Dalit notebook. Thoughts and Poems an Experience in India
di Antonella Zagaroli
Scheda del libro
We've traveled everywhere
always setting out from the next tree
and returning, just to name
that sorrow of the road
- Bei Dao, Landscape Over Zero
(trans. David Hinton with Yanbing Chen,
A New Directions Book: New York,
1996, p. 65).
Name of that sorrow or that sorrow of the road itself may
vary. It once had happened to two great Italian writers, Alberto Moravia and
Pier Paolo Pasolini. Accompanied by Moravia's wife Elsa Morante they visited
India in the early sixties Moravia recounted his memories in a book entitled
Un'idea dell 'India (An Idea of India); Pasolini penned down his memoirs and
the name of it was L’odore dell’ India (The Smell of India). Two other
volumes also came out in Italian at that time: India da zero a infinito
(India from Zero to Infinity) by Maglioco and Viaggio in India (Journey
in India) by Todisco. Mexican poet Octavio Paz (A Tale of Two Gardens)
also made tribute to India. V.S. Naipaul lamented over the struggles he, the
'Saab', had to undergo in India (An Area of Darkness). Globalization was
not rampant at that time. India was an infant democracy trying to learn to walk
on her feet. Yet Herman Hesse, Ginsberg and later the Beetles had found solace
By Nineties India was in the global arena. Some early
writers like Geoffrey Moorhouse (Om: An Indian Pilgrimage), Mick
Brown (The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odessey Through the Outer
Reaches of Belief), Shusaku Endo (Deep River) and A.B. Yehoshua (Open
Heart) portrayed the 'spiritual' dimension of India. The same Naipaul, this
time, grieved over religious fundamentalism emerging in India (India: A
Wounded Civilization). At the dawn of the 21st century writers are probing
into economy: Edward Luce (Inspite of the Gods), David Smith (China,
India and the New World Order), Thomas Friedman (The Earth is Flat),
Meanwhile, many Indian writers were being noticed outside
India. In Italy though most published Indian writers are women, with exceptions
of men like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amartya Sen and so on.
However, a phenomenon like sex (women's literature) or
caste (Dalit literature) categorization is unheard of, even though some Indian
writers visiting Italy may try to impress their European hosts by his/her 'brahmin'
origin. In globalization what matters is writing about ‘good’not ‘bad’ writing.
Caste system of India is a much-discussed topic in the
Western sociological, anthropological and public relations studies. Italians
could get glimpses of the plight of ‘outcastes’ in the novels of Mulk Raj Anand
(The Untouchable) or Arundhathy Roy (God of Small Things), both of
them translated into Italian. But works of renowned writers like Kancha or
Sharankumar Limbale are not yet in Italian.
When the publisher (Rupe Mutevole) of Antonella Zagaroli
invited me to present her Quadernetto Dalit (Dalit Notebook) at the
National Central Library in Rome my first inpression was: "Yes! Yet another
European discussion on the caste system of India and the plight Dalits!" But as
I went through the small volume it was clear that she is thinking "Indian" (Amartya
Sen, The Argumentative Indian). That is the reason why I agreed happily
when asked me whether I could arrange for the translation of the book in
English, Malayalam and possibly in Tamil.
Caste system is now globalized. After industrialization
social mobility seems impossible in most advanced economics. Of course, it is a
question of ‘economy’.
Some currency bills literally mean "In Greed We Trust".
(One can freely download Sam Pizzigati's Greed and Good: Understanding
and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives from
The Chief Executive Officer (C.E.O.) looks 500 worlds
apart from the clerk who does all the mean work for him/her.
One's caste is determined by dress, mobility, meeting
places, food, entertainment, etc. Media moguls, like the court-poets of old,
would bombard from their newspapers, magazines, radio or television, the clerk
if he wears a Lacoste, drives a BMW, gets into a sauna, eats caviar or buys a
CD/DVD... all of them he has dared to touch should be cheap counterfeits
(invariably "Made in China" and from where else!) - an ‘outcaste’ should never
be using them - that are going to destroy ‘our’ economy. The reports are so
apocalyptic that China, and very soon India and all ‘developing’ countries are
going to make the sky come down on earth through environmental degradation and
human rights violation. Look at caste system among countries: veto-powered
‘brahmins’ and subordinate ‘outcastes’ at the ‘united’ nations farce!
Caste system now thrives in all walks of modern life:
social, economic, political and religious; and caste mobility is equally
impossible. Shantytowns are not only in the ‘poor’ country panorama; now they
are common in ‘rich’countries too. Millions are uninsured, homeless and
destitute in many of the ‘developed’ and ‘welfare states’. ‘Outcastes’ are on
the increase, like illegal immigrants, homeless citizens, persons with mental
and substance abuse problems, abandoned elderly, gypsies, people of diverse
color and creed, ... More and more ghettos are getting expanded. The majority
‘middle class'’ now finds their world falling apart. Destitution is prowling
upon and despair is choking in most of humanity. There is no wonder, modern
‘high’ castes are annoyed and you can find The Clash of Civilizations and
Shock and Awe gurus abounding. Mind you! Their remote-controlled gums
cairried by mercenaries, are pointed towards you, and they would strike you only
at prime time so that they can hilariously watch you getting rid off in their
It is into this contrast that Antonella gracefully
introduces 14 poems, hermetic and Zen-like, to describe her short stay in the
sothern tip of India: Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There the lush green topography,
covered by cocount palms, conceals more than revealing. Under the green canopy
she has her first ‘cultural shock’:
Jagged fingers of fiery spicy rice
Gasp towards the mouth.
Next, one one is (I had also shocked my friends when I
first landed in Europe):
The dance of the head
is yes, is welcome
After this the poet is acquainting herself to the ‘bare
feet’ that are striding village paths. Therefore, she is no more surprised
when she meets ‘sparkling teeth over slender ankles’ welcoming her from
tiny palm-leaf thatched huts but is soon pained when she sees rich mansions
rotected by gates almost unimhabited. Bathing bodies in wet dresses in harmony
with water and natural modesty is a "chant" after all. Respecting
divineness in each other is what it means "Muezzin Bells Hindu Chants"
where Hindus, Muslims and Christians are destined to live together. Since
Kashmir is no more a tourist destination, emerging Kerala tourism has now
adopted "House Boats" in the wide stretching Backwaters and respite in one of
them is very refreshing ("In Canoe not to Disturb". "Vellanad and
Alleppey", "Mother-pearl and Foam"), unlike trying to rest in a hotel
room ("Withdrawal"). Local fruit vendors' singsong under hot sun ("Fragrances
and Thirst") and life in a congested one-room palm-leaf thatched but ("The
Tourist") may not be an urban appeal!
True joy is to return
to the busy artificiality!
The last two poems, which the poet wrote on her return to
Italy, very nostalgic, show the video image of the granny protecting her nephew
in her arms, an "icon of the earth" she belongs ("At Kattuvila" in
Tamil Nadu), and the audio image of her encounter with poet Kureeppuzha
Sreekumar, whom she calls a far away lake who comes
to delight the dry flow
of words in the large hall
wrapped by dry woods! (‘Ashtamudi Kayal’)
I come back to Bei Dao:
drinking a cup of words
only makes you thirstier
I join riverwater to quote the earth
And listen in empty mountains
flute player's sobbing heart...
Antonella says she now has ‘no more peace’ as size ‘come
back to a strange riverbed’. Is a thirst or a sobbing heart?
I hope someone will still dare a drink from ‘a cup of