The Sun that was leaked,
Into the bosom of the night,
Then I was born
~ Namdeo Dhasal
It was a nippy and brooding winter of 2011 in Nagpur; I was in second year of Bachelor’s degree. Books, especially poetry and novels became the sole escape from material failures and the emotional turmoil I suffered from. Pursuing English literature as a major subject within Bachelor’s degree course, I have mostly read English novels and poetry and I must confess that they deceitfully provided me the scope to lose myself in them. Couple of years later, as I was introduced to the writings of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and other writings in Marathi by Dalit writers, I acquired the sense that words can deceive you if you read them without understanding the politics of a writer. During these three years of college life in Nagpur, I was cleverly kept away from the realities of people like me; but who kept me away? Strangely, the answer is: writers, whose novels and poetry I had read. Much of the English novels I read during this period were by Brahmin writers. And I know what I mean to say when I say this now.
I heard about Namdeo Dhasal first when I saw his first poetry anthology ‘Golpitha’ in an elegant and scholarly bookshelf at my friend’s house. A friend of mine spoke about him but I did not understood much. It was only in 2013, when I came to Bombay to pursue Masters’ degree that I became familiar with the work of Namdeo Dhasal and gradually, with his politics. Then, the more I read him, the more I developed the sense that poetry is not an imagination per se, but a reality of life and the process of transcending it through words. An extension of the brutality of life, the love and the hate you have encountered within it, which can hardly be described through other means. But more than this, poetry is the politics of one’s own self. The self which I had never encountered in my reading of Brahmin novelists and poets in India, I discovered in reading Dhasal. How? Maybe because, Dhasal has given vocabulary to the experiences, which people like me have gone through, one way or another, deceived by institutions of caste. I found in Dhasal a language that can potently describe the complex reality of a Dalit’s mind. I found in Dhasal a theory of the Dalit’s rage and, a language for our experiences. At times, as Marathi stalwart Dalit writer Baburao Bagul proposed once, a writer (emphasis is mine) has to create his own language. And the creation of this language solely depends on the present in which a writer lives and breathes.
When I met Dhasal
By the time I met Dhasal in Mumbai, he was dead, and his dead body was being carried from Siddharth Hostel (Wadala) to Chaityabhoomi for cremation. Earlier, when I tried to meet him and do an article on him and his poetry, with my naïve understanding of him and his poetry and his politics, he was admitted to Bombay Hospital. Twice I went to the hospital and returned without meeting him. During those two visits, he was suffering from acute physical problems and wasn’t in a position to see or meet anybody. A few days later, I heard the news of his death. It was 15th of January, 2014. That day, along with a few friends, I walked with his funeral procession, from Siddharth Hostel to Chaityabhoomi; it took the funeral procession several hours to reach the cremation grounds as tens of thousands of people had come to pay their homage to him, and for such a huge crowd, the roads appeared miniscule; the crowd was walking with the pace of ants’ feet.
On Dhasal’s poetry
Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry emerged from an experiential space which was exclusively oppressive in its own way (read his life history). His experiences were so brutal that he had to create a ‘different’ language and vocabulary for them. Since then, he has inspired many poets. Later generation poets, especially those who claim to know him and take inspiration from him, underestimate this factual exclusivity of Dalit poetics in Maharashtra. Dhasal was not a product of formal schooling or academic domains, unlike the poets who seek inspiration from him. This factor remains unexplored as these poets seem busy in simply emulating him, in both language and contexts. They negate the challenge they have to face of having to deconstruct the ‘state’ language whose product they are, and at the same time, create a language for ‘their’ time and context of life.
Much of the phrases, imageries, metaphors, symbols he used in his poetry were derivative of the dialects of Marathi and Hindi (especially what they call Bumbaiyya Hindi) he spoke and wrote in. Dhasal says:
I did not have to consciously turn to poetry. Ever since I learnt to speak my mother tongue as a child, I started playing with words.
He did not clearly remember the year he arrived in Bombay. But it was sometime during the 1950s. Later, Dhasal grew up in the locality called Golpitha that was adjoined to the brothel area of Bombay then. Here, in this ‘doh number ki duniya’ he talks about the obnoxious system of caste. Dhasal developed the habit of reading and was a voracious reader even as he had to hold odd jobs and drive a taxi for livelihood and survival. His reading covered works by Marx, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Lenin, Plato, Dostoevsky, Socrates so on and on. But it was poetry that he sought. He said:
To talk about myself, I arrived at my path because of an incidence concerning a girl. It was my experience of a love relationship frustrated by communalism and castiesm. (Dhasal, 2007)
A stanza from his long poem titled ‘Khel’ (translates as Game), gives us a glimpse of it:
I saw him
I rejected him endless times,
My corpse will wander
Across several villages;
Stop and stand, amid this light of dawn,
Do not show me the mercy
Of the meanest level
As if a drunkard is dialling a number to a God,
If the affinity within relationship has come to cease,
Take your hands off the responsibility
This would let you axe the water
Couple of times. (Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)
Dhasal seems to challenge and warn here, not the person referred to, but caste which often becomes the matter of dispute in inter-caste love relationships in which upper caste agency always overpowers the purest feeling of love; but for him, love was as pure and clean as water.
His life and time was full with political and personal turmoil. But it was the pursuit of knowledge, a life of mind, as Babasaheb emphasised throughout his life, that became the force that kept him going. In a self revelation, he said:
Once you develop a taste for knowledge, you begin to grow fast. If you do not have a vision, you become a problem unto yourself. I never became a problem to myself. I became a socialist; but as soon as I saw the hollowness of it, I turned to communism. However, whatever I did, my foundation was Ambedkar’s vision. (Dhasal, 2007)
This is evident from the poems he has written on Babasaheb; a whole anthology, titled as ‘Tujhe Bot Dharun Chalalo Aahe Mee’, which roughly translates as ‘I am walking toward the path shown by your finger, was dedicated to Babasaheb ’.
One marvellous poem from this anthology says:
You died; but it doesn’t mean you are finished.
We grew up like anything, formless.
Our children couldn’t dare ever
To disregard your motherhood;
Academician/ Technician/ Politician/Scientist/ Philosopher,
They might interpret you as anything.
But you lived like a human being,
There was no craft in it
No duplicity, no mimics in it.
Is it that everything becomes old
Or they serve us water from top?
Is it that everything becomes old
Or they haven’t let us see
The black and white feet of Vithoba ?
Now they and we are alike.
Socialism within this world,
Communism within this world,
And everything of yours,
We keep for the sake of testing
And the test concludes:
Our shadow can conceal our legs.
We get angry at you as well
But this tongue was given by you.
We see you in the water
But the water was given by you.
Anything can be made out of you
But the question that unanswered is of
My loyalty and honesty.
Who are you?
Who were you?
Whom you belong to?
The entire world belongs to you
But your children are suffering;
A fakir can become a Prime Minister here
But not a Mang and Bhangi .
The price of parliament has reduced before a chair,
The price of prostitute has reduced before the law,
Yet in everything,
It was clear:
You handled everyone equally
You did not practice favouritism.
It was Friday.
Mother has eagerly bought
A book of lessons,
And one pencil made up of stone
From the market.
That day she was too much tired.
Amid the light of lantern
She made me massage her feet
And then she said,
“Until I fall asleep
Please go through this book,
I am not educated but do one thing:
Start your education
From B as Babasaheb.
He was more handsome than Ganpati.
That is why
Do not recite Shri-Ganesha .
The head of the people isn’t an ugly person,
He is one among us.
Is called Babasaheb Ambedkar,
Otherwise this book has no meaning.
It turned 3 in the night
Until I have written this.
I willed to drink liquor
But did not feel to have it actually,
Just wanted to sleep peacefully
To see the caste-less morning of tomorrow. (Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)
His own life was the source for his metaphors, symbols and imagery that till date remain unparalleled. Perhaps, that is the reason, the trend of emulating his style or use of his imageries by contemporary poets in Maharashtra jeopardises their own creativity. About his personal life, he has always been outspoken. To learn about a poet of such stature, his personal life and political endeavours, are of utmost importance. The foundation of his poetry lies in the socio-psychological background in which he lived and his perpetual struggle against caste; no other poet in India could have accessed this. He said:
I boozed. I visited brothels. I went to mujra dancing women’s establishments and to houses of ordinary prostitutes. The whole ambience and the ethos of it was the revelation of a tremendous form of life. It was life! Then I threw all rulebooks out. No longer the rules of prosody for me. My poetry was as free as I was. I wrote what I felt like writing and how I felt like writing. I had found my weapons and I sharpened them. Nothing was going to stop me now. I went on writing, unshackled and liberated. (Dhasal, 2007)
In water, he sought humanity. But he knew, in this soil of caste, even water has been graded/divided on caste lines. This is very vivid when he says:
There is no duty as beautiful as of the water in the world.
When drought comes,
You change cities as if changing shirts
Then tell me
What should they change
Who die tremblingly thirsty and without water? (Translation by Yogesh Maitreya)
His ‘Manasaane’, man you should explode, is the epic poem which summarises his concept of humanism. His idea of justice when he says:
Descendants of Jesus, Buddha, and Paigamber must be hanged till death…..
Man should tear off all the pages of religious and godly scriptures and after being done with defecation, wash their arses with them…
Then one should not commit a crime of not identifying one’s own mother and sister
They must acknowledge the sky as their grandfather and the earth as their grandmother and
Live cordially within their bosom,
Then one must do noble deeds so much that even the Sun and the Moon would be jealous looking at it and their shine would appear dim before it,
One morsel should be cut and distributed among all equally,
A hymn would be composed over man only
A man should sing only a song of man. (Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)
His poetry possesses the ability to speak for all the people who have been exploited, speaks for people who believe in the democratic principles of equality, liberty, justice and fraternity. But unfortunately, the meanest Brahmin writers with their meanest interpretations of him such as Vijay Tendulkar (through his play Kannyadan) or Dilip Chitre surrounded him and attempted to introduce him to ‘other’ people through their literary pursuits. Chitre wrote:
He (Namdeo) grew up out of a cesspool, drawing nourishment from it, metabolising its toxic waste and thriving on the immunity he acquired, to become the poet of the underworld, a lumpen messiah, a poor man’s Bodhisattva.
Such mean and symbolically destructive imagination of a Dalit man can only be done by a Brahmin mind. Chitre’s metaphors are not only imaginatively infertile but destructive too. By calling him poor man’s Bodhisattva, Chitre rejects Dhasal’s ability to speak for all of humanity and for the entire oppressed of the world. This has been what Brahmins, especially those who claim to be allies of Dalits, are doing with Dalit intellectuals and artists for decades.
Dhasal knew it very well when he says:
All of the plays
Going on in the experimental theatres
About our conditions,
Why should we talk about betterment of mind
While quietly being sacrificed ourselves
As if a goat during Eid?
One should live happily
By naming his life after Penis,
I won’t live like that. (Translated by Yogesh Maitreya)
In this article, I deliberately focused on his poetry and not on his politics. Since it was poetry that made him what he is known among people, and his life as a Panther. It was poetry that rescued him from all the odds of life. To read him in his own words:
Both my individual and collective life have been through such tremendous upheavals that if my personal life did not have poetry to fall back on I would not have reached thus far. I would have become a top gangster, the owner of a brothel, or a smuggler. (Dhasal, 2007)
 A Local God in the state of Maharashtra, India.
 Ex-untouchable castes.
 An elephant headed God popular in the state of Maharashtra.
 Worship of elephant headed god starts with this word.
 Phrase popular in India which translates as truth/vigour/beauty.
 He mentioned it when he took some of his friends to show Golpitha to let them know where his poetry came from. It can be read in the introduction to his first anthology.
My name is Yogesh Maitreya. I am from Nagpur and have done my M.A in Criminology and Justice (2013-15) from TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai).
Photos courtesy: Daisy Katta