Translated and introduced by Arunabh Konwar
The decades following the Assam Agitation of the late ‘70s marked a period of immense political turmoil in Assam. With the demand of a sovereign Assam, an armed movement, spearheaded by the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) gained stronghold and was subsequently thwarted by the Indian state’s counter-insurgency operations.
The narratives that emerged out of these turbulent times formed a corpus of literature that dealt with self-determination, ‘insurgency’ and extrajudicial violence among other recurrent themes. Many writers who contributed to these narratives were themselves active members of ULFA. Kabiranjan Saikia / Swadhinota Phukan was one such writer.
Over these unsettling decades in Assam’s public life, Saikia had risen from being a ‘child prodigy’ to a poet of an enviable repute and then from an alleged ‘over-ground’ worker for ULFA to being its deputy publicity secretary, who lost his life to extrajudicial execution on the 26th of May, 2000.
Here are the draft translations of the two poems of Saikia
‘from a banned autobiography’ translated from ‘এখন নিষিদ্ধ আত্মজীৱনীৰ পৰা’ (ekhon nisxiddho atmojiiwoniir poraa)
‘a dull restraint’ translated from ‘মন্দ নিৰোধন’ (mondo niroodhan)
Both these poems have been sourced from an anthology of Saikia’s poems published in 2011 as মই কবিৰঞ্জন উত্তপ্ত হ’ব খোজা এটা কবিতাৰ নাম transliterated by the publishers as ‘mai kabiranjan uttapta hoba khojá etá kabitár nám’. It roughly translates into English as ‘I am Kabiranjan, the name of a poem wanting to erupt’.
The poem ‘ekhon nisxiddho atmojiiwoniir poraa’ opens with an epigraph from the Afro-Cuban communist poet Nicolás Guillén’s poem ‘Soldiers in Ethiopia’. Guillén’s poem revolves around Mussolini’s soldiers ‘baking’ in the Ethiopian sun in contrast to the ‘child of Caesar’s fingers ‘clawing’ over a paper Ethiopia during the second Italian-Ethiopian war, and prefaces Saikia’s poem which speaks of the experiences of a revolutionary hounded by the state forces. The main body of the poem forcibly opens with the line ‘at present, I am a living man’ and then ends with the same reiterating both the fleeting state of his existence as well as its defiant assertiveness.
from a banned autobiography
“A finger, child of Caesar’s,
pierces the continent.
the rivers of paper
nor the deserts of paper,
nor the cities of paper
know not how to speak
maps, dead papyrus,
where a finger, child of Caesar’s,
with a bloody fingernail
claws over an Ethiopia
— Nicolás Guillén”
at present, I am a living man
haven’t been able to
put away all of your affections
for a scant yearning of life
I scramble from one courtyard to another
maybe my lover not disturbed by dreams
might still await my return
and yet you don’t seem to understand –
just now I’ve strangled god in close combat
god remains dead
to offer to you
I have nothing else to give
except a pistol and
a heart trapped in my chest
that I call my own
maybe you don’t know
how in a frail moment, my banned autobiography
I handed over to my lover in secret
my lover who’d been raped at your hands,
to hold her hands
I haven’t had the time in forty-four years
at least, for my patient mother
biding the triumphant moment of my return
I’ll have to remain alive
in the privation of my presence
flipping through the pages of my autobiography
you’ll find – why
I murdered my dear friend in cold blood –
why have I left
I don’t want
a freedom of a dumping yard
if need be, on a Lenin
or commander Che’s chest, I shall take oath
beating down on the judge’s table
I’ll scream again –
at present, I am a living man.
The second poem ‘mondo niroodhan’ plunges into a conversation with Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s wildly popular poem ‘বিষ্ণু ৰাভা, এতিয়া কিমান ৰাতি?’ (Bishnu Rabha, etiyaa kimaan raati?). By repeating and subverting the first few lines from Bhattacharya’s poem, which among other things had fumed over Bishnu Rabha’s incarceration, Saikia premises a reply to it.
Bishnu Rabha’s moniker in both the poems does not only signify their own personal self but rather is a signifier for a ‘revolution’. The word ‘mondo’ in the title of the poem literally means ‘slow’ or ‘dull’ is usually used in the context of business with a negative connotation to refer to a ‘dull market’ while the word ‘niroodhan’ means ‘the process of obstructing’. As such, the title mocks the ‘obstruction’ that is offered against the revolution by equating it with business and also qualifying it as a dull and a failing one.
a dull restraint
how far along is the night?
awake, are you
I am awake
awake, are the unsleeping masses.
the night bears such softness,
I do not bear love for it at all
I intend to only listen
the stirring tunes of your voice
the venom of gunshots
of those dressed in khakis.
Are you awake?
we are awake
awake are your songs
your elegant brushes.
Twenty years after his death, when Kabiranjan Saikia is at present, not a living man. But he survives in his words much as like Bishnu Rabha’s elegant brushes and songs to signal its desire for the ‘revolution’ that sneaks out once in a while in this region in different forms.
Translator, Arunabh Konwar is at present, a Masters student in English at Ambedkar University Delhi.
Saikia, Kabiranjan. “এখন নিষিদ্ধ আত্মজীৱনীৰ পৰা (ekhon nisxiddho atmojiwonir pora).” মই কবিৰঞ্জন উত্তপ্ত হ’ব খোজা এটা কবিতাৰ (mai kabiranjan uttapta hoba khojá etá kabitár nám). Ed. Saumitra Jogee. Guwahati: Aank-Baank, 2011. 106-107.
Saikia, Kabiranjan. “মন্দ নিৰোধন (mondo niroodhan).” মই কবিৰঞ্জন উত্তপ্ত হ’ব খোজা এটা কবিতাৰ নাম (mai kabiranjan uttapta hoba khojá etá kabitár nám). Ed. Saumitra Jogee. Guwahati: Aank-Baank, 2011. 52.