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Archive for September, 2010


Thursday, September 30th, 2010

You cut our tongues

and poured lead in our ears?

It is we who gave letters to your tongues

and sounds to your ears–

we're both sarkari servants,

why this unusual grudge towards me?

Did we demand

your agrahaaras and antahpurams*?

Thinking our brains are in our knees

you dispatch a new memo every day,

but every memo shall turn into a new dawn

that will shine like eej**, expanding our wisdom.

If you don't stop your flood of memos

we'll hunt with our barchis***,

you are of the clan of beggars

we'll catch you by your pilaka+

and drag you to our thanda++,

gather our chiefs

and hold a nasaab+++.


My translation of Vadthya Panthulu Nayak's Telugu poem 'nasaab' (from his collection of poetry 'nasab').


* antahpuram: here, it means mansion, palace (in Telugu).

**eej: lightning, in the language of the Lambadas/Lambadis/Banjaras/Brinjaris.

***barchi: weapon used by the Lambadas for hunting.

+pilaka: tuft of hair at back of head, usually worn by Brahmins (in Telugu).

++thanda: lambada village/hamlet.

+++nasaab: panchayat presided over by Lambada elders, or Nayaks (in the language of the Lambadas).

Night dreams

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

We ridicule daydreams

but do even night dreams come true?

For our folks who go to Bombay,

to change life

to learn life,

I have been writing letters since I learnt letters

but I have never been able to write

them in line with my dreams.

The preaching of caution

to the son, who squandered wages,

getting on the bus,

the sorrow of mothers

weeping behind kongus*,

the travails of hunger

and the persistence of debts,

sisters' questions-

'did the rakhi reach my brother?',

the appeals of brothers

to send small chappals

through someone returning

and many more

became the letters I wrote.

They stil do.

Changing life

is not as simple as inviting colours into your sleep during the night

and dreaming–

whether you dream intentionally or otherwise,

do dreams ever come true?

More than dreaming,

I comfort myself

that at least the writing I am capable of

is performing the role of an emissary

through letters.


My translation of Taidala Anjaiah's Telugu poem 'rAtri kalalu' (from his collection of poetry 'punaasa').


* kongu: the free end of the sari, the pallu.


Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

After erecting three pillars

The gross, the subtle and the causal bodies

After beating the buffalo's rough hide with a staff

Of the manifest and the hidden to remove the flesh;

After tanning the hide with the fiber of dualism;

The caustic juice of quintessence;

The blemishes of the soul thus destroyed,

I have come to reach the sandals to the feet of the wearer.

Take care, not of the ground below

But of the path they tread

Do not be a slave to the hand-awl, the blade or the peg

Know Ramarama, your own true self

The joy of joys. 



Prose poems that could be sung, recited and performed forms the bulk of the Vachana literature of Medieval Karnataka. They were written to question and respond to dualities , largely by poets from the artisan and untouchable castes. Vachana poetry is also the longest, continuous critique of the caste system, spanning several centuries (11th to 18th century).

The Dalit poet, Madara Channiah is considered the father of Vachana poetry. He pioneered the effective use of metaphors from the everyday, marking a clear departure from the earlier ornate and contrived poetic traditions of ancient Kannada literature.

H.S Shiva Prakash says “ The manner in which this cobbler-saint combines abstract philosophical preoccupations with a vision of a society free of caste differences and expresses them in concrete metaphors taken from the cobbler’s trade is astounding”.  

Source: H S Shiva Prakash's chapter on 'Medieval Kannada Literature' in the book Medieval Indian Literature: an anthology, Vol 3. 

Brotherhood of Man By Kapila

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Do wind and rain avoid

Some men among the rest

Because their caste is low?

When such men tread the earth

Does it quake with rage ?

Or does the brilliant sun

Refuse them its rays? 


Oh Brahmana, has our God

E'er bid the teeming fields

Bring forth fruits and flowers

For men of caste alone?

Or made the forest green

To gratify the eyes of

None but the Pariahs? 


Oh Brahmans, listen to me

In all this blessed land

There is but one great caste,

One tribe and brotherhood

One God doth dwell above,

And he hath made us one

In birth and frame and tongue. 


Kapila was a poet of the Sangam age; one of his compositions, the Kapilar Agaval, has remained popular among the Tamils since ancient times. Sangam poetry is a Dravidian, pre-Christian literary tradition of Southern India that carries no influence of Sanskrit. 

Source: Folk Songs of Southern India, Charles Grover.

Main Boraywala!

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Kasab Pinjari Laddaf Dudekula

Ghodewala Lakdewala Chamdewala– like them

I am Boraywala,

The forgotten Muslim,

Until now

Out of the reach of all Muslim literary history,

The one banished to darkness by the Muslim khandaan

Discriminated against because of my occupation,

But I am still a Muslim

A brand new Boraywala Muslim.


Mother jungle was my livelihood

I'd climb hills, cut wood and sell it

I would make my living from carrying tree trunks to the village

I'd wander around valleys and streams

I'd gather date palm leaves

and make mats for a living

and that's how I became a Boraywala!

You avoided all relations with me

because of my caste and lifestyle

You considered me unfit,

I learnt the Kalma even when my belly was on fire

I am reciting Suras even as you keep your distance

Like you, performing Namaz..Roza..Zakat

I mingle amidst you

but still you look at me with derision

and talk differently with me,

interact coldly with me and show

scorn for my occupation

scorn for my language

scorn for me.

What's human? What's inhuman?

Who's civilised? Who's uncivilised?

I'm of the Boraywala clan which doesn't know all those things

All I know

is that I am a Mussalman too!

Islam is my religion too!


Call me Boraywala..

Or call me a Girijan Muslim..

Or call me a Dalit Muslim..

Or call me any other Muslim..

But one thing is certain..

If I don't weave a 'bora'*

Your Janaza won't move!!


From the oppression of the Hindu order

and the discrimination in the Mullah order

I'm waking up only now


Leaving the inertia and indifference

that burnt me for decades

I'm sounding the marfa** of the Boraywalas.


My translation of Shaikh Peeran Boraywala's Telugu poem 'main bOrEwAlAn' (from the collection of poetry 'alaavaa: muslim sanskRti kavitvam'). The title 'Main Boraywala' would mean, roughly, 'I am Boraywala' in Hindustani.

Would like to thank my friend Khalid Anis Ansari for sharing certain valuable inputs on Islamic burial practices in India.

*bOra: here it refers to a mat made of date palm leaves.

** marfa: a musical instrument that resembles the kettle-drums. 


Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

'Salim, do chai'–

'In a moment saab'–

Salim of young, milky cheeks

carries hot chai glasses to your hands

with a smile–

— Salim doesn't think about reservations at all


'Arre Rabbani


whether the Honda's got a flat tyre or needs air'–

Rabbani, who can remove a tube from inside a tyre

and check its life in a water tub,

can't think about reservations

despite his punctured life–


Akbar who sells 'Har Ek Maal'

without respite at the chowrasta*

becomes 'Har Ek Maal' himself

— Akbar hasn't heard of reservations


Ghouse who drives an hired auto

Khaja who sells jasmines

Silar who sells ice-creams

Abbu who sells bananas

Chand Miya who burns incense in shops on Fridays

Imran who cleans tables in restaurants

Salman who collects tickets in the cinema

Afzal who drives the 'National Permit' lorry

Hussein who stitches clothes

Mehboob who irons them

Pasha who lifts soil

Ali who sells crockery

Nazir who sells rat poison…


If they become educated

If there are reservations

Won't life change?

Won't the country improve?


Their forefathers weren't Jagirdars

Their fathers were never Nawabs

They're all sahibs**

Every meal's a struggle

Who eats biryani everyday?

It's no longer a question of ten children

Now Muslims face a drought of marriages

The home is filled with

Unmarried girls

Jobless boys

Abandoned wives…


The one who should go to school is going to work

The one who should go to work is going to the kabrastan+…


Our nation which kills

girls in the womb

is reluctant to yield

reservations to Muslims.


To serve you hot hot chai

To plug your punctured tyres

To sell ice-creams to your kids

Should gentle-hearted Muslims

remain coolies and servants?



you're blocking reservations

Tomorrow come to our gallis++ for votes…

we'll circumcise you

only then will you become our people

and understand our lives

understand our sorrows–




My translation of Anwar's Telugu poem 'hissaa' (from his collection of poetry 'muThThi').

*chowrasta: traffic junction.

*sahibs: here, it refers to a term commonly used to identify Muslims in many regions of Andhra Pradesh.

+kabrastan: graveyard.

++gallis: or galis. streets, alleys, by-lanes or quarter.

Muslim wadas

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

He sat on a throne

and made my Dalits sit on the ground

told my Adivasis to stay at his feet

we folded our hands and stood,

bringing palms together was all he ever taught my people;

changing religion was a rebellion

my people stood shoulder to shoulder

and entered mosques and churches;

his ego received a blow,

so he divides and kills and shows his true colours

once again

like he divided Vali and Sugreeva

he separated the Dalits and Muslims

and as he used the Vanaras

he instigated the Advasis against the Muslims:

isn't that his centuries old heritage?

He poured boiling lead over my people,

broke thumbs so that we couldn't turn the wheel of life,

burnt thousands alive leaving nothing for cremation;

once again

I see my people standing with folded hands,

once again

I see them sit on the ground in fear;

my people who never depended on anyone,

now that he's assumed the form of 'sarkar',

are being told to stretch their hands to plead for help:

that's his Hindu 'raj neeti'*


Before the joy of seeing Dalit wadas** closing in on the villages

could sink in

Muslim wadas started appearing outside the villages.


My translation of Skybaba's (or S.K.Yousuf Baba) Telugu poem 'muslim waaDalu' (from his collection of poetry 'jagnE kii raat').

* raj neeti: statecraft, or politics in general.

* *waaDa: quarter, locality, neighbourhood.

The stink of itr

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

The whole village ate meat


The bones graced only my neck


They raised it with love–

The feast started

Where's the goat?


I'm the last to be served

My home's at the end of the wada*

What is butcherliness?!


I'm soaked in sweat

He calls it itr

Look at the flies around me


I'm the wound made by history

Don't point your finger at me any more

I'm growing sharper every moment.


My translation of Abbas's Telugu poem 'attaru kampu' (from the collection of Dalit poetry 'padunekkina paaTa').

*wada: pronounced waaDa, means street or quarter.

Our hut

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

When our hut burnt down

we felt as sad as if someone had died in our home,

So many memories dissolved in the fire!


It was in that hut that I had saved 25 paisa coins in the match box

to pay for tomorrow's dreams,

It was in that hut

that I had played with the flute bought in the Jatara,

It was in that hut

that my printed shirt, which I used to wear

only for festivals, burnt down

my wooden bull is still playing

in my heart.


When the hut burned down my Avva*

felt as sad as if her stomach was on fire,

her tree-sized son had dissolved in the trees,

because she couldn't blame the living

she remembered the dead and wept.


My father felt as sad as if a wolf had snatched a lamb,

As pained as finding an unknown corpse in the hills,

Everything burnt down when our hut burnt down!

The match box in which I hid coins,

The flute bought in the Jatara,

The printed shirt worn only on festivals,

The toy bull I played with:

All these burnt down

and are still chasing me;

I who have saved only pen and paper,

what should become of me now?

I will keep writing lessons

for those who light chuttas**

when huts burn down.


My translation of Taidala Anjaiah's Telugu poem 'maa guDise' (from his collection of poetry 'punaasa').

* avva: grandmother.

* chutta: pronounced cuTTa. cheroot or coarsely prepared cigar.

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