Bruised, but not Broken (poems)

-Challapalli Swarooparani 


          This collection of 35 poems written by Prof Challapalli Swaroopa Rani now translated in to English, are eye-openers into the unspeakable experiences of Dalits not only in Andhra but all over India. These poems evoke in me feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, sorrow, depression, tension, distress, restlessness, pain and agony. Simultaneously, I feel a strong sense of oneness and solidarity with the author because her attitudes, aspirations, dreams, courage, hopes, values, and, most of all, her determination to resist the present oppressive caste system resonate with my own feelings and aspirations as a Dalit woman. These poems speak of the pan Indian Dalit experience and challenge us to renew our commitment to create a casteless society where everyone and every life matters.

          These poems specifically speak about the inhuman impact of caste system and the vulnerable condition of Dalits, especially of Dalit women. They also bring out the inner psychological and conscious struggles of Dalits to affirm and celebrate their human existence which necessarily calls for a relentless fight against the existing dehumanising social norms.

          Again and again they show how the present caste ridden society is an inhuman one, shot through and through with pain, sorrow and is the utter negation of a society of equality, fraternity and liberty envisaged by Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar.

The poem, Rain, says,

“My mother became a cloud of sorrow Thinking how to provide meals

In jobless rainy season.”

          This is the impoverished and heart wrenching economic condition of the Dalit households even today. Poverty kills them and in spite of their hard labour, Dalits cannot fulfil even their basic needs, and their priority in life becomes their family’s next meal.

          The poem, Water, unravels the many centuries’ old history of caste related struggles and the consequent violence suffered by Dalits in their efforts to procure water. It points out how Ambedkar struggled to quench his thirst and to get his basic rights, and how the quest for natural wealth that water is, is part and parcel of Dalits’ struggles in the past and in the present:

“The water knows everything. It knows the difference of race

Between the Samaria woman and Jesus, the Jew.

It also knows the sub-caste difference Between the leather and spool.

It knows the agony of the Panchama

          Who not having the right to draw a pot of water, And waits all the day near the well with empty pot Until a Sudra arrives.

          The water is witness to centuries of social injustices For us water is not simple H2O For us water is a mighty movement.

          It is the Mahad struggle at Chavdar tank.

          The water can ignite many struggles and strife. It can make the blood run in stream

          But also sit innocently in a Bisleri bottle.”

          Likewise, in the poem, Explosion, we are told of the everyday violence that is the fate of every Dalit who values human dignity and freedom:

          “To declare I am a ‘human being’ Had to cross how many calamities!”

          These two lines clearly indicate the endless violence and atrocities that Dalits face in their day to day life when they live affirming their identity as ‘human beings’. We are reminded of hundreds of events in the past and in the present where Dalits struggle to establish their human identity.

“If male arrogance at home

Gives a resounding slap on one cheek Caste dominance outside

Thrashes my other cheek.”

          From these lines from the poem ‘Mankena Flower’ we get a poignant picture of the pathetic condition of Dalit women who are Dalits among Dalits.

          In the poem “Buffalo Nationalism” Dalit culture is highlighted in just two lines,

“The pet is not an animal It is a member among us.”

          In this materialistic and consumerist world Dalits alone love all living creatures unconditionally, and their eco-sensitive relationship with water, fire, earth, wind and sky is unique.

          The poem, ‘Prohibited History’ tells how in India one’s birth decides one’s caste. A caste label is attached to a new-born and this continues throughout its life and even after death. There are separate graveyards and cremation grounds based on caste. From womb to tomb a Dalit remains a Dalit and nothing can be done to change it.

“Even as I was taking shape In my mother’s womb

I was labelled as untouchable

and the stamp of low-caste preceded my birth.”

          In India by attaching caste with the binaries of purity and pollution our consciousness becomes obsessed with clean and unclean occupations, with the terrible consequence that Dalits are forced to engage in these unclean occupations.

          The poem, The Filthy, points to this tyranny:

“If I think of my mother In the place of her limbs The toilet broom,

A plate of cow dung come to my mind.”

          For a Dalit child such painful and humiliating experience and memories associated with it, damage its growth. When the mother is sick and is unable to clean the toilets in a High School, in Tamil Nadu, her daughter in class X was forced to clean the school toilets. One can imagine the humiliating and painful experience of that girl. How can she grow as a normal girl like everybody else? Most of the Dalit children have their parents’ image as menial labourers, working all through their lives with sweat and soil and misery. In addition to that they see them ill-treated by their employers. All such experiences and memories stunt and block their psychological and emotional growth.

“Simply acquiring A chunk of land

The wife and children

Of Bahayyalal of Khairlanji Were brutally slain

On the altar of caste – bourgeoisie”.

          These lines from the poem “Mother Earth” brings to our memory the cruel and barbarous incident that shocked the whole country. As long as Dalits remain as landless labourers, there is no problem. If they manage to become economically self-sufficient by dint of hard work and thrifty life, there is then no need for them to depend on the so called upper class land owners. This irritates the land owners and their immediate reaction is to destroy Dalits and their assets and especially the Dalit women. They cannot tolerate the growth and independent functioning of Dalits. For them Dalits should work in the field and should not own any land because owning a piece of land empowers Dalits.

          The heart-breaking Khairlanji incidents is the theme of the poem, “The Pyre of Khairlanji”. In it, a conversation with Baba Saheb Ambedkar, our deep emotions are churned.

          “This is the nation of minimal Turned into a male organ And scared me away.

          The police meant for protection Turns hostile And harass us to show Proof and check the bruised bodies.

Baba, the police lathi

Became the male stick to agitate me. Is there another race

In the whole world

Which had to pay such ransom?

Baba, a fitful human ID?”

The police meant for our protection

          From our day to day experience, it is clear that police is meant for destruction ― destruction of human emotions, human consciousness, humanness and the very breath and life of Dalits and Dalit women in particular. I have written a few short stories about this violence and atrocities of police and how Dalit men and women are brutally attacked and how this damages them not only physically but also mentally. It is a cruel comedy for us Dalits to see the board on which it is written, ‘Police is your friend’!

          The poem, “The Rejected “talks about the pitiable condition of the Rohinga Muslims; the poet identifies herself with them and their refugee condition.

          “I’m a born terrorist Clutching bullets in my grip From the matrix of my mother In a cursed race.

          My birth is criminalized I’m rejected and dejected I’m a Rohinga Muslim I’m the river of sorrow Flowing like an orphan between the countries I‘m an unanswerable question

          Dalits too are aliens to their own country and can easily enter into the misery and agony of these people who belong nowhere. Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar once told Gandhi,

          “I have no country, Gandhiji, How can I call this country which treats me worse than dogs as my own? We are refugees in our own land”. I am also reminded of another saying of Ambedkar, “I am not part of a whole at all; I am part apart”.

          The poignant poem ‘The Lamp of Question’, questions the meaning of today’s caste based education.

“Rohith, Let me know

Whether education is for Enlightenment?”

          We know the answer to this question. How can an enlightened people segregate people on the basis of caste, class and gender? How can an enlightened people treat others in such a brutal, inhuman manner killing them in the name of God, culture and even a cow!! How can an enlightened people believe that birth decides caste?

          Most of these poems are like sparks of fire which at once shed light on the lost dignity and self-respect of Dalits and women and inspire us to engage untiringly in the noble task of annihilation of caste, begun by our Baba Saheb. May they continue to disturb our consciences so that we become truly an enlightened people who choose to be free at whatever cost, and let others be free!

Bama, Uthiramerur.


(To be continued-)

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