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Farewell, Neeravbhai

Rita Kothari (rita.kothari@ashoka.edu.in) teaches at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana.

The writer recalls her long association with her friend, companion, and interlocutor, the Gujarati poet and intellectual, Neerav Patel.

Ever since Neerav Patel, one of Gujarat’s foremost poets and intellectuals, passed away on 15 May 2019, I have found myself struggling to finish many incomplete conversations with him. I forgot to tell him, for instance, about Pariyerum Perumal, a 2018 Tamil film that also had a dog, like Kaaliyo from Neeravbhai’s own poem. The dog is killed by the upper castes, but it reappears, every now and then, to remind us of the violence perpetrated on Dalit bodies. Neeravbhai’s Kaaliyo is also made to learn a lesson. The Dalits beg forgiveness of the upper castes:

Khama ! Baap Khama!

They begged for forgiveness

“Poor Kaaliyo

He is but a beast, our Masters,

you are divinely human!

How was he to know

That we cannot show off valour?”

Would Neeravbhai have watched the film? He would have certainly looked it up and perhaps drawn an astute comparison between Dalit movements in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. As someone who had pioneered the Dalit literary and political movement in the 1980s, he would have been in a position to draw for us a trajectory in order to show the diminishing force of counter-movements in Gujarat. Just as well that he was spared from witnessing even more atrocities and a staggering consolidation of power against Dalits in recent times. Neeravbhai would not have been surprised though. With his ear to the ground, he knew what the elections of 2019 would bring. He says as much in a poem titled “Election,”

What just happened?

You vote for a lotus and find a cactus?

You vote for a rose and find stinking cow dung?

The news of Neeravbhai’s sad demise reached me when I was away from Ahmedabad. A series of images flashed before my mind, of meeting him at home, sitting with him on panels, reading out my translations, listening to him recite poetry. The image I cherish the most is of Neeravbhai in a jacket and cap, with his wife Jasumatiben standing next to him, waiting outside his colony to meet me. Since his demise, not a single day has gone by without me thinking of him—my friend, companion, interlocutor, whose absence is felt by us all in Gujarat. My going away from Ahmedabad had reduced our in-person meetings, but we continued to stay in touch over email, translating each other’s thoughts into our respective worlds.

His story that I have just completed translating remains to my mind one of the best stories in Indian literature. Titled “Creamy Layer,” it brings home the sharp chasms that lie in the Dalit world, between those who live in the cities (like Neeravbhai himself) and the poor relatives in the villages. The difference is not only economic, but much more. In the story, the Vaghela couple visits their rural relatives to invite them for a wedding. The wedding card has a picture of B R Ambedkar, who is, to their relatives, an unknown figure. Neeravbhai describes the ensuing reaction:

But the mota-bhabhi turned the kankotri over, up and down, and snapped: What Bhai, you forgot to put our kuldevichavda on it? It is through her blessings that our clan survives. You have become such savarna that you put aside our own mother? You put the picture of your kind of coat-pant wearing God, but abandoned our ever-present mother goddess, haanbhai?” With a broom over her shoulder, she muttered on her way to the village, “Go get your daughter married to rich ones, our presence will not bring any glory to your aangan.”

Instead of the image of the kuldevi and a kankotri starting with “With the grace of Chavda ma …” the Vaghela couple had chosen to put the image of Babasaheb Ambedkar, a sign of new awakening. One would have thought they had committed a heinous crime! They didn’t realize that such a gaping chasm lay between them and the community.

When I last met Neeravbhai in December, he told me, “Bas Ritaben, amuk mahina rahi gaya chhe. E pehla bhau lakhvu chhe.” (That’s it now, only some months left. There’s a lot I want to write before that). He had been valiantly facing his imminent end, documenting every thought and emotion he experienced, leaving his mark on an unequal society. He wrote a poem on Facebook almost every day, in his seemingly feverish hurry to say things in the last few months of his life. While suffering is common to many Dalits, a sensitive intellectual like Neeravbhai experienced it vicariously too. In the midst of animated and robust conversation, he would break down and walk out, unable to bear it any longer. His death seems to me a culmination of brokenness, a man burning the candle at both ends, by facing humiliation directly, and also by empathising with others who did.

Neeravbhai was a formidable intellectual who responded to a range of phenomena outside his world, from the writings of Ambedkar to Karl Marx and Arundhati Roy. He arrived at his own conclusions, dismissing, embracing, subscribing to, and commenting upon icons with an independent mind and judgment. I can’t remember now when I first met him, some 20 years ago. Was it Achyutbhai Yagnik who first made a mention of him, or Francis Parmar? Perhaps I owe this acquaintanceship and eventual friendship to a kind friend somewhere. Subsequently, I heard him in a seminar when he recited a poem called “Doshi ane hun” (The old woman and myself), a satirical poem on processes of democracy. We continued to meet, discussing, arguing, learning and enjoying a relationship that got deeper over the years.

Neeravbhai and I have laughed together in strange and lonely places where I would go to write, and he congratulated me on my “exemplary” patience. Once, while we were admiring the beauty of the setting sun in Shimla, he grew restless and remarked to me, “Ritaben, how long can we appreciate this? Isn’t it time to go back to Amdavad?” He craved constant action.

He grew defensive, almost combative when I remarked on the absence of Dalit women in literature, but later conceded, albeit reminding me of how it was easy for me to talk of this absence. He also expressed disappointment at my decision to translate the Gujarati writer K M Munshi. “He’s useless,” he said, “Why are you wasting your talent on him?”

He peeled away at the romanticism we upper castes have towards preserving a language, and hit back at the idea of “mother tongue,” preferring to use his foster tongue, English, which brought him closer to liberal thought. I heard him, documented him, disagreed sometimes, but almost always went away enriched by the tentativeness he managed to inject in me. His definite views on many things notwithstanding, Neeravbhai was eager to know more. Although he had not met my daughter, he would correspond with her on Facebook, asking her questions on queerness, and they also talked of intersectionality.

In the self-satisfied and sycophantic literary world of Gujarat, Neeravbhai’s was a voice of dissent, of sharp intelligence, acute sensitivity and, most importantly, of fearlessness. I don’t think he believed in spirituality, given how violent he found the institution of religion. In keeping with the kind spirit that Neeravbhai was, and strong belief in the power of words, I hope we do justice to his memory by reading him.

Meanwhile, Neeravbhai, aavjo, and thank you for being my friend.

 

Updated On : 31st May, 2019

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