“We lived happily during the war”, the first poem in Ilya Kaminsky’s book Deaf Republic begins. It continues,
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
To better fit this poem to the India of 2019 (the results of general elections announced, with the Modi-helmed BJP government winning a majority for the second time in a row), these lines can be slightly tweaked so it reads:
And when they lynched other people, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
My friend, who had sent me a copy of this book, when I told him how the poems feel eerily close to describing the situation in the subcontinent, responded by saying that it’s amazing as well as sad, that no matter where a person lives, the book feels like it’s describing something very close to home. I’ll try to put Deaf Republic in the context of the present social and political context of India and what the return of the BJP, a party which doesn’t shy away from claiming that India belongs solely to Hindus, means to the millions of Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims living in the country.
Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic was published earlier this year, and has been called “a contemporary epic that, like Homer’s Iliad, captures the sweep of history and the devastation of war” by the American poet Kevin Young, writing for the New Yorker. It is Kaminsky’s second full-length book of poems after Dancing in Odessa came out fifteen years earlier.
Deaf Republic is not easy to describe. Yes, it contains individual lyric poems, 59 in number, but the book also reads like a short story or novella, and is, at the same time, a play in two acts. It narrates the story of the lives of the people of Vasenka, a fictional Eastern European town, under military occupation. After Petya, a deaf boy, is shot to death by the Sergeant in the view of the townspeople (the gunshot itself is not heard, and the reader is trusted to interpret the Sergeant’s act with the line: “The sound we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water”), the people take a vow to not hear the soldiers:
In the name of Petya, we refuse.
At six a.m., when soldiers compliment girls in the alley, the girls slide by, pointing to their ears. At eight, the bakery door is shut in soldier Ivanoff’s face, though he’s their best customer. At ten, Momma Galya chalks NO ONE HEARS YOU on the gates of the soldiers’ barracks.
The soldiers begin to arrest people and things get increasingly worse.
Deafness is employed by the people of Vasenka as a tactical means to unite and resist the occupation:
The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.
Thus, able-persons who can hear become outsiders while deafness is made a strategy for survival. Here, in India, I wonder who the deaf would be? Possibly, the minorities that are already threatened and see themselves in further danger. Silence, then, would be the privilege and “invention” of the Brahmin-savarna population, the garrulous lot, who historically control information and knowledge distribution in the country and shape the discourse according to their needs.
“What is poetry which does not save nations of people?”, asked the poet Czeslaw Milosz, and what Deaf Republic does for America, Dalit and other marginalized voices have been doing for India. Bridge of Migration by Yogesh Maitreya and Letters to Namdeo Dhasal by Chandramohan S are just a few works by acclaimed poets writing against the caste system, religious bigotry and patriarchy.
With the publication of Kaminsky’s book, we find ourselves part of a surge whose purpose is to reclaim the world from its especially egotistical, hate-filled politicians. I say “especially” because although throughout history we have borne the mindless cruelty of power-hungry leaders, recent times have pushed us to the dark corners we thought as people, we had left behind.
Just as in Vasenka, the people find speech and language to be outmoded and look for alternate ways to resist, so is the case in the city of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. The only difference here is that Srinagar is not a fictional place but actually exists on the map of India- and it continues to be under military rule to this day. The people of Srinagar, and that of Kashmir know about the artist who has found their own way to resist military occupation and war. This artist walks a cabbage on a leash on the streets of the city, for, if doing such a thing is considered “absurd”, then how rational is the government’s decision to put an entire population under arbitrary laws?
There have been numerous instances throughout history when poets and artists have led the charge against inhuman barbarity and State repression, and Deaf Republic is another, extremely potent weapon of combat that we have been fortunate enough to receive.
Chanchal Kumar is a student of Delhi University. His poetry has recently appeared in The Sunflower Collective and Hamilton Stone Review.