, echoes of folk rhythms, myths and local history
ND Rajkumar's poetic voice is distinct, for it carries the stories of his ancestors, who did not bow down to their oppressors – oppressors who wanted to erase their existence from history. His style, on the other hand, has the rhythm of a folk artist
ND Rajkumar's poetic voice is distinct, for it carries the stories of his ancestors, who did not bow down to their oppressors.
His style, on the other hand, has the rhythm of a folk artist.
His poems blur the lines between history in poetry and poetry as history.
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.
In India, it is nearly impossible to be a serious reader of literature – especially poetry – and to have not come across ND Rajkumar’s work. Hailing from Tamil Nadu, the land of Periyar, Rajkumar writes poetry that questions Brahminical culture and its hegemony through his metaphors and images. His poetic voice is distinct, for it carries the stories of his ancestors who did not bow down to their oppressors – oppressors who wanted to erase their existence from history. His style, on the other hand, has the rhythm of a folk artist.
Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh, a collection of Rajkumar’s poems translated by Anushiya Ramaswamy, introduces the reader to a world they have not yet seen, or which they have chosen to neglect. The experience of reading the poems in this collection is made richer by understanding them in the context of the poet’s life and times. Rajkumar's ancestors were artisans, who were also known to perform magic. He was given a formal education up till Class 7, after which he worked as a labourer and coolie. Now, he teaches music to children.
His grasp over music and ability to recite poems from memory sharpened his practice as a poet.
to gain religious merit
in the next life,
fed the brahmin.
When the kollathi girl
began to wash the dishes
in the backyard,
they let the brahmin rape her.
After the brahmin left
sated on rice and woman
blessing the family
with a promise to come
in his next life too
she killed herself.
and now she is back,
the Kollangottu Amman,
and shrieks for human sacrifice.
Lusting after women and gold
He married the dancer with lies of love
Then stoned her to death
among the thorns
Of the cactus field:
You are my witnesses, she cried
To the cacti as she died.
The Dark Blue Goddess of the Cactus Fields
Demands blood-soaked rice
Transformed into the dark forest
(Kollathi refers to a woman belonging to the kollar or blacksmith community. The family referred to in the poem is a non-Brahmin family.)
The popular story about Goddess Isakki features the goddess when she was a human being, Ambika. Ambika takes her own life, fearing her husband’s reaction. In Rajkumar’s poem, this story is turned on its head; the starving sage who comes to Ambika’s house begging for food is turned into a Brahmin with blood on his hands. While the goddess’ shrine is decorated with cacti in the known myth, in the poet’s interpretation, the cacti are witnesses to her brutal death.
Also read on Firstpost: Rich Legacy — Two poems by ND Rajkumar
Alongside a critique of caste, Rajkumar also gives the reader a taste of local history in his works. Indeed, his poems blur the lines between ‘history in poetry’ and ‘poetry as history’. He invites us to embrace the extraordinary truths that his community has lived through:
If anyone not our own kind
Happens to read this manuscript:
Heads will roll
Hearts will burst
Brains will curdle
All that has been learnt
Will be lost.
I have placed curses
On my own words.
In doing so, he also reclaims his history and culture, which he says is the antithesis of Savarna religion and customs. He is of the opinion that the culture of the lower castes has been appropriated and disfigured by Brahmins, and consequently termed "Hindu" culture.
I am the child
And the demon is my god
My lord is darkly handsome
The king of the jungle
Who struck down
That sneaky Raman
In a face-to-face battle.
Apart from describing his might and beauty, Rajkumar also speaks of how democratic and accessible his God is, that he belongs to a tradition where there is no distance between the devotee and god. Translator Anushiya Ramaswamy notes the poet's use of occultist imagery.
Our gods do not hide
Within the Brahman
Or tell stories only
In the language known
To the few.
They enter the loose,
Betel- chewing mouth of the
Jive in him
Tells signs in our language
Eat pig flesh
Smoke a Cigar
And settle down amongst us
In the ghettoes
Next to sewer ditches
In the no-man’s lands.
Having read these poems, if you surmise that Rajkumar only speaks of the past, you could not be more wrong; his poems are an urgent warning for the present and future generations, reminding them about how communities can be robbed of their own narratives, how they can be made to feel unwanted and treated as untouchables, and why it is crucial to resurrect those aspects of culture which have been stolen by the oppressor.
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.
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