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Volume 16

Heroes and Villains - Summer 2016


Debayudh Chatterjee

Written by
Debayudh Chatterjee

Debayudh Chatterjee (b. 1991) is pursuing his MPhil in the Department of English at the University of Delhi. Having two published anthologies—Baishnab Flirt-er Padabali (2015) and Bhor Rater 8-B (2012)—to his credit, Debayudh is a known voice in the arena of 21st century Bengali poetry. He has been residing in New Delhi for three years now and is currently employed as a Project Fellow under UGC-DSA-SAP-III in his department. His research interests include Dalit Studies, American Poetry, and Bengali Literature.


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Translation: Bangla Dalit Poetry


Note: This post has been excerpted from a series of translations, which will be published in the print edition. 

My Poetry

Asishbaran Sarkar (1964)

Dump my poetry into a dustbin that is filled with the shriek of hunger
deprived by all, loathed, spat upon,
the wasteland of twentieth century—dump all my poems right there.

Strip off my poetry at the end of blind alleys
where the wretched of the earth articulate through cries.
Send my poems to those malnourished corpses
fed on the merciless pangs of life.
May my poetry reach the beggar’s bag,
may their frail hands rise up and revolt.
It is better for them to live like a lion for a day
rather than suffer for a thousand years.
Let my poetry throb on the swords of those soldiers—
After a slavery of thousand years,
may the marks of chains fade away from their shoulders,
and be replaced by the lion’s mane.


A Portrait of West Bengal: 2004

Sushil Panja (1946)

Step out of Kolkata and go to the districts dear poet,
how do human beings survive out there?
With all keenness look at them, the starving villages
of a deceased mankind. Not that far;
Kaalchini, Kanthalguri, Dheklapara, Ray Matang, Sujanai, Ramjhora…
These are tea gardens shut down, several laborers out of work.
Mothers dying of acute starvation…

There’s no famine but they survive on
the poisonous roots of unidentified plants.

The mother’s breast has run out of milk,
the infant breathes its last breath.
The government reports have refuted all claims
of death caused by malnutrition all over North Bengal.
The poets admire the beauty of this place.

Hunting through these tea gardens I found no resonance
of my love for red and green that I harbored all these days.
The number of deaths is more than eight hundred now;
the laborers strive to make ends meet.

Dear poet, let us fly no more on the wings of poesy;
if you are at all dissentious, stand up for once.
May our eyes for beauty be replaced
with that of introspective humanity, critical and agitated.


The Peddler of Dreams

Debashis Mondal (1952)

Those who believed that ‘this independence is a farce’
           are now kings themselves
Those who called the king bluff
           side with the king now
Those who asked for the dark forces to be smashed
           live a life of affluence in first world countries
or work for fat pay cheques
in the air-conditioned offices of multi-national corporates
Just that guy in our neighborhood, Meher Ali,
           is stupid
a failure in Presidency College of the seventies
He is taken to be insane these days
and therefore, he dreams
As the night unfolds and everyone sleeps
Meher Ali wakes up and screams
and calls upon others to dream
“All these are nonsense. Get lost, all of you”
His voice shatters the abyss of darkness
and disappears into the night
Yet, no one else wakes up.

Translator’s Note
When Sunil Gangopadhyay, the now-deceased doyen of Bangla literature, was asked about Dalit writings in his mother tongue, he firmly denied the existence of such a vein of literature. Such profound cultural ignorance is shared by thousands of Bengali writers and readers. Despite this lack of general awareness and the negligence of mainstream literary magazines, Bangla Dalit literature has been thriving. Meenakshi Mukherjee’s seminal translation of Manoranjan Byapari’s article “Is there Dalit Writing in Bangla?” (2007) served as an eye-opener by offering an overview of more than hundred years of Dalit writing in Bangla.

The Namasudras, residing mostly in East Bengal, educated themselves and started writing in the first few decades of the twentieth century. However, they suffered humiliation during the 1947 partition and were not properly rehabilitated in its aftermath. As a result, the organized Namasudras scattered all over the nation. The discrimination in the treatment meted out to Savarna and Dalit refugees worked as a catalyst in worsening the condition of the Namasudras in independent India; it took enormous efforts and quite a few decades for them to reorganize themselves and produce literature.

The Dalit Panther movement led by Namdeo Dhasal among others in the 1970s saw the emergence of a Dalit literary movement in Marathi. The voice of Dalit resistance against Savarna hegemony on pen and paper spread like wildfire in other languages as well; Dalit writing began to come up in Telugu, Gujrati, Tamil, Kannada, among other languages.

The national Dalit literary meets that were being organized in the eighties soon influenced the writers, poets, and intellectuals having depressed caste origins in Bengal. The Bangiya Dalit Lekhak Parishad (Bengal Dalit Writers Association) was formed in 1987. But the movement gained momentum after the suicide of Chuni Kotal in 1992. The oppressive treatment which forced this tribal scholar of Lodha origin to end her life while writing her dissertation at the Vidyasagar University in Midnapore kindled anger, sorrow, and resilience that would result in organizing the Dalit community. This culminated in the publication of a quarterly, Chaturtha Duniya (The Fourth World) in 1994. Achintya Biswas became its first editor. The name of the quarterly has a two-fold significance: on the one hand it delves into the world of the fourth varna of the Hindu caste hierarchy; on the other hand, it speaks of the fourth world that exists within the Third World. Apart from bringing out their issues in regular intervals, Chaturtha Duniya now publishes all genres of Dalit writing.

Shatobarsher Bangla Dalit Sahitya (One Hundred Years of Bengali Dalit Literature), edited by Manohar Mouli Biswas and Shyamal Kumar Pramanik provides a formative selection of Dalit writing in all genres—prose, poetry, fiction, and drama. Coming out from Chaturtha Duniya publications in 2011, and being influenced by Arjun Dangle’s seminal publication—The Poisoned Bread, it is an interesting survey of the literature neither featured in the mainstream and avant garde establishments that define Bangla literature, nor found on the shelves of popular bookstores across West Bengal.

All the translations that I have rendered into English are from this anthology. I have avoided authors who have already been or are being translated; I picked the poems of poets who are comparatively unknown yet possess a distinct and powerful voice in their own right. The themes of poverty, caste discrimination, and governmental ignorance unite the five poems I have translated. They examine the relations between class and caste by expanding the scope of the term ‘Dalit’ to include those who not only belong to depressed castes but also those who come from the deprived proletariat class.

Unlike the Savarna poet whose text verges on becoming a narrative of sympathy, the Dalit poet identifies himself with the caste and class about which he is writing and creates a narrative of resistance. The heroes of these poems hail from a community of either minorities or untouchables; the act of writing poetry contributes to a discourse of resistance against a villainous establishment comprising discriminatory upper caste Hindus, oppressive governments, the (upper)middle class conformists, and political opportunists.

Contrary to Savarna narratives of sympathy that depict the misery of Dalits being crushed under the system, Dalit writing positions the Dalit hero at the centre and allows his rebellious rhetoric to be heard. It is a testimony of the subaltern speaking, a process of dismantling the Brahminical power structure with its own tools.

Over the last decade Bengali Dalit Literature has garnered much academic interest. Dissertations are being supervised, papers are being written, talks are being held, and English translations of major Dalit texts are coming out from reputed enterprises. Translations and conferences on Dalit Studies have familiarized names like Manoranjan Byapari, Manohar Mouli Biswas, Kalyani Thakur Charaal, Manju Bala, Jatin Bala, among others, to academics and researchers devoted to Dalit Studies around the globe.

Through these translations, I, a conscious Savarna-born sceptic, hope to atone for the sins committed by my casteist forefathers and contemporary relatives by making some voices relegated to the margins heard to an international audience.



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