Monday, November 21, 2011

Writing in Assamese

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.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Spiritual Window-Shopper

I ran after the three of them to the end of the path where the woods stopped. I tripped and he laughed. The girl winked and I felt my stomach lurch. The third person was slouched at the foot of a tree; on his form I saw my flesh, on his face I saw my features and in his eyes I saw fear. I could not stop staring at the other two, at their self-contained demeanors, their supremely confident movements. We reached a huge pasture and an abandoned caravan fire left to flare itself out. Beside it, Rumi sat with a ney flute and played,

Free of who I was, free of presence, free of dangerous fear, hope,

Free of mountainous wanting.

I moved where the melody took me, responded to what it told me, felt what it wanted me to feel. The two of them joined me in my dance, suffusing me with their warmth and energy -- facilitators of a shared trance. The third person regarded us from a distance.

I wasn’t sure which of us was me. I wasn’t sure when I depersonalized myself from the ecstatic, esoteric crowd. I looked at myself dancing with the other two and I knew fierce longing. I approached them but they remained at a fixed distance, aloof, happy and beckoning.

Come, come whoever you are,

Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.

It doesn’t matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vows

a thousand times

Come, yet again, come, come.

I pleaded but Rumi merely smiled, a smile of compassion, not pity. He told me he was saving me by denying me. I yearned to believe him. I asked him who the other two people were and he said I had always known them.

Was it true that every craftsman searches for what’s not there to practice his craft? A voice counseled me from inside to live every moment with utter ignorance and sheer faith. I could then embrace and not seek, create and not stall, love and not fear. I was convinced that this was true but I was not ready. Not yet.

The flame had died and they had disappeared. Someday, I was certain, we would resume our song.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


It was kind of problematic for me to attend to my friend’s drivel about his most recent joust with his bandmate while appeasing an antagonized woman on the phone and hurrying to reach the Chinese food place on Main Street before it closed. Luckily, her diatribe reached its denouement and she huffed off, leaving me to conceive of appropriate responses to my friend’s obvious aggravation. Apparently, in senior year, the bassist accused him, the vocalist, of sullying his name with their circle, which my friend vociferously denied. The band broke up but the resentment remained. He handed me my ticket to the New England Metal Fest at Worcester. I was pleased. I had been planning to go for quite some time. My mind drifted to the events of yesterday, when we sat in the the dining hall in a small group exchanging inconsequential - and some clearly embellished - happenings from our previous avatars as high school kids: a life story constantly at peril of being rewritten.

Something about his tone right now made me discomfited, and it had little to do with the rancorous transpirations of former musicians. But it was useless trying to pin down the thought or the cause of my unease. This is something that has happened before - the feeling of grasping for an epiphany titillatingly close but not quite reachable, of almost arriving at the resolution of a dream before being rudely subjected to the shrieks of the alarm, the impression of catching a glimpse of something ugly in a lake before it sinks to the depths and you are left staring at your perplexed reflection disfigured by its ripples.

I picked up the food and started to head back. We talked about Libya for a while and I soon forgot about my earlier preoccupation. It was already quite late so we picked up our pace. Political correctness aside, I dreaded nighttime Middletown, although I had no corroborating experiences to prop my apprehensions. I entered the Gasman near the bookstore to get a pack of cigarettes. It was newly opened by a Pakistani from Lahore. He greeted me warmly and I noticed he had assumed an Americanized speech pattern and an accent that was entirely absent when I met him first about six weeks back - very quick by South Asian immigrant standards. I remembered when I first met him, a very genial, witty man with a golden tooth on the upper left side, who spoke to me in Hindi. Whenever another customer entered, he switched to broken English and he turned from a relatively confident man to a shifty-eyed, nervous sponge. Now he was merely a facade of mannerisms and intonations picked up and stitched together in an all-or-nothing patchwork. I searched disconsolately for a glimpse of the person I used to like, but he was gone, drowned in layer after artificial layer. He gave me the pack and bade me a good day. I stretched my lips and left without a word.

We were supposed to meet some of my friend’s buddies back in his dorm later, a collective of kids loosely bound by shared attributes: an affinity of certain genres of music and substances that go with it, a tendency for sharp - often immediately decided - political opinions, a professed ardor for the East, demonstrated in huge part by rooms painstakingly bedecked with oriental paraphernalia, carefully nit-picked and arranged to hit all senses as soon as you enter, and an almost universal scorn of non-vegetarian food.

The night passed in foreseeable fashion. A relentless procession of people overran the floor, dressed to impress, seduce or plain befuddle. Some were wholly unconcerned with the teeming mass around them, some were trying hard to appear nonchalant, bolted down in their places by invisible chains, a lot of them revelled in the scrutiny of strangers, imagined or not, almost all of them were magnetized to converse with anybody within arm’s reach because god-forbid they be seen alone. My friend glided around from person to person like a comb through greasy hair. The night eventually drew to a close and people started trickling off along their own trajectories.

As I said goodbye to everyone, I thought of the tale Mohanda recited to me back home about one of his father’s eccentricities, as he contentedly chewed on betel nuts and paan, spitting majestically out of the window, while I sat reverentially next to him in his room, the area hazy with beedi smoke (and other plant-based vapors). Mohanda was our fifty-five year old driver, badass player (in his youth, although I wouldn’t at all be surprised if he had a line of nubile, drooling women falling over his wrinkled, atrophied body), knowledgeable guru of a dozen occupations, god-fearing devotee, lifetime exponent of hedonism, charismatic philosopher and incisive examiner of the human condition. Mohan was his name; ‘Da’ was an honorific conferred upon him by me and my friends.

As his story goes, back in the days before he ditched school to intrepidly take life on by its horns, he was quite the rebel at home and the village he grew up in. His father would hit the roof everyday whenever Mohan came home declaring he had eaten outside with his friends. Then would follow a procedure beaten into efficiency by routine: he would strip his son, drag him by the ear to the well, pour cold water over him, strike him a number of times with a worn-out bamboo stick and send him to his room without food the entire day while he performed rites to ensure his wayward offspring wouldn’t besmirch the purity of the household. At night, his mother would quietly slip him cold rice under the door.

I was intrigued, less by the details of his recapitulation than by its implication. Upon further prodding I surmised his father distrusted people immensely and lived in a cocoon his entire life. He was not that way at first but he managed to alienate the village-folk because of reasons I did not inquire. He cared about only two things: his land and his sacred thread, two heirlooms, temporal and spiritual, and one state of mind that he passed down to his son.

I walked back to my room, humming ‘Godless’ by The Dandy Warhols, a song I had been listening to every other hour for three days. My mind was fixated upon the image of a thread and a golden tooth. These were excoriated of the meaning and value imposed upon them by their creators, beholders and treasurers. To me, now, they were representations of an idea I felt an intense aversion to. I was met with a feral resistance from inside when I tried to ratify it, like trying to pet a crazed rattlesnake. I recognized three forms this idea could take. The first is when you are unaware that you are subsumed by it, making you automatically dependent on externalities for security. The second is when you can faintly determine its function but follow its muted directions regardless because that is the only way you know how to live. The third - the thought of which filled me with repugnance - is when you know perfectly well, but consciously abscond wherever the waves of circumstance take you, living with the guilt, finding resonances with other people and being complicit in every action, knowing the motivation behind them but being too embroiled in the web to challenge them.

In my pocket, I felt the ticket my friend gave me. I thought of the unobtainable epiphany, the conclusion of my dream, the nature of the creature in the lake and I let my mind dwell on just how much I disliked him.