The River Speaks: Bojja Tharakam’s poetry is a reflection on pain and struggle confronted by Dalits every day

  • Bojja Tharakam (1939-2016), a multifaceted Dalit personality coming from Telugu society, considered himself both Ambedkarite and Marxist, and left a mark on the fight for human rights in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

  • The River Speaks is the latest addition to the poetry books of Dalit activist Bojja Tharakam, translated to English by Naren Bedide (Kuffir).

  • The book comprises of 22 poems which Tharakam wrote while in prison during the Emergency.

While a bit is written about Dalits, by Dalits, in local languages, it is extremely hard to find the same in the English language. Translations of Dalit literature, poems to biographies is hence vital for the Dalit-Bahujans' movement. Reading about the common struggle and pain of each other in different parts of the country can connect us. Much of the focus on Dalits’ lives have been on a few states such as Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh for various reasons, and their lives in other states have almost been sidelined and are out of the picture.

Bojja Tharakam (1939-2016), a multifaceted Dalit personality coming from Telugu society, considered himself both Ambedkarite and Marxist, and left a mark on the fight for human rights in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. An advocate by profession, he was a poet, writer, and socio-political commentator who wrote extensively on human rights.

The River Speaks (original title Nadi Puttina Gontuka in Telugu) is the latest addition to the poetry of a Dalit activist translated to English by Naren Bedide (Kuffir) and published by The Shared Mirror. It is a short book, conspiring of 22 poems which Tharakam wrote while in prison during the Emergency. A new world would open to anyone reading the poetry of Tharakam. The agony and struggle that Dalits face every day in different parts of the country are not different, just untold.

 The River Speaks: Bojja Tharakam’s poetry is a reflection on pain and struggle confronted by Dalits every day

The River Speaks, by Bojja Tharakam

Tharakam, in a poem titled ‘They Don’t Need Your Name’, points out how, during the Emergency, people were arrested even if they hadn't committed a crime. Anyone who was seen as a threat was arrested.

They don’t need names
Or addresses
They need people
To fill jails
To scare people.
They're scared of man,
Scared of the truth,
Scared of shadows;
They detained
Whosoever they saw walking
On the street.
— Excerpt from ‘They Don’t Need Your Name

Tharakam was the first one to be arrested during the Emergency in Nizamabad. But even multiple jail terms couldn’t silence him. The present scenario is not much different. Human rights to RTI activists are arrested in a bid to silence them. Some people have been arrested for years-old social media posts against the ideology of oppressers.

Ten guns are aimed
At the pen in my hands
To strike it down.
The police guns
Don't have the strength to defeat my pen!
— Excerpt from the poem ‘You’re the Sun

It is not the India what the founding fathers had envisioned, India where masses have no right to speak or write. The country which denies part of its population its rights cannot progress. On silencing the dissent voices by killing or putting people in jails has become common. Tharakam in poem ‘‘Bhuu’ Ki’ narrates how hopes, ideals, and perspective have been killed in independent India.

In the land where ‘God’ was born,
In the tradition where ‘dharma grew’,
In the culture that did ‘not kill even ants’,
They killed
The perspective
That gave thought
To ideals and hopes.
— Excerpt from the poem ‘‘Bhuu’ Ki

A country of which one can be proud of still needs to be crafted. It’s not the nation of our dreams in which women, poor, downtrodden in the society have no voice. How can we be proud of the nation in which women are raped in the broad daylight and society watches that horror in silence? On one hand, Indians worship woman as ‘shakti’ and on the other, dominant castes in the society have put women in temples as devadasi. According to the 2015 report, there were around 80,000 devadasis in just two states – Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Tharakam mentions the pain of women in the poem ‘My Beloved Countrymen!’, along with narrating on shaking off the shackles of customs and traditions.

Calling her shakti,
Hailing her as the divine mother
We worship the devi,
And make her
A prostitute for our man-ness.
Such a wretched nation this is!
Vedic discourses
Pregnant with lust.
Sexual fantasies
Fulfilled inside the sanctums of temples.
— Excerpt from the poem ‘My Beloved Countrymen!

What Tharakam wrote in the mid-1970s continues to be relevant almost 50 years on. All those who speak against oppression are abused or threatened, and at times killed, by hegemonic forces which are too afraid to lose control over masses. His poems are a true reflection of the society with hapless people struggling for ends meet, ‘sea of sorrow’ flowing, and anyone revolting against the system being choked. The situation of Dalits and minority communities in India is as worse as it was ever. Thousands of lives have been ruined in the Brahminical system that finds Dalits and minority communities first to be blamed for any wrong-doing and last to be trusted. In the poem ‘Corpses in Prison’, Tharakram writes,

One wails,
‘I’ve come here
Without doing anything’;
Bemoans another,
‘He didn’t allow me
Or my wife, children to live
He has money
He stole the only bit of land I had
What could I do?
I killed him and came here’.
‘I had no other livelihood
I ran into this narrow path’,
Says another.
— Excerpt from the poem ‘Corpses in Prison'

In the poem ‘They’re Saying Something’, Tharakam challenges Brahminism that has created multiple Gods; how ‘clever people’ who created the God has cheated masses and left us ‘empty hands’. In the poem, he suggests coming together and fighting to end the deceit and get rid of our troubles.

We should all come together
And fight
Together;
There’s strength in struggle
Life itself lies in
Struggle
Victory's in struggle – some among us
Are telling us.
Let's go! Listen!
— Excerpt from the poem ‘They’re Saying Something

In the book, there are two poems drawing a parallel between the struggle of Blacks in Africa and the Dalits of India, and speaking about the hopes of meeting and fighting together against the oppression. Another poem ‘Mahatma Gandhi!’ talks about the double standards of so-called Mahatma and how he betrayed Dalits’ cause,

You said, untouchability should go,
But castes should remain as they are;
How will the stench disappear
Without removing the dung?

The last poem in the book is titled ‘I’m Untouchable’, and narrates the pain and the battles that Dalits go through while performing the jobs defined and assigned from the perspective of caste hierarchy. Further, how Dalits have been brainwashed to believe in Brahminical gods, but forbidden to enter the same temples. And this is what we still see in the society — Dalits’ entry in many Hindu temples is forbidden despite various laws against untouchability being in place.

The translation of poems, written by someone who was arrested multiple times for his activism and who believed that if you are not arrested you are not an activist, is an important addition to the Dalit literature that needs to be made available for a wider readership.

Poems of resistance give reader idea about the suffering of people that continues even after independence, the exploitation that has been going on for centuries based on old age traditions, caste system, and sacrifices made by individuals to achieve social, religious and political equality. You can put human right activists in jails, arrest them but you will never be able to arrest their minds, their pens. As Ambedkar said, ‘freedom of mind is the real freedom. A person whose mind is not free though he may not be in chains, is a slave, not a free man.’

These poems, reflection of Tharakam’s five decades of political and social activism, make you think about the present situation in society and whether your ideas are radical enough to change society. The book tells us the story of the suffering of poor so-called lower castes caused by age-old religious traditions. Ambedkar wrote in the preface to the Annihilation of Caste that

“The world owes much to rebels who would dare to argue in the face of the pontiff and insist that he is not infallible. I do not care about the credit which every progressive society must give to its rebels. I shall be satisfied if I make the Hindus realize that they are the sick men of India, and that their sickness is causing danger to the health and happiness of other Indians.”

Tharakam was one such rebel who stood against the oppression and boldly told oppressor’s faults through his poems and other writings.

Lastly, challenges associated with the translation of Dalit literature are numerous, but we surely need many more such efforts to translate such gems from local languages to English so that oppressed in the society can build solidarity through common struggle and lead the caravan of equality forward.

Updated Date: Jul 28, 2019 18:18:38 IST