FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Baraka, Dhasal, and Protest Poets

by FARZANA VERSEY

“A human being shouldn’t become so spotless.

One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt.

One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin”

Spotless-stains-sin do not sit well on the rebel. What moral prisms do outcasts refer to, those with shirts borrowed, and whose sin is sweat? Don’t ask, I am told. Swallow the mutinous words whole, the spluttered out phlegmatic prosody.

Namdeo Dhasal, the Dalit poet, is dead now, he who spoke about a bit of sin. Amiri Baraka is dead too. I understand their anger, the pain that gave birth to pain, the bloodied lines. I can feel these in my mouth, in an anger far different from theirs. Yet, I ask. When do rebels die? When their bodies give up or their rage does? By fucking the fuckers why do they accept those strawberry-flavoured trophies?

Wait. I know what you will say. One needs to flow, even become part of the system to expose it.

Imperialists are always waiting to reward the recusant; if not the establishment, then the parallel one of corporate cacophony at literary festivals with tented venues named after business empires and industrialists.

William Dalrymple who oversees the Jaipur Literary Festival had said a couple of years ago how they had “programmed a whole raft of Dalit or ‘untouchable’ writers from across India. I was skeptical that we needed quite as many as 30 Dalit poets to make the point, but I couldn’t have been more wrong: The Dalit sessions were the most crowded and exciting of the festival”.

There are other ways to explain the term. Dalit writing and the Dalit people have broken the untouchability wall. But, such tokenism is part of the literary scene. Most events are sponsored. When the writers speak, there are banners, like halos, that might be antithetical to their literary and social concerns. There is silence over this to leave a little opening for the possibility of future contracts.

Dhasal was honoured with the Padma Shri, a yearly tug-of-war civilian award with a pecking order that only the Indian government understands. Baraka was genteel-ed as poet laureate of New Jersey, a title that was taken off after he wrote ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ on the 9/11 terror attacks.

***

“Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed

Who put a price on Lenin’s head

Who put the Jews in ovens,

and who helped them do it

Who said “America First”

and ok’d the yellow stars”

These lines are not remembered as much as “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day?”

There is a reason. Baraka wrote the poem ten months after the September attacks. There were enough conspiracy theories by nice white men and women. And then he went on to explain how he was not against this and that. Baraka soon became a “former” many things.

Is it intellectual licentiousness or emotional guilt that makes mavericks alter their stance, sometimes their political ideology?

The Guardian obituary referred to him as “a controversial American poet turned Marxist”, as though the two are manifestly mutually exclusive. It goes on to say: “Jones changed his birth name to Amiri Baraka in 1968, when he became Muslim. He initially had chosen Imamu Amiri Baraka, since Imamu means spiritual leader. He no longer used Imamu when he became a Marxist-Leninist in the early 1970s, due to its spiritual implications.”

Baraka had done the done thing – converted to Islam. Such conversions have been one of the grounds for the image of the conditioned Muslim to gain currency. Had he remained LeRoi Jones, many of his views might have struck closer home and not be seen as those of a convert who took the naturalised position of his new ‘origins’. Then, his criticism of Martin Luther King as a “brainwashed Negro” (which he was to later retract) would not look like a tussle between the Reverend and the Imam.

He adopted what might appear to be a Muslim tone here again: “The empty jew betrays us, as he does hanging stupidly from a cross,…the little arty bastards talking aritmetic they sucked from the arab’s head.”

While dismissing the division of art and politics as “bourgeois”, Baraka seemed to contradict himself when he said, “Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is”.

The environment may influence individual creativity, but it gets filtered through an intricate process between subject and response. It is a minefield where reality is perception. Therefore, much of the symbolism may not register as creatively as it was expressed. It will be read in a soapbox scenario.

***

“Smash the bones of your critics’ shanks on hard stone blocks to get their marrow,

Wage class wars, caste wars, communal wars, party wars, crusades, world wars

One should become totally savage, ferocious and primitive…”

The irony of Dhasal’s words is that many of the underprivileged are considered primitive savages. In fact, the Hindu right has used Dalit food to point out the bestiality, so the call to cannibalism, however symbolic, is tantamount to feeding the archetype.

He transformed the neo-Buddhist hero into a seraphic figure in ‘Ode to Ambedkar’: “The skin of the untouchable parched by cycles of untouched life is moistened by your Heavenly stream;/You’ve smashed the head of the god-given wind…”

After the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed, he wrote, “Yesterday they murdered Gandhi/Now they want to put the whole/nation to death”. Rather surprising for a founder of the militant Dalit Panthers Movement to make Gandhi into the essential moral superman that the nation will follow in death.  Gandhi was among the first to talk about a Ram Rajya (the rule of Rama, the idealised notion of Hindutva).

But, then, the poet did experiment with varied truths. For someone who wanted no shackles, he supported the Emergency. In later years he shared space with two extreme rightwing organisations – the Shiv Sena and the RSS.

The see-sawing would be seen as evolution, except that a movement is not a puddle pool for street messiahs where, as I wrote here earlier, people throw pamphlets in the air like tinsel on Christmas tree Christs.

***

“Come up, black dada

nihilismus. Rape the white girls. Rape

their fathers. Cut the mothers’ throats.”

Were black people the audience here? Or whites? Or those watching Baraka beneath the mellow lights on a dais?

His lexis has been analysed thus in the New Yorker essay: “His poetic voice, with its Ebonics conjugations and sly rhythms, was that of the man on the Newark boulevard or the Harlem avenue. If black people can exert a valid claim on American democracy, Baraka seemed to be saying, then there’s no reason for their language not to have equally powerful standing in American literature.”

How often was he judged as literature instead of the anarchy of ideas? Black art as a genre will have a different linguistic notation, as would that from other cultures. But, do we critique it in a similar manner without referring to its history, unlike, say, mainstream works?

It is a distinctive tone, a curdled mélange of uncontained bile. It reads like dark streets and desperation, and why would it not? It is born of these.

Dhasal, too, started out as a streetwalker poet, but to assume that the language is the language of the poor and dispossessed is wrong. This is reductionist and, in fact, assumes how ‘lesser people’ speak, as opposed to the electrifying, elecutionised, ‘etherised on a table’ stanzas.

Do those who make the annual trip to Mumbai’s maidans for Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s anniversary talk violently? Meet the cobblers, the ironsmiths, the masons. Listen to them, even as they drink their bootlegged booze fermented in gutter barrels. Come to the sweeper’s colony, where they preserve old papers that taint them for their caste, because this is their ticket to the reserved space, a space that spells survival. They did not know about Dhasal when I met them. The Dalit literature movement, like almost all such movements, addresses others.

It was in college that I was woken up from the Wasteland and pushed right into what were known as the “underworld poems”. It was also the time cinema was producing stark films of a world removed from the “bottoms of my trousers rolled” one. The dissonance was disturbing. For a while. A few years. Until I figured out that many cocoons are less excoriating and more elastic.

If you must flow then, as Dhasal said, water is “the colour of your thirst”. Empathy is not what you dip your finger into at the hallowed shrines of insurgent words.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at Cross Connections

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
Ulrich Heyden
Crimea as a Paradise for High-Class Tourism?
Ramzy Baroud
Did the Arabs Betray Palestine? – A Schism between the Ruling Classes and the Wider Society
Halyna Mokrushyna
The War on Ukrainian Scientists
Joseph Natoli
Who’s the Better Neoliberal?
Ron Jacobs
The Battle at Big Brown: Joe Allen’s The Package King
Wahid Azal
Class Struggle and Westoxication in Pahlavi Iran: a Review of the Iranian Series ‘Shahrzad’
David Crisp
After All These Years, Newspapers Still Needed
Graham Peebles
Hungry and Frightened: Famine in Ethiopia 2016
Robert Koehler
Opening the Closed Political Culture
Missy Comley Beattie
Waves of Nostalgia
Thomas Knapp
The Problem with Donald Trump’s Version of “America First”
Georgina Downs
Hillsborough and Beyond: Establishment Cover Ups, Lies & Corruption
Jeffrey St. Clair
Groove on the Tracks: the Magic Left Hand of Red Garland
Ben Debney
Kush Zombies: QELD’s Hat Tip to Old School Hip Hop
Charles R. Larson
Moby Dick on Steroids?
David Yearsley
Miles Davis: Ace of Baseness
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail