Literary controversy

In Goa, a BJP MLA’s book of poems has stirred up deep-rooted caste and language rivalries

Goa’s Brahmins have taken strong exception to Vishnu Surya Wagh’s ‘Sudhirsukt’, which they say targets the upper caste community.

A poetry award has reopened the festering wound of caste and language divisions in Goa.

At the heart of the row is Vishnu Surya Wagh, a 52-year-old former Bharatiya Janata Party MLA who has been ailing for the past year, after he suffered a massive heart attack in May 2016. The poet, dramatist, former newspaper editor and cartoonist also happens to be the foremost political and cultural orator and ideologue of Goa’s largest Hindu community, the Bhandaris, who are categorised as an Other Backward Caste.

Sudhirsukt (Song of the Sudhirs), a compilation of Wagh’s Konkani poems, went unnoticed when it was published in 2013. However, recent efforts by Wagh’s supporters to get the book selected for the annual poetry award by the government-funded Goa Konkani Academy brought the book into the spotlight after it sparked outrage among Goa’s elite castes, especially the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin groups. While the awards are yet to be announced, the buzz was that Sudhirsukt had been selected.

The overt anti-Brahminism of Wagh’s poetry is one bone of contention. Another is his usage of earthy and colloquial Konkani – as a rebellion of sorts to the efforts of the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin groups to standardise and privilege written Konkani in the Devanagiri script (the language is written in multiple scripts) and the Sankritised, lyrical Antruzi dialect.

Sample this verse translated by educationist Augusto Pinto, on the Goa Book Club discussion group. It is the title poem, Sudhirsukt (Bhandaris are said to be born into the Sudir or Shudra varna).

I’m a Sudhir
My grandfather was dumb
And my father was somewhat deaf
I’m an original settler of our land
Where outsiders have filled their stomachs
But I’m forever starving.

This land deserved to be
A fountainhead of wisdom
Instead it became the Kashi of the South
On account of that Parashuram…
The moment I hear his name
I get enraged
He’s the one who first brought to Goa
The worm of casteism!

The poems first came into the limelight in early August, a dissenting jury member, Sanjeev Verenkar, used Facebook to publicly denounce the book as being communal, profane, and undeserving of any award.

Heated arguments broke out online and in print to lobby against the book being given the award.

On September 4, a women’s group filed a police complaint against Wagh and the publisher of Sudhirsukt, alleging that the book contained obscene and derogatory comments about women.

Manwhile, the names of the award winners lie in sealed envelopes, until the political establishment takes a decision on how to deal with the tricky situation that involves two important caste groups in Goa – the politically ascendant Bhandaris and the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, who are at the apex of Goa’s cultural, media, economic and political spheres.

Shifting sands

The Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community’s initial reactions were relatively unfettered as they criticised Sudhirsukt and Wagh for “inciting social tensions”. There were calls to have tbe book withdrawn from state libraries and suggestions that a case could be filed against the Goa Konkani Academy for breach of peace and insulting the modesty of women.

Since then, Sudhirsukt’s opponents have carefully calibrated their response, strategically foregrounding vulgarity and disparagement of women over caste concerns. Lawyer and key ideologue of the Konkani movement Uday Bhembre told “About a Sudhir saying strong words about a Saraswat or a Brahman, I can understand. I have no problem about that, though it has hurt the feelings of the community...But the book is absolutely vulgar, nauseating and displays a perversity about sex. Intimacy with an upper caste girl has been described in one poem. What literary quality is there in such a piece of writing?”

Meanwhile, a small group of academics and intellectuals in Goa are rallying in support of Wagh and have circulated quick English translations. Some are also comparing his work to Maharashtra’s Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, known for his subversive poetry that was a stinging criticism of caste-based discrimination and won him many accolades.

Getting a women’s group to file a police case against the book alleging obscenity was “a cheap trick,” a former lecturer said, adding, “And if some poems are considered sexist, how does that detract from the other poems?”

Augusto Pinto said there are only four lines in the 62-poem book that could qualify as abusive, but it was only these that were being circulated on WhatsApp to defame the entire collection.

Wagh himself is too ill to respond to the controversy and likely did not intent any of this to happen. Leaders of the Bhandari Samaj he hails from, said they hope the issue blows over quickly. “We discussed the controversy at our meeting,” Bhandari Samaj member said. “It was felt that poets like Dhasal have used more abusive language in their poems than Vishnu.”

But publicly, the group has maintained almost complete silence over the controversy, with no one openly coming out Wagh’s defence or willing to engage in an intellectual tussle with the upper caste in support of their icon. The Bhandaris make up 30% of Goa’s Hindu population and their support can make or break a political parties’ electoral fortunes. But culturally and politically, aside from a few academics, they avoid challenging the Goud Saraswat Brahmins in Goa, who they feel are too powerful.

Conflicting responses

Within literary circles, the book has divided opinion.

Some writers are circulating a signature petition in Wagh’s support. Goa-based English language poet Manohar Shetty said it is ridiculous that people were protesting over the award. “He definitely deserves any award he gets,” Shetty said. “His is a very powerful and honest voice and in fact should get a wider readership outside Goa. There’s actually a long tradition of Wagh’s form of direct protest poetry world over. In Maharashtra, there is Namdeo Dhasal who is his predecessor. There is black protest poetry by Langston Hughes and LeRoi Jones to name just two”.

Konkani writer Bhembre strongly rejected comparisons to Dalit poetry. “It cannot be compared to Dalit literature under any circumstances. Because it does not depict any kind of suffering of the community. It is more personal than about the community. It is all about I, I, I”, he claims.

Some have taken objection to the fact that Wagh uses street language in Sudhirsukt, his first Konkani publication, which they interpret as a way of underming the language. Wagh has published several poems and plays in Marathi and is a well-known and respected figure in Marathi theatre. In Goa’s language agitation of the 1980s, when Konkani activists fought to have the language recognised as distinct from Marathi and made the state’s official language, Wagh was firmly on the Marathi side. Embers of the antagonism between Konkani and Marathi-speakers continue to glow, threatening the new-found affiliation between both groups under the BJP.

The antagonistic Marathi and Konkani groups united in 2011 to oppose grants to Church-run English medium schools, under the medium of instruction agitation that propelled the BJP to power in 2012. Around this time, Wagh joined the BJP and won the St Andre Assembly seat in 2012 on a BJP ticket. He went along with the saffron politics he had vehemently opposed earlier, becoming deputy speaker and holding other cultural offices in that government.

“Wagh writes in Marathi mainly, but in Marathi he has written shudh poetry, shudh bhasha [pure poetry and language],” said Pundalik Naik. “He has only used such bad words in Konkani. This is the objectionable thing.”

Chinese whispers

Kaustubh Naik, a performance studies student and Wagh’s nephew, points out that anti-Brahminism has been one of the threads running through much of Wagh’s work as a dramatist and playwright. His Marathi play Tuka Abhang Abhang created a controversy in Maharashtra (where he often toured with his plays), back in 1998.

Naik claims that in Sudhirsukt, Wagh’s verse reflects a “very thought-out, definite and radical line taken for this project, which his earlier Marathi poems did not do in any focused manner”.

Opposing sides

Language and literature have played a key role in Goan politics. From the 1930s, the Goud Saraswat Brahmins have cultivated a separate identity around Konkani. Sidelined by the anti-Brahmin politics of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party governments from 1961-’79, after Goa’s liberation from Portuguese rule, the Saraswats came back to power by the 2000s. One aspect of this was the Konkani language struggle of the 1980s, which they led with the support of Christian groups. In 1987, Konkani was adopted as its official language and Goa became an independent state.

The Bhandaris, meanwhile, chased other goals. They were included in OBC category in 2006, benefiting hugely from the 27% education reservations. They are well-accommodated in government jobs, or self-employed. Their spread across political parties gives them considerable leverage.

Wagh himself had considerable heft in the political sphere, even though he had started out as a journalist and cartoonist. The BJP made him deputy speaker in 2016, but was always wary of him. His fiery trajectory was marked by seemingly contradictory stances – he opposed Vedic idols, yet advocated Sanskrit education for the downtrodden; he staged anti-Hindutva plays in temples and later joined the BJP.

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