Translated By Anita Gopalan
Geet Chaturvedi remembers Dalit-tribal poet Bhujang Meshram (1959–2007).
Our heart is a pyramid. In it, our dead stay safe and secure, with all their embellishments and paraphernalia—their intact faces, their clothes, adornments, books, words, habits, expressions—these mummies are forever lodged in our hearts. My friend Bhujang Meshram lives in me in much the same way, with his roaring laughter, his punches, his enthusiasm and restlessness.
Bhujang Meshram was a great poet of Marathi tribal literature. I was eighteen and he was more than twice my age. In our first meeting there was a haze of mystery. One night in 1995, my poet-friend Sanjay Bhise and I went to Bhujang’s house to invite him to be the guest of honor at one of our cultural programs. We were shown into a dimly lit drawing room; the light scattered around was the amount a night-light throws, enough for turning the room into a mystery land. Good-sized sofas, a well-stuffed display case, exquisite tribal wall hangings, and piles and piles of books kept to one side could be distinctly seen even in that mysterious diffuse. A Ghalib ghazal wavered from the inner darkness of the house.
After a while, Bhujang Mesharam appeared—a hill-like figure wearing a loose T-shirt and oversized boxer shorts, with a big face and thick mustache. The conversation started in Marathi and soon transitioned to Hindi. He spoke in Mumbaiya Hindi, mixing in complex Urdu words. After accepting our proposal, he immediately turned to Ghalib, who was clearly his favorite poet. Now and then he’d retreat inside and turn up the tape recorder’s volume a little before returning, again, to chant Ghalib, the way Sufi singer Abida Parveen chanted allah-hooo, shaking her head. Thereafter, we began meeting regularly. Between us, no topic existed other than books. He had a great interest in world literature and this was the reason we both were initially rapidly attracted to each other.
Bhujang Meshram was a Dalit-tribal and acutely conscious of his cultural identity. Historically, Indian society has been divided into four castes—Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. The first three castes make up the upper strata of the society whereas the predominant fourth one is the most oppressed, repressed, and exploited, forming the lower caste: the Dalits. Tribals, too, fall into this category. In the 1960s, the voice of resistance against this exploitation started to gain strength in India, with literature by writers belonging to the fourth caste creating a consciousness for Dalits and Dalit literature. Marathi was one of the languages in which the united voice of Dalit literature first found its echo. The works of Dalit writers like Narayan Surve, Annabhau Sathe, Shankarrao Kharat, Baburao Bagul, and Namdeo Dhasal not only shook Marathi literature with their intense resistance-consciousness but also succeeded in impressing the mainstream literary community artistically. By the 1970s, Marathi Dalit literature stood tall as a movement, playing an inspirational and influential role in the creation of Dalit-conscious literature in all other Indian languages.
Bhujang Meshram was one of the new generation’s flagbearers of the Dalit-tribal literary movement. His writings raised awareness of the contemporary crisis of Dalit society through intense thoughtful artistry, not unlike the way jazz music did for Black Americans. In the early 1990s, a definitive anthology of Marathi Dalit writings in English translation, Poisoned Bread, came out and became the talk of the world. The anthology included Bhujang Meshram. I knew Marathi but in order to comprehend an original Bhujang poem like “Hawa” (“Air”), I needed the help of its English translation. His language was convoluted; it wasn’t our ordinary, urban Marathi but the Marathi of tribal belts, filled with words from Gondi-like dialects. And Bhujang used them in his own way with admirable creativity. Many such poems can be found in his poetry collections Ulgulan and Abhuj Mad. He was deeply influenced by Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry but he was more complex than Dhasal in his use of language and treatment of themes.
Image: A handwritten poem from the Bhujang Meshram’s collection “Abhuj Mad.”
Bhujang was the king of arguments. He was a bit of a demon, passionate and possessed and eager to tear every damn logic apart. Expletives freely fluttered on his lips. They too were of a very creative type—hear them once and you’d keep laughing for many days thereafter at the creativity of those cusses. His booming laughter could pierce the sky. His fist was even more powerful. Reading him a poem was a dangerous proposition. If he liked a line, word, or image, he wouldn’t speak or gesture his admiration but rather pull the reciter to him to deliver a nice punch. Wah! His fist would land without care on the reader’s leg, thigh, or back, which then stung and throbbed for a long time after.
One day, we were at the railway platform waiting for the local. Bhujang and I sat on the stone bench while Sanjay Bhise, standing on the platform, recited a Vishnu Khare poem about manual scavenging. Entitled “Sir Par Maila Dhhone Ki Amanaviya Pratha” (“The Inhuman Practice of Carrying Shit on the Head”), it is considered a modern classic in Hindi poetry. We adored the poetry of Khare and, among friends, we celebrated his work by reading it aloud to one another. Sanjay and I had already decided that we wouldn’t let Bhujang punch us. Reading the poem was Sanjay’s responsibility, preventing the punches was mine. The moment Bhujang raised his hand, I held it. I succeeded twice and Sanjay was saved both times. But the poem was long and the opportunities for punching were many. When these moments passed without fruition, Bhujang began to get restless. When he next raised his hand for his wah, I held it tight, but he punched my hand with his other hand instead. And after that there was no stopping him. For every wah, he started targeting me. Before Sanjay could finish the poem, he threw it away and we stood far from Bhujang. Stroking my arm, my thigh, and my hand, I screeched crabbily, “Bhujang, please yaar, don’t hit us!” He was older by twenty years but our relationship had by then progressed from a formal “aap” to an informal “tum” and at times further to an intimate “tu.” The mere fact that a great poet like Bhujang was such a close friend pleased us greatly. This was also a kind of achievement to us.
But Bhujang never reformed. His hand still spoke his wah. He seemed to be the modern incarnation of Dignaga, the pupil of the great Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu who lived in the fourth century. Dignaga is said to be the father of Buddhist logic. He loved indulging in the art of debating. He was famous for setting aside oral arguments in the course of a debate and resorting to showering his rivals with punches. The scared and wounded opponents usually abandoned the debate and in this way, his way, Dignaga always won the dual. Interestingly, he even wrote a thick book called “Hastbalprakaran,” also called “Mushtiprakaran,” meaning “The Book of the Strength of the Hand” or “The Book of the Fist.” Our modern Dignaga punched not to win any argument but rather to manifest his admiration. Such violent admiration I’ve never in my life witnessed again. This did not prevent us from reading him our poems. We were just careful to stay outside of his punching range—but even then we always got whacked at least a couple of times.
During the day Bhujang worked in a government office and he spent all night on the phone. I don’t know when he slept. He would call me any time of night, often at three a.m., and the conversation would go on for a couple of hours or more. He would talk and simultaneously take noisy sips from his drink. He would discuss everything from Marquez to Nirmal Verma, from Dostoevsky to Kafka, from Namdeo Dhasal to Vaharu Sonavane, from Chinua Achebe to Derek Walcott. He had a special interest in authors of color. As I write this, I can see on my bookshelf The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall, a book I borrowed from Bhujang but never returned. He never minded because he likewise had many of my books that he never returned. It was Bhujang who introduced me to the writings of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and made me study Decolonising the Mind like homework. Every night he’d call and track my progress with the book. Using it as the foundation, he lectured me for hours on the extent of the influence of colonialism on a writer, lectures I still hold in my memory.
Bhujang wove the vast economic and social imbalance of Indian society into his poems with sensitivity and empathy.
He wanted a movement like the twentieth-century civil rights movement in the United States to happen in a more intense fashion in India. How does an exploited human society suffering the curse of social inequality express its resistance in its literature and art? This was always the main question in his literary discussions and contemplations. And why not? He was living in the India of the 1990s that was claiming to be the next world superpower and that had the fastest growing economy in the East after China. In that same India, a Dalit young man was beaten to death for the crime of entering a temple belonging to the upper castes. Time after time in one village or another a Dalit girl was raped in broad daylight. In Dalit settlements, clean potable water was inaccessible and unthinkable. (In all these matters, the India of 2018 is no different from the India of 1996). Bhujang wove the vast economic and social imbalance of Indian society into his poems with sensitivity and empathy.
Waking me at three in the morning, he’d gleefully say that he had just finished a long conversation with Dilip Chitre, Chandrakant Patil, or Gyan Ranjan—“I woke him up,” he’d say. He would talk about all the big names of literature who he had woken up. Getting nervous, I’d ask, “Don’t you ever feel scared? Or even hesitant to call so late at night?” In response, he would laugh in his booming voice and say, “This world is happy because a poet stays awake the whole night worrying about it!” But sometimes he would add, “You know, a poet should weep the whole night, like Kabir.”
As if talking on the phone for two hours at night wasn’t enough, he would, at times, suddenly appear at my house in the morning before work. He would shake me awake and drag me out of the house to resume our debate of the night before standing at a teashop on the street corner.
On one of these mornings, I told him the story of Kierkegaard’s father, how he died a painful, pitiful death. Kierkegaard’s father believed that since he had cursed God, God, in turn, cursed him, and so his life was one of melancholy and inner struggle. Bhujang pretended to be greatly worried. “aila . . .” he said, “then I’m solidly screwed up for sure, for I have many, many times cursed my God.” In him there was great anger. Anger at the whole of history. Anger at Dalit-tribal history. Anger toward this country’s casteist habits. His mannerisms were different. His poems were different. They ran contrary to the prevailing popular poetics. He wrote angry, spitfire poems. He never paused to breathe when reading his poems. “That is the Brahman feudal style of reading poetry,” he said. “A tribal poet reads poetry in one breath like the tribal God who brought storms with one puff, like the tribal sage who drank the ocean in one sip, like that tribal Birsa Munda who brought on a whole revolution with one roar.” But how this one-breath poet lived life between breaths, I couldn’t fathom.
There are many stories of our time together. Bhujang (pictured left) introduced me to Baburao Bagul, the inimitable storyteller of the Marathi language. He took me along to Nashik and showed me the entire city of Nashik in an auto-rickshaw. He took me to a conference on tribal literature held in a village near Nagpur. There I encountered a brand new shade of Marathi literature—the sharp obsidian-edged literature of resistance. In the village, we were put up in a hut, given beds of straw mats covered with clean crisp sheets. I could see these remote cultures in close quarters. Reaching them without Bhujang would’ve been daunting. A line of his poem leaps to mind—Without kicking the door, can it be opened? Bhujang Meshram was for me like a kick. He opened for me many closed doors of knowledge and poetry.
I left Mumbai in 2001, and it quickly became my distant past. The stories of struggles in life and employment that I’d once read about became my own. Leaving Mumbai also meant saying farewell to my friends in that city. Bhujang’s life also underwent changes and he too disappeared. I seldom received news about him. In 2007 I was in Punjab working as an editor at Dainik Bhaskar when, one afternoon, I received a phone call from an unknown number.
“mee Bhujang boltoy!” (This is Bhujang speaking!")
After seven years, I was hearing his voice! With great warmth and eagerness, we enquired about each other.
“I have to talk about something important with you. Are you free?” he asked.
“No, not at all! I am in the office and have a meeting in a few minutes. I am, in fact, standing at the door of the conference room. I will be free in a few hours. I’ll call then and we can talk leisurely.”
Before ending the call, Bhujang had extracted from me the promise at least three to four times—that I’d call him.
That day we had torrential meetings and I was given at least ten new responsibilities. In that stressful moment, I completely forgot that I had to call my friend. And for the next few days, I continued to forget. A week later, I got the news that Bhujang Mesharam had died. How? When? I didn’t know the details. Sanjay told me that he had occasionally spotted him here and there. He told me that the tall, solidly built Bhujang who had once looked like a tiger had withered into a reed. Heaven knows what malady had devoured him!
In his last years, Bhujang was caught up in some controversial office politics. Perhaps this is what caused his health to nosedive—juicy rumors abound. But I cannot trust these tales, for the Bhujang Mesharam I knew was like an unshaped village god that dwells in the form of a block of stone; the Bhujang Mesharam I knew had many tales of valor but none of humiliation.
There is a vein lodged inside me that aches intensely. It goes by the name Bhujang Meshram: the book that ended even before its completion, in which many dialogs were still to come. That chapter of reunion after separation was still to be written. It is unimaginable and hugely astonishing that my busyness at work precluded me from finding time to make a simple phone call and keep my promise. What was that “important thing” he’d wanted to tell me so urgently? Had he, leaping high, punched God? Had he, like Kierkegaard’s father, actually cursed God? Was it that he wished to share that day? His “war of curses” with God? Or did he simply want to tell me that he thought of me often? I do not know. And I will not ever know.
In these past years, I have wanted to say to him, “I think of you often, Bhujang Meshram! See, I’ve made my back stronger, and I’ve lain layers of flab on my body. I’ll be able to bear your punches better. So many beautiful poems I’ve collected that I want to read to you, and on my back I want to feel your merciless punches. By God, during this expressive exhibition of praise, my pain will not speak. Forgive my forgetfulness, Bhujang Meshram, and switch your phone back on, or else in your God’s telephone exchange, my ring will keep trilling, resounding endlessly through time. Even late at night. . . . two o’clock . . . Bhujang o’clock . . . Please answer my call—even if it’s just to say, ‘Wrong number!’”
Final photo of Bhujang Meshram courtesy of Ganesh Visputay.
 Manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning, carrying, and disposing of human excrement from dry toilets and sewars. Lower-class cleaning women would clean with the most basic tools, such as buckets and brooms, and then carry the shit to be disposed of in baskets on their heads.
Published May 31, 2018 Copyright 2018 Geet Chaturvedi