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Need to live: Panther Dhasal,voice of Dalit angst,turns restaurateur

Once known as a chronicler of Dalit angst and one of the fiery leaders of the Dalit Panther movement,poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal is now donning a new hat,that of a restaurateur.

Written by Dhaval Kulkarni | Mumbai |
February 16, 2010 12:08:16 am

Once known as a chronicler of Dalit angst and one of the fiery leaders of the Dalit Panther movement,poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal is now donning a new hat,that of a restaurateur.

“Instead of fighting in the political arena,I am caught in the battle for a livelihood. There is nothing that can cause more unhappiness to one who always nurtured a desire to change the social and political situation,” said Dhasal,a Padma Shri award winner,on questions about the ideological dilemma before him.

He said his multi-cuisine restaurant,Royal Inn at New Link Road in Andheri West,has received a “good response” as it offers affordable fare. He has taken the restaurant on rent with partner Roopkumar Madnani. Dhasal,who says he is well-known in literary circles for his relationship with food,has suggested most of the items on the menu along with wife Mallika,who also gushes about her husband’s culinary skills.

Dhasal,who sought to portray the anger and frustration of a generation that sought to counter centuries of oppression with a mix of education,ideology and aggressive resistance,was seriously ill a couple of years ago. Reeling under a financial crunch,when politicians like Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushilkumar Shinde and celebrities had to step in for assistance,he had sold his old house to meet hospital expenses. The remaining money is invested in the hotel venture.

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“That experience was very bad. If social activities don’t provide you security for a livelihood,then the only option left is to face death keeping behind 40 years of work,” said Dhasal,who suffers from myasthenia gravis and feels that parties must care for full-timers.

“(I) do not want to seek favours from anyone in old age¿. Mass movements cannot be a source of livelihood. Hence this attempt,” said Dhasal.

Dhasal,who loves the reshmi and pahadi kebabs served in the hotel and plans to experiment with more offbeat items on the menu like vazri (a delicacy containing mutton intestines) and a curry of the harandodi flowers once the restaurant carves out a niche,visits it regularly and takes turns at sitting at the counter,also indulging in his poetic musings and political activism,writing and meeting activists there.

Born in Pune district,Dhasal later shifted to Mumbai,where he grew up in the red light area of the city,the Golpitha locality,famously described in his poetry book by the same name that went on to cause a churning in the upper-caste-and-middle-class-dominated literary circles with its use of colloquial Marathi interspersed with street lingo and simmering anti-establishment rage. He worked as a taxi driver,quit in 1972 and formed the Dalit Panthers,inspired by the American Black Panthers.

Dhasal pointed out how activists who chose to espouse causes of the Dalit and downtrodden faced problems with their livelihood as they did not have any elements in the established system supporting them. He recalled how he and wife Mallika,daughter of Communist folk singer Shashir Amarshaikh,were forced to sell raddi (old paper) to make both ends meet.

However,problems have not taken the fight out of him. “The current phase is decisive. It is time when the caste structure and system can be given one decisive push as it slowly unravelling,” said Dhasal,the fire in his eyes intact.

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