Layers of othering

The reviewer is guest lecturer, PG department of English, University of Calcutta.

Layers of othering

In his article “Rhetorics of Resistance: Dalit Writings from Bengal” (2008), Jaydeep Sarangi has finely captured the essence of Dalit literature: ‘It is an aesthetics of pain and a prolonged longing; a powerful aesthetics of resistance.’ Sanjukta Dasgupta’s title poem, Ekalavya Speaks, captures precisely this essence of the marginalised Dalits by contextualising and redefining the character of Ekalavya from the Mahabharata.

A collection of 86 poems, many of which have been previously published in renowned literary e-zines, the book takes as its central motif the figure of Ekalavya, who has been, for a long time, a representative of the oppressed in Dalit poetry. S. Sreenivasan (in “Why Does Dalit Literature Matter?”) equates the fates of the Dalits to those who are equally marginalised, albeit for diverse reasons:

Dalit poetry is marked by spontaneity of utterance and depth of feeling. It expresses protest, anger, revolt against the caste system, a craving for justice and freedom, and a passionate faith in the ideals of humanism. One recurrent motif of this poetry is its questioning, almost subversive attitude towards Hindu myths. Ekalavya, Dronacharya, Karna, Shambuka, Ahalya, Bali, and other mythical figures acquire symbolic overtones in Dalit poetry, contrary to what they possessed in traditional belief. Ekalavya, who gifts his thumb to Dronacharya and is thus deprived of his strength, is the central mythical symbol with which the Dalit mind tends to identify itself.


Though a mainstream poet, Sanjukta Dasgupta voices the same concern of casteism in “Ekalavya Speaks”:

I was born shorn of privilege
I was born to bend and cringe
I was born to suffer and cry
My being born a tribal prince
A matter of mirth and ridicule
I was born a slave they said
Slavery was my birthright

Ekalavya’s angst becomes the voice of protest for those who have been subjected to injustice through the centuries on the basis of birth. As Baburao Bagul explains in “Dalit Literature is But Human Literature”:

Varna and caste came to be determined on the basis of birth. This was because the ruling class wanted to ensure for itself the exclusive possession of wealth, power and higher social status, and also because they did not want the sorrow, misery and servitude imposed on the oppressed to be transferred to the other sections of society. And birth was in turn conceived as being invariably founded upon the deeds of previous births (karma), upon the good or evil actions of previous lives, and upon divine justice. This firmly and irreversibly fixed the individual in a particular varna and a particular caste. (Translation by: Milind Malshe)

Born into a tribal clan, Ekalavya bitterly observes that ‘Privilege is such an accident of birth’ and ‘Guruji’ Dronacharya had eyes only for Prince Arjuna and the Pandavas, who were ‘the invincible offspring/ of privilege and birthright’. The menacing concluding lines: ‘The Sun Also Rises for us/ I may claim your thumb some day’ – remind us of other Ekalavya poems as Malkan Singh’s “Listen O Brahmin”, Dayanand Batohi’s “Hear these poems, Dronacharya”, Sivasagar’s “Current History” and Vaddebiyona Srinivasa’s “Another Taj Mahal” that envision a modern Ekalavya getting ready to have his revenge on a system which has enslaved and suppressed him by fraud.

This radical attitude towards myths is a source of continued vitality for Ekalavya Speaks, especially in its response to contemporary events and experiences, which makes its poems poignant and powerful questionings that lay bare all kinds of discrimination and social injustice that have been paraded under the guise of healthy practices. Thus, Ekalavya, Shambuka, and Chuni Kotal become one in their futile desire to rise above their sordid positions. Chuni Kotal bewails her preordained fate:

Ekalavyas and Shambukas
Were depressed victims
Nothing has changed
We are depressed now
As they were depressed then|

(“Chuni Kotal’s Query”)

Equally interesting is the poet’s presentation of Dronacharya, ‘The glamorized bonded labour/ Leashed to the regal court’, who, ‘since that day of mutilation’ is haunted by the nightmare of hundreds of ‘blood-smeared thumbs’. Dronacharya’s guilt seems to echo Carl Jung’s argument (in “The Undiscovered Self”, 1957) that myths offer crucial messages, providing insights into unrealized or neglected aspects of personality and issuing warnings of imbalance or wrong action.

In a world that glorifies the upper classes and masochistic prowess and patriarchal customs, it is Shikhandi who has the last laugh:

Did obedient Shikhandi smirk as he
Stood guard, guarding the supreme Archer
Shikhandi,outstared, outsmarted Bhisma
Weakened by custom and belief

(“Out of the Closet”)

But Shikhandi too realises that he is ‘just a footnote’, a ‘user-friendly’ tool of one man against another. Despite her portrayal of social injustice, Dasgupta cannot help but expose the man-made customs and hollowness of religious trappings in the face of disease and death. Thus, in the poem “Accident of Birth” that opens the volume, she brings out the irony of the situation:

If only the Dalits, Rohingyas,
Jews and Muslims
Could have chosen
The branded wombs carefully
Who is a Rohingya
Who is a Jew
Who is a Hindu


When Covid 19
Arrowed everyone equally

(“Accident of Birth”)

As the ‘violent virulent virus goes viral’, flattening ‘the pompous curve’ of ‘Elites and Dalits/ Imperialists and Subalterns’, humans continue to indulge in violence and discrimination. In poems like “Manipur”, “In the Holy Land”, “Hate Unleashed”, Dasgupta addresses contemporary incidents of unrest that are often the result of mindless sectarianism and false faith. At the same time, she brings forth the general apathy towards the security and warmth of old-world charms as libraries and reading rooms give way to cafes and PDF files:

Like the single screen movie halls
The libraries and reading rooms
Metamorphosed into shops and cafes
No space for redundant books
Renamed hardcopies, hardheartedly


Similarly, sexbots replace ‘the wretched disabled women’ ‘who wrote another moist poem/ About cheating lovers and philanderers’.

The poem “To Adrienne Rich” refers to Rich’s concern with the issue of communication. In her book The Dream of a Common Language published in 1978, Rich had expressed the need to explore a separate, distinctive women’s language and to establish an allied body of literary criticism. Three years later while asserting that she wrote as a woman, lesbian and feminist, she told the Washington Post, ‘I make no claim to be universal, neuter or androgynous’, a statement Dasgupta uses at the beginning of the poem as a marker for women’s freedom of expression.

Poems like “International Women’s Day”, “Fair and Lovely”, “Husband Ji”, “Indian Women at Home and the World” portray a world in which though women’s roles have changed, the discrimination remains. In the modern world patriarchy continues to hold sway through economic, religious and social aggrandisement:

Priests and politicians
Pedagogues and profiteers
Celebrated lip-service chanters
Spew venom with their
Forked and ferreted tongues

(“Hate Unleashed”)

The lines reflect the poet’s reference in her introduction, to Orhan Pamuk’s anxiety regarding ‘humanity’s basic fears’ of alienation and lack of worth due to ‘collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations.’ In a future that appears bleak and dystopic the indomitable human spirit brings a ray of hope:

To sing with no one
To sing with someone
To sing with everyone
Till singing voices
Rose in a melodious crescendo
Symphony slashes the dark granite walls
The irrepressible Sun rises again
The earth spins joyously
In the brilliance of inviolate light

(“Singing About the Dark Times”)

The reviewer is guest lecturer, PG department of English, University of Calcutta.