The Assamese poet Kamal Kumar Tanti won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in the year 2012 for his book of poems, Marangburu Amar Pita. The phrase “Marangburu amar pita” can be roughly translated into English as “Marangburu, my father”.

Marang Buru is the highest deity among some Adivasi communities of eastern and central India who follow their traditional animist faiths. There has been a history of migration of Adivasis from eastern and central India to India’s North-East. Under colonial rule, Adivasi men and women were taken as labourers from their villages in eastern and central India to work in the tea gardens of Assam.

Miles away from their roots, almost abandoned in an alien land amongst people whose lives and languages they did not understand, these Adivasis from eastern and central India rebuilt their own lives, growing new roots in the alien land they had been involuntarily taken to. In their new home, they imbibed elements of the new cultures they encountered and, in return, shared elements from their own. India’s Bhasha literature has some insightful prose about this intermingling of people and cultures.

Ethnicity and migration

In 2018, I had the opportunity to read and review the English translation of one such insightful book which was written, coincidentally, in Assamese. Rita Chowdhury’s novel, Chinatown Days, originally published in Assamese as Makam, told of a harmonious community of ethnic Assamese, Chinese, and Adivasis from central India in a town in upper Assam.

This harmony created by one language or ethnicity taking roots in a land it is not indigenous to is amply seen in popular culture as well. Nagpuri – also known as Sadri – is a language spoken in Ranchi and nearby areas in Jharkhand and is a key medium of communication among a substantial population of the area. One popular Nagpuri song of recent times, “Chal gori le jabo toke mor gaon” (translation: “Come, young/beautiful girl, I will take you to my village”), has its origin, apparently, in Assam.

These are the positive aspects of this intermingling of people, cultures, and tongues. However, if one looks at the political aspects, the phenomenon of one ethnicity taking root in a place far away from its origin could lead to some immensely difficult situations. Even though a considerable number of Adivasis from eastern and central India have been living in Assam for decades or even more, they are not seen as distinct Adivasi groups there. In eastern and central India, they might have distinct identities as Santhal, Munda, Oraon, etc., but in Assam, they are all grouped under a single category: Tea-Tribes. The life of the tea-tribes is of exploitation, struggle, and violence. I remember reading of the plight of the tea-tribes in only one long work of fiction written originally in English: Becoming Me, a bildungsroman by Rejina Marandi, a Santhal author born and raised in Assam.

Politics on its sleeves

Tanti’s collection of poems, Post-Colonial Poems, translated from the Assamese by Shalim M Hussain and Dibyajyoti Sarma, with a contribution by Ratna Bharali Talukdar and Biswajit K Bora, features a selection of poems from two books, Uttar-Ouponibeshik Kabita and Marangburu Amar Pita, and derives its English title from the title of the former. The book is divided into two sections: Post-Colonial Poems, translated by Hussain, and Our Ancestor Marangburu, translated by Sarma.

I had a conversation with Tanti on Facebook Messenger some years ago during which Tanti revealed that he too is an Adivasi whose “forefathers had migrated to Assam during the colonial rule, to work in the tea-gardens.” He said that he “[represented] the community in Assam” and this spirit of representation shows clearly in his poems.

Tanti’s poems wear their politics on their sleeves. The transcript of Tanti’s speech from the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2012 ceremony, “An Adivasi and an Assamese”, has been included in this collection. In his speech, Tanti said: “…I disagree with the current naming of our community as ‘Tea-Tribe / Ex-Tea Garden Labour Community.’ Is there any community in this world named after a commodity?”

The fire one perceives in Tanti’s speech can be felt in his poems. The collection opens appropriately with a poem that talks of “injustice and suffering” that the indigenous people are subjected to at the hands of outsiders. This poem imagines the indigenous people to be living in the depths of water and calls them “the guardians of the mermaid”, while the outsiders are those who came riding on “merchant [ships]” and “[tore] through the darkness with the treasures of the river.” Towards the end the indigenous people are determined to tell their own story by themselves as they declare:

“We, the guardians of the mermaid,
we, the watchful guardians of the mermaid’s lands,
we now had history on our side.”

The feeling among the indigenous people of being marginalised by the mainstream is a recurring theme in the first part of the collection.

“We are told
that historians call us
‘other’ people

“We are the stunted black ‘sons of the soil’.
They are tall, white, flawless.”

This feeling of being marginalised is further compounded as it is achieved in the language of the colonisers, something which the indigenous people have almost no connection with, but cannot avoid as it has been thrust upon them:

“We are trapped
in their coils
in the damned illusion of language.”

But this poem too ends on a note of hope as the colonised vow to find their own voice:

“Calm is still our language.
Will we ever find
our language, an ‘other’ language?”

A distant homeland

Tanti’s poems borrow –for obvious reasons – from the mythology of North-East India. In “A Cursed Marsh”, there is a mention of the “burha-dangoriya”, a terrestrial spirit said to be found in Assam, and there is a poem titled “Ka-Lukhimi’s Rat”, Ka-Lukhimi being the goddess of rice according to Khasi myths.

Memories of a land one has come far away from feature in Tanti’s poetry. In “Low-hanging Fruit”, there is “a girl in a blood-bordered sari / dancing the jhumur” and an “old Karbi man”. Jhumur is a traditional music and dance form in West Bengal and Jharkhand and female dancers often wear white saris with red borders while performing it, while the Karbis are a community in Assam. In this poem, there is an amalgamation of a prominent feature each of eastern India and North-East India.

The second part of the collection, Our Ancestor Marangburu, speaks at length about Adivasis being forcibly taken away from their homelands.

“We left everything on that night of karam, when
the night of destitution grew sadder in the beat
of the maadal. At the dawn of that karam,
we saw for the last time our house, our hearth”

Karam is an important festival among the Adivasis of eastern and central India. The thought alone of having to leave one’s house forever on the night of one’s festival is gut-wrenching. The next poem in this series, “The Long Shadow of Memory II”, mentions the places the tea-tribes of Assam might have been snatched away from:

“Where did I leave my roots,
my house, my hearth, my village, my forest?
Medinipur or Barakuda, or Kalahandi?
Where? Where?”

Medinipur is in present-day West Bengal, while Barakuda and Kalahandi are in present-day Odisha.

Amidst other thought-provoking poems in this collection, one ten-line gem stands out. “Three Days” is built around themes of search, greed, hunger, and regret.

“I found a stone shaped like a perfect triangle
by the mountain stream
It’s been three days beside this stream
with a corpse
Nothing to eat for
three days
What do I
feed on
the stone, or
the corpse”

The corpse, perhaps, was of the poet’s companion; maybe they had set out together on a journey to look for a precious stone “shaped like a perfect triangle”. The search over, the stone found, the poet’s companion lies dead, and the poet is starving for three days. This poem is startlingly brief as it tries to redefine what is precious and what one’s priorities should be.

Hussain’s and Sarma’s translations do justice to the immediacy and poignancy in Tanti’s poetry. A poem titled “A Half-told Tale” ends thus: “…we are all tellers of incomplete tales, narrators of unfinished narratives”, and one wonders if there could be more such collections that talk of the marginalised and the dispossessed, of hope in the face of injustice and appropriation of one’s identity by the mainstream.

Post-Colonial Poems, Kamal Kumar Tanti, translated by Shalim M Hussain and Dibyajyoti Sarma, Red River.