All my life
I have been rowing this boat day and night
with no shore in sight.
That is how vast the ocean is
and then the storms;
nothing here tells me that
I will reach the other side.
But I can’t
just can’t put these oars down.
And he did not, not even in the last moments of his life when he was fighting a losing battle with lung cancer.
It was painful. He often had difficulty breathing. Joints were aching. There were issues of anaemia, weight loss, and more. He could not sit for long without feeling absolutely drained. But Vajesinh Pargi agreed to meet us in his hospital room and speak to us about life and poetry.
A life that was never kind to him from the time he was born, 1963 according to his Aadhaar card – in a poor Bhil Adivasi community in Dahod’s Itawa village.
Summing up his experiences of growing up as the eldest
son of Chiska Bhai and Chatura Ben, Vajesinh repeats just one word, like a
refrain, “poverty…poverty.” A brief pause. He turns his face the other way,
rubbing his sunken eyes, unable to get rid of those images from his childhood
darting across his vision like stubborn floaters. “There was never enough money
for food in the house.”
Life will come to an
but not this daily rut.
The radius of the roti
is way bigger
than that of the earth.
No one but those
who live with hunger
know how much one roti means,
where all it takes you.
Vajesinh reads out his poems to us from his hospital bed at Kaizar Medical Nursing Home in Dahod, where he was receiving palliative care
“I should not say that, but we had parents we could not be proud of,” Vajesinh confesses. And his already frail frame shrinks even more under the weight of deep anguish and shame, “I know I should not be saying such things, but it just came out, I guess.” His old mother, about 85, sitting on a tin stool in one corner of the small room in Dahod’s Kaizar Medical Nursing Home is hard of hearing. “I only saw my parents struggle. Mother and father worked in the fields as labourers.” His two sisters, four brothers, and parents lived in a small, one-room, brick and mud house in the village. Even when Vajesinh left Itawa and came to Ahmedabad in search of employment, he lived in a little rented hole in the wall in Thaltej chawl. A place even his closest friends rarely got to visit.
If I stand
I hit the roof
If I straighten up
I hit the wall.
I somehow spent a lifetime
What came to my aid
was the habit
of curling up inside my mother’s womb.
The story of deprivation is not Vajesinh’s alone; it is an old and common one in the region where the poet's family lives. About 74 per cent of the population in Dahod district consists of Scheduled Tribes, with 90 per cent of them engaged in agriculture. But the small size of plots and low productivity of the land, largely dry and drought-prone, does not ensure an adequate income. And the poverty rate in the region has remained the highest in the state at 38.27 per cent according to the latest multidimensional poverty survey.
“ Ghani takli kari ne mota kariya se e lokone dhandha kari kari ne,” says Vajesinh’s mother Chaturaben, speaking about her life as a mother. “ Majhoori karine, ghernu karine, bijhanu karine khavadyu chh. [I have done hard labour. Worked at home, worked at other’s and somehow got them something to eat.]” They have lived on only jowar porridge at times, have gone to school hungry. It was never easy to bring up the children, she says.
In the two-part memoir he wrote for a 2009 issue of Nirdhar , a magazine dedicated to the voices of the deprived communities from Gujarat, Vajesinh narrates the story of a large-hearted Adivasi family. Jokho Damor and his family stay hungry to feed the young boys they were hosting that evening. Speaking of this incident where five of them were caught in the heavy rains on their way back from school and had sought shelter in Jokho’s house, Vajesinh says, “ Bhadarvo was always the month of starvation for us.” Bhadarvo is the eleventh month of the Hindu Vikram Samvat calendar prevalent in Gujarat, usually coinciding with September in the Gregorian calendar.
“The stored grain in the house would run out; those in
the fields would not be ready yet, and so, to starve even when the fields
were green was our fate. It was only in some rare houses that you would find
the hearth burning twice a day in those months. And if the previous year had
seen drought, many families would have to survive on boiled or roasted
Dire poverty was a curse that our community was born into.”
But unlike the present generation, says Vajesinh, people those days would rather wilt and die of starvation than leave their home and their villages and migrate to Kheda, Baroda, or Ahmedabad in search of labour. Education was not much valued in the community. “Whether we went to graze the animals or went to school, it was all the same. Even our parents and teachers only wanted one thing – let the kids learn to read and write. That is all. Who wants to study more and rule the world here!”
Vajesinh, though, had dreams – of flying with the trees, chatting with the birds, flying on the wings of the fairies across the seas. He had hopes – of the deities rescuing him from troubles, of witnessing the victory of truth and defeat of lies, of finding God on the side of the meek, just like it was in the stories Grandfather told. But life turned out to be quite the opposite of a fanciful tale.
And yet the hope that
Grandfather sowed in my childhood –
something wonderful is possible –
That is the reason I live
this unbearable life
even today, everyday,
in the hope that
something miraculous is about to happen.
It is this hope that made him struggle for his education throughout his life. Once he was on the path to education, almost accidentally, he pursued it with passion. Even when he had to walk for six to seven kilometres to reach school, or to stay in a hostel, or go to sleep hungry, or wander from house to house asking for food, or buy a bottle of alcohol for the principal. He was sure to continue it even when there was no higher secondary school in the village, no modes of transport to commute to Dahod, no money to rent a place in Dahod. He did it even when it meant doing construction work to meet the expenses, spending nights at the railway platform, sleeping and waking up hungry, using the public bathrooms to get ready before appearing for the board exams.
Vajesinh was determined not to be defeated by
Often while living
I feel giddy
the heart skips a beat
and I collapse.
And yet every time
rising inside me is
the lively resolve to not die
and I find myself back on my feet
ready to live again and again.
The real education,
the part that he enjoyed the most began when he joined Navjeevan Arts and
Commerce College, for a B.A. in Gujarati. He completed
his Bachelor’s degree and registered for a Masters. However, after the first
year of M.A. Vajesinh quit, decided to do a B.Ed. instead. He needed money and
he wished to be a teacher. Just after he cleared his B.Ed. Vajesinh was caught
off guard in the middle of a fight, a bullet ripped through the then young
Adivasi’s jaw and neck. The accident proved life changing as Vajesinh’s voice
too suffered with the injury from which he never recovered, not even after seven years of treatment, 14 surgeries, and an insurmountable debt.
That was a double blow. Born into a community that had little voice in the first place, the one he was personally gifted with was also now seriously damaged. He had to give up on his dream of becoming a teacher and turn to labour, contractual work in Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research, and later to proof reading. It is in his work as a proofreader that Vajesinh was reunited with his first love – bhasha. He got to read a lot that was written over two decades.
And what were his observations?
“Let me tell you very openly what I think about language,” he says speaking with gusto. “The Gujarati literati are completely careless about language. The poets don’t show any sensitivity toward the use of words; most of them only write ghazals and all they care about is emotion. They think that is what is important. Words are all right; they are there.” It is this nuanced understanding of words, their arrangements, and their power to express certain experiences that Vajesinh brought to his own poems, complied in two volumes that remained unappreciated and unrecognised by mainstream literature.
“I guess you need to write more consistently,” he rationalises on why he has never been considered a poet to reckon with. “If I write a poem or two, who is going to care? These two collections are recent. I did not write for fame. I could not write regularly either. I did not even write very seriously, I feel. Hunger was woven into our lives, so I wrote about it. It was just a natural expression.” He remains self-effacing throughout our conversation – unwilling to apportion blame, unwilling to open old wounds, unwilling to claim his share of light. But he was fully aware that…
Someone has certainly swallowed
our share of light,
for we keep burning
ourselves out along with the sun
for a lifetime
and still nothing ever gets
The prejudice, the
undervaluing of his skills, and the differential treatment marked his
professional life as a proofreader. Once, even after clearing an entrance test
with an 'A' grade at a media house, he was offered a position on a pay scale considerably
lower than the one offered to those who passed with a 'C' grade. Vajesinh was
disturbed; he questioned the principles behind such a decision. And in the end refused
to take the offer.
In Ahmedabad he worked on small contracts with different media houses for a pittance. Kirit Parmar was writing for Abhiyan when he first met Vajesinh. He says, “in 2008 when I had joined Abhiyan, Vajesinh was working in Sambhav Media. Officially he was a proofreader, but we knew that when we gave him an article, he would edit the copy. He worked with the content to give the piece a structure and a shape. He had an amazing way with language as well. But that man never got his due, no opportunity that he deserved.”
He earned barely 6,000 rupees a month in Sambhav. The money that he made was never enough to take care of his family, the education of his brothers and sisters and to sustain a life in Ahmedabad. He started taking on freelance work with Image publications and worked from home after long days at the office.
“He was my father and not a brother from the time we lost our father,” says his youngest brother Mukesh Pargi, 37. “Vajesinh bore all the expenses for my education even in the most gruelling times. I remember him staying in a broken little room in Thaltej. On the tin roofs above his room, we would hear dogs running around all night long. In the 5000-6000 [rupees] that he earned, he could hardly look after himself, but he did other work just so that he could pay for our education. I cannot forget that.”
In the last five-six years Vajesinh joined a private company in Ahmedabad that offered proofreading services. “I worked on contract for most of my life. The most recent is with Cygnet Infotech. Gandhiji’s Navajeevan press had a contract with them and so I ended up working on the books they published. Before Navajeevan I worked with other publications,” says Vajesinh. “But no publisher in Gujarat has a permanent position for a proofreader.”
In a conversation with Kirit Parmar, a friend and a writer, he says, “One of the reasons why it is so difficult to find good proofreaders in Gujarati is poor remuneration. A proofreader is the guardian, an advocate of language. How come we do not respect the work and pay them appropriately? We are becoming an endangered species. And whose loss is it, but that of Gujarati language.” Vajesinh saw the sad state of Gujarati media houses. They did not respect language and anyone who could read and write was good enough to be a proofreader.
“The false idea that is prevalent in the
literary world,” says Vajesinh, “is that a proofreader does not have knowledge,
capabilities, or creativity.” He on the other hand remained a guardian of
Gujarati language. “Gujarat Vidyapeeth published a supplement to
Sarth Jodani Kosh
[a well-known dictionary] for 5,000 new words to be included in the
Kirit Bhai reminisces, “And there were terrible mistakes in it – not just of
spellings but factual errors, and of details. Vajesinh meticulously noted all
of these and argued for accountability. I do not see anyone in Gujarat today
who can do the kind of work Vajesinh did. He even wrote about the mistakes he
found in State board’s school textbooks of grade 6, 7, 8.”
With all his talent and capabilities, the world still remained a hostile place for Vajesinh to live in. And yet he wrote of hope and resilience. He knew he had to live with his own resources. He had given up on God long ago.
I am born with
hunger in one hand
and labour in the other,
Tell me, where do I get a third hand
to worship you, O lord?
Poetry often came to replace God in Vajesinh’s life. He published two volumes of poems, Aagiyanu Ajwalun (The light of the fireflies), in 2019 and Jhakalna Moti (Pearls of Dewdrops), in 2022 and a few poems in his mother tongue Panchamahali Bhili .
end of a life full of injustice, exploitation, discrimination, and deprivation
his poems bear no sign of resentment or anger. There are no complaints. “Where
would I have complained? To the society? We cannot complain to the society;
they will wring our necks,” he says.
Through poetry Vajesinh found the possibility to rise beyond the individual circumstances and connect with the real truth about the human condition. The failure of Adivasi and Dalit literature in the present, according to him, was its lack of breadth. “I read some Dalit literature and I find there is a lack of a larger human connect. It is all about complaining about the atrocities inflicted on us. But where do we go from there? Adivasis voices have just come up. They too speak a lot about their own lives. The larger questions are never raised,” he says.
A poet and a writer from Dahod Pravin Bhai Jadav says, “as a young boy growing up I used to read books and wonder why there were no poets from our community, our region. It was only 2008 that I first came across Vajesinh’s name in a collection. It took me four years to eventually find the man! And it took a while to get him to meet me. He was not a poet of mushairas . His poems spoke of our pain, the lives of the marginalised.”
Poetry came to Vajesinh during his college years. There was no time for any serious pursuit or training. “Poems keep churning in my mind all day long,” he explains. “They are the restless expression of my being that sometimes find expression and sometimes escape. So much of it has remained unexpressed. I cannot hold a lengthy process in my mind. That is why I chose the form that I did. And still a lot of poems remained unwritten.”
A life-threatening illness, lung cancer, in the
last two years just added more to the pile of unwritten poems. And when one looks at the life of Vajesinh
and his achievements in the face of suffering, one begins to realise what all
has remained unwritten. The ‘flickering light of fireflies’ that he held on to
not just for himself, but for his community, has remained unwritten. His ‘dewdrop
pearls’ that bloomed without the protective oyster in his hand remain unwritten.
The miraculous properties of a voice that retained compassion and empathy in a
cruel, unkind world remain unwritten. The name of Vajesinh Pargi among the list
of the finest poets in our language has remained unwritten.
But Vajesinh has never been a poet of revolution. For him, words were not even sparks.
I lie here waiting
for that one gust of wind
So what if I am a pile of ashes
I am no fire
I cannot burn even a blade of grass.
but I will certainly get into their eyes.
I can get at least one of them
to rub them red.
And now, left as we are with about 70 unpublished poems, more powerful irritants for our eyes and our conscience, we too await that gust of wind.
When I was a child
Bapa got me a jhooladi
it shrank after the first wash,
lost its colour,
and the threads came loose.
I didn’t like it anymore.
I threw a fit –
I don’t want to wear this jhooladi.
Ma stroked my head
and coaxed me,
“wear it till it tears, child.
we will get a new one then, okay?”
Today this body hangs
like the jhooladi I hated.
There are wrinkles all over,
the joints are melting,
I tremble as I breathe
and my mind throws a fit –
I don’t want this body anymore!
Just as I try to shed the frame
I remember ma and her sweet talk –
“wear it till it tears, child!
Once it is gone…
Translated from his unpublished Gujarati poem.
* Jhooladi is a traditional embroidered upper garment worn by children in Adivasi communities.
The writer expresses her immense
gratitude to Vajesinh Pargi for speaking to us just a few days before his
passing. Thanks also to Mukesh Pargi, to poet and social activist Kanji Patel, editor of
Umesh Solanki, Vajesinh’s friend and writer Kirit Parmar,
and a teacher from Galaliyavad Primary school, Satish Parmar for their help in
making this piece possible.