Between 2016 and 2017, a paralytic stroke killed two people in Goa. Poet, writer and former BJP MP Vishnu Wagh was one. The other was Konkani, the official state language.
That year, as Wagh lay speechless, his body twisted with paralysis and his once-broad torso and belly covered in a web of wires, pipes, and other medical appendages, the small universe of Konkani literature also became a paraplegic.
The attack had silenced Wagh, but on the streets his collection of provocative Konkani poems titled Sudhirsukta (Hymns of Shudras) had driven a split in the Konkani literary camps, exposing the fissures of Goa’s caste.
Published by Apurbai Prakashan, a local publishing house run by Hema Naik with nearly 1,200 titles to its name, Wagh’s Sudhirsukta defied and lyrically raged against the overwhelming social domination of the influential Goud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) caste of Goa. Wagh belonged to the Bahujan Samaj, a collective of non-Brahmin castes.
Prolonged ill health led to Wagh’s death in 2019, but his looming specter, the stubborn determination of his publisher Hema Naik and the import of Sudhirsukta’s poetry have continued to stalk the Konkani literary landscape in Goa for the past five years.
Maharashtra banned Shivaji: Hindu King of Islamic India by James Laine after the book caused some people to attack the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in 2004, where the author had done the research for his book. Unfortunately, they destroyed several manuscripts and rare books.
In 2017, Wagh’s book was shortlisted for one of 21 Goa Konkani Akademi Literature Awards supported by the state government. The awards were abolished that year by the then Chief Minister, the late Manohar Parrikar, also GSB, and have not been instituted since.
Akademi board member Vasant Sawant told Outlook the awards have been suspended since “one of the winners” – Wagh in this case – sparked controversy. “Right now we are facing a shortage of funds as a result of which prices have not been restored,” he said.
While the awards were removed, the state administration under Parrikar had also slapped an FIR against Wagh and Hema under sections 293 (sale of obscene articles) and 294 (obscenity) of the IPC.
Hema insists she doesn’t regret posting a single word from the collection. “Writers’ freedom of expression is a non-negotiable entity. I am a writer myself and I chose to fight a legal battle that was imposed on me,” she says. Outlook.
As a youth, Hema had participated in the often violent agitation to make Konkani the official state language. She launched Apurbai Prakashan, whose first title, Rann Sundari, written by her husband and famous author Konkani Pundalik Naik, was published in 1976.
The Hema are in some ways an outlier to the GSB caste caucus and believe in challenging the current status quo for social justice. “GSBs inherit a significant portion of state resources and have benefited from undisputed social capital for generations. Challenging the status quo is a virtue of the masses who have struggled for generations and always achieved raw agreement. GSBs or anyone in positions of power need to understand this. Bahujans, Dalits and Adivasis cannot be denied their history and belonging to this state and this language,” says Hema.
She also mocks claims that Wagh’s poems (extracted below) have taken a searing swipe at the GSB community, which controls the economic, political and social nerves of Goa.
I caressed her breasts
My baby squeezed my hand tightly
And chattered in my ears
If only you were ours
We would have put you
On our heads and danced
(translation by Joao Roque Literary Journal)
Another verse questions the banishment of non-Brahmins from the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of revered Hindu temples in Goa, where only Brahmins and their sub-castes are permitted access.
We don’t want your garbhagriha
Who is lit by lamps of arrogance
And those of discrimination
Not just your garbhagriha
We reject your temples
We don’t even want your sterile god
In your garbhagriha
(translation by Kaustubh Naik)
There are others like the poet Sanjiv Verenkar, a jury member of the Akademi Prize Committee, who leaked into the public domain the struggle within the literary body over Sudhirsukta’s shortlist for the award. ‘State, which sport a different shade.
Sudhirsukta, published by Apurbai Prakashan, defied and lyrically raged against the overwhelming domination of Goa’s influential GSB caste.
Freedom of speech should be sacrosanct in the publishing space, Verenkar said, but added that using a sexual relationship with a woman as a means of criticizing one’s caste later (in the poem Chance), was not in “good taste”.
Verenkar also says that while there were several poems in Sudhirsukta that were fine examples of craftsmanship, for a government body to honor a book with content that slanders a particular caste was not correct.
“The poems criticize a particular community and had the potential to stir up communal tensions. Poets are free to write whatever they want and there should be no compulsion, but a government agency should not endorse such vulgar and reckless writing,” Verenkar says.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Verse and Valour”)