Five contemporary poets from different regions and communities in present-day Assam write about the recent history and cultural legacy of their home state. Communal tensions and separatist agitations have plagued Assam for several decades, and in these poems, there is lamentation for the blood spilt, the mass deportations and the oppression of minorities.
But there also features a love for their various corners and specific experiences of home. In Uddipana Goswami’s Love Letter, the narrator argues with a lover who must go off to fight, “…what is the country, kalija,/ Without you and me in it, drowning in love/ Beside the waters of our Bhogdoi…” While five poems cannot hope to represent the diversity within Assam, these voices form a powerful (if partial) portrait of a land beloved and disturbed.
How Many More Days, Democracy?
Translated by Siddharth Tanti
And how many more days this way, democracy?
Head down, on bended knees, with eyes closed
No end to your mutilation
No end to your humiliation
I hear your bedlam, democracy.
How I love you with my life
I see your lips sewed together
Your eyes covered with a blindfold.
I wish to speak out, yet I cannot
Perhaps harm befalls you
I desire to ask, yet I cannot
For fear it will offend.
Democracy, so much darkness inside your home
Yet outside I see a riot of light
Democracy, I wish you a long life
One day before you become barren
One day before you turn bloody
Let me speak out for you
Democracy, before you weep
May I erase myself from your heart.
Sameer Tanti was born in the Mikirchang Tea Estate, a division of Behora Tea Estate, in Assam. The Guwahati-based writer has published twelve collections of poetry, three collections of literary and critical essays and edited two collections of short stories on the partition of India and on fascism amongst many other projects. His work has been recognised by multiple prizes including the Chaganlal Jain Literary Award and the Assam Valley Literary Award. His poem was inspired by the expectations that remain unfulfilled decades after Independence and by the exclusion, apathy and suppression that prevent India from being truly free.
The Voiceless Velar Fricative
I am the x স in oxomiya অসমীয়া,
xenduriya সেন্দুৰীয়া, xondhiya সন্ধিয়া,
xonjiboni সঞ্জীৱনী. Very few can
Stamped different, marked
minority, marked unspeakable,
I survive in small pockets
of the world.
An airiness invades
me like an unknown quality.
I am a secret
between lovers. I am an articulated silence
shaky with lust. I am singularity
of sound. I am a nation’s
difficult past. I am bound
and sung by rules of the tongue.
(The Voiceless Velar Fricative is a certain kind of sound used in some languages.)
Born and brought up in Guwahati, Assam, Nitoo Das is a poet and photographer who teaches literature at IP College for Women at Delhi University. She is author of two collections of poetry, Boki and Cyborg Proverbs. She says she was surprised when she realised that “people could not pronounce the x sound in Assamese. It seemed so easy to me. Not an h, not a kh, but an in-between softness. That’s the first thought behind the poem.”
Just like in the movies
Every word you say
Becomes an incident,
A wave in my mind
This dark night.
The incident of 1950
When you built a banana raft
And kept it ready on the Bhelengi
So that if needed we could
Take to the Brahmaputra and save our lives
Babajaan and his people
Didn’t have to leave
Dhaniram Talukdar of Barpeta said,
“Why will you leave?
Is this land not yours?
Didn’t you turn this mother’s heart fertile
With the sweat of your brow?”
Babajaan didn’t leave
But Nanajaan did
He left this land
Not for the land downstream
But for the eternal emptiness beyond.
One evening he was on his patch of green land
Mashing rice and milk and ripe plantain
And raising a morsel to his mouth
When an enemy newly arrived from downstream
Swung once his sword
And Nana’s head was on the ground.
On that day a pact was made.
Our king and they who had come for refuge from downstream
Made an agreement.
Just as a hen collects her chicken
Under her wings
Our Nanajaan bound my uncles and aunts
In his shawl and sent them downstream
They returned eventually but by then
The counting of humans was over
And our uncles and aunts were left out.
They were lovers of green fields –
My uncles and aunts
And an intoxication was upon them.
They cleared forests and bared the earth’s chest
And as the green turned golden
They sang Magun and Bihu
And started the harvest.
The storm of time returned
Some PIP or something
What was it called?
Because their names were missing
From the list of humans
They were bound up again
And sent downstream.
And our aunts
But only for a while
The dark clouds of time
Gathered again –
And one day we heard
That our aunt, married in Nellie,
Was still wrapped in a green sari
Still holding her five month daughter on her breast,
When the guns came
And granted her eternal peace.
And then Babajaan left
Maybe Babajaan was safer
In the lap of death
Or else he might have been
Felled by militants
In Bashbari, Kokrajhar, Khagrabari
His long beard
And green lungi
And broken Assamese
Might have prompted some
Patriot to make his sit on his knees
In the sun
Or like Jabbar Ali he might
Have been called a foreigner
In his own country and made to rot
And die in jail.
We are not as scared
As you were, Babajaan
You said, “Learning is light
Burn the lights of knowledge
And the demons will scatter.”
I followed your advice
And am not scared of demons anymore.
Kalam, Dwijen, Tridip and I and many others
Will fight together
And prove that this land
Is not of the masked patriots alone.
This land is not of attackers alone.
This land is the land of your blood and sweat.
Hafiz Ahmed was born in the remote village of Kapoha in Barpeta district of Assam. He is the author of sixteen books of poetry, short stories, essays, biography, criticism and more, and is the president of Char-Chapori Sahitya Parishad which was established to promote Assamese language, literature and culture in the river islands of Assam. “Babajaan” references multiple instances of the oppression of Miyas in Assam: “The rioting of 1950 in which more than two hundred Miyas were killed, the PIP scheme of 1964-68 according to which more than 4 lakh people were detected and deported to what was then East Pakistan without any trial before any law court, the Nellie massacre and torture upon the Lungi clad Miyas in the name of Bangladeshi.” He stresses that it is also a poem about “communal unity.”
I never met them to exchange
polite meaningless words,
never sat with them and debated over
cups of strong tea, boiled with ginger.
But I have met them in my dreams
after sniffing them from dusty newsprints,
talks with my father, with whom
I had gone to find a rare flower
once, but could never hold it.
We just came back, exchanging
polite meaningless words with
the men who he grew up with,
with whom he played football
with an elephant-apple; men
who looked eighty at fifty,
on whose chests you could
play the harmonium soundlessly.
It wasn’t my metaphor.
Father told me in the forests when we were
returning, making way by trampling German-shrubs,
exchanging meaningless words,
that some flowers are lost forever,
that it happened when a terrible beauty was born.
Grandma told me, they went in search of a Sunrise
across the hills, crossing rivers, brooks, fields,
to come back withered, with wounds on their hands,
with hollow hearts where sounds echoed; she doubted
if they would ever sleep again, especially
that boy, who was picked up because he had a
copy of Das Kapital on his table, which he had borrowed
from the school library; sight: sucked away
by the brightness of five-hundred watt bulbs.
He doesn’t even wear shades,
days and nights are the same for him.
It happened because a terrible beauty was born.
Sometimes at midnight, I have heard the wails of seven
strange women, in dreams I have seen fourteen bleeding thighs.
Someone tells me: like the teeth-imprints on their necks,
scratches on their breasts, those rivers of blood
aren’t from their thighs; you should be able to
read in the dark, find meanings, smell beauty
even in the coldest winters, hottest summers.
With brass pots hung from their necks, with
jute-ropes around their necks, they bid the world goodbye,
after the night when sounds of boots entered their homes
a few years after, a terrible beauty was born.
I have only heard about that woman
who returns every month, sometimes even twice,
from the morgue, with the smell of corpses
stuck to her nostrils, clothes and hands
only because she wants to know if one of those
is her son who took a whole sky away with him
when he merged with the forests; in that house,
all alone, she sings about the days she walked on the streets
when a terrible beauty was born.
We also snatched small skies with us, carried stories
thousands of kilometers away. Some of those
stories will be told, for we believed not in the power
of stories but in the power of ruminations,
congregating, speaking in the language
of pain and ecstasy, though we are away
from the Red River, hills that give birth to rains also.
The Red River? Who hasn’t written a poem for it?
Who hasn’t thought of it when we saw the Thames,
the Mississippi? Who hasn’t missed its redness?
its whirlpools and mystery, even on the banks
of Yangtze, Jiang, or Hudson?
But one day we all shall come back, with different stories,
this time, with a belief in its power
to transform pain into joy during censored times.
Learning to ignore the sound of boots, rendering
them insignificant, unimportant, invisible just
with the power of a hopeful story of revolution
or maybe a song
and a terrible beauty will be born.
Aruni Kashyap is a poet, novelist, translator and professor who grew up in Guwahati, Assam and who produces writing in both Assamese and English. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Georgia and is the author of a novel, a collection of short stories, and a forthcoming collection of poetry in English as well as four novellas and one full-length novel in Assamese. Spring 1979 which borrows its refrain “a terrible beauty…born” from WB Yeats’s poem Easter, 1916 is “told from the point of view a young, teenaged migrant student who remembers a conversation with his father who believed in the radical self-deterministic vision of the Assam Movement but the student remembering this, mourns the movement for that lost vision and becoming the source of violence and genocide.”
One day, senai
I would like to be terrified by thunder
Instead of remembering gunshots outside my house
And make conversations in my head
About how best to describe my terror to you when I met you
So you would hold me and tell me it’s all right,
By next Bihu we could be together every stormy night…
I do not want to remember your corpse on the highway
And think of white xewali and red joba
As metaphors for a shroud and the blood seeping through.
Do you remember how eagerly we used to wait
For every new issue of Prantik and Goriyaxi
Hoping my poems would appear in one?
Well, I would love to write poems again,
About flowers as flowers
And how maybe I should hate them
Because they are so beautiful they make me cry.
But poetry also has a way of dying in police encounters.
Amazingly, people still die natural deaths here.
Mintu died last night. She died of dysentery.
Can you imagine anything funnier
Than people dying of faecal disorder
When everybody around them is being killed by gunshots?
Perhaps I shouldn’t laugh. After all,
We used to be playmates. But what a comedown
For the mauzadar’s arrogant daughter.
“Don’t climb this tree, it is my pitai’s!”
I never could stand her really
Even though we walked home together from school
And learnt our first Bihu steps together;
She always knew I was the better dancer.
And although she married Aniruddha
She did always want you.
But then even I could not have you, could I?
“My country needs me, senai,” you told me
And I loaned you out. But what is the country, kalija,
Without you and me in it, drowning in love
Beside the waters of our Bhogdoi
Dreaming of a future, of happiness, of prosperity?
Without your mother setting up the loom for me
Smiling her sly smile that knew all and hid nothing?
My tamul-chewing father looking down at his gamosa
Sighing that this Bihu again his daughter will not weave for him,
And Dhanessar kai declaring he was off to sharpen his da
The bamboo grove would need clearing for the wedding,
And Matu’s playful voice wafting out of the kitchen:
Bahu tatar xalat
Saku ali batat
Maku xari xari pare…
Maybe every mind is its own country
And my country was not yours.
I did see your country closely,
Through the barrel of the gun you brought home last year
And hoped fervently it would liberate our future.
“How could I,” you asked me
“Build our home on the ruins of many?”
I agreed though I could not see
How further lacerations would solve anything.
And now, even our past is dead
And what little we had to hold on to.
The kuli’s song every spring used to be arousing
Now all it arouses is an intense desire to shoot it down
Silly bird singing so blithely when there’s only death all around!
(Why is it that shooting and guns are all I can think of, hoi?)
Do you remember how you used to say to me every time:
“Bordoisila, koloi goisila?”
It is spring again, time Bordoisila came visiting
But useless little spring storm!
She cannot wreak half the havoc that’s come and gone.
We left mirrors and combs outside the house
To appease her vanity and stop her awhile.
Can you bring back anything now, senai,
That will help calm the fiercer storm?
I’ll row up the Bhogdoi and call out to you
From the heart of old river Luit –
The day you come back. Don’t forget to tell me
Ahead of time.*
(* The final stanza is a translation of the penultimate lines of Hem Baruah’s poem “Mamatar Sithi.”)
Uddipana Goswami is a poet, writer and academic who teaches Liberal Arts at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. She has authored two collections of poetry, We Called the River Red: Poetry from a Violent Homeland and Green Tin Trunk as well as a collection of short stories, No Ghosts in This City. Her poem, which is in the form of a letter from a young woman to her dead lover, was written against the “backdrop of the turbulent ’90s in Assam when insurgency was at its peak.” It is her “reflection on both the necessity and futility of war for small nationalities like the Axamiya when overwhelmed by larger structures that do not accommodate them peacefully.”
Curated by Urvashi Bahuguna.