DESRAJ KALI: Meditations on the roots, soil and soul of writing

| September 12, 2017 | Interview | One Comment
Neeti and Kali

Indian English is a new language. It might be the most spoken language in India after perhaps Hindi. There are two kinds of fellow Indian writers. One group belongs to the elite, the ones who write for the award circuits, who have excellent language skills and who packages the exotic India to the west. The other group speaks the infant language called Indian English. They address the new generation of India’s mushrooming cities. I belong to the second group.


Neeti Singh interviews Desraj Kali

NS : Please talk about your birth as a writer. Also throw some light on your sources of inspiration – a philosophical creed, book or person.
DK : In actual terms, my birth as a writer happened during my days in college. Prior to that, I had begun to string together short stories, however, the thought that they should be sent for publishing or that I could become a writer hadn’t surfaced as yet. I was then a student of D. A. V. College, Jalandhar. In those days, in our college, a few Punjabi writers were emerging/surfacing. They were in touch with prominent established writers and would often organize writer’s meets around them. I got introduced to the writerly circles. There were among them, Devinder Mand, Bhagwant Rasoolpuri, Surinder Sohal, who were among the better Punjabi writers. The senior writers who I got acquainted with, had among them Prem Gorkhi whose name featured on the top. Around that time, a story of mine was published in the monthly journal, Naagmani, which was produced under the editorship of Amrita Pritam. That was a moment of balle-balle for me! (He grins). And I became a writer.

But I know this that behind my emergence as a writer, lies a lot that is very unusual, or unique. A lot that is unspoken, there are a lot of notes and their reverberations. There is a huge amount of cultural history. There are marriage songs – ghodiyaan* are there, there are suhaags* – and there are keerne* – songs of lamentations as well. Foremost among all is the generic kissa-kaav* that my father – Baapaji, used to read in a singsong, which as a literary seedling had begun to fester/germinate through my childhood years. My Baapaji would also read to us, Heer of Waris Shah, also Pandit Kishorchand Bandewaal’s Jaani Chor in 12 parts, the lore of Nal Damayanti, Roop Basant, Zindagi Bilas, Shah Baheram, Haatam-taai, and dozens of other such narratives he would read and sing to us. The village elders too would flock around and listen to these ballads/ kissa/tales from him. We too would listen. The poetic narratives/ ballads that are there in the Punjabi kissa-kaav tradition*, are overwhelmingly powerful. The treasure-house of punjabi vocabulary is impressive as well. So also, the historical extant/expanse of the kissa-kaav ballads. In our village there is a shrine of Pir Zindaa Shah. Every year, an Uras/commemoration is hosted/celebrated there. One Saint with his tumbaa* used to come there to sing. An amazing sufi atmosphere he used to create/weave. He too was an inspiration to me. Then the homes that were located behind ours, used to worship Gugga Pir. Every year they would feed the followers of Gugga Pir. The Gugga singers would perform the Katha through the entire night. The Katha used to be very engaging. In this very Katha, were to be found interesting anecdotes and details on Gorakhnath, and his impact on those that were his followers. All this in the atmosphere around me, was my inspiration. Enrapt in immense passion, it becomes apparent in my novels as well.

Along with this however, my father’s guru – spiritual mentor, Sant Pritamdas Chishti Saabri, was a Sufi. Prior to him his guru Sarvar Sarkar Sant Brahmadasji of Phillor was his Guru. We used to visit their dargahs. Qawwalis used to be performed there. These experiences touched my heart and initiated me into the Sufi ethos. Similarly my chacha Joginder Das had accepted as Guru one Nath Lahukaa Dasji. He used to come sitting astride a black mare. He would insist on sitting on a takhatposh*, plus he would don a langote. Other than that he would wear no other garb. On one shoulder would be a typical cotton sling bag which in Punjabi is called bugli. And in the hand he would carry a bairaagan*. My own heart was tempted to follow in his footsteps and don that peculiar garb, many a times. Even now sometimes. On the same lines, in our neighbourhood, there used to live an elder called Lachman Das. He used to do phanda [chaad-phoonk with peacock’s feather – voodoo] of people. People used to call him chela [disciple]. His guru that was, he was a Nath of the village Madulli Bahmanaa. He was also known as the Saint Kadeanwale. I acknowledge the influence of all these in my childhood. These are the very seeds, the very roots of my history.

NS : Would you like to comment on the emotional, as well as the conceptual source that drives you to write? What is the emotion that drives you to function as a creative, thinking, dalit novelist and public figure?

DK: I cannot hope to answer this question in its entirety. However, there was something at heart, something that cannot be defined, though one could certainly talk around it. My story that was published in the Naagmani, was titled, ‘A Streak of Light.’ This story is about that dalit woman of my village, who was extremely poor. She was a woman from the mountains. Immensely beautiful. Her husband was a useless idler, utterly foolish. He would do no work at all. This woman used to work in the house of a police officer of our village. The village people would often link her name with that of the police officer, but only behind her back. Once however, during a game of cards, from among the wise men of the village, someone addressed this woman in a sarcastic tone, alluding at the same time, to the same officer. And this resolute woman blew a gasket in turn. Grabbing an iron sickle, she charged to hit/flog him. Her anger was worth watching. From that sickle which was raised to hit, I had sensed the genesis of a streak of light. I felt I ought to write about it. Then, as I mentioned/said, some homes behind ours used to feed bands/tolis of Gugga fakir. Among them one house was extremely poor. My father and mother, although they themselves were poor, used to help them often. The feet of that man got infected with karoheea* – a fungul disease contracted from long and continuous exposure to dirty water. He had no money either to get medical treatment. I saw that the rotting big toe of his foot eventually fell off. That the body parts of a human being could break and fall off, was sheer injustice. My heart was deeply moved and I wrote about them as well. These people were my people, my very own, from my own surroundings. I had grown up in their very hands. Their sorrows were weird, extremely bizarre and phenomenally huge. The shriek of those wounds kept striding around in some nook of my consciousness. That is why I have written about them. Now the times have changed, people too have changed, however, the shadows of these people continue to linger, which is reflected in my literature. The shriek of their wounds has turned me into a writer.

NS: How did the idea and form of Shanti Parav evolve?

DK: Shanti Parav the novel came to me in bits and starts. I was in search of the self. And was excavating – digging under the skin of my context and surroundings. At the same time I was trying to comprehend the psyche of people that dwelt around me. I was trying to configure the human, that was withering away in the scope of things. Making an attempt to understand the functioning of the state politics. And rigorously researching into the cultural subtext. I had been observing, how near impossible it was to separate the Indian denizen from the influence of its classical past. Whichever caste or creed he might belong to. Therefore my characters were being shaped in a multi-directional and multi-layered melting pot. That is when I felt that beneath their construction there was a lot of that which is not visible, but is very influential or impactful. Then I took in hand the three characters of the undertext, through whose means I attempted to explore/trace the reasons that lay behind their structure/construction/sculpting? An attempt was also made to make this novel, novel in terms of craftsmanship, and also to ensure that the experimentation exercised herein was suitably justified. I work extremely hard on my novels. For years I work on them. My work showcases the historicity of cultural behavior. At the same time it exposes the practice of branding and isolating segments of marginalized people. They also hold up a mirror to the churning human currents of our times. They appear fictional in spite of not being so. They are the fruit and soil of my thought process and also of my politics. In the matrix of literature they also reflect my ideological position/ stance.

NS: What are your views of ‘Shanti Parva’ of the Mahabharata as a text? How do you relate to it as a subaltern who might well have been a soldier lying slain on the battlefields of Kurukshetra?

DK: The discourse that is scripted under the title of ‘Shanti Parva’ in the Mahabharata, is an extremely significant one. I have deeply combed through classical sahitya. While researching through this particular parav, I noticed that by all manner of appearance this discourse was penned in the aftermath of war, in times of peace that were rationally inductive of calm reflection on reasons that had triggered the battle. But on the contrary this Parva was merely a justification of the great war. This in fact was an enterprise of the Brahmin segment and the elite class, to mask and pass off that which had been a blunder, in the garb of divine dictate and righteous action, those actions that had plundered and rent apart all human life and dignity. There again most thoughts in the ‘Parva,’ were ascribed to Draupadi alone. This amounted to rendering worthless, the blood of all those soldiers that had been martyred in the battle. This entire treatise offered a justification of the monarch’s pathetic atrocities over his people. Conceptually opposed to this breed of ideology, I said to myself, the ‘Shanti Parav’ that I will write, will reflect on the so called, times of peace that followed Bharat’s battle for independence, and therein I shall perform an analysis of that period and will ensure that the scale of truth is heavier. Their ‘Shanti Parva’ had its own philosophy, my ‘Shanti Parav’ on the other hand will have another. Through this novel I have put forth a philosophical battle/resistance. It is a fight at every level – at the level of literary genre, as well as the level of philosophy.

NS: In the upper-half part of the novel, you speak of mainstream discourses like dominion, political and capital will, corruption, terrorism and state violence. In the upper text however, where the quality of human existence on the margins is played out through fiction, these ideological influences do not reflect. Also there seems to be a slight disconnect. The monologues in the undertext span a huge chunk of detail from the human past, ending in the early years post-independence whereas the characters that people the stories in the upper text seem to belong to a more recent past…they have laptops and go on long drives – a feature that is typical of the late 20th and early 21st century. Please explain.

DK: Look here, let me clarify that the mainstream discourses that are, their impact cannot be gauged upfront. Their impact is not the sorts/kind where one hit another on the head and they ended up being all injured and soaked in blood. The lash of their whip is soundless, slow and long drawn. The other aspect of my writing is not about yatharth (reality) but about the echo of reality. It is that which is awakened in my heart. About the probable yatharth, about that which was born in the mind-heart – good-bad, political or non political, that is what my literature is about. I do not present the probable as truth, that’s why my writing sometimes verges on the absurd. That which is realistic, touches upon the breath of my thoughts, it becomes sharper in the process and emerges forth in the form of my writings. That is why the mainstream discourses that are, they are functional (active and in process) – as they operate from behind the scene, they are invisible and cannot be seen upfront. That’s why I said that if my characters are to be understood, then the discourse below has to be comprehended. It is the instrumental key to decoding the narrative above, though it is not obviously apparent. All that history, all that past, all those dealings in the present, are responsible/ instrumental in fashioning the behaviour of my characters, which I have discussed in the undertext, through the agency of the three characters. When my character claims that our legacy is colonial, or if you examine the characters above through that mirror/context, it will lead to a lot of clarity regarding the dynamics/ characteristics of our behaviour. The two narratives are therefore, deeply imbricated with one another.

For an ever so slightly better clarity, I believe that no event, that transpires in the world around us, exists or happens in isolation. All, all of us, are connected. We cannot claim that my current behaviour as it is today, and the age of the Mahabharata in my past are not connected. They are very much interconnected. When we pluck or uproot a blade of grass in Nature, god knows how many lakhs of spasms might be clutching Nature in their grip. And even to produce or give birth to it we know not the number of agencies/strengths that must be employed and exhausted in the process. Similar is the functioning of the political scenario or happenings. That is why the manipulations of time that are, the fashionings or sculptings that are, and the initiatives, the darshan that is and the sahitya that is, it enters with each other in a state of coalition, and walks. The present has with the future, an alliance or a coalition. That is why the under text here is fused/imbricated with the characters above, in a terribly intense interaction. It needs and calls for some delicate attention.

NS: Tell us about your fascination with names and characters from Indian mythology. Many of your novels, one observes, are informed by a sensibility dyed in the history, myth and grandeur of knowledge-traditions from the Indian past.

DK: if you wish to understand the Bharatiya individual, from any context/ perspective, from his/her spiritual context, or the social or the cultural context, even to the extent of their political associations, you cannot hope to do so by separating people from the nation’s myth. To understand the Bharatiya manukh, the primary essential is an understanding of Bharaitya myth. The Indian denizen is born in myth and dies also in myth. This is what my research on the subject has revealed. Whenever I tried to understand a character, its roots I found, one way or another, in some myth itself. Therefore, myth is a very significant part of my sahitya. Even to understand my politics, you need to have knowledge of myth and mythical lore.

The title of my first novel is, Praneshwari. This mythical character descended into my heart-mind during my readings of, Nath, Buddhist, and Charvaak sahitya. The novel thereafter is titled, Pratham Pauran. This novel too is the result of my engagement with the classical texts. Antheen, another novel, it carries in its thought process, more or less the same context. The connection/implication of Shanti Parav is outright obvious/self explanatory. Through my stories too you experience mythology and a survey/tour of Bharat. This could be the fallout of my intellectual engagement, due to my way of thinking [vichar-dhara], and also due to my politics. One more thing, the wisdom/knowledge that is in Bharatiya myth, the word/linguistic wealth that is there, and the manoeuvrings of narration that are, those are limitless and unfathomable. For a writer the reading of mythology is very essential. Many litterateurs of Punjabi and literary critics, try to escape from it, that is why they do not reach the bottom of it. Perhaps.

NS: Please share with us your definition of ‘violence’ in brief.

DK: In my understanding, violence that is invisible is way sharper than violence that is visible. In Punjab we have a saying – caste, creed or discrimination cannot be gauged, that, I believe is the reason why its sting is even sharper. Violence has always been perpetrated over the women and dalits of Bharat. In my novel Shanti Parav, I have tried to explore several dimensions of this aspect of violence.

NS: Are you a capitalist? A communist ? Or neither of the two?

DK: I do not hold capitalist thoughts, and am not a communist either. The rising graph of capital we cannot turn. This is a natural phenomenon. The human society/samaj is bound to evolve. There is so much contained in it, unnatural and inhuman both will happen. Consumption that is inhuman, how can we save ourselves from that, with this thought process I stand. There are many more dimensions to this. When a human in any manner is debased, I stand in opposition, in resistance of it.

NS: What is your idea of a perfect society, and whether it is possible at all, for even if equations were to be changed the underdog and the bully would always be a part of this world.

DK: look, there is no word like perfect in my understanding. There are crores and crores of varieties of all sorts of people and circumstances mired with all sorts of complexities – all kinds of contexts are there and thriving disputes, some matter sits well with one, while with another it does not. Each individual has his or her own justification, his or her own logic. Therefore nothing can ever be perfect or complete. Nor should it ever be. The affluent and powerful are bound to dominate. But I always say that struggle or resistance that is, the sangharsh for equality that is, they must persist through all time. Even where they are not apparent, they are prevalent, they prevail endlessly. The person is not even aware of it, and he/she continues unconsciously to put up a resistance.

I often speak about the names in my family’s nomenclature, my father’s name is Niranjan Das, my Biji’s name is Prakash, my elder sister is Simro, elder brother Satnam, – all these names that are, they are of the Nirguna [Bhakti] parampara. They have been carrying a philosophical tradition from generation to generation. This too is a form of resistance. A tug of war between Saguna and Nirguna thought cultures. None is aware of it, but the battle prevails.

NS: A utopia in Kali’s words would be?

DK: I feel that we writer people, whichever society we dream of is a utopia in itself. Between the social/societal probability and the dreams that we dream, there is a lot of difference. This has always been there. We, however, are people of positive thought, therefore we cannot stop dreaming.

NS: The male characters in your novel are submissive and passive compared to their female counterparts who come across as more vocal and assertive. Even though they all exist within the shared context of poverty, victimisation and victim psychology. Please comment.

DK: This is a very deep/discerning question. I have said this earlier as well, that whenever I look at all that goes on around me, or at any incident, or character, or even society, when I do examine them, I do so with a keen depth. I travel into its past and present, at great length. A lot of effort goes into the exercise. I have observed that our tablaa* that is, it has two drums. One drum is male while the other is female. According to the rationale of the ardhanareshwar* (the androgenous form of Lord Shiva,) the male tablaa which is vaadak, is kept on the left side, while the female tablaa is kept on the right side. So that the feeling can be articulated/expressed /accomplished/manifested. It has been observed that the female side of the tablaa requires a lot of effort from the artist, tuning, aligning it to the shadaj or pancham notes, is a challenging task. If this side is not in tune then there is no pleasure in the performance. Through this I have seen the society, seen the female and male characters. That is the reason you will find my women characters will be in harmony/tune, in better tune. And this is a fact of nature, [or natural law], also a fact of social law. This is a very intricate/delicate aspect, natural as well as societal, towards which scarce attention has been drawn so far. Nature has created the woman in her main/primary aspect that is why she is janani, motherhood incarnate. And as she is the nurturing agency, she is bound to be more cruel, for she must protect herself in every possible manner and ensure that she flourishes as well. I have seen that there is more self control in a woman. One more very significant aspect is this that compared to women in general, the dalit woman is more independent, in social terms as well as in terms of culture. The women that are around me, compared to other women in general, they are more dominating as well. This is a social/samajik truth which I have felt and have written about.

NS: And finally, for whom do you write? Who are the readers of your fiction? And have they changed in the course of these years from when you wrote your first novel to now, your recent, sixth?

DK: Many of my friends tell me that my writing is not for the casual reader. I too agree to that. To comprehend my writing, a lot of mental acrobatics must be applied [application]. However, in spite of it all, there is a readership for my kind of writing. At times, it has been my experience, the reader comes up with such interpretation/signification/ as is beyond the one’s conscious grasp, but subconsciously has been a part of one’s mindscape. This too is a fact that along with the writer, the reader undergoes transformation as well, with the passing of time the reader’s comprehension too undergoes a change. Their perception too becomes clearer and sharper. Secondly, my literature that is, has been better accepted by the new readers in comparison to readers who have succumbed to the influence of stereotype. Readership that was attached to Punjabi literature of the earlier canon, was much troubled [found it tedious], but newer readers have welcomed it. The new reader of Punjabi literature is advancing at a swift pace. This too you can ascribe to the social dynamic, but a dynamic that is positive while it is of the society.

ghodiyaaN* – wedding songs sung in the groom’s house.
suhaags* – wedding songs sung in the brides’s house.
keerne* – elegiac songs of lamentation, sung on someone’s passing away.
kissa-kaav* –
tumbaa*- string instrument made out of a small gourd that is locally grown in Punjab.
Tablaa* – Indian drums/percussion used as accompaniment to mainstream musical traditions of India.
Takhta-posh* – Among certain fakir traditions in the North, it is the norm of austerity to sit or sleep on a bed made from hard wood. Sitting on a plank of wood also symbolizes to the mystic, his or her nearness to nature.
Bairaagan* – short thick staff with a triangle top to rest the elbow on, while the mystic is meditating. Such an arrangement helps the meditating sadhu, fakir to maintain a comfortable, upright posture.
Karoheea* – It is a bit like gangrene, the body part rots from long hours of exposure to dirty water, and falls off of its own accord, in Punjabi it is called karoheea.

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