Ashok Naigaonkar: The Man with a Serious Laugh

 Thank you so much!
        You helped her cross the threshold
 by teaching her
And it made all the difference.
      Now, she doesn’t have to use her
Thumb imprint as a signature.
Now she can write before pouring kerosene on her body
(so that it’s not a burden on her little ones afterwards)
“I’m burning myself out of my own free will”
Thank you so much!

For 36 years Ashok Naigaonkar worked as a bank clerk. While keeping up a steady income, he wrote poems and participated in social movements. He witnessed and worked alongside Namdev Dhasal, the founder of Dalit Panthers and one of Marathi’s most prolific Dalit poets. Then, he kept digging up the illusory cave of poetic yearnings and regularly contributed his work in Little Magazine along with other legendary poets such as Manohar Oak, Satish Kalsekar and Chandrakant Khot.

Today, he stands as the only Marathi poet whose work has entered Marathi Dnyanpeeth. Or maybe, it did more than that; it penetrated every shelf and library. His poems were regularly featured along with Leftists of the era and in magazines dedicated to Marathi poetry. Unlike social poetry (and in a way conventional social poems) that aim to slap the conscious, his poems didn’t do any of that. They simply revealed the ugliness in society while making you laugh about it. Almost like a bear hug, overpowering you with mirth and humor; his poems raise up a mirror right to your face telling you a simple truth: That you have been laughing at yourself all this time.

Be it anywhere: A remote rural village with no street lights or halogens to conduct a poetry recitation to the swanky halls of Muscat and London, his words never failed to poke, tickle and pinch where it hurt really hard. In years that went by, Ashok Naigaonkar started reciting poems through a show called ‘Kavitanchya Gaava Jaave’ (Going to the Village of Poems). That was truly the beginning of his era. Of reaching out to masses and reading out his social poems. Not really waking up people but showing how much of this comatose state they were still in.  

Ashok Naigaonkar is omnipresent in our house. Like a sign. Sometimes, through his words or his one-liners. Mostly for the jokes he cracks every minute. One of his all-time favorite jokes (and he never fails to mention this one) goes like this: Once a couple in Mahabaleshwar told me, that they went nature spotting but failed because of one reason: Trees kept coming in between.

Or when a young poet asked him, “Is it okay if I read my poem?” To which he replied, “I’ve been through worse. So, it’s fine. Go on.”

Apart from the fact that this Marathi poet has been widely misunderstood for being a Hasya Kavi or a Comic Poet, (Which is but natural because of his stage performances), he’s yet to be recognized as a poet who has clutched the nerve of caste and class, graphically showing how exploitation works through the system.

For example, one of his poems translated as ‘Them and You’, goes like this:

Their Farm house
 Swimming Pool
Garden Swing

               You stand in the MHADA queue
               Fill out your form
              Await your lottery

Theirs Kulu Manali
Three star
Singapore Bangkok

             You visit Shani Shingnapur
             Aatpaadi – Vaijapur
           A public guesthouse

Theirs Pizza
Chicken Tikka
Royal Challenge

                 Yours Vada Pav
                Bhaji Pav

Theirs Credit Card

               You mortgage
               Your wares & utensils
               Keep crying for help

His readings intersperse satire and poetry, weaving it together. His stage appearance isn’t imposing except the fact that his droopy moustaches adds to his sarcasm and humour. He does tickle the mediocre funny bone of most audiences and then, just the way a magician deals out a card, Naigaonkar begins with his poems –  seamlessly clutching at the deeper veins of society.

To me, they aren’t funny. They are sarcastic at most. But to what extent, is a question Marathi literati haven’t answered yet. Or aren’t willing to answer yet. Or won’t answer in the years to come. Because that would mean, relooking at his work from a serious perspective. To begin with, it’s a new perspective to uphold by the standards of Marathi Literature. Which also means that a considerable time will also have be spent on understanding his taxonomy, his poetic and political leanings.

And that wisdom shall only befall us when our society collectively crumbles. Which isn’t going to happen soon. So, Naigaonkar shall still make people laugh and subtly tell us that something has been going terribly wrong with our cities & villages. Without ever hurting a bone.  

-Sanket Mhatre


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