World Poetry Day: Dalit Poet Challenges Caste Hierarchies Through English Verses

Ahead of the World Poetry Day- 21 March, The Mooknayak spoke to Gautam Vegda, a poet, illustrator and an academician whose poems provide a window into the worldview of Dalits with respect to nature and ecology.
Vegda covers the issue of caste and environment in his lectures at IIT Gandhinagar, where he teaches" Politics of Environment" as a Guest Faculty
Vegda covers the issue of caste and environment in his lectures at IIT Gandhinagar, where he teaches" Politics of Environment" as a Guest Faculty

" Listen, my soon-to-be-born baby,
Be prepared for the battle
Like we all were.
I’ve found a manhole mightier 
Than the black hole,
Light cannot escape from the latter
But your rights continue to be
Absorbed unfailingly by the former,
The black hole absorbs everything but your rights.

The battle for dignity is spirituality to us.
Be the star in the endless dark matter,
Don’t let your nuclear fusion fade.
Shine brighter and brighter.
If you collapse, do not worry, my child.
A supernova will occur out of you,
New stars will be born.
Shock waves and cosmic rays
Will agitate an age-old structure.
Stars, my child, can’t be fettered."

Lucknow: For 30-year-old Gautam Vedga, English is the language of emancipation. Born to a mason father and a daily wage labourer in Surendranagar district of Gujarat, he could not have studied in an English medium school. However, he steered through every head-wind that came his way and emerged as an established English poet. 

The above quoted verses from Gautam's poem titled "Supernova" delve into a seldom-explored intersection of Dalit identity and science fiction. The poem is an advice cum resolve of the father to his yet to be born son.

Here, the metaphor of the manhole, symbolizing the plight of the marginalized, emerges as a reality more palpable and fearsome than the vast expanse of black holes in the cosmos. Despite grappling with despair, the poet maintains a hopeful outlook towards the future, steadfastly affirming the dignity and significance of his identity.

Beautifully connecting cosmos, ecology and caste, his poems describe the nuances of the environment with the lens of the most oppressed sections of the society. It brims with their agony and the tales of oppression, drawing analogy from animals, birds and trees. 

He says, “Eco-casteism is another nuance in the realm of environment like eco-racism and eco-feminism. The distribution of environmental resources is determined on the basis of caste as the caste determines who will get access to the water reservoir, land, animals, soil, etc.”

Difference in the Concept of Pollution

Vedga points out that the experiences of Dalits make them view ecology from a different perspective. Even the tribal community, which is considered to be the closest to nature and environment, has different interpretations. They do not largely encounter the concept of pollution and degraded inequality in their native sociology, as they used to live separately. But the Dalits, who live with others in a society. 

“And it is here that the idea of purity and impurity creeps in to deprive them of the environmental resources. Pollution as a concept in social structures makes Dalits deal with dead cattle, dirty water, sewage, solid and liquid waste, etc. This dispossesses them from using natural resources like water and land,” he says.

Culture of Vultures

The research scholar says that Dalit communities have co-existed with vultures, a scavenger species.  In his poem ‘Gyps Indicus’, he dovetails into the similarities between vultures and scavenging communities. 

“I often accompanied my parents and grandparents while skinning dead animals. After slitting the dead cattle, they used to give me a piece of raw liver to eat while the vultures were also lurking and gnawing into the animals. The fact that I was able to easily digest a raw piece of meat indicates that we have been genetically transformed from ‘homo sapiens’ (the biological name of humans) to ‘gyps indicus’ (the biological name of Indian vulture),” he points out. 

The pain of imposed unnatural caste duties and environmental hazards can be traced in his creative as well as research works. The emerging author’s upcoming book — ‘The Black Drongo’ — is a collection of 55 poems, in which he pulls apart the aesthetical and luxurious veneer of things to expose the threads of caste. 

In one of his poems titled ‘Aloe Vera’, he describes how the plant, which is a beauty product for others, served as a means of survival for him as his mother used to cook its flowers that sprouted out and tasted like mushrooms. 

“Poverty made these things quite edible,” he says.

In his poem, ‘Mesquite (Babool) Tree’, he describes his love for the delicious gum produced by the tree. Babool refers to the desert region, where the poet was born and how it was an inseparable part of his survival.

Bat — a Symbol of Inverting System

Noted Telugu writer Gurram Jashuva presents gabbilam or bats as a messenger against caste; similarly, Vegda’s poem ‘Bats’ tries to present the flying mammal, which is found hanging upside down on trees, as a metaphor for the rebels within the Dalit community.

“We, the bats, were raised to turn things upside down. You can fabricate any hierarchy, I will ensure turning that upside down,” he declares.

The analogy of a cloth cradle tied under a concrete mixer — the view of the dangling baby from inside — is like that of a bat. The bottom view of the kid suggests a totally different worldview, which inevitably pushes him to upturn the caste hierarchical order when it gets mature.

Dalit Environmental Movements

He says that Indian environmentalists do not talk about the Dalit lens of ecology, and the Dalit environmental movements are deliberately forgotten. 

“The Mahad Satyagraha led by Dr BR Ambedkar in 1927 was the biggest movement for environmental justice — where the Dalits were demanding a right to drink water from the Mahad Chowdar tank. But our environmentalists do not mention it as they discuss every dimension of Gandhi's salt march,” he says.

Implication of Climate Change on Dalits

Climate change is a global phenomenon, which is discussed scientifically. “We talk about the greenhouse effect, global warming etc. But the communities, which were jeopardized by it, are often ignored,” he says.

Environmental struggle of Dalits, according to him, is quite old and is excluded from the environmental history of India. The story of Veer Meghmaya, one of the first Dalit rebels in Gujarat, who sacrificed his life fighting for the community’s rights on water bodies, has been completely overlooked.

He says that Pirana, a marginal communities dominated locality in Ahmedabad, has been a dumping ground for the solid waste of all kinds that is hazardous for their health. The lives of rag pickers, who pull through by collecting and selling the solid waste, are are not documented. Respiratory and cardiac diseases are common among them.

English — a Medium to Challenge Established Notions

Vegda said his elder brother suggested that he opt for some “easy” subjects, and not English, in 10+2 — fearing that it would be difficult for him to secure even pass marks.

“I took that as a challenge and opted for English as an optional paper with the aim of scoring at least 35 marks to prove my brother wrong; however, I romped home with 60+ marks,” he fondly remembers.

He is a guest faculty at IIT Gandhinagar, where he teaches politics of environment.

Later, in 2015, when he went to the Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, he was far behind his batch mates, who were fluent in English. He struggled to barely form a sentence in English, making him a laughing stock. 

But his persistence to excel in the language made him cross every hurdle. He did his MA in English and qualified for UGC-NET.

Within a few years, Vegda was able to hone the language so well that he not only taught in English at India’s premier institute like IIT Gandhinagar and National Institute of Design, but also published powerful poetry in the language — something that his batch mates could not do.

The young man says that he writes in English to confront contemporary academia, their intellectualism and the stereotypical narratives about Dalits and reservation.

English, he says, is a language of empowerment and emancipation; and therefore, he has been able to grab the attention of literary organizations and academia because he reads and writes in English.

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