Yogesh Maitreya is an assured new voice in dalit English literature. His debut poetry collection “The Bridge of Migration” was published in 2017 by Panther’s Paw Publication. This essay is first in a series I intend to write about his poems from the above mentioned volume. The poem I begin with is “Post Khairlanji.”
“Post Khairlanji” is an extraordinary poem, remarkable in the way it captures grim reality, and paints an unvarnished picture of the lives of dalit-bahujans who have just been the victim of a bloody atrocity and calculated state apathy following it, when they protested and rebelled. This is the story of many of us, though the Khairlanji incident was unparalleled in the scale of its sheer animalistic brutality.
The questions it engages with: What do you do when you are alienated as a community for centuries and face the threat of social boycott? How do you react when faced with extreme violence, with nobody to hear you? One option would be to take up arms, but the youth of Khairlanji choose not to. This is a reflection of the faith they have in themselves, faith in education and in constitutional remedies. For they belong to the birthstate of Babasaheb Ambedkar, who has taught them that knowledge paves the way for a more just society.
It would be a shallow reading if one were to say that the youngsters are merely victims and have succumbed to disappointment and despair. The reader understands that they are seething with quiet rage and have an unshakeable will to see through structural cruelty and survive. For they know that survival is also a kind of victory. As Orhan Pamuk writes in one of his novels, “In a brutal country like ours, where human life is ‘cheap’, it’s stupid to destroy yourself for the sake of your beliefs. Beliefs? High ideas? Only people in rich countries can enjoy such luxuries.” Although Pamuk does not refer to India, it could as well be the experience of many dalit-bahujans. “I have no country”, Babasaheb himself said once.
However, this does not mean that the youth lack purpose, and do not want to see the guilty punished. There is a realization that one day not too far away, political power will be theirs. The poet also hints that there is a looming storm in their gaze which will be impossible to contain once unleashed: “… I look into their eyes/ Those are silent and calm/ But there is rage/ An indication of an unpredictable storm/ In the silence / Of their innocent eyes.”
This is also an achievement if we consider that the poet is critically detached and states facts objectively, without letting emotions take over. His voice is calm and composed, and narrates the aftermath of the Khairlanji massacre as an observer, and this shows the cultivated maturity of the narrator’s voice. Nowhere does he attempt to gain petty sympathy from his readers. Maybe he knows that it won’t make the least difference in the condition of the lives of the youth he talks about. His persona is Zen-like emotionally. He does not expect anything, aiming just to get the details of the incident across.
The second poem I aim to discuss is “Digging.”
In “Digging”, just like Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel laureate’s poem of the same title, Yogesh Maitreya speaks of the tradition of which he is a part. Both the poets pay homage to their father’s (and grandfather’s) occupation. While Heaney’s father worked on the farm to grow potatoes and sold cattle for a living, Maitreya’s grandfather “Broke stones for money/ Under the scorching sun.”
The difference between the two poems, as far as I could decipher, is in the tone and emotional depth. Maitreya writes, “Through my hard working father, / Who knew nothing about poetry / Yet taught me a lesson: / Love your family / And plough your dream / Into the eyes of your progeny…” This reflects what the poet believes he owes his father, and these lines convey a sense of tender attachment. Heaney’s poem, on the other hand, is mostly matter-of-fact, with no recourse to emotion of any sort.
This poem hence, performs a two-fold task- take cognizance of his literary forebears as his historical mentor and is, of course, a “remembrance of things past.” It bids farewell to the hard toiling that his ancestors did and announces his arrival in the literary world. And just like Heaney, Maitreya endeavors to dig with his pen. In his words, “… To dig into the meanings / They created through their lives.”
It begins with “Poetry didn’t come to me/ Through an idle occupation / Or a pursuit of pleasure.” This explains the need to write not for aesthetic gratification but as a means of self-expression, to create a social consciousness for one’s own person. The poet therefore writes for causes that are dear to him, and delves into the past to talk about his family occupation as a means of giving his father and grandfather the due regard they deserve. It is important to do so because dalit-bahujan histories are always ignored and erased in the history books of this nation with nobody to document our past- be it our glories or our struggles. The need to write about our lineage, the days our parents and grandparents have seen, hence assume profound importance.
Chanchal Kumar is a student of Delhi University. His poetry has recently appeared in The Sunflower Collective and Hamilton Stone Review.