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Taxi driver, Angry Panther, Literary Genius

In November, Namdeo Dhasal will receive a special Sahitya Akademi Golden Jubilee award. Dilip Chitre profiles one of the most maverick literary voices in India

THE SOIL ARTIST: Namdeo with wife, Mallika
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.
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 its artistry.

Namdeo 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.  

October 23, 2004
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