Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1



The Light of passion: Poetry from Kamarup

Ramesh Chandra Shah

It is a very representative and richly rewarding compilation of Assamese poems in an English incarnation. Gone are the days when a Dr. Johnson could bluntly declare the absolute impossibility of translating poetry from one language into another; have you feel at once at home; not only the so-called content, but the very tone and texture of the orginal poet’s voice comes alive to you. “Each word is an angel" – declares a poem of Bhuben Barua – “Each has its fixed place, like the stars/ on a single sky.” Could the original do it any better? Even where you are not so sure, you are somehow made to feel that you haven’t missed much.

                Not perhaps my friend. I know there really is

                A small islet of peace – where awaits

                Your beloved saving up spring in her being

                To give you a taste of that nectar

                Which our breath has not poisoned

I happen to have read this unforgettably poignant poem of Navkanta Barua in a Hindi translation also. But that is only a reinforcement of the authentic and personally verifiable experience behind the poem. Emotional precision here has been communicated in precisely equivalent order of words whether it was Hindi or English. English being a remoter medium confronts the translator with a more difficult challenge which D.N. Bezboruah accepts and meets with great sensitivity and competence

There is a whole spectrum of situation and moods to be found in these poems. A whole period – turbulent and most trying is reflected here. The poet is the most authentic insider and chronicler of his times – even where he sounds the most inward and personal. Whether it is Ajit Barua, exhorting his muse as well as his reader to “make our mistakes with skill”. Or Hiren Bhattacharya, offering a prayer for poetry itself – seeking to “slaughter a futile reality about to die of anaemia”, or Nilmoni Phukan voicing the agony of a whole generation and wondering – “how do I tide over this gory time,” … it’s the same indispensable poetic wisdom which wins its way through the worst of crises – the kind of wisdom, that is only accessible through medium of a genuine poetic sensibility. Thus we find a poem of N. Bordoloi commencing with the most immediately urgent and unsettling question: “Does the day break with the sound of guns”?, and concluding with the most unexpected, yet strangely reassuring answer – “Not at all. It breaks with the cry of that bird, that nibbles through the night’s darkness very slowly.” It is not hoping against hope; nor a facile and jauntily conventional optimism; it is the genuine ‘light of passion’ – the only credible evidence our battered hearts and minds can produce – thanks to the only un-mechanical mechanism of sensibility possessed by genuine poets. We are grateful for their ‘Songs of darkness’ as well as for ‘those Early dawn hours’, where miracles can still take place.

Here is a poetry which is bitingly contemporary and traditionally vibrant at the same time. Imagery as well as the newly earned rhythms bring us face to face with a reality we could hardly cope with, left to our own quite mechanical and self-deceiving ways.

These words echo our own profoundest and most desperate questioning:

        How profound is this mind of man?

        How rapt is this soul of man?

        Does anyone really know?

And, the concluding lines of this poem of Hem Barua sound as inevitable in their wry wisdom as the epitaph which W.B. Yeats wrote for his gravestone. Barua says:

        Why do I have to wake up?

        ‘This world is the journey of a rider’

        … just for that?

The ironic undertone of the question mark at the end serves to intensify and yet, unsettle the heroic gesture of Yeats’s 'Horseman, pass by’.

Yeats spoke of an ‘age-old memoried Self’. But the memory of a younger generation of poets – European or Indian – is constrained to function in a different manner. Homen Borgahain concludes his poem ‘Memory’ thus:

        So that despising nature my immortal grief

        Gratifies the unclaimed rights of another world.

        Where I am deathless – an immortal promise of creation.

The younger generation of poets in this anthology – no longer assured of certain certainties – confronts us with a starker imagery as in Dilip Barua’s ‘Procession of Death’; or in Hari Barkataki’s ‘Immersion of the Goddess’. The change in tone and texture is conspicuous but the continued vitality and responsibly imaginative quality of a new generation of Assamese poets is very reassuring.  What an amalgam of wit and compassion in the poem called ‘on the Death of a leader’!

        A little child asked me

        “Will they give us the day off at school

        Also when you die?”

And the poet’s response is heart-rending in its utter simplicity and candour: -

        “No, my darling “- I said

        The day I die wont be a holiday.

        Infact from that day

        The books you sling – on your shoulders  

        Will feel much heavier … this hand of mine

        Holding one end up

        Won’t be there anymore.”

‘Darkness’ is an oft – repeated motif in these poems; but it is the precise particularly of inner and outer landscapes that lends distinction to the different treatments of it – so that every time you respond in a precise particular manner, which no familiarity with earlier poetry can prepare you for. Not only the poem called ‘Words’, by Bhaben Barua, that we have already alluded to, but also his ‘weight of lead’ and ‘Hands in the Darkness’ will bring out this freshness and sensitive vigour.

        Search, search in the bosom of night

        With your arms outstretched

        Those hands where time keeps moving

                                                                       [The Weight of Lead]


        The tingling of your hands

        Comes like the cold

        On the tarmac road at night

        Through disjointed bits of song.

There is this continuity and ‘difference’ in the use of the image and symbol of ‘bird’ also. The birds of Harekrishna Deka, for example, arouse in us the memory of the birds in their predecessors; but they are not the same birds.

        The wind holds the cries of slaughtered birds;

        Our laughter, rises above the pitiful Sound.

The times are out of joint and the terms are no longer even the terms of tragedy. It can’t be understood or borne as ‘Nemesis’ or ‘fate’. It is a different madness, a different ‘terror – of –the situation’ you have to cope with now; which has hardly any precedent. This is ‘Lily’s afternoon’ echoing and yet transforming the Mahabharat episode of Jayadrath badh:-

        They are creating a false afternoon

        To shade the tombstone of your youth

-               Bireswar Barua

What is the way out of this modern and post-modern ‘Chakarvyuha’? The allusion is significant but offers no easy solution or resolution. This is exactly what you expect from your poets and not from your politicians or social engineers. What have we been able to do?” – asks Tarun Barua and gives us no more than a hint:

        The wise one pointed out

        That there, right there

        A stream of the Ganga once flowed.

And, that, “along with the wise one,/we too rolled over the day’s vast bosom”.

Anis-uz-Zaman too has his recourse to ‘the bosom of the night’s sound’ – knowing and defining the limits of poetic sensibility. But, that is the peculiar strength of a poet. After all, there are kinds of robustness a poet is best without. It is precisely this vulnerability which lends such poignance to his beautiful poem called ‘Time’, which presents the indelibly delicate image of a riverside home and not only recalls, and recaptures, but also redeems the experience.

        Just there, echoes by night

        The sound of the waves

        Of your fugitive youth

        Slipping through my arms

The anthology ends with a poem of Niren Barua [b.1941] and the reader is left wondering whether there could be a more appropriate and more resoundingly appropriate end to this ‘Love’s labour’ conjured up by the compiler and translator – to whom he certainly owes a debt of gratitude: I wish I could quote the whole poem; but … let the reader himself make haste to buy this book before it is declared out of print. I nevertheless quote the beginning – not only because’ in my beginning is my end’, but also because I do not wish to conclude this review with any other words except the words of the poet himself. So, listen to this poem of Niren Barua called ‘My existence’ and feel free to wonder about your own existence:

        “on the slithery tickling of the sloped guava tree

        My childhood;

        On the fringe of your diaphanous wrap suddenly slipping,

        My youth;

        On the rusted cartridges with the bank watchman,

        My old age.

        In their kinship is my existence.”       



Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati