Editor's Note: Naked display of dissent straddles the boundary that separates fear from revolution. For India's Dalits, this proclamation of dissent has assumed many forms, both passive and combative. It has mutated over the millennia before BR Ambedkar prodded the word Dalit into mainstream consciousness, and transformed anew since then. Some things have not changed — songs remain the sinew of Dalit protest in almost all its configurations. And the lyrics that sew these together continue to serve as a manifesto of resistance. The poems in this series, drawn from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and curated by Krupa Ge, founding editor of The Madras Mag, represent the prosody of contemporary Dalit literature. They are accompanied by Chennai artist Satwik Gade's illustrations.
In this eighth edition of the column, read the poetry of Christina Thomas Dhanaraj. She is a third generation Christian Dalit woman from Bengaluru. Christina is the co-founder of the Dalit history month collective (Dalithistory.com), and a volunteer for #dalitwomenfight. She currently works as a business analyst, and holds a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the National University of Singapore.
The pieces I have presented here are not Dalit Poetry — if there is anything such as that. To identify as Dalit and to live through oppression does not automatically make my art any kind of a labelled commodity. I write this because I’m well aware of how our (Dalit) identities, in literature, art, and politics, have been reified; only in order to make it consumption-ready for the neoliberal elite.
When I write poetry, I bring into it my very being, my lived experiences, and my dreams. My poetry is thus simply, my poetry. This, however, does not take away the fact that my poetry is written, not only from the place of me being Dalit, but also woman, Christian, Tamizh, and others. I invite the reader to understand this nuance, without which my art cannot serve its liberatory purpose.
My pieces here primarily focus on the effect oppression (based on caste, class, and colour) has on the emotional psyche of an individual, such as myself. We seldom realise how oppressive systems play on the minds of the oppressed; how it normalises suffering and forces us to accept brutality as an inevitable feature of everyday life; how it shapes the way we express and understand love; and how it ultimately tires us out, resulting in some sort of an emotional fatigue — a resignation, if you will. The inter-generational deficit we face isn’t just about land, capital, and resources; it is also about social acceptance, and by extension, a sense of belonging in the world.
My first piece here, titled The Half Life, should not be taken in the literal sense — I do not consider myself, or anyone like me, a half-life. It is a rather sardonic take on how an avarna woman is perceived, and how often she finds herself disadvantaged when it comes to love. Although all women are expected to be just right to ensure that they don’t lose out on love; I believe avarna women, who don’t come with the privileges that savarna women do, have to operate along a behavioural band that is far narrower and far more unforgiving. Politicised avarna women are labelled as angry and militant; they may also be penalised in ways that are markedly different from that of savarna women. The rebellious-but-sexy image is reserved only to the savarna woman, who is acceptable and desirable along many other parameters (skin colour, caste, class, etc) that an avarna woman is not.
My second piece is more personal than political. I wrote this after having done something embarrassing to the one I was in love with. In the course of writing it, I realised how generously loving I am but that I can do it only with a quivering, timid heart. I like this piece very much; I believe it brings out a certain kind of quiet resilience, taking me back to a time when I thought I could never be in love again. My heart proved me wrong, like it does every time, like it does to each one of us.
Thank you for reading.