Library of India

A terrible beauty shines through this tea garden poet’s fierce verses on war, freedom, erotica

A raw, energetic voice that illuminates the dream of a better world.

Who knows Sananta Tanty?

The answer might be blowing in the wind but knowing a poet through his own lenses is perhaps an altogether different and exciting discovery.

The clue to the contents of a new volume, Selected Poems, where Tanty’s fiercely delectable poems are translated from the Assamese into English by Dibyajyoti Sarma, may be found in what the 65-year-old poet says about himself:

“He sometimes bothers me constantly, swimming in the rivers of my nerves and my blood cell. Entering my heart and my conscious sometimes, he orders me around. Sometimes, he creates a tremor within my most intimate dreams. Intoxicated in the scent of spring, he makes me restless unnecessarily. This is why perhaps I don’t like Sananta. I burn in Sananta’s presence.”

My own brush with Tanty came during my high school years. Among the pile of Bengali and Assamese poetry that I read, Tanty’s voice emerged from another planet, raw and energetic. The clarion call for social justice in a number of his poems immediately fired the zeal of a teenager, much in the same way that the poems of Pablo Neruda and Nazim Hikmet did. It was a language that no fervent preacher could match.

“Sananta Tanty is a poet of bright optimism – the source of which is the tireless struggle for people’s rights,” wrote author Homen Borgohain in a note in 1980. From Borgohain we come to know that Tanty’s ancestors were from Odisha, who went to Assam a century ago to work in the tea gardens of Assam. He was a resident of the Bengali-speaking Kachar district.

“While staying in Jorhat, Assam, I learnt to speak and write in Assamese and found the language to be comfortable to grow and discharge my thoughts,” Tanty told Scroll.in. The little magazines published in Assamese during the time played a great role in grooming his poetry.

A choice of tongues

The question of linguistic preference as the medium of his art for Tanty is a fluid one, nothing that hampers his sense of craft. He wrote in Bengali as well. His explanation:

“However, due to the lack of publishing outlets in Bengali at the place where I was staying, I found it difficult to publish my poems. If I were in Barak Valley at that time, who knows, I could have been a Bengali poet now. I have no fascination towards a particular language; I was interested in a medium which is comfortable to discharge my poetic thoughts.”

Selected Poems is a veritable source of refined poetics from the poet who believes in questioning:

The war now depends on a few questions;
 
for the answers I have postponed life 

— "Waiting For Some Answers"

Tanty’s poetic journey has been shaped by the socio-economic and political influence of the oppressed society he belongs to.

“While growing up as a son of a tea-garden worker, lack of basic amenities bothered us – the exploitation of the tea garden workers, especially the rampant hunger and other social injustices, created a revolutionary spirit in me,” said Tanty. “I realised then that to end this injustice and exploitation, there must be a change in society.”

If the plight of the community was one of the things that churned his thoughts, the 20th Century obsession with war, depression, segregation and starvation rankled him enough to spell his position out forthright:

Now is the time to think, for whom is the war? 

For whom is the ties of friendship?
 
For whom flies the flag of poverty? 

For whom falls pure rain on my yellow country?

— "Waiting For Some Answers"

What Tanty has written is perhaps more pertinent today, given the current political environment. The Kashmir impasse, trouble in the North-East, low-intensity but recurrent conflicts in the so-called backwaters of northern and central India, as well as the urban angst where rifts between religions, upper and oppressed castes, migrant communities and the upwardly mobile are more visible, all offer a foreboding picture of what he said:

I will rebel inside your core, start a revolution
If you rule us at gunpoint forever.
 
The sky will be the colour of smoke; it will rain blood.

The city will be riotous. People will be oceans. 

— "Just For Poetry"

“The Marxist thoughts that I received during my association with the leftist organisations in my early life influenced my poetry a lot,” Tanty said. “I’ve reinvented my people through the Marxist perspective.”

A treat in translation

Sarma’s translation of Tanty is undoubtedly a milestone in Indian poetry. From tea garden to tea table is how a few have tried describing it. However, the long years behind the project bring to light a process that quickly turns from a mere coincidence to a rigour steeped in love and zeal.

“It happened serendipitously,” Sarma told Scroll.in.

While working as a journalist in Pune, he started translating Assamese poems that he admired. “It was my way of keeping in touch with my language.”

After moving to Delhi in 2012, Sarma showed some of the poems to a friend who was then an assistant editor with Indian Literature, the journal of the Sahitya Akademi. The latter selected three poems by Tanty for publication. As Sarma did not know the poet then, he acquired Tanty’s phone contact from his friend.

“A few months later, I met Tanty in Delhi, which he was visiting for medical treatment. He gifted me four of his collections and asked me if I wanted to do more translations.”

Back then, Sarma said he was uncertain of his own capabilities.

“Tanty’s trust in my abilities was the trigger. I had to say yes. It took us around three years to complete the book, from early 2014 to early 2017. There were some revisions, some long conversations about how a particular word is used and so on. And lots of drafts, though I still believe the book is far from perfect.”

This finely presented collection includes the poem “Humder kotha babura bolen”, part of which Tanty wrote in the tea garden dialect as an experiment, the only time he tried this. The so-called quest for linguistic roots has not been one of his preoccupations.

“There are many dialects in the tea garden areas, varying from region to region,” he said. “You can use the dialect in your poetry but the poetry cannot grow only on that.”

Tanty is unplugged in “Humder kotha”. His raw emotions create a space in which whether the subaltern can speak or not is tested in the scathing dialect he carries in his heart:

Humder kotha babura likhen, humra chup hoye boshe thaki ghore
 
humra nai bujhi bhasha o kobita
 babura bolen: 

(Their muscled bodies are the fertile land of India;

tilling their bodies, squeeze out the juice

they are hardworking and they are meek; 
they don’t bite)

— Humder kotha babura likhen

And then there’s love

This tea garden poet is not only a poet of revolution and protest, but also of love, or of erotica and passionate proclamations:

In the ebbing bloodstream of your vulva

in all the words you utter during orgasm

in the end of your sorrows that flow like a river

in the color of ash of your dry lips

in the look of your slanted eyes

in your spit and hatred
 in the fluttering of the smelly worms in your petticoat
...
I’m just a poet 
or a man

in your river, hill-filled map 

— "In your River, Hill-filled Map"

Tanty’s world, a cosmos of hills and rivers, becomes a lush topography of emotions here. Translating such emotions certainly require more than just scholarly pursuits.

“We had an especially difficult time with ‘Moi Manuhar Amal Utsav’, his most well known poem, especially the word, ‘amal’,” said Sarma.

“Amal” has different connotations in Assamese – unblemished, pure, bright.

“Tanty said ‘bright’ is the right translation. I did not agree. Again, we could not decide whether ‘utsav’ was festival or celebration. We did 15 different variations of the phrase and finally settled on ‘I’m the luminous festival of mankind’.”

Although Sarma believes one could still better the rendering here, the intoxication of Tanty’s words light up the volume as it progressed. The 304-page long book is beautifully designed with black and white lettered inscriptions in Assamese interspersed on a number of pages. The cover photo by Nitoo Das is evocative of an intimate portrait of nature which is neither exoticised nor manicured but represents the untainted vision the poems in the book contains.

The vision is one of love, elation, belonging, protest and also of pain. Poetry comes to Tanty in his moments of surprise, in stealth, like a lover, to relieve him of his anguish:

Hiding a group of terrorists 
inside my heart, 
I wait for the train

in the platform of Anipur Railway Station.

Sometimes alone, I encounter poetry. 

— "Secretly I Return"

Tanty’s anguish doesn’t bog the reader down. Rather, it illuminates the dream of a better world, a common dream of all who believe in the equality of humankind. One could read pessimism in some parts, but the truth in his words itself makes the reader resolute.

Look, exchanging food my brother was killed

barring the door of culture and education

my sister was pushed towards the life of a prostitute

blinding my mother, they made her hear her own dialogue

freedom, freedom

and slowly I am destroyed in poisonous air

and my love is destroyed in ice and cold

all my contemporary poets, artists, singers, novelists

storytellers and revolutionaries are brought to the prison

in the name of freedom

— "For Another Freedom"

And even then, love triumphs in his poetic outlook. A man from a world of strife, struggle and marginalisation, the poet is not oblivious to the need for the heart’s sustenance. This is what makes reading Tanty a joy, a fresh peek into life’s metaphors:

Like you, I cannot write the poetry of life

my language is different, 
my tongue’s taste is different,

my eye’s vision different

my heart’s hunger and expectations too are different
I can speak straightforward
 about everything 
except about love 

— "Except Love"

Selected Poems, Sananta Tanty, translated from the Assamese by Dibyajyoti Sarma, i write Imprint.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.