Roundabout: Memories and poetry brewed with tea and a little sugar
Making myself a glass full of tea, I glance after many years at the volume of memoirs and poems in English translated from Punjabi, of poet Lal Singh Dil. On the front cover he is referred to as the Poet of the Revolution, but the back cover carries lines of his poem negating the title. The poem reads: For us trees do not bear fruits, For us Flowers do not bloom, For us there is no spring, For us there is no Revolution! Memory not being what it was, I wonder at the contradiction between the title and the poem. But then life is often a jumble. Then I turn the pages of the book and somehow spill a little tea on a page with my shaky hands. In panic I try to rub it off but the pale brown stain is there for keeps and on the next page I find the picture of the poet pouring steaming tea from a jug with half a smile on his lips.
And there I am in the tea shack opposite the motor market on Machiwara road in Samrala town, which I would once frequent to meet the legendary poet of Naxalbari. He is acknowledged till date as one of the top 20 poets of Punjabi with his poetry inviting research and scholars penning copious thesis.
Dil too had dreamt of a revolution and a time when he would no longer be the outcaste whose bowl had to be thrown into fire for purification after he had sipped his tea and the water jug at the party meeting would not be pulled away when he tried to reach out to it for some water. Well, such are the contradictions of a caste-ridden society and he realised that for the Dalits there was no revolution. The comrades of his Naxalbari days had returned to their folds and were now editors, executives, professors, businessmen or expatriates.
Dil was the first of his tanner clan to complete school. His mother had to sell the only pair of gold earrings she possessed to buy him a bicycle to pursue a junior basic teacher training course. He would have come up in life but then came the dream of the revolution and claimed him as one of its own. However, when the dream died, he had nowhere to go. So after jail, police torture and harassment of his family members, he chose exile in the fruit orchards as a caretaker, embraced Islam to escape the caste stigma; convinced that ‘Allah is very kind to Maoists because he understands cultures!’ This was what he wrote to his poet friend Amarjit Chandan in explanation of choosing to convert to Islam and have a religion to call his own. Alas! He was to find that even there caste existed.
When he returned home to Samrala and was desolate after his mother’s death friends tried to help by setting up the tea shack with wooden planks nailed together. Dil found in the drug addict upper caste friend Pala a partner and happily poured tea from a dented jug into the glasses in a tote for the drivers, mechanics, teachers and writers who frequented his shack in the motor market. When free he would scribble some lines in between or talk to the literati that gathered there to discuss poetry and politics. And I awaited my tumbler of tea, asking for a little less sugar and a little more ginger in the brew. Tea shacks were my haunt all through youth but tea had never tasted as good as it did in downtown Samrala!
The tea shop closed after Pala’s death when, disoriented, Dil forgot to keep accounts or collect payments. When I went to meet him years later in his one-room brick home built on the family plot of Chamar Basti with a little open space, I found the wooden planks of the tea shop stacked in the ‘kacha kotha’, perhaps for firewood. A little flower bed in a corner had a couple of red roses blooming amid green leaves. And his little hungry grand-niece would come crawling up the stairs to take a sweet from the kind old man who knew that her mother’s breasts did not have enough milk for her.
No matter how hard life is, Lal, there is always room for a few green leaves, a child’s smile and some sweetness. Oh! Let me add a little more sugar to my tea.