The Black and White of Life

"I had neither kith nor kin

Only as much ground as I walked upon

The shelter of shops

And the free muncipal pavement, always open

As I moved through this rootless life given to me.. "

-- Narayan Gangaram Surve, My University

The cover of Narayan Surve's book Majhe Vidyapeeth (My University) was in black and white. It automatically colored all his poems in black and white. It was the picture of a street, very typical of the old city of Bombay. Much less crowded compared to the city we see today. Both dogs and humans were at equal ease, and there was one poor middle aged man sleeping on the pavement. Probably exhausted by the tiring work last night. He would not earn his bread today if he does not go for work. But sleep is so inevitable that he has sacrificed his wages today. The divider sharply marks the distance between him and other world awake on the other side of the road.

Surve grew up in the streets of the city. He was brought up by a mill worker. He started his career as a child worker at one of those textile mills. He learnt to read and write from those very streets that he declared his university, and went on to become a poet and a school teacher. Talking to the Saraswat (the so called higher community, who held the power on literature and right to education for a long time) in one of his poems, he said he is now going to do the crime , the crime of expressing himself, reaching to the mass with the power of words. The rebel started right there.

Even after he developed himself into a multi dimensional talent, he always communicated with the world as a workers' representative. Ek Amhich ase Nighalo (Only we turned out to be like this), Asa Kasa Dhagad Zalo (How I became so stone-hearted), Nahi Re's Jag (The world of the deprived).. his titles themselves echo the voice of the working class.

He sure spoke for the male mill worker. But at the same time he put light on the life of the female worker as well. His woman characters made their voices heard, even as they had a lot of limitations -- as a mother in Mazi Aai (My Mother) and as a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law in Satya. Her dreams are limited to staying by her husband or son, and giving them strength to hold on in the difficult times. Being the backbone to his fight, being the one with whom he can share his sorrow and his frustrations. Whereas the women in Asel Nasel (Had, Hadn't -- a poem that compares the lives of women on the streets of Paris with those on the streets of Bombay) and Pani Ghye (Get Water -- about the life of sex workers), the women we see are different. He had the guts to focus on the life of these women and the ray of hope that remain in them even in the most difficult of situations. This hope is a common thread in his most of the poems.

Surve remained a Communist poet in every sense, but he realized the complexities of human relationships. Spirituality was not alien to his poems either. Dialogues with one's own self can be found in many of his poems, including "My University".

Through his poems we can see the poet and the world that he saw. Though those who can not read Marathi will have to be content with a small number of translations available. Other than that I think the best publicly available documentation of the poet's life is Narayan Gangaram Surve, a Marathi film by Arun Khopkar. It had noted theatre/film actor Kishore Kadam playing the poet, and had touching visualizations of his poetry. Apparently, this was also the first Marathi film to win the national award for the best film in Short film category (watch here).

Even as the black and white Bombay gives way to a colourful Mumbai, the contrast does not diminish. Surve reminds us this fact through his life and through his death at the age of 83. Like the hero in the poem Dheer (The Brave), he asks us to keep the flame inside us alive even if our co-travellers are tired.

[A Malayalam version of this note was carried in Patabhedham December issue]?

By Gayatri Chavan and Sudeep Ben Aadil Almitra

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