Dalit poet S. Kalesh reflects on the childhood which inspired his poetry, trends in Malayalam literature, and the synergy between politics and his craft.
As I walk gathering the shadows
Of a bird in the sky of the field
It waves its wings and flies away.
I touch the soil and take back my empty hand.
—S. Kalesh (In the sky of the field)
Hailed for the spectral splendour of their imagery invoking ghosts and creatures of the night, for the ingenuity of their narrative style that synthesises oral and cinematic traditions of storytelling, and for charting a distinctive aesthetic framework, S. Kalesh’s poems represent the contemporary face of subaltern poetry in Malayalam, and have been performed in various protests and land struggle movements. 34-year-old Kalesh, who is a sub-editor with Samakalika Malayalam, is the author of two collections—Hairpin Bend and Sabdamahasumdram (The Great Ocean of Sounds).
Your childhood appears repeatedly in your poems, in many ways—sometimes as characters in re-imagined memories like in Plavinte Katha (Story of the jackfruit tree), and sometimes as the landscape of re-claimed stories like in Vayalkkarayile Aanpatti (The male dog on the banks of a paddy field).
If the beginning of one’s poetic journey can be traced back to one singular moment, then the image I return to most often is this: a four-year-old boy is standing in the open courtyard of his thatched hut, singing “I am a disco dancer”, and there comes his maternal grandmother who promptly tucks him up into a yellow shirt with four pockets. I must have been four years old then.
Once my parents went for work, I was under her supervision. Her name was Chinna, a farming labourer in a village called Kunnanthanam, in Pathanamthitta district. She was a seemingly endless anthology of stories and poems and songs. She had gone to school only till fourth standard—apparently, a teacher had beaten her up, which enraged her mother who went and questioned him, and from the next day she stopped going to school, afraid that the teacher would take revenge on her.
No one and nothing have influenced me as much as this woman and her stories and songs. I will share one of them. It must have been in the 1930s or ’40s. Chinna and her mother were coming back from Changanacherry market where they had gone to buy tapioca, dried fish and betel paan. The 12-kilometre stretch back to their home was thronged with bushes and thickets. It was dark and they were walking with a country torch made of dried coconut leaves rolled into a scroll and lit at one end. On the way, there was a pond right in the middle of a rubber farm. When they reached that pond, they felt as if someone was persistently blowing out their torch. Despite the panic, they kept walking in the dark, and kept losing their way, always coming back to the same pond. They could hear Chinna’s father crying for them from their home, but when they tried to cry back they found to their horror that their tongues were tied. At last, Chinna’s mother, a midwife, chewed the betel paan and spit it out hard, took the names of some spirits and prayed to them, and then the wind blew, and the torch was lit again, and they could find their way home. In Chinna’s version, they were haunted by one of those spirits who was greedy for the dried fish they were carrying as head load.
It was not just songs and stories which were filled with ghosts that she used to share with me. There were also those rhythmic slogans that she once used to sing and shout with fervour in Communist marches of her youth for such leaders like Rosamma Punnoos and P T Punnoos. She was proud of the fact that there was not a field in our neighbouring areas that she had not harvested. She had a flair for narrating these experiences too. I remember her describing a memory in which a group of travellers from a speeding train threw oranges to the workers in a field where she was also present. Such was her narrative style that it was as if she was describing a scene from a movie.
And then there were those many, many songs of the fields too. I regret the fact that I could not record any of them. With her, those songs and those stories too disappeared. To a certain extent, I remember the stories; but only a few scattered lines of the songs remain with me.
Looking back, I realise it was she who pushed me into poetry, and shaped my poetic journey. She died in 1999. It was after her death that I started writing poems. Sometimes I feel that I am merely marking her absence through my poetry.
Your earlier poems, the ones collected in Hairpin Bend, do not have the distinctive stylistic traits that have since been associated with you. On the one hand, they seem to inhabit the same emotional space of high romanticism celebrated by poets of the Seventies, and on the other, their political space seem to be influenced by the poets of Nineties, who sought a break from the Seventies. How do you now review that phase?
The poets of the Seventies wrote about an absolute human being, one that on the surface did not have any markers of identity—this was a creature that had no religion, no caste, no gender, and no race. Yet, if one looked beneath the flimsy facade of this absoluteness, it was not difficult to see that their identity-less human being was not a woman, not a Dalit, not a Muslim and not Black . It was this creature that paved and popularised the ways of radical left politics, one which sometimes out of compulsions imposed by its own framework, and sometimes deliberately paid no heed to the finer details and realms of politics and aesthetics. For corroborative evidence, we don’t have to look beyond the complete obliteration of Dalit and subaltern poets from the canonically accepted poetic history of that era. It was not as if they did not exist at the time (and yet we don’t see them in literature)!
The poets of the Nineties, in their attempts to move away from this space, ended up, however, creating an absolute space of their own: one characterised by a resolute insistence on minimalism, an ambience that had no space for noise—you wouldn’t find a boisterous street or a scene of conflict in them—and a conscious denial of all intense forms of expression, emphasis on short—often, very short—poems, and assertions of a poetic voice that was fond of speaking softly, almost whispering. Sometimes I wonder if their extreme fondness for decency was a consequence of their profession—most of them, after all, were professors. It is also interesting to note that the distinguishable features of the poetry of Nineties were first to be seen in the Puthumozhivazhikal (Ways of the new word) of Attoor Ravi Varma, a poet who started his career in the late Fifties and who was also one of the distinctive voices of the Seventies.
During my formative years as a poet, Balachandran Chullikkad, a stalwart of the Seventies, was my primary influence. However, when I started writing seriously in the early years of this millennium’s first decade, my inclination gradually shifted, not without conflicts, towards the poets of the Nineties. I was impressed by the way they tried to look into spaces of environment and womanhood, two areas almost unnoticed by the poets of the Seventies. I was also fortunate to have been be guided by D Vinayachandran, who was a Professor at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, where I was at the time doing my MCA. He was the only poet of the Seventies, in my opinion, to have treaded a different path.
But is it possible to arrive at a generalised aesthetic framework for the poets of the Nineties? Wasn’t there also a revival of subaltern poetry during that period?
Yes, there was, and coming as I did from a subaltern space, it was this aspect of the Nineties’ poetry that ended up having the most significant influence on me during this phase. This subaltern stream of sensibility, represented primarily by S. Joseph, M. B. Manoj, M. R. Renukumar and Binu M. Pallippadu, was in many ways at loggerheads with the Attoor school of sensibility. But I would say there is a difference of approaches even among them. S. Joseph, who is the more canonically recognized poet of this group, chose to mark the subaltern spaces of his poetry without breaking away too much from the aesthetic sensibilities of the Nineties. But Manoj, Renukumar and Binu were poets who located themselves outside the realm of that dominant sensibility, preferring instead to create an alternative subaltern space. It was after closely reading them that I—and so my poems—instead of constantly looking outside, started looking inwards, towards my own life and its myriad spaces. Their poems directly addressed the many dimensions of subaltern politics, while Joseph was keener to use a dialogic style of poetics to find an expression for the subaltern spaces of his poems.
Despite this shift in my poetic approach, when I look back, it is not difficult for me to say that those poems were immature—in terms of both political and aesthetic aspects. I would like to think that it was after 2009, when I started blogging regularly, that I began to evolve a style of my own. I was going through a very difficult phase in my life at that point—financial crisis to start with: I was a poet who was handling obituary pages of a local newspaper at the time, various discriminations at my workplace, personal turmoil…It was a phase where I was convinced that the good times of my life were all gone. On top of that, the poems of Hairpin Bend were met with trenchant criticism—almost all of which was based on finding the various shadows and influences in those poems.
It led to a period of dejection and depression which was compounded when various mainstream journals chose to encourage me by promptly sending back the poems I used to send them. Luckily, I found a friend, Mathen, who guided me through this phase, in the process making someone like me who comes from a non-urban background realise that the city is a wonderful abode for those in deep distress.
In what ways do you think the medium of blog—though short lived in terms of its popularity, having now been usurped by social media—influenced your generation of poets? Suddenly, poetry blogs were a dime a dozen, it was almost like a sub-culture at that point; so much so that even many mainstream publishers were keen to come out with anthologies of blog poetry.
During the initial period of blogs, I was, to be honest, very sceptical. I was still under the impression, and definitely a feudal one at that, that poetry is supposed to be published only in journals. But soon, I realised the potential of blogs in terms of reaching readers, and started one of my own. It proved to be the definitive turning point of my poetic journey. I was very impressed by the various styles that were being explored by many poets, in particular those employed by Latheesh Mohan and Vishnuprasad. All those poets were for all intents and purposes unpublished in print. It was a very democratic medium, and over time, the period I spent in that space proved extremely helpful in breaking away completely from the influence of the Nineties.
I came to the conclusion that to find an expression for the changed circumstances of modern life, one needs to look for innovations in one’s craft. It was around this time that I started writing long poems, fuelled by the conviction that the short and crisp poems of the previous era were no longer for me.
I also started working elaborately on a thematic landscape that was distinctively and unapologetically subaltern. I realised the importance of finding a poetic language for the various identity crises of my life, the otherness I was experiencing in the city, and the many manic attempts to merely survive. And to do that I had to give up all the nostalgic spaces of romanticism that had till then populated my poetry.
My objectives were to develop a style whose defining features would be an emphasis on a noisy and chaotic acoustic texture and a zigzag, haphazard narrative form. Of course, while doing so, the greatest challenge is to make sure that one stays away from sloganeering.
I realised that if I was not capable of writing a poem that is entirely my own, then there is no point in writing at all. And to do that, I realised I had to work hard on my language, as hard as one would in an agricultural field.
Though it came to mainstream prominence only in the last three decades, the history of Dalit and subaltern poetics go back a long, long way; in fact the oral traditions of subaltern poetry go much farther back than that of what has now come to be accepted as the hegemonic poetic history of our language. Even in the written form, though obscured for a very long time, Malayalam does have a rich and diverse poetic tradition that marked its subaltern sensibilities. How would you mark your interactions with this tradition, especially in charting out what you describe as a poetry of your own?
It goes without saying that the Dalit poetic tradition has been one of the greatest guiding forces for a poet like me. For anyone who tries to formulate a new subaltern sensibility, the radical nature of the songs of Poykayil Appachan, the unique patterns of rhythm, the wild strangeness of imagery and the doughty combativeness of Chengannoorathi songs, and numerous other folk songs provide a very fertile soil to work on.
Most importantly, this subaltern history instructs you that one cannot develop a subaltern aesthetics based on Hindu mythology. I do believe that it is an insult for a subaltern to even live with the feeling of being a Hindu. It is with this perspective that I engage with a poet like Poykayil Appachan, who had, a century ago, built his poetic identity on a Dravidian Dalit tradition that is neither Hindu nor Christian. He was a pastor who searched the Bible in vain for the history the people he sermonised to. Eventually, he burned the Bible, having come to the conclusion that there is no business for Kerala’s subaltern people in a book that narrated the story of the people of Israel. In many ways, this is similar to Dr B R Ambedkar burning the Manusmriti.
These are some of the lined penned by Poykayil Appachan:
I cannot see
A single letter on my race
Though I can see
The histories of so many races.
When I think about it
I am filled with regret
So let me add something
In my own tune.
We travelled like orphans
In the wastelands of Hinduism
And we travelled like orphans
In the wastelands of Christianity
But neither the Hindus nor the Christians
Why then do you think that this tradition of Dalit and subaltern poetry represented by poets like Poykayil Appachan and Pandit Karuppan was later completely obscured by the much celebrated progressive movements of subsequent times, and especially by the poetry of the Red and ‘modern’ Seventies?
The poetry of Malayalam’s modernity quashed and invalidated such voices. Probably because the politics on which it was based had no space for such voices. One must also remember that most subaltern poets of that era were not privileged in terms of educational status. That must have further aggravated their plight.
But what, in my opinion, is of greater significance is the fact that these famous modern poets who were either active participants or fellow travellers of left ideology had no problems in incorporating themes from Hindu mythology in their oeuvre. Those who search for subaltern spaces in modern poetry will have to be content with Kadamanitta’s Padayani poems. Even Poykayil Appachan’s songs were re-discovered much later with the advent and further consolidation of identity politics. In times of ghar waapsi, what better slogan can be raised than the one he did?
Most of your poems follow the narrative framework of storytelling. At the same time, they seem to deliberately eschew music and patterns of rhythm. Can you elaborate on the specifics of your craft?
The craft of a poem, in my view, is defined primarily by the theme it tries to address. Writing is a conscious art, though poetry occurs outside of the purview of consciousness. Unplanned and random journeys, the order of events as they occur in a day—sometimes a strange day—the narrative styles of cinema and painting—these have all influenced my craft. I even look at ways in which a simple algebraic equation is solved, and use the pattern that I find in such problem-solving techniques to develop a narrative framework for my poems like Pranayam Kothichuvalarunna Aankutti (A boy growing up greedy for love).
As for rhythm, I agree that I haven’t so far made a concerted effort to incorporate aspects of music and rhythm in my poetry despite having always wanted to make use of the rhythms of folk songs. I think it will be possible only when the poem’s theme itself is based on rhythm. At the same time, I also believe that prose too has a rhythm of its own, and it is this rhythm that I am more comfortable with in my poetry. And perhaps, it is the inner and invisible rhythms of the subaltern folk traditions of which I too am a part that save my language from being too harsh and too crude.
More importantly, one must not forget that following large-scale appropriations by the mainstream, folk music enjoys a great deal of popularity now. And this popularity, to a large extent, is based on its Hindutvaisation and on the ways in which its subaltern features are rendered invisible by making them appear as if they are secular expressions—this is most clearly illustrated by the songs of Kavalam Narayanan Panikkar and the popularity enjoyed by the rock songs of Avial, which use many of these songs. As a poet, I think it is my responsibility to my art to always be on the guard against the perils of populism. Otherwise one might not be able to say what one really wants to say.
The politics of land is a recurring theme in your poems. It is at its most intense in a poem like Rathrisamaram (Night Protest), where the narrator ,who appears almost midway through the poem, and who has come to participate in a night protest conducted by those evicted from their habitats, describes the multi-storeyed building that has come up in the land from which he has driven away.
The political imagination that spurred that poem was this thought about a spider trying to view an eight-storeyed building. Its craft is one which tries to mimic the methodology involved in building a city, and the narrative eye is one which follows this process of city-building like a movie camera.
When one writes about the politics of land eviction in a poem, it is not the politics of an identity-less citizen that is being written. Rather, the ‘other’ in the poem takes the subjectivity of the poet, and becomes a subaltern citizen with empty pockets who does not have any right over the nation’s resources, and whose own resources are forcefully dragged away.
Even when I live in a city, I don’t own a cent of land there. My urban identity, like that of a majority of the urban Indian population, is an alienated one; it is the identity of a tenant. That is why the space of my poetry is spread over both urban and rural landscapes: as if my head is in a city and the feet in a village.
It is now clear that subaltern resistance is the only possibility available to us against forces of Hindutva. Just look at the aftermaths of Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder, and the movements against Sangh Parivar in Una and Uduppi. In Kerala, where the land reform movements are so celebrated, more than 2.5 lakh live without land in wastelands and colonies. How, then, can poets and poetry move forward by discussing only aesthetics? It was for the same reason that I participated in the Rights Over Land Convention in Thrissur where I performed the poem Night Protest.
The timescape of your poems too follows a jumbled pattern. In fact, rather than through images it is through the manipulation of time that you create a sense of surrealism in your poems, especially in a poem like Plavinte Katha.
That is a consequence of my belief that any poetic thought, while grounded in the present, must also necessarily connect at the same time to both the future and the past. In times like ours, in which various tools and mechanisms of the virtual world have rendered meaningless all conventionally accepted norms and ideas of time and space, it is imperative that this shift in perspective should be reflected in the poetics of that age too. I don’t think there is any space in our times for a poetic idea that concerns itself only with the present.
Is it for the same reason that your poems are filled with so many ghosts—of both people and various creatures?
That aspect of my poetry comes from the many customs and functions in connection with death that I had witnessed as a child.
One of them was called Chavedukku: This happens on the seventh day after the death has occurred. The sorcerer will come home by evening. He would go to where the dead has been buried, and would invoke the spirit into an eerkkil (the mid-rib of the blade of a coconut leaf) which he would whirl around. He would then come back with this eerkkil to the altar. Relatives would have by then assembled around that altar. The spirit invoked in the eerkkil would enter one of these relatives who would then start dancing in frenzy. He would list the flaws and harms that have affected the family. The sorcerer would suggest possible solutions and would eventually recall the spirit from the relative. Next day, the spirit would be taken away after it has been made to promise that it would return only if it has been asked to.
I have seen a function where glasses would be filled with toddy before the dead would be called upon to drink them. This is to quench the thirst of the wandering spirits. An elderly person would fill the glasses and would call the spirits by their names. After a while, the relatives would start drinking from those glasses. In my childhood, I have also drunk from one of those glasses; toddy that was left over after the dead had had their fill. Perhaps, the undrunk intoxication persists.
Suresh P Thomas is a Malayalam writer who has published three works of fiction. He lives in Kottayam.
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