Words were his only dream of changing the world and thus he wielded them in a poem:

“Words have been uttered long before us, 
And for long after us, 
Chop off every tongue if you can, 
But the words have still been uttered.”

The poet in question, writing in Punjabi, was Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007), who was considered an icon of the short Naxalite uprising of 1967, rich in literature, which changed many people’s way of thinking.

Coming of age in the mid-1970s and reaching out to the literary world was a significant matter. Those were times when the poet was still a hero and literature was considered the means to changing the old order and setting up a more just society. The radical Left still provided a vision, and, starting with the peasant revolt in the Naxalbari village in Bengal, the movement spread to other states and so also to Punjab.

Young people love rebels and revolutionaries, and it was this group of writers I gravitated to in Chandigarh. Although naïve, I had a facility for traversing the space between Hindi and Punjabi. So I was asked to translate a few poems of Hindi poet Kumar Vikal and two short ones by the Punjabi poet Lal Singh Dil in a commemorative anthology being brought out in Kolkata with the title Spring Thunder.

When I tried to enquire about Dil, I was told that he was an obscure figure who had migrated to Uttar Pradesh and converted to Islam. Religion was an opium pill to his comrades, and the fact of his conversion was mentioned with disdain. I translated his poems for the anthology, but it took me a long time to learn more about Dil and his oeuvre.

The will to see a better future

Dil was born to a family considered part of the Ramdasia Chamar (tanner) caste, in the town of Samrala near Ludhiana. He grew up in poverty, herding cattle from childhood for roti and a paisa, but his mother saw to it that he went to school. He was the first in his clan to pass Class Ten, and his mother sold her ear-rings to send him to college to train as a schoolteacher.

By then Dil was already dabbling in poetry, writing about his people, who were different from members of the upper caste middle-class. His poetry and his life became grist to the mill of revolutionary politics, which worked happily for Dil, as he envisioned a new order free of caste and creed.

But Dil’s dreams were to die young as he struggled through life, being convicted for possessing a gun that he never had, moving through depression, delusion, disillusionment, penury, cheap liquor and loneliness. Yet his poetry, or for that matter his prose in his autobiography Dastaan never lost the will to see a better future. He is remembered best for his three collections of poetry – Satluj di Hava (Breeze from the Sutlej), 1971; Bahut Saare Suraj (So Many Suns), 1982; and Satthar (A Sheaf), 1997 – as well as his autobiography, which is an acclaimed work of prose in Punjabi.

I finally got to know him in the 1990s, when he had returned to his village and former friends were trying to rehabilitate him by opening a tea stall for him to run near the motor market in Samrala. I wrote about him in a few newspapers and journals, and also translated some of his work. But I only got round to translating his autobiography and selected poetry after his death.

Neither god nor the revolution

In one of his early poems, which appeared in a book titled Poet of the Revolution: The Memoirs and Poems of Lal Singh Dil, Dil paints a vivid picture of landless labourers moving from one place to another:

The long caravan is moving on
the brave tillers of the land walk away on wild paths
Love of the fields was murdered last night
Flames rose from the shacks last night
The caravan moves on…

Dil was looking for the revolution that would break all shackles. In his poetry he became the sensitive spurned child and engaged in a dialogue with god, empowered as he was by hopes of the thundering spring.

How sweet are these words dedicated to god
I wish my last words would be
“I have complete faith in you!”
I want to steal this line
and dedicate it to the Revolution.

However, both god and the revolution eluded him. The ultra-Left cadres in Punjab were not without caste pride, and in his autobiography Dil recalls how a comrade, a senior Jat Sikh writer, takes away a jug of water when Dil tries to reach it at a party meeting. As an adolescent he visits a classmate, a girl he is growing fond of. The girl’s mother gives him a tumbler of tea but after he has drunk it, she casts it in the wood fire to purify it. It is caste again when he talks of love:

“You love me, do you?
Even though you belong to another caste. But do you know
Our elders do not even cremate their dead
at the same place.”

Nowhere to go

It is twelve years since Dil died – or was freed at last – but this is the truth of the cremation grounds in the countryside still, and any change could lead to unrest.

When the radical movement was crushed, everyone returned to their class fold, many with enough influence to get their names removed from the roster of “Proclaimed Offenders”. Dil had no such privileges. His family had been tormented outside jail just as he was tormented inside, and it was common knowledge that the torture of Dalits was greater, with upper-caste policemen applying the third-degree without mincing their words: “So you want our land?”

In short, Dil had nowhere to go. So he walked all the way to a village near Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, and became the caretaker of a mango orchard. Here he got acquainted with Muslim culture and saw hope again of transcending the caste he was born to. This led to his decision to convert to the more inclusive Islam. In a letter to Chandan, which is part of his biography, he wrote that a crescent moon had appeared on his palm, adding, “Allah is very kind to Maoists because he understands cultures!”

Dil kept his Muslim identity and hoped he would also find a wife. He even got a burqa stitched in anticipation. But that was not to be. Years later he was to tell me, “Caste prejudice exists among Muslims too!”

However, his poetry never lacked resistance, as one of his finest verses titled “Dance”, reveals:

When the labourer woman roasts her heart on the tava
The moon laughs from behind the tree
Father amuses the younger one
Making music with plate and bowl
The older one tinkles the bells tied to his waist
And he dances
These songs won’t die
Nor the dance in the heart…