Dalit writing, global contexts: The River Speaks by Bojja Tharakam stands as a poetic beacon against injustice

  • In the great tradition of those fighting for the sake of humanity, Bojja Tharakam is a significant name.

  • His tireless and courageous battle was fought through the law, and most brilliantly, with his literary imagination that was channeled through both prose and poetry.

  • Understanding his out-of-the-box approach as a lawyer, is essential to understanding the depth and honesty of his poetry

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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“The Nizamabad jail is on top of a high hill. One has to ascend very large steps to reach it. They say the Nizam’s government had converted a temple into a jail. Both have the same purpose: to cage people. Dasaradhi was incarcerated in the same prison for writing poetry against the Nizam. I am the second writer to be lodged here.”

So describes Bojja Tharakam the prison in which, while incarcerated, he wrote the poems that would go on to form the collection called The River Speaks. This prison — as I see it — became a source, the point of origin for the river of his poems.

 Dalit writing, global contexts: The River Speaks by Bojja Tharakam stands as a poetic beacon against injustice

Bojja Tharakam. Image via Facebook/@bojjatharakam

I am convinced that these poems which were written in prison are freer than other poems, written at leisure. Prisons, after all, can be both — physical, as well as metaphysical. And as the history of human society suggests, among those who end up in prison are some who fight against oppression and injustice. Their hearts are compassionate; their vision is of a society both just and fraternal, one with a conscience. Even in prison, such individuals are free to sing, to speak, to stand for what they believe in, and became the architects of the Begumpura: the land without sorrow as the great Dalit saint and intellectual poet Ravidas envisioned.

In this great tradition of those fighting for the sake of humanity, Bojja Tharakam’s is a significant name. His tireless and courageous battle was fought through the law, and most brilliantly, with his literary imagination that was channeled through both prose and poetry. Understanding his out-of-the-box approach as a lawyer, is essential to understanding the depth and honesty of Bojja Tharakam’s poetry. He was not one to lament over victims or his victimhood; instead, he would exhort victims to fight with all their might against the injustices they were subjected to. And he offered legal protection to their fight. These lines offer a glimpse:

Tell the women you face

The unfortunate, powerless women

To turn their tears into sparks

Make them

Into a flood of swords

And that flood

Into a bolt of thunder

That shall dismantle

The mountains of power

From their very roots,

Tell that as my words

These poems were written in 1976, when Tharakam was imprisoned during the Emergency. Just as the principle of justice was part of his work as a lawyer championing human rights, it was a principle also enshrined in his literature. It was a principle reflected in his poetic imagination as well, in which the social overpowers the personal of a poet. That is why, for Tharakam, as a poet, his death was not the end, but a beginning, where he imagines himself a citizen in the battle against caste-class-feudalism. Read these lyrical verses:

When the song playing on my lips

Becomes the theme of your voice

Echoing in the voices of tens and hundreds

Becoming hundreds and thousands of tides,

Travelling from one mouth

To another, in waves and waves,

Joins the wind

And moves away

I’ll sing again.

Then, lathis can’t choke my throat

Jails

Can’t muffle my voice.

In his poem Mahatma Gandhi!, he radically changes our perception of Gandhi, questioning not only his work but his intentions as well, posing questions which only a handful of poets in India had dared to ask. He writes:

Outcast lives,

Sacrificed corpses —

You’ll notice so many of them, wherever you go,

Lives which never experienced touch;

When the whole nation surged ahead

Avoiding them, reducing them,

They confronted you

And asked you — what about us?

What did you tell them, Bapu?

What did you do for them, Bapu?  

You said, untouchability should go,

But castes should remain as they are;

The people will leave you behind

And move ahead,

When they realize

Life’s in movement;

They won’t hover around graves —

Bhangi colony,

Or Birla Bhavan

Which is your address?

The poems in The River Speaks are translated by Kuffir Nalgundwar from Telugu into English without losing their vivid, powerful nature. It is a slim volume; only 22 poems. But these 22 poems carry the impact of no fewer than 22 of the world’s best poetry collections combined. Even more than the content or literary merit, Tharakam’s poems stand tall for the history of resistance against oppression they narrate.

“Lawyer; writer; human rights, political and social activist; thinker; poet: all these words can’t capture the essence of Bojja Tharakam’s (1939-2016) personality and work. A personality that shone as a sterling example of commitment, integrity and wisdom in the intellectual, political and social firmament of India, particularly the Telugu states, for nearly five decades,” write Anu Ramdas and Kuffir Nalgundwar in their beautiful, brisk introduction to this book.

Or as Karthik Navayan Battula, an activist and human rights lawyer from Telangana, says, “He (Bojja Tharakam) was the first lawyer to ask Dalit victims, who had faced rape, killings, land-grabbing every day, to retaliate against the perpetrators. He stood with the affected.”

The River Speaks is a manifestation of the poet’s zeal for justice, to free people from oppression, to make them realise their potential. Very few poets in India possess this zeal, this commitment to justice and hence their poems lack love and compassion for people. In Tharakam’s poems, people are asked to fight injustice with tooth and nail, in whatever capacity they can, because there is no sense in living life as a meek citizen.

The world’s great poems have awakened people from hopelessness and offered a clarity and sense of purpose, to fight against the structures of oppression sabotaging humanity. Without this quality, literature cannot be developed into something that transforms human lives. The River Speaks — in Tharakam’s mature, poetic voice — can change the way we can imagine literature, can change even the way we imagine the world itself.

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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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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2019 09:57:49 IST