Letters to Namdeo Dhasal
Author: Chandramohan S
Desirepaths Publishers, 2016
Price Rs.150/- US $ 6/- , pp 68
Chandramohan is an Indian English Dalit poet based in Trivandrum. The book under review, ‘Letters to Namdeo Dhasal‘ is his second collection containing 48 poems. As we all know, Namdeo Laxman Dhasal was a Marathi poet, a Buddhist activist and a staunch follower of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar who founded the Dalit-Panther Movement. The title of the book itself makes one guess the contents of the book without even flipping through its pages. The book is edited by Ms. Deeptha Achar, Mr. Subodh Sarkar has given the Foreword and an extensive Afterword by Mr. Ajay Sekher, all further enriches the book. The poet believes that poetry is a powerful weapon to fight social inequalities and that is what exactly he does through his poems.
In the poem ‘Write Poetry’, Chandramohan says:
“They ask me why do you write poems?
I write poems-people have the right to bear arms.” (p.48)
The varied issues he has dealt with in this collection is a retrospective of his concern for human values with strong references to history, especially that of his home state and amply present his profound thoughts on socio-political struggles of the marginalized. His dalit-bahujan consciousness strongly highlights the caste based inequality and makes one conscious of the domination of upper caste influences in cultural India. As Mr. Jaydeep Saarangi, to whom this book is dedicated, says in the blurb, Chandramohan’s poems in this collection have an enigmatic and at times ethereal quality drifting into the mythical which powerfully break stereotypes. The same views have been endorsed by Babitha Marina Justin in her blurb. While reflecting mastery over poetics and brilliance in employing metaphors Chandramohan challenges the hegemony of colour and creed.
The very first poem in the collection ‘Killing Shambuka’ is commendable with its strong image which draws inspiration from the poem ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol, and obviously holds reference to the suicide of the dalit student Rohith Vemula in the campus in recent times.
Jim Crow segregated hostel rooms
Ceiling fan bear a strange fruit,
Blood on books and blood on papers
A black body swinging in mute silence,
Strange fruit hanging from tridents. (page 4)
Poem ‘Grapes of Wrath’ is about migrant labourers in Kerala, which factor of late seems to influence the socio-cultural mosaic of the state. The economy of words in Chandramohan’s poetry is striking here.
Faceless migrant lads
Tread landscapes of tongues
To be greeted with a lisping embrace
At God’s own country. (page 5)
Nangeli is a poem with appalling imagery, that of a woman from Chertala who cuts off her breasts in protest to end the cruel practice of imposing tax on Avarna women for covering their breasts in public, prevalent those times in Travancore. The poet uses characters and incidents from history in his poems that gives his poems the strength of authenticity besides portraying the victimization with strong images. (page 6,7)
In poem titled “Portrait of the Poet as a Young Woman’, Chandramohan uses unusual similes like “Tresses like streams /of eternal fire/from the arsenal of her body” and “Attempting to translate her poems/is like making love to capricious mistress” showing his exceptional skill in pinning down the readers. (page 9)
In Plus Size Poem, the clairvoyance of the poet is explicit, wherein Chandramohan personifies his poem as an outsized female figure and thus defines a poem by saying what a poem is not. (page 10)
In ‘Caste in a Local Train’, the protagonist puts forth a question “Can I switch over to./My mother’s surname/switching from/active passive voice/in the midst of a harangue?” and he wishes that he does not lose his nerve at the bouncer’s abrasive queries.
He tries assessing me with an inswinger first
“What is your full name?”
Then he tries an outswinger that seams a lot
“And what is your father’s name?”
By this time, he loses his patience
And tries a direct Yorker
“What is your caste?” (page12)
He explains the experiences in first person of the protagonist encountered with a Pakistani fast bowler right opposite to him in a local train with metaphors drawn from the play of cricket all through the poem, like leg before wicket and many more making the poem stand-out in its narration while addressing the absurd mentality of caste based oppression and the obsession of using the family name as one’s surname and may compel the readers to shift their mindsets.
Safeguarding our traditions and keeping up our morality is within our culture. But when it stretches too far and people go to the extent of enforcing their views upon others by using violence, it leads to hatred and lawlessness. Chandramohan touches upon the issue of moral policing in poem titled ‘Moral Police’, says it is centuries old citing the example from the epic that of Shurpanakha whose nose was cut off by Laxmana, as the former was having a romantic interest in the Pandava brothers. The poem says a lot with too little words and is an example of his poems straddling from myth to modernism.
When the lover
Hid in a hood of a tree
They chanced upon
Some of them half burned
Some of them centuries old
Along with a picture of
Shoorpanaka sans her
Nose, ears and breast (page 13)
Another poem in this collection ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Beard’ is again on caste based oppression, which concludes with the words “History will catch up with you/In your rear view mirror”. This poem more than vouches for the poet’s social commitment and the rebel in him comes out in the open breaking all blockades. (page 34)
Poem titled UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) is about misuse of power, in which the act is compared to a virus and the poet says that those who are inflicted and quarantined behind bars act as deterrents for others who may mess with those in power, hitting the nail on the head. (page 14)
Same is the case with poem ‘Namdeo Dhasal’s Letter to a Young Poet’ where he points out the undue attention people get for their flowery language, which ends with a postscript:. “Do not charge fees to read poems on hunger.” This can be applied to other life situations as well, in other words the poem is open to interpretations. (page 19)
Beef Poem is another example, which I quote in full here:
My harvest of poems will be winnowed.
If done deftly,
The lighter shallow poems blow away in the wind
While the heavier, meaty poems, fall back onto the tray,
To become the fire in my belly
Like beef. (page 20)
Poem titled The Immigrant Experience is sprinkled with murky images like fly in butter milk, corpse of a toddler, tombstone etc., besides references to sinister terms such as solitary confinement, dysfunctional mating call, outraging the modesty, to name some, all conspicuously linked to language structures such as phonetics, syntax and the like. The excellent word-play in this poem is commendable. (page 24)
The perfect humanist in Chandramohan peeps through the poem titled ‘The Rape and Murder of a Tribal Girl’. One cannot overlook the fearless expressions and references to historic truths in his poems .
No newspaper carried a headline or a photo feature,
No youth were roused to protests,
No city’s life came to a standstill,
No furor in the parliament,
No nation’s conscience was haunted,
No Prime Minister addressed the nation,
No TV channel discussions,
No police officials were transferred or suspended,
No candlelight marches,
No billion women rising
A dalit girl was raped and murdered! (page 41)
I wind up this review with the powerful lines in the poem ‘Negritude: Learning from the Black Panthers’ which is self-explicit.
We are one people
We are one voice
Our life is a journey through a barren desert
Like a mail less courier
On the outskirts of humanity. (page 31)
Chandramohan is a modern poet with a mastery over the language. His poems portray subaltern life with exactitude and his concern for human values is quite evident in almost all poems in this collection. Poem after poem one can sense the essence of his attitude to stand up with all forms of discrimination. Yet I want to emphasize here that just one reading of the poems is not sufficient to get into the soul of Chandramohan’s poems. One will have to read them multiple times through the lines and between the lines to grab their essence and for a perfect reading pleasure.