Thursday, August 23, 2007

The heart that beats no more

I met Lal Singh 'Dil' about two years ago. Interviewed him for this story, mentioned him in passing, in that blog post.

And I did not say anything else about him. How he lived, in what sort of ramshackle barsaati, how he attempted to make some terrible tea for me, how he seemed ill and shriveled and how sunken his cheeks were and how he did not know how to honour me, as a guest, and how he would not let me leave without tea, and maybe a drink? How he held on to my hand when I got up to leave, and how he kissed it. And how he had begun to scrawl poetry in coal-black, all over his walls. And how he asked a visiting friend, Kali, to paint the lines higher up, all around.

There had been some beautiful black-n-white portrait photos Kali had taken, of Dil, but he canceled his own exhibition, when people began to protest against one particular photo - Dil lighting a bidi, and the flame of the matchstick reflected in his eye. (People had problems with the photo because it showed a famous figure smoking.)

And how often I had thought that one of these days, I would go back and see how Dil was doing. And whether he remembered me, and whether he tried kissing the hands of all young women who visited.

And now, it is too late.

For more on Dil:


Sourabh has a tribute to Dil in the Hindustan Times. I cannot find a link, but have his permission to reproduce it here:

Where is the heart?

Lal Singh Dil is dead. Long live the revolution

Sourabh Gupta

You love me, do you?
Even though you belong
to another caste.
But do you know,
Our elders do not
even cremate their dead
at the same place.

Lal Singh Dil died two days before my 29th birthday.
But why measure a death as tragic and big as the poet's against an impending birthday as happy and petty as mine? The next day was August 15. The irony of his passing away could have been juxtaposed to that date. But I couldn't do that. I shall remember only this: that Dil died two days before my birthday, a day you celebrate what you have become after you were brought into the world. But Dil was dead. The heart would seize up into a gnawing void.
I have read very few of his poems and do not know much about his long harsh life and I never met him more than twice within a gap of two months and there too he didn't talk much. But Dil was mine because I was not his reader, not his fan. I could not measure his worth with the lines he wrote as I still do with other poets. Neither could I praise his poems nor could I criticise them. Like a lover does to his lover, like a boy does to his grandfather, I had just surrendered to Dil. He might have had remembered me if he saw me again. But that will never happen.
The poet had been killed by gangrene in his intestines, my friend had told me over the mobile. That night, I gulped down some of my grandmother's Correx cough syrup and went to sleep.
"Log Dil, Dil kehende rehdey ne. Par dil hai kithe? (People keep asking for Dil. But where is the heart?)." The thin old man smoking a bidi in a Panjab University lawn some months back had mocked in his softly shrill and suppressed voice to the scholar friends surrounding him. This line was an afterthought, to a debate on whether Marxism was science or Marxism was religion. Dil was arguing for the second line, without any rhetoric, almost talking to himself, as if he didn't want to argue. (This was where I first met him.)

'Words have been
long before us
and for long after us
chop off every tongue
If you can
But the words
had been uttered.'

The poet could never become the assertive bourgeois; but he was not from the subjugated proletariat either.
Dil's lineage went far below: he was from the stooping figures of social injustice; he was a chamar whose soul itself is considered filthy. No amount of education or money or power could wipe out this slur of destiny. To wipe out this slur of destiny, the destiny would simply have to change; the poet would have had to take rebirth.
On the evening of August 15, Dil close friend Dr Satyapal Sehgal, a Hindi teacher at PU, told me he had been to his friend's funeral at Samrala and with extraordinary sadness recited to me on the phone Dil's poem that I have written above. Dil had really been cremated in a Dalits' cremation ground, he told me.
To turn around this fate, the young Dalit poet had attacked with a group of other Naxalites a police chowki in Chamkaur Sahib in 1969, and after nine months of intense police torture, had fled to UP and become a Mussalman. On his funeral, everything that Dil had done to cleanse himself of his destiny was burnt to ashes. He had changed a lot in 64 years; the world around him had not.
My friend had cursed that it was the state that actually killed Dil, however self-destructive the poet might have been, while Sehgal bitterly said that the Punjabi writers' fraternity was responsible for Dil's death. They knew his critical condition but never took heed and got him any medical help till the last moment.
'News of Naxalbari spread like wildfire. I was working as a daily wage labourer then. Carrying loads up and down the stairs, I felt strangely energised. It was like a great opportunity. What I had not been able to go and do in Vietnam, I would achieve here…,' Dil had written in his autobiography Dastaan.
Dil had recalled to us his lock-up days with grimace. If an animal had been tortured that much day and night, it would have died, he had smirked. He was still being watched, he had said. Two Punjab Police constables often came to visit him, peering through the door to check if he had fled again. But in them too-- the policemen keeping an eye on the former Naxalite-- Dil only saw love. They would come and ask, how's your health, baba? Thy too were enamoured by the gigantic poet. Spying was only an excuse to be close to him, the poet had told us.
After an hour or so, the discussion in the lawn broke up. It was never meant to take the turns it had taken. It was getting bitter with friends and fans.
Dil, the diminutive figure with a rexin bag under his arm, began walking away, following the scholar friend who had brought him to the university. Hungrily, I followed the poet, walking with him, making small talk as if I had known him since my childhood, just to be near him and see him with all the love I could muster up from my welling heart. I had a vision of a saint. But the saint just nodded his head-- it didn't matter if he knew me or not; if I liked him or not. It was beautiful—this inability to connect with words.
As he began to light another bidi, walking on the loose red gravel below the trees, I turned my head back, to see the students walking behind us. I then sped up and went ahead of Dil and turned back completely on the gravel and saw what I wanted to see fully—with two other girls, the tall voluptuous girl student, very fair and well-fed-- the extra flesh oozing out of her very tight jeans and t-shirt—inching towards Dil from behind and dwarfing, by several feet, the dark and oily and wasted-looking revolutionary poet as he kept looking down still lost in himself, and the girls walking past the poet, nearly brushing his rickety blackish body of a labourer and walking past me eventually, lost continuously in their own banter. I felt the rapture I had anticipated. I had seen two opposite worlds coming together. Like a wave had come and crashed onto my heart; it felt all salty and sweet, maybe the heart had burst at its seams.
In hindsight, I had seen the master and the slave and I had seen the revolution. My going ahead and looking back was the revolution Dil had fought for—the rich and the poor or the upper caste and the lower caste, with all their little cultures and dogmas and suppressions and superstitions, feeding on each other, coming so close, so tantalisingly, so obscenely close, that one annihilates the other.

'The long caravan is moving on
Carrying the burden of rebukes
Along the long shadows
Children are riding donkeys
Their fathers have dogs in their arms
Pans hang on the backs of their mothers
Babies are sleeping in these pans.'

From Dil's Evening Tide

Parnab came for Dil later. From Delhi, Manipur, London, East Timor, Kolkata, I don't know. But he came. He was possessed. He was as short as Dil and as fair and plump as that girl in the university. He was from both the worlds simultaneously; he was a two-world.
Parnab started from Chandigarh in a Ford Ikon in the evening with a woman friend of his and a friend of mine who knew Dil by heart and reached the delirious old poet's one-room dwelling Samrala in the dark of the night finding the poet expectedly drunk.
That night, that lonely night, my friend saw the poet weep.
Inebriated Dil was telling them how his publishers were threatening him since he had gone to another publisher, how the old publishers were threatening to stop whatever meagre royalties they gave him. The helpless old man cried and cried.
Parnab Mukherjee is a very sharp theatre actor and theatre director and journalist and activist and in Dil he had found his new play—a solo performance on the poet's struggles with identity and the state, with the poet himself as the audience.
As such, I met my muse again at the Government Museum and Art Gallery, looking tired and more lovable after a rattling, lonely two-hour bus journey from Samarla to Chandigarh amid the morning heat of May, to be, for a day at least, the crown prince of a play on his own life.
Even in the well-lit white gallery, Dil was invisible, like so many others we see, pulling loads or human beings on thin wheels. He had to be pointed out to the journalists and the photographers. He did not carry on his face the inner glow of a belly well-fed and a body less exhausted. Dil had to be pointed out. Then Nirupama Dutt came, the journalist who had written this in a magazine seven years back: "One day soon, I think we shall learn that the slightly crazed man who sold tea and wrote poetry to be painted on trucks, said his namaaz in the mosque and heretically drank country brew, is no more. What will happen then? My hunch is that the people of Samrala will build a little mazar to him and anoint him a Pir." Dil is dead but nothing holy or supreme has happened to him. But the two had a bond. She would sweetly incite him to relive the old times and Dil would melt and slowly expand the story from there. Using the moment then, Parnab would recite a long prose-like English poem on Dil (which I do not know if Dil fully understood but the journalists did, quoting parts of it in the next day's papers) and using the moment again, Dil would read an even longer poem from Naglok. The loop, the circular snake-rhythm of the recurring word 'Naglok' from his fragile throat reverberates in my mind as I write it down.
"No other play had depicted the life of the sweepers so well. Watching it, I felt the saga was set in the present. Harish Chandar was shown tending the pigs, working with a basket and a broom, cremating corpses for a fee and finally breaking down when his wife would not let him touch him for fear of being defiled," Dil had written in Dastaan.
In the evening, Parnab turned and twisted his round plump body on the gallery's floor enacting the agony of Dil and the people of Nandigram—both fighting the state-- and the stick-like Dil somberly watched, sitting crossed legged in the first circle, staring, through Parnab's loud dialogues and restless body, into an eternal, stony void.


David Raphael Israel said...

A fine and wistful remembrance. It's good to have you traveling roads of culture and bringing report of same.

Annie Zaidi said...

david: I just wish I had paid him a visit one last time. And listened to him recite. He enjoyed reading out loud.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to my post. I recently also translated one of his poems into English. Here is the link in case someone would like to read it:

dipali said...

What an amazing man! Read all the links, learned something new.
(I love Sufi music , didn't know much about the background)

Reading your posts is really enriching- thanks,'intelligent kudi'!

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Thank you. Because I learned about Lal Singh Dil, and because you wrote with such emotion.

But ... Parnab Mukherjee? Once of Calcutta? Oh well.


Jayant Pande said...

hahaha. I concur with J.A.P. A fine piece, and I'm glad that I've got to know of another poet that might turn out to be very rewarding, but Parnab Mukherjee? Not the quizmaster fellow, I hope.

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