When Bhupen Hazarika died, I was first informed of it in the dining hall by a conceited (albeit well-informed) freshman friend of mine - a South Asian cinema enthusiast and auteur-in-the-making. ‘Some big-shot singer from your hood is dead’, said his smirking white face. I was not as overwhelmed by his death as I should have been though. I was never crazy about his music while growing up. When the essence of a song eludes you, it is merely a collection of random sounds. When my friend gave me the news, what I felt immediately was mild surprise and an almost perverse curiosity about popular reaction. Later that day I felt a bit guilty about not caring enough. How does one who calls himself Assamese reconcile his nonchalance with the grief of his people? Does this indifference mean he is less compassionate or just less constrained by labels? Is it forgivable not to make sustained efforts to understand the artist’s work better?
I got a hint of the answers much later when I was attempting to translate a Chinese poem into Hindi. The endeavour was neither as erudite nor as tedious as it sounds. I was in said poet’s/friend’s room alongside an aimless-looking tree trunk that he had hauled in because he “liked trees”. On the wall were numerous charcoal illustrations of trees and on his bed were strewn printouts of Tagore’s poems. He was squatting on a chair, teaching me how the French blow smoke rings. Occasionally he inquired if he looked like a hipster artist to the wider world. I think his earnest, culturally-oblivious self-image does him a disservice - he is much more and better than the label he chose for himself.
I soon learned that his new-found love of Tagore meant that I was expected to translate one of his own Gitanjali-inspired poems into “Indian” in return for the original Chinese version. But we hit upon a stumbling block when he realized first, that I did not know Chinese and second, that he could not translate the poem to English without massacring it. I confessed I would have made a very sloppy job of translating even if that was not the case. So a compromise was reached, native speaker to native speaker, to use our lingua franca to transliterate into English and then Hindi.
It was after I had converted a few letters of his Anglo-Chinese script that I realized that Eastern Nagari letters came out more instinctively for me than did Devanagari. This was a bit perplexing, given that my memories of Assamese classes in school are of missed assignments, aggravating boredom and failed attempts to woo the Head Girl. The first language I picked up was Gujarati from my mom and I am not certain if I learned Assamese or English right after. But then, having spent most of my life in Assam, I had little reason to be surprised.
The faltering translit into Assamese reminded me of a quote, now imagined in a mocking voice: ‘One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own a spirit that is one’s own’. The language that I attempted to write and the one that actually materialized were both not the ones I have owned for myself. I cannot write well in Assamese because I have been unable to integrate the heart, the essence, the consciousness of the language. Without this, the language is merely an accretion of memorized sounds and symbols to be regurgitated out of sheer habit. You grow up with workable fluency in speech but with so little literary integration as to be validly called illiterate. To native speakers and native writers with whom you try to find or create resonance, you are just someone blabbering decontextualized sounds. Empathy is hard to get by if the tool you use is English and if your method is appropriation.
And yet I am just a claimant of the English language, not a true custodian. The price paid for owning the language is detachment from my own people, a relegation to the status of an outsider looking in. I individualized English out of necessity because of its promise of future benefit; because history is on the side of its evolution; and of course because it is perceived to be the dominant form of linguistic consciousness among many - and I hesitate to use this word - classes of people, including the ones I was born into. Identifying with English means being both embraced and betrayed by it.
You cannot claim to reflect the spirit of your people if you do not have mastery over native form. Bhupen Hazarika’s oeuvre now seems so much more impressive. I finished transliterating the Chinese into Assamese and regarded it for a while: for me, the final product was the poem's sound preserved in familiar form; for my friend, it was its essence preserved in alien form. He could not translate the poem into English and I could not translate it into Assamese. All the same only one of us was a true native writer, the other was just trying to be. I knew then what it meant truly for Assam to lose Bhupen Hazarika.