driver, Angry Panther, Literary Genius
November, Namdeo Dhasal will receive a special Sahitya Akademi Golden Jubilee
award. Dilip Chitre profiles one of the most maverick literary voices in
Namdeo Dhasal is not
important just because he happens to be Dalit, or because he is a Marathi
poet. He is, arguably, one of the major world poets of the Twentieth century.
His poetry is very striking and complex. When he presented it at the First
Internationales Literaturfestival in Berlin in 2001, he made a sensation.
Yet, in his home country, he is yet to be discovered outside of Maharashtra
– even though a few of his poems have been published in Hindi, Bangla,
and English translations.
SOIL ARTIST: Namdeo with wife, Mallika
In India: A Million Mutinies Now, VS Naipaul devotes a whole chapter to
his meeting with Namdeo, but fails to comprehend its significance as his
communication with Namdeo relied on an interpreter. Dom Moraes, too, has
described his encounter with him. Being more perceptive, Dom not only did
his homework on Namdeo but also got me to translate some of Namdeo’s
poems to understand him better.
There is something undeniably exotic and fascinating about a dalit poet
who is also a militant political activist. Namdeo makes good copy for journalists:
he grew up in Mumbai’s infamous red light district, has rubbed shoulders
with notorious gangsters as well as the top political leadership of Maharashtra;
he’s been awarded a Padma Shri, and is rated highly among contemporary
Marathi writers. But unless they are fluent in Marathi — the only
language Namdeo speaks — they won’t know what they are missing.
Very few non-Marathi readers know that Namdeo is not only an outstanding
poet but also the author of two impressive novellas. A brilliant book of
essays has been compiled from his journalistic columns — Andhale Shatak
or The Blind Century, and his amazing memoir Those Magical Days of Dalit
Panthers was published in a special issue of the magazine ABaKaDaEe.
Namdeo describes himself as a member of the lowest of the low class —
as lumpen, scum of the earth, as well as dalit which means oppressed or
downtrodden. People who have seen him in recent years driving a sports car
or being chauffer-driven in an imported sedan may say that he is a political
opportunist. That he has sold out the Dalit movement like most other Dalit
leaders whose political alignments have veered 360 degrees. But Namdeo himself
will patiently explain to you precisely why he is with the Shiv Sena today
as he was earlier with the Lohiaite Socialists, the CPI, the Congress, and
with the failed ‘united’ Republican Party of India.
In an interview with the Munich-based film-maker Henning Stegmuller and
me for a film on the city of Mumbai in the late 1990s, Namdeo said that
“our entire system was criminal and corrupt and paid only lip-service
to Constitutional morality — which left few options to the poorest
of the poor fighting for survival in a grossly uneven world.” So,
he asserted, the ‘compromises’ of the lumpen seemed crude and
criminal to those who lived off more sophisticated (though equally atrocious)
crimes. I am not Namdeo Dhasal’s political apologist or ally. I am
only an unabashed admirer of his literary genius and the human values his
uncompromising art asserts.
Though I knew Namdeo’s poetry we met only in the mid-1960s when he
was a young taxi driver who wrote strikingly original poems and spoke with
brash conviction. We met later again in 1972 just before his first collection
of poems Golpitha was published by Narayan Athavle, a journalist. Golpitha
had an introduction by Vijay Tendulkar. Both Athavle and Tendulkar were
my colleagues at The Indian Express, Mumbai.
Golpitha is a landmark in the history of not just Marathi poetry but the
whole of South Asian literature. In this slim book of poems the voice of
‘the scum of the earth’ rose for the first time, high above
the sophisticated murmur of ‘literary’ poetry without compromising
is a big poet in the sense Whitman, Mayakovsky and Neruda are big. But
unlike them, his poetry contains large chunks of a real and dirty world
peopled by have-nots and their slang. Henry Miller once said, “I
am not creating values; I defecate and nourish.” Namdeo did precisely
this for Marathi poetry. He restored its soil-cycle by feeding it the
very excrement and garbage that could fertilise it for the future.