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Marriage with Malika Shaikh
Published in Marathi in 1984, I Want to Destroy Myself, Malika Shaikh's warts-and-all (literally) account of her marriage to Namdeo Dhasal, was, as publicists are wont to say, a literary sensation. Dhasal, who died in 2014, was a poet of powerful originality and the founder of the Dalit Panthers. For a period in the mid-1970s, Dhasal was arguably Bombay's most vital political figure. Dalits were rioting in Worli, and in Dhasal they had the leader to ignite the revolution-intelligent, eloquent and brimming over with piss and vinegar. But the movement foundered almost as soon as it had begun and Dhasal-whose politics had an internal consistency that seemed to outsiders like capriciousness or, worse, incoherence-could not control his party or himself. Shaikh's memoir, a blunt, even shocking, story of abuse, neglect and misery, was said by some to have contributed to Dhasal's fading political fortunes. He, to his credit, defended her right to have her say; besides, the Dalit Panthers' coruscating early momentum had ground to a crawl by the time Shaikh's book caused such a stir. She had married Dhasal young. Only 17 at the time, Shaikh met Dhasal in 1974 when he came to her house with her brother-in-law, the editor of a little magazine. Dhasal had already written Golpitha, the debut collection of poems that propelled him to the vanguard of Marathi poetry. He "fit in with my ideal", Shaikh writes, "masculine, maverick, sensitive, a poet to love and to love me". Her family agreed to a wedding on June 1, barely three months after they had met. By then, Shaikh writes, she had already lost her virginity to him. "It's fun to do it before the wedding," she says Dhasal told her. And one night, having taken her out for a movie and a meal, having given her a first taste of beer, Dhasal asks, "Giving?" What, Shaikh responds. "'Your womanhood.' And before I could answer, he had his hand over my mouth." It hurt so much, Shaikh reports. "I wondered how anyone could get any joy out of this circus... But I liked surrendering my body to the man I loved." This early encounter sets the tone for their marriage, an exercise in endurance, in forbearance, in masochism.
Nothing in Shaikh's upbringing suggests she's up to the task she sets herself-the task of loving a man who is unfaithful, a drunk, physically and verbally abusive, and married above all to the Dalit cause. The early parts of the autobiography are a rapturous account of her childhood and her famous father. Amar Shaikh was born to a poor family but became a trade unionist and joined the Communist Party, earning a following for his "strong, tuneful and full-throated voice". Shaikh's mother was Hindu, a Pathare-Prabhu, described in a helpful footnote as "among the original residents of the city of Bombay... But cursed by Bhrigu, they were reduced to being the scribes and scholars instead of the rulers". The marriage was frowned upon by the Party. Rajni Patel, the barrister and noted progressive, intervened, and the Party acquiesced. Still, Shaikh quotes her mother, the "registrar looked like he had been forced to drink a draught of castor oil".
Shaikh was a much pampered child. She had a life-threatening bout of pleurisy as an infant and the doctors warned her parents they should keep her from crying, and thus taking deeper breaths, until she became a teenager. So she spent much of her childhood in bed, cocooned by parents and sister, and by stories: "Here was a pinkish-red staircase, and a small piece of sky, and the white fairies of delirium, and the handsome prince who would visit me and laugh with me and tease me." Bookish and sensitive, Shaikh took naturally to painting and poetry, writing her first poem at just seven and later winning "the rather pompous title of Maharashtra Balkaviyatri (child poetess of Maharashtra)". She was in thrall to her father, accompanying him to political meetings, on film sets, to concerts, the theatre, and art galleries, and in thrall to art, to the making of it, and the steady gurgle of conversation about ideas. In 1969, when Shaikh was 12, her father died in a car crash.
If the family kept a roof over their heads, continued to maintain a middle-class life of impeccable earnestness, of devotion to schoolwork and polite artistic accomplishment, the absence of Shaikh's father was keenly felt. It's easy to see how Dhasal, with his easy command, outsize personality, the sheer novel energy of his poetic voice might have filled a gap, might have taken the place of her equally charismatic father. But things went wrong more or less from the start. On their wedding night, "[u]ninvited, a whole lot of Namdeo's friends, poets, party functionaries and the like came over". Shaikh's job, as the guests never seemed to leave, was to keep the tea flowing. Dhasal, a fitful presence, never gave up the life he wrote about in Golpitha, the whoring, brawling, and carousing, even leaving her ridden with venereal disease: "On both sides of my pubic area, boils erupted. Pus began to form inside... My body filled me with revulsion now."
Shaikh tried to leave. But, by now, they had a son, Ashutosh. She told V.S. Naipaul, who wrote about her and Dhasal in A Million Mutinies Now, that they were in "a kind of vicious triangle. I love Namdeo. The child loves me. Namdeo loves the child". I Want to Destroy Myself, as the title suggests, is a howl of pain. Shaikh is consumed by love. There is some artistic frustration, but she knows Dhasal was the greater poet. It is not Dhasal she is angry with; it is herself, for allowing herself to become subsumed by love. This then, as she says, is a story of defeat. But it is also a story of resilience, of turning defeat by virtue of survival into something that looks like victory.