ND Rajkumar is among the finest living Tamil poets. He happens to be Dalit. At Navayana, I had published a selection of his poems translated into English by Anushiya Ramaswamy in December 2010. It is called Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh. The book fared poorly in sales but was critically acclaimed. The poet and translator Ranjit Hoskote reviewing it, said: “Powerful liminalities, threshold moments of transit and transformation, are at play in the poems of N.D. Rajkumar.”

Rajkumar, 47, was to speak on November 16, 2014, on a panel at the Sahitya Akademi’s Book Exhibition, organised as part of the National Book Week, in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu. The subject given to him was, “My Poetry and I”. When a poorly informed moderator introduced Rajkumar as belonging to the tradition of well-known Tamil poets of the past and present such as Kannadasan, Mu Mehta and Vairamuthu, Rajkumar began his talk with this clarification: “I would like to humbly suggest that I do not place myself in the same literary tradition. I function in a radically different literary field. I have no opinion on their literary work. Fine. Let me now begin to speak on my topic…”

This was reason for all hell to break loose. A section of the audience, barely five people, charged at Rajkumar accusing him of insulting a great poet like Kannadasan. Despite Rajkumar’s appeal for calm, he was browbeaten into silence as both the organisers and fellow-writers watched quietly. The Sahitya Akademi did nothing to stop the lumpens from hijacking a literary platform.

Show of support

When Rajkumar narrated the sequence of events to me on 17 November, I urged him to write about it. We are carrying his account in full on the Navayana site, where he says: “It was shocking how the Sahitya Akademi acted: they not only refused to grant me the respect it would give a fan club president, they were also out to humiliate me. While all this was going on, the two writers on the stage, Lakshmi Manivannan and Nada Sivakumar, expressed no concern on my behalf.” Many writers and intellectuals – including Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Meena Kandasamy, Theodore Basakaran, Ivan Kostka, Umakant, Janice Pariat, Anand Patwardhan, Kalpana Kannabiran, K. Satchidanandan, Dr Manisha Bangar, Nathaniel Roberts, Manisha Sethi, Oishik Sircar, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Gitanjali Kolanad – have expressed solidarity with Rajkumar and outrage at the manner in which the Sahitya Akademi has handled the situation.

Let me use this opportunity to introduce the reader to the world of Rajkumar.

We had not spoken to each other in a long while. He began by telling me how he had lost his only source of regular income – as temporary coolie with the Railway Mail Service in Nagercoil, an ad hoc job he had held for the past 13 years. He said he was now teaching music to a few children the past few months. “Some of them do not even pay the tuition fee.” His job as someone who hauled parcels of mail from and into coaches had earned him Rs 5,000 a month, at best.

Rajkumar is a poet in the bardic tradition – he performs his poetry by singing them to raga-based improvisations. He shuts his eyes and seems to go into a trance. He never looks at a paper or book when performing. “I write my poems down and publish so that you can read them. I remember almost everything I write.” Rajkumar is one of those rare poets, like Kabir, who believes the Word has to be remembered, it should be worth remembering. If anything is sacred, it is the Word. If the Word is memorable, it will be memorised. If the Word can be sung, it will become memorable. Rajkumar therefore remembers every word he writes. He writes every word he remembers. He casts a spell on his audience. He is, after all, someone who was born into the Kaniyan community, known to perform ‘black magic’ and practice Siddha medicine. His are words that have to be uttered, words that cure. Such a voice had been silenced in Nagercoil. What was forced shut was the artist, the magician, trapped in each of us.

Many identities

In her essay, Where Reason is Dazzled and Magic Reigns Supreme: Journeying into the Kaniyan World of N.D. Rajkumar, the afterword to the book of poems, Anushiya Ramaswamy offers us a glimpse into this world of liminalities:
The Tamil dalit writer’s terrain has been marked out between the lines of traditional liberatory rhetoric (Sivakami’s Palayana Kalidhalum, for instance, whose title “Shedding the Traditional” says it all) and the sorrows of being dalit (Imayam’s first novel Koveru Kazhudhaigal (translated as Beasts of Burden into English) is a prime example, where the travails of those who are the lowest on the caste totem pole, the dalits who serve other dalits, are described in minute detail).

Rajkumar’s poetry treats these lines as if they are drawn in sand. He shifts between the typological – as a dalit writer, belonging to a particular dalit caste, the kaniyan – and the familial (as son, grandson, husband and father) from poem to poem. He claims a plethora of identities and subjectivities, refusing the determinacy of a singular caste identity. He is ambivalent as to a unitary subject position in the midst of or even in spite of his exuberant claiming of one persona or another. He refuses the space/time constraints of an Enlightenment-derived rhetoric (of the kind most familiar to us through the writings and activities of the Tamil Enlightenment theorist EV Ramasamy or Periyar and modern dalit liberatory movements), preferring to push for the sort of originary tales similar to those envisioned by the late 19th century dalit activist and intellectual, Iyothee Thassar, which provide an alternative historiography of caste. The kaniyan caste deals with the occult, as the traditional medicine men or shamans among the Tamil dalits of the region, and Rajkumar’s poetry revels in the arcane lore of his community.

She further says:
Along with Rajkumar’s rejection of fixed notions of identity comes a stubborn refusal of pathos. In the English version of Bama’s Karukku, where the piteous cry of caste-based suffering echoes and re-echoes incessantly, pity is the only response the narrator demands of the reader. Historically, from the early Tamil literary novels written by caste Hindus to Arundhati Roy’s 1997 prize-winning novel The God of Small Things, the dalit character is always presented as the victim, as a being who evokes immense terror and pity through his tragic suffering. In Rajkumar’s poems, even as he describes a violent domestic tragedy – for instance, of a servant maid raped and threatened with continued rape at her place of work who then commits suicide – he swiftly brings about the transformation of a broken female body into an unrelenting goddess of vengeance. This fury refuses even the glint of pity in the beholder’s eyes.

Here’s a glimpse of that fury in one of the untitled poems featured in the book

Their women sit on the swing and sing
The story of Vaamanan
Who went into the untouchable
Kaniyan household to steal fire
Then in the form of a brahmin child
Measured the earth
In three steps.
He stood on the asura
King Mahabali’s
Head and trampled it
Into the ground.
Every year
During the Onam festival
When Mahabali comes up
To visit the Land
of the Living Stench,
Where history flings
Shit on our faces…

Spreading magic

I first met Rajkumar almost a year after I had published him. In September 2011, an academic acquaintance, who had been blown over by Rajkumar’s poetry, invited him to a Protest Workshop at a private university in Sonepat. When I first heard Rajkumar in the south Delhi guesthouse he was hosted in, I was and struck by the incantatory effect of his words. I had goosebumps. Then, after beer over a meaty lunch, we went to my office and bonded over Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and our love for music.

I introduced him to Kumar Gandhrava’s Kabir. When he heard the Dhrupad ustads, Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar singing raga Sohini, he excitedly said this corresponded to Hamsanandi in the Carnatic system. We listened to a night raga in the middle of the day. The next afternoon we watched Mani Kaul’s Duvidha, based on a Vijayadan Detha short story in Rajasthani, at a screening the city. Rajkumar loved the film about a ghostly husband, for in his poetic world, ghosts and unfulfilled spirits roam freely – thirsting for love and sometimes blood. He merely said since it was a ghost film we should have watched it at night. We heard Sohini in the day, we saw a ghost at noon. We had brought night into the day. Kabir would have laughed along.

Rajkumar has seven poetry volumes to his credit including Odakku, Rattha Santhana Paavai, Theri and Kal Vilakkugal. He has acted and written lyrics for a recent Tamil film called Madhubaana Kadai (The Liquor Shop, 2012). (Those who follow Tamil, or simply wish to see Rajkumar, may view his interview here, where he talks of his poetic journey.)

Rajkumar next came to perform in Delhi at Samanvay 2013, a literary festival that celebrates Indian languages, at the India Habitat Centre. Language is no barrier when Rajkumar takes the stage. He performs in the only language he knows – Tamil. Among those in the audience the poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Tibetan poet Tenzin Tsundue, Giriraj Kiradoo, Telugu poets Yakoob and K Siva Reddy showered Rajkumar with love and praise. He was virtually mobbed after his performance. Young men and women shot pictures with the wordsmith. I basked in the glow that surrounded him. The 10 copies of his book we had taken along got sold on the spot. Rajkumar was beaming.

What happened under the aegis of India’s National Academy of Letters is the exact opposite of the kind of love an artist like Rajkumar deserves. Rajkumar’s appeal is not just to the men and women who run Sahitya Akademi but also to “fellow-artists who have transcended caste and religious sentiments”. We hope he is heard. And read.