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Neerav Patel and the poetry of the oppressed

  • Dalit poet Neerav Patel who wrote in English and Gujarati died recently
  • His was an outspoken voice against caste though his political leanings were not always unambiguous

As a poet and human being, Patel’s views were not always unambiguous.
As a poet and human being, Patel’s views were not always unambiguous.

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The bilingual Dalit poet Neerav Patel, who wrote in Gujarati and English, died on 15 May in Ahmedabad. The news of his death was not buried under the more important headlines of a desperately fought general election in India; it did not make any headlines. In fact, it is at just such a juncture in the political life of Gujarat and India that we should feel the loss of a poet like Patel.

For him, the premiere of the film Bhavni Bhavai (directed by Ketan Mehta, the film about untouchability combined sharp social commentary with the comic) was as much a subject for poetry as about atrocities against Dalits. He found it as important to post, on his social media page, the list of candidates contesting from Ahmedabad West (a reserved seat) and their political affiliations as an article on caste discrimination. As he wrote in a poem: they say/ the wall-writing is vulgar/and provocative: “Dalit-Muslim bhai bhai” –/ the brotherhood/ of the depressed and the persecuted,/ the class-collaborators/ the unholy alliance/ and let loose the word:/teach them a lesson.

Born Soma Hira Chamar in 1950 in Bhuvaladi village near Ahmedabad, Patel migrated to the city for higher education. Living with a relative in a challi (a large tenement building providing cheap housing) in Rakhial, he began studying at St Xavier’s College. Like many Dalit poets of his generation, it was in the challis of industrial Ahmedabad that his political and literary education began. From the activists of the Majoor Mahajan Sangh, he learnt Gandhian thought, and with the activists of the leftist labour unions, he encountered Marxist thought. It was in Rakhial that he came in contact with the Dalit Panthers. Conscious of his caste and the burden of his name, Soma Hira Chamar changed his name to Neerav Patel. This discomfort with his name and with caste names that discriminate and denigrate is evident in his poetry.

As he writes in an essay, literary Gujarati was as much a learnt, academic language for him as English—so different was the urban, literary language of the city from the cadences of the north Gujarat dialect of his village. As scholar Deeptha Achar says, Patel was probably the first Dalit poet to choose to write in English. His first two collections of poetry, Burning From Both The Ends (1980) and What Did I Do To Be So Black And Blue (1987), were in English. His work came to the notice of an international audience initially through Barbara R. Joshi’s book Untouchable!: Voices Of The Dalit Liberation Movement (1986). His early English poems appeared in Ahmedabad supplements of major newspapers like The Times Of India and The Indian Express. Though he wrote primarily in Gujarati after the 1980s, he was already known widely as a Dalit poet through his English writing. His poetry has been translated into several Indian languages, English and German.

Patel was widely read, knowledgeable, and a committed Dalit poet. Atlas, Sisyphus, Kamala Das, Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda play amongst his poems as subjects and references alongside B.R. Ambedkar, the Buddha, Santu Rangili, Golana, Jetalpur, Mahyo and Manu.

But his contribution to Dalit literature in Gujarat goes beyond poetry. He was a prolific editor and activist. In 1978, along with Dalpat Chauhan, Praveen Gadhvi and Yogesh Dave, he began publishing the literary magazine Aakrosh, which announced the arrival of a conscious Dalit poetry on the Gujarati literary scene. He subsequently worked with the Swaman Foundation for Dalit literature, conducting workshops for poets and publishing literary magazines like Sarvanam and Swaman. His editorship was exemplary. Sarvanam contained Dalit literary works but also scholarly essays, criticism and interviews.

Patel’s resistance to caste oppression, religion and religious bigotry was not limited to his poetry. He was against empty religious rituals. After his death, his family carried the legacy forward. His wife, daughter and daughter-in-law all went to the crematorium in defiance of strictures against such a practice. His family also did not collect his ashes from the crematorium to carry out the ritual of asthi visarjan (immersion of ashes in the Ganga).

Towards the end of his life, Patel leaned politically towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); giving in, it seems, to the political co-option of Dalits by the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat (and elsewhere). In some ways, this move is reminiscent of Namdeo Dhasal’s closeness to the Shiv Sena and Dhasal’s support of the Emergency (1975-77). However, Patel’s views were not always clear. In his poetry, he was always stridently against Hindutva. Perhaps this ambivalence is what makes the poet human.

In the very first poem of his collection Bahishkrut Phulo(Outcast/e Flowers), writing about his caste name he says: “who was that satan sculptor/ that carved my name upon my forehead so indelibly? (…) I am scared/ will my name not die even with my funeral pyre?” Patel’s words and his name will indeed not die—though not in the sense he meant it.

The author is a bilingual poet and translator, writing in English and Gujarati. She recently completed a PhD on Gujarati Dalit poetry from the National University of Singapore and King’s College London.

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