Letter from India: Worshipping the Stone Manasa
I remember my father at 21, being hounded by the police for his supposed involvement in India’s most fearsome uprising against class inequality and peasant insubordination, known as the Naxalbari Movement. Called Naxalbari after the place in West Bengal where the revolt was first began in 1967, this movement was an armed insurrection against feudal landlords and industrialists who exploited agricultural laborers, castes and tribal dwellers living along the forest belt stretching from the eastern and northeastern part of India to the center and the south. The tyrants crushed the movement for a few months after its birth, but it gathered strength again and spread quickly, and from 1968 to 1970, new comrades joined the force.
Many nights I had to sleep alone and in fear of father being caught by the police. As an aspiring artist, he often took it upon himself to voice the concerns of Naxalbari youth through his paintings. The terror on his face was a window into how brutally young men were tortured behind bars. One policeman, a chain-smoker, stubbed his cigarettes on the body of the prisoners accused for violating the constitution. Many policemen built their careers that way. So today, when Asian or African-American poets talk about police violence, there’s a reverberation in the hearts of Indians too.
The poetry of the Naxalbari Movement, is poetry of witness. It also set out to channel youth into organized militancy—it set out to make changes. India is a country of many languages, and Naxalbari poetry was written in several languages from Bengal and Kerala. I’ll discuss written in, and by, Bengali poet-comrades, and poetry from Kerala written in Malayalam, because I was born in Bengal, and worked with the poet N. Ravi Shanker to edit Malayalam poetry in translation, much of which reeks of a history of violence, condemnation, and apathy. We need to bear in mind that these poems were written during an uprising. Craft-wise these poems may not be convincing. They are outright raw and incandescent, fraught with violence and intolerance, and couldn’t care less for delicate language—and, of course, appear in translation. Nonetheless, the poems capture the essence of a revolt that claimed and offered lives in the pursuit of a more equitable society.
Here is a poem originally written in Malayalam:
The college had two gates
like the mouth and the anus.
Boys and girls in crowds entered its mouth
and moved along the pharynx, stomach, intestines—
those verandas, courtyards and classrooms.
Its erect posture on the hilltop
was that of a tidy gentleman in white.
The breathing, the pulse, the temperature,
the eye and the ear and the tongue,
the blood, the urine, the motion,
everything was balanced, like a gentleman.
It all began with a headache.
Somewhere the calculations were going wrong:
a mistake in addition, subtraction,
or the finding the average.
The disturbance of the air increased
when reading the temperature.
101 in the morning, 102 at noon,
103 in the evening, and so on.
In the delirium of fever it went on raving
The tale told to the prince
by the shade of the murdered king.
Something was rotten in the land,
in the water or the sky.
Scholarships, loans, concessions etc.
were dripped into it, drop by drop
as it lay, not feeling the touch,
not answering the call, not moving.
It did not open its eyes, nor move its lips.
The questions had all leaked out.
The blood of ministers, vice-chancellors and MPs
was transfused into its veins
but the very blood group had changed.
As a last resort,
masked men drove in sharp instruments.
But the disease had already spread
from the throat to the pharynx, bowels and lungs!
Its foul smell that swept the verandahs, rooms
was the smell of the extinction
of its own race.
This poem by Atoor Ravi Varma shows the condition of the states involved in the uprising as nothing less than cancerous. That’s how oppression had poisoned everything including the educational system.
Another Malayalam poem, “They Say” by Kadadammanitta Ramakrishnan, shows the the decadent, morbid state of things. It shows how the struggle was fought between the rich upper class slurping on Amul cans, and the poor ants scampering over crumbs of leftovers. Here’s an excerpt:
“We can settle things round this table,” they say.
In this room, this night, under this 25 watt light,
the black cat licks its paws
and squats on the table, its eyes closed.
On the table is an empty Amul tin.
Sobbing feeding bottles,
and a silent pair of staring eyes…
The carrion-feeding ants move about
over the scattered crumbs.
“We can settle things round this table,” they say.
“Kabani,” by Malayalam Civic Chandran, is a vial brimming with revolt, a trap holding the voices of people who can no longer stand the onslaught of capitalism’s machinery. In this stanza one gets an idea of what the revolt promised to Thema (a slave girl) from the banks of the Kabani River. Cloaked in rage and despair, the poem rattles through the dark spaces of oppression.
Vijayalakshmi, my schoolmate, who comes
from a village and is now in college, says
that the slave girl working the fields
is humming songs
which speak of landlords and moneylenders losing their heads
and of slaves celebrating festivals of freedom.
It seems that the reports from the fuming factories
of the town
fascinate the girl.
Vijayalakshmi, my schoolmate, upon the testimony of Thema,
the slave girl,
says for certain that the river Kabani will turn red again.
K. Satchithanandanan, a pioneer of modern poetry in Malayalam, considered for the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, also participated in the movement and expressed his concern through several poems. Here’s an excerpt from “Chorus of Peasants and Workers”:
We are the makers of the tools and we are the tools
We are the riders of wheels and we are the wheels.
Our life-breath puffed the sails of the first voyage,
The first city rose up from our muscles’ rage.
On the sea of our tears began the commerce of nations
The first empire flourished on our burnt-down passions.
Their monstrous machines drink us to the the dregs,
Their lackeys steal our bread, rape our girls and chain our legs.
Our creations stare at us from their painted window shade.
In vain longing our children peer at the toys we, their fathers, made,
And we live in the vales of the four awesome mountains
Whose woeful winter chills our life’s welling fountains.
The hammer that once curbed the iron’s rigid pride
Today shall crush the hoods of capital’s swelling tide.
The labouring muscles today shall seize the gun
To hunt down the beasts that prey on our Sun.
As political as Naxalbari Movement poets writing in Malayalam were, their writing was generally milder than what we find in the works by Bengali poets who were, to put it bluntly, right in the thick of it. In “They Say” Kadadammanitta Ramakrishnan talked about a black cat (to have a black cat cross one’s path is something as ominous in Hindu culture as in the West), but in this passage from the Bengali poem “March ‘73” by Partha Bandyopadhyay, we see a shift in imagery, away from a sleek and fathomable animal to an unfathomable famine:
India, two black paws of femininity
Stare from your eyes,
Death hovers over your head.
The dry wind of the countryside
Brings down the news of death on the barren fields.
Death comes rushing by leaps and bounds
Towards the hot sands.
Death is to the left of you
Death is to the right of you
If we compare “They Say” and “March ’73,” we see how the latter poem brings us a notch closer to the truth, to what it is like to live crowded between the death to our left and the death to our right.
The participation of the Communist party of India-Marxist—the CPI(M)—in governments in 1967 and 1969, was objectionable to the Naxalites, who felt that it wouldn’t be possible to work for the grassroots communities by staying within the framework of the existing Indian constitution. Their fears proved true when, in 1967, police were sent to suppress the peasants’ uprising at Naxalbari in 1967 at the urging of a coalition government led by the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the CPI(M). In “The Procession” Subrata Bal talks about this, and his 1978 experience as a convict in a Dhaka jail.
Bearing the bodies of our comrades,
The barren sky up there,
the mad storm’s whirlwind…
We grip our hearts,
grit our jaws.
The procession moves.
are burnt ashes.
Our eyeballs don’t move—
hardened and firm.
The barren sky up there
twists and turns,
twists and turns.
Some Naxalbari poets went to jail, some poets were shot dead. Here are the concluding lines from Murari Mukhopadhyay’s “Love” followed by the beginning lines from Dronacharya Ghosh’s “Our Paths.” Both were written not long before the poets were killed by the Bengal police.
We can look for them later.
in this darkness,
the last battle is yet to be fought.
What we need now in our hovel
From “Our Paths”
Our paths begin to quake with violent winds
They twist into sharper bends, undulating and impassable.
Yet we travel by these paths,
And discover vibrant life lit by class-consciousness.
In the end the Naxalites, like so many others, could not resist the lure of office, of power, and of money. While parliamentary Communists claimed to work in tandem with the objective of the revolution, hard-core Naxalite believers saw them as compromising the intention of the revolution in the name of revisionism. Srijan Sen’s “Das Kapital” is a satire condemning this state of affairs:
Karl Marx wrote ‘Das Kapital.’
His readers swelled their own capital.
The lesson drawn out from his pages…
Was invested in building palaces.
Then they made the profound assertion:
‘Das Kapital’ needs full ‘revision’!
One Naxalbari leader, Charu Majumdar, died a natural death, but another, Kanu Sanyal committed suicide in 2010. He was suffering from heart problems which his family said were the result of his disillusionment with the entire movement — he had seen the Maoists killing the same poor farmers for whom the revolt had been fought. There aren’t any recent poems written in memoriam of Kanu Sanyal, the revolutionary. But the death of Mao Tse-Tung appears, and is, celebrated in a poem by Srijan Sen:
On Mao Tse Tung’s Death
He is dead and gone!
Good riddance for all!
Breathe a sigh of relief,
Pretend to be grieved
Put him on the top
Dress him as God.
A stone manasa is a safer bet
Than worshipping a living serpent
The poems quoted here appear in the seminal Thema Book of Naxalite Poetry, edited and introduced by Sumanta Banerjee. I encourage you to explore further in a chapter of Indian literary history virtually unknown in the West.
Linda Ashok was one of the 25 feature poets selected by the Prakriti Foundation for The Hindu Lit for Life, 2014. Her poetry has appeared or forthcoming in various literary journals including the Mascara Literary Review, The McNeese Review and the Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry. She reviews poetry for The Rumpus and manages The Poetry Mail. A brief on Linda can be found on Lit Hub’s #ActualAsianPoets. Linda tweets at @thebluelimit.