Sunday, January 06, 2013

Spring thunder - Lal Singh Dil ki ajeeb dastaan

[Did this for the Hindu Literary Review]

Contained in the 165 pages of Poet of the Revolution – a translation of the memoirs of a celebrated Punjabi poet, one-time Naxalite and a man of many idiosyncrasies – are different perspectives on a single life, so that siphoning out the “real” Lal Singh Dil can seem an exercise in pointlessness. There is, naturally, the main text of the autobiography itself (originally published as Dastaan in 1998, nearly a decade before Dil’s death): a lucid, episodic account of a story that began in a chamar family near the town of Samrala in 1943, its contours defined by social discrimination and injustice. There is also the original Foreword by the editor-publisher Prem Prakash, who describes one of Dil’s letters as brilliantly conveying the feelings of “a militant poet losing his mental balance”, and observes that though editing was done on this manuscript, “the incoherence remains, manifested in a feverish intensity that we wanted to retain”. And there is the elaborate, thoughtful Introduction by the memoir’s translator, the journalist-poet Nirupama Dutt, who was Dil’s long-time friend and shared with him what she describes – channelling the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz – as a “dard ka rishta” (bond of pain).

It is Dutt who really puts Dil’s life and times in context, especially for the reader who does not know much about him beforehand. She supplies a few incidental details, comments on the frequently contradictory aspects of his personality and describes his unfailing gallantry towards her. (This is interestingly supplemented by Amarjit Chandan’s account of the poet’s “platonic attention to women”.) Describing a tranquil moment in Dil’s house, she observes, “No matter how harsh life might have been, there was still room in it for a few green leaves, a flower or two, a child’s smile and some sweetness.” And in a reminder of how ephemeral even the most intense revolutions can be, she presents an affecting view of a man who had once been in a maelstrom, but who went on to lead an unassuming life as the world around him moved on: “The comrades of his revolutionary days were now editors, executives, professors, businessmen or expatriates. The spring thunder was over and everyone had returned to the comfort zone of their class structures.”

Moving past these preludes to the memoir, the first thing one notices is how quiet it is – almost anticlimactic, if you’re expecting a radical, angst-ridden treatise. It begins on a lyrical note, as Dil recalls “following a Brahmin who resembled Tagore” into a bathing area for upper-caste boys (he was thrashed for the transgression), but there is a banality to some of the early episodes. “My childhood was full of dangers”, he says, before recounting incidents that might have happened in any little boy’s life. Reflecting on the violence of his play with his friends, he asks “Were we fighting each other or was it our anger at being children of a lesser God?” There are small moments of frisson (he is picked to play the part of Lord Krishna in a play, until then “someone whispered something” and he was dropped), but on the whole these are homely, not particularly revealing anecdotes.

The story becomes tauter when he begins associating with Leftists and Marxists and discovers that caste prejudice (or something akin to caste prejudice) can exist even in these groups. Or when he describes Russian literature as “waste paper [sold] to Indian buyers”, or reflects on the changes in his own personality over the years. The more dramatic passages concern his participation in an attack on a police station with his associates, and there is much self-presentation in his account of this time: he likens himself to a wounded tiger, describes bantering fearlessly with the police after his arrest. While being tortured, he is conscious that he should cry out “bravely”, not like a coward. “When I heard my first cry, I was not disappointed. It was like a bull’s angry bellow. Anyone would have recognised it as the cry of a warrior.”

Reading all this, one can’t help wondering if some of it is embellished – a question that must inevitably be asked about Dil, given that he once claimed that Chairman Mao had regretfully announced his arrest on Radio Beijing! But perhaps it is a mistake to search too deeply for literal truths in a self-conscious memoir like this. Dil was, after all, best known for his poetry, and it is in the book’s final segment – around 30 pages of his verses – that one gets a more immediate look into his mind. The poems are sparse and it is possible that some of the raw cadences of the original Punjabi have been lost in English translation - but even so one feels the pain when reading, for instance, a piece that begins on a sweet, idyllic note, with young girls picking berries, and eventually transforms into a cry of horror for what their lives will become; a cry of indignation directed at humanity itself.

This is not a book to be read for an in-depth understanding of the Naxal movements or the larger political and social contexts surrounding them (for that, I recommend Rahul Pandita’s excellent Hello Bastar). The view of Naxalbari one finds in Poet of the Revolution is a worm’s eye one, experienced by people who aren’t steeped in far-reaching ideologies – who are, in fact, often confused and wavering in their beliefs – but need to find ways of dealing with personal injustice. One sees a trace of this in Dil’s intriguing decision to convert to Islam, a religion in which he finds greater tolerance of “low-caste” people (but also greater certainty and sense of purpose – “the Muslims considered it a virtue to teach their religion, unlike the Hindus who did not do so”) and which he somewhat bizarrely likens to communism. More than the story of a man immersed in a specific movement or creed, Poet of the Revolution is the story of an itinerant in constant search for himself. A popular song from Dil’s favourite Hindi movie Dil Apna aur Preet Parai went “Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh” – the words can describe his own life, but this book also lets us see how they can apply to the life of any sensitive, marginalised person, attempting to engage with the world and to understand his place in it.


  1. Nice post. Am rather curious about the second picture, which shows a book entitled "Lalsingh Dil: Nivdak Kavita." Is this a Marathi translation of his poems, as "Nivdak Kavita" translates into "Select Poems" in Marathi? (I am unaware whether nivdak means the same in Hindi).

  2. One sees a trace of this in Dil’s intriguing decision to convert to Islam, a religion in which he finds greater tolerance of “low-caste” people (but also greater certainty and sense of purpose – “the Muslims considered it a virtue to teach their religion, unlike the Hindus who did not do so”) and which he somewhat bizarrely likens to communism

    Very perceptive.
    Actually it is not bizarre.
    A lot of "communists" are drawn towards Islam entranced by its "egalitarian" precepts.

    Also another commonality is that both Communism and Islam are religions propounded by a prophet (Marx and Mohammed). Such prophetic religions tend to emphasize idealized principles a lot more than tradition or history.

    So Egalitarianism becomes an end in itself, much to the exclusion of everything else. So a typical communist is likely to relate more to the "discipline" and "principle-based" faith of a Muslem than the tradition-based idolatry of a Hindu.

    Hinduism (or for that matter even Christianity) is different because it derives its strength from history and not idealized principles. It can tolerate and live with imperfections like caste prejudice, because prejudice is integral to Hinduism.

    I don't mean Prejudice in the pejorative sense but in the way Edmund Burke defined it.

    Prejudice is the the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages and superior to individual reason, which is small in comparison. It is of ready application in the emergency; ...Prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit

  3. I am unaware whether nivdak means the same in Hindi

    Radhika: you mean in Punjabi? I'm unsure myself - will let you know if I find out.

  4. 'Somewhat bizarrely?'
    Would suggest further reading on both Islam and Communism, and maybe you will see that the latter is derived in many ways from the former, even been called its illegitimate child, 'legitimacy' here being a founding myth that makes a claim to divine origin. Marx decided that each and every notion of divinity is idolatrous, not just what is evidently manmade (which Muhammad desacralised), and so Marx left no space whatsoever for anything worshippable that could be beyond the grasp of the human mind, and this was the difference at the core of his philosophical thought (some say reason for the failure of Communism in practical implementation).