Prefazione a
Dalit notebook. Thoughts and Poems an Experience in India
di Antonella Zagaroli

la Scheda del libro

Vincent Arackal

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 there.

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), etc.

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 home theatres.

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
all right
I agree.

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 words’.

Rome, October 26, 2007

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