It may not be an exaggeration to say that in the recent past much of the notable poetry in Kannada has been Dalit poetry. The modern dalit poetry in Kannada burst into limelight in the 70s and after with writers such as Siddalingayya. It was also the heydays of DSS (Dalit Sangharsh Samiti). Among the ones that are my favourites is Govindayya. One of his celebrated poems is “A, B, C and …”
First and foremost this poem, like much of dalit literature reveals a self-deprecatory gesture. This gesture is an acknowledgement of the suffering endured by the parents, or by extension, being endured by the dalit community. Secondly, it celebrates the access to education and the change made thus possible. Thirdly, it records the systemic nature of opression. The inhumanity of such treatment however has not robbed the mother and father of the ability to find joy. The world continues to be inhuman, yet the dalit life-world celebrates the little joys of success, strength and freedom.
The following translation is only a draft, in need of refinement. Suggestions welcome. If you want to listen to Govindayya reading his poems, including this one, go here.
Opening my eyes when I began stirring my limbs:
In my mother’s eyes in the dark hut
A hearth was ablaze
Setting his black limbs to the fire
Father breathed through beedi
As lives were in a boil in the boiling gruel
When the feet that had
Crawled-stood-walked within mother’s nest
Halted inside the ischool walls
The up-twisted moustache on father’s black cheek
Fell down to the brahmin master’s feet
Father and mother’s hopes got entangled
With the letters A, B, learnt on the dark board
So did our village, colony, cemetery;
In the well of skeletons
I found a few words
As I descended in further search
The questions that came up
Sprouted limbs and khaki dress,
I dissolved in darkness!
On the crooked walls of the ancestral hut
That day when I formed A, B, C
The kisses that mother showered on me are still on my cheeks
The small coin that father gave is still on my string-belt.