In the titular poem of his anthology Sudirsukta—“Hymns of a Shudra”—Vishnu Surya Wagh writes as a Sudir, or a “Shudra”:
Being servants we were powerless
Slaves of your daily wage
We swept your verandas
And from our foreheads dripped a lifetime of diamonds
We are those Shudras
Enough with this darkness
We aspire to bright dawns
Shambuk gave us our anthem
And Tukaram his pen
Jyoti is our light
And Bhim our voice
We’ve sharpened our weapons
Our war cries will seize the sky
We are the Shudras!
In Konkani and Marathi literary circles, Wagh is well known for his various roles—writer, poet, cartoonist, journalist, editor, orator and politician. (For me, this includes his role as my uncle.) His political stances, too, are known to many, and defy classification. Wagh has always been a vocal critic of right-wing politics and oppressive caste hierarchies. In 1998, his Marathi-language play, “Tuka Abhang Abhang,” about the life of the seventeenth-century Bhakti poet Tukaram, became the subject of much discussion in Goa and Maharashtra. In a crucial scene in the play, Wagh depicted Tukaram being murdered by a group of Brahmin priests.
In 2011, the writer surprised many by joining the Bharatiya Janata Party in Goa, and was elected the member of legislative assembly from the St Andre constituency in the 2012 state assembly election. Despite his membership, Wagh continued to oppose the BJP government in the state and criticise its policies. He was seemingly reprimanded for it, too—in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the chief minister Manohar Parrikar reportedly stripped the writer of his position as the head of the Kala Academy, the state’s leading cultural institution. He was later reappointed to the position, in April 2015.
In August this year, Wagh and Sudirsukta, his hitherto mostly unknown anthology of free-verse Konkani poetry, became the centre of a controversy in Goa. In the book, which was published in 2013, Wagh mounts a critique of the caste system and the historical oppression that the bahujan samaj—a term referring to a loose conglomeration of oppressed caste groups—in Goa has faced at the hands of the upper-caste and landed elites, chiefly the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, the state’s powerful dominant caste group. Wagh dedicated his book to the “hollow independence of fifty-odd years” that has “failed to restore the rights of the laboring masses.” Several years after its publication, the anthology has stirred intense anger among the Goad Saraswat Brahmins, many of whom believe that the poems portray them in a harsh light and constitute an insult to their community.
Sudirsukta’s trial began in early August, after it was seemingly shortlisted for a state award by the Goa Konkani Academy (GKA), an autonomous institution funded by the state to promote Konkani language and literature. Members of the jury at the academy, it appeared, favoured Wagh’s book.
Seeking to present a fait accompli to his colleagues, the poet and jury member Sanjiv Verenkar prematurely declared the results in the local press and on social media. Verenkar condemned the jury’s decision to shortlist Wagh’s book, and expressed a strong disagreement with granting it an award. Speaking to the Indo-Asia News Service, Verenkar agreed that leaking the result ahead of time was unethical, but that his “intention was the greater good.” “The poems are critical of a particular community and have potential to stoke communal tension,” he said.
Verenkar took great offense to the use of strong language and expletives in the work. “Poets are free to write what they want and there should be no compulsion on it, but a government agency shouldn’t endorse such vulgar, reckless writing,” he told IANS.
Soon, others followed in Verenkar’s steps. In a piece published in the local English-language daily the Navhind Times, the senior activist Uday Bhembre, a Saraswat himself, characterised Sudirsukta as a “threat to the society.” He added that it would incite social tensions. Criticism began emerging on social media as well. “Vishnu Wagh’s ‘Sudirsukt’ is beyond pornography. Its [sic] a litter that has to be thrown into dustbin,” one Facebook user wrote. “Such outbursts are basically out of the jealousy towards certain section of the society that has been gifted with intellectual ability,” added another.
Bhembre doubled down on his opinion in a series of pieces he wrote for the local Konkani daily Bhangar Bhuy. Wagh, Bhembre alleged, had written the poems with two “evil intentions”: “to indicate that the standard of Konkani language and literature is vulgar and perverse,” and to “create ruckus within the Konkani literary sphere in the name of casteism and thus creating hurdles to prevent the Konkani language from flourishing.”
Bhembre reproduced select lines from Wagh’s poems to focus on the poet’s usage of curse words in colloquial Konkani. The verse below received particular condemnation from Bhembre and critics on social media:
Salutes to that son of a cunt
Who created castes
And built fences
On the plateaus of humanity
Other such verses, which Saraswat Brahmins found lacking in taste, included
They fuck women
We fuck women too
We bathe too
But after bathing
They become pure
We continue to remain impure
(The two verses above, along with the one at the beginning of the piece, were translated by the writer Augusto Pinto. Other translations in the piece are mine.)
It is important to note that Sudirsukta comprises 62 poems, and that the much-hyped curse words appear in no more than six of these.
The campaign against Wagh extended to others related to the book, such as its publisher Hema Naik, as well as Verenkar’s colleagues on the jury, Sonali Chodankar and Nilba Khandekar. Naik defended the author’s right to freedom of expression. Speaking to IANS, she said, “It is his personal opinion. He has the freedom to write what he wants. There is no basis to the allegation that the book targets a specific caste. But isn’t it a fact that upper castes have exploited those below them over generations?” Wagh himself has been unable to respond to the criticism—in August 2016, he suffered a massive stroke resulting from cerebral hypoxia, and has been confined to his home since.
While the decision of the jury is yet officially undeclared, the disagreement over the appropriateness of Wagh’s work is continuing in Goa. But it is necessary to view this discord within the context of Goa’s cultural evolution. A close scrutiny of the ire of the Saraswat Brahmins offers deep insight into the state’s social and literary history—in particular, the question of who dictates the narrative.
The charge of obscenity against Wagh is not dissimilar to that levied regularly against the Marathi poet Namdeo Dhasal. In response to criticism that his poetry was vulgar, Dhasal argued that it was important to understand etymological roots of the so-called vulgar phrases in order to understand his poetry. If one is removed from the cultural world of the labouring masses, Dhasal wrote, the poems would be remembered, rather reductively, only for their use of expletives and not for what they are trying to convey.
Wagh’s poems, too, have to be understood in this context—irreverent forms of speech as dissent are not unfamiliar in the Bahujan cultural world in Goa. During Holi, for example, which is celebrated with great pomp among the Bahujan communities in the state, the quotidian caste and feudal hierarchies are discursively overturned. Young men gather to sing extempore songs that mock the upper-castes in the most profane ways. Since, traditionally, these men would have spent the whole year toiling in the fields owned by the upper castes, the act of singing songs that mock the landed castes became a cathartic experience.
Further, the historical debate around language in Goa is important to consider—Konkani, the state’s primary language at present, has previously been a site of caste assertion by the Goud Saraswat Brahmins. For many years after 1961, when India annexed the territory from Portugal, Goa was a union territory along with two other former Portuguese territories, Daman and Diu. It was accorded full statehood in 1987, a few months after the passing of the Official Language Act (OLA) of 1987 that instituted “Konkani written in Devnagari script”—Nagari Konkani—as the sole official language of Goa.
This officially recognised form of Konkani, however, was not the popular extant version of the language spoken in Goa, but a dialect spoken largely by the Goan Hindu Saraswats. By officially recognising this form of Konkani, the state effectively excluded two Goan communities, namely the Catholic and Hindu Bahujan groups. The Catholics in Goa largely use the Roman script to write Konkani—or, more accurately, Concanim. (A parallel discussion, not entirely irrelevant, is how the denial of the recognition to Roman-scripted Concanim fostered the marginalisation of Goan Catholic communities.)
Recognising that the pro-Konkani forces were directed by Saraswat interests, the Bahujan Goans resisted the imposition of Nagari Konkani, which they viewed as a tool of establishing Brahmin hegemony in Goa. A major disconnect between the Nagari Konkani and the form of the language spoken by many Bahujan groups was that the former included Brahminised terms that did not organically stem from Goan tradition, and found little connect within the local communities. It was for reasons such as this that the Bahujan groups preferred Marathi as their mode of formal expression, and demanded that it be made the state’s official language.
Wagh explains this in a poetic foreword to this book. In it, he records the mobility that Marathi offered to the Hindu Bahujans in twentieth-century Goa, while Konkani was usurped by the upper-caste Saraswats as a tool to sustain their cultural hegemony over Goan society. Wagh argues in his foreword that it is only due to Marathi that the Bahujan communities were able to familiarise themselves with the works of social reformers and writers such as Dyaneshwar, Tukaram, Shivaji, BR Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, and Keshavsut, among others. The foreword ends in a resolve to reclaim the access to Konkani for the Goan Bahujan masses and delimit it from the Brahminical standards of its definition. It is certainly not surprising, then, that Wagh’s insistence on a Konkani that stems from a Bahujan tradition is unsettling to Saraswat Brahmin ears.
Another axis of criticism that Sudirsukta has faced is its unapologetic depiction of Goan society as starkly unequal. In popular culture, Goan society is routinely represented as peaceful, complete with a long-standing history of communal harmony between Hindus and Catholics. But a critical stock of Goan history would not only reveal this notion as false, it would show that this narrative has long pushed into oblivion the histories of caste oppression experienced by Goan Bahujan communities.
Through his poems, Wagh brings alive a Goa that has been absent from traditional imagination, and which foregrounds narratives of this oppression. In the poem “Amche Dev”— “Our Gods”—the narrator stands before a “dead god” and tells the Mahajans, the group that controls most temples in Goa and which largely comprises upper-caste Saraswats:
We don’t want your garbhagriha
Which is lit with lamps of arrogance
And those of discrimination
Not just your garbhagriha
We reject your temples
We don’t even want your sterile god
Who gasps for breath
In your garbhagriha
At the core of this poem are the discriminatory rights of worship: for centuries, Bahujans in Goa have been prevented from entering the garbhagriha, or the sanctum sanctorum, in temples. Established through the Regulamento das Mazanias, a legal framework of temple administration enforced by the Portuguese state in 1886, this rule is in effect till date. Ignoring the complex relationships around temples, this framework has essentially sanctioned private ownership of temples, largely by Saraswat families, while the oppressed-castes were included merely for performing menial labour.
In “Amche Dev,” Wagh proposes a more egalitarian space of Bahujan worship that will be lit with “lamps of our collective soul that’ll burn the skies.” It is a position illustrated in his actions as a politician—in February 2016, the villagers of Madkai in Goa had raised the issue of democratising temple rights and abolition of the Mazania act, after the Mahajans of Madkai’s Navdurga temple decided to replace the idol of the deity. Wagh was prominent among those who supported the villagers.
These expressions are almost alien to Nagari Konkani literature, which has been largely employed to construct a singular Goan identity that fits well in the Indian nationalist imagination. Literary expressions such as Wagh’s, which reveal the fractures within the Goan society—and further, threaten to overturn its power structures—are expectedly found shocking, and suppressed.
The overt emphasis on the usage of supposedly vulgar language in Wagh’s poems by those criticising the book is also indicative of a larger issue concerning linguistic politics within India. Post-colonial India witnessed a consolidation of languages that was effectively guided by a Brahminical sense of aesthetics—it instituted a mythical idea of a “pure” language, where the “impurities” or “profanity” originating from Dalit and Bahujan usage did not find place. Unburdened by such compulsions, Wagh unapologetically introduces words from Portuguese and the oral repertoire of Bahujan dialects in his poems, retaining their enunciations, which are markedly different from those of the Goan Saraswats. It is perhaps a radical redefining of Konkani’s linguistic scope, beyond the limits of Brahminical aesthetics, which has actually unsettled those who have taken offence to Sudirsukta.
Nevertheless, the continuing debate around the anthology in literary circles will at least ensure that Sudirsukta—and crucially, its depiction of Goa—does not remain ignored in contemporary literature in the state.