Bruised, but not Broken (poems)

-Challapalli Swarooparani 

‘ Memory as an Ideology ‘

          Challapalli Swaroopa Rani uses memory not only as a technique but also as an ideology. Her selective memory carefully constructs the people and the milestones in her life and collates this personal memory with her memory of the collective experiences of people like her and her people. She struggles to locate herself among her people as well as the larger world and she is able to connect with them in their pangs of suffering and exploitation as well as in their songs of resistance.

          “Rain” arrests the memory of her childhood and the memories of her father, mother, home and the school. The raindrops in the present turn into the drops of letters from the roofs of memory. The all-knowing “Water” not only quenches thirst but also can lead to violence and the protest movements. Water, for Swaroopa Rani, is a witness, a boundary between the village and the Dalit locality. Her childhood memory has indelible marks of battles for water among her people and between her people and the dominant sections of the village. That the bottled water has become a multinational commodity cannot undo the history of Dalit massacre by the upper caste people. Water is also a symbol of the incidents of conflicts like it was in Karamchedu. Suvarthamma, a Dalit woman, lifted a water pot in order to defend herself from the attack by the dominant communities. Her defence was turned into an offence leading to the killings of Dalits in Karamchedu in 1985. Karamchedu was a milestone in Dalit movements and contributed significantly to the material and ideological mobilisation and consolidation of the revolting Dalits. Water, it could be rain water, well water, drinking water but it could also be the reason behind the flowing streams of blood, especially of the Dalits. Referring to her “Bruised Childhood”, Swaroopa Rani says,

“When I visit my grandma’s house like my village where I romped

these ripe neem fruit memories claps me like

the jasmine creeper in our backyard.”

          This takes us to her other poem “Patriotism”, which questions Gandhi and his image of a village. The village that excommunicated people can only leave memories of sorrow with the downtrodden and that’s precisely what has happened with the poet. It is not just a memory of poverty but also a memory of alienation and discrimination. That “Exclusion”, and that excommunication are haunting and nightmarish. But, her “Love at Chennai” hails certain Dravidian familiarity in its air that stretches its friendly hand around her neck and looks into eyes. She calls the dominant religion a “Step-Mother” for alienating, discriminating and ill- treating people. What use is the salvation after death? What about the life in death situation that the prohibited people live in?

          The recurring image of her mother raises several political questions in her poem “My Mother”. As a wife, as a mother and as a woman, she has no recognition and respect in the family despite toiling at home and outside. Swaroopa Rani contrasts her mother with the women in the city who speak the language of liberation. Her class, caste, religion make her an outsider. Challapalli’s counter to the feminist movement about feminist movement not reaching the kitchen-less homes is still a pertinent and relevant question that needs to be answered. The poem calls for the Dalit women to clean and clear up the stinking caste system in the village as well as the husband who shows his male authority on her.“The Filthy”, her un-motherly mother was pounded under the burden of caste, labour, violence, and poverty. Like her mother, her grandfather, “The Black Sun” is another major influence on her life and thought. She confesses that she is resurrecting in saluting the grandfather, the black sun who moulded their lives and inspired them like the ever-shining sun.

          Swaroopa Rani’s memory of childhood is closely associated with her memory of buffalos and the attachment between humans and buffalos, as her poem “Buffalo Nationalism” reveals. This memory also reflects her admiration for “The Mother Curry” that sustained generations of Dalit communities. This poem reminds us of the violence around food habits, Brahminization, the lynching of Dalits in the name of vegetarianism, and the Dalit resistance that celebrated beef festivals.

          Like the all-knowing water, the all-knowing letter also has a significant place. For the poet, the letter is like her “Mother’s Sari Hem” to wipe the tears, an encouraging friend, light dispelling the spiralling gloom, hidden weapon under her sleeve, guiding angel, life element cuddling her soul, flag of self-respect fluttering high, moonlit signature laughing on her mother’s forehead and ship carrying islands of wisdom unloading them at her threshold. That’s why she demands a “New Syllabus” that the ones never allowed to read and write have been prescribing for the so-called histories, from the perspective of the most downtrodden and the discriminated. That’s why her “Sacrifice” reiterates that

“Old questions Need new answers Till then

The sacrifice continues…”

          Swaroopa Rani’s writings always end on an assertive note. They hint at resistance, confrontation, and transformation. Her poetry is full of Mankena flowers and the palapittas caught in the thorny bushes. However, they overcome the obstacles, counter the oppression and emerge liberated. Her poem “Mankena Flower” refers to the male arrogance at home that slaps on one check and caste dominance outside that thrashes the other cheek. This double burden sharpens her, especially her activist self, to say

“I will purge my life

in these flames of trouble and blossom like the ‘mankena flower’….

I will cross the forests of hardship and surge like a stream.”

          Similarly, she documents the anguish of a Dalit woman whose history is prohibited and who is branded even before she is born. While her “Mankena Flower” asserts that she will emerge successfully, “The Prohibited History” questions the society and the historians as to in which canto of the country’s history will her story be written down. Such sharp questions target the hierarchical society that has subjugated people, especially women, for generations.

          Like her memory, her dreams are also the haunting memories of discrimination and violence. But, those nightmares are turned into dreams as she trains her eyes to turn the nightmares into dreams and to dream afresh. She states, in her poem “Prohibited Dream”,

“In that dream, I am the ring master, with a whip in hand

I control the jungle beasts. Now, that is my daily routine.”

          But her poem “An Ethnic Dream” expands her dreams and nightmares to the larger questions about the creation of ethnic exhibits in the urban context. The exotic forest becomes an exhibit in places like Shilparamam that are designed by the state to showcase the lost cultures and the alienated lifestyles. The rural and the tribal exhibited there remain caricatured while their status and existence in the society reduce to the minimal. Similarly, “Wild Lily” critiques the measurements of the mainstream descriptions and hails the “rustic” beauty that is beyond all the prescriptions and subscriptions. The body and mind of a Dalit woman, a “Chandalika” are not considered to be lovable and loving. Her “Postponement of love” declares that her emotions are postponed, owing to the prejudices of the society.

          Swaroopa Rani explodes like a volcano to live, to write and to proclaim herself. Her poem “Explosion” portrays the carving out of her battling self.

“To declare I am a ‘human being’

had to cross how many calamities! …… I voluntarily acquired the armed conflict as an essential commodity

swallowing it in small portions every day.”

          Dalit children and young women are subjected to atrocities, assaults, and untouchability. They are deceived, victimised, exploited and killed. But, they are in turn blamed by the cattiest, feudal and patriarchal society for crossing the boundaries. “The Untouchable Assault” is a hit at the system that blames and penalises the victim. “The Pyre of Khairlanji” is a horrid memory that will never cease to burn.

          Her poetry extends to the working class and lower class people whose class compels them to toil from dawn to dusk and turn their bodies into slogging machines without any recognition and respect from society. “The Morning Star” sings for the toiling girls, flowing like a sad tune all through the day and merging into the depths of the ocean. Her “Banjara: The Banjara Girl” teaches the smile to the city though she gets lost in the cacophony of the city. Her “Corn Picker” could bathe Shurpanakha or Prameela or Jhalkari Bai or Nangeli who changed the course of history and who sacrificed themselves for the cause of their people and who were destroyed in the fight between the institutions of power. She could be a nursing/feeding mother or a gifted servant maid but she remains a picker of fallen ears of corn who has no right to food, shelter, and self-respect. The woman with “Muddy Hands”,

“having dried in the sun, soaked in the rain being beaten by the husband in evenings conceiving year after year

her body that used to glitter like marigold turns paler and paler

as a wilted twig of a leaf.”

          “The Loan Collector”, whom Swaroopa Rani describes as micro nakshatrakudu, also cannot escape from the poet’s sharp observation. She is able to reach the dark corners of the violence inherent in micro-financing, the feminisation of development as an indicator of the progress of the country.“Child Sacs” focuses on the commoditisation of women’s body parts, especially the wombs. Similar to this, “The Lamp of Questions” raised by Rohith Vemula and “De la Justice” that declares solidarity with Rohith and his mother are closely related to her observations on Dalit womanhood, motherhood, and assaults on Dalits, while “The Rejected” expresses the poet’s agony for the Rohingya Muslims without a mother or a motherland.

          Swaroopa Rani boldly declares that she is the “Mother Earth” and claims her right over the soil.

“This soil belongs to me! Want a proof?

Ask this earth that set flattened With my blood!”

          “The Darkest Cloud” is the Tuskers’ loud trumpet filled with the courage of conviction resembling the darkest cloud. Like her poem “Need to Speak”, Swaroopa Rani strongly believes in the need to speak, speak up and speak for, breaking the generations of silence. Challapalli Swaroopa Rani writes poetry, short fiction, and essays. Her’s has been the most powerful voice in Telugu literature for the past two decades or so. Her writings have always tried their best to proclaim her identity as a Dalit woman and declare her solidarity with the Dalit movement, Women’s movement and the movements of the marginalised sections. We see the overwhelming presence of Ambedkar and Buddha and their ideologies in her writings. Writing is not just expression/articulation, but writing is politics for her. Her poems invoke the images and incidents that have a haunting presence on minds, lives, and communities. Home, mother, women, working culture, caste, rain, water, Ambedkar, and education are some of the themes and symbols that are repeatedly dealt with.

          Her poetry, short fiction, and essays have been translated into many languages, including English. This is the first time that a volume of her poetry is appearing in English and it will certainly enrich English literature. Hoping to read more from Swaroopa Rani’s pen in English,

K Suneetha Rani


(To be continued-)

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