Friday, 2 October 2015

Lal Singh Dil and the Poetics of Disjunction

The Poet as a Political Cartographer

Guest post by Rajesh Sharma

an enormous enclosure

as far as the eye can see – a wall

an immense pond

all dried up (Dil 2009: 89)

Lal Singh Dil (1943-2007) is, quite markedly, a poet of the contemporary historical geography of the east Punjab. His poetry makes the reader acutely aware of the Punjab’s lived spaces transforming through time. These are fraught spaces, traversed by figures of the dispossessed and the precariat1. The figures are often minimally drawn, and they drift in anonymity. Sometimes, though, Dil touches them with a memorable detail: you just cannot forget Billa, the protagonist of Ajj Billa Phir Aaya [Billa Came Again Today], with his always oiled long black hair, bright eyes, a chain around the neck with a goddess framed in silver, and rings on several fingers (2009: 34-35).

Beginning in the 1960s, Dil’s poetry documents some four decades of the history of the post-partition Indian Punjab. He began writing in the rebellious and dreaming 60s and 70s and continued into the cynical 2000s. The continuity is more than temporal; it is also symbolic and substantial in that it answers to deeper correspondences between then and now which the historians of the present are beginning to map. After all, the neo-liberal world order of today was born in the 70s and 80s, particularly with the realpolitik of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan marrying the economic theories of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys.

Dil’s poetry cannot, hence, be confined to the world of the 60s and 70s. He is equally a poet of our times. In fact, his poetry is capable of re-disclosing the earlier decades in the light of our day – revealing thereby also the lineages of the present. He was not a trained historian, nor a geographer, yet he grasped capitalism’s historical geography in this part of the world in a way that none among his contemporary Punjabi poets writing in the neoliberal 1990s and 2000s has arguably done.2 As a result, he remains among the most alert and insightful witnesses to the dim-lit drama of ordinary lives impacted by the transforming spaces of the Punjab as seen through recent history’s hour glass.

In Volume I of Capital, Marx unravels “the economic original sin” of “primitive accumulation of capital” (1990: 873). In his broadly linear narrative, the barbarities of the founding period of capitalism are gradually replaced by sophisticated, less obvious methods of capital accumulation. Rosa Luxemburg, however, was to note that capital accumulation in the periods since has actually proceeded simultaneously through expanded reproduction and primitive accumulation. According to her, “force, fraud, oppression, looting,” which characterised the early phase of capital accumulation, have not been abandoned but are frequently resorted to whenever the capitalist order brushes against the non-capitalist modes of production, particularly when it is looking to expand into new territories, domestic, colonial, or neo-colonial (The Accumulation of Capital, 1913; 2003: 432).

Marx’s term (“primitive” or “original” accumulation) carries, in our day, a shade of obsolescence that may hinder a clear view of the present, which is shaped actually by a dual process of capital accumulation. For this reason, as David Harvey suggests, it would be better if we used the term “accumulation by dispossession” (The New Imperialism 2003: 144). As he points out, the process includes more than plain robbery and possession by force:

A closer look at Marx's description of primitive accumulation reveals a wide range of processes. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations; the conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights; the suppression of rights to the commons; the commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neo-colonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); the monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade and usury, the national debt, and ultimately the credit system as radical means of primitive accumulation. (ibid 145)

Harvey goes on to observe, and then substantiate with instances, that “[a]ll the features of primitive accumulation that Marx mentions have remained powerfully present within capitalism's historical geography up until now” (ibid 145). The instances Harvey cites have a global provenance, and expectedly include some from contemporary India.

Marx defines “primitive accumulation” as “the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production”. The history of this process, he adds, “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (1990: 875). This is so because “great masses of men [sic] are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labour-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians” (ibid 876). Along with the peasants, the agricultural wage-labourers too lose access to “the common land, which gave pasture to their cattle, and furnished them with timber, fire-wood, turf, etc. (ibid 877)”. Marx traces the gruesome history of this process of expropriation “under circumstances of ruthless terrorism” (ibid 895) in England back to the fifteenth century. The resources such as land that had been until then the common property of people are forcibly and sometimes under cover of (cunningly fabricated) law snatched from them and become the private property of the emerging capitalist class (ibid 879-83). Not stopping here, the wealthy class “practice[s] on a colossal scale the thefts of state lands” as these “estates are given away, sold at ridiculous prices, or even annexed to private estates by direct seizure” (ibid 884).3 Marx notes that “the law itself now becomes the instrument by which the people’s land is stolen”; he refers to “[t]he Parliamentary form of the robbery” embodied in ‘Bills for Inclosure of Commons’ (ibid 885). The very use of “a parliamentary coup d'état”, he observes, to transform the commons into private property proves the illegality and illegitimacy of the process (ibid 886). The dispossessed are then branded as “‘voluntary’ criminals” through “legislation against vagabondage” (ibid 896).

Marx’s words resonate, with an unmistakable measure of irony, in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s warning, issued on 27 December 2012, against the menace of “footloose migrants” who leave their villages and descend on cities in search of work (“PM Warns”). Singh was alluding to the rising graph of crime in the country’s capital, brought into sharp focus after the gang rape of a girl a few days earlier. As one of those neoliberal economic policy makers who cannot wait to study history because they are in a hurry to make it, he expectedly displayed no inclination to reflect historically on the forces which the policies of successive Indian governments have unleashed since the early 1990s. The execution of these policies has removed enormous numbers of the poor from their land and hearth and flung them into the big cities, where they are compelled to sleep under flyovers or beneath impromptu shelters in the country’s many teeming slums.4

Dil’s figures do not inhabit metropolitan spaces, not their peripheries either. At best they live in small towns (that is when they are not moving from one place to another), such as Samrala, Dil’s home town. That renders their lives more precarious, as the opportunities for work are even fewer there. So they remain perennially insecure. What is called ‘development’ flickers for them like a fitful dream: Billa is an artisan who came to the town in search of work. He found work for a while, but can do so no longer: the buildings that were to be built have been built (2009: 37). At least for now, ‘development’ in this place has exhausted itself.

In Ajj Billa Phir Aaya, his longest and probably last poem, Dil addresses global capitalism’s historical geography in the east Punjab from the point of view of a witness bearing poet-chronicler. It is obviously a formidable task5, considering the sweep and complexity of the historical processes confronting him, and it demands that he forge a narrative that can accommodate fragments as much as coherences at various levels. He responds to the demand by devising a kind of poetics that is at once hallucinatory, anecdotal, oneiric, and reportage. He is obviously guided by the conviction that art, everyday life, dreaming and politics cannot be separated. And so he cannot but conjoin them, but without seamlessly melding them: the seams must show. Dil’s poetics is, thus, a poetics of disjunction: he deploys the logic of disjunction to capture a reality that is, to recall Hamlet’s anguished cry, “out of joint” (Shakespeare 1.5.188). It is a disjointed reality that needs nothing short of a disjunctive aesthetic with its characteristic shock of what in the language of cinema is called the jump cut. It may be added that Dil’s poetics of disjunction operates at the levels of the narrative, the image and the myth.

To appreciate the significance of Dil’s efforts to achieve the necessary form through the poetics of disjunction, we may recall Adorno’s observations on the problematic relationship between form and reality: “The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society” (2004: 7). And yet there is also, in addition to the antagonisms of reality, the challenge posed by the sheer abnormity of a ‘developing’6 reality which compels art to self-reflect. Regarding this, Adorno says: “In the face of the abnormity into which reality is developing, art’s inescapable affirmative essence has become insufferable. Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber” (ibid 2). Dil faces unflinchingly the specific abnormity of his times, which consists as much in capitalism’s ‘dispossessive’ brutalities executed on an unimaginable scale as in the seductions of its spectacle, and he strives to create a poetic form that might be able to answer adequately the impossible demands of the times. And he does not renounce affirmation, using it instead to defy the insufferable. Sometimes, of course, the abnormity of the present lends a peculiar poignancy to the affirmation – which occasionally blooms into celebration – of life howsoever tenuously lived. Sometimes it prompts from him a whisper of irony. But sometimes it rouses his wrath, particularly when he contemplates the brutalities running from history through history to the present. Yet he does not allow the abnormity, howsoever insufferable, to destroy his capacity to embrace life joyously.

To repeat, the use of the hallucinatory is part of Dil’s effort to devise a form to answer the demands of the contemporary reality of capitalism’s historical geography. I use the term “hallucinatory” in G.N. Devy’s sense. He employs it to explain a key trait of the adivasi art – “its peculiar manner of constructing space and imagery”:

Whether it is the oral and literary form of representation, or the visual and pictorial form, adivasi artists seem to interpret verbal and pictorial space as demarcated by an extremely flexible ‘framing’. The boundaries, therefore, between art and non-art are highly porous. An adivasi epic can commence its narration almost out of a trivial everyday event. Adivasi paintings merge with their own living space as if the two are no different at all. And within the narrative itself, or within the painted imagery, there is no deliberate attempt made to follow a sequence. The episodes retold and the images created take on the apparently chaotic shapes of dreams. . . . Yet, one would be wrong in assuming that adivasi arts do not employ any ordering principles. (2011: 71)

In Dil’s case, the hallucinatory is used in response to the chaos let loose by the neoliberal economic order. His “flexible ‘framing’” is a rejection of the nostalgia for a seamless narrative which, in any case, cannot accommodate and report the fractured and fracturing reality of the present. Besides, poetry and reportage cannot strategically be kept separate in a world in which the discourses of revolt always risk being promptly absorbed and co-opted by the market. And while the hallucinatory functions as an ordering device in the face of a systemic chaos and makes that chaos somewhat comprehensible, reportage can act as a device to tell the bare, mundane truths of the lived everyday reality. There is, as Dil’s poetry frequently demonstrates, an order of truths that poetry can access only through reporting. Discussing the question of intellectual honesty in the face of truth, George Orwell writes:

What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully, or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers. In saying this I may seem to be saying that straightforward “reportage” is the only branch of literature that matters: but I will try to show later that at every literary level, and probably in every one of the arts, the same issue arises in more or less subtilised forms. (2008: 24)

Intellectual freedom is “the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings” (ibid 25). To report is part of the obligation to bear witness to what is. It thus reinforces the uses of the hallucinatory which, as we have noted, is not an escape from a difficult truth but a commitment to seeing in spite of, and beyond, frames and fragments.

The anecdotal, embodied in the many anecdotes which the narrator of Ajj Billa Phir Aaya tells as well as those which his characters relate, adds to the work a dimension of oral histories of the present. The live resonance of anecdotes as personal testimonies emanates from the authority of their sources, which, in the poem, are historical as much as fictional.

The oneiric apparently brings the element of dream into the narrative. However, its real significance lies in extending the geographies of reality by making possible an encounter with the impossible as a constitutive element of contemporary reality.

Using the oneiric, the hallucinatory, the anecdotal and reportage, Dil creates a mobile montage whose organizing force is supplied by movements of wandering and drifting – which recapture at another level the enforced nomadism of the dispossessed.

Dil dedicates Ajj Billa Phir Aaya to “the new Marx”. To read the present, one has to renew Marx, renew one’s reading of Marx, renew one’s understanding of the contemporary world in the light of Marx’s interpretation of history. One has to acknowledge – as Derrida would wish – the presence of Marx’s spectres that keep us company. The spectres are no mere ghostly shades but presences that lurk at the edge of the visible and the comprehensible, suggesting, besides crises of articulation and communication, unfinished projects: “No, no, I am not a ghost,” the specter of the poet’s mother tells him (2009: 21).

The poem opens with the identification of an amorphous fear and the obligation to confront it by writing it down, and it goes on to acknowledge that this undertaking entails a passage through fear. By the time the poem ends, the poet has figured out the “monster” (2008: 128) – the “beast”, as Arundhati Roy calls it – that is the source of the fear. As a kind of performative project, the poem thus works itself out as a cartographic project that maps the monstrosity, the abnormity, of capitalism’s historical geography. The old river, aged and deserted, recalls the Satluj of the first poem in the poet’s first book, Satluj di Hawa [Winds from the Satluj] (1971), a poem in which the theme of the robbery of land makes its maiden appearance. Confronting the obscure fear is like crossing the river, he writes. The fear dehumanises people; like dogs they wag their tails and lick the plates for leftovers of falsehood (2009: 21). Against this, the poem offers, to the reader as to the poet, a baptism of fear so that the monster is seen, sized up, and confronted.

Two deeply perturbing images in the poem overshadow all others. Both are ‘monstrous’ images. The first is of women making rotis: the food smells of flesh; in the food plates, in every home, flesh shines (ibid 24). The second image is of the poet-narrator’s mind rising up after he has seen some dreams. It has risen, he says, like the head of a child rises in a thousand boils: an insurrection of boils exploding through tender skin. Reality and the Lacanian real dissolve in these images to report the unsayable, making the images the key sites of the poem’s activity.

Ajj Billa Phir Aaya is simultaneously a document interspersed with critique and a sustained reflection on the question of poetic form. The document, significantly, accommodates several dreams. It is a dream, too, that prompts the poet to write (ibid 21). The un-reality of dreams, stitched into reportage, works to disclose the impossible geographies of reality. In fact, the failure of the numerous impracticable “schemes” which a worried Billa makes for his livelihood points to his inability to grasp the ‘impossible’ reality around him, the reality which affords to him no opening (ibid 36). Neither does it to Bhatti, a scooter mechanic with a diploma in technical training. His small workshop got no work after the municipal authorities dug up the road to lay sewerage pipes. The local ‘development’ project pushed him to seek escape from his worries in drugs in the company of an addict, a Brahman who sold milk for a living. With the reality overwhelming and eluding them, these young men seek escape in day-dreams and drug-induced fantasy. Sukhu’s son, who sells tea and milk from a rehri in the grain market, also reports a failing business (ibid 51-52). Maybe, he too would find solace in some escape.

Meanwhile, what is the reality which these persons are unable to understand and which is driving them to despair? It is, to use Harvey’s words, the global neoliberal project for “the restoration of class power” by means of a widespread process of dispossession through which the means of production, on which the poor survive, are being transferred to the global elite on a massive scale (Harvey, 2005: 7-52). Increasingly, the people are being denied any right to the commons. The commons are being ‘enclosed’ and transformed into private property, and sometimes “state” property – before that property is stolen away and turned surreptitiously into private property. The history that Marx witnessed is being re-enacted, under his specter’s lingering gaze.

Dil dwells extensively and repeatedly on the expropriation of the commons being carried out in the Punjab. He notes that pastures, ponds, graveyards, and other common lands are being occupied by the wealthy and powerful who also control political parties. The poet literally reports several illegal occupations, giving specific details, including those involving the lands taken for social and charitable purposes. The cattle of the poor are attacked, and sometimes slaughtered or set on fire with a tyre around the neck to eliminate the threat they pose to the expropriated commons. The poor, among whom the overwhelming majority are dalits, are thus violently robbed of the barest means of survival (2009: 66; 71-72; 76; 83; 86; 91; 102-04; 106-07; 112-13). Unable to find sustenance in their villages, they rush to the cities, where they are again disappointed. The cities have no work for them (ibid 67).

In this situation, drugs serve different purposes. They offer an escape to those who turn to their false solace, and they afford an excuse to the expropriators who can ‘correctly’ blame their victims from a morally high ground. Dil sees the easily available drugs as weapons of mass destruction in a class war (in which caste, too, is necessarily implicated). In his view, reiterated more than once in the poem, drugs are instruments of the “genocide” of poor dalits, although they kill others too now and then (ibid 67; 71; 78; 81). Some of the most terrifying images in the poem are, thus, of the victims of drugs: they are seen dying on the roads and in deserted cremation grounds, sometimes eaten by packs of dogs (ibid 34). Parveen, one of them, tells Billa:

Look at our condition,

worse than a dog’s.

Even a dog doesn’t let worms infest it.

But we are being eaten by worms.7 (ibid 60)

The poet’s bitterness is part of a larger structure of response, which addresses the logic of the postcolonial state. That larger, inhuman logic has to be talked about, understood and exposed:

Those tyrants who,

after the British had left,

invented new forms of tyranny

must be talked about.

Their ways must be discussed. (ibid 99)

What follows is a rambling report on, among other things, the disappearance of the historic forests of Machhiwara where Guru Gobind Singh had walked: the marauding land-grabbers have erased all signs of that history, including the well where the Guru had probably quenched his thirst (ibid 104). This is followed by pointed remarks on what Dil sees as a calculated extermination of the small peasantry, symbolised in the way urbanization is pushing the poor villager’s bullock cart off the road with seeming inevitability – a reality that is simultaneously a grim symbol of capitalism’s historical geography (ibid 110).

Something of this ‘doubling’ – as between reality and the symbol – occurs when Dil reflects aloud, in the body of the poem itself, on the problem of form. The reflection is undertaken with extreme self-consciousness – clearly not because the poet is awed by the norms of poetic propriety, but because he would not conceal his purpose, which is to capture an elusive reality:

I want to catch something in poetry,

something that has been lost.

It’s like shooting an arrow in the dark.

If the poem fails to catch the thing,

it will have failed

like a vine that bears no fruit. (ibid 29)

So once again, after more than a century, poetry has the obligation to mirror reality. The difference, though, is that reality today has melted all existing frames, not just the binaries. It has become a monstrosity, an abnormity: it has become a “Narasingha” (the Puranic figure of the half human and half lion) (ibid 31). Must not, then, poetry too become monstrous if only to get hold of reality and bring it to justice?

Such poetry is “something” that grows in the mind like a harvest of mushrooms, the poet writes. He wonders how to label it. Is it a poem, a story, a novel, or an essay? One thing is certain: a poem takes place only when the poet stands apart from the world – even when the poem happens to be about the world itself (ibid 46). The poet then has, one might add, a spectral relation to the world.

At times, of course, poetry seems to be “mere words”, a desperate effort to avoid being drowned (ibid 91-92). But then there is the promise it holds out, the promise to fly free “towards real skies” (ibid 118). When the promise is realised, the poem takes over from the poet. He no longer holds its reigns (ibid 127).

In a curious inversion lighted up with irony, Dil dubs reality as “poetic” when the real, historical characters of the poem are unable to understand what is really going on around them and so retreat into some fictional world that exists only inside their heads. This too, he sardonically remarks, makes his poem “poetic” (ibid 60).

The hallucinatory and reportage fuse as the long poem draws to its end. The poet-narrator asks: How shall we deal with the monster that has swallowed everything? And “everything” here is not just another word. It is a whole lived world, with its donkeys, camels, horses, bullocks, pastures, lands, ponds, peasants, rehris, people’s ways of life, songs, freedom, forests, state properties, honest officials, and what not (ibid 128). This is the poet’s apocalyptic vision of the monster of global capitalism crunching up everything: a historically situated bizarre replay of the potent old myth of the dark god Krishna’s cosmic form, his vishvarupa, witnessed by an indecisive, bewildered and fear-stricken Arjuna in the Mahabharata.

The poem opened with dreams and apprehensions. In ending the way it does – by historicizing a myth in a way that also draws a map of global capitalism’s historical geography – it points the way, past a baptism of fear, to the freedom of “real skies”. The oneiric, the hallucinatory, the anecdotal and reportage converge in the apocalyptic in a tense fusion in which are realised a specific poetics of disjunction appropriate to the Punjab whose landscapes and life-worlds are today being feverishly overwritten by global capitalism’s cognitively challenging cartography.

Dil came to the writing of this miniature critical epic of global capitalism after a long journey which apparently began with the poems that first appeared in Satluj di Hawa [Winds from the Satluj] (1971), which was his maiden collection of poetry. The collection is dedicated to “the treasures of the human spirit” in an absolute affirmation of the kind Pablo Neruda loved and lived, as Mario Vargas Llosa reminisces, in defiance of any life-destroying oppressions (Llosa). In this affirmation, there is no room for what Nietzsche terms as ressentiment: the poet refuses to bite the dominant order’s bait to play according to a given script. He would not act the victim as a rebel defined by the order against which he is rebelling, but would rather redefine, in his own way, the terms and the categories of that order. Neither would he found a separate, exclusive world in retaliation against his exclusion. Satluj di Hawa, in this sense, marks an important point of departure in the politics of literary aesthetics. Unlike Pash who, in a sense, tries to construct alternative, or counter, literary aesthetics, Dil reworks the available aesthetics to make them speak other truths and to thus subvert the given order. Dil’s undertaking has a significance which, it seems, will only deepen as late capitalism reincarnates itself in newer avatars, absorbing, co-opting and commodifying the various resistances that arise to challenge its plastic regime. Like Hamlet, the poet chooses to “delve one yard below their mines / And blow them at the moon” (Shakespeare 3.4.208-09).

Blending sadness, anger and joy, the opening poem entitled “Satluj di Hawa” [“Winds from the Satluj”] addresses the river Satluj as a witness to the subcontinent’s history of dispossession and dishonor:

You look far,

even to where the Cauvery flows,

and see the land being robbed,

the harvest of wheat dishonoured,

the paddy set on fire under laughter.

You look far,

to where their palaces stand,

the palaces that still cherish the hanging noose

used by those white rulers. (2007: 36)8

The postcolonial state as a continuation in many ways of the colonial state is a site of concern that Dil revisits again and again. But it is in “Sham da Rang” [“The Colour of the Evening”] (ibid 39-40), arguably Dil’s best known poem, that the reworking of the available aesthetics is first accomplished. The protagonists of the poem are itinerant agricultural workers, other daily wage earners and the unemployed. Through a process that may be called alchemical, they enter the poem’s images as living raw materials and then abide there as spectral presences in some bizarre fairyland. The alchemy of suffering and beauty is set to work in the very first line of the poem, which evokes time through a hint of immemorial histories: “The evening, again, has an old colour”. People lurk as spectral remainders in the disjunctive images of the “footpath” and the “lake” even as the two apparently stand for and ‘reflect’ those very people. The “city” going towards “some villages” weaves a circle of irony, sending off sparks of alienation and sheer numerical friction. The agricultural workers’ perpetual, forced nomadism stands out sharply against the enduring reality of “another’s land” on which they have worked. And the procession of the perennially dispossessed carries a curious baggage: that of the abuses and admonitions hurled at them. These “hunger-stricken Aryans” are the disenfranchised people of their country; if they unload anywhere for a short stay, they are treated as menacing encroachers. Only the trees, under which they have halted to snatch a restful breath and in whose shade they have tied their cattle, want them to stay and not leave. In their own country, these people have been reduced to the hopeless memory of a promise which six decades of the country’s independence have done little to redeem.

“Beruzgar” [“The Unemployed”] (ibid 41) reads like an accompanying poem. The vulnerability and precariousness of the unemployed, trying to conceal their humiliating poverty, is caught in the gestures of the faceless figures. They have refined the art hiding their frayed cuffs and tattered footwear. Their smiling eyelids carry shrouds underneath: an image that transcends the metaphorical to communicate a truth which reality can carry only on the breath of poetry.

What Gaston Bachelard terms as the “absolute imagination” (Bachelard 1964: 33) in the creation of images is at work in the short poem “Nach” [“Dance”] (2007: 53).9 The poem bears witness to impossible celebration – the celebration of (mere) living – crystallised in the scene of an anonymous woman labourer “cooking her heart” over the hearth, the moon laughing through the branches of a tree, her husband keeping their two children entertained, and the elder child breaking into a dance to the impromptu jugalbandi of a bowl and the waist-cord bells. The image conjures an absent house, yet with all its essential affective furniture. John Berger writes: “The boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity” (ibid 450). Dil’s poem handles tenderness without “tenderness” and “without pity”, even as it draws the absent house “with exactitude”.

“Ik Soch” [“A Way of Thinking”] (ibid 68) achieves its fusion of thought and image with minimal architecture. Just three lines. The dry, rough thoughts receive their nourishment paradoxically from the well-nourished, well-oiled hair whose illusory gift of liberation is regretted and renounced with the first light of a dawning ‘wisdom’.

“Lal Purab” [“The Red East”] (ibid 92-95) is another poem in which thought and image flare up and fuse remarkably, in spite of the insistent note of revolutionary propaganda that somewhat impairs the poem’s overall artistic merit. The rising Sun is seen against a pageant of struggling and despairing people. Famished “buds” go barefoot, carrying great loads on their young heads; starving women quarrel loudly to forget their hunger; grieving men’s eyes swim with rain clouds; aged heads and dry white beards tremble with the strokes of the hammer; lives burn out with lamps late into the nights; and peasants, consumed by worries over their mortgaged little land, eat the bread of insults while the rafters in a shaky ceiling threaten to crash over their distressed heads. It is a whole life-world of hopeless anxiety visualised in colors – the grey and brown of dust, the black of rotting old moss, the red of the Sun. The murky gloom is lit only with hope.

There is, however, no hope in “Raat” [“Night”] (ibid 113), an indebted peasant’s autobiographical narrative in which dream and reportage are interwoven to yield glimpses into a tormented life: he watches empty cooking vessels flying away, and pokes the hearth but finds no fire. “I was sold/ like all who are sold,” he cries: the consciousness of a condition in which he is not alone lends an ironic measure of dignity to his lament.

Dil was to create again a procession of fraught images in “Kupp” [“Haystacks”] (ibid 123) which appeared in his second collection of poems, Bahut Sare Suraj [So Many Suns] (1982). Here you have a farmer, a jatt, barely managing to save his honour at the hands of his exploiters in the mandi; a father hounded by men in “spotless whites” looming outside his door to get his – or his daughter’s – thumb impression on a paper; and officers of the government reclining royally on his cot and leering at his daughter, amusing themselves over the “dance” – the frenzied panic – of father and daughter. And then you have also the image of a young son bolting from school after smashing a window pane with the hockey stick. This is followed by another image in which the haystacks of “hope” (as they appear when the poem opens) become sites of violent revolt as policemen go berserk scattering the chaff in search of two men suspected to be hiding there.

The relationship between the peasantry and patriotism is problematised in “Khat” [“Letter”] (ibid 108) and “Fauji Gaddi vich Baithe Dost” [“Friends Sitting in a Military Vehicle”] (ibid 109). In the first, a soldier’s wife writes to him of love, debt and death. The poem is at once her letter and the poet’s dream of her consciousness. The first image is of the bricks of a falling wall, an image simultaneously menacing and romantic: she sees in the bricks tentative images of their conjugal love. This is followed by the image of moneylenders, whom the soldier’s just deceased father owed money, coming daily with demands for recovery to knock on their house which is still in mourning. The lamp burns all night: is it the lamp lighted by the side of the dead during the last vigil yet spilling its light beyond the dread night? The nights, in the last, extended image, settle down like sleeping vultures, to wail in the woman’s intermittent sleep. In the second poem, the narrator unravels the conditions at home which have probably forced the young men to join military service. Their fathers are perhaps desperately chasing the dream of a full stomach; their mothers, timid and fearful like vulnerable birds, are probably trudging the long road to work. Maybe their small patches of land have been sold off; maybe the police have scattered on the road the contents of a brother’s chhabri10.

In “Nahma” (ibid 119-20) you can discern see the seed of Ajj Billa Phi Aaya. This short poem foreshadows the precariat’s state of living which was to receive an elaborate treatment by the poet years later. It runs, and quickly, the whole gamut – from the poet-narrator’s innocent boyhood pranks to the unspeakable grief of a father who helplessly watches his young son lose his sanity to the shock of finding himself useless because he can find no work. The poem is told like an anecdote that captures a historical condition incomprehensible to the young man. His insanity comes alive in the strange ‘dialogue’ with which the poem ends: Nahma and the son sit face to face beside the fire pit over which sugarcane juice boils in a cauldron. The son speaks of the fateful cycle of births and deaths in which sons and fathers might even exchange places. And then he abruptly threatens to jump into the cauldron. The people standing nearby take him away. The father does not utter a word throughout the ‘dialogue’, yet his silent presence oozes from the image and articulates his unspeakable grief. The poem derives its peculiar force not only from its anecdotal spontaneity, initial humour and understatement, but also from the dual structure of witness-bearing: the narrator bears witness to a father’s sorrow who, in turn, helplessly watches his son’s insanity.

“Bholiyan” [“Innocent Girls”] (ibid 115-16) appears to be making an overstatement towards the end, yet the poem absorbs it naturally after the concrete definitive touches with which the destitute young girls going to earn their daily wages are sketched. The abnormity of their dehumanizing condition compels a response of mythical proportions:

Should this be made known

to the inhabitants of another planet,

they would be stunned, would become stones,

would never arise and move again.

Should the beasts realise this,

they would flee mankind

and, terrified, rush screaming

back to forests. (ibid 116)

The talent to give oddness a home, the basis of Dil’s poetics of disjunction, appears with characteristic facility in “Babal Tere Khetan Vich” [“In Your Fields, Father”] (ibid 122). The daughter of a dispossessed tiller acknowledges that her family has lost their claim to the land in the court of law, yet she refuses to renounce dreaming. She visualises the tractors “dancing” in her father’s fields one day. She can be dispossessed of land but not of the freedom to dream. The girl’s ‘naïve’ refusal transports the oneiric and the hallucinatory into the geography of the reported.

“Ajooba” [“Wonder”] (ibid 139) demonstrates the capaciousness of myth to accommodate the disjunctive. Elsewhere Dil invokes or re-creates myth; here he creates myth, something that may not be possible unless a poet comes to embody a people and their culture and becomes in his blazing singularity the voice of a collective consciousness. The poem advances like a vine with its many surprising turns; the moods shift. The stark opening statement that woman is a wonder of the earth quickly gives way to the declaration of an article of faith: that woman holds and bears the earth on her palm. The sensory testimony elevates the declaration to the realm of the sublime: the earth has the fragrance of woman’s body, the crops sway like her flowing garment, the flowers receive their innocence from her lips. Unexpectedly, the poem then turns to fathom the anguish of being earth and being woman: hunger is the lot of both; the seas are salty because woman’s eyes have tears. The poem turns again: she loves honour and nobility, so the stars abide in her vicinity. By the time the poem reaches this point, she has become ambivalent – she is both earth and woman.

It can be argued, indeed, that for Dil poetry itself has the immense capaciousness of myth, for only then it can accommodate the vast and disparate reality. His poem “Kavita” [“Poetry”] (ibid 105-06) is a manifesto of what may constitute the poetic. The crops dying for want of fertilisers are poetry; the mills are poems; the forest in flames is a poem; the laughter of the poet’s father is poetry; there is poetry in stones and in steel; the donkey-herds and snake charmers are poems.

This power to un-see the borders enables Dil, a firmly rooted poet of his people and region, to grasp the human condition without inhibition or bias. In “Punjab” (103), he sees Punjab everywhere. All workers with their unshaved faces and cracked bare feet, be they in Bengal or Kerala, are Punjabis to him. The whole world is Machhiwara, he says: at once exile and home. In fact, the passion for universal self-identification introduces itself in Dil’s very first book, in “Desh” [“Country”] (ibid 47) and “Belachak” [“Inflexible”] (ibid 60-61). It is a humane, generous rebuke, so typical of Dil, to the ethnocentric proclivities often put on mindless display in Punjab and elsewhere nowadays. Caste, too, receives its share of the poet’s bitter attention: more often it informs his observation, though it is treated with unconcealed and raw irony in the short poem “Jaat” [“Caste”] (ibid 64), which appeared in his first book. The poet tells the girl who loves him and who comes from another caste that their families have separate places to even cremate their dead. Beyond this the poem says nothing, allowing silence to take over. How can the living unite in love when even the dead are not permitted to mix?

Satthar, Dil’s third collection of poems, published in 1997, is, as the title also indicates, largely a work of mourning. But it is mourning with a sting of satire, verging at times on ridicule. The castrated bull, whose horns have now lost their itch and who has learnt to quietly submit, becomes almost a symbol of the renegade revolutionary “Saahn” [“Bull”] (ibid 149). “Ulat Inqalab de Pair” [“Revolution Reversed”] (ibid 150), “Gair Vidrohi Nazm di Talaash” [“Search for a Non-Rebellious Poem”] (ibid 152), “Sawariyan” [“Passengers” (ibid 183), “Comradan da Geet” [“Song of the Comrades”] (ibid 188), “Hiloona” [“Jolt”] (ibid 190) and “Akkhan Wala” [“The One Who Could See”] (ibid 199) – all are a revolutionary’s angry outpourings. The reader feels also that the once-glowing embers of the poet’s imagination are now barely breathing under the ashes. But the fire would return with Ajj Billa Phir Aaya and become a conflagration.

Though a good deal of Dil’s work is yet to be published (as the note appended to Naag Lok indicates), it can nevertheless be argued that his protean talent had the potential to be a real match for the protean cunning of capital which Harvey and Jameson, among others, have so meticulously mapped in our day. Dil had the sense and the pride to suspect the appropriative attempts at representation that the subaltern studies group was to question in its own way: “You just tell us who you are to do something / for our sake” (“Sheeshe di Qaid” [“Imprisonment in Glass”] ibid 67). The poem “Sanskriti” [“Culture”] (ibid 48), “brush[ing] history again the grain”, to use Walter Benjamin’s words, recalls the reader to Benjamin’s seventh thesis on the philosophy of history (2007: 256-57). “Vishav Sundari” [“Miss World”] (Dil 2007: 77) critiques the global capitalist spectacle and simulacrum which are fabricated out of, and conceal, the unacknowledged labour of anonymous people. And in one of the “ghazals” Dil speaks of the commodification of courage and intellect through cooptation by the market (ibid 80).

In a sense, then, Dil’s oeuvre is radically unfinished. But that also means it bristles with potentialities for us, his readers, who shall be measured beside them and judged by our ability to fathom and develop them. By challenging us from his grave that was never to be11, Dil continues to haunt us like the undead Marx.


1.. According to Guy Standing, the precariat is “a class-in-the-making”, a historically specific formation of the period of neoliberal globalization, which is characterized by “precariousness of residency, of labour and work, and of social protection” (vii; 4). Judith Butler notes: “Precarious life characterizes such lives who do not qualify as recognizable, readable, or grievable” (xii-xiii). See works cited.

2 My understanding of capitalism’s historical geography is based on David Harvey’s and Fredric Jameson’s work, particularly as listed in works cited.

3.History repeats itself. Among innumerable instances of this kind in the recent history of India was a case in Patiala, registered by the investigating agencies in 2012, in which a former collector/deputy commissioner was named as one of the accused.

4. “The flyover is indeed the metaphor of our growth trajectory, enabling the successful Indian to sweep over the heads of the huddled masses,” writes Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former bureaucrat and minister in the Indian Government, in his preface to Badri Raina’s book, The Underside of Things (xx).

5. Fredric Jameson, addressing the challenge of late (global/multinational) capitalism’s formidable complexity, proposes cognitive mapping as an initial step towards resistance. Dil’s poetics of disjunction can be seen as a specific attempt at cognitive mapping. At the same time, it must be underlined that it does more than cognitive mapping. See Jameson in works cited.

6. A pun is intended here to span the distance between Adorno’s ‘developing reality’ and ‘the reality of development’ in our times. The reality of development under the neoliberal regime, which gives primacy to the freedom of the market over the individual’s freedom to lead a dignified life, should refer as much to the gathering human and ecological crisis as to the accelerated development which impels the crisis (and which ‘developmentalism’ as the ideological façade of neoliberalism conceals).

7. This and the subsequent translations of Dil’s poetry are by the author of the paper.

8.Naag Lok (2007) carries in one volume Dil’s three books of poetry: Satluj di Hawa (1971), Bahut Sare Suraj (1982), and Sathhar (1997). Hence this and the subsequent references are to the page numbers of Naag Lok.

9.Dil’s images are quintessential poetic images in Bachelard’s sense. For Bachelard, the poetic image begins to find its form at the limits of visualization conceived as imaging or reflection. It is a work of the imagination at the limits, a limit experience, from which the lineaments of another world can be dimly sighted.

10. A hawker’s basket.

11.His wish that his dead body should be buried could somehow not be fulfilled. The body was cremated.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Dil, Lal Singh (2007). Naag Lok [Serpent World] (Ludhiana: Chetna).

--- (2009). Ajj Billa Phir Aya [Billa Came Again Today] (Chandigarh: Lokgeet).

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Bachelard, Gaston (1964). The Poetics of Space. 1958. Trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon).

Benjamin, Walter (2007). Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. 1955; 1968 (New York: Schocken, Random House).

Berger, John (2003). “The Hour of Poetry.” Selected Essays. Ed. Geoff Dyer. (New York: Vintage international). 445 52.

Butler, Judith. “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics.” AIBR. 4 (3): i xiii. Viewed on 7 March 2013 (

Derrida, Jacques (2006). Specters of Marx: the State of Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. 1993; 1994 (New York and London: Routledge).

Devy, G.N. (2011). A Nomad Called Thief: Reflections on Adivasi Silence. 2006 (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan).

Harvey, David (2003). The New Imperialism (Oxford: OUP).

--- (2005). Spaces of Neoliberalization: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag).

Jameson, Fredric (1991). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press).

Llosa, Mario Vargas. Interviewed by Susannah Hunnewell and Ricardo Augusto Setti. “Mario Vargas Llosa, The Art of Fiction No. 120.” The Paris Review. Viewed on 5 March 2013 (

Luxemburg, Rosa (2003). The Accumulation of Capital. Trans. Agnes Schwarzschild. 1913; 1951 (London and New York: Routledge).

Marx, Karl (1990). Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. Trans. Ben Fowkes. 1867; 1976 (London: Penguin).

Nietzsche, Friedrich W. (1989) On the Genealogy of Morals. 1887. Trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage).

Orwell, George (2008). Books v. Cigarettes. 1946 (London: Penguin).

“PM warns of 'footloose migrants' from rural areas”. Hindustan Times. 28 Dec 2012. Viewed on 28 Dec. 2012 (

Raina, Badri (2012). The Underside of Things: India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011 (Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective).

Roy, Arundhati (2008). The Shape of the Beast: Conversations with Arundhati Roy (Viking Penguin India).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.

Standing, Guy (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic).

Rajesh Sharma is Professor of English, Punjabi University, Patiala. 07837960942.