I recently studied Omprakash Valmiki’s poem Thakur Ka Kuan (1991) in its original Hindi text as part of my Diploma of Languages course at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
As a student studying Hindi as a foreign language in Australia, I was captured by what Valmiki says as well as how he says it. That is to say, the grammatical and word choices Valmiki employs in the poem are unique and work to elevate the meaning of the poem. Valmiki eloquently describes the toils of daily village life from a Dalit perspective. And does so without using a single verb.
Hindi poems are an excellent way for a non-Hindi speaker to learn the language. When I first started learning Hindi, I shied away from reading poems because I thought they would be too tricky for a beginner to grasp. But poems are the perfect language learning tool. They are fun, evocative and memorable. Brief, yet profound in their message.
Reading poems allows you to quickly cover a range of topics from a breadth of authors. As a student studying Hindi, the rhyming, rhythm and repetition of poetry is a great memory technique for learning vocabulary. And although the grammar of a poem can often deviate from standard sentence formations, the deviations, while tricky at first, can also help you grasp the grammar of a new language by spotting and interpreting their meaning.
It is even more exciting and thought provoking when you encounter a poem such as Valmiki’s Thakur Ka Kuan – written entirely without verbs.
The late Omprakash Valmiki (1950-2013) was an accomplished and influential Indian writer and poet. Columbia University Press notes that Valmiki “has played a vital role in the propagation of Dalit literature”. The author of India’s constitution, BR Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, used the term Dalit to refer to all oppressed people in India including due to their position in the tradition Hindu caste system or for other reasons. Omprakash Valmiki is recognised for helping shape contemporary Dalit literature by eloquently and powerfully telling stories of his own life and helping to craft a unique style of Dalit writing. His work effortlessly combines classical Hindi with vernacular voices to tell Dalit stories by a Dalit author.
One of Valmiki’s best-selling works is Joothan: A Dalit’s Life. As the title suggests Joothan is autobiographical text that documents the discrimination he faced throughout his life and the ways he fought for respect and equality. P Revathi and MR Bindu describe Joothan as “an authentic depiction of Dalit’s communal space in the artistic endeavours of autobiography” in the International Journal of Innovative Technology and Exploring Engineering.
It is with the same craft and perspective that Valmiki approaches his other works of fiction and poetry.
His poem “Thakur Ka Kuan” playfully, yet soberingly, explores the concepts of work and ownership in Indian village life, illuminating Dalit oppression where caste and feudalist structures intersect. It takes the reader on a journey through the village using relationships and concepts of ownership as the vehicle. The poem lists the many things that belong to the Thakur, the main landowner of the village. It talks about how even though a Dalit may do the work, the rewards flow to the Thakur and it leaves the reader with the question of what, if anything, is left for Dalits to hold as their own.
What I found remarkable on reading “Thakur Ka Kuan” was how Valmiki expresses all of this without using a single verb. Hindi and Urdu have a lot of flexibility in their word order and sentence structure that poets and lyricist use so well in songs and poem. In their spoken form, pronouns may often be dropped. But it’s very rare to drop verbs all together. Despite this, the poem flows with such ease that on first reading the poem, you may hardly notice the absence of verbs at all.
In lieu of verbs, Valmiki skilfully uses the genitive articles ka/ki/ke – का / की / के in a way that almost mimics a verb. These articles, which translate to “of”, are usually placed between the two nouns that they relate to, as in the title of the poem “Thakur Ka Kuan”.
In a standard Hindi sentence structure the verb is placed at the end of a sentence. Instead in this poem, Valmiki places the genitive article at the end of the sentence and repeats the formation line after line. The placement of ka/ki/ke where the verb would usually fit coupled with the repetition and rhythm of the poem gives the illusion of verbs and allows the poem to flow effortlessly and coherently, taking the reader on a journey through the cascading hierarchy of ownership and relationships in rural village life that the poem critiques.
This unique use of grammar could also be read as adding another layer of meaning to the poem. Nouns are passive objects while verbs represent actions. Hence by excluding the use of verbs, Valmiki could be saying that the Thakur may own the physical objects in the village – the nouns – but not the actions – the verbs. In this way his deliberate withholding of the verbs could be seen is another act of resistance and assertion of Dalit agency, in line with the many forms of resistance Valmiki practised throughout his life.
Verbs are seen as an essential part of standard sentence construction in many languages. It is not easy to withhold them. As the poem shows, it requires a deliberate rethinking of the structures and foundations of language that we otherwise take for granted. But at the same time the poem also shows that it is possible and achievable.
Studying Valmiki’s poetry has given me a greater appreciation for the grammar and craftsmanship of Hindi poems. The poem shows how grammar can interplay with the content of a poem and influence the potential meanings and interpretations. As a student of Hindi, it has also shown me how the questions I might ask as a language learner can help bring additional perspectives to important pieces of literature and an understanding of the social context around them. And above all, it has reinforced my love for Hindi poetry.