(Kavita Krishnan reviews the second volume of poems by Chandramohan S, a Kerala-based Indian English Dalit poet.)
Chandramohan’s poetry has the contemporary sharpness of a news bulletin, the headline of the morning’s paper. What’s different is that it shines am unsparing light on areas that are rarely the subject of the news media or of Indian English poetry. His is a poetry that is in conversation with contemporary movements and so, his poems do not feel like artefacts, they pulse with the arguments of real life.
The first poem in his latest volume is inspired by the suicide of Rohith Vemula and of other Dalit students in institutions of higher education. It references both the myth of Shambuka, killed by Rama for daring to recite scriptures, and Abel Meerpol’s poem ‘Strange Fruit’ on the lynchings of black men in the American South.
Jim Crow segregated in hostel rooms,
Ceiling fans bear a strange fruit,
Blood on books and blood on papers,
A black body swinging in mute silence,
Strange fruit hanging from tridents.
Another poem, ‘Caste in a Local Train’ is full of wry humour, using bowling metaphors from cricket to describe the many ways in which the person opposite him tries to prise out information about his caste. Finally ‘he loses his patience/And tries a direct Yorker/ ’What is your caste?’
Many of Chandramohan’s poems dwell on gendered surveillance and policing of women and of lovers. One, ‘Love in the Time of CCTV-I’, says ‘The camera tells us,/Keep your hands where I cans ee them./Write your love letter.’
Chandramohan’s poetry is unapologetically political. Take this one
They ask me why do you write poems?
I write poems – people have the right to bear arms.
They ask me what new artillery I had invented?
Heckler poems – dynamite at election rallies.
But, at the same time, the politics of his poetry is not pragmatic. Another poem warns against opportunism:
Namdeo Dhasal’s Letter to a Young Poet
In your poems
Do not set your rhyme and meter
With the drum beats of populism.
You may build mansions in their shade
Where synthetic grass is cut to level
And flowers bloom in time for the next election season
With petals the shades of the incumbent flags.
Before your mansions crumble,
I want to send you
To the smithy of the blacksmith.
(Postscript: Do not charge fees to read poems on hunger)
Again, of his own poems perhaps, Chandramohan writes:
This poem refuses to go
Under the knife
To yield to size-zero conformism…
Chandramohan’s is a unique voice in poetry coming from India today. In many ways, his poems are letters to us, his readers: a challenge to our ways of looking at the world around us.