Understanding caste, language and solidarities through Chandramohan’s poetry
Dalit scholar Suraj Yengde says the Dalit community is experiencing a “Harlem moment”.
“He is now able to speak loud and clear through words and actions – becoming more global and accessible than ever,” he wrote in Caste issues (2019).
“In the revolutionary age of communication technologies and new expressions of freedom, Dalits claim their rightful place in the armor of justice and democracy.”
This may seem a little counter-intuitive: if Dalits have found greater access to privilege, how can they still claim to be marginalized? (This is often the basis of Savarna’s argument against affirmative action.) But, as with race, issues of caste are often more complicated than they appear.
“The Dalit lives in no time,” writes Yengde, quoting Martin Heidegger.
This negotiation between strong demands for equality and opportunity and continued marginalization was perhaps best represented in English poetry by Chandramohan S.
While Dalit poetry has flourished in other Indian languages since independence, it has only recently begun to gain prominence in English. Along with Chandramohan, several others such as Chanchal Kumar, Cynthia Stephen, Gautam Vegda and writer and editor Yogesh Maitreya have expressed the experience and struggle of Dalits in their writing.
Dalit non-fiction writing has also grown in recent years – besides Yengde we have Sujatha Gidla and Yashica Dutta, the first Dalit writer to win the Sahitya Akademi Yuva award for work in English.
Chandramohan acknowledges all these recent achievements of his contemporaries in an article for the Indian Express, where he explains why he chose English. “A category like the Dalit poet can torpedo the caste dimensions of seemingly politically pasteurized Indian English poetry,” he writes in the essay that also serves as a preface to his new book. Love After Babel and Other Poems (Ottawa: Daraja Press, 2020). There is also an introduction by Yengde and an afterword by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya.
In these, Chandramohan appears to consciously engage in dialogue with scholars about his own poetry. He also tells us that it is not enough to read Dalit poetry but also to understand the politics that informs it.
There are four reasons, according to Chandramohan, that make English a suitable language for Dalit poetry:
First, English is widely used in India and also enables the writer to access opportunities in the West. (Chandramohan made the most of it, being selected for the prestigious Iowa Writers Residency in 2018.)
Second, it allows the poet greater control over their work and avoids the pitfalls of fashionable academic translations.
Thirdly, English has no built-in caste words and phrases unlike most other Indian languages, allowing the poet to escape such discrimination.
Finally, it offers the poet a springboard to escape the violence of his own cultural milieu. It is almost a kind of manifesto for Dalit poetry and it has important implications for research and practice.
I have always been skeptical of reviewing Chandramohan’s work. In a previous essay, “Dalit Poet, Upper-Caste Critic”, I had tried to address my position in the privilege and inability of the “upper” caste to the Dalit subjectivity of his poetry in his previous collection. Letters to Namdeo Dhasal (2016).
Chandramohan, however, uses various tools, such as humor, to make both his politics and his subjectivity accessible to his readers.
In a poem titled “The Caste on a Local Train”, he imagines a fellow casteist on a train as a Pakistani fast caster and his interrogation as a series of lightning-fast deliveries:
Caste on a local train can be misleading
like the soul
of a camouflaged Pakistani quick melon
in a three-piece suit
and an anglicized accent.
He first tries to assess me with an inswinger
“What’s your full name?”
Then he tries an outswinger that sews a lot
“And what’s your father’s name?”
That’s when he loses his patience
And try a direct Yorker
“What is your caste? »
This poem reappears in Love after Babel (like many poems by Letters to Namdeo Dhasal), but in a slightly different form.
There are actually not one but two poems in this book: “A local train conversation (1)” and “A local train conversation (2)”. In the first version, the fellow traveler is not in a three-piece suit with an Anglicized accent, he is an “elderly man”, “his religious mark between his eyebrows”. The change in character from a traditional old man to a westernized young man is an aesthetic and political choice, indicating that the caste travels beyond the geographical borders of India and persists despite access to higher education.
This seems poignant in light of current developments, with American universities beginning to recognize caste-based discrimination, and even the University of Oxford holding a seminar on caste counting, in response to the Indian government’s decision. to renounce the census of castes.
Chandramohan also makes very subtle changes in the different versions of the poems. For example, neither the version included in Letters to Namdeo Dhasal nor does the first version of the poem have an exclamation point after the last line: “What is your caste?” But the final version does. Just inserting this punctuation completely changes the strength of the last line.
Love after Babel includes not only revised versions of older poems, but also several new ones, including the titular poem. It’s a fairly long play, divided into 22 parts, and explores the intersections of language and politics. Chandramohan seems particularly interested in the politics of translation, describing the act of transmitting a text from one language to another in erotic terms:
An erotic encounter
After reading the poem aloud
struck by its aftertaste
The translator approaches
the poem as a boy approaching
a girl on the dance floor.
They share a pelvic laugh,
a crushing dance
to the rhythm of their poems read aloud.
But language and poetry are also ways to build solidarity, which Chandramohan does in the first part of the book, “Call Me Ishmail Tonight”. The four poems in this part are titled: “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Black Burkini,” “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Black Beard,” “Before Your Interrogation,” and “When the Cops Come Search You.”
The burkini – a swimsuit designed by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti – is worn to respect Islamic laws of modesty, but has been banned by different authorities in France and Switzerland, leading to accusations of Islamophobia.
A poem about religious vestments sounds incredibly poignant for our time – but it also has wider resonances. It is also an important artistic and political choice for Chandramohan, who refrains from addressing Dalit issues in his poetry to write about Islamophobia. It is a powerful reminder that there is a universality to the experience of oppression. Looking at the sun-blocking boot from below is the same for everyone below. And we must build solidarity to fight this oppression.
Uttaran’s Novel Das Gupta Ritual was published in 2020. He teaches Journalism at OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana.