Come be the Snakes that Strike (Dr. Siddalingaiah)

I began this week with the translation of a poem — to which I’ve just added the audio — by Dr. Siddalingaiah and I thought I would end it with another one. The title of this poem leapt out at me as I browsed through a book of Siddalingaiah’s poems. Actually reading the poem was an even more striking experience –  and made me almost certain I wanted to translate it. I will confess that the last couple of lines tripped me up (and I’m still not sure I’ve fully understood them), but, on the whole, I am rather satisfied with the translation. As far as I am concerned, this is both a greater and a more important poem that “ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು (nanna janagaḷu: My People)“, the poem’s whose translation I published at the beginning of this week. It may not be as popular – Siddalingaiah himself popularized ‘My People’ through his numerous public readings of it (none of which I was fortunate enough to witness) – but it is more poetic, more passionate, and certainly more filled with the imagery that prompted a critic to call Siddalingaiah ‘the emperor of the exaggerated conceit’.

This time, I decided to have a go at reciting the poem. I can’t hope to do it the justice that someone like Siddalingaiah (or even a ‘dalit’ who’s experienced what Siddalingaiah did) could, but it’s the best I can offer in lieu of a recitation by Siddalingaiah himself.

Recitation of the original Kannada poem:


Come be the Snakes that Strike (ಹಾವುಗಳೇ ಕಚ್ಚಿ)

All you —
who having heaved the sky and made it stand
           now stand yourselves having turned blue;
who having reddened black-coloured ground
           now flower as the plantain tree.

All you —
who when the sky rained pearly rain
           were struck down by the lightning;
who to burn in flame the prideful ones
           came down as the fiery rain.

All you —
who springing water in the ground and land
           grew the graceful golden grain;
who toiled and toiling turned to dust
           máde of your own hunger your food.

All you —
who to the masters’ outstretched cane
           offered up your back and arms;
come now and puff out your chest
           to the gunpoint that is waiting.

All you —
who lulled by mantras were dead to truth
           come be the fíre that flames;
who, by not being aware hid your envy away,
           cóme be the snakes that strike.

Recitation of the English translation:

(Translated by Madhav Ajjampur)

The Rabbit and the Moon (Vaidehi)

Audio of the original Kannada poem:


The Rabbit and the Moon (ಮೊಲ ಮತ್ತು ಚಂದ್ರ)

The moon came over the mountain
he climbed the mountain and left

Here, right here, he stood
he was there silently
he looked like he was running
he moved like he was coming down

The moon left over the mountain
he climbed the mountain and came

He was playing in a silence,
washing his face-of-light
a moon-dot was on his forehead –
it was a summer’s night

The moon came over the mountain
he climbed the mountain and left

He rose from the clouds’s thisside
he slept between the clouds
waking, suddenly, he turned
into a child that laughed

The moon left over the mountain
he climbed the mountain and came

the moon came over the mountain
he saw a rabbit kid

Quietly – slowly – he said come,
he gently picked it up
(the wind swung in the sky)
rock, my darling, rock –
isn’t the world a sight!

The traveller came over the mountain
he climbed the mountain and left
in the terrace of the sky above
is the rabbit with the moon

Afterword:

Not too long ago, I published a translation of Vaidehi’s well-known poem, ‘ತಿಳಿದವರೇ … ಹೇಳಿ (You who clearly know … tell me)“, in which she professes to knowing much more about ತಿಳಿಸಾರು (tiḷisaaru: ~ clear saaru) than poetry. While that poem is obviously satirically self-deprecating and the poem’s conceit is clearly feminist, I am actually inclined to agree with Vaidehi’s assessment – speaking strictly in terms of “lyric poetry”. What I mean is: very few of Vaidehi’s poems would qualify as lyric poems, which are the kind of poems I like best (but which are, especially in today’s modernist or post-modernist or whatever times, perhaps the hardest kind of poems to write). From what I can tell, most of Vaidehi’s poems are “free verse” poems – almost prose-like actually. (This isn’t to say that Vaidehi is capable of writing lyric poetry – the sensitive nature of her prose is proof that she has the necessary sensibility.)

In any case, this particular poem is one of Vaidehi’s few lyrical poems (in that it moves to a rhythm). Perhaps the poem allows for a deeper reading, but from what I can tell, it seems to be a poem for children – which, then, explains its rhythmic nature. It’s also why I chose to sing rather than recite it.

An Evening Raga (K. S. Narasimhaswamy)

This is a translation of a poem by K. S. Narasimhaswamy (ಕೆ. ಎಸ್. ನರಸಿಂಹಸ್ವಾಮಿ), one of the greatest poets of 20th-century Kannada literature. I remember reading somewhere – but I can’t find where now – that a well-known and respected Kannada literary and cultural critic called Bendre, Narasimhaswamy, Adiga, and one other poet (Kambar?) the four major poets of 20th-century Kannada literature.
While it goes without saying that Bendre‘s name must show up in any such list, it is my opinion that KSNa (kay-es-naah) – as Narasimhaswamy was popularly known – was the “best of the rest”. Beginning his poetic career with the publication of the tremendously-popular “ಮೈಸೂರು ಮಲ್ಲಿಗೆ (Mysuru Mallige: ~ The Mysore Jasmine)” poetry collection in 1942, KSNa would remain a ‘searching poet’ over the next fifty years. Not half as prolific as Bendre (but, then, which world-class poet in any language has been?), he was nonetheless a ‘born poet’; with a deep-rooted affection for both the language of his people and the people themselves. Starting out, like almost every poet does, as a “romantic poet”, KSNa used the ಆಡುಭಾಷೆ (spoken language) of the Old Mysore region like no other contemporary poet did. (Bendre’s astonishing use of the Dharwad “vulgate” completely transformed the idea of what was and wasn’t possible within poetry.)

The poem below is one of those poems I “loved at first sight”. Attempting to translate it was simply natural. The poem itself could be called (within the tradition of English poetics) a “blank verse narrative”. The idea, during the translation, was to find a corresponding “blank verse rhythm” in English. I like to think that I have managed that.

You will notice that the poem is rather long. I thought I could try reciting it (expressively), but several attempts made it clear that this poem was not amenable to a recitation. In the meanwhile, my father had suggested “singing” the poem in the ಲಾವಣಿ (lāvaṇi) style, a style similar to the balladic – and usually reserved for narrative poems like this one. Consequently, I have, not for the first time, taken him up on the suggestion and tried to “sing” the song in the balladic style.

The only reason you get to listen to my recording rather than my father’s is because he’s a little under the weather and isn’t up to singing such a long poem himself. (My father’s voice and sense for music is significantly better than mine and I hope to share his sung version as soon as he feels ready to record it. Until then, I hope I haven’t done too bad a job and that you will be able to bear listening to the recording. Here is a recording of my father singing a Bendre poem to a tune of his own.)

Nota bene: Like I said, I’m not particularly musical but if you’re reading this and you are (or you know someone who is), I’d love to hear a balladic rendering of the English translation I’ve made. I hope some of you will be able to oblige me and I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks.

“Singing” of the Kannada poem:


An Evening Raga (ಸಂಧ್ಯಾರಾಗ)

He, who for thirty years, rode proudly on his horse;
who, in three precincts, was better known as ‘King’;
when, now retired, has come home with a smile,
what makes you stand like this outside the door?

The
sarkāri stuff we had was taken yesterday;
there’s no need now to guard the room, come in;
the chair of your wedding-day is here; sit down,
set down the post you came to give to me.

This garland’s yesterday’s; the poor thing’s faded

now; these fruits won’t last, they must be quickly shared.
I am not worthy of this gift, this walking stick;
take it; use it for your work with sēvige*.

No need to blush; just talk; sing too, if you will;

it’s only now I see how beautiful you are.
If love found others when they were young, I offer
thanks for its finding us upon this second cusp.

Let those who said, “horses are this king’s craze,

he does not care about his home” come here and look;
I’ll show them how this family really lives;
what, after all, did thàt horse ever do?

It only ever bridled once; I fell on to the fence.

I must have only told you of my wins; you do
not know about my falls; move closer now and
listen; the next day at the courthouse’s front I saw

a newly-married pair, a prideful pair

(he’d drowned himself in her embrace)
come cycling down the road all crookedly;
my anger stoked, I’d gone to the police.

I now regret that day’s impulsiveness;

forgive me. What thought is on your mind?
My pension’s going to fill our coffers soon;
that should suffice, for us two and our son.

That golden-boy who lives across the seas;

let him return, kaṇay, with his medallions!
Your brother’s daughter waits; we’ll marry them;
let them, like royalty, leave for an Ooty* trip

in their new car; I will not make them wait;

and if I do, my mouth will only drop a kiss;
Ooty that glitters in the Nilgiris*! Such procss-
ions are not new – a time ago, they ended here

and not in
Ooty-land; we two can testify
to that! Then came the job; you too returned,
the horse too came, then went; then came the car;
why, until we’d sold the car at half its price,

did we not think to make an
Ooty trip?
Free now, the idea of this trip struck me
just yesterday; and picking up the phone,
I called the travel-man and asked him secretly;

he said he’d write to let me know, then cut the

phone; something made me rush upon this second cusp;
what you’ve now brought may be his letter after all!
I should have seen it right away; here, let’s read it now.

“It’s horse-race-gambling season in
Ooty now,
everyone must attend! There are no private vehicles.
Instead, we’ve buses whose headlights split the night;
take one and come.” Hear that? ‘I, with my better half,

I, who for thirty years, rode proudly on his horse,

who, in three precincts, was better known as ‘King’
cannot go to Ooty in that thing’ is what I’ll
write and say to him. Let us go later on –

when, with our son’s bride, a new car comes;

when, opening its door, the car calls us to come –
but, before all that, our boy must first come back;
let’s wait for him – that golden-boy across the seas.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Glossary
:

1 . sevige (say-we-gay): the Kannada word for (something akin to) vermicelli

2. ooty (ooh-tea): a popular hill station in Southern India; part of the state of Tamilnadu

3. nilgiri (neel-ghir-e): literally, blue mountain; the longest mountain range in Southern India

My Mother’s Place (A Kannada Folksong)

I was introduced to this song-poem by Shilpa Mudbi, a folk-artist who – through her Urban Folk Project – has been doing her best to keep alive the folk traditions of (her ancestral part of) Karnataka; generally North Karnataka (and, more specifically, the village of Mudbi). This particular song was bequeathed to Shilpa by her ajji, her grandmother; who, Shilpa tells me, is a treasure trove of such songs.
The song-poem I’m offering here is a distillation of Shilpa’s own presentation (where she intersperses the song with her commentary). You can find Shilpa’s presentation here. It is important to note that a song-poem like this is necessarily fluid; its lyrics are not fixed in the way the lyrics of today’s poems and songs are fixed. The lyrics I’ve given right below may be considered “formal”. Having never been written down (until quite recently), it should be not surprising if different inheritors of this oral tradition sing the song in different ways with different pronunciations.
It is worth noting that this fluidity is an essential part of the oral tradition — and offers the inheritor of the tradition a chance to make the song her own. You will note, if you watch Shilpa’s presentation, that she has “added” an extra stanza to the poem. I believe that is Shilpa’s way of continuing the tradition even as she inserts herself into it. (As I understand it, Shilpa has recently relocated to the Gulbarga area of North Karnataka with the intention of “returning home [to Mudbi]”, as it were, and immersing herself in the sounds and scents of the soil and the people who nourished those songs that now offer her nourishment.)

Note: Here is the Facebook page of ‘The Urban Folk Project’. Here is their Youtube channel. And here is their Instagram profile.

Finally, before I offer up the song-poem, here’s what Da Ra Bendre, 20th-century Kannada’s genius poet and one of the greatest lyric poets to have lived, had to say about song-poems like this one and the women who created them. It is an excerpt from my English translation of the ಪರಿಚಯ (paricaya: ~ introduction) Bendre wrote for “ಗರತಿಯ ಹಾಡು (garatiya haaḍu: ~ songs of our womenfolk)”, a collection of traditional Kannada “folksongs”. A great portion of these folksongs were gathered by Bendre’s ಗೆಳೆಯರು (friends-colleagues) from women living in the villages of the ತದ್ದೆವಾಡ (taddevāḍa) area of Bijapur and brought out in book form in 1932.

For those who worship living itself, the rishis of the spontaneous three-line verses of these ‘Songs of our Womenfolk’ are women: our mothers and our sisters, our aunts and our nieces, our wives and our children. If we were to properly think about it, theirs is the real poetry. Everything else is just a shade of that poetry. Our tradition tells that poetry is ಕಾಂತಾಸಮ್ಮಿತಿ (kāntāsammiti: ~ like the talk of the beloved). But if poetry is that which is like the talk of the beloved, is not the actual talk of the beloved the mother of our poetry? What we proudly call poetry is really one of her children. The words of the ‘beloved’ is the true poetry; it was upon seeing how those who stubbornly refused to follow the vedas, who refused to cede authority to the shastras could be softened by the words of the ‘beloved’ that the essence of the vedas and the shastras took on the winsome form of poetry. (Here, it is important to not restrict the ‘beloved’ simply to the ‘wife’ but to think of her as representative of all womankind.)

(Edited) audio of Shilpa singing the poem:


My Mother’s Place

Bending I’m drawing rangolis
outside the door – such varieties;
the same dream it pláys and plays,
how to escape to mother’s place;
I’ve now come to my mother’s place,
I remémber her – tears wet my face.

Brother’s wife so full of cunning,
her glances – they’re piércing things.
I went to the river with brother
to tell him to talk sternly to her;
I’ve now come to my mother’s place,
I remémber her – tears wet my face.

Vasudeva, lord of this land,
make my mother’s place abundant;
make my mother’s place abundant,
goddess, I bring karpūra to your temple
I’ve now come to my mother’s place,
I remémber her – tears wet my face.

(Translated by Madhav Ajjampur)

P.S: The idea was to create an English translation that could be sung in (more or less) the same tune as the original. I think you should try it and let me know if you were able to. Also, for those interested, here’s a write-up from three months ago, part of my informal collaboration with Shilpa. What you see in the afterword is part of the write-up.

Afterword:

This song speaks to a village woman’s idea of her mother’s home or mother’s place as her (only) sanctuary. While not irrelevant to other cultures and countries, this idea is particularly Indian in its scope. The reason is simple: the longstanding (patriarchal) notion of a woman as chattel or property who is passed on – at the time of her wedding – from her father’s custody to her husband’s custody; in other words, kanyādāna. With dāna accorded such high status in Indian (Hindu) culture, the dāna of one’s daughter becomes an act of merit (or puṇya) for the father. The recepient of the dāna is the husband. Caught between the giver and the taker is the woman, an independent being wholly deprived of her agency. (This short, no-dialogue film offers a take on this transaction.)

What then makes a woman look on her mother’s home as a sanctuary (if that is where her father is too)? I reckon it is solely the presence of her mother, perhaps the only person in this world who can and does sympathize with her predicament. Given the legendary atté-sosé (or saas-bahu; mother-in-law–daughter-in-law) relationship, it is expected that the woman will be treated poorly in her husband’s home – where she will serve, variously, as a washing machine, cook, sweeper, and child-bearer. Given these circumstances, returning to her mother’s home or place is the only respite a woman can look forward to; a short time when she can “put her feet up” and be taken care of, be her mother’s child again. But with the passing of her mother, the mother’s home too becomes a different place; bereft, less comforting, and ‘ruled’ by a different woman – usually, her brother’s wife.

(A real irony of the whole situation is the role of the woman in her own subjugation. By her unthinking propagation of patriarchal norms, she ensures her bondage within the ‘system’. For example, even her ‘mother’s place’ that the woman speaks of so fondly was once her mother’s mother-in-law’s place; a place her mother once bore suffering that she wished to escape from by going to her mother’s place. Here’s some more on the matter.)

A final word. It is important to understand that this song is not contemporary. That is to say, it does not (like it may have a hundred years ago when this song was put together by women as they ground flour in the early morning) represent the reality of nearly all women within India. Yes, the patriarchy persists (and not just in India), but things – from a woman’s perspective at least – are changing for the better. Anti-discrimination laws together with increasing urbanization have changed society in untold ways.

On the other hand, it is just as important to understand that attitudes of this sort persist – and not just in India’s villages. Countless dowry deaths and domestic violence testify to its persistence. So too does the inclusion of this attitude within a language itself. For instance, it is normal in Kannada to speak of ‘ಹೆಣ್ಣನ್ನು [ಒಂದು] ಊರಿಗೆ ಕೊಡೋದು’ or ‘heṇṇannu [ondu] ūrige koḍōdu’, i.e., ‘give a female to a [certain] town’ in the context of her being married off to a man who lives in that town. I don’t know what the situation’s like in other Indian languages, but I reckon it isn’t too different.

All in all, though, I see no reason to not be optimistic. After all, the idea of dharma (~morality) that underlies Hindu tradition is the opposite of stagnant in that it allows, encourages, and even advocates for change to suit the times.

The Rangoli and my Son (K. S. Nisar Ahmed)

Recitation of the poem by Nisar himself:


The Rangoli and my Son (ರಂಗೋಲಿ ಮತ್ತು ಮಗ)

1

In front of every house but ours
was an early-morning rangavalli* –
like brightly shining teeth,
like the entire gully
was merry with a mirth.
Leaving to get the milk at dawn,
my mind would be fully captured
by the pictures that had been drawn;
unlocking room on room in my empty mind –
oh, what a surge of feeling they’d fill me with!

This one’s design is not like that;
among these drawings can be found
a greater meaning to geometric laws
that seem so complicated and hard:
the touch of a finger that is soft.
Now, through her rangoli, this sumangali*
(who didn’t go at all to college)
gives, every day, a shape and form
to geometry’s laws of knowledge.

What edges and what lines!
What circles and what squares!
A swastika*, a mandala*, a star;
to some ancient mantra’s chant,
this artistry has spread its wings –
see how it is nòw flying.

2

The rangavalli
it stole my heart when I was young –
and still forming fully.
Unable to tell where were its start and end
(and feeling bad I couldn’t understand)
I’d worried my head from time to time:
having entered, with my eyes,
the thicket of its white patterns.

Astonished to see
the neighour woman bending
to draw, in a second, an unusual rangoli,
I’d, taking the powder of a piece of chalk,
looked to draw it in our verandah –
only to fail each time I tried;
I’d been labelled a kafir*
by my mother for this deed.

Once, the neighbouring lady, Vedavalli,
had drawn a thick-knotted rangavalli.
Smiling widely – her teeth all showing –
at the deep-gazed curiosity I was displaying,
“Why don’t saabru* draw such rangoli?” she’d asked.
My god, if only I’d had an answer!
I’d stood ashamed, not looking at her.

When ajji* chastised the outhouse-folk
for using their threshold to draw a rangoli
abba! that incident had hurt me deeply.
Once, when in some worry of my own,
I’d veered from my path and stepped upon
a house’s rangoli, I’d yanked my foot away
as if what I’d stamped was a fiery coal.
‘Did those people see me?’ was my other worry.

3

The day before, my six-year boy
set out with me to buy some milk.
My eyes took in the rangoli as we walked;
noticing this, my boy had asked –
‘Why is it that every day
they draw these circle-figures in this way?’
I’d already cut and cleared and pared
the knotty details of what I had to say:
I offered the clean-shaven branch of my reply;
“Doing this is not our people’s way”.
As the churn of his mind began to mask
his clear face and the question ‘why’ looked set to flash,
I voiced, to quiet him, that old refrain:
“This is not spoken of in the koran*.”
Flying out of its half-second’s-silence nest
it pounced – another garuda*-winged question:
‘Must we do as it says there?’
Yes, I said –
the drizzle of his questions
had left me in despair.
The year our house was built, your name –
you had that written outside our house;
is that too something the koran says?

Can he be called a child,
this one who’s come to squeeze
my conscience’s throat?
Spreading its tentacles, his artless question
has brought me to despair;
smashing pot upon filled pot that holds
my beliefs, my customs, my ways.

“Hurry up, the queue’ll get long”, I said,
returning to the real world.
The rangoli was resting – like every other day:
like a little bird spreads its two wings,
my son spread his questions-of-wondering:
in doing so, he lit within my mind
a fire of questioning.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Note: What I’ve given above is the audio of Nisar reading the poem. To watch Nisar reading it, go here.

Glossary:

1. rangavalli (or rangoli): an art form that involves creating (often intricate) decorative patterns using chalk, rice powder, flowers, etc.

2. sumangali: a married (Hindu) woman

3. swastika: an ancient symbol in the form of an equal-armed cross with each arm continued at a right angle; a symbol of auspiciousness in Indic religions; the Nazis’s use of the (inverted) swastika as their emblem has contributed to its extremely negative image

4. mandala: literally, a circular figure, a disk; it has philosophical implications in Hinduism and Buddhism

5. kafir: an infidel, an unbeliever, a non-Muslim (per orthodox Islamic theology)

6. saabru: a Kannada word often used to refer to people who are Muslim; it derives from the urdu word ‘saab‘ (the equivalent of the English ‘mister’) and is more neutral than derogatory

7. ajji : the Kannada word for grandmother

8. koran: Islam’s holy book; considered the ‘word of god’ by orthodox believers

9. garuda: a fabulous bird of Hindu mythology, said to be the god Vishṇu‘s mount; often called the ‘king of the birds’ and understood to be, per traditional texts, the mortal enemy of snakes and the snake-people (nāgas)

Afterword:

Here’s an English distillation of what I wrote (in Kannada) upon learning of Nisar’s death on May 3, 2020. Those of you who’d like to read the original write-up can find it here.

When he lived, Prof. Nisar Ahmed’s immensely popular ಭಾವಗೀತೆ (bhavageethe: ~ lyric poems; song-poems) – including favourites like ‘In the Jog Falls’ Beautiful Light…” and “Our Krishna Stole the Butter…” – made him a household name in Karnataka. His writing, however, was not restricted to the production of such song-poetry. He was, in fact, a “modern” poet; whose sensibility allowed him to remain a “romantic”. In his best-selling “ನಿತ್ಯೋತ್ಸವ (nityōtsava: ~ Every day’s a Festival)” collection of poems, Nisar deliberately returned to this “romantic” poetry – with the explicit intent to make poetry accessible again.

As a Muslim writing in Kannada, Nisar’s (poetic) perspective added a new dimension to Kannada literature. His use of Urdu words in his Kannada poetry is particularly worthy of remark. (A majority of Muslims in Karnataka consider Urdu their ‘mother tongue’. However, the Urdu they speak is almost pidgin and looked down upon by the Dakkani speakers of the Hyderabad region – whose speech, in turn, is looked down upon by speakers of Laknavi, considered the most refined and courtly version of Urdu. That being said, almost every school-educated Muslim in Karnataka speaks Kannada, the language of the state of Karnataka.)
In my opinion – which is based on a limited reading of Nisar’s poetry and prose – Nisar’s use of Urdu in his Kannada poetry was extremely deliberate and his way of asserting his dual identity — as a Muslim’ and a ‘Kannadiga (Kannada speaker)’. I also think it served as a way for him to express his views on the give-and-take that happens at the intersection of society, religion, and language, even as he used it as a tool of introspection and self-reflection.

This poem you’ve just read is considered one of his “important” poems. The reason I translated it, though, was because it was a poem I enjoyed – not least for the singular point of view it offered. As far as I am concerned, the poem is a poem of “searching” and “reflection”.

My Ajji’s Passed (Soujanya Bokkasam)

Recitation of the poem by the poet, Soujanya, herself:


My Ajji’s Passed

My ajji‘s passed –
in my eyes
she’s turned to tears that will not cease;
suddenly appearing everywhere,
slowly staying in me – here
she’s become a river of memories;
she’s become a rain
of all exquisite
feeling and pain;
she’s turned –
into the wave
that comes and comes again;
into the tree leaves
that bring the shade;
entering me,
stepping happily,
she’s become an art
that will never die

My ajji‘s passed —
in my eyes
she’s turned to tears that will not cease…

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Recitation of the English translation:


Afterword
:

Soujanya, the creator of this poem, is my second cousin. She lost her ಅಜ್ಜಿ (ajji: grandmother) in early April. Some two or three days later, her father – Sudhakar uncle, who has been a great supporter of my translations of Bendre’s poetry – sent me this poem with a photo of his mother (Soujanya’s grandmother) attached. I read the poem and was immediately taken with it. I found it a particularly exquisite “reaction” to her ajji‘s death, sensitive without being sentimental. I also found the images “quietly powerful”; not especially new perhaps, but genuine – with just the right balance of the personal and the general. You will notice that Soujanya does not describe her ajji with the slightest particularity – and yet, you get the sense of the woman who has passed and the influence she had on her granddaughter.

You can find Soujanya on Instagram here: @soujanyabokkasam

My People (Dr. Siddalingaiah)

Dr. Siddalingaiah is known for having recited it countless times, but I was never fortunate enough to get to listen to him doing so nor have been able to finding an audio recording of his recitation. It is for want of such an audio file that I decided to recite the poem myself. If someone knows where I can find an audio or video of Dr. S reciting it himself, please let me know.

Also, for those who’d like to listen to it sung, here’s another recording. The problem with singing a poem like this one though is that the lightness of the music can mean a “sterilization” of the poem’s passionate anguish.


My People (ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು)

They are my people —
who die from hunger – who haul large stones
who getting kicked drop on their backs;
who beg for mercy – whose hands are slaves,
who’re so devout such devotees

They are my people —
who till and later sow the soil – who cut the crop and sweat,
then burn up in the sun’s hot heat;
who come back empty-handed – who draw a sigh and sit
empty-stomached in their ragged clothes

They are my people —
who raise the roofs – who build the towers
only to then be caught beneath;
who haunt the streets – who make no noise
before they cry themselves to sleep

They are my people —
who pay the leech – who fired by a speech
catch flame and burn and turn to ash;
who stitch the boots – who fix the shoes
of those who take god’s name and eat

My people —
they mine the gold – they get no food
they stitch the cloth – their body’s nude;
my people –
they do as they are told to do,
they simply live upon the wind.

(Translated by Madhav Ajjampur)

Afterword:

Holageri Siddalingaiah (1954 – present), better known to the public as Dr. Siddalingaiah, shot to fame in the early 1970s, right after the publication of his poetry collection “ಹೊಲೆಮಾದಿಗರ ಹಾಡು (holemādigara hāḍu: ~ the song of the subjugated men)”. His was a new, previously-unheard voice; full of anger and fire and truth as it protested the ill-treatment of “his people”; the trodden-upon, the underprivileged, the exploited, the dalits (by birth, social status, and treatment). In his 60s now, Dr. Siddalingaiah has mellowed, naturally. He is no longer the fierce poet-activist he was in his youth – his first poetry collection was published when he was just 21 years old and comprised poems he’d written beginning when he was 14 or 15! – who drew society’s attention to the plight of the downtrodden via a poetry that flamed with a light and heat that were its own. (One prominent Kannada cultural critic called Siddalingaiah ‘the king of the exaggerated conceit’.)
In the last twenty years, in fact, Dr. Siddalingaiah has become better known for his much-praised autobiography “ಊರು ಕೇರಿ (ūru kēri: ~ the town and the outskirts)”, a narrative of his early and middle years. The book’s first volume was released in 2003, the second volume in 2006, and the third volume in 2018.
Coming to Kannada literature when I did, I too first learnt about Dr. Siddalingaiah through his autobiography (whose first volume I have). I do not remember too much of it, but one portion remains vivid. It is an account of Siddalingaiah watching his father in the fields beyond the ಕೇರಿ (kēri) where they lived. Siddalingaiah talks about seeing his father and another man (who was also a dalit) being yoked, like oxen, to the cart and then being driven through the field. It is an image indelibly etched in Siddalingaiah’s mind – and becomes, through his narrative, an image that both startles and transfixes any (non-dalit) reader of his work.

Note: The rights to this poem belong with Dr. Siddaliangaiah and his publishers. No copyright infringement is intended. The lyrics to the poem have been provided only to give the curious rasika a chance to read the original.

Here are the ಮೂಲ ಕನ್ನಡ ಪಾಠ and the English transliteration. Go here for a guide on how to read the transliteration.

ಹಸಿವಿನಿಂದ ಸತ್ತೋರು ಸೈಜುಗಲ್ಲು ಹೊತ್ತೋರು
ವದೆಸಿಕೊಂಡು ವರಗಿದೋರು ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು
ಕಾಲುಕಯ್ಯಿ ಹಿಡಿಯೋರು ಕೈ ಮಡಗಿಸಿಕೊಳ್ಳೋರು
ಭಕ್ತರಪ್ಪ ಭಕ್ತರೋ ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು

hasivininda sattōru saijugallu hottōru
vadesikoṇḍu varagidōru nanna janagaḷu
kālukayyi hiḍiyōru kai maḍagisikoḷḷōru
bhaktarappa bhaktarō nanna janagaḷu

ಹೊಲವನುತ್ತು ಬಿತ್ತೋರು ಬೆಳೆಯ ಕುಯ್ದು ಬೆವರೋರು
ಬಿಸಿಲಿನಲ್ಲಿ ಬೇಯೋರು ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು
ಬರಿಗೈಲೇ ಬಂದೋರು ಉಸ್ಸೆಂದು ಕೂತೋರು
ಹೊಟ್ಟೆ ಬಟ್ಟೆ ಕಟ್ಟಿದೋರು ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು

holavanuttu bittōru beḷeya kuydu bevarōru
bisilanalli beyōru nanna janagaḷu
barigailē bandōru ussendu kūtōru
hoṭṭe baṭṭe kaṭṭidōru nanna janagaḷu

ಮಾಳಿಗೆಗಳ ಎತ್ತಿದೋರು ಬಂಗಲೆಗಳ ಕಟ್ಟಿದೋರು
ತಳಾದೀಗೆ ಸಿಕ್ಕಿದೋರು ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು
ಬೀದಿಯಲ್ಲಿ ಬಿದ್ದೋರು ಸದ್ದಿಲ್ಲದೆ ಇದ್ದೋರು
ಒಳಗೊಳಗೇ ಅತ್ತೋರು ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು

māḷigegaḷa ettidōru bangalegaḷa kaṭṭidōru
taḷādīge sikkidōru nanna janagaḷu
bīdiyalli biddōru saddillade iddōru
oḷagoḷagē attōru nanna janagaḷu

ಬಡ್ಡಿಯನ್ನು ತೆತ್ತೋರು ಭಾಷಣಗಳ ಬೆಂಕಿಯಲ್ಲಿ
ಬೆಂದು ಬೂದಿಯಾದೋರು ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು
ಪರಮಾತ್ಮನ ಹೆಸರು ಹೇಳಿ ಪರಮಾನ್ನ ಉಂಡಜನಕೆ
ಬೂಟುಮೆಟ್ಟು ಹೊಲೆದೋರು ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು

baḍḍiyannu tettōru bhāshaṇagaḷa beṅkiyalli
bendu būdiyādōru nanna janagaḷu
paramātmana hesaru hēḷi paramānna uṇḍajanake
būṭumeṭṭu holedōru nanna janagaḷu

ಚಿನ್ನವನ್ನು ತೆಗೆದೋರು ಅನ್ನವನ್ನು ಕಾಣದೋರು
ಬಟ್ಟೆಯನ್ನು ನೇಯೋರು ಬರಿಮೈಲೇ ಹೋಗೋರು
ಹೇಳಿದಂತೆ ಕೇಳುತಾರೆ ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು
ಗಾಳಿಯಲ್ಲಿ ಬಾಳುತಾರೆ ನನ್ನ ಜನಗಳು

cinnavannu tegeyōru annavannu kāṇadōru
baṭṭeyannu nēyōru barimailē hōgōru
hēḷidante kēḷutāre nanna janagaḷu
gāḷiyalli bāḷutāre nanna janagaḷu