Millennium Post

The I in Identity

Walking in to a bookstore, you move towards your usual comfort spots, taking in the smells as they move through you, like so many memories, at any given moment. Any given moment, but right now. You see a pile of books stacked in the corner, leaning precariously close to toppling over, when one falls in your general direction, and you happen to catch it.

Flipping it open, to no page in particular, you find yourself encountering an ‘I’. What is scary, at this moment, is that this is an autobiographical ‘I’. 

Sucking you into its depths, it begins to speak, not only to you, but through you, in this moment right here.

This is perhaps, the most common dilemma I face, when encountering an autobiography. Eventually, the pages become a blur, and I get trapped in the confines of somebody else’s story, while being released from my own. I happened to chance upon the recent translation of the two part autobiography of the Kannada poet, Siddalingaiah, at a book store in South Delhi, on one gloriously rainy evening sometime in March, and more than anything else, it was the speed with which I poured through it, that surprised me the most. My friend who speaks fluent Kannada assured me that S R Ramakrishna, who translated the work, had somehow managed to capture the essence of the original language and transpose the “feeling” into English. If the translator disappears from a text they have translated, she added, they can be said as having left a permanent imprint in the minds of the reader (through their absence).

Ooru Keri, published in 1996, and the second part in 2009, comes together as two parts of a life filled with resonances that matter, in the truest sense of the word, to you and I, the reader in 2015. This book, bringing together the two parts, halves even, of Siddalingaiah’s life, manages to trace his hand, and through it – him, from his earliest of recollections as a child growing up in ‘the last house in the dalit colony’ around Magadi, to having become a major force not only in the Dalit movement in India, but as a permanent moment in the history of Kannada writing, and Indian Literature in general. It is not my place here, in this review, to mark the importance of issues of language, and of Dalit identity in this country. What I’m here to do is to try and attempt at communicating the importance of such a book, having been published in English by Navayana in 2013, not only for the current climate that we all are part of and witness to, but also to the person writing this review.

The book is littered with short, terse prose, which often times, moves from one narrative to the other with simply, a break in paragraph. This is done so effortlessly, that in the rare moment that you pause to take a deep breath in between these breaks, your eyes falling on the first line of the next paragraph, you find yourself placed in yet another narrative that has its own story to tell. What’s more is the way the narratives are placed side by side, one rubbing against the other, in a comfortable ease that moves through issues of poverty, violence based on caste prejudices, critique of educational institutions and governmental reforms, and the issue of faith in the existence of god (to name a few), and the only thing tying these seemingly disparate thematics together is the singular ‘I’ of Siddalingaiah’s creation tagging us along, and gently nudging us, the readers, to reflect on each experience, each situation, each moment.

I laughed a lot during this book, which goes to show you, how in moments of the worst tragedies, only the best among us can take away something humorous,  something worth holding on to, something that instead of bending under the weight of inequality, and oppression in silence, breathes, speaks, and helps us understand. Siddalingaiah doesn’t sensationalise. The most poignant experiences, are placed in equal strides with the most pleasant, almost as if each left traces on one another. How could they not? It is the autobiographical ‘I’, after all, that goes through each, and it is the ‘I’ that is the source for identity.

After every few pages you will encounter a surprise in the form of an, oftentimes page length, sketch by Laxman Aelay, but even here the care with which the publishers have articulated the experience of this book, is more than evident. You see, these sketches will not make sense to you, if you don’t read the book. Narratives taken from preceding pages are here given a visual form, a graphic illustration, what I would like to call a visual bookmark. If you see part of the sketch (on page 25, as way of an example) consisting of a young boy holding on to a goat, while right above it is a traced outline of a man smoking a bidi, while in the upper right corner of the page is a figure standing in the distance under a tree with backdrop of what seems to be a village, as you flip through the book, you begin to wonder as to what exactly has brought these three images together. Are they from a particular story? Or are they in fact three separate moments in the book so far, brought together by the artist to remind, to not forget, the story so far? Like I said, visual bookmark.

It is needless to say, that in this autobiography by a Kannada poet, there is poetry. But the way in which the poems function is strange. They record not only the history of the poet’s own life, but an entire plethora of folk narratives that shaped an entire generation, in their struggles with their identities. The book title itself is taken from Siddalingaiah’s poem Maatada Beku (translated by Sumatheendra Nadig at the beginning of the text as I Must Have A Word With You). And it is this world that needs to read these words. There is hope in this book. 

A hope for a conversation, for opening up a space for discourses surrounding the major issues that are ailing if not you, someone you know, or someone you definitely need to know, and not just “about”. 

Siddalingaiah, and Navayana, have left something for us, that we need to explore, not just because this traces a particular history of Dalit consciousness from a post-independence (and partition) India to the late 2000s, but because if there is anything we, as people reflecting on the nation, and our roles in it, need to do, is look towards the ‘I’ that holds, let’s go, remembers, forgets, records, erases, gets hurt, laughs, and most importantly, experiences.

In this age of such rampant nationalistic sentiments surrounding ‘Indianness’, it is this ‘I’ that needs to be conversed with. This autobiography is a step in that direction.

The author is a professor at Delhi University
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