Kongu isn’t a rag that stands guard over my head
Kongu ties up my hunger,
tucks my stomach in and keeps watch
for me like Katta Maisamma while sleeping;
When I turn into a canal of sweat at work
she mops it up like a cool breeze,
like the moon clutching together the stars
she glistens as the sack
that holds roots, vegetables, grains
and the komati‘s groceries on my head;
In the fields and the fallow plots, when I grow tired
she spreads out a bed to give me rest,
when my grief streams from my eyes to the skies
she draws my eye babies towards herself
like a mother, and hugs them close, my dirt rag;
When my husband reaches out in love or anger
like a ball of butter she always gets caught before I,
to aggression or violence, from those at home or outside,
my kongu rag always succumbs first…
Kissing my ears and cheeks
she holds up an umbrella of senna flowers
over the dawn of my face
the sapphires of my hair;
From chilly weather and searing looks
from the blasts of heat waves
from the sneakiness of rain drops
she offers cool relief like the shade of a tree,
becomes a warm fire that covers my shoulders.
She becomes a pad for cool pots
that slake your thirst from a mile away,
burns her fingers
handling vessels on the stove,
comforts my crying babies
hugging them like warm baby clothing.
Though she works cheerfully by my side all day in the dust
she stems the life streams
flowing from my body’s sluices all night;
Like a cow nursing a new-born calf
she licks all dirt off my body,
like a wicker wall
she hides the modugu stain spreading through my cloth;
Only when she becomes the snake charmer’s been at my waist
do planting, harvesting, weeding and threshing,
chores and songs screech into motion.
My dirt rag that rolls in my hands, sweat, bed, bones, limbs
in pleasure and sorrow,
my kongu rag that sticks to me
in work and song, in crisis and comfort,
like the filth that clings to my feet, the companion
of my life path…slaving like the washerman’s stone,
when does my perspiring kongu find the time for rest?
She’s not the patchy pallu that stands guard over my head
nor the hobbling stone… over my breast
how can I drag her into the bazaar
set fire to her honour and lose myself?
- Katta Maisamma: Village goddess, goddess of water bodies, tanks etc.
- Komati: Shopkeeper, Bania.
- Modugu: Here, it refers to the colour (bright orange-red) of the Butea monosperma tree (called ‘Palash’ in Hindi).
Jupaka Subhadra, in this poem, discusses how the Kongu, the free end of the sari, doesn’t just stand guard over the Dalit working woman: it’s a tool, a companion, a comrade-in-drudgery. Much unlike the ghunghat (the Hindu equivalent of the veil) draped over the head of an upper-caste woman.
Translated by Naren Bedide from the Telugu original (‘kongu naa bocce miida kaawalunDE bonta pEggaadu’ from the collection of Madiga poetry ‘kaitunakala danDem’), first published in the literary magazine Danse Macabre. Read his translations of other Dalitbahujan poets here.
Image courtesy of the artist and feminist poet Nitoo Das (River Slant).