In 2013, the Assamese poet Mridul Haloi wrote a poem titled Spanish Garden. All of 25, he had already won the prestigious Munin Barkataky award, and was waiting in the wings to receive the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar (which he did in 2015).
Well-received and anthologised in his second volume Aamar Bhaal Hobo (Better Days Await Us), the poem, named after the poshest condominium in Guwahati, rues how its lines sound boxy in front of Spanish Garden’s own song and light.
Why then, I, who live only with my little dream, enter Spanish Garden who pities me and considers my poetry but a mere copy of my penury, Mridul asks.
On 3 April, Manish Tibrewal, a resident of Spanish Garden, became the first person from Guwahati to be diagnosed with COVID-19. The upmarket block of apartments was entirely sealed, and I found myself dialling Haloi, now a journalist with a local daily, to ask if he remembers his poem from seven years ago.
“Spanish Garden was a metaphor for the upper crust. Now it reminds one of rugnota (illness),” says the poet, referring to the 14-day quarantine that it was put under. “The malady has no special respect reserved for the aristocracy. For them, it has probably got only pity,” Mridul said, re-invoking yet reversing the principles of pity.
While the infection has indeed spread without fear or favour, the effects of the nationwide lockdown to prevent it have not been as neutral.
“No, I have not written a poem in the last few months. I have no idea if I have remained a poet at all. But, looking at everything around me, I am deeply disturbed,” says the poet Maitrayee Patar as I ask her if she is writing poems cooped up.
“If the pandemic is killing us, so is hunger. If I could, I would remove hunger from this world. As we scramble to invent a vaccine to fight the coronavirus, we must develop one that provides support against hunger too,” sighs the poet, lyricist and singer whose musical project Baartalaap is a recent chartbuster in the state.
This feeling of helplessness has also made Maitrayee Patar, a much more politically plainspoken poet. As I leaf through her collection of poems published in 2015, a piece called Nellie catches my eyes. It is a poem about the massacre of thousands of Bengal-origin Muslims around the central Assam town of Nellie in 1983.
“You will see mrityusetona (the sense of death) more acutely present in my poems from the last 2-3 years,” she tells me while answering my question about poetry of these extraordinary times. “If I was writing Nellie today, I would shun metaphors and speak straight from the shoulder.”
Trained in Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, Patar concedes that she is visibly “shrunken” after realising that poetry cannot save lives, nor can it alleviate hunger.
This is why Kamal Kumar Tanti, the widely-acclaimed Assamese poet, employs science on occasions where poetry fails him. During the COVID-19 crisis, the physicist trained at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and teaching at Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Petroleum Technology, Sivasagar, has not got much time to write poetry as he has found himself engaged in a rather urgent and unlikely job – calling propagandists out on pseudo-science and bearing the brunt of it.
Like all the other poets I interviewed, Tanti too felt that he has responsibilities as a human being before he can begin to think about his poetic responsibilities.
“The current lockdown in India seems to be an unplanned one which stranded lakhs of human beings on the road, without food, shelter and water. This actually affects millions of common people who lose their daily wage-earning opportunities. As a poet, I can see the adverse circumstances and naked realities of the Indian masses in front of me and it has propelled me to reshape and restart my thought process in a very different way, both ideologically and politically.
The lockdown actually exposes the flaws and inadequacies of modern lives in a post-truth world,” opines the author of the selection titled Uttor-Ouponibeshik Kobita (Post-Colonial Poems), which was recently translated into English by Shalim M Hussain and Dibyajyoti Sarma.
Kaushik Baiswas, a young doctor whose first compilation of poems Babori Bilaax (2018) was commended as a considerable success, is equally irritated.
“This situation has made it clear that our minds are filled with unscientific and superstitious ideas…even many students, teachers and practitioners of science seem to have veered off from the path of science,” laments Kaushik. As we talk, he shows me his latest poem Kottayam written in seven sections.
“The Kerala government is doing good work,” he observes before quickly adding, “Why did I comment on Kerala despite staying in Assam? Our (Health Minister) Himanta Biswa Sarma is also toiling.”
The Assam Medical College graduate was not done yet, “In my opinion, he is just doing his duty,” the Nalbari-born poet continued possibly in an oblique reference to the politician’s sudden elevation to a pedestal by a part of the population so far critical of his unwavering support for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 that Assam resolutely resented.
The perception of loneliness relatable to these lockdown days informs all these poets. Kaushik’s 2014 poem Nirobota (Silence) has a narrator perched in the corner of a room where the doors and windows are fast shut. One line says:
“The closed room
isn’t letting the words
Morongiti (Song of Death) by Mridul Haloi too is about forsakenness. It begins as:
everything is quiet
everything is cold
the sun isn’t burning
the seas aren’t roaring
time ebbs away
like an unhurried stream.
The stream features in Kamal Kumar Tanti’s poem Tini Din (Three Days) as well, as does the hunger:
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
What do I
the stone, or
(translated by Shalim M Hussain)
Very akin to Nirobota and Morongiti is Tanti’s poem Bondho Ghorot (Behind Closed Doors):
Before the paint could flake off the rainbow walls
the closed room’s air and stench trapped me
I don’t remember how I got here –
an ancestor’s house
I am trapped between my past
and this closed house.
The most striking poem to have come out of Assam during this phase of regulation is Kazi Neel’s Ei Shohor Amare Ki Dise (What Has This City Given Me).
“This poem was written about labourers having to walk hundreds of miles to reach home after the lockdown was notified,” Kazi told me over phone. Quickly translated to English by Banamallika Choudhury, it starts:
I made these grand edifices with my two hands
What has the city given me?
I cleaned its drains with my hands
I brought food to your homes
I made its streets and bars for you
The bricks of your buildings have my blood stains
The machines of your factory my sweat
Apart from searing thirst in the midday heat
What has the city given me?
and continues before asking the concluding question,
Tell me city, I had come
Now where do I go back to?
Kamal hasn’t written any immediately, but remembers a crisis-time poem he wrote years ago. Titled Mrityur Purbe Ji Mrito (One Who Is Dead Before Death), it says:
We placed him in a grave
though we did not know
just below his grave
in single file
we were sleeping
(translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma)
Earlier this month, Mridul wrote a poem and titled it Biponnotar Podyo (Poetry of Crisis). Its last line sums up the poet’s sentiment:
Time has now recompensed us
Come, let us gather with two hands
What we have earned over ages – crises!”
Haloi, though, has always espoused a journey of hope. In 2010, Mridul Haloi had debuted with Okole Aaso, Kuxole Aaso (Alone is Good), following it up with Aamar Bhaal Hobo (Better Days Await Us) three years later. The journey between the two titles is where we are now, or so the poet would like to believe. We will hang in there. It’s just that it shouldn’t be an interval of three years.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a Senior Writing Fellow at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University. He is also a freelance journalist regularly contributing to HuffPost India, The Wire and various Assamese dailies.
Featured image: (left to right) Mridul Haloi, Maitraiyee Patar, Kamal Kumar Tanti, Kaushik Baiswas, Kazi Neel