Loss is Found
A multi-faceted voice dazzles in this translation of Assamese poems
By Gwee Li Sui
It was at my hotel lobby at Guwahati that I made acquaintance with Kamal Kumar Tanti. He showed up suddenly one evening with what I may best describe as a small tribe of young Assamese poets. Tanti seemed every bit their leader.
My period of stay was for the sole purpose of attending the Brahmaputra Literary Festival. Time was not on our side, and we could barely address the gulfs between our cultures and our personalities. So we did the obligatory book exchange, I giving Tanti a copy of Death Wish and he me a mustard-coloured book called Post-Colonial Poems.
Only months later did I realise the supreme value of this gift. The curtly titled Post-Colonial Poems collects English translations of some of Tanti's poems in Assamese. The pieces are selected from his two previous books, Marangburu Amar Pita (Our Ancestor Marangburu) from 2007 and Uttar Oupanibeshik Kobita (Post-Colonial Poems) from 2018.
The first book has twenty-four poems here and the second thirty-two poems. These neatly divide the collection, with an essay by translator Shalim M Hussain and another by the esteemed Assamese journalist Ratna Bharali Talukdar in between. Tanti's own afterword completes the reading experience.
That is a lot of content in a slimmish book that even comes with Japanese Edo-era paintings of insects and plants. The text-art juxtaposition feels ultimately ornate in some vague evocation of life's frailty. But the purpose of Post-Colonial Poems is clear as day. It is to bring Tanti's voice into the bright open space of an international audience.
To this end, the book's generosity attests to its ambition. But the seeming impatience is well justified: Tanti's verse deserves the broader platform on which modern Assamese poetry can draw new readers. I say this with a huge handicap of having only encountered a handful of Assamese poets in translation so far. That said, this collection makes me want to read more.
Tanti writes with raw feelings about history, society, and politics, ironically restrained by his mediations on the same. His imagery scintillates and yet seldom grants us a sense of lightness. His voice barely climbs out of a groan, entwining the cultural and the personal.
What cannot be missed above all is the burden of ideology and, underlying this, the burden of guilt. Tanti confesses at the end to being an Adivasi first and an Assamese second. "Adivasi" is a collective term used to describe India's indigenous minorities. The Adivasi of Assam were brought there by the British colonials to be tea garden labourers.
In this is the clarity we need for Tanti's preoccupation with the underside of things. Consider a short poem titled "Hump":
The overturning here is fascinating. Its difference between "History" and "histories", between one dominant narrative and multiple coexisting ones, subverts our expectation. Light that reveals the old man's hump deceives. It distracts from the multiple deformities in history – which can only be recovered in darkness.
"Hump" thus highlights what Tanti does so well, to show uncertainty and absence as legitimate sites for seeking truth. The other claim is that everything obvious is problematically already part of structural power. Tanti goes beyond emphasising loss: he points to what systematically maintains loss in experience too.
This use of inversion – to speak the unspoken, to be to non-being, to grope to find a way, to lament so as to move on – has evolved in Tanti. A much earlier piece "A Poem against You All" has him attack socio-political, and specifically colonial, power more bluntly:
These lines' menacing anger is plain. But what Tanti insists on more than physical violence and displacement is mental destruction, through language, by means of diplomacy and supposedly neutral academia. Language, via poetry, is his whistleblower on language's own misdeeds here.
"A Poem against You All" was published over a decade before "Hump". Both poems, while fiercely focused, are intricate in different ways. Tanti's early works are translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma while Hussain has translated his later ones. The two sets' marked difference can be attributed to having different translators and also to ageing in Tanti's voice itself.
Hussain's translation is surely more rhythmic and mythic, while Sarma's is more fluid and personal. Hussain's feels more compacted and subtle, but Sarma's reads aloud more powerfully, sounding more immediate.
In his essay, Hussain, also a poet, assures us that Tanti's verse is neither difficult nor difficult to translate literally. I have to take his word on both counts for obvious reasons, but I secretly feel that I have never found poetry translation to be easy. Is Hussain being modest? In his own rendering of the seven-part cycle "Post-Colonial Poems", the book's crown jewel, I even forget that the verse comes to me mediated.
That must be remarkable. I may have entered Tanti's poetry wanting to hear a voice, but, in the end, what I got is layered in both theme and sound. This collection thus offers such a strong case for collaborative translation. It perfectly matches a poet and at least two more creative talents, producing together a singular dazzling experience.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019