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Two weeks ago, Parul Khakhar, a poet in Amreli in Gujarat, published a poem on her Facebook page that set Gujarat astir. Her 14-line poem, called Shab-Vahini Ganga (the hearse called Ganga), is written in the style of marashiya, a mournful dirge. It is haunting in its rhythm and rousing in its satirical overtones. Appalled by the sight of bodies floating in the holy river, she invokes popular phrases that rhyme with Ganga, such as ‘changa’ (all is well), Billa-Ranga (notorious murderers), and a Hindi word evoking the classic imagery of an emperor’s state of dishabille.

The poem has spread beyond the poet’s intended audience. Astounded that a Gujarati poet would criticize the state, many began sharing it, turning into an instant hit. She was attacked online mercilessly, in misogynistic, vulgar tones, by hundreds who seemed more upset over a poem than the deaths. By one count, her 14 lines have attracted more than 20,000 abusive responses.

Some responses attempted rhyming verse, invoking lurid imagery, describing the poet as Putana, a demoness who tried to kill the infant Krishna. Khakhar locked her social media profile, but the poem has now been translated in Bangla, Marathi, Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi and English. (I translated it into English at a friend’s request, as have accomplished translators Rita and Abhijit Kothari, and Ganpat Vankar.) It has also been set to tune in Gujarati and Punjabi. As the Vadodara-based Gujarati poet Mehul Devkala wrote in the Telegraph: “This poem has crossed boundaries of languages. Nobody can stop its journey now. Not even the poet herself."

Khakhar is known for her rhythmic songs and ghazals. Vishnu Pandya, head of the government-run Gujarati Sahitya Akademi, used to speak warmly of her writing. Since the poem, he made a cryptic comment saying Khakhar must be wishing that the good lord saves her from her “well-wishers". Kaajal Oza Vaidya, a popular Gujarati writer who has also appeared as a model for jewellery ads, criticized the “fashionable" outpouring of anger against the government. She said it was wrong to blame a government when people refused to follow simple hygiene rules and kept getting infected. On the other hand, Manishi Jani, one of the student leaders of the Navanirman Andolan of 1973, who now heads the Gujarati Lekhak Mandal (Gujarati Writers’ Organisation), defended Khakhar’s creative freedom. So did Anil Joshi, a leading Gujarati poet.

Early in the pandemic, several Gujarati poets wrote of their anguish and despair. But as they saw a complacent government busy hosting the then US president Donald Trump and organizing cricket matches in Gujarat while ignoring the virus, they turned sharper. Sarcasm was aimed at the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ of governance and fury was directed at the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s actions and inactions. The party has run Gujarat almost uninterrupted since 1995, with a gap from September 1996 to March 1998, and the state goes to elections next year.

Last June, Etad, possibly Gujarat’s finest literary journal, published some writings on the pandemic. Here’s a prescient Hareesh Minashru: “(In) Moscow and Madrid / I lift my half-burnt body / And get up in haste: I still have to bear witness / Countless ceremonies of death." Bilingual poets Hemang Desai and Pratishtha Pandya wrote plaintive poems recalling the 19 migrant workers who died on rail tracks. Lunawada-based Kanji Patel wrote of the news of death arriving daily in black letters. Ajay Sarvaiya invoked Tarkovsky, Borges and Chomsky. Devkala’s poem said: “In this crematorium of a city / My nose recognises this smell." Another poet, Vipasha, wrote of eerie emptiness: “Vast battlefield / Countless murders / Disappeared soldiers."

Over at the Gujarati Literary Academy in London, the magazine Opinion published many poems by Gujarati poets, including Radhika Patel, Babu Suthar, Shahnawaz Malik and Pancham Shukla. London-based Shukla wrote a spirited response to the trolls attacking Khakhar.

Elsewhere, in a poem called The Third World War, Mumbai-based Kamal Vora, who edits Etad, has drawn a harrowing picture of the pandemic—of gasping breath, flashing ambulance lights, stretchers wheeled through hospitals, the rising and falling graphs indicating the fragility of life.

And in another poem, Upadrav, which Pandya has self-translated into English as Infestation, she writes, in part: “They don’t hold anyone accountable / for their plucked breaths / They don’t get into arguments / with those who fail to treat them with respect / They don’t carry out protest marches / You just need to bury them / ten feet deep into the soil / until the maggots burrow and eat the petals, / and breed in the still moist caverns."

As Salman Rushdie tells me in an interview that is scheduled to appear in Mint Lounge this weekend, “A poem can tell us truths that a newspaper can’t." Social critique is an old Gujarati tradition going back to poets Sundaram, Umashankar Joshi, and, more recently, the rousing Jayesh Jeeviben Solanki, novelists Manubhai Pancholi, Pannalal Patel and Josef Macwan, and writers Sonal Shukla, Dhiruben Patel, Saroop Dhruv and Kundanika Kapadia. They have long blazed the trail of speaking truth to power. Khakhar is not alone.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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