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Shalim M Hussain
Date of Publish: 2017-01-07

A review of Kamal Kumar Tanti's post-colonization poems

 

In Kamal Kumar Tanti’s poems after his first anthology- the Sahitya Akademi award winning Marangburu Amar Pita (Our Father Marangburu, 2007), which he prefers to describe as post-colonization poems, the focus is on the individual standing at an unsteady moment in history caught in the contradictions of the past and the promises/ bleakness of the future. In one of these poems Tanti likens the persona to a person with either foot in different boats. On first reading the rawness of the verse may beguile the reader in assuming that angst is the guiding principle of Tanti's new work. However, a closer reading reveals that it is not rawness, though the word is often repeated in the poems, but rather incredulity and incertitude that preside over this work.

After all, what does post-colonization mean in the context of the third world? Does it mean the global villager’s rejection of an identity shaped in the image of the West for a more specific, more national idea of identity? In Tanti's new poems colonization has a larger, rounder meaning encompassing all forms of economy, politics and intellectual structures that marginalize communities. It is a much grounded understanding of the process of colonization, an analysis of the drop-down oppressive structure of global capital where petit forms of oppression are engendered by larger edifices. Take the poem ‘Sadagoror Anguli’ (The Merchant’s Finger) for example. Tanti writes:

 

My country my air my water

My forests my rivers my countrymen

 

All are yoked to a

Distant merchant’s

Plough.

 

The ‘saudagar’ is at best a petty merchant: an agent of chaos, discrimination and displacement but also the immediate oppressor in a long chain of oppression.  This is a grassroots form of imperialism where trees, rivers and hills and even the human soul are trapped by global capital via powerful forces closer to home. History is also an active agent in oppression or at least the version of history written by the victors which forces identities, affinities and prejudices on people. The frustration of being trapped in a historical narrative and the urging of the soul to break away from it are best represented in the poem ‘Bondho Ghorot’ (‘In a Closed House’). The following is an extract from the same:

 

Ajokokaki supposedly told father

Like me you will also be trapped

In the attachments of this home…

 

…I am trapped

On the middle ground

Between history and my own closed doors.

 

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain)

 

The idea of being simultaneously trapped in the body and the structures of identity both communal and national is also seen in ‘Bondi xaap’ (‘An imprisoned snake’)

 

I know the play of the body, the essence of the body.

I keep my eyes open. I blink.

I know all the twisted pathways of this body

And yet I can’t touch it.

 

Needless to say, Tanti’s poems are intensely political. In the poem ‘Bikalpa Rajneeti’ (‘An alternate politics’) he questions the idea of statecraft as a tool for oppression. The incredulous narrator asks:

 

Politics?

The laws of kings? Laws of the people?

Laws for the people?

Laws for the king to rule the people?

 

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain)

 

Or in the following extract from ‘Mongohor tukurabur’ (‘Pieces of meat’) where biting political satire is presented in a parable reminiscent of a children’s fable :

 

Before the black dogs could start fighting

There came the fox- to offer sage counsel

 

Everyone has a right to proffer advice in a republic

This our wise men have said.

 

But… in the shadows of counsel hide greed and opportunity

Here delicate minds offer advice and count their profits and losses.

 

The dogs wanted to divide the meat

Amongst themselves.

 

The fox schemed, counseled

Then kept the pieces all for

Himself.

 

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain)

 

Experiences with colonization make us reassess our past and present but there is always the constant threat of slipping into an imagined, communal idea of history, tradition and heritage. What happens when the sensitive poet is aware that the past is a collectively imagined construct or worse, imposed upon the collective imagination? How then, does one cope with the pressures and hegemonies of imperialistic powers? Tanti’s suggestion is a wonderful amalgamation of history, legend and myth where through a magical spin on the pathetic fallacy, characters from legend and nature offer messages of solidarity for the oppressed masses. In the wonderful poem  titled ‘Uttar-Oupanibeshik kobita’, Tanti writes:

 

The Water Fairy became

A woman alive

And she told us and our robbed wretched people, that

‘For long have we stayed silent. Silent witness

To the suffering and suffering of justice long denied.

But today we have got back

Our mind and our strength

Our conscience

And our speech.’

 

(Translated by Manjeet Baruah)

 

The water-fairy is a popular image in Assamese poetry, heavily romanticised and representative of the beauty and majesty of rivers but in this poem Tanti doesn’t just lend her a voice but makes her a symbol of rebellion, the voice of the common popular conscience (referred to in the poem as ‘guards of the water-fairy’). Her speech derives from centuries of lived oppression.

In Assam the river has been a perennial muse for poets across languages. Even in allegory, the river maintains a nurturing, maternal character. However, in the poem ‘Mritak aru Jiwitor Noi’ (‘The river of the dead and the living’) Tanti, still maintaining the stereotypical representation of the river twists it into a scene of graphic violence. The narrator, while collecting stones on the bank of the river, finds it filled with the blood of living and dead people. Despite this gruesome scene straight out of a nightmare,

 

Me and my son- sometimes alive and sometimes dead

And yet this river keeps me and my son alive

This river of life and death.

 

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain)

 

This curious doubling of life and death, of human and animal, of myth and legend where one is the mirror image of the other is best seen in ‘Ajoun’ (‘Asexual’), one of my favourite poems from the poet. It is a fine example of the duality that defines Tanti’s ouevre, riding a careful (though seemingly whimsical) path between satire and mirth, the mundane and the universal, the gritty and the trivial:

 

 

I walked down Fraser town today. A group of people

was huddled around a stream of warm blood

rolling down a raw path. The people

said this is a woman’s private stream….

 

…I returned home. Went to the bathroom after a while.

The floor was red with blood. Somehow a stream of raw blood

Had sneaked in. I touched it.

 

It was the prehistoric secret stream of woman.

The man inside me quivered…

 

… my brother came from God knows where and broke

 the news. The news of an animalistic murder

 

Apparently our pet dog had killed a kitten and

Dropped its carcass in the drain next to my bathroom.

 

My whole house, my whole locality, the entire township

drowned in a ceaseless stream of blood. The city turned into

A spirited river. And a small tributary entered my bathroom.

 

I heard the news,

Sliced the mangoes

And ate them one by one.

 

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain)

 

Humour is rare in Tanti’s poems but when moments of sarcasm spiked with levity do appear, they hit you hard and leave you with a strong feeling of unease.

For a poet whose sensibility follows him easily across cities, towns, villages, river banks and hills, it might be easy to mistake the narrator in Tanti’s poems for a roving eye but his view is piercing, looking through the heart of things. People and things maintain their corporality but also become symbols of something larger. The words ‘surreal’ or ‘abstract’ might be used to define poems like the one mentioned above but though Tanti delves into nightmare, he maintains a firm grasp over reality. Take for example the poem ‘Adrishya kihbai muk jetia prachanda gotit theli loi jae’ (‘When an invisible something pushes me with great force’) where the force is never named. It is something ethereal and a-historical: a thing without a name but real nonetheless:

 

When an invisible something pushes me with great force

I turn back looking for the beginning of the chains

What if the other chain holding this in place snaps

But they don’t, not so easily. At the other end of these chains

Is a life-sucking root wound around a dead tree.

 

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain)

 

There is continuity here- one chain is tied to another, one boat is noosed to the nose of another as if there is no end to this linkage, as if oppressive history is tied epoch to epoch with no chance of making a break in between. Even the ‘love poems’ are filled with sorrow, loss and suffering so that traditional images of desire and passion like the red hibiscus are turned into receptacles for the narrator’s tears and a crop of fresh roses becomes a wreath for a lover’s grave while the garden itself receives the narrator’s body. Tanti’s ‘Tinidin’ (‘Three days’) is set on the bank of a mountain stream an almost idyllic setting but the romance of the opening couplet is rudely interrupted by the force and brutality of the lines that follow. The short poem is translated below in full:

 

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.

(Translated by Shalim M Hussain)

 

The new poems by Tanti might or might not be a primer on colonization in verse but make no mistake: Kamal Kumar Tanti is one of the most important poets of our times.

 

Shalim M Hussain

( Shalim M Hussain is a Research Scholar, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at shalimmhussain@gmail.com. )

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