Soon after I joined the venerable Times of India in Mumbai as a junior assistant editor in 1969, I was asked to edit the Sunday Magazine. I started encouraging a number of Times journalists and freelancers to write offbeat and investigative features. This boosted the circulation of the Sunday edition.
At one stage, after a newsprint import crisis, it was spun off as a separate magazine, Times Weekly, priced at a princely 11 paise in order to be entitled to a separate newsprint quota. The only competition for such a magazine in the country was the in-house Illustrated Weekly, whose famous editor, Khushwant Singh, was achieving all-time-high circulation figures by running cover series like the ‘Communities of India’.
My editor was the formidable bibliophile and stickler for clear prose, Sham Lal. In 1973, it was only due to the fact that Sham Lal had a soft spot for his young bibliophile, Dileep Padgaonkar, freshly returned from Paris and also a junior assistant editor, that he permitted an entire issue of the Times Weekly guest-edited by Padgaonkar to be devoted to Dalit writing. It comprised translations from Marathi poetry and prose and was titled “Dalit Literature: Voices of the Oppressed”.
I was ignorant of any such genre as Dalit writing and relied entirely on Padgaonkar’s judgment which, it turned out, was spot-on. He wrote a front-page introduction, which began:
“A great deal has been written on or about Harijans but very little by them. This is what makes the texts published here unique. The authors belong, or belonged before most of them were converted to Buddhism, to the Mahar community of Maharashtra. The Mahars stand on the lowest rung of the caste system. To be sure, all the writers are educated, city-bred and, by conventional status, also middle-class. But neither their new religious status nor their social standing has entirely absolved them from the sigma of intolerance. That is the raison d’etre of the literature of the oppressed (Dalits). Its other novel feature is its emergence as a movement. No single ideology sustains it. While a handful of writers have formed a political party styled as the Dalit Panthers, the movement itself has no institutions of hierarchies. No leaders or supremos…what is refreshing about this dalit literature is that its appeal – whether voiced through a short story or a poem, and whether the expression is nuanced or violent – is not so much economic or political or even social but fundamentally cultural and ethical.”
It had stories by subsequently well-known writers such as Daya Pawar, whose Marathi autobiography Baluta (a practice akin to bonded labour) in 1978 was the first by a Dalit. It was well translated into English by Jerry Pinto many years later in 2015. Its front page has a blurb by Shanta Gokhale: “Baluta hit upper-caste critics and readers alike between the eyes. Pawar’s graphic description of life in rural Maharashtra and Mumbai shocked readers. And still does.”
In the Times Weekly, Pawar wrote an autobiographical piece entitled “Defiled”, which was brilliantly translated – as were other poems in the issue – by the bilingual poet and writer Dilip Chitre. Another writer we published, Baburao Bagul, also achieved a degree of fame.
However, it was the poems we published which really were incendiary.
Sham Lal was almost apoplectic with rage when he read the proof of the cover page with Namdeo Dhasal’s poem titled ‘Man, You Should Explode’ (from his subsequent collection Golpitha, 1972), which begins:
Man, you should explode
Man, you should explode
Yourself to bits to start with
Jive to a savage drum beat
Smoke hash, smoke ganja
Chew opium, bite lalpari
Guzzle country booze—if too broke,
Down a pint of the cheapest dalda
Stay tipsy day and night, stay tight round the clock
Cuss at one and all; swear by his mom’s twat, his sister’s cunt
Abuse him, slap him in the cheek, and pummel him…
Man, you should keep handy a Rampuri knife
A dagger, an axe, a sword, an iron rod, a hockey stick, a bamboo
You should carry acid bulbs and such things on you
You should be ready to carve out anybody’s innards without batting an eyelid
Commit murders and kill the sleeping ones
Turn humans into slaves; whip their arses with a lash
Cook your beans on their bleeding backsides
Rob your next-door neighbours, bust banks
Fuck the mothers of moneylenders and the stinking rich
Cut the throat of your own kith and kin by conning them; poison them, jinx them
You should hump anyone’s mother or sister anywhere you can
Engage your dick with every missy you can find, call nobody too old to be screwed
Call nobody too young, nobody too green to shag, lay them one and all
Perform gang rapes on stage in the public
Make whorehouses grow: live on a pimp’s cut: cut the women’s noses, tits
Make them ride naked on a donkey through the streets to shame them
Man, one should dig up roads, yank off bridges
One should topple down streetlights
Smash up police stations and railway stations…
One should crumble up temples, churches, mosques, sculptures, museums
One should blow with cannonballs all priests
And inscribe epigraphs with cloth soaked in their blood
Man, one should tear off all the pages of all the sacred books
And give them to people for wiping shit off their arses when done
We substituted another, less offensive verse of Dhasal’s titled ‘Poverty as My Own Independent Piece of Land’, also translated by Chitre. It begins:
Destiny willing, the form may change or may not.
Even then poverty itself is my own independent piece of land
And as I cultivate it, my days rise
And my days fall…
And ends with the refrain:
I too have poverty as my own independent piece of land.
Inside the issue, there was “On the Way to the Dargah” by Dhasal:
The leaking sun
In the embrace of the nigh
When I was born
On the pavement
In the rags
An instant orphan –
The woman who delivered me
Went to the father in heaven
For she could not stand the vampires of the pavement…
Quite some years later, V.S. Naipaul interviewed Dhasal and his wife for three hours for his book, India: A Million Mutinies (1990). This was the third of his non-fiction books based on his travels in India, beginning with An Area of Darkness.
A New York Times reviewer notes:
“Because Mr Naipaul’s portraits are careful and illuminating, I was disappointed that there were so few of women, and only one of these was other than cursory. The interview with Mallika, wife of the Dalit Panther poet Namdeo Dhasal, is superb. Mallika, married at 16 by her own defiant choice to the radical untouchable poet, had later written a sensational best-selling feminist autobiography, ‘I Want to Destroy Myself’, the first part of which ended: ‘Male ego is the most hideous thing in our present society. Women find quite a pleasure in boosting it. . . . I do not believe that for anybody called Namdeo I should surrender my entire life.’ Mr. Naipaul talks with Mallika about her book, her life, her husband, in a vivid extended conversation.”
Another poem in the Weekly was by Arun Kamble, also a Dalit activist. He was a founding member of the Dalit Panthers and was head of the Marathi department at Mumbai University. It was titled “The Life We Live”:
If you were to live the life we live
(then out of you would poems arise).
We: kicked and spat at for our piece of bread
You: fetch fulfillment and name of the Lord.
We: down-gutter degraders of our heritage
You: It sole repository, descendants of the sage.
We: never a paisa to scratch our arse
You: the golden cup of offerings in your bank
Your bodies flame in sandalwood
Ours you shovel under half-turned sand.
Wouldn’t the world change and fast
If you were forced to live at last
This life that’s all we’ve always had?
It was translated by Gauri Deshpande, a bilingual poet and writer and one-time Bennett Coleman & Co colleague in the Illustrated Weekly.
As can well be imagined, the issue created a sensation and brought the poets and short story writers to national prominence. By coincidence, a few months later, there were riots in the BDD chawls (tenements) in Worli, in mid-town Mumbai, where the newly-formed Dalit Panthers, who based themselves on the militant Black Panthers in the US, came to the fore. It even attracted international attention due to this nexus. Gita Mehta, daughter of the mercurial Odisha politician Biju Patnaik, wife of the well-known New York-based Knopf publisher, Sonny Mehta, and subsequent author of Karma Cola, flew down to interview the Dalit Panthers and sought my help. Foreign scholars still contact me for xeroxes of the scathing supplement.
In retrospect, there was a time and place for the Dalit writers. It was the first fulmination on the part of those who had been oppressed and voiceless for centuries. By having their work translated and published in what was then, and still is, the largest-circulated English daily, they achieved the kind of legitimacy that they had been ruthlessly denied. It is unlikely that, with the passage of time, such writing would have the same resonance today (not that the Times would ever conceive doing so, these days!).
Like their American progenitors, the Black Panthers, the Dalit Panthers achieved their place in the sun and then faded into oblivion. For those years, they offered a radical alternative to B.R. Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India, which split into many factions, persisting till today. The Black Panthers recognised their Indian offshoot and supported it in their eponymous newspaper. Many of the writers who figured in the Times Weekly passed away, among them Dhasal, Pawar, Dangle and Chitre, not to mention Padgaonkar himself most recently.
It would be tempting to draw a parallel between the Black Panther leader and its newspaper editor, Eldridge Cleaver, and Namdeo Dhasal. Cleaver was also a writer and editor who became a Panther leader and was prone to incendiary writing. His Soul on Ice was a best-seller and was the darling of the Left across the world. However after jail sentences and turning a fugitive from justice away from the US for several years, he returned to become a Christian preacher, joined the Republican Party and dabbled with designing crotch-emphasising jeans called Cleavers.
Dhasal’s personal and political somersaults are best described by his one of his closest friends and translator, Chitre, in an introduction to his unpublished poems: “Today, Namdeo Dhasal is part of the establishment. Or is he again in disguise, still fighting his own kind of guerilla war? He lives in an upper-class neighbourhood in the western part of Mumbai, Andheri. He drives a flashy sports car. He has an armed bodyguard accompanying him wherever he goes. He uses a mobile phone. He has a constant stream of visitors seeking favours. Namdeo has contacts with the ruling politicians as well as with the opposition. Last year for his distinguished contribution to literature he was awarded the title Padma Shri by the President of India. He should have been nationally honoured a long time ago but it was during the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance’s regime that he received this honour.”
However, it is true that the Dalit political movement is witnessing a renaissance of sorts, with the assertion of rights across the country, largely as a response to the caste atrocities perpetrated by the ruling party. Also, decades of reservations, with all their blips, have obviously made a difference; Dalits have come to expect certain concessions and have aspirations for more. The Rohith Vemula controversy is the best indicator of that. The title of his book, Caste Is Not a Rumour, speaks for itself.
Darryl D’Monte edited the Times of India Sunday Magazine from 1969 to 1979.