Dalit writing, global contexts: Re-examining the legacy of Lal Singh Dil, Punjab's 'Poet of the Revolution'

Lal Singh Dil — affectionately known as Dil to his friends and admirers — was a poet, a lover, a wanderer, a truth-seeker, tea vendor and above all, among the most brilliant minds Punjab produced in the field of literature

Yogesh Maitreya August 05, 2019 10:28:27 IST
Dalit writing, global contexts: Re-examining the legacy of Lal Singh Dil, Punjab's 'Poet of the Revolution'
  • Lal Singh Dil was born on 11 April 1943 in a village called Ghunghrali in Punjab

  • Born into a Chamar caste and being the first person from his family to pursue higher education, words became his earliest companions as also a weapon against a cruel, casteist society

  • Its cruelty he exposed through his uniquely mature literary imagination

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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Dalit writing global contexts Reexamining the legacy of Lal Singh Dil Punjabs Poet of the Revolution

Lal Singh Dil

The land of Punjab enfolds many unrevealed realities. Some of its revolutions have been engraved in the national imagination of this country; others have been deliberately obscured.  Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that revolutions (especially when articulated by writers) have the potential to change the way we look at Punjab and also how Punjab views India. Another reason is that once exposed to the truth, the nation couldn’t bear to see the cruelty with which it has tortured its brilliant minds.

Let me illustrate this. In the Indian literary world, when revolutionary poetry is discussed, the name of Pash (Avatar Singh Sandhu) comes up most commonly, overshadowing all other poets. Pash is glamourised, popularised, cited, sung and is mentioned frequently in Indian literature. Pash was a contemporary of Lal Singh Dil — affectionately known as Dil to his friends and admirers — a poet, a lover, a wanderer, a truth-seeker, tea vendor and above all, among the most brilliant minds Punjab produced in the field of literature. Yet Pash is everywhere and Dil — equally distinguished — is known to only a few. Why?

A serious and keen reader, trained to identify causality between literature and society, cannot deny that Dil’s exclusion (in a sense) from the national imagination is due to his social location: his caste. Dil was stung by life in a way Pash perhaps wasn’t. This made not only him a different individual, but a different poet — one society hardly wishes to remember in times of crisis because Dil’s words expose the internal oppression in this country which killed the human personality among certain communities (Dalits).

Nurtured as a poet during the Naxalite movement in Punjab, Dil’s poetic imagination is solely held together by the needle and thread of his experiences, of being born and raised a Dalit. To understand this, we must read what he has written in his memoirs, Poet of the Revolution:

Once, for instance, following a Brahmin who resembled Tagore, I entered the little pool of water by the well where the Jat boys were bathing. I must have been in either Class 2 or 3. I was wearing a dirty shirt and torn drawers. The water drawn from the well was flowing in a torrent from a spout and I had just crouched down to put my head under the water when a Jat boy pulled me out and gave me a thrashing. Nothing happened to him, of course. Instead, my mother had to apologise to his mother for my dreadful mistake of entering the sacred space of the upper caste. She admonished me and told me never to go there again. By narrating this incident, I’m not trying to establish that the powers that he had wanted me to be beaten thus; nor do I want to credit it to fate. What I am trying to say is that this experience was essential to my understanding of the world around me.

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Lal Singh Dil was born on 11 April 1943 in a village called Ghunghrali (Samrala, Punjab). Born into a Chamar caste and being the first person from his family to pursue higher education, words became his earliest companions as also a weapon against a cruel, casteist society. Its cruelty he exposed through his uniquely mature literary imagination:

If this were revealed

To people living on other planets

They would turn into stone, never move again,

If the animals were to experience it

They would rush into the jungles

Screaming, frightened of mankind

He went on to join the Naxalite movement; later, disillusioned with the Left’s biased stand on caste atrocities and issues, he distanced himself from them and converted to Islam. To earn his living, he sold tea at a roadside dhaba throughout his life.

Dil was always a truth seeker. Humiliated by society and the police, he nonetheless remained grounded in his search for love and truth. This quality, which only a true revolutionary could possess, seeped through his poems. Read, for instance, his poem on love:

O high caste girl in love with me

Even after death, our kin aren't burnt together!

“Lal Singh Dil’s poetry does not construct any imaginary utopia but speaks of experiences and ideals. That is why it seems more rooted in reality; rather than dwell on the plight of Dalit life, it inclines towards the intellectual exploration of it,” says Gurinder Azad, a poet, translator, and human rights activist from Punjab. This analysis is driven home when reading Dil’s memoirs.

Poet of the Revolution: The Memoirs and Poems of Lal Singh Dil is translated by Nirupama Dutt. Perhaps it is the only book about Dil which illumines his wide literary imagination (apart from a few of his poems that were translated over the course of his life). Reading it is to feel as though the poet himself is conversing with us. As a translation, it is simple and lucidly captures the spirit of Dil’s original Punjabi prose (and verse).

In giving us a ringside view of his trials and tribulations, it also makes us feel closer to Dil; yet, most of us could never feel what he felt — living as a Dalit, a lover, poet and a revolutionary in a caste society. Poet of the Revolution is not the story of Dil’s life; it is just a glimpse, a peep into his extravagant life as a lover and a revolutionary.

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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.

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