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Alien to mainstream: Remembering Dalit author Des Raj Kali

Alien to mainstream: Remembering Dalit author Des Raj Kali

1971-2023



Neeti Singh

Des raj Kali, the Punjabi Dalit author and columnist who had several television programmes to his credit, passed away aged 51 on August 27. Kali, who grew up in abject poverty and carried carrion as a boy, hailed from an ilk of tanners in Mithapur village near Jalandhar. He caricatured and represented them in bold, eclectic, culturally-rich narratives in his novels and short stories. Self-made, ambitious, and a literary genius, he was known among friends for his joie de vivre, profound desivaadi (humanist) thoughts, a general zest for learning and for his knowledge of Vedic liturgy and indigenous lore.

We first met in person in late 2015 at the Chandigarh Literature Festival to celebrate, in particular, the English translation of Bhai Jaita’s ‘Sri Gur Katha’ — the earliest surviving account in verse of the life and events of Guru Gobind Singh.

The prospect of translating Kali’s Punjabi novel ‘Shanti Parav’ (2009) came to me suddenly in 2014. Like rainfall, it drew me in (wet mud and all) for several reasons — especially since it was multipronged and interdisciplinary, smelling of an authentic Dalit semiotic. The novel located the Dalit within the caste-religion-power nexus, and offered alternative narratives to the freedom struggle, terrorism, state violence, capitalism and democracy. At the same time, it strove to entertain with cameos that were startling, poignant and funny, and yet this curious fictional world was exquisitely embroidered with threads of shining poverty, disease, nobility and tragic irony. It was a Punjab I had never seen.

In an interview with Kali, I had asked what it was that drove him to write, and he had pulled out from memory an anecdote. It was about a poor neighbour whose feet had got infected by a fungal disease contracted from continuous exposure to dirty water. Since the poor man had no money for medical treatment, his rotting big toe had eventually fallen off. “That the body parts of a human being should break and fall off was sheer injustice. My heart was deeply moved and I wrote about it,” he said. “Now,” he added, “times have changed. People too have changed. However, the shadows of these people continue to linger, which is reflected in my literature.”

Of the 14 books published by him, three are anthologies of short stories. In four volumes are his historical commentaries on the Ghadar movement. And then there are the seven novels — ‘Parneshwari’, ‘Antheen’, ‘Pratham Pauran’, ‘Shanti Parav,’ ‘Nar Natak’, ‘Shehr Vich Saan Hon Daa Matlab’ and his last one, ‘Taseehe Kadee Buddeh Nahin Honde’.

Steeped in anthropological detail and the cultural dye of Dalits, Kali’s fiction explores the implications of mythology and the Indological concept in relation to contemporary socio-political dynamics. Caricature, metaphor and irony are extensively accessed for a discourse on humanity, dogma and the exploitative systems of state and society. His fiction is replete with references to indigenous festivals and itinerant bards like Pir Zinda Shah, Gugga Fakir, and the legendary Gorakhnath. They hobnob with locals at fairs and festivals in the spirit of the carnival where broken, misshapen humans coexist with phantoms and gods and beasts. All godly agency — human, tree, bird, beast, rock, god — provides welcome escape and a good coping technique.

In Kali’s words, his novels “showcase the historicity of cultural behaviour”; they hold “a mirror to the churning human currents of our times… In the matrix of literature, they also reflect my ideological stance”.

‘Shanti Parav’ (like the good old Humpty-Dumpty) sits precariously perched on the wall between novel and anti-novel. To begin with, the novel has a quaint structure; each page is divided by a line in the middle, all through. This layout helps accommodate two distinct but thematically co-related narratives that are fictional and non-fictional. Above the line rolls fiction and below it rumbles the non-fiction. Thus, the two flow from page to page —bamboozling the poor, untrained reader who wonders, how must he read or enter the text! As a result, this raises a creative resonance, a polyphony of theme, form and content in a dialogic, Bakhtinian way.

The publication of my English translation of the novel triggered much celebration in Punjabi literary circles and abroad. It offered new literary breakthroughs and was a sterling example of fiction that is postmodernist, palimpsest, polyphonic and deconstructive. It offered a literary alternative to writing fiction/non-fiction, shared unheard-of life narratives and histories from the Dalit margins and thirdly, it was a resilient, well-argued treatise offered by a subaltern, on national and state-ruled structures of law, power, capital wealth and politics.

Lastly, there was also the fact of the novel’s title — a deliberate borrowing from the 12th book of the ‘Mahabharata’, to which the novel offers an evaluation and critical response.

The fact that such dynamic postmodern writing came to us from the pen of a struggling, self-made Dalit stunned academic minds across the world. Also, the book had already made inroads into research being carried out in select universities in London, France and Australia. Hats off to Kali the storyteller. May more of his works be translated.

Kali’s writing is textured with much that is alien to mainstream literatures and sensibilities. The phonology and syntax of Doabi Punjabi, the grammar of marginal histories, culture, aesthetic — was a tall challenge to translate into English. The endeavour involved intense research, creative improvisations and a series of unlearning.

Such experience for a hybrid such as me (Punjabi/Gujarati/English/Hindi) was an intense experience in deconstruction.

The author has left us early but he has left us rich. He has left us gifts of a legacy replete with creative pointers to new literary form and narrative.

Fired by a desire to improve the Dalit lot, Des Raj Kali was sensitive to the scope and scale of challenges that littered the path of Dalit reform and resurgence. Unrelenting in his efforts, he was the subaltern who found his way back to speech. Yes, the subaltern can speak. As his words spread and take wing, wait for a silent, revolutionary tide.

— The writer teaches at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda

#Dalits


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