Review: Untouchable and other poems by Shyamal Kumar Pramanik
One of the best-kept secrets of Bengali literature is its trove of Dalit writing going back roughly 150 years, where authors and poets evocatively speak of divorcing traditional caste systems, new consciousness and the polite injustice of the Bhadralok elite.
Shyamal Kumar Pramanik’s new collection, The Untouchable and other poems, fits neatly into this category with its stark imagery of rural life, and scars of Partition. It is also part of a clutch of translated works of Dalit writers – in prose and poetry – to come from Bengal.
A slim volume of 50-odd poems, The Untouchable has been translated by two academics and is one of the few books to come out of the marginalised Poundra caste, one of the smaller scheduled caste communities in the state. Half the poems are translated by academic Jaydeep Sarangi, while the others by academic Arunima Chanda.
Many of the poems are short jabs to the chest, and do away with setting up, or niceties. They don’t deal with the usual topics of violence, pain and discrimination; instead prominent are themes of earth, the vagaries of nature and a repeated message to those he calls the “descendants” – painting the dream of a better, more rooted, more celestial life bereft of the perils of caste.
After the grinding of stones for whole day
Our grandfather used to tell us fairy tales
One prince and another princess
Separated by seven oceans and thirteen rivers
Long longway away
Our seven brothers and sisters
Used to look at each other
Under the moon shine
But when our mother cooked two pieces of roti
Tears flooded her cheeks
Moon shine was vanished.
No doubt, Pramanik’s devotion to nature is shaped by his community’s links with the countryside. The Poundras are a largely rural people who lived in villages across the great delta of Bengal and suffered during the Partition that robbed them of their livelihood, stripped their wealth and divided their families. In poem after poem, metaphors of forest, rock, river, moon and ancestors return. But more often than not, instead of pain, they are carriers of beauty.
The collection draws on the heritage of writing in the Poundra community that begins in the late 19th century, and on the works of Mahendranath Karan, Manindranath Mondal and Basant Kumar Mondal – names little known to the Indian audience because many of their works in Bengali are out of print, and not translated owing to a lack of resources.
A note about translation, which is a little uneven owing to the two academics sharing the task: Of course, any translation of Dalit writing is difficult, especially in English – a language, that as academic Rita Kothari notes, has no memory of caste.
Unfortunately, some of the visceral nature of Pramanik’s language is made more genial by the translation – I read some of the poems in their original Bengali and they are brash, and powerful – and it is a shame because a lot of the poet’s repute also hinges on his choice of words, as weapons. The words that built his world have translated, but the tapestry of a new world that it wove together is often not whole in English.
Of course, this takes nothing away from the translators Sarangi and Chanda, who have not only carefully worked their way through the collection, tried to make alive local traditions and idioms, completing a novel and challenging volume for the English poetry reader.
For an audience unfamiliar with the myriad strands of Bengali Dalit writing, The Untouchable is a gift. It has some familiar themes that tie it with anti-caste literature in other parts of the country, say in Maharashtra, but also explores new ground in its juxtaposition of nature, ancestry and the imagination of Dalit futures. It refuses to isolate its specificity to the Poundra community, to Bengal, and to its unique history. Therein is its triumph.