Abandoned soon after birth, Narayan Gangaram Surve (1926-2010) was brought up by mill workers, but left to fend for himself once again at the age of twelve in the chawls of Mumbai. He grew up in the streets of the big city, taught himself to read and write—working as doffer boy in a textile mill, a sweeper, a peon—and became a school teacher and a celebrated revolutionary poet. An abiding allegiance to the workers’ movement was the thread that ran through his extraordinary journey. His poetry was thus as much ammunition to fight the good fight as it was art. It evolved a new idiom, written in the Marathi spoken on the streets, freely borrowing words from Hindi or English, unafraid to break literary conventions upheld by the cultured elite. As he puts it, the people were ‘my holy books, my scriptures, my gurus’.
Surve makes no pretence to objectivity. His verse is unostentatious, unabashedly so. He wants to write about, and for, the masses. There’s no attempt to idealize them, however—to gloss over the ugliness of life—for he is one of them. His subjects let their guard down and speak their minds. Activists crack jokes while putting up posters, a sex worker hustles her client, and a butcher remembers how he lost his leg in a riot trying to save a woman from his co-religionists. The mill worker and farmer know exactly who oppresses them; there is anger in them. For all the misery we come across, though, these are not poems of despair, but, instead, of a dogged optimism.
Jerry Pinto renders a broad selection of Surve’s poetry into colourful yet effortless English verse, retaining both its raw energy and immediacy, and the essence of its unyielding commitment to a better future.