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)

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