A Dalit poet in Berlin
By Rahul Chandawarkar
MARATHI poet Namdeo Dhasal (52), could create history, when he becomes the first Dalit poet from Maharashtra to present his works at the Berlin International Literature Festival starting on June 14.
Dhasal, son of a butcher's assistant in Madanpura, central Mumbai, grew up in a one-room tenement in Kamatipura, Mumbai's red-light district, did not proceed beyond his matriculation and started driving a taxi at age 18.
However, not even the chore of ferrying fisherwomen from Victoria terminus to Sassoon docks each day and driving all over Mumbai for his daily bread, stopped him from writing poetry and articles to highlight the Dalit cause.
Golpitha (Red-light district), a collection of poems depicting the tough life in the red light district, is today considered Dhasal's most stellar work. Dhasal wrote the poems in 1972 when he was just 23 and the book, which is today an anthem for Dalits all around the country, has won him much critical acclaim.
So married was he to the Dalit cause, that he even launched his own party, the Dalit Panthers the same year, which was joined by several angry Dalits.
Today at 52, the fire is still burning. Despite being stricken by a life threatening, myasthenia gravis disease, a recent bout of pneumonia and a chronic gall bladder ailment, he is not giving Berlin the skip.
Dhasal, however, will not be alone in Berlin. Giving him company is Pune's noted poet and writer Dilip Chitre, who has been nominated to the Berlin jury for the next three years. Chitre considers Dhasal to be arguably the greatest Marathi Dalit writer-poet ever. "He has a militant, angry style, which he uses effectively to espouse the cause of marginalised people. He has consistently depicted the bottom of Indian society and hence, it is creditable that he is getting a world stage to express himself," Chitre says.
Dhasal agrees. Speaking to Pune Times from his Mumbai residence, the poet-columnist says, "I have tried to destroy the caste system and highlight its ills all my life. To get an opportunity to showcase this internationally is indeed, an indescribable joy."
He, however, does not consider the Berlin visit to be "fruit of his labour".
"We are not in the business of earning rewards. We are fighting for a cause. The pen has been my weapon. I am just happy that it has been noticed," he says.
What makes Dhasal happy is the fact, that despite English being the operative language of the world, a Marathi Dalit poet like him has been invited to speak in Berlin. "To speak in front of so many intellectuals will indeed be an honour," says Dhasal.
Both Dhasal and Chitre's works have already been translated from Marathi into German and will be enacted by professional actors, after the two poets have read out their original works at the festival.