Culture

Magic and Mythology – Dalit Anthems of Love and Oppression

This Valentine’s Day, N.D. Rajkumar provides a sober reminder of what love can mean to Dalits in a nation where transgressive love often results in death.

N.D. Rajkumar's poems remind us of the violence of transgressive love, especially in Dalit communities. Representational image. Credit: Chithrakaran T. Murali/Facebook

N.D. Rajkumar’s poems remind us of the violence of transgressive love, especially in Dalit communities. Representational image. Credit: Chithrakaran T. Murali/Facebook

Mother said
Son, that is not a country fit for humans
A terrible nation
where fathers slit the breasts
of the eldest daughter
divvy them and gobble them up
A nation that slices the middle daughter’s
vagina and the flesh of her thighs
sticks them on the tips of spears
roasts them, medium rare, and
gathering the whole village
savours the meat, blowing air through their lips
A nation where the fear of death reigns
A nation where the milk-giving breasts of mothers
turn into machetes bathed in blood,
as they sing the ditty of death,
ripping open
their darling youngest one’s
fully pregnant belly
to make a foetus curry
for tongues to turn into leaf plates
and devour the dead flesh
Where humanity parades itself
by doing a death dance
on mounds of the ashes of burnt homes
Such is this heedless nation, my son
And here I am, sculpting this girl doll
with the wood of the devil tree
infusing into it the spirits of those killed before time,
spirits I shall bring alive with my incantations

§

That day,
Paraman, the great god, kept calling out
again and again:
‘Maari, Maari’
With a chariot of ash
she lay there as a piece of charcoal
Her beautiful eyes
throbbed, clinging to life
Wonder who cursed
this goddess as beautiful
as pearl millet porridge
When Siva prepared to do
the dance of destruction
his dreadlocks were disturbed
He was charred
and as his left half, Maariamma,
lay dead on the wayside
he sat by her head:
maddened in grief
beating his chest and crying
The fire that had crept like a thief
covered in darkness
ran howling, clinging, spreading
The screaming huts shuddered
belching out smoke
With his left side destroyed
the great god Paramasivan stood disabled
Even his snakes had abandoned him
and disappeared
A little brown sparrow
then picked up the third eye
that had bulged out and fallen in all the weeping
and stuck it on Kannappan’s forehead

§

N.D. Rajkumar is a rare poet who is able to look at the present unfolding before us with a keen awareness of history and mythology, while he offers us visions of possible futures. His poems blaze like stars that remind us that other worlds are possible – that otherworldliness has to be made real. In the second poem, Rajukumar introduces to us an Ardhanariswara Siva who has been sundered from his beloved, his literal other half, his other self, Maari. A Siva who sits weeping by the pavement having lost everything. A grief-dazed god, whose love has been brutally murdered. This helpless ashen god will have to be rescued by an untouchable, an aboriginal devotee, by a man – Kannappan – who sings beautiful and powerful poems to this injured, weeping, inconsolable Siva. Rajkumar is just a little brown sparrow who witnesses all this and sings about it.

Kannappan Nayanar is depicted in Hindu Saivite mythology as one of the 63 Nayanmars or saints – each Nayanmar a little god in the Periya Puranam (The Great Purana), a canonical work said to have been compiled during the 12th century by Sekkizhar. The story goes that Kannappan was born into a hunter community and responded to the name Thinnan in Sri Kalahasti (today’s Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh). One day, while hunting in the forest, Thinnan finds a special linga and begins worshipping it. He quenches the linga’s thirst with water from his own mouth, the linga’s hunger with the swine meat he has hunted. The other priestly Siva devotees are aghast at his ‘crude’ and ‘primitive’ ways.

One day, Siva tests the ardour of his devotees by causing a tremor. While all his other devotees run to safety, Thinnan protects the linga with his whole body to prevent any damage to the lord’s primeval form. For this, he’s called ‘Dheeran’ – the brave one. When one eye of Siva’s linga starts oozing tears and blood, Dheeran plucks his own eye and transplants it. When Siva then gets his other eye to bleed, further testing his devotee’s devotion, Dheeran places a foot on Siva’s wounded linga-eye so that he would know where to plant the second eye. Moved by such love, Siva restores both of Dheeran’s eyes. Periya Puranam – the hagiography of the saints – has since regarded Dheeran as Kannappan (in Tamil, kan means eye).

Tamils, of course, can be crazily devotional, sentimental and delusional. At the inauguration of the Sixth Afro-Asian Conference of Ophthalmology in 1976, M.S. Subbulakshmi was commissioned to sing a multi-lingual invocation in Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese, English and Tamil. In the final part of the song, the lines she sings in Tamil refer to Kannappan. The man who introduced this unique song to the conference delegates merrily inferred that Kannappan had ‘performed the first ever eye transplant in the world thousands of years ago in India’. But Rajkumar is merely being reasonable here, not irresponsible like the ophthalmologist – the so-called man of science – who seems happy with an extant myth.

Rajkumar turns this myth on its head – or should we say, he sticks his index finger into the eye of this myth and gives it a good turn. He gets the sorrow-struck, weeping Siva to bestow the third eye on the liminal Dalit figure, Kannappan, who has the vision and the wisdom to offer a new reading of history. In other words, it is the poet Rajkumar who creates a new Kannappan.

Recall the first poem – witnessing the improbable, brutal violence of the higher caste men and women who’d rather butcher and make a meal of their own daughters’ vaginas, breasts and thighs than let these body parts give pleasure and progeny. All that a Dalit (or rather aboriginal) mother can do is hew a wooden voodoo doll made of the devil tree wood, infusing into it the spirits of those killed before time, spirits she shall bring alive with her incantations. The ghosts of several Maariammas hover around us and it is not Siva but Kannappan who demands from us both revenge and redemption. When justice fails Dalits who are routinely murdered – when we fail to take notice of the fact that two Dalits are murdered and six Dalit women are raped every day in India – all that you can do is vest hope in is a doll infused with magical incantations. It perhaps serves the same purpose as Rajkumar writing a poem.

Rajkumar is a poet in the bardic tradition who performs his poetry setting them to raga-based improvisations. He has published seven volumes of poetry in Tamil and has written lyrics for one feature film, Madhupana Kadai (The Liquor Shop). He is from the Dalit Kaniyan community known for the art of black magic. Rajkumar worked as a daily wage labourer in the railway mail service in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu for thirteen years. He now makes a living as a music teacher. Rajkumar’s poems were published in English by Navayana as Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh in 2010.

Translation by Anushiya Ramaswamy and S. Anand with a comment on the poems by Anand.

Anushiya Ramaswamy teaches at the department of English, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, US. S. Anand is a poet, translator and the publisher of Navayana.

Rajkumar’s book is available from Navayana.