“I envisage a world where there is a breathing space for all cultures and peoples,” begins Chandramohan S. The spark in those words flare into a forest fire as he traverses worlds and lifetimes. His creative processes are aware of the role that they play in narrating lesser known histories.
He goes on to say, “Although autobiography has not yet played a large part in my writing, I have certainly been shaped by the personal experience of being Dalit in my part of India. Even today, I hear my grandmother being called by just her first name- normally a younger person calling someone much older only by their first name would be considered derogatory in Indian culture— and many of our non-Dalit neighbors will not consume a drop of water or a morsel of food from our homes even if we are financially slightly more prosperous and better educated than them, with many of my family members working in respected government positions. This shows how social exclusion can be immune to mere (relative) economic prosperity. I hope to continue writing poems in English that explore this grim and intense collective experience of social exclusion and humiliation, albeit in formally innovative ways. My poems may well be among the very first to narrate such ordeals of caste in Indian English poetry from the ‘inside’.”
This is why language is a major preoccupation with Chandramohan. His words are like chisels, chipping away at centuries of monolithic structures. Be it English or the songs of the subaltern, Chandramohan is been there, observing and absorbing relentlessly. Nothing escapes the poet. I was especially struck by the way these two independent works interrogate language, politics, rights and violence.
From songs cradled in our tongues
From lullabies for infants to be born
From land yet to be owned
We harvest a dream.
If a slave learns English language
He may venture into Monroe Island
And proclaim “Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises”
In an English accent,
And read out an emancipation proclamation.
His poetry carries cadences of what is deemed ‘impure’ or ‘defiling’. As an act of writing back, he elevates the instruments, implements and songs of his people to the realms of the deeply primal and spiritual. The soul of these elements is inscribed on the bodies of the subaltern. This is reminiscent of the cult of the Gaana from Tamil Nadu. The anger, the protest, the sense of triumph at being alive and pushing back can be felt intensely. That Chandramohan’s satire is as vivid as his anger is evident in his poem Accident at a River. It is structured as a newspaper report about the drowning of poets and translators in the Kabini. This river has often turned red with every wave of the people’s struggles against oppressive systems and is a symbol of defiance and resilience. Chandramohan has a unique take on this subject.
In a sense, Chandramohan searches for his ancestry not among the socially defined paradigms of family, but among the Dalit poets before him. Many of his poems are addressed to Poikayil Appachan, the Dalit poet and reformer. Chandramohan’s iconic work, Letters to Namdeo Dhansal is the way the young poet opens vital lines of communication with the trails blazed by the Dalit Panthers. He interrogates the patronizing tone behind widely touted governmental and social ‘reforms’.
Says Rochelle Potkar in her review of Letters…, “This book, for me, goes beyond literature. Life through literature rather than the other way around, where I am reminded of us being spiritually-deprived in the way we have allowed discrimination, displaying gaps between gleaming intellectualism and real-life choices, through a gamut of actions that promote and perpetrate continuing inequalities.”
When not writing poetry, Chandramohan is busy organizing poetry meets for organisations such as the Ayyappa Paniker Foundation and the Kritya Poetry Festival. He has been featured in anthologies such as LAND and 40 Poets Under 40. He was named by the Outlook magazine in 2016 as one of the high achievers from the Dalit community. Chandramohan was the writer in residence at the International Writing Programme conducted by the University of IOWA in 2018. He is currently working on a rap album of Dalit poetry.
Killing the Shambukas
(Inspired by a famous poem on the lynchings of African Americans)
Jim Crow segregated hostel rooms
Ceiling fans bear a strange fruit,
Blood on books and blood on papers,
A black body swinging in mute silence,
Strange fruit hanging from tridents.
(This poem which draws its inspiration from the poem “Strange Fruit” (1937) by Abel Meeropol, talks about the suicides of Dalit-Bahujan students in institutions of higher education in India. Vemula Rohith being the recent victim.)
My harvest of poems
Will be winnowed,
If done deftly
The lighter, shallow poems
Are blown away,
While the meatier, heavier poems
Fall back into the tray,
To become the fire
In my belly like
For some poets
Beef is the
Locus of all the
Food for thought in the world
Like Buddha’s begging bowl.
My Psychological Lynching
(written after watching Shankar’s Tamil film “I“)
I was at a movie-hall the other day
the hero hailing from the slums
speaks in an uncouth slang,
his Anglo- Saxon girlfriend sets him right
with a tight slap!
From then on
The hero sways in sync with his heroine,
a paler version of his former self.
Keep the body, take the mind.
The psychological lynching of my soul.
Portrait of the Poet as Young Woman
Freshly harvested dreadlocks
Unedited gospel of love
Off limits to combs.
Tresses like streams
Of eternal fire
From the arsenal of her body.
Poems conceived in a celestial tongue
When stars align with cesarean precision.
It is our own language.
Are neither left nor right aligned
Time zones hinge at every line break
Like sunflowers UN-aligned to the scorching heat.
Every evening on her terrace,
she lets her hair down and flies kite,
Her verses tell vivid stories
Stitched together in myriad colors.
Her verses gurgle like rivers let loose.
She never braids them
With her bare hands
Before a poetry reading.
When her poems are read
No boyfriend or pimp is allowed
Inside the reading hall.
Her kite, untethered to her surname,
Soars high, till it gets entangled with the stars.
Attempting to translate her poems
Is like making love to a capricious mistress.
Her curly, kinky stream of verses
Sway to the rhythm of her gait
Untamed by the clanging of her anklets.
Her book of poems,
a treatise on disheveled hair
and tresses on fire.
A Local Train Conversation
“Cricket is an Indian sport accidently discovered by the English”
— Ashis Nandy
Caste in a local train can be deceptive
like the soul
of a Pakistani fast bowler camouflaged
in a three-piece suit
and Anglicized accent.
Though seated opposite me,
I can feel him charging on to me.
If my surname is too long
I could be –caught behind.
Will I be trapped leg before wicket
If I attempt a bloodline crossover?
I try to camouflage
into stripes of concocted ancestry
along fresh water currents.
Can I switch over to
My mother’s surname
like switching from
active voice to passive voice
in the midst of a harangue?
Hope I do not lose my nerve
at abrasive queries like bouncers.
I try to find myself a place
in his skull
beyond his caste mark, amidst his eyebrows:
like trying to find my way around
an ever changing map !
He tries assessing me with an in- swinger first
“What is your full name?”
Then he tries an out-swinger that seams a lot
“ and what is your father’s name?”
By this time, he loses his nerve
And tries on a swift York-er
“What is your caste?”