When asked if he knew Namdeo Dhasal, a look of bewilderment clouds his face. Through a pair of spectacles, scratched from long use, he glances at the photograph of the Dalit poet and revolutionary in the newspaper. “He wasn’t just my leader, and to him, I wasn’t only a party worker; we were brothers,” he says, not bothering with introductions.
Atmaram Krushnaji Mirke vividly remembers the day in 1972 when a young boy came running to his house with a message from Dhasal: It’s time to revolt against the caste system. Bring out your brass plate and beat it as loud as you can to spread this message among your people. The Dalit Panther party has been formed. “Dhasal was a cousin and lived 10 minutes away. We knew each other but had never quite hung out together. I had completed basic education and was working as a scavenger, while he, a taxi driver, was mixing with a different crowd, the prostitutes and criminals from the Golpitha neighbourhood,” says the 62-year-old. It’s a call that Mirke would answer and give up his job and family life for.
Pointing to the chai tapri across his room in Kamathipura, Mirke says it’s where they would often gather, where Dhasal would deliver his speeches and recite the lines of his incendiary poetry. Men mill around the tiny stall, even at 9.30 pm. A blackboard next to it announces Dhasal’s demise. A woman nearby is taking shirts off the dozen or so clotheslines along the lane, the smell of bleach emanating from the clothes mixing with that of kebab from the restaurants nearby and the sewer that runs along the length of the lane. Everyone here responds to Dhasal’s name, acknowledging his contributions, calling him a “great man who helped us in times of need, taught us to fight the caste system”.
“Once a neighbour’s son fell in love with a girl from a well-to-do family of higher caste. The girl’s father hired goons to have the boy killed but Dada intervened and resolved the matter,” says Hematai, who lives in Mirke’s neighbourhood. That incident, from 15 years ago, speaks of Dhasal’s clout, which hadn’t entirely waned although the militant Dalit Panther movement had run out of its early impetus. It is also reminiscent of his past — Dhasal’s love for an upper-caste girl had led to his ostracism, and it was their forced separation that radicalised him.
Dhasal’s neighbourhood, in contrast, has little memory of the poet who lived among them during his early years, the words “Dhor Chawl” evoking no sign of recognition as we search for Dhasal’s Mumbai in the bylanes of Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red-light district. Walking down the lane behind Arab Gully, once home to members of the underworld, the hour-long search for Dhor Chawl ends with a 70-year-old shopkeeper, Abdul Karim. “Dhor Chawl was named after its inhabitants, most of whom belonged to the caste of people responsible for disposing animal carcasses,” he says. Almost all of them have moved out, replaced by members of his own Ansari community.
At the chawl, too, no one remembers Dhasal or the room he spent his childhood after moving to Mumbai with his family at the age of eight. People direct us to the oldest man in the lane, fondly known as Chakka Bhaiyya. The 87-year-old, a resident of a first-floor room in Toranwala Chawl, which sits opposite the single-storey Dhor Chawl, only vaguely remembers Dhasal but talks extensively of the extreme poverty of the neighbourhood in the 1970s.
“Things were always hand-to-mouth for the poorer Muslims in Kamathipura as well as the untouchables, jobs were tough to come by for either. The Dalits, at least, got government jobs under reservation while many others worked as scavengers,” he says. “This desperation acted as an unlikely bond between Muslims and Dalits,” adds Bashir Ahmed Zariwala, who went to school with Dhasal and stayed in touch with him until a decade ago. The 63-year-old remembers him for his passion to educate himself and his ability to blend in and easily befriend people.
These two traits, in fact, greatly aided Dhasal’s career as a poet. “Dhor Chawl was a lane away from Golpitha. Although his father was an apprentice with a butcher in Crawford Market, Namdeo was exposed to the world of prostitutes, pimps, drug lords, criminals and petty thieves, and he embraced them like the other rejects of society, that is, members of his own community,” says Arjun Dangle, a Dalit poet and co-founder of the Dalit Panther party. Golpitha became the foetid, filthy neighbourhood which fed both Dhasal’s poetry and politics.
A large part of his poetry, especially the 1972 collection named after the neighbourhood, draws from his interactions with its residents. In Mandakini Patil: A Young Prostitute, My Intended Collage, he writes: “I’ve been dazzled by your worn-down and lackluster face.
From that lackluster look you descend inside me; and stream inside me; and appropriate me./Is that the scream of an ending; or is the end itself a scream beginning?”
Dhasal’s poetry blends local slang, expletives, Bambaiyya and rural Marathi into an inflaming mix. Dangle believes Dhasal’s internalisation of Golpitha and its ways helped him use profanities and “uncouth words” without sounding offensive. “He witnessed gang wars, exploitation of prostitutes at the hands of lalas, the pathetic lack of hygiene and the lives lost to sexually transmitted diseases. Namdeo, who also used to frequent the brothels, knew the pain firsthand as he once contracted a disease,” says the writer, who in 1992 edited Poisoned Bread, a landmark anthology of Marathi Dalit literature translated in English. “Namdeo wanted to include all of the marginalised in his fight for rights; he once spearheaded a protest on the prostitutes’ behalf.”
As a poet, his ability to take many risks with form and language reflects his famed personal courage and recklessness. Mirke recounts how many young Panthers like him would hide behind Dhasal during a police raid or confrontation while he would take them head on. “During the BDD Chawl riots in the late 1960s, he was driven mad with anger when huge stones thrown at Dalit protestors from rooftops grievously injured one of them. He nearly shot at a cop,” he says.
In Golpitha, the sun is yet to set but business hours have already begun. Roshan and Gulshan, the two cinema halls here, are teeming with men looking for cheap entertainment. The liquor shop is doing brisk business as are the many lottery stalls and a lone videogame parlour. A group of teenagers plays cricket on one side of the road, closed down for repairs. On the other, young girls dressed in skirts and women in blingy saris look for customers.
Golpitha is no longer the black hole of suffering it used to be. The women in prostitution are no longer in the vice-like grip of the pimp or held hostage to debilitating sexually transmitted diseases. “It was a place that evoked both revulsion and fear. But today, there are organisations that fight for the rights of this community. Many prostitutes and others who are part of this business can read and write. They are allowed to dream of a better life, for themselves and their children. This dark underworld is romanticised by the elite but Dhasal will always be the first one to bring this world of rejects into mainstream Marathi literature,” says Dangle.
To the followers of the Dalit Panther movement, however, Dhasal’s poetry is not so much literature as it is their anthem. To them, he’s Dada, their leader who fought for their cause, his poetry only a means to achieve the end. “It was a powerful means to provoke us into action. His poem Bhookh was chanted at meetings and before we set out to rebel. His language had that quality,” says Mirke, pulling out from an aluminium jar in his lader a wad of tickets to a recent fundraiser for Dhasal’s treatment. The pink-and-white chits, with the revolutionary poet’s photo on it, speaks his hard-hitting language too: “When have I abused your god? / I have either sung songs of praises/ Or expressed the excruciating pain I suffer.”