Neerav Patel – a bilingual Dalit poet who wrote – primarily in Gujarati but also in English in addition to self translating his own poetry into English, passed away on May 15, 2019, succumbing to cancer.
Though I had heard of his ailment and had seen pictures of many of my friends visiting Mr. Patel, I wasn’t aware that his demise could feel so personal. It is an irreparable loss to Gujarati poetry in general and specifically for the radically subversive strand of Dalit poetry in Gujarati.
We have lost him at a critical moment in the history of Dalit-Bahujan resistance considering the assault on the civil rights and dignity of the historically marginalized. To my utter dismay, no major newspaper has carried the news of his death nor an obituary.
But, I would have never imagined writing an obituary for him so soon.
Fortunately, we live in times when Ambedkarite Dalits have fashioned our own emailing groups and are using the social media to catalyze a silent Dalit revolution, if I may claim so.
I identify myself as a Dalit poet writing in English, I have tried to learn from stalwarts like Sharankumar Limbale (Marathi), MB Manoj (Malayalam), Ajay Navaria (Hindi), Murali Manohar Biswas (Bengali) and Kotiganahalli Ramaiah (Kannada) in addition to Neerav Patel (Gujarati).
I used to feel so orphaned that most of them wrote in their native tongues and didn’t possess enough command over English to read and critique poetry written in English and have a fruitful conversation on the nuances of a cultural text conceived in English. Neerav Patel was one of the few Dalit writers well-versed in English; this helped me in sustaining a conversation with him. This is expected since he had earned a Ph.D. in English Literature.
I have known Neerav Patel from the month of May 2015 through a mutual friend by name V Divakar who runs the little magazine The Baroda Pamphlet. He had the patience to read and critique my poetry and offered me detailed feedback in addition to his suggestion to read poems by a list of acclaimed poets. He had an unflinching commitment to the Dalit cause and gave me a dictum - “I can respect you, if you imbibe the same commitment to Dalit literature”. He could chastise me for what he perceived as my ambition to the hog media limelight. He urged me to read voraciously, work on my craft and wait for the publishing industry to discover me.
There are some interesting salient features in the political cum literary sensibility of Mr. Neerav Patel. A chapter of a Ph.D. thesis on his work tells me that his birth name was Soma Hira Chamar, and he had strategically chosen an upper caste surname to shield himself from immediate bias against him since “Soma” carried connotations of his caste. This was news to me till his death.
This is reminiscent of life experience of TKC Vaduthala, a reputed Dalit writer in Malayalam who had to conceal his caste-tinged name to get published in the influential Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly, and how many female authors had to drape themselves in the camouflage of male pseudo-names to break the glass ceiling. I was also reminded of a personal anecdote by Ms Alisa Ganieva, a Russian author who had resorted to a male pseudo-name for her first book and how her translator refused to recognize her in the 21st century Russia.
His literary oeuvre was inextricably intertwined with activism having witnessed the founding of the Gujarat chapter of Dalit Panthers in the year 1974 and the steady growth of Dalit assertion in the state currently a bastion of the Sangh Parivar. He was one of the editors of Aakrosh who had the audacity to publish the first-ever special issue on Dalit poetry in Gujrati.
One of the stark memories from our interaction was that he was a staunch spokesperson/crusader against Islamophobia. He pinpointed references in my poems which could be construed as mildly islamophobic, he was conscious of the Sangh Parivar strategies to divide the conquer the Bahujans. This I perceive is a rare trait in writers.
He had suggested me to visit his residence for a day or two for a “training session”. I regret I didn't get the chance to do so.
But I am sure his poetry will endure.