The following was originally published as the afterword to the collection Love after Babel and Other Poems by Chandramohan S, published in January 2020 by Daraja Press. The collection won the Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista Outstanding Book Award in January of this year. You can order a copy direct from Daraja Press here.
They ask me why do you write poems?
I write poems – the people have the right to…bear arms.
These lines, taken from his one-stanza masterpiece ‘Why Do I Write Poetry?’, encapsulate the very essence of Chandramohan S’ approach to his craft in his third collection, Love after Babel and Other Poems. These poems are unapologetically weapons, fighting against the pre-modern notion of caste in all its insidious 21st century glory.
Reading the collection, one is struck by the undeniably political tone and content of the poems. Chandramohan’s position as a Dalit writer illuminates his treatment of caste-based oppression, whilst also creating a sense of radical solidarity between various marginalised identities in contemporary Indian society through his focus on other forms of oppression, namely on experiences of Islamophobia. His poetry speaks for itself, and will never become irrelevant because it acknowledges the ever-changing nature of the society it is concerned with. It deals with age-old structures and their modern, subtle manifestations in everyday life. As Deeptha Achar has pointed out in her introduction to his previous collection, Letters to Namdeo Dhasal – which contained many of the same poems, including some earlier versions – Chandramohan ‘renders caste as a contemporary category’.
It is impossible to overlook the precision of this collection – precision of setting, of time, of perspective. There is no sense of the often-used maxim of poetry that ambiguity is everything, and all poems must be open to interpretation. The language is extremely powerful, and often metaphorical, but it makes no claims to ambiguity. It looks the reader straight in the eye and tells them its experiences. It adopts certain perspectives – Dalit, Muslim, particular gender identities within these – with a specific purpose of resistance which requires a direct and often factual tone.
‘A Local Train Conversation’, for example, is a poem encompassing a particular subject about which we know we will be learning from the title itself. This poem – which has two versions with some slightly different imagery – is hugely context-specific; it is an open rejection of any false claims to universality which are often demanded by mainstream poetry critique. Chandramohan has placed us in the specific setting of an Indian local train, with its inevitably diverse passengers, from the outset, and it is within this frame that we must remain in our reading.
Throughout the poem the reader is confronted with the sheer physical discomfort of the speaker, expressed through the metaphor of cricket. The ‘Pakistani fast bowler’ seated opposite him is the perpetrator of this particular instance of a much wider oppression. This is encompassed within the image of physical violence: ‘Though seated opposite me/I can feel him charging on to me’ – as a metaphor for the bowler’s scrutinising of the speaker in trying to figure out his identity. But despite his apprehension, the speaker holds a sardonic understanding of his opponent in this game of cricket: he is ‘Camouflaged in a three piece suit/And anglicized accent’. Something has been taken from the man opposite, something has been done to him, the verbs tell us; he has been camouflaged and Anglicized. The speaker is prevented from embracing his (implicitly) lower-caste heritage, but so is the ‘bowler’; he is a victim of colonialism. The speaker wishes to be camouflaged, while simultaneously recognising that this is not to achieve true emancipation, to be able to express one’s authentic self, but simply the best option for survival in a society layered with complex systems of oppression. This is just one example of how Chandramohan’s poems are never only concerned with one identity, with one perspective, but with the multiple and multi-layered experiences lived in South Asia every day.
Indeed, this focus on a broad range of experiences, combined with the clearly radical politics of many of the poems in the collection, not only singles Chandramohan out among young up-and-coming poets in India, but also locates him within a wide movement of resistance against India’s current Hindu right government – one in which new alliances among the oppressed are being forged in order to protest an increasingly fascistic regime. It is his embrace of these alliances, as well as his positioning at the intersection of Left and Dalit politics, across his poems that renders Chandramohan such a subversive figure at this particular moment, and makes his rise to prominence within contemporary Indian poetry in English all the more intriguing.
‘Beef poem’ illustrates this point perfectly, situating Chandramohan’s writing even more specifically within the current Indian political climate, where the condemnation of beef-eating in the name of ‘cow protection’ has become one of the major lines along which government-affiliated thugs carry out attacks on Muslims and Dalits. Chandramohan’s own position in relation to this phenomenon is crystallised in the second stanza: ‘Mastheads with nausea/ Against beef eating/ Consider my poems/ “untouchable”’. This ‘untouchability’ of his poems points to the discomfort they would inevitably cause to these mainstream media ‘mastheads’, but more explicitly, to the historically ‘untouchable’ status of Dalits in India, and in turn to the intensification of caste-based oppression which is an important and ugly aspect of the rise to power of the Hindu right in recent years. The lines ‘When I manoeuvre sharp curves of history/ In my rear-view mirror’, a variation of which can be found in ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Beard’, indicate the importance of this political ‘history’ in the poet’s consideration of everyday objects – be it beef or beards.
‘The Rape and Murder of a Tribal’ engages with another, equally important facet of the enduring presence of India’s oppressive history: national silence in response to gendered violence against women from the most marginalised groups in Indian society. The poem adopts a highly intersectional approach in examining, through a pulsing repeated negative, the complete denial of justice for these women – from official mourning processes to legal procedures – and their erasure from mainstream feminist activism. ‘No youth were roused to protests…No Prime minister addressed the nation…No police officials were transferred and suspended…No billion women rising’. Perhaps most tellingly – a line which ties in with Chandramohan’s interrogation, across the collection, of India’s collective consciousness – ‘No nation’s conscience was haunted’.
Chandramohan does extend the realm of perspective beyond South Asia to the rest of the world. The collection’s opening chapter, entitled ‘Call me Ishmail’, contains an epigraph by Hayan Charara entitled ‘Being Arab’, clearly underlining the vantage point of the poems to follow. ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Beard’ – the second poem in this chapter – positions us in a harsh present-day setting with a nostalgic outlook on an era ‘Before the twin towers fell’, before Islamophobia reached its current heights in which a man’s beard can render him a target at immigration control. Chandramohan opens his poem with ‘the razor, shaving/hundreds of beards’, a symbol of forced self-repression on the part of Muslims the world over in the face of such stigma. The metaphor of language, which becomes prominent later in the collection, appears here: ‘Shave your dreadlocks. /Your bald head/ Is an evacuated language’, evoking the gradual erasure of language and culture through colonialism. This is further emphasised by the following lines: ‘Now try locating your home/On Google Earth’, a theme invoked one stanza later by ‘The blade is…to redraw maps’. This poem is not one person’s experience; rather, it sets Islamophobia firmly within a contemporary global framework. Chandramohan does not stop here. He extends the subject matter and timespan of the poem to when ‘Some islands changed hands/Between their imperial masters’, making even more explicit the geopolitical dynamics underlying such everyday airport experiences. Here is an urgent reminder to the reader, through the invocation of historical events, not to forget the most crucial aspect of modern-day Islamophobia: the culpability of Western powers both in promoting terrorism and in the persecution of Muslims on the grounds of this terrorism. The poem has no qualms about declaring its anti-imperialist politics openly and boldly.
This poem’s female-centric counterpart, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Burkini’, which in fact opens the collection, was shortlisted for the Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize in 2016. This poem brings the question of Islamophobia even more up to date with its focus on a garment designed, in recent years, by and for Muslim women, once again demonstrating the broad scope of marginalised perspectives Chandramohan considers, which renders him distinct among Dalit poets in India today.
This collection also demonstrates Chandramohan’s highly political approach to language and the act of writing poetry itself (as signified by the simple, self-explanatory title of the collection’s second chapter, ‘The Word’). Many poems in this section use the metaphor of poetry to make political statements, for example ‘The Immigrant Word’. This poem constitutes one of Chandramohan’s most explicit discussions of the ostracization and humiliation often endured by immigrants, describing the ‘immigrant experience for/A word in a poem’ through a series of disturbingly real human immigrant experiences. Some of these are poignantly and beautifully woven into the extended metaphor, for example ‘solitary confinement/ In the prison of syntax’, and ‘being subjected to numerous enunciations/At poetry slams’ which ingeniously invokes the all-too common mispronunciation of non-Western names which immigrants and people of colour continue to endure.
This political approach to language is both explored and perfectly illustrated by the final poem of the collection, the titular, 21-section ‘Love After Babel’, which examines the art of translation through a wide variety of poignant metaphors, resulting in a tone at once romantic, historical and political. Chandramohan’s concern with the relationship between language and colonialism becomes clear in stanza 14 of this poem, which begins ‘the empire has ebbed’. The stanza invokes some form of awakening from the colonial suppression of language, of a new beginning in which the poet sees language ‘in a dim twilight/ Drawing its strength from its shadow’. These lines illustrate the gradual development of new linguistic identity in a post-colonial world, still ‘dim’ at this moment, while simultaneously raising a crucial point – that translation is inevitably shaped by the ‘shadow’ of the original language.
Indeed, this ‘twilight’ seems to represent the process of translation itself, as suggested by the couplet near the end of the poem: ‘Clouds imperfectly drift like a poem translated into free verse/Drenching us in tales from the other side of twilight’. Here, Chandramohan vividly evokes the way in which these ‘tales’ are conveyed across languages, through translation. In stark contrast to some of the descriptions of translation earlier in the poem as careful, precise and even hesitant, these lines create a sense of translation as somewhat uncontrolled, ‘imperfect’, fuelling the flow of literature – of ideas – between cultures, unleashing the irregularity of ‘free verse’ in this process of unapologetic ‘drenching’.
The global nature of the translation which concerns the poet is encompassed by the mention of ‘poetic forms like the sonnet or the Ghazal’ in this section, a reminder of the overlapping features of these two forms, without undermining the sense of inequality between them in terms of their global authority or readership. In line with his poetic mission to counter this imbalance, Chandramohan overtly illustrates his theme by citing ‘inspiration from a Malayalam poem’ after the following beautiful stanza:
Migrant bird script calligraphy
Of a nascent canon
In the comatose blue sky.
Tellingly, this is not a direct translation, only taking ‘inspiration’. The reader cannot fully know how far all the ideas evoked in these three lines – around migration, death, and freedom, all touched on in relation to the broader theme of language – are present in the same way in the original Malayalam poem cited, but perhaps Chandramohan is telling us that that is not the point. The ideas may well have developed in the English translation, have been expressed differently, while never losing their fundamental inspiration, and this new expression of ideas is the effect created by the ‘twilight’ of translation with which Chandramohan’s poem is concerned.
The final section of the poem ‘Love After Babel’ – and of the entire collection – is fittingly entitled ‘A Posthumous Letter’, and describes the poet’s relationship with his native language, to which he proclaims his enduring loyalty in a post-colonial world, despite the forces of colonialism and globalisation attempting to erase such connections. The poet leaves his readers with the haunting declaration: ‘I am a martyr of my language!’ This final line of the collection provides a conception of the role of poets from marginalised backgrounds: to defend their cultures, as represented by their languages, at the potential cost of mainstream popularity, universal palatability or recognition as canonical.
While many writers – including poets – may use their work to celebrate hybrid identities and the sharing of language and culture, particularly across the global North-South divide, Chandramohan’s treatment of these themes – as both discussed and demonstrated in his poems – does not carry any pretensions of this liberalism, instead being crafted as an active political tool to counter multiple forms of oppression in India and across the world.
Featured image credit: Daraja Press
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