Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala

Until I saw Letters to Namdeo Dhasal, poems by Chandramohan S, recently I did not know we had amidst us in Kerala a Dalit poet writing in English. 

There are several novelists of Kerala origin, all of them living outside the state, who have made a mark as writers in English. There are also a few poets writing in English, like Jeet Thayyil and C.P. Surendran, who too live outside the state. 

Chandramohan, who appears to be a worthy successor to Kamala Das, the first Keralite to win recognition as a poet in English, lives in Thruvananthapuram.

Letters to Namdeo Dhasal is Chandramohan’s second book of poems. The first, Warscape Verses, was published in 2014.

Chandramohan’s world view is breath-taking. Shambuka, Nangeli, Marie Magdalena, Jim Crow, Dow Jones and Fredreich Engels are all in it.

Keki N. Daruwala, the renowned poet, writes in The Hindu:

Dalit poetry, based on 2,000 years of experiencing atrocities from caste Hindus, needs to be handled respectfully. Letters to Namdeo Dhasal by Chandramohan S. has just landed on my table.
An easy way out with critiquing Dalit poetry is to say it is political, quote some lines, and pass on. There is more to Chandramohan. For a Dalit poet to write in English is itself a political act. But he keeps referring to ‘vernacular rivers’. He is fighting (and deriding) caste and elitism at the same time. Not only that, he stands up for the immigrant and the third world. At our malls, ‘A green eyed petrodollar/ Engulfs the third world like a tsunami.’

In a poem ‘Occupied Language’, after talking of abandoned adjectives and ‘vowels lynched and hung upside down’ (like tortured prisoners?) he talks of colonial symbols on a map and ‘refugees fleeing through edited check points/ to seek asylum in an alien tongue.’ The poem ends with the immigrant into the elite language (English, let’s face it) ‘abbreviating his surname’ and then ‘stripping bare the sterile meat of/ An evacuated language.’ I have chosen not to quote the more telling attacks on caste.

A poem on Murugan who hanged himself in Hyderabad (and how the BJP cried itself hoarse , saying he was not a Dalit) ends with the lines, ‘We become him/ Conform or perish.’ We get defiance: ‘This poem refuses to undergo painful procedures/ Like the long intrusive questionnaire … before it is granted a visa.’ (‘The Muse in the Market Place’.)

He will not be regimented by those who wear nationalism on their sleeves. He has a strong ‘Beef Poem’. In ‘Love in the Time of CCTV’, he says, ‘You are under surveillance when chalk scrapes/ On the blackboard,/ when you walk in straight lines, march in tune/ To the drumbeats of uniformed discipline/ While lip synching to the national anthem.’

I have been unable to mention some beautiful poems like ‘Portrait of the Woman as Young Woman’. Meena Kandasamy is mentioned in the Introduction. I, for one, have been following her prose and poetry closely with respect.

LETTERS TO NADEO DHASAL: Poems by Chandramohan S, Published by Desirepaths Publishers, 401 Shree Prutha Residency-2, Shubham Park, Gotri Road, Vadodra 390 021

Price Rs 150 US$6

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Cultural Feast at Kozhikode

                      With Anand, Zacharia and Sashi Kumar at a panel discussion

There was much more than book talk at the Kerala Literature Festival held at Kozhikode from February 2 to 5. It was a cultural feast. Its sweep was breathtaking.

From morning till late evening, all the four KLF venues on the beach were agog with activity. Three forums, named Ezhuthola (Scroll), Aksharam (Letter) and Thoolika (Pen), witnessed kaleidoscopic changes as one set of writers and activists stepped aside after discussing a subject for 90 minutes and another set stepped in to discuss another subject, possibly before another audience as there was constant shuffling of listeners. 

There were panel discussions, face-to-face encounters and intimate chats. 

Apart from the leading lights of Malayalam literature, new-generation writers who are currently making waves by exploring new areas employing new techniques also participated in the discussions.

KLF was not about Malayalam writing alone. The presence of Indian writers in English and writers in other Indian and European languages presented interested persons with a rare opportunity to acquaint themselves with literary developments elsewhere too.

One venue, named Vellithira (Silver Screen), was devoted exclusively to films. It witnessed continuous screening of films, long and short, curated by C. S. Venkiteshwaran. 

The rich fare included tribal dances and a shehnai recital by the legendary Ustad Bismillah Khan’s grandson, Nasir Abbas Khan.

KLF ventured beyond the worlds of literature, arts and culture and covered several issues of contemporary relevance such as Gender, Caste, Religion and Democracy.   

According to Ravi Deecee, Chief Facilitator of KLF and Secretary of the DC Kizhakemuri Foundation, organizers of KLF, more than 300 writers from India and abroad participated in the discussions on about 120 topics. He avers that wide participation by writers and diversity of topics of discussion make KLF India’s largest literary festival.

                            Bindu Amat in conversation with Norwegian writer Runo Isaksen

This year’s was KLF’s second edition. K. Satchidanandan, Director of KLF, said it was organized drawing inspiration from the success of KLF1 and learning lessons from its weaknesses.

No body in Kerala perhaps has better credentials than the DC establishment to organize an event of this magnitude. And no person perhaps has better credentials than Satchidanandan to head the effort. And certainly no place has better credentials than Kozhikode to host such an event.

The ultimate credit for the success of KLF belongs to the people of Kozhikode who made the festival their own. Its leading citizens were part of the organizing committee, and a large number of students volunteered their services to make it a grand success.

                                     A view of the audience at one of the four venues

Enthusiastic people moved from one venue to another to become part of the events that interested them most. There was so much on offer that I doubt if anyone went away without the feeling that they could not attend every event that interested them because of time constraints and overlap of events.

There are unmistakable signs of rot spreading in Kerala society. KLF will do well to explore the social scene more deeply in the coming editions. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast

Media Tides on Kerala Coast by Dr Iris, published by Media House, Delhi, is based on a Univrsity Grants Commission funded research project on the impact of the media on a coastal community near Thiruvananthapuram. Reproduced below is the Foreword of the book.

Kerala is a State with a high degree of media penetration. High levels of literacy, reading habit and purchasing capacity enabled newspapers in Malayalam to forge ahead of those in other Indian languages in the last century and achieve much higher circulations than them. The radio and the television which made their appearance later also registered remarkable growth.

Media institutions have championed many causes from time to time and they routinely make claims about the impact they are making. Often these claims are based on some action initiated by the authorities in response to their reports. Neither the print media nor the electronic media has any reliable mechanism for properly assessing their impact on the society. There are also no organizations to monitor the performance of the media as a whole or of individual media institutions from the standpoint of the communities they are seeking to serve. Against this background, Dr. Iris Koileo’s study of the representation and impact of the media in the coastal area of Thiruvananathapuram under a minor research project funded by the University Grants Commission is a path-breaking one.

Kerala’s social indices compare favourably with those of the advanced countries of the world. It is now a comparatively affluent State, accounting for the highest per capita income as well as expenditure in the country. However, there is wide social and economic disparity within the State. The traditional fishing communities living on the western coast, along with the Adivasis inhabiting the hills in the east and the Dalits scattered all across the plains constitute a highly disadvantaged group. The study looks at the extent to which the media has been able to do justice to this highly vulnerable section of the population.

While all forms of media – print, radio, television –have penetrated the coastal belt, the problems of the people of the region do not receive adequate attention. On the basis of her findings, Dr. Koileo has recommended some measures to remedy the situation. They include creation of awareness in the marginalized community on the ways of the media and bringing about changes in the media’s policy towards representation of the community. This pioneering effort clearly points to the need for more academic studies of wider scope which will help both the media and the society.

May 9, 2015                                                                                        B.R.P. Bhaskar

Media House,
375-A, Pocket 2,
Mayur Vihar Phase I,
Delhi 110 091

Price: Rs 150.  US $10.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen

M.Sulfath, social activist and teacher of Government Higher Secondary School, Cheruthazham, Kunnumbram, Kannur District, has written to Leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan drawing attention to the campaign against her by some persons belonging to the CPI-M and seeking an end to harassment.

Although party men are using her support to the Kiss of Love campaign as the pretext for the campaign against her, the real reason is the support she gave to the family of a Dalit student who was allegedly the victim of sexual harassment by a teacher. 

The following is the text of her letter:

Dear Comrade,

I have been a teacher for the past 27 years. Presently I am working in the GHSS, Cheruthazham,
Kannur. l have been involved in struggles for women's rights and against sexual assaults on women for the past three decades. I work in association with Anweshi,, Kozhikode, and the
women's magazine 'Sanghatitha’, edited by the famous Malayalam writer Sara Joseph.

I am writlng this letter to bring to your notice, the organised attempts by some people including local CPM leaders to malign me and spread scandals against me in the school and outside, in connection with a sexual assault case that occurred in the school recently. A dalit girl studying in 9th standard was asked into the staff room under the pretext of giving a notebook after the school hours and was sexually abused by Mr. A.Anilkumar, a teacher according to a written complaint submitted to the school on 17 09.2014 by the girl's guardians; but what followed from the part of
the School authorities was an attempt to slight the complaint and to save the offending teacher somehow. After the girl's relatives came to the school with their complaint, the president of the school's Parent-Teacher Association, who is also the secretary of CPI-M Cheruthazham East local committee, came to the school. The school authorities took the decision that it was enough to transfer the concerned teacher from that school and that no other action was necessary against him. I had requested the Headmaster to view the sexual abuse by Mr. A  Anilkumar, the teacher seriously, especially as there had been a precedent of the very same person having shown sexual misconduct against a female colleague in the same school earlier, as was reported in a staff council meeting. I also requested him to contact and seek advice from Child Welfare Committee or Childline, and to initiate legal proceedings against the offender.

Instead of following the required legal procedure, what the Headmaster and a few of the staff members did was to convene a staff meeting on the afternoon of 17.09.2014, allowing even the alleged offender to participate in that meeting. When I expressed my dissent and emphasised the need to support the victim, the meeting chose to accuse me of trying to break the unity among the staff and to disrupt the collective decision taken by the teachers. As it was clear that the school authorities did not inform the police of the complaint submitted by the girl's relatives, I had helped the guardians of the girl to contact Child Welfare Committee. The Childline enquiry team came to the girl's house and then to the school on 18.9.2O14. They reported the matter to the police by noon .The police registered a case on the same day.

However, the accused teacher influenced the DDE (District Director of Education), Kannur, and managed to get a transfer on the same day, that is 18.9.2014. The DDE allowed his request for transfer before taking up any enquiry into the issue. He came to the GHSS, Cheruthazham, obtained his relieving order, and joined in GHSS Vayakkara on the same day, and immediately proceeded on leave and absconded.
I had informed Smt. P K Sreemathy teacher, honourable MP, of the incidents at the school on the night of 17 9 2014 itself. However, neither the party nor its mass organisations took any initiative for a proper response or protest. The Cheruthazham panchayat president Com. C M Venugopal visited the girl's house and promised support. There was no other move by the party against the culprits.

In the PTA executive committee and general body meetings, instead of pursuing the course of justice for the girl victim, the headmaster and a section of the teachers tried to raise allegations against me that I was spoiling the reputation of the school and spreading disgraceful news in the media. In the PTA executive committee meeting, consisting of many local leaders of the CPI-M also, one of the leaders even threw up a challenge against me: Do you dare to get the teacher arrested? 1n the PTA general body meeting convened later, the HM, senior Assistant and other leading members made the evil move to pass a resolution authorising action against me. It was defeated only because of the support of a section of mothers who knew the truth of the matter.
The HM was so revengeful that I was denied casual leave, when I applied for it as my stomach was upset.

Mentally oppressed and ostracised by many of my colleagues there, I have entered on leave.
Another teacher has been appointed in my place to avoid hardship to students. The school staff, consisting of a majority of members belonging to KSTA, an organisation affiliated to the left, and a section of the parent community are spreading wild rumours against me now. As the move against me was defeated in the PTA meeting the Development Council has convened another meeting of so-called "local people” and taken a decision that I would not be allowed even to enter the school. Though I am on leave, when I reached the school on 6.11.2014 to receive my salary, they used a section of the students to conduct a demonstration against me, to shower abuses against me and to detain me at the school gate. I was told that a few teachers including leaders of KSTA also held a similar demonstration earlier. One of the allegations was that I was responsible for dragging the HM also into the legal proceedings The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 says the HM is responsible for communicating the offence to the police. It is actually as per this provision that the HM was implicated for his failure to do his duty. I am absolutely innocent about the matter.

What is quite surprising is the fact that in this case at Cheruthazham, the CPI-M and its mass
organisations which used to support the victims of sexual abuse are spreading rumours against the offended child and her mother just because I happened to help this unfortunate victim of sexual assault in getting legal assistance, I am now being singled out and persecuted through rumours and obscene posters in the school and its premises by anonymous entities and so I humbly request you to help the girl who is the victim of sexual assault and to support me for having assisted her in seeking remedy. I would also request you to take severe action against those who are spreading malicious propaganda against me and trying to prevent my access to my school.
Once again I request you to intervene in order to create an atmosphere that will enable me to continue in the same school without further harassment.
Yours truly,

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?

On the face of it, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s decision to push for prohibition, beginning April 1, 2015, appears to be a case of surrender before PCC President V.M. Sudheeran who vigorously resisted the government’s attempt to permit reopening of 418 bars which were closed as they were working in unhygienic conditions. However, the circumstances in which the government revised its position suggest that the Chief Minister may have stooped to conquer.

Sudheeran’s resolute stand on the issue of the closed bars generated considerable popular support in the state. For long the Congress party has been claiming its policy is one of stage-by-stage introduction of prohibition but while in power it has been reluctant to take any meaningful step towards its implementation. 

The Congress party was deeply divided on the issue of reopening of closed bars. When its main allies in the ruling United Democratic Front, the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (M), rallied behind Sudheeran, Oommen Chandy’s options were closed.

By going beyond the issue of reopening of closed bars, and announcing a slew of measures to carry forward the long-neglected liquor policy, the Chief Minister may be hoping to take the wind out of the sails of Sudheeran, whom the Congress high command installed as PCC chief before the Lok Sabha elections dismissing his objections.

Kerala, which has a population of 33.4 million and boasts of the highest per capita income and expenditure in the country, also tops in liquor consumption. Per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages in the state is above eight litres a year. In the last financial year for which figures are available, the state-owned Kerala State Beverages Corporation, which has a monopoly over sale of Indian-made foreign liquor, registered a turnover of Rs88.41 billion. It contributes nearly a quarter of the state’s tax revenue.

The steps announced by the Chief Minister today include limiting grant of licenses to five-star hotels only. It will not only desist from opening the closed bars in hotels with lower star rating but also not renew the bar licenses of 312 such hotels which will expire on March 31, 2015. The Beverages Corporation will reduce its outlets by 10 per cent each year.

Partial prohibition was in force in the state since the early days of Independence. It was rolled back by the seven-party coalition government led by CPI(M) leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad which came to power in 1967. Arrack sale was banned by UDF government headed by A.K. Antony in 1996.

Until a few days ago Oommen Chandy had publicly stated that on liquor the government has to take practical decisions and cannot go by ideals. Has there been a sudden change of heart? 

There are cynics who believe that the new policy has been formulated with the fond hope that the high court will strike it down and pave the way for going back to the previous position.
The high court, which is considering petitions by owners of several closed bars, asked the state government several times to outline its liquor policy. The government could not do so because of the sharp differences within the Congress party. The court’s own position on prohibition has not always been consistent.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

 The Victory Pillar at Colachel in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu which commemorates the victory of the Travancore forces over the Dutch in 1741, said to be the only Asian victory over Europeans in a naval encounter

Was the Battle of Colachel, in which forces of the Maharaja of Travancore defeated the Dutch in 1741, a naval engagement, as is claimed? If so, the question arises how the Maharaja, who did not have a navy, take on the Dutch at sea?
The Indian Army's Madras Regiment is due to celebrate the 273rd anniversary of the battle, said to be the only naval encounter in which an Asian force defeated a European force, with a function at Colachel tomorrow..

 The Travancore state had erected a Victory Column at Colachel to mark its historic triumph. Engraved on it are these words: “In remembrance of all the brave men of Travancore Army who laid down their lives in defeating the superior Dutch forces during the Battle of Colachel in July 1741”.

In the History of Travancore, which was taught in schools in that princely state, the Battle of Colachel figured prominently.  It said the Dutch captain, Eustachius De Lannoy, who was taken prisoner, later served the Maharaja loyally and helped modernize the state forces. He, his wife and son died in Travancore and were buried in the Udayagiri Fort at Thackala.

                                                     The Conch, emblem of the Travancore State, atop the Victory Pillar

Maharaja Marthanda Varma (1706-1758) was fighting his northern neighbours to expand his kingdom when the Dutch forces under De Lannoy, after landing at Colachel, marched to Padmanabhapuram, then capital of the state. He came back to take them on, and they retreated to Colachel, where the decisive battle took place.

Colachel, Thuckala and Padmanabhapuram became part of Tamil Nadu when States were reorganized on linguistic basis in 1956.

 The cemetery  in the Udayagiri Fort at Thackala on
  the Thiruvananthapuram-Kanyakumari road where
  DeLannoy, his wife and son were buried

Colachel was then, and still is, a fishing village. Unrecorded in the history textbooks and the Victory Column is the part played by the local fishing community who responded to the King’s call and joined the fight against the foreigners. However, it is on record that when the Dutch threatened to attack his state, Marthanda Varma retorted that he and his people could seek the safety of forests (which he had done earlier when he was engaged in a succession battle with his cousins who had the backing of some feudal chieftains) and that he would plan an invasion of Europe with the help of fishermen.

One lesson the Maharaja could have learnt from the Colachel battle was that the best way to ensure the safety of the land was to involve the ordinary people in its defence. He could not do so because the Dharma he was committed to uphold was based on division of the people and their subjugation.

The New Indian Express report says tomorrow’s ceremony at Colachel will be attended by Brigadier Samir Salunke, Station Commander, Pangode Military Station, civil authorities, police officials, retired officers and local officials. Evidently, there will be none to represent the fishing community, who made the Travancore victory possible.

The Madras Regiment’s role as organizers of the function stems from the fact that after Travancore acceded to India in 1947 the state forces were merged in it.

The Madras Regiment, incidentally, has a history of at least 310 years. In 2004, its 9th Battalion had celebrated the tercentenary (300th anniversary) of its raising. That makes it a successor of the mercenary army put together by the English East India Company.