Friday, November 12, 2010

Lal Singh Dil

                                 Dil at his tea shop, on the right

A Million Dollar Poem by LAL SINGH DIL (1943-2007)
Here below is a translation of a great poem by Lal Singh Dil, a Punjabi revolutionary poet.
Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007) was one of the foremost revolutionary poets thrown up by the Naxalite Movement in Punjab. Politically, the Naxalite resurrection in Punjab was a short-lived eruption, but in the Punjabi literary world it created shock waves that suddenly changed the subject matter, the idiom, the tone and tenor of Punjabi poetry by questioning the fundamental assumptions of Punjabi and Indian socio-economic and cultural order based on the hierarchies of class and caste, apart from many other things.
Lal Singh Dil represents one of the very distinctive voices of this new Punjabi poetry. The trajectory of his life is exceptionally singular. Through out his life he remained at the margins of everything that makes life liveable, except perhaps for the short period when the Naxalite movement in Punjab was at its peak in the early 1970’s when he was one of the leading poetic voices of the Movement. Belonging to the tanner community (Ramdasia Chamars), he grew up suffering isolation, indignities and insults heaped upon the ‘low castes’. The Naxalite Movement with its promise of socio-economic equality gave him a hope of breaking out of this ancient Indian curse of social exclusion; but with the decline of the Movement in Punjab the ages old social divisions infected the Naxalites too and Lal Singh was pushed to the margins again and that is how he lived the rest of his life, an uncompromising rebel, a suspect in the police records, accepted as a poet but allowed nothing much to make a decent living, in self-exile in Uttar Pradseh to hide from the police persecution, converting to Islam but without gaining much out of it, working as a wage labourer and later as a chowkidar in a mango orchard, and ending up as a tea vendor at a small town bus stand , Samrala, close to his home, in Punjab, where he died after an illness.
What kind of poetry would you expect from such a poet? Other poets, Pash foremost among them, sang of a revolution round the corner, used blood and thunder imagery to denounce, frighten and challenge the ‘class enemies’, predicting the imminent fall of the comprador bourgeois state. Lal Singh Dil shared this optimism but in most of his poetry he remained a poet of the understatement. In Pash and the others the hope for revolution rises like a gigantic wave breaking the surface of the sea with a force that would sink the Titanic of the bourgeois state. In Lal Singh Dil the desire for revolution flows as a huge Tsunami surging deep down below the calm surface of the sea. But his poetry is revolutionary in another very fundamental sense. His poetry focuses on the daily lives of men and women and children who are absolutely at the lowest rungs of the Indian society, the social and economic outcastes - the landless labourers and field workers, the daily wagers, the sweepers and the dishwashers, the construction workers, in short the ‘scum’ of the earth in the Indian civilizational hierarchy, the people to be exploited and humiliated, to be used and abused and kept out of bound from everything decent and worthwhile. This rather than the desire for a revolution makes his poetry truly revolutionary and different from his fellow revolutionaries.
The poem ‘Kudeli Pind Dian Wasana’ (The Women of Kudeli Village), from his collection ‘Bahut Saare Suraj’ (So Many Suns), 1982, is an indication of a highly self-conscious social outcaste’s complete alienation from the Indian civilizational superstructure. The women of Kudeli consciously align themselves with what is regarded as dark, evil, villainous and dangerous in the mainstream worldview - Ravana, the Rakshasas, the thieves and the most venomous snakes. The poem is a telling example of how in Lal Singh Dil’s poetry an utterly uncompromising dissent operates as a silent and subterranean but powerful undercurrent. I think this very short poem is worth a million dollars.

The Women of Kudeli Village
The women of Kudeli, wearing black,
Pass through the gardens green
To work in the fields
They know that Ravana’s countrymen wore black
Even then they wear black
They know the Rakshasas wore black
Even then they wear black
They know the thieves wear black
Even then they wear black
When in the rainy season
The gardens turn green
Black shines through them
They know Kudeli is the name of a she-serpent
The most poisonous she-serpent
Even then they have named their village Kudeli
And they wear black
They know…


  1. First of all, our heartiest congratulations, dear Ghai Sahib, on becoming a Blogger. It gives you enormous opportunity and freedom to 'interact' with ideas, both selectively and comprehensively.
    Your selection of Dil as also a brief account of his hard life was heart-rendering.. Your translation of his poem also evokes his anger and contempt against the system he inherited and lived in.
    You seem to suggest that Dil's poetry is revolutionary not because he was revolutionary in his own right, but because his poetry acutely reflected the travails of exploited. I believe the latter provided a vital source to his conceptulisation for the need for 'revolution, unlike Pash who was located in the Jat segment of the Sikhs, was self-assured and had no direct and internalised experience in social deprivation. I am not making light of Pash as a revolutionary poet. But Dil's is more authentic as it is rooted in his existentialist frame.
    I think you may now translate Dil who is both a dalit and a revolutionary, par exceelence

  2. Dear Trilok Chand Ghai, thank you so much for translating this poet. Reading about his life has been very inspiring as well. The women of Kudeli village is now translated into Spanish at: