Independence Day: Is Poetry the Oppressed Soul’s Ticket to Freedom?


Independence Day: Is Poetry the Oppressed Soul’s Ticket to Freedom?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

On 9 August, poet and actor Piyush Mishra lent his voice to a YouTube video titled “Azadi Hai Kya”, a look at what freedom means in today’s India. In it, Mishra asked a crucial question, “Toh samjh gaye babua, azaadi? Agar samjh gya toh lajawab, agar nahi samjhe toh soch zara. (Have you understood what freedom is? If not, think about it.)” 

Freedom, to most of us, still dates back to the political independence of 1947. Mishra, on the other hand, wants us to consider freedom as an everyday exercise, of poetically, liberally reconfiguring what this freedom might mean to us, and to everyone around us. Mishra is typically curt and direct, as he appeals to the listener to consider the responsibilities that come with liberty — primarily to not infringe on someone else’s right to exercise his or hers. How else does one explain the gradual, yet irreconcilable  separation of ideas in this country? The birth of a rigid dichotomy, where someone’s self-approved opinion, implies the invalidity of another’s — a world where we alone argue or shape our opinions. Opinions we consider the gospel truth.

Mishra’s request is poetic, not simply because it is written so, but because it invites interpretation. Like poetry, freedom too is defined by its individual interpretations, the perception that as long as there exists a wall, freedom is found in the probability of it coming down – and the possibilities of everything that lies beyond. We celebrate Independence Day as the anniversary of the end of British rule in India. But several decades on we are still ruled by our differences, malicious politics, and a hateful discourse that suppresses alternative voices. To be free would be to accept everyone’s claim to the same poem, and by extension, the same freedoms.

The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes in his poem “Who Am I, Without Exile?”:

What will I do? What
will I do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?

Darwish wrote about the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestine throughout his life. Here he illustrates the limbo, the psychological void of longing for a home, away from home, the listlessness of a night sky watching a river that, like time, continues to flow. Not all feel exiled by geographic ostracisation alone. India-born American poet Agha Shahid Ali famously wrote the poem “The Country Without a Post Office” after no mail was allowed to move inside Kashmir for seven months. “They haunt a country when it is ash,” Ali wrote. The poem, 20 years after it was first written, continues to echo the remote and sophisticated nature of Kashmir’s problems, caged by whatever prism of history or lens of the present you look at it with. The fact that there are as many solutions to Kashmir’s problems as there are people who haven’t been there, has only made things worse — at least for the people who haven’t been asked their opinion. 

To be free would be to accept everyone’s claim to the same poem, and by extension, the same freedoms.

That said, both Ali’s and Darwish’s poetry was born out of unavoidable conflict, the suffocation of an unpopular faith. Not too dissimilar, although contextually different, were the verses of freedom fighter Ram Prasad Bismil. He writes in the poem “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna”:

Hum to ghar se nikle hi the baandhkar sar pe kafan
Jaan hatheli par liye lo badh chale hain ye qadam
Zindagi to apni mehmaan maut ki mehfil mein hai
Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamaare dil mein hai

(We set out from our homes, our heads shrouded with cloth,
Our lives in our hands, we march forward
In the assembly of death, our life is merely a guest
In our hearts now, is the desire to rebel)

Bismil’s poem has been called back to memory, time and again, by the state. Incredibly, it was written at that time, against the British occupation of India. Bismil’s intentions are aggressive and retributive, whereas both Ali and Darwish attempt to make sense of the absurdity they have been forcibly married to. But it makes it clear that poetry isn’t just limited to jugular disputes over land and borders, it manifests in the many agitations a free heart is likely to raise. In his explosively titled “Gandu Bagicha 2”, Dalit Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal metaphorically maims the savarna, upper-caste way of historicising everything with:

The crippled cockroach of karma yoga
Needlessly keeps digging up the soil
… it has already torn
The condom of delusion
To tatters

Dhasal, who led the Dalit Panthers movement in Marathi culture, was so intense and deep that he has often been classified as untranslatable. However, one can still surmise that Dhasal’s idea of freedom meant liberation from the constitution of caste. The same constitution that continues to amend itself, to find new routes to oppress the already oppressed. 

But it makes it clear that poetry isn’t just limited to jugular disputes over land and borders, it manifests in the many agitations a free heart is likely to raise.

In the not-too-distant future, upon a cultural axiom far from Dhasal’s, the rapper Divine hangs his rather more modish criticism of institutional corruption and class oppression, in his song “Azaadi”:

Desh kaise hoga saaf
Inki neeyat main hai daag
Sirf karte rahenge baat
Alag shakal wahi jaat
Vote milne par ye khaas
Phir gayab pure saal

Both Dhasal and Divine read as perturbed, angry individuals, their sense of freedom curtailed by circumstances that are systematic, outside the purview of what they can immediately alter. That, however, is the genesis of what they believe freedom is, or should be. Poetry tells us we are all staring at the pointed end of a nail, each with a unique opinion of what we think its head is being beaten in by – people we don’t like, people we disagree with. Seldom do we think consider the fact we might be on the other side, blasting that metal through someone’s throat, their voice, their right to be heard. Freedom is freedom when that nail is struck by fate, and not the will of men. To American poet Sylvia Plath it meant being freed from domestication, or the very concept of being reduced to a “woman”. She writes in Lady Lazarus:

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.

Be it Dhasal or Ali, Divine or Darwish, poetry, like freedom, remains an open realm, one that can be claimed but not possessed. Our politicians quote poets every day in the parliament, poets they like, poets they think speak for them. In fact poetry speaks for the person who reads it, in his or her voice. It becomes the charter of those who can afford the words as much time in their heart as they do in their mind. 

Naturally, poetry transcends language, politics, and social dictum. It refuses incarceration on any level. There are no prisons in poetry, only the interminable feeling that there is no life without yearning, no life without desire, no life without motive, and no life without purpose. Some of us choose our prisons, some are born with them. To live with different definitions of this prison, to live with different meanings of the same poem, without fear, is freedom. Or as Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Freedom from fear is freedom.”