Not one tree remains to protect/ The nest of my dreams./How many years have passed?/ The silks of my youth have been/ Scooped up in my lover’s beak/ And he has flown away
Close to three decades have passed since she wrote those words in her memoir Mala Uddhvasta Vhaychay. Yet, the passage of time hasn’t dulled the sense of loss in Malika Amar Shaikh. “I’ve turned that page,” she says, reluctant to speak of the years she chronicled in the book.
When the book, originally in Marathi, released in 1994, it kicked up a storm. It was not merely the memoir of a woman who had faced abuse at the hands of her husband Namdeo Dhasal, a revolutionary Marathi poet and a leading political figure. It also pointed to the contradictions within the Dalit movement in Maharashtra during the 1970s and the Dalit Panthers party that led it. Translated in English by Jerry Pinto as I Want to Destroy Myself: A Memoir (Speaking Tiger), the book remains as powerful today, for Shaikh’s is the story of a woman torn between the personal and the political, the Left and the Dalit movement, and her love and loathing for Dhasal.
Light from the setting sun illuminates the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in Lokhandwala, Mumbai. Petite, somewhat frail, Shaikh sits on the armchair with both her feet up, one hand holding down her mane of curls while the other rests on the writing table. Behind her, on the bookshelf, is a photograph from her youth, where she coyly looks away from the camera. It is propped against a row of autobiographies, anthologies, books on politics and Marxism, collected over the years by Dhasal, one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers. These are the ones she managed not to sell for want of money. “Until 2014, when Namdeo was alive, one of the challenges was to decide what can be sold,” says Shaikh, 61, with a laugh.
In her book, she describes selling off piles of communist literature and copies of the Soviet Land magazine to run the household. “Earlier, we were penniless because he would throw away the money on people and supporters, or his other expensive habits. In the later years, it was his illnesses and the treatments. The latest to join the list of items I sold off to survive is my book,” she says.
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She had resisted offers for translations before. As a writer and poet, she did not want to be perceived as an artiste milking a “sob story” for fame. After Dhasal’s demise, however, Shaikh found herself in financial difficulties. Suffering from myasthenia, a neuromuscular disorder, Dhasal spent the last six months of his life in the hospital. The expenses ate away every last penny they had, compelling her to sell her maternal home and car. “So when this offer for an English translation came to me two years ago, I did not refuse,” she says. The book was originally written as a diary Shaikh maintained since the 1980s. It defies a conventional narrative, recounting her childhood days to talking about the physical abuse in her marriage and mixes it up with her analysis of where the Dalit movement faltered.
The daughter of one of Maharashtra’s greatest Left intellectuals and revolutionaries, Amar Shaikh, her childhood was an envious one. She was a sickly child and battled several illnesses. But she was her father’s favourite. Her early years were spent in an environment that bred and nurtured both politics and arts. Her father was a member of the Communist Party of India and the founder of its art wing, Laalbaotaas Kalapathak, along with Annabhau Sathe and DN Gavankar. A lok shahir, the charismatic artist would use his powerful voice and poetry to speak against oppression by class, caste and state. He played an important role in the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and, later, in organising mill workers.
Some of the finest, most prominent artists and Left intellectuals were a part of Amar Shaikh’s clique and frequent visitors at their Saat Rasta residence in (now south) Mumbai. Her mother, also a Communist, stood by her father’s side.
His untimely death in an accident in 1969 shattered Shaikh’s world. She was all of 12. She would meet Dhasal seven years later. She was 19 and dreamy-eyed, and he was handsome and charismatic. “More importantly, he was a poet like we had not seen before. Breaking the norms set by convention, his poetry tore into and shattered you. It spoke of and for the downtrodden, the outcast living on the fringes of the society. There was idealism and hope in his writings as well as his politics,” she says.
After a brief courtship, the two got married. Dhasal’s political life and responsibilities meant a constant flow of visitors and party workers in their house, which left her very little time with her husband. The constant pressure of playing host and cooking left her exhausted. They were also broke. As Dhasal’s drinking went out of hand, arguments and fights took a violent turn. They grew apart after their son Ashutosh was born. In the book, she admits with a hint of regret that motherhood is a role she took on reluctantly, that it only held her back as she attempted to leave Dhasal and pursue her life in the arts.
She speaks of his infidelity, the shame and pain it caused her, the disappointment of having “lost my Namdeo”. But Dhasal was immersed in his world. “He was changing, drifting away and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I had loved his companionship but he felt no need for me now,” she writes.
Shaikh never left Dhasal, choosing to stay with him right till the end, taking care of him as illnesses took over his body. He was diagnosed with myasthenia in 1981. “Which woman wants her family to disintegrate?” she says. “I was committed to him. How could I have left him in his days of sickness? And then there was Ashu. When a woman is faced with a mother, the latter always stands taller.” The idea of ‘family’ and ‘home’, says Shaikh, has always been her foremost priority, her biggest dream. “It perhaps takes root in my beautiful, ideal childhood where I was treated like a princess. My father had time for the family and I never saw my parents fight,” she says.
The stand she took eventually upset both feminists and supporters of the Dalit movement. For the latter, she was the demanding wife who resented her husband’s frequent travels and public life. For many women, she gave in to “middle-class morality” and chose to live with her oppressor. Classical musician Neela Bhagwat, Shaikh’s former music teacher and friend who helped bring out the English translation of the autobiography, says that it’s a question that rankled her: “Such a move requires ideological courage and Malika perhaps doesn’t have that.”
Shaikh admits that although the two most important figures in her life, her father and Dhasal, both represented strong ideologies, she didn’t necessarily adopt or follow any. “It made me socially aware but it didn’t influence me or my decisions. Nor did it kindle any interest in me towards politics. I remained a follower of my heart,” she says. “I say this often, that I managed to acquired a few qualities from my father but none from my mother. She was an angel who knew how to love unconditionally. She would wait for my father whenever he travelled for weeks together. She put the movement before her personal needs. Perhaps, because she, too, was a Communist. I could never be like her.”
Unwilling as she may have been, Shaikh has been thrown into the world of politics she so despised. She was made the head of the Dalit Panthers after Dhasal’s death, and she is currently busy in meetings that lead up to the 2017 civic body elections in Maharashtra. Power hasn’t clouded her perspective. She is aware that she is only a figurehead of a party that has next to no presence today: “Namdeo’s wife and Amar Shaikh’s daughter. It reads good on paper.”
The irony of this doesn’t escape Shaikh, who bore the brunt of the longstanding animosity in the Dalit movement towards the Leftists — and, by extension, towards her. “His exposure to Marx and Left ideology led to Dhasal’s transformation into a poet and a politician. He was accused of being a Communist because he was married to the daughter of one,” says poet and politician JV Pawar, a friend of Dhasal’s from his early days, who co-founded the Dalit Panthers with him.
Shaikh is aware that those accusations led Dhasal to distance himself from her. “But he was a Communist at heart. He defined Dalits as anyone who is oppressed, the lower caste, the poor, the sex workers. It was inclusive and that gave the movement a strong ideological base and massive support. He tried to unite the Left and the Dalits but they could not rise above it,” she says.
While she criticises Namdeo the husband, Shaikh steadfastly defends Dhasal the politician, both in the book and in person. She vouches for his theoretical understanding of politics and his dedication towards the party and the cause, “even though it damaged my personal life”. “He dedicated his life to it. What he lacked was political tact. He was too much of an idealist,” she says. Shaikh explains that Dhasal’s decision to lend support to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency stemmed from his need to get court cases against his party workers annulled. “Because the Dalit Panthers’ style had included using brute force to demand its rights, close to 200 cases had piled up against various members. Those cases were dropped even before Namdeo reached Mumbai after the meeting,” she explains, adding that an alliance with Shiv Sena came from his attempt to help Dalits enter mainstream politics. “But it backfired and the Sena too, went back on its promise to give him an election ticket,” she says.
The waning of a political life in the 1980s marked another beginning for Dhasal. “Eventually, I manage to mould Namdeo into the middle-class family man I wanted him to be,” says Shaikh, with a sense of pride. The fights reduced and they both fell into the rhythm of domesticity. “When he was in the ICU, I would proof his writings and read out my poetry to him, a lot of which was about him, some bitter, some sweet. He would hear it and laugh, he used to enjoy it,” she recounts. They had made peace with each other.
She says: “In one of my poems, which features in the book, I ask: Does love that is requited and love that is not/Look the same?
I think I now know the answer.”