Portrait of a Marriage

Malika Amar Shaikh’s unsparing account of her life and failed marriage to Dalit celebrity poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal is revealing at many levels

I want to destroy myself by Malika Amar Shaikh
I want to destroy myself by Malika Amar Shaikh

Sampurna Chattarji

The word ‘memoir’ is, I realise, a very feeble word when it comes to describing Malika Amar Shaikh’s I Want to Destroy Myself (original title Mala Uddhvasta Vhaychay, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto). Self-indicting, flaying and raw, it is a thing of claw and tooth, ripping open the Pandora’s Box of a marriage gone horribly wrong. In her introduction she writes, ‘I have peeled away the skin of my life and served it up to you. Some may say this fruit is inedible but that doesn’t matter.’ What you have here is the pulp and pith of a life in which she spares no one, least of all herself.

The author is no ‘ordinary woman’ as she modestly claims in the Introduction. Malika was born to Communist-activist parents, her father Amar Shaikh (1916- 1969) was from a farming background, whose first job was as a cleaner. (He went on to become a legendary lok shahir or folk singer of revolutionary anthems.) Her mother, Kusum Jaykar, was a Pathare Prabhu (a Hindu community, one of the original residents of the city of Bombay), an educated, middle-class working woman. Both were Communist Party members. Overcoming the opposition of both the Party and their families, they got married.

Malika was a sickly child, spending days in bed, where she ‘began to live in … a dream world’ populated by the ‘white fairies of delirium’. She grew up in Saat Rasta, in Mumbai, which she calls ‘a museum of humanity’ where ‘all religions and castes lived together amicably’. Her parents were respected in the neighbourhood, her home was a place of comfort and beauty, where poets like Vinda Karandikar, Narayan Surve and Shripad Narayan Pendse would gather for poetry mehfils.

The school she went to was one of the most important locations in the history of the development of experimental theatre in Mumbai, and Malika was a natural performer, taking part in everything, excellent in studies. In short, it was an idyllic childhood. When she was twelve, her father died in a car accident. Her elder sister began acting in experimental theatre, working, doing her MA; Malika began writing poetry; her mother gave up wearing zari saris, but not her mangalsutra or her kumkum. The three women got by, as best as they could.

And then in February 1974, Namdeo Dhasal, a young man, a poet, one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers, visited their home. There was a warrant out for him, and he had slipped away from a public meeting. Malika writes, ‘Namdeo was extraordinarily good-looking… a rough sort, tall, thin but with a strong body. He was dark but his features were chiselled, cruel, arrogant. As opposed to this, a pair of laughing eyes that seemed capable of love. His laugh rang out, free, joyous… His behaviour showed self-confidence, arrogance, the commanding presence of a general.’ They were not introduced.

The next time he came, he did not talk to her. Malika writes, ‘Who did he think he was? Other young men fell all over themselves to talk to me, and this one? I knew he was a poet. I had read Golpitha... There was something enigmatic and terrible and magnetic all at once. […] Golpitha created a storm in the world of Marathi letters. Its elegant outlines, its carefully manicured beauty was wiped out by one Namdeo Dhasal. His words were cruel, savage. […] It was difficult to believe in the world they conjured up; it was impossible not to believe it.’

This man, who lived in a slum, smoked ganja all day and slept in a taxi by night, this ‘romantic revolutionary’, this Dalit Panther, this incendiary poet, became a regular visitor, talking (at last!) to young Malika in her skirt and blouse, her hair in plaits, even hijacking her poetry notebook (which went with him from jail to jail). They were clearly more than just ‘two poets… drawing close’—they were falling in love.

Yes. Already you know this fairy tale is doomed.

She writes, ‘delicate, thin, dark, underage… I went into the wedding, guarding my childish joy.’ She knew Namdeo ‘had been to prostitutes often in the past. And when he got the clap, he’d taken treatment as well.’ They sleep together before the wedding because it’s fun (Namdeo explains, after marriage it’s routine) and Malika writes, ‘Baap re, that first time was nothing but pain. I wondered how anyone could get any joy out of this circus. It hurt so much… But I liked surrendering my body to the man I loved.’

Siddhesh Gautam
Siddhesh Gautam

As Namdeo’s wife, she witnesses the split between the founders of the Dalit Panthers, the ‘bitterness the Dalit people felt for the Communists and their ideology’ while ‘on the other hand, the young Dalit Panthers, who had no commitment and ideological position, were simply going astray. […] They knew nothing of Ambedkar’s thought nor did they see that an organisation needs discipline.’ A newly-married couple with no privacy, Malika feels the strain, monetarily, politically, but hangs in there, simply because she ‘trusted Namdeo’.

The tensions, especially when pregnant, make her feel like killing herself. She writes, ‘I was completely out of control and at the same time, a great alertness, a great cautiousness would also surface. […] I felt as if I had suffered an internal short circuit. This would happen very often.’ The fundamental change in her personality that she marks on page 100, marks also the beginning of the end, the spiralling violence, the betrayals and desertions, the fighting over his drinking, his extravagance, his ‘foul language and ugly behaviour’, the suspicion, the devastation of the spirit, the cycles of separation and reconciliation.

Infected with a venereal disease by her husband, with no money in the house for a cure, she writes, ‘What should I feel for Namdeo? I wanted to gash and score him with my nails. I wanted to empty an entire revolver-barrel of bullets into his chest.’

She gets herself a job, she enrols in singing classes, she sits for exams, she fails to complete anything, she admits defeat, she returns. She becomes a rebel. She writes, ‘My real femininity was now primitive, unashamed, intense, aggressive; but also sensitive. […] Something had to burst inside… Nothing happened.’

It is this awful admission that locates the nature of her heartbreak. For all the inner upheavals, the cataclysmic desire for change, nothing happens, things remain the same. She writes, ‘What was true? What was real? The twisted and poisoned society around me? The women who bore rape and abuse at the hands of their husbands while concealing the evidence of being brutalised? […] Where is a woman’s real place in today’s society? Is she aware of all that is happening around her? And what are her ways out of it? […] What does a woman have with which to fight injustice? Must she continue to be sacrificed like this? Whatever traditions have been dismantled, have only freed men. I won’t even go into what I’ve gained from telling you my sob story.’

The truth is, this isn’t a sob story, a ‘misery memoir’. It is a harrowing portrait of a marriage, an unflinching exposé of a woman’s weaknesses, her need to believe in love, and her escape that resembles death throes more than a life-affirmation.

It is a well-known fact that it was Malika, Namdeo Dhasal’s estranged wife, who nursed him in the last days of his life (Dhasal died in 2014). How could she, you might wonder? Perhaps because she understood better than most the complex tortured nature of a love gone wrong, the need for love, the attendant neediness. (The love poem she includes in her Introduction closes, ‘And yet, we can love love/ Where does such love come from?/ I don’t know. I don’t know’).

Malika Amar Shaikh ends her tale with the words, ‘This is the story of a defeat.’ To me, it seems that this story ‘of a straightforward woman, any young woman’ is anything but that. It is the story of a far harder task—to confront one’s demons in order to exorcise them, to stand naked in front of the mirror, with the whole contemptuous, contemptible world watching.

SAMPURNA CHATTARJI is a poet, fiction writer, and translator

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