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.
'The Jailor slipped into a nap
Of late, prisoners have started
Keeping a watch on each other'
It is difficult to find another example of poetry in Dalit literature which presents the brutality of the caste system in such simple yet profound verses. This simplicity is what muscles Loknath Yashwant’s poetry – the depiction of the complexities of lives around us, in an uncomplicated manner.
A poet and acclaimed translator, Yashwant has numerous poetry collections in Marathi to his name, all of which have been received well and became popular among readers of poetry as well as people associated with the anti-caste movement. Another defining quality of his poetry is its ability to showcase that which goes unnoticed by our eyes.
Yashwant hails from the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. The son of a policeman, he worked in the state's electricity department as a clerk. But his mind was always enraptured by poetry. He often tells people that he is among the last to obtain a job through the artists’ quota.
As he has elucidated in many articles and forewards to poetry collections of newer poets, he perceives caste as a structure that is unnatural and capable of destroying the humanity in people.
Indian literature is littered with novels, biographies and short stories which have been adapted into movies, but one rarely hears of a poem that has been turned into a film. Yashwant is perhaps that rare poet whose poems have been adapted into short films and plays. Yet, the reach of his voice was restricted to Maharashtra because of the politics of translation that has fractured the Indian literary scene, and more specifically the growth and reach of Dalit literature.
Though he has been writing for three decades, it was only in 2018 that his poems were translated into English and published as Broken Man: In Search of Homeland by Panther’s Paw Publication.
Broken Man contains 69 poems, most of which were translated by Dr K Jamanadas as early as 2000. Some of them were written in the beginning of his career as a poet, while others are recent ones. The themes of these poems are inter-caste love, failures in leadership in the anti-caste movement, the appropriation of figures who fought against caste, and how technology and caste combined can affect human lives. He also points at caste as the root of insensitivity.
Yashwant’s work stands out from Dalit poets of the past and present because he is able to process sentiment rationally. When I sat down to write the foreward for this collection – an opportunity I was fortunate to have – I wondered about how logic won over emotions in his verses. I also noted that though the tone of the poems may sound skeptical, we must persist in reading them to know and acknowledge that there exists a reasoned, lucid brand of love in the minds of broken men in this country.
I pointed this out during the launch of Broken Man in Nagpur in 2018. In response, he said, “When I decided to write poetry, I wanted to write my own poems. Poems that did not copy anyone else in terms of style or content. And when I took the decision to write poems, I only wrote poems – nothing else. I believe that as a writer, one has to stick to one form and make progress in it. This way, sooner or later, they will produce commendable work in that particular form. There are people who write short stories, poems, novels, essays and end up doing nothing substantial in either form.”
One may not agree with his opinions, but it is hard to miss Yashwant’s conviction – and this is what he is: a poet of conviction who had developed a voice of his own.
'The butcher loves me a lot
True, great love
He has placed me
At the very end'
Lived experience allowed Loknath Yashwant to write about hunger in a manner that was both rational and capable of causing discomfort to the reader. He was also able to differentiate love from affection. He became a household name because his poems offered wisdom and astonished the reader, allowing them to look and assess their own lives with a renewed vision.
My boss abandoned his parents
He pets a dog at home
Takes good care of him
Even kisses him a lot
The dog is anxious though
Why doesn’t my boss learn
Some honesty from me?
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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Updated Date: Jul 14, 2019 09:15:14 IST