Four years after it was first released, Sudirsukt – Hymns of a Shudra, an anthology of poems in colloquial Konkani by writer, poet and former BJP MLA Vishnu Surya Wagh, has stirred the highly volatile caste divide between the state’s dominant Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and the majority Bahujan Goans.
Soon after a jury member disclosed, on August 15, that the book had been selected as the winner of the Goa Konkani Academy Award in the poetry category, a campaign on social media saw some of its verses being lifted and shared “out of context”.
Then, earlier this week, the Manohar Parrikar-led state government cancelled all the 32 undeclared literature and culture awards, including one for Wagh. On Tuesday, the state went a step further, with the Goa Police lodging an FIR against Wagh, and the publishing house, Volvoi-based Apurbai Prakashan Publications, under Sections 293, 292 of the Indian Penal Code and Section 4 of The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986, based on a complaint filed by a women’s rights activist, Auda Viegas.
Confirming the charges, senior Police Inspector Sudesh R Naik of Ponda Police station, under whose jurisdiction falls the official address of the publishing house, said: “We have read the poems that were brought to us and we think they are not in good taste. The complaint was only registered after we were convinced it did, and can, offend someone.”
The Goa Police will now approach “several experts” and the office of the Directorate of Official Language to “probe” the etymology of the “abuses and explicit language” used in the poems, said senior police officials.
At the heart of the controversy is a divided literary world, and a jury member who leaked the news even before the awards were formalised, stating his “aachaar sanhita doesn’t allow a communally loaded book to win an award”.
The book and the award would have gone unnoticed if not for a public social media post by Sanjiv Verenkar, the lone jury member at the Goa Konkani Academy (GKA) — an autonomous institution backed by the state government to promote Konkani language and literature — who “openly opposed” the book’s entry. In a telephone interview, Verenkar said the poems were “full of filthy words, abuses, vulgarity” which he hadn’t “read in any form of literature in (his) 58 years”.
Speaking on his three-page letter to the state government on why he opposed the book, he said: “A cup of pure milk requires only a drop of cyanide. His (Wagh’s) entire work was against the Brahmins. What is the intention today to write against them? These oppressions he speaks of are 200 years old, and society has moved on… Further, he can write all this in a private platform, but in my official letter as a jury member, I have clearly outlined the main point, which the government has also accepted, that the ruling government cannot be seen endorsing these communal views at any cost today. Besides, these books go to school libraries, how will our teachers look when children read these verses and question them? I have myself counted 40 abusive words used against the upper castes in the book.”
Government officials, when contacted, said a three-member censor board committee had already “banned the book from the award nomination list” and the book eventually came to be listed after an official from the Directorate of Official Languages pushed for it.
Meanwhile, even as the outrage on social media and a clampdown by the government continues, Wagh, 52, who has openly opposed caste oppression and the Sanatan Sanstha, cannot defend himself as he remains immobile following a stroke resulting in cerebral hypoxia.
“In that case, it’s just me who has to defend his work. For now, I am attending phone enquiries on the book. Till now, honestly there were no additional enquiries and the book was fully sold out when we first published 500 copies,” said Hema Naik, a Sahitya Akademi winner and publisher of the book. She recalled the day it was published, and inaugurated by Parrikar himself, at Kala Academy, the state’s official seat of culture.
“You can charge it with sections. But then, did you read all the 61 poems or just the ones that were pasted on social media and circulated out of context. A poet is a total of all the influences around him, and to bring life to his creativity, he is bound to borrow and express in the language he associates the subject. In this case, slapping charges of indecency to women is restricting the debate. The poems are much more in context, and speak of a caste divide. But then they are his expression and he should be allowed,” said Naik.
A quick glance at Wagh’s work shows a free style, and abundant use of “colloquial Bahujan Konkani”. A translation of one of his strongest poems in the collection reads:
“It seems Parashuram fired an arrow,
Into the sea and it receded
Repeating this tale year in and year out
They cheated the Bahujan Samaj
Through this lie they wanted to establish
That this land was created by them
You sinners: if you were the first here
Then who were the Mahars, Bhandaris, Kharvis, Pagis,
Gawdas, Velips, Dhangars, Kunbis:
Who were they?
To make this land fertile
They gave their sweat and blood
They are us Sudhirs…
“We have no swamis
And we have no mathas
The sanctum of the temple is closed to us
God lies in your fist
With all your differences you are all one
Whether horizontal or vertical
The caste marks on your foreheads
That indicate your Mahajanship suit you well
You lean against the temple pillars
While the rath is carried on our shoulders
You can enter the sanctum sanctorum
While we hang around outside
All the prasad is yours by right
In our leaf
For generation after generation
We are the Sudhirs.”
Wagh’s nephew Kaustubh Naik, who through his editorials in mainstream media has been highlighting the issue, said Goa’s narrative has oscillated between the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins and the Catholic story of a happy Goa. “It’s in narrations like Wagh’s that we find the Bahujan perspective. His writings focus on the manner the resources, be it land or our culture, and language are appropriated and divided. In some of the most important works in the anthology, he focuses on how Goa continues to be a state where private ownership of religious institutions continues, which allows for upper caste to take over temple administration and in decisions regarding access to sanctum. These issues exist even today in Goa. The Bahujans are still not allowed entry to temples in Goa. His poems just told the facts.”
Naik said the verses which have been cited in the police complaint seem “out of context” and could be damaging for the “select reproduction”, without reading the larger narrative of “caste oppression and language politics” that a Bahujan continues to suffer, and Wagh chose to highlight.
In Goa, meanwhile, the debate continues.
Sahitya Akademi winner and acclaimed Konkani writer Damodar Mauzo said the whole episode has a “disgusting” feel to it. “It’s the poet’s responsibility and privilege to show outburst of the downtrodden by the upper caste. The language he wishes to give is his prerogative. In the past, Sant Tukaram, Namdeo Dhasal have used similar language and have given expression by swearing of the people. Samjho, yeh gaaliyan nahi hain. It’s in these subtleties that the core of this debate lies. And if anyone says this is not the language used, then that’s wrong. This is the expression of the masses. The Konkani they speak,” he said.
Experts and writers, who spoke off the record, said another bone of contention is the Konkani used by Wagh. Wagh, a Marathi writer at heart, has used a Konkani preferred by the Bahujan Samaj, instead of the Nagari Konkani spoken by the Goan Hindu Saraswats and the Roman dialect chosen by the Catholic Goan. For a state body to accept his Konkani over the dialect chosen by the upper caste, it would have been political, said Mauzo.