A Review: Chandramohan S’s “Beef Poem”
By Appu Jacob John
A review of “Beef Poem” by Chandramohan S, published in Quesadilla and Other Adventures: Food Poems (2019), edited by Somrita Urni Ganguly, published by Hawakal, softcover, pp. 150
It’s rather strange to think about a poem on beef in a nation of cow vigilantism. A nation known for its great attributes to democracy is changing into an autocratic entity bit by bit. India is now divided into a nation of meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters. It is in this context that we have a new poem on the politics of beef in India from Chandramohan S. He is an Indian English Dalit poet who is known for his outspoken poetry. “Beef Poem” tells us of the subaltern entity of a beef-eater. The poem is divided into fourteen stanzas or sections. Each section is a haiku on beef and how it represents the modern days of subaltern reality.
The first section offers us a reality check: the poet thinks that he will be judged by the present day elite scholars, and that his poems will be judged by the so-called vegan upper-strata of poets. They will winnow them down and much will be thrown out like the chaff. He fears his ‘lighter shallow poems/ will be blown away,/ while the meatier, heavier poems/ will fall back into the tray’ (25). One way of understanding the beef metaphor in this poem is by taking into cognizance the beef nationalism presently at work in our country. For many centuries beef was found to be the source of food for the subaltern people of India. Hence, being part of the Dalit community, Chandramohan remembers many of our ancestors who had been denied the ‘normal’ food and who had to survive on the ‘abnormal’ food: beef. This can also be seen as a reflection on how the elite, established writers disregard the writings of the subaltern section.
The second section of the poem takes the metaphor further and tells us how the upper echelons of society sees the subaltern, beef-eating poet’s writings as untouchable. Chandramohan keeps exploring the reality of the subaltern state in the subsequent stanzas. In section four, he says for some poets beef has become the centre of all. Beef has now become the point of contest or the point of division between people. Chandramohan uses another brave metaphor and compares the current situation to Buddha’s begging bowl. Buddha’s bowl embraced all that it received: be it the good upper-class food or the ordinary woman’s half-eaten fruit. Unlike the Buddha’s bowl, we have today lost the ability to include everyone in our discussion on food.
The fifth section of the poem tells us how the poet tries to manoeuvre the sharp curves of history in his rear-view mirror. The poet sees truckloads of cattle waiting at check points. This is one of the most problematic sights in modern India. Here drugs, gold, antiques, children, and women can be smuggled in and out with alacrity, but not cows: that shan’t be tolerated. Yet, in the same country stables lie empty with cows dying of hunger, and as India continues to be the biggest exporter of beef in the world. In the sixth section the poet is awakened from his other-worldly ruminations by the shrill whistle of the pressure-cooker. It reminds him of the real pangs of hunger as he thinks of how the cow vigilantes in this country have turned out to be worshippers of the cow. The poet writes: ‘A dead cow preserved in formalin/ like Hitler’s penis in a museum’ (26); both colossal wastes.
The eighth section reminds the readers that the poet feels his poems are like sausages, remnants of preserved meat. The much-avoided poems of the subalterns hang like sausages, waiting to be cooked. But from being ignored for too long they turn into cyanide capsules, hanging around the neck of the poet.
By section eleven, the poet is enraged by the strange developments of the land and he beefs up his poetry as it is his voice of protest. This is further explained in section twelve as he asserts that his poems are not dead objects but verbs – action words of violent rebellion against discrimination. In section thirteen, he continues that metaphor and compares his beef poems to hand grenades: ‘meatballs of beef/ with the label of “handle with care”’ (27). These are poems that will knock on people’s conscience. They may appear functionless, like the vestigial organs of the body, but they have a definitive function of their own.
Going through Chandramohan S’s “Beef Poem” helps one take cognizance of the realities of modern India. Each year we seem to be pushed further into the dark room of the fascist plans of the system, into ever growing quagmires of monopolies and corporates. In this system, the subaltern suffers the most. Chandramohan S is quite aware of this reality, and he uses his poetic grenades to disrupt the fake order that the world seems to set up. His “Beef Poem” is a true testament to his struggles and his philosophy.
Appu Jacob John is Assistant Professor at St. Albert’s College, Ernakulam, Kerala.
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