Written by Karthik Navayan
I was Shambhuka in the Treta Yuga
Twenty two years ago, my name was Kanchikacherla Kotesu
My place of birth is Kilvenmani, Karamchedu, Neerukonda
Now Chunduru is the name that cold-blooded feudal brutality
Has tattooed on my heart with ploughshares
From now on, Chunduru is not a noun but a pronoun
Now every heart is a Chunduru, a burning tumour
I am the wound of multitudes, the multitude of wounds
For generations, an unfree individual in a free country
Having been the target
Of humiliations, atrocities, rapes and torture
I am someone raising his head for a fistful of self-respect
In this nation of casteist bigots blinded by wealth
I am someone who lives to register life itself as a protest
I am someone who dies repeatedly to live
Don’t call me a victim
I am an immortal, I am an immortal, I am an immortal*
Kalekuri Prasad burst upon the Telugu literary world like a meteor a couple of decades ago. There would be at least one line of his in every song in the Jana Natya Mandali’s (the cultural wing of the People’s War Group which was later merged into the CPI (Maoist) party) repertoire in its early days. According to Dappu Prakash, Prasad had written, directly or indirectly, hundreds of songs in those days. There were many among them which attained great popularity. Whatever Prasad spoke seemed like poetry, therefore there would always be a crowd of people around him, eager to listen to him.
He was one of the speakers on the occasion of the release my first book, ‘Dalit Awaaz’, at the Hyderabad Press Club. The function should have ended at 9 pm, but Prasad arrived at 8.45. Those who were planning to leave sat down again. He spoke for around 40 minutes, and no one moved. The Press Club employees who had come over to warn us to wind up the meeting also stayed to listen. He wrote a book review for the book on the following day, which was published in ‘Vaartha’ daily on 27 March, 2011. Even though his review was on the same book as his speech a day earlier, there was no similarity between the two in vocabulary or style – such was his command on Telugu.
He translated around seventy books (from English) into Telugu. He was the one who introduced international revolutionaries like Che Guevara to the Telugu readers. He was the one who translated important books like Swami Dharma Theertha’s “The Menace of Hindu Imperialism” and Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” into Telugu. His translation of Abdul Kalam’s book was commissioned by a well known educationist in the state who later published it in his own name. He had translated, unacknowledged, hundreds of books in a similar manner during his lifetime.
I had once told him that I would write an essay on him, if he died, calling him ‘Kalekuri Prasad, Dalit bairagi philosopher’. I asked him whether he liked the title. He replied quite calmly that he liked it. Even when I tried to probe him repeatedly, to provoke some reaction, he just smiled and said ‘Your article’s title matches your writing capabilities’. But I didn’t want to slot Kalekuri Prasad into any particular category so I did not use that title for this article. He was unique, Kalekuri Prasad stood for Kalekuri Prasad.
Death did not scare Kalekuri Prasad, nor did life for that matter. He mocked at life, his conduct was such that it was an incomprehensible enigma to many progressive intellectuals, leaders, poets, critics who espoused revolutionary ideals in public and stuck to traditional religiosity in their private lives. He was a snake in the backyard of those dominant caste revolutionaries whose practice didn’t match their preaching.
For a man with integrity to give up faith in life only one core belief of his needs to be proven wrong. But Kalekuri Prasad was betrayed thrice. First, when he was surrounded by charlatans masquerading as revolutionaries; second, when a lover pretended to be a lover as part of a political ploy; third, when faced with a dishonest Dalit leadership. Kalekuri was pushed towards alcohol and was branded as an alcoholic by the same three categories of people listed above. Kalekuri’s alcoholism destroyed his health and dented his friends’ purses – those were the two not so major losses that were the result of it. But the real major loss to society was that it lost an honest intellectual. More than the loss due to his drinking, the loss caused by the canards spread about his alcoholism was greater.
He stood as an individual who refused to be co-opted by the establishment: though branded as an alcoholic, Kalekuri Prasad was an upright thinker, poet, writer, critic and a romantic. He was not a postmodernist, never a person without an agenda. He was a bairagi philosopher who craved for an uncorrupted world in which everyone lived with equity and wholesome cultural values. A true Buddhist monk who had nothing of his own, a real communist, a full-time social activist. Like the eminent Dalit revolutionary thinker K. G. Satyamurthy, who was one of the founders of the People’s War Group, Kalekuri Prasad too was a guile-less individual who never hid anything. There are many other similarities between them; to be honest, neither had any personal life of their own. They were both two great common men who were totally dedicated to society.
Kalekuri Prasad never attempted to push under the mask of privacy all those issues – marriage, sex, belongings, even his writing, name and honours – that people normally consider very private. He was a rare individual who was willing to share anything, at any moment of time, with anyone.
There was a plot, there was caste behind the efforts to turn Kalekuri Prasad into a drunk, and projecting him as such. From the time he started drinking, there was never a day when he didn’t drink, but even then there was never an occasion on which he passed out, until the day he died. Whether he was drunk or not, he could always speak the truth with the same lucidity and honesty. If he had drunk as much as he was slandered to have drunk he couldn’t have lasted the last two decades of his life. There are many more writers and intellectuals around us who drink much more. He had to face more badmouthing than he deserved.
He lived a nomad’s life; someone who has nothing owns the whole world. Someone who doesn’t draw a line between himself and the world in the name of family starts to view the whole world as his kin. That’s exactly how he lived and died. He died on May 17, 2013, in Ambedkar Bhavan, Ongole. He never lived with his family. If he suffered from stark poverty on one day, he stayed in a five star hotel on the next. If he traveled in a truck on one day, he flew in a plane on the next. Whatever luxury or privation that came his way never influenced his inner personality. There would be no change in his conduct. There were days in his life when he slept on the pavement outside the Ambedkar Bhavan on Lower Tank Bund or the Prajashakti book store in Hyderabad. Though he came from a family of means and his relatives were quite willing to find opportunities to improve his financial condition, he chose to remain with his friends, and the poor who surrounded him all through his life.
He would talk with intellectuals the same way he would with the uneducated poor, with women the same way as he would with men, with the elderly the same way as he would with the young. A person’s social or economic status never influenced Kalekuri Prasad – he would pay the same respect to everyone. Treating everyone equally was a great humanitarian value that he practiced more consistently than anyone else.
He had great love for people; whether he knew them or not he would interact with all with the same respect and affability. If someone came to him with a problem, the moment he understood it, it became his problem. He would explore all the options available to him to solve it, immerse himself totally in it, and would not rest until he resolved it.
Usually people are repelled by those who profess high sounding principles but never practice them in their own personal lives. But Kalekuri was different; he would not scorn them but would only offer gentle criticism. That criticism would also incorporate suggestions for improvement. Therefore, most people regarded his criticism as useful and no one was ever angered by it, but welcomed it to an extent.
I got to know Kalekuri Prasad very late. He had visited our home in Champapet, Hyderabad, in May 2005, along with Venkateshwarlu (of Tenali). He stayed with us until November of that year, going out only occasionally on brief visits. My brother Battula Prakash, a social activist, also stayed in that room. K. G. Satyamurthy would also visit us often. The only little problem we faced with Prasad was of increased expenses.
We used to discuss a lot of issues, but I remember one debate on inter-caste marriage that I had started in which Kalekuri Prasad participated seriously. From the Champapet Chowrasta to our room in East Marutinagar, Prasad expounded at length on how inter-caste marriages should be. He felt that inter-caste marriages should lead to a sense of kinship between hundreds of families related to the groom and the bride, but instead they engendered enmity between those two groups. Even those families which considered themselves progressive were not an exception to this trend, he said.
In May 2009, after staying for a mere two months at his sister’s home, he returned saying he could not live there. My brother and Prasad’s sister had planned to get him treated for alcohol addiction, but he opposed the idea when got wind of it and returned to Hyderabad. However, my brother and his friends, Siddeshwar and Narender, managed to get him to stay in a hotel in Warangal from July 2009 till December 2009 and got him treated for some ailment there. But suspecting that they were trying to get him treated for addiction without his consent, Prasad jumped from his hotel room. The truth was he was not being treated for addiction. His leg was broken, and after it was healed he returned to his native village, Kanchikacherla. Since then, he had spent all of his time, until his death, in either Kanchikacherla or in Ongole, with his friend Palnati Sriramulu and others. His visits to Hyderabad were also very few and brief.
Writing was never so difficult – and there is so much to write about Kalekuri Prasad, how can one say it all in one article? One could write volumes about Kalekuri Prasad’s poetry, songs, literature, criticism, essays and translations etc., and one could write much more about his personality, social consciousness and personal conduct. Fortunately, Kalekuri Prasad was born in an ‘untouchable’ caste, therefore he became an intellectual who was so accessible to the poor, the oppressed and the Dalits. Had he been born in any dominant caste he would not have remained so close to the common folk, he would have become a memorial lecture in some department in one or another university. Now there’s no such danger, he will remain alive among the people.
There is a need to bring all his writing into print but because of his caste no university would take up this task. He voiced no such desire either, but because of the significance of his writing, those working in the Dalit, left and revolutionary politics should definitely make an effort to realize this objective. We should not attempt it for his sake but for our own needs. As a part of that exercise Ravichandran, a Dalit rights activist, interviewed Prasad on his life and literature and uploaded it on Dalit Camera.
Karthik Navayan is a human rights activist.
[Translated from Telugu by Kuffir]
* This is an excerpt from a translation of Kalekuri Prasad’s Telugu poem ‘piDikeDu aatmagauravam kOsam’ (‘For a fistful of self-respect’). You’ll find the full translation here, at The Shared Mirror.