Dalit writing, global contexts: Neerav Patel's Severed Tongue Speaks Out skewers casteism, with humour

  • Neerav Patel was among the pioneers of Dalit literature from Gujarat

  • His deft craftsmanship as a poet lays bare the history of Dalit exploitation with humour

  • Savarna critics immortalised his contemporary Arun Kolatkar, and invisiblised Patel

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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Maharashtra in the ‘80s was a hotbed of literary exploration by Dalit writers who were trying out various forms of expression in the Marathi language. This was especially true in the domain of poetry, which — they found — had the capacity to narrate their stories, lives and experiences in a manner hitherto unseen. This must be seen in the context of the state of Marathi poetry at the time — putrefied by the hegemony of Brahmin writers over the language. The Marathi they made it into a language of literary imagination was of no use to Dalit writers. Instead, the latter began exploring free verse, using the vocabulary that was spoken by them.

One work paved the way in this regard — Namdeo Dhasal’s Golpitha (1972). Dhasal’s first poetry collection threw out the rulebook of writing Marathi poetry. Mirroring as it did their lived reality, Golpitha became a blueprint for a generation of Dalit writers who aspired to contribute to the anti-caste movement.

In other Indian states too, a similar seismic shift had occurred as the languages of Dalit communities (which they spoke but never came across in school or elsewhere) were transformed into weapons, sharpened like a razor’s edge by their experiences.

 Dalit writing, global contexts: Neerav Patels Severed Tongue Speaks Out skewers casteism, with humour

Neerav Patel

During this same decade, however, Neerav Patel, a Dalit writer from Gujarat, published two poetry collections — Burning From Both The Ends (1980) and What Did I Do To Be Black and Blue (1987) — in English. At a time when other Dalit writers were experimenting with styles of writing and forms of their spoken languages, Patel articulated the Gujarati Dalit life in English. By the English literary circle, however, Patel’s monumental contribution was overlooked.

Even as a bilingual writer (English and Gujarati) and despite being possessed of a poetic imagination far more creative than his contemporary Arun Kolatkar (upper caste, and bilingual), Neerav Patel wasn’t exempt from the prejudiced and casteist nature of Indian literary criticism. Savarna critics immortalised Kolatkar and invisiblised Patel.

But nothing can dampen the power of Patel’s verses, as evinced in Severed Tongue Speaks Out, his translation from Gujarati into English, of his poetry collection Bahishkrit Phoolo.

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Patel was a pioneer of Dalit literature in Gujrat. Alongside, he was a curious reader and a sensitive intellectual. The element of rebellion in his poetry is not provocative — it is educative. Perhaps this is what distinguished him from other poets of his generation. Severed Tongue Speaks Out proves his remarkable literary distinction. For instance, in his poem, the song of our shirt, Patel writes:

We are a fashionable caste
Or tribe you may call:

Our forefather Mayo Dhed
Had a shirt of 3 sleeves
His father has a shroud as his shirt
and his father wore a shirt of his own skin

I am no less fashionable —
Just got a pocketless, sleeveless, buttonless
Peter England, the second
From the mall road pavement I sweep

I flaunt it like Salman Khan
The bare chested Bollywood hero.
Every high caste girl is tempted to pay her respect
To the label of the lords
But without touching my collar-bone

Our shirt has a song to sing
Of bizarre fashions

His deft craftsmanship as a poet lays bare the history of Dalit exploitation with humour. His verses engage the reader, mocking him/her if they are Savarna, while also planting in their minds the stories they have disfigured or deleted from history. In his poem Kaliyo, our blackie, Patel narrates the story of a dog from a Dalit basti who attacks Motiyo, a dog from a Savarna colony.

Barking ferociously
And running at a lightning speed
He pounced like a panther
Upon Motiyo.
Sturdy as he was with beef-eating in the dalit basti!

The Savarnas — Kanabis, Kolis, Patels and Darbars — are askance at how a dog from a Dalit basti dared attack their darling Motiyo, and decide to take revenge. The culmination of the poem is Patel’s incisive analysis of how the Savarna psyche is threatened by even the slightest of challenges to their hegemony — even if that challenge should be issued by a dog belonging to Dalits:

Crying and entreating with folded hands
They were begging for pardon
‘How shall Kaliyo know
That we cannot flex our muscles!
He is poor dog
And you are human beings, our lords!

Patel wasn’t just a poet and intellectual who gave voice to Dalit lives. He was a philosopher, who dwelt on their sufferings, joys and their assertions. His was the rare poetic voice that sewed the idea of beauty with the thread of reason and science. In his most celebrated poem, Ostracised Flowers, he writes:

If that’s the order, we bow our heads in obedience:
We will call flowers by any other name, will their fragrance die?
And will call these denizens flowers, will their stench go?

You can listen to the poem in its entirety here:

Neerav Patel’s demise earlier this year was a great loss to the Indian literary world — a world that refused to grant him the recognition he deserved. Not that this lack of recognition stopped Patel from making a dent in the castiest literary circles of India. The more he is read, the more it becomes evident just why Patel was an important literary voice in the English language from South Asia.

Patel gifted me a copy of Severed Tongue Speaks Out on my first visit to Ahmedabad. By the time I got around to reading it, he was long gone. The book is a sophisticated production, despite the absence of an ISBN, price or publishing house identifier. Of course, an ISBN, price and publisher do not make a bunch of pages a book; it is the impact of these pages on the minds of readers that makes it a book. It is the capacity of these pages in which a reader can associate themselves with history and society.

Severed Tongue Speaks Out proves that a book does not need to be institutionalised and produced, that a book can be free of these formalities. Severed Tongue Speaks Out — as Patel himself wrote — is a “Manuscript in book form. Poet’s own copy. December 2013.” This collection is therefore an experiment in book production as well as in English translation of Dalit literature. Reading it will leave you discomfited, it will make you introspect and rethink the way you look at society. This is what good books do. This is what Severed Tongue Speaks Out does; it makes you better as a human being.

Read Neerav Patel’s poetry: Inequity of inequality — A lament in Gujarati

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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: Aug 29, 2019 09:47:12 IST