|Memoirs of a tea-vendor|
Lal Singh Dil
Social injustice, mental agony and physical torture have all become part of my poetry. In spite of this my friend and contemporary poet, Amarjit Chandan, wants me to write my story. So let it be written.
The atmosphere in school was not very congenial. I was kept away from sports and cultural activities. Some teachers would treat me as an equal, but by and large, I was made to feel like an outcast. I belonged to a caste which evoked hatred in both teachers and students.
When I graduated to the higher classes, I started picking up some skills which thrilled me. I especially liked to trace out a picture and then shade it. I traced a picture of Ravidas Bhagat which showed him standing. Below the image was a pair of shoes and some cobbler’s tools. The teacher in charge of the class looked at the drawing strangely and then laughed at it with some hatred, which was shared by the students. I brought the picture home with me from school.
In the lower classes, students would stage skits in which they played the part of upper-caste Jats. I, too, longed to do those roles, and once I got a chance. I just had to be on stage as one of three policemen who drag a person from one side to the other. But the day the play was to be staged, I was thrown out of the cast. It was felt that two policemen would suffice. There was no need for a third.
I never won a prize for cleanliness, though I would go to school on inspection day after scrubbing my face hard with laundry soap and tucking my kurta neatly into my khaki shorts. Never did I, or any other boy from a lower caste, get a chance to lead the prayers at the morning assembly. We went to a school meant for all, but students from the lower castes were always made to feel inferior.
Once, a teacher was preparing three or four of us for a poetry recitation. I still remember the poem, Kangali deshon kadhni hai; Bekari di jadh wadhani hai ('We have to drive poverty from our country; We have to cut at the roots of unemployment'). But finally, the teacher said: "Not this boy. His voice breaks." A healthy, good-looking boy was taken in my place.
I found the Raasdhariyas (itinerant folk theatre artistes) most interesting. The characters seemed to be real sadhus, carrying their strange world with them. The dance by the boys would create a fine mood for the performance. The plays that were staged included Roop Basant, Kiranmayi, Puran Bhagat and Harish Chandar. One had heard all these stories, but there was something different about drama. One day, commenting on the role of Harish Chandar, a boy from my mohalla said "You have become a choorha (sweeper), so must you weep? Those who are sweepers…"
No other play had depicted the lives of the sweepers so well. Watching it, I felt that the saga was set in the present. Harish Chandar was shown tending the pigs, working with a basket and broom, cremating corpses for a fee, and finally breaking down when his wife would not let him touch her for fear of being defiled. The play succeeded in conveying the sorrows of the worker and the wife was a symbol of a culture of hatred. The play even had a love-duet by a dandy sweeper couple, singing and playing hide-and-seek, basket, broom and all. These Rasdhariyas became my subject of study. I would watch them rehearsing and going about their chores all day. At night, when they put on their make-up for the performance, I would join the crowds that gathered around them.
I was very keen to go to college, though everyone was against it. What use would it be to send a chamar boy to college? The money-lender refused to give money for my admission fees. But my mother was determined to send me to college. She sold her ear-rings, paid my fees and even bought me a bicycle. I started attending classes.
I used to be good-looking. One day, a girl studying for the BA placed her hand on her heart on seeing me and said to her friends, "I think something’s dropped out of here." Another day, I found another girl of the BA course staring at me. She wore her hair in two plaits. In those days, girls wore their hair like that. She had a very sharp, very pretty nose. One day, I was cycling to my friend Charan Singh’s village when I saw the lovely girl with two plaits cycling the other way. Two girls working in the fields stopped her. She got off her bicycle and started laughing and talking with them. She was a daughter of the sardars of Charan’s village.
Then one day, the college seemed to be in mourning. Charan told me that she had died. The lovely girl with two plaits was no more. She had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. "She was studying when it happened, up on the terrace. She died at the hospital."
I started taking my writing more seriously. I wrote a rubai on the uncertainty of life and read it at the weekly meeting of the college’s literary club. I did not think it was much of a poem, but it became very popular and led to much jealousy.
Before that, my experience of college had been very different from that of the school. I found that the professors teaching me English, Punjabi and economics treated me just as they did anyone else. They did not belittle me in any way. Our English professor used to say that even if his students did not pass the examination, they would definitely learn the English language. He used to be very particular about the pronunciation of the letter ‘H’. I did well in the tests. But the success of my rubai annoyed other students, and after that I was excluded from poets’ meets.
There was a turning point in my life when I started tutoring a young boy studying in class eight. A cup of tea every day and a rupee every third day was my remuneration. But I was happy teaching Sitha, and really worked hard. In turn, he paid heed to everything I said and had a lot of regard for me.
But my classmates had not quite forgiven me that rubai, written to that lovely girl with two plaits. They could not bring her back from the dead so that she might mock me. Instead, there came another Sikh girl with two plaits. Her face was pockmarked, but to me she looked just a wee bit like the girl I had fancied in college. One day, while I was teaching Sitha, she came in with her notebook and started drawing attention to herself. While she was there, the electricity failed. It was dark, and I had a radium ring on my finger. "What a beautiful ring," she said and leaned over me. I could smell the pungent mustard oil in her hair. She asked me to come to her house to teach her. Since I was already a Marxist by ideology, I thought it my responsibility to teach. So I went there.
Then came the terrible insult. She gave me tea in a steel tumbler. After I had finished, her mother picked it up with a pair of tongs and threw it into the stove to purify it by fire. Then she picked it up with the tongs again and dipped it into water. The clatter of the tumbler being thrown about echoed in my ears. About that time, I recall having lost my mental balance somewhat. My parents had found a girl from my caste for me in Bahilolpur and an engagement was agreed upon, but the girl’s family broke it off later.
My poems made me many friends; Harjit Mangat was one of them. He was very attached to me but would often run me down. But when Preetlarhi, a leading literary Punjabi journal of those times, published my poem, he was silenced. He would often say: "No matter how hard we try, we can never be Lal Singh Dil." He would try very hard to purge my mind of my romantic stories about upper-caste girls. And it was on his suggestion that I went to Bahilolpur to do my Basic Teacher’s Training course. It was there that I wrote the poems on the wretched of the earth amidst whom I had grown up — the bonded labourers, the daily-wagers, the roving tribes and the poorest of the poor. In my poem Evening Tide, they seem to be Indian martyrs who refused to be crushed by the Aryans and continue their struggle even today.
In Bahilolpur, I had to read a lot of rubbish. Thousands of pages on Leninist thought. And an equal weight of And quiet flows the Don, which ran into four thick volumes. It was literary, but I couldn’t quite comprehend the writer’s philosophy. I had read many such books; the Russians had found a fine way of selling their scrap paper to Indian buyers. But I kept writing poetry and became active at literary meetings. I remember a rather influential member of the Likhari Sabha, Pandit Om Prakash, who was also a member of the Communist Party of India. He wanted a resolution passed against the events in China. "All that is happening there is wrong. They are evacuating all religious buildings." I said, "Let them." Anyway, no meeting was called and no resolution passed by the Likhari Sabha.
At that time, I had written a poem called Pests in which I compared Mao’s chairmanship — without naming him, of course — to a weeding tool in the hands of a gardener in the rainy season. I was happy when Lakeer published this poem. Mao was then the subject of hot debate on campus.
I was invited to read my poems at Gurusar Sudhar College. The mood was charged, like at a wrestling match. When my name was announced, I got up and said that I would read my poem, Evening Tide. The students in the audience laughed affectionately. I told them that Evening Tide could well be read in the afternoon. Afterwards, everyone turned serious. The principal gave a little speech on creating the right mood for serious poetry. The hottest question of the period was whether the Cultural Revolution would precede the political revolution, or vice versa.
News of Naxalbari spread like wildfire. I was working as a daily-wage labourer then. Carrying loads up and down the stairs, I felt strangely energised. It was like a great opportunity. What I had not been able to go and do in Vietnam, I would achieve here…
Lal Singh Dil was the first member of his low-caste family to finish school. At university, he turned activist and joined the far left Naxalite movement. He now runs a highway tea-stall at Samrala, Punjab, and writes one-line poems to be painted on the back of long-haul trucks