A Sick City Bus – a poem by Nilim Kumar

Translation and Commentary by Nabina Das
Nabina Das is a poet and writer based in Hyderabad.

Assamese poet Nilim Kumar recently published a poem Ekhon Asustha City Bus / A Sick City Bus in the hugely respected journal PRANTIK, which has suddenly created a furore among some groups in Assam inviting commentary and report in both Assamese and English. Nilim has been accused of belittling the giants of Assamese history in his poem. As many as 12 FIRs have been filed against him, the poet said in a brief telephonic conversation. Moreover, threats to his life have been issued over social media and telep”hone. Charges are that the poem doesn’t speak well of Assam and its glorious past, especially the Ahom heritage of the state. The poem goes on to mention Swargadeo Sukapha and Gadadhar Singha as the driver and the handyman of a decrepit city bus, respectively. As the poem progresses, it’s evident there is no ridicule of the Ahom kings, but a concern for the current “sick” society where we have given a free “license” to the highway of capitalism, globalization, and empty nationalism, forgetting our historical greats.

A Sick City Bus 

A sick city bus
Keeps roaming through the big city
Has trouble breathing. Sometimes it stops by the road
and rests. Spews black smoke.
Sometimes it rattles, as though speaking from the wind pipe.
An unwell city bus.
It moves rather slowly through
The humdrum of the big city.
It’s a big city of big rush, it’s a big
City of horns and overtaking, a big
City of glimmering eyes giving come hither looks.
In between all this, comes rumbling on, billowing black smoke,
Making way, the sick city bus.
Passengers get on the bus and promptly disembark
Pissed with the slow speed. They abuse
The sick city bus.

The driver is eight hundred years old.
The handyman is from five hundred years ago.
On asking the driver says his name is Sukapha.
The handyman is called Gadapani.
They don’t have a license. It’s a headache
For the traffic police, this bus.
The bus doesn’t ever reach the students to their schools
And colleges on time. The temple going
Women get late taking this bus.
Just because it has a lifelong license granted by history
It keeps plying, this sick city bus.
Commuters get on board by mistake, then immediately
Disembark. No one wants to ride the bus, which
Goes off track from future traffic snarls.

Only there’s this young woman in this mega city,
Her name is Kamalakunwari.
She alone likes to ride this sick bus.
And she comes every day, sits by the window.
She doesn’t visit any temple.
While leaving home for the bus she always plants
A thousand-year-old cooling kiss on her mother’s cheeks.

The sick city bus regularly comes and goes all throughout
the big big city with the twisted trends of history in its head.
Its driver Sukapha.
The handyman Gadapani.


Typical of Nilim’s style, an overall image is used to pan out to contain a social commentary. Threadbare in the choice of language, the poem paints a stark picture of the current times where we the Assamese have relegated our historical heroes in the backburner. Kamalakunwari is the only hope, the feminine entity that is the face of Assam, who/which can salvage the scene by bringing back our past glory. Sukapha and Gadapani are Assam’s illustrious historical personages. They are supposed to be our historical drivers. The poem speaks to the fact that we have dumped them to move away to the lure of globalization and materialistic frenzy.

According to observers in social media, objections – mainly from some people of Ahom community — are along the following points: Will Nilim Kumar be able to portray Sankardev as conductor of the same bus? Will he be able to portray Azan Fakir as mechanic of the same bus? Interestingly, literary debate and criticism is absent here.

One would remember what happened to Miyah poets in Assam not so long ago. And outside of Assam, we have the instance of Faiz’s “hum dekhenge” slammed with a complaint on the line “sab buut uthwaye jayenge..,”

The incident also brings to light another aspect. One would be in absolute denial if one did not recognize the rot in a section of reading public where we view a driver, handyman, mechanic, or a cleaner as being “low” in the social strata. Nilim Kumar hasn’t catered to that degenerate casteist-classist sentiment. There is a need to understand privilege and the notion of attributing social brownie points to some professions, and picturing others to be pariahs. If Srimanta Sankardev is imagined as a mechanic who’s trying to repair a bus that’s breaking down (which refers to the society at large), this would be only to take the help of metaphors and images to understand how the age of anti-knowledge has pushed us into darkness. The poem by Nilim Kumar isn’t greater in merit than several other poems this poet has written, but that’s another debate altogether.

One may note that Nilim Kumar has been vocal in anti-CAA protests, and is regarded as a progressive voice in the state. In the current political atmosphere, the attacks raise other questions.

Ever since, Nilim Kumar has issued a public statement via a video as well as a written text on his own Facebook page. He said, the intention was not to hurt anyone or belittle any community. The poem simply is a commentary on our current state of affairs where we have foregone the legacy of greats such as Sukapha and Gadapani. The Assamese text of his apology is reproduced here below and one can watch the video here


“এখন অসুস্থ চিটিবাছ” কবিতাৰ বিতৰ্ক সম্পৰ্কে =================
যোৱা ১ জুলাইৰ প্ৰান্তিকত মোৰ এখন অসুস্থ চিটি বাছ নামৰ কবিতাটো প্ৰকাশ হৈছিল ৷ যিটো কবিতাত অসমীয়া জাতিগঠনৰ দুজন প্ৰবাদ পুৰুষ চু্কাফা আৰু গদাপাণিৰ উপস্থিতি মই সা্ম্প্ৰতিক সমাজ জীৱনতো _ অসমীয়া সমাজৰ জীৱন যাত্ৰাতো বিচাৰিছিলো ৷

গোলকীকৰণৰ চিকমিকনি , বৈষয়িক সুখ আনন্দৰ সন্ধানত ব্যস্ত হৈ পৰা অসমৰ জনজীৱনক সঠিক পথ নিৰ্দেশ দিৱলৈ চুকাফা আৰু গদাপাণিক Allegory হিচাপে ড্ৰাইভাৰ আৰু হেণ্ডিমেনৰ ৰূপত অংকিত কৰা হৈছে ৷ এখন গাড়ীক সঠিক পথেৰে আগুৱাই নিয়াৰ ক্ষেত্ৰত গাড়ীখনৰ ড্ৰাইভাৰজনেই হ’ ল মূল ব্যক্তি ৷ আৰু হেণ্ডিমেনজন হ’ল সেই ড্ৰাইভাৰজনৰ সহযোগী ৷ ক’ত ৰব লাগে , ৰ’ব নালাগে তাৰ ইংগিত দিয়া ব্যক্তিজন ৷ অৰ্থাৎ চুকাফা আৰু গদাপাণিক এতিয়াও অসমীয়া জাতিৰ চালিকা শক্তি হৈ আছে বুলি স্বীকাৰ কৰা হৈছে ৷

গোটেই কবিতাটোত চুকাফা আৰু গদাপাণিক অতি সন্মান আৰু গুৰুত্ব সহকাৰে অসমীয়া মানুহক পথ নিৰ্দেশকৰ ভূমিকা ল’বলৈহে আহ্বান কৰা হৈছে ৷ ইতিহাসৰ আজীৱন লাইচেঞ্চ মানে কোৱা হৈছে _ চুকাফা আৰু গদাপাণিৰ প্ৰসংগিকতা সদায় থকাৰ কথাটো _ অসমীয়া জাতিসত্বা জীয়াই থকালৈ ৷

কমলাকুঁৱৰী হ’’ল অসমীয়া জাতিয়তাবাদৰ প্ৰতীক ৷ যিয়ে বিচাৰে চুকাফা আৰু গদাপাণিৰ নেতৃত্বত যাত্ৰা কৰিবলৈ ৷ অৰ্থাৎ কবিতাটোৰ জৰিয়তে বিচাৰিছিলো অসমৰ জাতিয়তাবাদ চুকাফা আৰু গদাপাণিৰ নিৰ্দেশত আগুৱাই যাওঁক ৷ কবিতাটোত স্পষ্টকৈ কোৱা হৈছে কমলাকুঁৱৰীয়ে সেই অসুস্থ চিটিবাছখনত উঠি ভালপায় বুলি ৷ ভোগবাদী সমাজ জীৱনৰ গ্ৰাসত লিপ্ত হৈ পৰা অসমীয়া মানুহে যিখন বাছত উঠিবলৈ অনিচ্ছুক , সেই বাছখনত জাতিয়তাবাদৰ প্ৰতীক _ আত্মোৎসৰ্গৰ নিদৰ্শন কমলাকুঁৱৰী সহযাত্ৰী হয় কেবল চুকাফা আৰু গদাপানিৰ ৷

কবিতাটোৰে ইতিহাসৰ এই দুজন প্ৰবাদ পুৰুষৰ লগতে প্ৰাচীন সাধুকথাৰ সেই কৰুণ চৰিত্ৰক পুনৰবাৰ মনত পেলাই দি অসমীয়া মানুহৰ স্হিতিক বিশ্লেষণ কৰাৰ চেষ্টাহে কৰা হৈছিল ৷

তথাপি এই কবিতাটোৱে মানুহৰ মাজত ভুল বুজাবুজিৰ সৃষ্টি কৰাত মই দুখিতঃ হৈছো ৷ তাৰ বাবে ময়েই দোষী ৷ কাৰণ মই হয়তো মোৰ বক্তব্য প্ৰকাশ কৰাত ব্যৰ্থ হৈছো ৷ আনহাতে কবিতাটোৱে বিশেষ জনগোষ্ঠী আৰু জন মানসক কবিতাটোৱে আঘাত দিয়া বুলি মই গম পাইছো যাৰ বাবে মই দুখিত ৷ মোৰ এই অনিচ্ছাকৃত ভুলৰ বাবে মই ক্ষমাপ্ৰাৰ্থী ৷



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Nilim Kumar Written by:

Nilim Kumar is one of the most popular poets of contemporary Assamese literature. He has published a total of seventeen collections of poems, some of which are Achinar Akhukh (1985), Bari Kunwar (1988), Swapnar Relgaari (1991), Seluoi Gadhuli (1992), Topanir Baagicha (1994), Panit Dhou Dhoubor Mach (1990), Narakashur and Atmakatha. He has also authored a number of novels such as Matit Uri Phura Chitrakar, Akash Apartment and Athkhon Premar Uppannyas. Nilim Kumar ki Srestha Kabita, a collection of his poems in Hindi translation was published by Presidency University, Kolkata, 2011. He is the President of ‘The Call of the Brahmaputra,’ a socio-cultural literary organization of Assam, and has translated poems of Kedarnath Singh into Hindi and published it as an anthology, Bagh Aru Annya Kabita. He has also attended poets’ conferences for international exchanges organized under the aegis of Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, held in France and Bangladesh. Mr. Kumar is a recipient of several awards such as the Raza Foundation Award (2009) and Uday Bharati National Award (1994). His poems are being translated into Spanish and Manipuri and have been published in Treasure Trove, a twenty five-volume literary project on Assamese literature in English, edited and compiled by Abhigyan Anurag. Nilim Kumar lives and works in Guwahati, Assam.

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