“Till now poems have been written only
about going to jail,
while for any right-thinking person
no poems have been born
for blowing up jails.”
Switching on the tv one night in a single-room apartment in the United States, I find myself face to face with Alyque Padamsee, the Bombay ad-man, selling soap. It is a documentary by Werner Volkner, with Mr Padamsee holding forth on the desire of the Indian housewife for Liril soap. Another ad-man, Mohammed Khan, comes on to provide a packaged a vision of India where “the guilt is gone”. Indians, he says, do not mind spending more and more money on consumer products.
But, of course, there is the other India. Even filmmaker Volkner was aware of this: while Padamsee hawks his wares, the camera pans over the sight of men washing their bodies at roadside hydrants. The crucial question is not where reality lies, but in what ways and where it gets discussed, and who raises a voice in protest. As a way of answering these questions, I am offering in translation the poems of the contemporary Hindi poet, Alokdhanwa.
As the Patna-based poet writes in his long piece “Janta ka Aadmi” (Of the People), there is an oppressive, institutional apparatus that silences the clamour of protest:
They are professional murderers
those who choke and strangle to death the naked news
in the shadow of sensational headlines
they show themselves again and again the serfs of that one face
the map of whose bathroom is bigger than the map of my village.
The publishing houses of this country like the pale worms
found in the icy cracks:
on the banks of the river Hooghly, before taking his own life
why had the young poet screamed
–The Times of India
This silencing of protest has a particular relationship to poetry. Alokdhanwa poses the question: “Why is it that every time the question of poetry/is unable to catch up with the question of the common life?” To him, the answer is clear. There are those who have patronised the construction of a “museum of poetry” where they conserve a bloodless, vapid, aesthetic ideal. For Alokdhanwa, the prospect of the common poet of the people stepping into this space of the affluent akademi-culture suggests the startling image of the poet´s corpse in the capitalist´s fish-tank:
Amidst poems like fine tobacco
capable of collecting a crowd of failed, old female-lovers
my shepherd face smelling of sheep
must have seemed very unexpected to you,
as much as
in Sahu Jain´s fish-tank
instead of the fish, afloat, the corpse of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh.
The revolutionary poet, dead, in the fish-tank of the best-known capitalist patron of literature speaks powerfully of the place consigned to protest poetry in the institutions of the arts. (Muktibodh, who died in 1964 after a long illness, enjoys a stable reputation as a revolutionary, epic writer of Hindi poetry.)
Who is this poet who protests the practice of poetry as high art, who writes, “Till now poems have been written only about going to jail/while for any right-thinking person/no poems have been born for blowing up jails”? It is in Alokdhanwa´s social milieu, and in the political geography of the land of his origin, that we can locate the terms of his identity.
Alokdhanwa has been writing poetry for more than 25 years but has published no more than a handful of long poems. He has no collection in his name. Manglesh Dabral, a writer in Hindi, says: “He has remained outside debates and symposiums and he has also not stepped into the so-called mainstream of poetry that is flowing through a few, selected cities. He has many incomplete poems, whereas today the tendency is to write and get something published immediately. Alokdhanwa shows a great restraint in even getting his complete poems published.”
In the 1980s, with the spread of the Naxalite movement, Bihar had emerged as the crucible for a new kind of struggle and consciousness. In a region of chronic poverty and caste-class exploitation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) presented a different world, in which ill-fed and ill-clad people rose up in arms, flinging a challenge to an oppressive, agrarian order, claiming “jote boye kate dhan, khet ka malik wahi kisan” (those who till and sow and harvest, only they are the owners of the land). Srikakulam and Telengana, which had become legendary names associated with popular struggles in the earlier decades in other parts of India, were reinvented in a fresh period of struggle just when their invocation had begun to seem an act of mere nostalgia. Alokdhanwa has been a witness as well as a partisan in this rediscovery.
In Bihar, conditions are such that even the Public Works Department of the state government has a special Naxalite cell. This unit has been entrusted with the task of constructing roads in areas where peasants are rebellious. Those who do not have access to roads that will take them to schools or hospitals finally get roads so that the police and the army can take swift action if the property of the landlords is in any way threatened.
Who will build roads to the huts of the people Alokdhanwa writes about? I cannot easily distance myself from that other, more humane, and more militant because it is more humane, message that Alokdhanwa offers about whom he can reach with his poetry:
From the machine that cuts ice to the machine that cuts human beings
against the bright, inhuman glamour
my poetry passes through the middle of burning villages
with rapid fire and sharp shrieks
near the burnt woman
it is my poetry that reaches first;
when while doing this my poetry gets burnt in different places.
And there are those who are even today using poetry for carrying corpses,
filling the oxygen of new metaphors in the lungs of words,
but for him who has been born during the curfew,
whose breath is hot like the summer wind
in the mind of that young coal-miner
it is like a brand new gun that my poetry is recalled.
Far from the prone figure of the burnt woman, far also from the furnace that is the mind of the militant coal-miner, to return for a moment to the coolness of the television screen where Alyque Padamsee boasts of his knowledge of what the Indian housewife wants. Mr Padamsee tells us that he imagines the Indian middle-class woman “daydreaming” while taking her bath “which is the only time when she´s alone”. To this woman, Mr Padamsee offers a “freshness soap”.
Meanwhile, in his poem “Bhaagi Hui Ladkiyan” (Girl in Flight) Alokdhanwa imagines a struggle between fantasies and the actualities that surround young women in India. For the poet, the sole purpose of exploring this tension lies in the depiction of oppression – and the freedom won by a girl in flight, through her own agency and will, rather than the fragrant enticement of a soap manufacturing company:
Chains of the home
become so much more visible
when a girl runs away from home.
Are you faced with memories of that night
which one sees again and again in old films
whenever a girl runs away from home?
She is not the first girl
who has been in flight
and nor is she going to be the last one
now there must be other boys
and other girls too
who will run away in the month of March.
Throughout “Bhaagi Hui Ladkiyan”, Alokdhanwa prefers to read love, particularly the love of women, as protest, because “she can do anything/only giving birth does not mean being a woman”. The poem is also an condemnation of patriarchal repression:
You will erase that
you will erase a girl in flight
from the air of her own house
you will also erase her from there
which is her childhood inside you
from there too
the violence of superiors!
The poem also develops as a stinging critique of the masculine traffic in women and the economy of gendered control. It rebukes the mode of production that relies on the subjugation of women and the repression of desire:
keep your wives separate
and keep your lovers separate
from your wives
how you are struck with terror
when a woman wanders fearlessly
searching for her own self
together in whores and wives
Now she can be anywhere
even in those nations to come
where loving will be a full-time job!
In “To Posterity”, Bertolt Brecht offers a poignant but careful assessment of the role of poetry:
In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure. This was my hope.
That hopeful confidence which Brecht risks, and which Alokdhanwa seems to share, leaves unanswered one question, namely that of literacy. I have with me a photograph of a wall-painting only a few miles from Alokdhanwa´s flat in our hometown, Patna. On that wall are painted a few short lines from a poem by Muktibodh, the same poet named in “Janta ka Aadmi”. The poem reads: “Right to equality/The challenge of equality/Or else/Struggle and assault.”
The wall-painting was done by cultural activists engaged in a literacy campaign in Bihar. Alokdhanwa is a part of this campaign; but how hopeful can he remain that he will produce readers for his verse? Rather than readily proclaiming that the subaltern masses are obliging the writer of protest by reading his or her rebellious signs, it is crucial to draw attention to the silencing of literary protest through a culture of illiteracy.
This is the phenomenon that the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, has called “indirect censorship”. This mode of censorship works by denying creativity to the vast majority of people and honouring a small handful of specialists. Alokdhanwa has protested in his poems against the dead museums of poetry. One should attach to that protest, a criticism of the enforced impoverishment of culture by denying to millions the right to read and write.
In India, it is not only the poor and the unlettered who remain unaware of the poetry of protest. How many political poems find their way into the school curricula? My teachers in high school in Patna felt it was necessary that I memorise what William Wordsworth had written about daffodils, a flower I had not even laid my eyes on, while I was to remain oblivious of the words of Bhikari Ram, a Musahar poet near my birthplace, singing in Hindi:
Sudhama´s wife weeps and complains:
Days are lean,
No sattu to eat,
No hut to live in.
Days are lean,
No shoes on our feet.
Days are lean.
Where poetry feeds into a tired aestheticism and remains a slave to obsolete, colonial standards, it is not surprising that Alokdhanwa should protest also against being a poet. One of his poems ends with the words, “This is not a poem/this is a call to open fire/that all those who use the pen/are getting from all those who work the plough.” His “Open Fire Poster” is, in a way, what it calls itself and hence different from a poem: a poster calling on intellectuals to bear arms and fight with the poor and the exploited.
At the same time, however, there are clear ways in which this text works specifically as a poem. For example, it protests against the marginalisation of poetry itself: the poet, after all, is allowed only as far as the peripheral district towns. The centre is always kept out of poetry´s reach, and the protest is articulated from far outside the parliament´s walls:
If those people ever grant me entry into their poems
It is only to blindfold me
and to use me
and then leave me outside the borders
they never let me
reach the capital.
I am grabbed
by the time I begin to reach the district towns.
The poems are not offered so much as strategies to attain the centre as they are to serve as testimonials or records of damaged lives. For instance, the poet presents the loneliness in the space of the nation-state which can boast of cheap cigarettes but not a community. “It is not the government – it is this country´s/cheapest cigarette that has kept me company.” In its appeal to feeling and effect, precisely under conditions of deprivation that make any sense of the personal impossible (the poet´s mother, let´s not forget, is only a “five foot iron stick–/on which hang two pieces of dry bread”), poetry inscribes its difference.
Neither a poster, then, nor simply a poem, this post-colonial writing confounds with its cunning rationality and its rage. It reminds of James Mill´s colonial condemnation back in 1840 of both poetry and Indian culture: “Poetry is the language of the passions, and men feel, before they speculate. At this first stage the literature of the Hindus has always remained.”
At the same time, Alokdhanwa´s writing voices a protest against the post-independence nation-state. It does so by opposing the sanctimonious language of law:
Now between my daughter and my strike
there is not even a hair´s breadth difference
when the constitution is on its own terms breaking my strike and my daughter
In being neither simply posters, nor only poems, and in its opposition to the language of the oppressors, former or present, Alokdhanwa´s writings avoid the conditions of being either propaganda or advertising. As a writing of protest, this poetry leans its shoulders into history against the door closing in its face. The space it is trying to open is against the inhuman claustrophobia of increasing restrictions on the living, in particular those illiterate millions around Patna unable to read this poet.