Look Back in Anger,Gently

Kannada Dalit poet Siddalingaiah on his poetry,looking at injustice through the lens of humour and the pleasures of sleeping on the streets.

Written by Amrita Dutta | New Delhi | Published:October 6, 2013 5:37 am

Kannada Dalit poet Siddalingaiah on his poetry,looking at injustice through the lens of humour and the pleasures of sleeping on the streets.

In a Kannada village,Ooru is the area where caste Hindus live,with open fields,abundant wells and large houses. The Holeyas,the so-called untouchables,live in Keri,where drinking water is scarce and the houses often crumbling. “My parents lived in Keri,my school was in Ooru. I would walk to Ooru to study,to watch the drama of people and life unfold. So (while writing about my childhood),I combined the experiences of both parts and called it Ooru Keri,” says Kannada poet Siddalingaiah. Written in two parts, Ooru Keri, with a register that filters rage through irony and laughter,is atypical of the genre of Dalit autobiography. An English translation A Word With You,World (Navayana) was released last month.

The first Dalit autobiography was written in 1978 by Marathi poet Daya Pawar. His Balut (Share) shook Marathi literary culture with its graphic account of life in the ghettos in which the lower castes were forced to live,and the mental torment of a man “who carries as his portion/this balut of pain”. It also spawned a series of such narratives in Marathi and other languages. From Bama’s Karukku to Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan, the autobiography is crucial to Dalit literature — its power draws from being testimony to the violence of the caste system,its affirmation implicit in telling one’s own story.

That fury flashes in Siddalingaiah’s poetry,which was forged in the 1970s when he was a student during the Bhusa movement. A senior Dalit minister in the Karnataka government,B Basavilingappa,known for his provocative statements,had urged Dalits to throw the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses into the gutter and dismissed the entire Kannada literary canon as bhusa or cattle-feed. The blowback and violence that resulted against Dalits politicised the young college student,who founded the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti with another poet

Devanur Mahadeva.

His fiery poetry,collections like Holemaadigara Haddu (Songs of the Holeya) and Nalla Janagalu (My People),became the clarion call for the movement,sung with fervour at meetings and protests. “For the first time,it expressed the raw anger and rage that the Dalits felt and turned that into literary aggression. The breakthrough Siddalaingaiah achieved was in fashioning a new poetic language and in new ways of image making,” says literary critic and author Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi,who calls Siddalingaiah “the first and most important Dalit poet in Kannada”.

“In my poetry,people saw anger and aggression,” says Siddalingaiah,59,over the phone from Bangalore. “My songs for the Dalits and peasants’ movements,for their rallies and protest marches,are forceful. They are about the struggle of Dalits,labourers,the have-nots; so these were fiery poems. Those political protests compelled me to write poetry. My poems were sung everywhere,written on the walls,all over the state — they are even till today,” he says. The first time his father heard Siddalingaiah’s verses,he tore up his son’s poetry notebook,and fed it to the stove. “Well-wishers” had convinced him that his son could be jailed for writing such angry words,and exhorting the Dalits to rise against the system. That is one of the anecdotes that Siddalingaiah recounts with characteristic wryness in Ooru Keri, the first part of which was published in 1996.

Dalit writers rejected the legacy of Kannada literature,while also drawing from subaltern cultural traditions. “Hitherto unexplored experiences and themes (of lower caste social world) became the subject of literature and,more importantly,the stories were told by Dalits themselves,not by upper caste writers who might turn the former into objects of pity; new linguistic registers (were used) to explore these experiences; and new modes of image making found… They looked for allies within the Kannada cultural context and found the 12th century vachana poets (who were radical Saiva devotees and often made egalitarian claims) or other folk traditions,” says Shobhi.

From being an angry poet,Siddalingaiah,over the years,sought a more symbiotic relationship with the mainstream,and his oeuvre,spanning essays,drama and poetry,reflected that. He teaches occasionally at the Bangalore University and was also a member of the Karnataka legislative council for 12 years. Ooru Keri is a product of this search for a new expression of the Dalit personality. “(In contrast to the poetry),the autobiography was not meant to be read in rallies. It is meant to be read in a library or at home,to be contemplated,thought about. I wrote it calmly. I expressed the insults and the suffering I saw in a humorous form. The book satirises the caste Hindus,jokes about them,their traditions and arrogance. I depicted the sufferings they inflicted but I did not hate them. Dalit autobiographies in Kannada,Marathi show the suffering and the pain. But I took a different stance and viewpoint,” says Siddalingaiah.

The raw,bruising honesty of Dalit autobiographies can sometimes bring on them the charge of being lesser works of literature. In Ooru Keri,Siddalingaiah’s material is similar — pain,hunger and poverty — but transmuted by laughter,what the critic DR Nagaraj called “writing that made rage pleasant”. It follows the fortunes of Siddalingaiah’s family as they move from a village near Magadi to Bangalore. It is not a coming-of-age tale with a beginning,a middle and an end but a collection of vignettes,from powerful tales of humiliation to the comedy of everyday life,one swiftly following the other. The boy Siddalingaiah watches with amusement a yoke being tied to the shoulders of two men,while a third ploughed the field. “Then I realised that one of the men carrying the yoke was my father. A strange agony gripped me at the moment,” he writes.

Similar piercing moments of trauma are scattered through the book,which are not dwelt on or developed,which do not find catharsis in their telling. A mother in debt to a moneylender finds her four-year-old snatched from her,she carries on,without a choice. Another debtor,bullied by moneylenders,sets himself afire. The narrator moves on,brusquely,as if there are too many to linger on. Siddalingaiah relishes the humour when he finds it,not afraid to send up the boring but earnest activist and his droning speeches or laugh at himself being mistaken for “a bus conductor”. During his travels with other Dalit activists to the villages,he once finds a man with a serious head injury. To buttress their case before the press,they take him to a studio to be photographed. But in front of the camera,the victim of caste violence breaks into a smile. “When we asked him why he smiled,he said he couldn’t help it. The photographer had asked him to,” says the author,laughing at the memory. Through this accretion of experiences,a portrait emerges of the Holeyas,their gods and goddesses,debts and disappointments,entertainments and passions — one that rescues them from being stick-figures of poverty into characters with quirks,foibles and dignity.

And the poet? He is the flaneur of Bangalore,who walks its streets,watching tragedy and comedy unfold on its streets,who makes a graveyard his home when there is no space in the slum,who plays pranks on fellow students and laughs at his work as “tea poetry”,who refuses to be anything but shabbily dressed. Once the boy who was inspired by the beautiful riverside of his mother’s village,he finds great beauty in the city’s skies and freedom in sleeping outside on its streets,with a sea of his people for company. “The imagination of people who sleep under the star-studded sky takes wing. They become closer to the moon.”

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