Namdeo Dhasal is one of my closest friends. This surprises many people who know him and me because of the controversies that his political activities generate and because they cannot, even by association, connect me with his political stances which have been inconsistent. He was one of the founders of Dalit Panthers in 1972, a militant activist organization, at that time inspired by the Black Panthers in the United States, or so it seemed. In some ways it fitted into the global mosaic of anger, protest, demonstrations, violence, and youthful revolutionary upsurge that swept across France, Germany, parts of Europe, Africa, America, and Asia.
But the Dalit Panthers were rooted in Bombay and were a product of the history of the city and the immigrant Dalit youth who came to it, scarred by the memories of their oppression in their native villages and small towns, and inspired by their late leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. After Ambedkar's death in the mid-1950s, his Republican Party of India was in a shambles. Small-time and self-styled Dalit leaders were either seduced by the ruling Indian National Congress or by its political rivals who desperately wooed the votes of the minorities. By 1972, the Shiv Sena had already emerged as a powerful force in Bombay, thanks again to the politics of the ruling Congress party led by Indira Gandhi that had thrust upon the unwilling Marathas a minority Chief Minister in Vasantrao Naik.
Naik was a patron of Thackeray in those days, and so were some big players in business. Following Ambedkar, many Maharashtrian Dalits had quit Hinduism to liberate themselves from a caste-system that stamped them with a lifelong lowly status. They were uncomfortable with any kind of Hindu cultural and political rhetoric. They were looking for a platform in their fight for equality and freedom.
There was an articulate Dalit avant garde that stormed the Marathi literary scene and attracted nation-wide attention. The great fiction-writer Baburao Bagul had already made his mark. Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, Arjun Dangle, and J.V. Pawar were all young writers who wanted to shake the Marathi literary establishment at its very foundations and had in them the spirit and the talent to do so. They wanted to take their activism beyond literature and culture directly into the political arena. Yet they also knew, from the outset, that as a minority they would only be small-time players in electoral politics or even be made mere stooges. They found guerilla tactics a very attractive weapon in the ethos of the big city where the poorer neighbourhoods were ruled by organized crime and where politicians used the underworld as a source of secret weapons.
Three decades have passed. The Dalit Panthers still survive and Namdeo Dhasal continues to be their leader. But today, Dalit Panthers are allied with the Shiv Sena, once their sworn arch-enemy. The post-Babri Masjid riots in Bombay and the bomb blasts that followed make the 1970s seem remote history. Crime and politics have become more sophisticated and organized, with globalisation investing a new spirit in them, and cell-phones and the internet helping them to refurbish their own self-image.
Today, Namdeo Dhasal is part of the establishment. Or is he again in disguise, still fighting his own kind of guerilla war? He lives in an upper-class neighbourhood in the western part of Mumbai, Andheri. He drives a flashy sports car. He has an armed bodyguard accompanying him wherever he goes. He uses a mobile phone. He has a constant stream of visitors seeking favours. Namdeo has contacts with the ruling politicians as well as with the opposition. For his distinguished contribution to literature he was awarded the title Padma Shri by the President of India. He should have been nationally honoured a long time ago but it was during the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance's regime that he received this honour.
Nobody misses the irony in this. The Sena-BJP alliance represents all that Namdeo's writing has fiercely attacked and with remarkable consistency. During the Emergency of 1975-77, Indira Gandhi dropped all cases against him and his Dalit Panthers after he had a long meeting with her explaining his position. During that period he published one of his long poems on Indira Gandhi, a sycophantic work reminiscent of M.F. Hussain's Durga, no less. All this is true. Such acrobatics are not new in Indian politics. So who does Namdeo represent? Dalits? Or just himself? Why should he be taken seriously? I am asked these questions as though as a friend I was also his keeper. Why am I his friend? Why is he my friend? Questions of conscience. Questions of integrity. Questions of ideological consistency. Questions of honesty. Exasperating questions.
To many, Namdeo Dhasal's political 'career', if it may be called so, describes a three hundred and sixty degree course. Born in a small hamlet called Pur-Kanersar in the Khed Taluk of Pune district in 1949, Namdeo is ‘almost’ one of Midnight’s Children. His father was a small-time Mahar farmer who, along with his fellow-untouchables, lived off land granted to them just outside the village limits. Namdeo was his only surviving child. Unable to feed his family he went to Mumbai to work as a Muslim butcher’s assistant. He would bring home daily wages and discarded portions of beef. Namdeo and his mother joined him when Namdeo was about six or seven. He recalls his sense of awe as he stepped out of the Victoria Terminus station. His eyes were immediately arrested by a huge hoarding of the film Mother India then showing at the Capitol cinema.
A brilliant student at school, he was an avid reader and a prodigiously talented writer at a precocious age. In his early teens, he fell in love with an upper caste Hindu girl and eloped with her to Pune, nearly causing a communal riot where he lived in Mumbai. The ‘couple’ were eventually separated and the issue was hushed up.
After his schooling, Namdeo read Ambedkar and was attracted to Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia's brand of desi socialism and he saw a great deal in common between Ambedkar's vision of a truly secular, truly socialist, pluralistic and republican, federalist India. Not educated beyond high school, Namdeo is largely self-educated. He is a voracious reader and a sharp-witted conversationist. The only languages he is fluent in are his native Marathi and that colourful Mumbai-grown hybrid Hindi with some Urdu flavouring. God knows where he picked his knowledge of contemporary poetry but he will surprise you by quoting Octavio Paz or by making references to cubism and surrealism. His own understanding of the rich and varied deeper resources of language, his insights into the art of poetry, will not fail to amaze you. He is a prodigy possessing an unschooled sophistication. Where does this come from?
Disillusioned with the Lohiaite socialists, though not with Lohia the thinker, Namdeo was attracted to Marxism and was briefly drawn to the communists. He married Mallika, then only a teenager, the younger daughter of 'Shahir' ( people's bard) Amar Shaikh, who was a member of the Communist Party of India and who was a great lyricist and singer whose finest hour was during the 'Samyukta Maharashtra Movement' for a Marathi-speaking state. The veteran Communist leader SA Dange took him under his wing.
The great 19th century Maharashtrian social revolutionary Jotiba Phule and Ambedkar—both now officially iconised across the political spectrum—were his earliest gods and continue to be so even now, and it is difficult to reconcile them with any but the earliest Marx, not to mention later sworn Marxists such as Lenin and Mao. Anyone trying to evolve a fusion of all these finds himself or herself trapped in complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities beyond resolve. Primarily an activist, Namdeo cannot be expected to master the intellectual jugglery and trickery mere ideologues can display. All one can question is his practice of what he professes and in the Indian politics of the last fifty years, there is no leader who can really pass that sort of an acid test.
I would rather go straight into the heart of the matter. What is it that makes Namdeo a wonderful human being and an outstanding poet by any standards? For that is the very foundation of my friendship with him.
Namdeo Dhasal, the poet, was in his mid-twenties when he published his epoch-making first collection of poems Golpitha named after the notorious centre of prostitution in central Mumbai where he grew up—Dhor Chawl in the Arab Galli near Golpitha, the ‘black hole’ of Mumbai’s traditional red light district. He was surrounded by small-time smugglers, drug-traffickers, ‘supari’-killers, thieves, loan-sharks’ henchmen and goons living on protection-money.
This was then the heart of Mumbai's underworld and even today possesses the characteristics of a neighbourhood where everything illicit, criminal, nefarious, exploitative, and inhuman finds a natural home. It is Mumbai's terminal hell-hole that much later Mira Nair found as a vivid cinematic location for her famous film Salaam Bombay. Playwright Vijay Tendulkar, who wrote the introduction to the first edition of Golpitha, was given a guided tour of the neighbourhood by Namdeo before that introduction was written. Since then Namdeo has played Virgil to many a literary Dante, though Dante was only inventing a Virgil, and Virgil was no native of the Inferno.
What for other literary visitors was only a voyeuristic tour was the place where Namdeo mined his striking metaphors for hell and Tendulkar was able to perceive where the life-form of Namdeo's poetry sprang from and survived.
"I do not create values," wrote Henry Miller once, "I defecate and nourish". The poems in Golpitha often contain a scatological element, or even an elemental scatology and their reader needs a strong stomach to withstand their relentlessly repulsive ethos. And yet, there is a tragic lyrical luminosity about the evocative brutal imagery, the savaging of humanity with its muffled cry of pain that the poems carve out.
Golpitha occupies a position equal to that of T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land not only in Marathi but in pan-Indian poetry and it could have been written only by a Dalit. An earlier Marathi poetic classic was B.S. Mardhekar's Kahi Kavita that comes from a literary culture much similar to Eliot's. Namdeo's Golpitha has no literary foregrounding because it springs from an 'untouchable' source in every sense of the term. It reveals whatever others would strive to shove under the carpet of poetry. This is my considered opinion more than three decades after its publication and I had no hesitation in writing that Namdeo's poetry, from that outstanding start, is Nobel Laureate material. He has published six more collections of poetry since, and each has the stamp of his unique genius. Marathi literary critics, always about a quarter-of-a-century behind the achievement of their native contemporaries, are only now beginning to acknowledge his worth, and still rather grudgingly.
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.
His poetry is both a translator's nightmare and occasional delight. I rediscover it every now and then. Some years ago, the former Heidelberg Indologist and translator of Hindi and Bengali poetry into German, Lothar Lutze and I worked on some of Namdeo's poems. Lutze is one of the finest readers of contemporary European poetry and a translator with a rare acumen for poetic tonality and we shared our delight in translating Namdeo together. Since Lutze knows no Marathi, I provided him answers to his very subtle and probing queries about each word, phrase, metaphor, and idiom. Even Marathi readers find Namdeo's poetry often obscure and complex. A translator's chosen accountability made me struggle as I answered Lutze's questions. Judging by German readers' response to Lutze's translations, I now think it was worth our while.
Some years ago, for a special issue of an American journal devoted to South Asian literature, the late A.K. Ramanujan similarly translated a couple of Namdeo's poems with the assistance of a Marathi speaker, and recently Vinay Dharwadkar has done so for another American literary journal. But I am amazed at the apathy shown by translators in Indian languages, including English, to this major contemporary poet. Bangla translators may be excused. But Hindi? Malayalam? Kannada? Gujarati? The Indian literary scene is rich but poorly cross-pollinated and that, as a translator, depresses me most.
Dilip Chitre's translations of Namdeo Dhasal's poems are published as Namdeo Dhasal—Poet of the Underworld, Poems 1972-2006. This piece is republished by permission