“I envisage a world where there is a breathing space for diverse 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 rather 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 Panicker 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.