Rohini Kejriwal, speaks to the young poet on his identity, politics of writing and his inspirations
The poetry of S. Chandramohan is a rare variety. As a personal belief, the Thiruvananthapuram-based poet subscribes to the transformational power of literature, which is clear from the way he uses his reality of being a Dalit poet to tell his truth. Closely scrutinising the themes that affect the community—neo-liberalism, capitalism, untouchability, beef, caste, surveillance. Sample this.
I write poems in a language not sung at my cradle
What songs will be sung at my grave?
Words scrubbed and sanitized clean
For a sterile and synthetic history.
Looking back at his early days, Chandramohan acknowledges that it was his English teachers growing up in Kochi, Kerala who pushed him into the literary world. “My father was a bank employee and a college graduate. I had pursued Engineering before turning into Mathematics Research. My literary inclination in my childhood was very little, and though I had read quite a bit, I wouldn’t call myself a voracious reader. I owe a debt to English teachers who nurtured a love for the English language,” he says.
He’s quick to add that he writes in English because he didn’t have a choice, having attended a Kendriya Vidyalaya school where children were fined if they spoke in their mother tongues. “Writing in English does have its pros and cons – our voice could reach a larger audience or maybe get registered in echelons of power. But then, it may not penetrate down to the underbelly of our society.” Poetry was a happy accident while making posters for a protest, “I slowly drifted into writing catchy phrases or “poetry” as we call it today. ” His first poem, Rape and Murder of a Dalit Girl, evolved out of this exercise. Poetry, he feels is the most condensed for of literature, this is because “every word is a pivotal brick of a grand political project that writers may be drawn into,” he says.
Rape and Murder of a Dalit Girl
No newspaper carried a headline or a photo feature,
No youth were roused to protests,
No city’s life came to a standstill,
No furore in the parliament,
No nation’s conscience was haunted,
No Prime Minister addressed the nation,
No TV channel discussions,
No police officials were transferred or suspended,
No candlelight marches,
No billion women rising,
A Dalit girl was raped and murdered!
But what does it truly mean to be a Dalit writer in the literary world?
He aspires to rupture the status quo and then transcend it in order to be the change that he envisions. “As a Dalit of a generation that has had access to urbanised means of consumption that empowers them to partake in all walks of life, Being able to write fiction directly in English is one such privilege. Still, I’m surprised why fiction (poems , short stories, novels) written in English hasn’t emerged from the Dalit community. I hope we see the rise of youth from erstwhile marginalised sections making their mark in the hallowed portals of Indian English fiction in this decade.”
He feels that Dalit literature is “the literature of resistance…it is definitely a language of resistance against the twin scourges of Brahmanical caste system and against late capitalism. We have been documenting our struggles. But the mainstream discourse knows only the tip of an iceberg. Dalit literature is an ocean. Only a drop of it has been translated to English or other languages, too much is waiting to be unraveled.”
Being a Dalit also means that it is “the state of affairs where one section of the population is culturally inferiorised, economically impoverished and politically disenfranchised.” He admits that there is a constant reminded of a certain degree of otherness that Dalits are made to feel. “It’s like social exclusion is the order of the day. There is tremendous pressure to prove our “merit”, just like Muslims need to prove their “patriotism”.”
Although there are deep-rooted challenges to overcome, Chandramohan acknowledges that positive steps are being taken . “Just because a microscopic minority from the erstwhile untouchables have attained national visibility doesn’t mean all is well for the community. But the era of social media and other technologies helps us stay connected. As a community, we’re hopeful of a better future.”
Having written strongly about relevant subjects like beef, caste, immigration and surveillance, the subject of his poetry is always a conscious choice. Take for instance Beef, “it is much more than just food. It’s now a source of protein for articulating dissent. Also, untouchability may have had its origins in beef consumption though there is ample evidence of beef eating in the history of this country. Surveillance could be a big tool from a fascist perspective, like with the AADHAR project,” he opines.
My harvest of poems
will be winnowed.
if done deftly,
the lighter shallow poems
blow away in the wind
while the heavier, meaty poems,
fall back onto the tray,
to become the fire in my belly
K. Satchidanandan, a veteran bilingual poet and academician, has been one of his biggest influences. “Satchidanandan’s poems have unflinching commitment to the aesthetics and the political. He is much more effective in Malayalam than in English translation that one may have read.” Interestingly, Satchidanandan too has praised Chandramohan for using poetry to create a better society. Another poet that has had a major influence on him has been, Namdeo Dhasal, so much so that his second collection of poems was titled Letters to Namdeo Dhasal, and nominated for the Srinivas Rayaprol Prize in 2016.
Namdeo Dhasal’s Letter to a Young Poet
In your poems
Do not set your rhyme and meter
With the drum beats of populism.
You may build mansions in their shade
Where synthetic grass is cut to level
And flowers bloom in time for the next election season
With petals the teal of the incumbent flags.
Before your mansions crumble,
I want to send you
To the smithy of the blacksmith.
[Post Script: Do not charge fees to read poems on hunger.]
Meena Kandasamy, who happened to write the blurb for his first collection of poems Warscape Verses (2014), also comes to his mind. “She was the first in English to do something similar to what I am trying now, having crusaded against caste and other forms of exploitation. She has been a source of confidence and pride in our Dalit identity.”
Currently, Chandramohan is associated with the PK Rosy Foundation, a cultural collective named after the legendary, pioneering Dalit actress, the Foundation seeks to de-marginalise Dalit bahujans. “PK Rosi was the first ever film actress of Malayalam cinema in the 1930s. She was ostracized and driven out of Kerala in those times. It was only in 2013, after the release of a movie by Celluloid (directed by Kamal) that her life was documented in the mainstream. Her blood relatives have started this cultural collective. We run a monthly journal APRIL, with an editorial policy that aims at an inclusive society.”
This apart, the young poet is also working on a series of poems that try to document the struggles of Dalit Panthers, a social organization founded in Mumbai in 1972 by Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, and Arun Kamble. The Dalit Panthers seek to combat caste discrimination and is utterly inspired by the Negritude Movement led by Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor. A series of poems titled, Third World Negritude, is also on the cards. And then of-course, there is that poem about beef in which he is trying to incorporate different poetic forms. This is a man on a mission of political resistance, one poem at a time.