Lal Singh Dil wrote about wretched of the earth: Dalit poet's translator
Lal Singh Dil was a destitute Dalit poet whose verses on caste oppression and call for a revolution made him the bard of the Maoist movement in Punjab. But despite being a legend in his state, few know about the poet outside.
Now, six years after his death, Dil's autobiography, "Dastan", has been published in English, translated by a friend.
"Dil opened a fresh dialogue by writing about the wretched of the earth for he was one of them," said Nirupama Dutt, author of "Poet of the Revolution: The Memoirs and Poems of Lal Singh Dil" (Penguin).
"Dil was a poet who was equally passionate writing on paper or on the back of a truck," the poet-journalist from Chandigarh told IANS at the book's release here recently.
"Words have been uttered/long before us/and for long after us/chop off every tongue/if you can/but the words have been uttered." (A poem by Dil, translated by Dutt)
Dil, who died at the age of 64 on August 14, 2007, in Ludhiana due to gangrene, was born in a Ramdasia Chamar (tanner's) family in a Samrala village and consequently led a life battling poverty, rejection and torture, she said.
"People would not even sit with him, drink tea with him. So this difference between reality and dreams troubled him," she said, describing the ostracism that made him leave teachers' training and join the Maoist movement in the 1970s.
He was arrested for taking part in an attack on a police station in Chamkaur Sahib town and his trial became Kafkaesque, she said.
"When they attacked the police station, Dil never had a gun. He had a stick. Yet, his entire trial and the police torture were based on a pistol he never had. Also, torture for a lower caste undertrial is different in Punjab," she said.
Dil fled to Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and worked as a daily wager and mango orchard caretaker. "There he saw Muslims eating together. It was like a revolution for him." He converted to Islam.
But after the dust settled, he returned home.
"The (Maoist) movement had been crushed. All the activists and people who had fought with him had gone back to their class folds. Dil had nowhere to go."
Later, he and another writer-friend reopened a mosque in Samrala and for five years said the 'azaan' (call for prayer). Later he ran a tea stall along a highway.
In this period, he wrote three collections of poetry - "Satluj di Hava" (1971), "Bahut Saare Suraj" (1982), and "Sathar (1997)" and "Billa Aaj Pher Aaya" (2007).
Years of drinking country brew, smoking 'bidis' and police torture had taken a toll on his health, she said.
But despite his penury, he refused to take a government pension for needy poets, saying he was a comrade, said Dutt. So his friends collected money, renovated his house and asked him to write his autobiography.
Caste discrimination did not leave Dil even after death.
"He wanted to be buried when he died. But there was no Muslim burial ground nearby. The body would have to be taken to a neighbouring village, but it may not have been accepted there. So Dil's brothers, deciding not to stir controversy, cremated him at a site for tanners," she said.
He probably knew about it since he once wrote: "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".
Dil stood as tall as other revolutionary Punjabi poets Paash and Sant Ram Udasi and Surjit Patar, said Dutt.
"Patar and Paash came from the middle class and had access to higher education. Dil belonged to the working class and an oppressed class. Still he stands as tall as them, if not more. Udasi (also a Dalit) was inspired by Sikh poetry as well as folk and his songs are popular among the working class.
"Dil had a complete modern sensibility and was brilliant in blank verse and his genre was more literary," she said.
Dutt is currently writing the biography of Bant Singh, a Dalit singer who lost both his hands and leg after he was thrashed for filing cases against his teenaged daughter's rapists.
(Sourabh Gupta can be contacted at email@example.com)