Written during the pandemic, these six poems stage the myriad everyday theatres of the self, the family, the domestic, the personal, the public, the political, the national, and even the civilisational, where caste and gender interlock to determine intimate pasts – and futures – of inequity and exclusion. In each poem – as also in this bundle of poems as a collection – a vital, contemporary Dalit-feminist voice articulates anti-caste possibilities with an aphoristic clarity and an embodied urgency.

Woman and Fire

He said,
You have too much fire inside you.
I said: a woman and fire
Are as ancient as
As old as the rite of Humanity.
The difference is merely
That in this process of
Becoming human
We became woman and man.
We became I and you.

A man wrested in his custody
The lion’s share of the fire.
While, in the woman’s share
Even the primal division of fire
Remained essentially unfair.
That’s why, whenever he pleases
Wherever and however he chooses
A man merely releases
The fire inside him.
A woman preserves her fire
In her safe custody
Generation after generation
She expends it
With utmost care.


A woman has long understood
The intricacies of man’s primal deceit
From the advent of conception,
The excruciating pain of reproduction
To the moment of birthing her progeny,
That the surfeit of fire wrested by the man
Can be ravaging, even
Catastrophic for all humankind.
That’s why…
It’s cardinal to conserve the fire
In a plethora of forms.
In this eternal attempt of preserving
Nature and her descendants
A woman herself
The cradle of experimentation.


A man couldn’t learn the art
Of shielding his fire within his self
So he keeps burning in
The furnace of envy, anger and spite.
On the other hand a woman
Has undertaken an endless voyage
Eventually she learned
This art herself
Sometimes by ably chanelling the fire within her
Sometimes by controlling the fire in her hungry belly.

A woman has learned to apportion
Her share of the fire. Inside
And outside.
Some fire she has stowed away
In a dark and dank crevice of her heart
So that it keeps smouldering slowly yet surely
Just enough
To sustain the vitality and warmth of relationships.


Some fire she has kept tucked away
In the sanctum of her home
Since centuries
So that it illumines her domesticity.
Some fire she gives
To her hearth
So it keeps burning, so that they keep receiving grain.
So that the hunger hollowing their stomachs is contained.


He glared at me and said:
You two-pence whore!
I stared back at him sharply
Didn’t utter a word
Just weighed his worth with my gaze
In my eyes
He wasn’t even worth
A single penny.


In the furnaces of their homes
Women offer their entire lives
And keep thinking
They are ripening
Slowly but surely they will be refined
Into pure gold
Then suddenly…
Upon feeling the heat
They take a look at themselves
And realise
Hardly anything has matured
So much has been burned.

Human and Woman

Am I your progenitor?
When I think about it, I shudder
To my depths.
Inside my womb
You were a human!
You were born a human
From within me…
Then when did this primal human
Become a man-eater?

Where did he master
The crude grammar of
Caste, religion and gender?
On whose sacraments he segregated his own
On whose scraps he feasted and became inhuman…
Which texts are they?
Which schools are they?
Who’s that imposter?
Which laboratory is it?
A human remains
Human no longer
But is becoming beastlier and beastlier by the day…!
In that bubbling cauldron of
Violence and revulsion
He’s savagely burning his own.

O my earthly sons
Daughters come forward
As urgently as you can
Consign those texts to flames!
Destroy those schools
That far from keeping us all equal
Sequester us into caste, religion and gender.
Come forward and clobber those
Two-faced charlatans
Dismantle all their
Laboratories of hate
That transform the primal human
Into the man-eater.


All we came for
Was earning a wage, Sahab,
From the village to the city
Away from our own
It was just a question of hunger
What did we know
That this city
Nourished on our blood and sweat
Will one day
Become a cannibal
Rather than giving some scraps of sustenance
It will brutally gorge on
The very bodies that sustain it

Today, I’m leaving.
Exiled from my own country,
Forced to migrate
Thirsty, hungry, barefoot
Returning to my
Own home village
Bearing my children
On my broken shoulders.
The same way that
We have eternally borne
The sordid weight of your
Savage caste system
Without an outward protest
But remember

If I survive
I will doubtlessly tell
My guiltless offspring
That when it was the most
Gruelling hour of our lives
When we were waging war
Against our hunger
Suddenly then
This country turned its back on us.

I’m leaving, recording
In the archive of the future
The helpless stare of enslavement
In my children’s and my eyes
And that homicidal history
Of our everyday violence and death

No; here the partition
Isn’t of a country
Or a religion
But the partitions
Of a country within a country
Inside cities
Villages partitioned, inside hearts
Privileges and pestilence partitioned
Inside Caste
Master and slave partitioned.

Home, Woman, Walking

Waking at ungodly hours
Women comb each contour and crevice of
The home.
As if the home
Was her ancestral property
And she it’s queen.
Tuned to the ticking timer
Father-in-law’s walk, mother-in-law’s bath
Husband’s duty,
Running against the clockwork of the children’s school
Morning tea, breakfast, tiding over
The nitty-gritty of planning the afternoon-evening meals
When she finally manages to reach her office,
The sunrise,
The chirping birds,
Through the home-window
The tantalising skeins of light
Streaming in and submerging her, settling over
The skin of her fatigued self
The vital wind caressing her,
Where can she feel any of it.

These urban middle-class women
Who keep running from dawn to dusk
But don’t go for walks.

Poonam Tushamad is a Dalit-feminist writer, poet, academic and activist who currently teaches at BR Ambedkar College, University of Delhi. She is the author of several publications, including Madari (2019) and Hindi Dalit Sahitya Mein Jantantrik Mulya: Ek Adhyayan (2022).

Nikhil Pandhi is a queer-feminist researcher and anti-caste translator. He is currently a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at Princeton University. His translations of anti-casteist Ambedkarite literature from Hindi to English are forthcoming with leading Indian/international publishers.