Verse Affairs: Understanding Caste, Language and Solidarities Through Chandramohan's Poetry

Chandramohan S. builds on his past achievements as a Dalit poet through political and linguistic calisthenics in his new book.

Listen to this article:

Dalit scholar Suraj Yengde claims that the Dalit community is having a “Harlem moment”.

“It is now able to articulate loudly and clearly through words and action – becoming more global and more reachable than ever,” he writes in Caste Matters (2019).

“In the revolutionary age of technologies of communication and new expressions of freedom, Dalits are claiming their rightful position in the armours of justice and democracy.”

This might seem a little counter-intuitive: If Dalits have found greater access to privileges then how can they still claim to be marginalised. (This is often the bedrock of the Savarna argument against affirmative action.) But, as with race, matters of caste are often more complicated than they seem.

“The Dalit lives in no-time,” writes Yengde, quoting Martin Heidegger.

This negotiation between the loud demands for equality and opportunity and continued marginalisation has perhaps been best represented in English poetry by Chandramohan S.

While Dalit poetry has flourished in other Indian languages since Independence, it has started gaining prominence in English only recently. Along with Chandramohan, several others such as Chanchal Kumar, Cynthia Stephen, Gautam Vegda, and writer and publisher Yogesh Maitreya have given expression to the Dalit experience and struggle in their writing.

Dalit non-fiction writing, too, has grown in the past few years – besides Yengde, we have Sujatha Gidla and Yashica Dutta, the first Dalit writer to win the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Award for English work.

Chandramohan acknowledges all these recent achievements of his contemporaries in an article for the Indian Express, where he provides reasons for choosing English. “A category like Dalit poet can torpedo the caste dimensions of the apparently politically pasteurised Indian English poetry,” he writes in the essay that also serves as the Preface of his new book Love After Babel And Other Poems (Ottawa: Daraja Press, 2020). There is also an Introduction by Yengde and an Afterword by Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya.

In these Chandramohan seems to be consciously engaging in a dialogue with academics about his own poetry. He is also telling us that it is not enough to read Dalit poetry but also to understand the politics that informs it.

There are four reasons, Chandramohan claims, that make English a suitable language for Dalit poetry:

First, English is widely used in India and also provides the writer access to opportunities in the West. (Chandramohan has leveraged this very well, getting selected to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Residency in 2018.)

Second, it allows the poet greater control over their work and avoids the pitfalls of fashionably academic translations.

Third, English does not have in-built casteist words and expressions unlike most other Indian languages and this allows the poet to escape from such discrimination.

Finally, it allows the poet a springboard to escape the violence of their own cultural milieu. This is almost a sort of manifesto for Dalit poetry and has significant implications for research and practice.

I have always been sceptical of reviewing Chandramohan’s work. In a previous essay, “Dalit Poet, Upper-Caste Critic”, I had tried to address my location in “upper”-caste privilege and inability to the Dalit subjectivity of his poetry in his previous collection Letters to Namdeo Dhasal (2016).

Also read: Namdeo Dhasal and His Irreplaceable Grammar of Social Change

Chandramohan, however, has various tools, such as humour, to make both his politics and his subjectivity accessible to his readers.

In a poem titled “Caste in a Local Train”, he imagines a casteist fellow passenger on a train as Pakistani fast bowler and his interrogation as a series of superfast deliveries:

Caste in a local train can be deceptive 
like the soul
of a Pakistani fast bowler camouflaged
in a three piece suit
and an Anglicised accent.

He tries assessing me with an inswinger first 
“What is your full name?” 

Then he tries an outswinger that seams a lot 
“And what is your father’s name?”

By this time, he loses his patience
And tries a direct Yorker 
“What is your caste?”

This poem reappears in Love After Babel (as do many poems of Letters to Namdeo Dhasal), but in a slightly different form.

It is, in fact, not one but two poems in this book: “A local train conversation (1)” and “A local train conversation (2)”. In the first version, the fellow passenger is not in a three-piece suit with an Anglicised accent – he is an “elderly man”, “His religious mark between his eye-brows”. The change in the character from a traditional, old man to a Westernised, younger man is an aesthetic and political choice, indicating that caste travels beyond India’s geographical borders and persists despite access to higher education.

The term 'Dalit', which indicated the natural social status of those oppressed by caste, gained huge attention after the Ambedkar centenary in the 1990s. Credit: PTI

Representational image of a protest against caste discrimination. Photo: PTI

This seems poignant in the light of current development, with US universities starting to recognise caste-based discrimination, and even Oxford University hosting a seminar on counting caste, as a response to the Indian government’s decision to forgo the caste census.

Chandramohan also makes very subtle changes in the different versions of the poems. For instance, neither the version included in Letters to Namdeo Dhasal nor the first version of the poem has an exclamation point after the last line: “What is your caste?” But the final version does. The simple insertion of this punctuation completely changes the force of the last line.

Love After Babel comprises not only revised versions of older poems but also several new ones, including the titular poem. It is a longish piece, divided into 22 parts, and explores the intersections of language and politics. Chandramohan seems particularly interested in the politics of translation, describing the act of transmitting a text from one language to another in erotic terms:

An Erotic Encounter

After reading the poem aloud
smitten by her aftertaste

The translator approaches 
the poem like a boy approaching
a girl on the dance floor.

They share a pelvic giggle, 
a grinding dance
to the rhythm of their poems read aloud.

Language and poetry, however, are also ways to build solidarities, which is what Chandramohan does in the first part of the book, “Call Me Ishmail Tonight”. The four poems in this part are titled: “Thirteen ways of looking at a black burkini”, “Thirteen ways of looking at a black beard”, “Before your interrogation”, and “When cops come to frisk you”.

The burkini – a swimsuit designed by Australian designer Aheda Zanetti – is worn to adhere to Islamic laws of modesty, but has been banned by different authorities in France and Switzerland, leading to accusations of Islamophobia.

A poem about religious attire seems incredibly poignant for our times – but it also has wider resonances. It is also an important artistic and political choice for Chandramohan, who takes a break from addressing Dalit issues in his poetry to write about Islamophobia. It reminds us powerfully that there is a universality to the experience of oppression. Looking at the boot blocking out the sun from below is the same for everyone under it. And it is necessary to build solidarities to fight this oppression.

Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana.