Namita Devidayal TNN

Acity is constantly in transition. It dies and reinvents itself. But one of the things that keeps it alive is its heterogeneous voices and diverse unexpected narratives, even if they are not entirely pleasant.
The death of Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal last week marks the end of a voice, which once represented Mumbai’s underdog—the lowliest humans comprising street people, pickpockets, prostitutes and pimps. Yet, they continue to exist in the subterranean city that is being wished away in a morally ambiguous world that glorifies the aspirational consumer above all else.
“Today, there is not even an awareness of the poor, except as people you need to come and clean up your house. Dhasal was not only a representative of the Dalits, he was the conscience of India. And this business of conscience seems to have completely disappeared from our midst because there is only one God today–money,” said writer Kiran Nagarkar.
Whether it is through its physical skyline or in its more intangible cultural landscape, concerned city observers say that today’s language is dictated by “flat sold for a whopping x crore” or “film rakes in x crore in the first week”, even though such numbers elude vast sections of the population.
Dhasal identified with what he described as “the scum of the earth” and infused the language of his poetry with the diverse dialects of Mumbai, confronting the belief systems of the middle and upper classes.
In his introduction to Dhasal’s collection of poems, ‘Poet of the Underworld’, the late poet Dilip Chitre wrote, “Namdeo’s language had a generous infusion of Bambaiya Hindi or Bombay Hindi–the city’s lingua franca.” It also eloquently drew in the language of the Kamatipura neighbourhood “which has Muslims speaking Urdu, labourers from Andhra speaking Telugu, prostitutes imported from Kerala and Nepal.”
This kind of writing sought to represent that noman’s-land which existed beyond the official city–the one that exists ‘behind the beautiful forever’ where rats and humans cohabit with alarming ease, where running water is an absurd dream.
In the cacophony of Mumbai, the consumer culture seems to grow more shrill, while the low growl of an underclass gets drowned out.
Poet and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote said, “A city dies when it wraps itself up in a generic consumerism; when it neutralizes confrontational, adversarial subcultures within its kaleidoscopic structure. Today, the lumpen proletariat has been all but absorbed into the reserve armies of various political parties, its resentment and anxiety and sense of exclusion recruited into ideologies that had turned these feelings into agendas for the remapping of the public sphere and civic space.”
If poetry has been the refuge of the imagination, then this is not merely a lament for words and language, for “the tubercular flutes of our breath”, but for an entire anthology of living–one which is courageously compassionate towards all.
As Nagarkar says, “I grew up hoping that chawls would give way to apartments where every single family would have a toilet of their own, an architecture that would respect human beings. Unfortunately they have been replaced by 40-50-storey buildings, which are absolutely fortified against any intrusion. This is not my vision of Bombay.”

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