The strongest arc that emerges in the newly released book of English poetry 100 Poems Are Not Enough is that of anger. Many Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi poets in this book employ anger as a solid creative impulse, as something that liberates both their words and worlds. In his remarkable 1936 essay, Annihilation of Caste, BR Ambedkar had said that “turn in any direction you like, Caste is the monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform, you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster”. In one blistering poem after another in this small but powerful book, the poets go for the jugular.
A visceral response
Anger is not an individual pathology in this collection of poetry. It is structural in that it responds to the wrongs that the world has heaped onto an individual, especially when she belongs to historically disadvantaged communities. Anger is a visceral response to these wrongs and a channel for the grief they cause. “Anger”, after all, comes from Old Norse angr for “grief”. In expressing anger, one finds a vehicle for one’s deepest sorrows, now acknowledged as real. In doing so, one finds dignity, by laying the blame for this grief at the right doors. Anger resists the depletion of the self by fortifying it.
In her essay “Killing Rage”, the African American author bell hooks quoted Toni Morrison to speak precisely of this life-affirming quality of anger, remarking that “anger is better, there is a presence in anger”. The Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim or women writers in this book express an unapologetic and ferocious “presence” through their poems. “Write beautiful poetry, they say / write of blooming gardenias and / flushed orchids,” Abubakar Adam Ibrahim writes in the opening poem of the collection, but all the poetry he writes is “coloured by fire and desolation”. This book has several poems that are not coated with the sugar of politeness but laced with the salt of anger.
The grotesqueness of caste
In this vein, Sumeet Samos, the badass rapper you must find on YouTube, cuts you open with his anger in his poem Your Shits Will Not Be Normal, quite representative of this book’s fierceness. Samos grew up in Tentulipadar in the Koraput district of Odisha, in the segregated part of the village reserved for the Dom caste. His poems take a scalpel to the Gandhian village fantasy and spill out its ugly guts. The “biggest shit”, Samos writes in his poem, is “romanticising [the] village”, one which Ambedkar had called “a sink of localism, a den of ignorance”, calling the “the love of the intellectual Indian for the village community” both “infinite” and “pathetic”.
People don’t shit the same way as each other in the village (or in the cities, for that matter). Samos writes of the long “daily walks of shit”, searching for “the thickest of bush” for his community, and in contrast, the “one step behind the house shit” for the higher-castes. Samos’s poem is a scathing sociological study of upper caste people through shit. How you do it, who has to clean it, who gets to not think about it, who has to handle it, all this is determined by the ugly caste-ridden lines of the world he grew up in. And he renders this grotesqueness transparent in the poem. He names names and places people in the docks. Higher caste people should be under no delusion – this country banned manual scavenging in 1993, and yet, the India Census 2011 showed more than 2.6 million dry latrines in the country. Who then, is cleaning your shit? How does one break from this caste-enforced labour? Who gets to become “upwardly mobile”? “From dust, ash, soap to handwash,” he writes, “Is how my life changed...”
“...All types of shit throughout the day,
Gandhi’s village republic was in full power here.
First time latrine was a mobility,
Anything outside the village seemed mobility.
From manual scavengers, bonded labourers to
Any work in towns and cities seemed mobility,
From bare feet, paragon, to shoes now is mobility,
From eating rice and boiled tamarind juice
To eating extra subjis is mobility...
Romanticizing village is
One of the biggest shit,
Na jal mera, na jangal mera,
Na zameen mera,
We are just a demarcating line
In the village for you to unload
Your heaps of shit.
Spread the news from village to universities,
Your shits anywhere will not be
The normal anymore.”
This is the fierce candour of anger. This is its unapologetic force. It is thrown in your face – whether you are Right-wing or Left, unlettered or university educated – the real face of caste violence that props up our social fabric, whether in Una or in a drawing room in Delhi, whether among those villagers out there or among People Like Us. Samos spares no one.
The froth of anger
In her poem Delhi II that could very well have belonged to this collection, the poet Haripriya Soibam talks of the experiences of a girl from North East India joining a university in Delhi. Where “unable to leave history behind / she carries her oriental face / of oppression.” A young Delhi man asks her “the first question”, “Are you promiscuous?” It is then that Soibam writes a line that has long stayed with me. Which tells you why anger is crucial in the process of recovery of the self against all odds. “Like the oppressed, you are taught to expand your understanding;” Soibam writes, taught “that a precise small flower of peace / rather than froth should emerge from you.” The poets in this book, whether Sumeet Samos or Iniyavan Banumathi, Gurinder Azad or Kuffir Nalgundwar, Jacinta Kerketta or Ajmal Khan, offer no such flowers. The froth of anger that emerges from them is surefooted, articulate and fierce. It is both a challenge and a curse.
The stakes are high. In the closing lines of his searing poem You Cannot Die, Manu Tanti, Gurinder Azad tells us that a civilisational ledger of losses is being settled. Every battle, big or small, will be fought. “This is the balance,” he writes, “of many centuries”. The poems in this book encapsulate the anger of many centuries too. Read them. And heed them.
100 Poems Are Not Enough, Walking BookFairs.
Akhil Katyal teaches Creative Writing at Ambedkar University in Delhi.