Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Namdeo Dhasal: the bard of Mumbai's underbelly



Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry has often been called a translator’s nightmare, a kind of fecund waste land where even the most resolute could lose their way. There is so much going on at different levels in his writings: at all times there is the anger of the damned, the rhythm is complex, and the verse a mongrel patchwork of dialect, including Bambaiya and Mahar, through which courses the excretion of human and city life. There is more sepsis here than in the Mithi, and Dhasal wants more than anything else to slam- dunk the reader’s head into its flow.

This, after all, is the venting of a man who famously described himself as “a venereal sore in the private part of language’’.

Down the years there have been sporadic attempts to translate Dhasal for anthologies and journals, and although some of these efforts are stamped with an academic acuity, the rasp and scat of the original haven’t always made the leap. Scholars have rued the poor cross-pollination, for it has meant that one of the country’s leading Dalit voices has remained beyond the reach of readers not fluent in Marathi.

Setting things right by a long way is the recently published large-format book, Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld, with the eminent bilingual writer Dilip Chitre as literary curator and translator. Handsomely planned with plenty of breathing room, the poems are interleaved with black-and-white photographs of Mumbai at its most un-picture-postcardlike, and therefore most riveting, although the quality of the photos is disappointing.

The book is the result of an interesting four-way collaboration: Namdeo the poet, Chitre the translator, Henning Stegmuller the photographer, and stitching it all together between hardcovers was publisher S Anand. “This is the first comprehensive volume representing Namdeo’s entire oeuvre by a single translator,’’ says Anand, who has won the British Council’s International Young Publisher of the Year award for the title. “This book is Dilip’s baby. After I won the award, I called Dilip, only to find out that he was with Namdeo in the ICU. Namdeo has had myasthenia gravis for two decades and keeps very poor health. When his wife Mallika showed him the book, I believe his face lit up. He is now convalescing at home but is far from his normal self.’’

What binds the members of this project is not the mere act of poetry-making but the deeper reality of Dalit oppression. Chitre’s 40-year friendship with Dhasal—a friendship that has survived substantial political differences—is rooted in a shared belief in a Dalit renaissance. The Chennai-based Anand who had launched his publishing imprint Navayana specifically to engage with the politics of caste, read an article by Chitre on Namdeo’s poems when he was awarded the Golden Jubilee Sahitya Akademi award in 2004, and decided that he had to commission a comprehensive translation.

Although all eight collections of Dhasal’s works are represented, many of the poems are from his landmark collection Golpitha (1972), set in Mumbai’s redlight district where he grew up. The underworld of the book’s title is not the glamourous pad of the don and his moll, but the polluted world of the pimp, the thug and the harlot. The poet plants his flag in Mumbai’s prostitute heart and in a brazen celebration unfurls its debasement for the reader and the world to see. It is an intimate stripping, a blasting open of memory.

During the famous 1960 London cersorship trial to ban D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, the prosecution came armed with a smug obscenity count: the word 'fuck' or 'fucking' appeared 30 times, 'cunt' 14 times, 'balls' 13 times; 'shit' and 'arse' six times each, 'cock' four times, 'piss' three times. A single poem by Dhasal could easily top that count.

If Dhasal's poetry is guilty of excess, and it is, it is only because he is the inheritor of a civilisational injustice, a system which considered his parents and their ancestors to be less than human. The outpouring of rage and cuss words in his long poem Man,You Should Explode, is the howl of a desperate soul. Like a man possessed, the poet incites the reader into all kinds of violent and unspeakable acts.

Turn humans into slaves; whip their arses with a lash
Cook your beans on their bleeding backsides
Rob your next-door neighbours, bust banks
Fuck the mothers of moneylenders and the stinking rich
Cut the throat of your own kith and kin by conning them; poison them, jinx them
You should hump anyone’s mother or sister anywhere you can
Engage your dick with every missy you can find, call nobody too old to be screwed
Call nobody too young, nobody too green to shag, lay them one and all

The tirade, some of it gratuitous, continues like a foul river in spate, until, spent of it spleen, the tone changes in the last few lines into a brooding and meditative calm, a post-apocalyptic wisdom that now encourages the same reader to reach into his or her deepest self and "act so bright as to make the Sun and the Moon seem pale". It is a poem that leaves one both frightened and hopeful, revulsed and ashamed.

Dhasal may live today in middle-class comfort, and his militant political party, the Dalit Panthers, may have long been tamed, but these poems were written before that softening. Like the great Tudor politician Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Namdeo grew up as the son of a butcher, and his world was not a pretty one. The backdrop of the cover of Golpitha was a municipal form of a Venereal Diseases Clinic. Wrote Vijay Tendulkar in the foreword, “The world of Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry begins where the frontier of Mumbai’s white- collar world ends and a No Man’s Land opens up.’’

This elegant book is a journey through the bowels of those quarters over which we have constructed robust mental flyovers.

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