The poem that’s channelling India’s anger about the pandemic | Salil Tripathi

The poem that’s channelling India’s anger about the pandemic | Salil Tripathi


Parul Khakhar had little idea of the storm her 14-line poem would unleash. Posted on 11 May on social media, the Gujarati-language dirge expresses heartfelt despair and outrage over the pandemic deaths in India. Shab-vahini Ganga (“A Hearse Called Ganga”, as the river Ganges is known across India) is hauntingly rhythmic and charged with emotion, lamenting the tragedy that has stunned Indians.

India was spared the first wave of Covid-19, and the Narendra Modi administration rather smugly thought the country would be immune. Modi had hosted the then president, Donald Trump, in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, at a large rally in February 2020, weeks before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic. In the months since, other than declaring a brutal lockdown that disrupted the lives of millions of India’s internal migrant workers, the government carried on business as usual, permitting the world’s largest religious festival and holding vast political rallies for elections earlier this year (in which it suffered major setbacks). Modi donated vaccines to other countries, perhaps fancying the Nobel Prize for himself, and in January at the virtual World Economic Forum boasted that India had overcome the pandemic.

That was an act of hubris, as the world – and India – have discovered. Within days, it was clear that the emperor indeed had no clothes (Khakhar alludes to Hans Christian Andersen’s folktale in her poem). India turned from being the “world’s pharmacy” into a recipient of charity, with massive shortages of oxygen, medicines and ambulances. Not only did patients have to queue for beds in hospitals’ intensive care units (some died on the doorsteps of hospitals, waiting in ambulances or cars), mourners had to queue up for spots at crematoriums, which were running out of wood and whose furnaces were melting, the trees surrounding the crematoriums turning ashen.

Khakhar does not name Modi, but her anguish and anger are palpable in her poem. What’s remarkable is that she wrote it in Gujarati: Modi continues to be immensely popular in his home state, which his Bharatiya Janata party has ruled almost uninterrupted since 1995. He was himself the state’s chief minister from late 2001 till 2014, when he was elected India’s prime minister. The poem has wider ramifications; it has revealed to Indians how unpopular he is becoming in his own state, which goes to elections late next year.

The poem has set Gujarati society apart, with many cheering it quietly, and many more openly abusing its author. It has emboldened Modi’s opponents within the state to be more vocal. At the same time, Modi’s supporters have doubled down. They have written responses, including some verses of indifferent quality, vilifying Khakhar, comparing her with a demoness, besides the usual misogynistic, vulgar and crude imagery that trolls on the internet often invoke when they come across a spunky woman who says things they don’t want to hear. Indeed, she has already reportedly attracted more than 28,000 hate-filled messages, making it perhaps the most criticised poem of all time, at least in India.

Meanwhile, the poem has spread across India with the speed of the virus itself. It has been translated into at least seven languages – Bengali, English, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Malayalam and Tamil, and been set to music in Gujarati and Punjabi. I translated it into English, and it appeared with a few other translations on the independent publication, the Wire. While many leading Gujarati authors have remained silent, some have spoken up. Khakhar has had to lock her social media profile. She responded politely to my emails but chose not to comment in public – preferring to let her words speak for herself. As the attacks against her mounted relentlessly, last week she posted a spirited verse on her Facebook page: “Blessed and content that Parul is still alive; even though many daggers were drawn carrying her name.”

Salman Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses in 1988 that a poet’s work is “to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep”.

Khakhar’s verse is doing just that.



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