WITNESS: THE RED RIVER BOOK OF POETRY OF DISSENT, 2021, Edited by NABINA DAS
RED RIVER, an independent poetry press run by the intrepid Dibyajyoti Sarma has spearheaded recent poetry publications in India – of diverse tenor and fine aesthetic value. Red River has very recently published this staggering anthology of ‘dissent’ poetry to counter the tyranny of our system, of the ruling disposition, and of all institutional injustices that continue to prevail and perpetuate. Especially in the pandemic – if not now, then when? – it is imperative we speak up and urge for structural changes to lives, livelihoods, and above all, for freedom of expression. Poetry is witness to all of that. Because dissent is collective, we have allowed ourselves to write about a gamut of experiences and sensibilities – most undoubtedly first-hand, first and foremost, and also several as reactions and responses. In a volume such as this one, such liberty is taken to strengthen and raise our voices.
Why dissent? Why now?
We are witness to terrible tales —as a delicious coincidence, the title WITNESS harks back to Carolyn Forché’s seminal anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness — and we need to rewrite the stories. Why now? Why do you think tyranny and oppression still exist all around us? Kashmir is violated, Adivasis and Dalits are a footnote to our seminar essays, women aren’t citizens enough even in the 21st century, Muslims and minorities are lynched, and workers and farmers are deprived of their rights – the list is longer. Nazrul Islam had said in his poetry ‘uproot all chains of slavery, raze all prisons to the ground’ – which rings of Joan Baez’s Prison Trilogy! Hence, dissent right now.
Nirupama Dutt writes in her introduction to WITNESS: “Amid the vast array of poems from different nooks and corners of the country, those declared and other undeclared disturbed areas, from the Brahmaputra in the Northeast to the Liddel River steaming forth through the Kashmir Highland, this book showcases striking voices arrest the eye. From the lilt of the Adivasi tea-garden dialect of Assam, to Dehwali Bhili, Santhali, and several Indian languages rendered in English, as well as Englishes from diverse poets, this anthology captures the essence of many registers in India. The strident tones and images draw the attention of the complacent middle class and the privileged as a reminder to what tragedies have been wreaked by the enablers upon the people of the land.
Whether it is the cries of starving children, or digital blockades of a people calling for azaadi, bullets to the head and heart, blood stains and tears, women battered and erased, or choices of love and food, the poets turn witness to the times in this vast collection to the events that have been unfolding before us day after day on themes related to oppression. Be it religion, gender, caste, creed, mental health, diversity, as well as pride and prejudice of all kinds that enveloped the sub-continent like never before in recent times, the poets in this collection have come together like never before, their voices united. While some of the major names of contemporary poetry grace this anthology, there are several new and emerging names from different parts of the country – new poets who usually are swept away by the tide of hegemony even in literary arenas — who have had the courage of standing witness to the atrocities of the times. Parul Khakhar’s ‘Shav vahini Ganga’ (Ganga the flowing hearse) which we read when this book was already completed resonated with our inner cry of ‘O Ganga tumi, Ganga boichho keno’ (O Ganga why do you flow on). Memory indeed fights forgetting in “Witness” by Red River in poetic testimonies, exactly as poet-anthologist Carolyn Forché had compiled in her anthology, to which Nelson Mandela showered these pertinent words: “Poetry cannot block a bullet or still a sjambok, but it can bear witness to brutality—thereby cultivating a flower in a graveyard.””
Five poems from WITNESS
Driving without a Lasan in Kashmir
the law has much blood on its talons. it’s especially ethical if you don’t have a lasan. between background checks and grease-money, the lasan, leaking from the law’sstained teeth, is what you need, get it maybe never.
anyways, it’s a contrivance, a measure of know-how over a vehicle to transport people in metal boxes when you already carry them in your heart, like your boy who died of a bullet that grazed your chest and entered his.
in Kashmir when you drive without a lasan you drive on the right side of life.
I sleep to dreams of being a young, irascible driver from Maisuma, the invincible artery, throwing stones at soldiers his happiest past time (being with a Neruda or a Said is not always the best you can dream), fed on a staple
diet of an adoring mother’s curses. I am terribly in love and sore from heartache – without a lasan but that is my last worry – probably till I have no money to bribe policemen who catch me every time I stop like a stone unwarranted
outside my beloved’s house, not that she cares. I drive humming to old Bollywood songs (that I am trying hard to forget) and cursing India in the same breath. wishing every bunker melting away like I believe, without license.
*Lasan: license; Maisuma: name of a town known for its Azadiparast denizens
It’s Time for Prayer
translated from the Hindi by Bhumika Chawla-D’Souza
For centuries we have been told
That lack of faith in the Almighty
Is the cause of hunger, disease and poverty
And when we asked,
‘Why in this crowd so vast
A good part of a good yield
Remains always trapped
In the hands of a privileged few?’
‘They are the Chosen Ones on Earth.’
The share of many mouths
Lands in the pots of a few,
And there it remains for days.
This is ‘God’s’ grace.
But what of the others?
Sickness and hunger is the price they must pay
For their wavering belief, their lack of faith.
When it was time
For us to come together
And stand against the injustice
Being committed on us,
We came out in thousands,
Men, women and children,
Leaving behind our forests,
And headed for the prayer hall instead.
Day after day we sat there,
Giving the speaker a blank stare.
Generations went by, but the tide never turned.
And then, we were told,
‘It takes sacrifice to bring about change.’
So we emptied our pockets
And gave away our land, our language, everything.
On and on the congregation cried,
Miracles happen from above.
So we lifted up our closed eyes
And lost sight of the roots of the malaise.
With folded hands we prayed for change
And learned this way
The art of unquestioned supplication.
We were torn apart—we stood on different sides:
While some took to the streets,
And looked to the days ahead,
For we were told,
Somewhere out there is the glorious paradise.
One day, at the end of our tether,
We all came together
To say ‘enough, no more’.
We must now stand up
Against our predicament,
Right now, this very minute.
For the future is here,
Right here, in this moment…
When all of a sudden,
From different directions,
In many different tones,
The bells gonged
‘Meeting time is over,
It’s time for prayer.’
from Jacinta Kerketta’s upcoming collection ईश्वर और बाज़ार (God and the Bazaar)
Ra Sh (Ravi Shanker N)
A series in 4 episodes
a regiment of old people,
more bones than flesh,
are thrown into an army truck.
to be unloaded in the woods
near some godforsaken border.
but, a fierce debate breaks out
whether they should be blinded or not.
orders are awaited from the capital city.
a burst of pellets perforate
a sieve on a snow girl’s face.
she is blindly seeking the way to her house
when a newsman captures her image.
next day, she appears on media
as a ‘stone-pelter who strayed into
rolls of concertina wire.’
the stones in her bag
are being counted.
the level of the river is raised to 142.
42 more villages get submerged.
42,000 tribals and as many trees drown.
a tourist guide invites tourists to the dam
to watch the spectacle of the rising water.
‘visit the world’s tallest statue
called freedom statue nearby,’
cry out the tourism pamphlets and louts.
a man-made object hurls into space
aiming to tickle the moon’s shiny skin.
entire nation waits with bated breath
as the lander begins its descent.
the country loses contact with
the lander, the land and the landless.
Through Angami metaphors
You are beautiful my lord,
than water cupped in a seno leaf
you are fair my lord,
fairer than a ripe red chilli
and you are the moon and the stars for me
my rain-shield when it rains
untorn plantain leaf
excellent one who brings
much cattle for my bride-price
And I am the hair-carrying one
who dreams of the short-tailed gwi
I am the night cloud
that embraces the bright full moon.
*seno: plant from family of musa sp., Musaceae; gwi: bos frontalis, to dream of the short-tailed gwi is to have good dreams
from Jazzpoetry and other poems
For a Fistful of Self-Respect
translated from the Telugu by Naren Bedide
I don’t know when I was born but
I was killed on this very land thousands of years ago
punarapi jananam punarapi maranam
I don’t know the karma theory but
I am taking birth, again and again, in the same place where I had died
My body dissolved in this land
And became the Ganga Sindh plain
When my eyeballs melted as tears
Perennial rivers flowed across this country
When my veins spurted minerals
This land became green and showered wealth
I was Shambhuka in the Treta Yuga
Twenty-two years ago, my name was Kanchikacherla Kotesu
My place of birth is Kilvenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda
Now Chunduru is the name that cold-blooded feudal brutality
Has tattooed on my heart with ploughshares
From now on, Chunduru is not a noun but a pronoun
Now every heart is a Chunduru, a burning tumour
I am the wound of multitudes, the multitude of wounds
For generations, an unfree individual in a free country
Having been the target
Of humiliations, atrocities, rapes and torture
I am someone raising his head for a fistful of self-respect
In this nation of casteist bigots blinded by wealth
I am someone who lives to register life itself as a protest
I am someone who dies repeatedly to live
Don’t call me a victim
I am an immortal, I am an immortal, I am an immortal
I am the poison throated one
Who swallowed the famine so that the world may have wealth
I am the sunrise standing on its head
It was I who kicked the Sun on the head
To make him stand erect
I am the one stoking slogans in my flaming heart’s furnace
I don’t need words of sympathy or tears of pity
I’m not a victim, I’m an immortal
I am the fluttering flag of defiance
Don’t shed tears for me
If you can
Bury me in the middle of the city
I’ll bloom as the bamboo grove that sings the melody of life
Print my corpse as this nation’s cover
I’ll spread as a beautiful future into the pages of history
Invite me into your hearts
I’ll become a tussle of conflagrations
And rise again and again in this land.
from The Shared Mirror