Translator’s Notes – There is no dearth of anecdotes about Hiren Bhattacharya, many with borderline credibility. According to one, once he was invited for dinner by a family. After the meal, the hostess asked how did he find the food. He replied in his usual stoic manner, “Xijise” (It’s cooked).
This minimalism also translates to his work. During the heydays of his career, Assamese poetry was predominantly informed by Modernism. The most recognisable works produced during the period were densely packed with imagery, symbolism, experimental metres, and intertextual references. Amidst this cacophony, Bhattacharya was the odd one out. Primarily driven by lyricism, his style was economic and saturated, with very little frills. Unlike his contemporaries who tended to borrow from Pound and Elliott, Bhattacharya’s works were reminiscent of the soft hue of Japanese forms, and often of Whitman. Moreover, his diction was more popular than pedantic: a folk minstrel in a sea of classicists.
Born in Jorhat in eastern Assam in 1932, Bhattacharya published his first poem in 1957. However, his first anthology, Mur Desh Mur Premor Kobita came out only in 1972. Primarily a poet rarely venturing into other genres, his most popular collections are Xugondhi Pokhila (1981) and Xoisor Pothar Manuh (1991). Throughout his career, he has been the recipient of Bharatiya Bhasha Parishad Award, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Sahitya Akademi Award and Assam Valley Literary Award.
In the public spheres in Assam, his persona and his works has a clout unprecedented for a poet. Accessibility of his poems is a major factor in this, in a literary scenario with its fair share of exclusionary mechanisms. As Kula Saikia has pointed out, Hiren Bhattacharya “demolished the impregnable wall of the so-called ‘un-intelligibility’ and verbose hollowness… of modern poetic expressions for the average Assamese readers and made poetry reading a real pleasure…”.
The lyricism, the less oblique references, and the use of familiar (albeit idyllic) tropes created a mystique around Hiren Bhattacharya. Lines from his works have been cited (often stripped off of their contexts) in headlines, speeches, books, and even as corny pick-up lines. However, the public focus has always been on the works that celebrate individual emotions, while pushing those with more radical potential to the background. Epithets used for him, such as Xugondhi Pokhilar Kobi (Poet of Fragrant Butterflies) and Prem aru Rodalir Kobi (Poet of Love and Sunshine) accentuates this position.
Assamese dominant public spheres, with their complex relationship with the status quo, are no strangers to de-emphasising a particular aspect of an artiste’s work. The same applies to the art of poetry, which has operated in multiple registers: as an affluent ‘cultured’ pastime, as a celebration of youth, and often as a conscious political act, especially in the recent times. Yet, Bhattacharya has never decried his works that offer socio-political commentary. The question of the individual and the collective do not exist as a binary in his works, and this must be kept in mind while reading him.
On his death anniversary (July 4), five of his poems are reproduced here in translation. All of them offer some form of commentary, without making an effort to be preachy. What sticks out is that they distinctly lack a sense of time and space. Unlike most Assamese poems with a political undertone, they rarely offer anything to historicise them with. But perhaps their divorce from spatial and temporal realities makes their angst and anguish more universal. And yet, this anguish comes with an innate idealism that is disconcerting at best. Bikram Bora
This life devoid of warmth, is blinded by a shameful longing.
This broken heart, is imprisoned within a nameless fear.
Yet, the world burns,
In the gleam of a sword sharpened in time,
In a shelter for a heart with no direction.
One day, the black fumes from the factories
Will light up the sky,
The vagrant young men by the alleys,
Will see a thousand blossoms in the streets of life.
One day, this sick city
Will look up at the sky: the sky is so wide!
Will take a deep breath and say: the wind is so soft!!
This golden caress of light
Brightened my darkest heart,
Unshackled my shrivelled soul.
At every seam of that soul,
Lies an electrifying awe of consciousness.
My Land and others
I don’t need a mandate for my land,
While a thousand stallions gallop
Within my boiling blood.
Let my words march, let they be sentinels of cruel, vengeful nights,
Let the swords of resistance shine for eternity,
As garrulous words pour through my veins.
My shirt implores, my breaths grow heavier,
The abyss becomes unstable, unbearable.
Like the hand that plays with fish in shallow water,
I am surrounded by the scheming hand of death,
Or by the concealed whiff of a death-defying flair.
In Search of An Arrow
The wild stallion of your youth
Once halted here.
Like a spring breeze,
The dust rising from its hooves
My blood-red sky,
And the grass on its edges.
Many a summer flame has passed,
And many storms of Bohag.
Still wake up in my dreams,
Somewhere in Africa or Telangana,
My stallion is still galloping,
And the neutered night is blazing,
To the rhythm of your swaying whip.
To those Killed at the March
These flames, I lit them.
Mother, I know,
These flames will light up
The allure of the world
On your sick face.
So, I lit these flames.
Day after day,
At the breeze of the dawn after every night,
Why do you sing me a lullaby?
Mother, I still don’t know!
Don’t hurt me with your spiteful mercy.
For you mother, I have sacrificed
the blood of many a loved ones.
Now, it is my enchanted body.
Today I am elated,
As I pay the dues of my birth.
So, today I lit the flames.
The World is my Song
My pen is a blacksmith’s hammer, with it I forge my words,
Sharp as a ploughshare in golden furrows,
Rough as an artisan’s saw, to pull out the pulps from hardwood.
My pen is a blood-stained word of trauma,
Like the arrows of a Santhal man.
Like darts on a target, my words become intense,
On desires of flesh and blood.
My words are unruly as mountains,
Meek as rivers,
And are restrained like a lake.
They pay heed to no one.
I am a poet, of a continent inscribed with rivers and mountains,
The world is my song.
About the translator
Bikram Bora has a couple of degrees in History. And a couple more in procrastination. On odd days, he likes rice, rain, heavy metal, and speculative fiction. On even days, he blogs at medium.com/@bikrambora