U Soso Tham was born in Sohra (Cherrapunjee), Meghalaya, in 1873. He served as one of the first school teachers of Khasi at Government Boys’ High School, Shillong. He started writing very late in life and published two collections of poetry besides translated works. From such humble beginnings he rose to become the uncrowned though acknowledged poet laureate of the Khasis, whose poems are sung and whose words can still be heard everywhere. He died in 1940.
Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s English translations of Soso Tham’s poems eschew the literal, in favour of the poetic. He brings onto the translations his deeply bilingual world to create a definitive version of U Soso Tham
The Green Grass
Quietly in the wood,
It grows among the weeds;
An uncommon blossom, u tiew dohmaw,
A thing of lofty thoughts.
Quietly by shadowy streams,
To be fragrance when faded,
The joy-giving fern
Remains green for twelve moons.
Tell me twilight, beloved of the gods,
And you the motley clouds;
Tell me where is that star
That first speckles the sky.
Quietly he lives, quietly he dies,
Amidst the wilderness;
Quietly in the grave let him rest,
Beneath the green, green grass.
U tiew dohmaw: a wild flower, symbol of great wisdom.
The Days that Are Gone
I will go to ri Sohra to be among the hills,
The land of u tiew sohkhah and u tiew pawang lum;
The land of ka sim pieng, the land of u kaitor,
The land of valour, the land of culture.
Listen, in ri Sohra, that ïewbah has arrived,
It resonates the cheering that the archery may be won!
It sinks into the caverns, from the sky too it creeps,
To a Khasi, a Pnar, a Bhoi, or a War.
Its cliff-edges too overflow without end,
With the torrent that roars, the breeze that’s tender;
And the heart that’s forever youthful hums in the woods,
Thus rumble the gorges of ri War and reverberate the boulders.
Long have I departed from relations and friends,
Though others have gone, others linger on;
Thus the honour of Sohra and its silver seas,
Once more, once more, came dazzling to me.
Thus the days that are gone, they surge and they surge,
I don’t know the beginning or where they would end;
Only this I do know, that often I do want –
Once more, once more to be a child.
U tiew sohkha and u tiew pawang lum : orchids
Ka sim pieng and u kaitor: songbirds
Ïewbah: big market day
Pnar, Bhoi, and War: names of the Khasi sub-tribes as well as linguistic and geographic description.
The Cipher on the Stone
When still in my father’s and mother’s laps,
Though I survived on the herbs, the world yet was flat;
I bragged, I scorned, I daydreamed as a child;
I laughed, I cackled, to be good I could not.
When the river clamoured that it boiled without stop;
When I watched the grass that was green;
Like a hip-hopping bird inspecting itself, I enquired:
“Tell me o death, where do you live?”
Like a sturdy fruit tree that unfurled its branches,
When seasoned, and the thoughts had broadened;
That daydream later came to be seen,
As one of the ciphers etched on the stone.
The grass is now tanned that the river has ebbed,
It is then that I see— a mysterious Something that it comes;
The tongue is now tied and I cannot open my mouth,
Sunken in deep thought that winter has arrived.
The Golden Grains
Enlightenment we seek around the world;
That of the Land’s we know but nought—
How in ancient times the Uncles the Fathers
Had fashioned politics, had founded states—
When all the race, u Hynñiew Skum
Had lived apart— within the gloom.
Amidst the Stars, the Sun, the Moon,
On Hills, in Woods the Unknown roamed;
Man and Beast, Tiger and Thlen,
Then they spoke one only tongue;
Before the demons and the fiends emerged,
Then they worshipped one only God.
The Word of Man still had its worth,
They let the Phreit feed on their fields;
Morning and night they laboured hard;
In the Belly they stuffed their Paperback;
Then they bred their Fairytales,
Then out they came the Fables.
Many a Parable they then described;
“From Here,” they said, U Thlen emerged;”
“Evil and Sacrilege, from where had flooded?”
“From Here,” they said, “from Diengïei Mount:”
The other one they knew around,
Why they had called, “U Sohpet Bneng.”
About their God, Evil, Virtue,
Thus in parables they spoke:
Their Likenesses too, they said of old,
Were draped before Man as if by Charm:
In the bowers of Stars some still remain,
Others into entangled jungles have sunken.
“To bear the Sin, to shoulder all,
from the Cave of the Sanctified Leaf,
The Sacrificial Rooster,” they said, “came standing tall,”
For “God to be caretaker of the covenant from above:”
They organised a Religion forever upheld
The Children of U Hynñiew Trep.
When a mother mourned heartrendingly,
Trailing her son’s bier tearfully;
They played a dirge— telling the tale
Of Lapalang, a Deer of legendary fame:
How it mounted the Rusty Arrow,
How the bitter tears began to flow.
The Indications on the stones
Are weed-covered in hills and woods;
The Honourable the Learned
Here they speak in different ways;
From hills, within the shade
The stone, the wood would speak the human tongue.
The ancient tribe— Khasi and Pnar—
A Multitude that spread throughout the World:
The hidden Light— that we may quest,
Scattered in Huts throughout the land:
From there intelligence to illumine,
The Olden Days of Ancient Times.
Enlightenment we seek around the world;
That of the Land’s we care but nought:
As others the days will come,
The ancient Light that we may learn:
The Root the Seed of living Light,
It sinks into Primordial Days.
The Cerulean Rock will soon emerge,
When it stops u Lapmynsaw!
The layering Cloud will disappear,
When the Rainbow comes to life:
Pour forth your colours, O Gilded Pen
Let the man in darkness comprehend.
U Hynñiew Skum: another name for u Hynñiew Trep, ancestors of the Khasis
Thlen: legendary man-eating serpent, symbol of evil
Diengïei: the mythic Tree of Gloom, marking the end of the Golden Age and the emergence of evil. It stands opposed to U Sohpet Bneng, Heaven’s Navel, a symbol of the intimacy between man and God. The tree was felled by the help of a little wren called Phreit in exchange for paddy from the fields
Cave of the Sanctified Leaf: parable of the Second Darkness and how the rooster had sacrificed his life to persuade the sun to return to earth from the sanctuary to which she had fled
Lapalang: legend of Lapalang the Stag and how he was hunted down by the Khasis. The mourning of Lapalang’s mother had given rise to the first Khasi funeral dirge
Lapmynsaw: sun-shower, bearer of danger.
Dew drops on the grass,
In the morning they glitter;
I too from home will depart
To hunt for these pearls.
From the grass that is green
They take off with the sun;
Like them then I’ll plunge
To an unknown region.
The thorns though they prick
In a faraway street;
From home I’ll depart
And return long after.
The heart too will grieve
The tears that gather
Are actually pearls.