In a country that has no ‘national language,’ the presence of many languages is at once beautiful and politically charged. It holds the possibility for literature that creates, illuminates and questions the land it emerges from.
For a week from Republic Day, The Wire presents poems that throw open how our languages can be oppressive, oppressed and insurgent. The poems are curated by Poorna Swami and Janani Ganesan, from the Indian Language Poetry Special Feature of Asymptote, an online journal for international literature in translation.
From Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Dehwali Bhili, Manipuri/Meiteilon, Char Chapori dialect and Kashmiri, each of these poems is a work of resistance. Jitendra Vasava, an adivasi poet from Gujarat, writes of how “The master said: don’t speak in our language,” while Tamil poet Kutti Revathi marches on patriarchy, calling out, “let’s make those breasts stones/to use in slings.” Vidrohi, the late JNU-based poet, who as a mark of protest recited his poems without ever writing them down, questions the nation itself — “empires are empires after all.”
Along with resistance, each poem is also a poem of presence, and asserts a better future. A future where our languages, while different, are more accommodating of each other. Siraj Khan, of the ‘Miyah’ poetry movement for the rights of Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims, reminds us: “The language of earth is the same everywhere.” To hear this common language we decipher unfamiliar scripts, travel to places from which we have been distant, slow down for stories we have ignored.
My Son has Learnt to Cuss like the City
When I leave the chars for the city
They ask, ‘Oi, where is your house?’
How do I say, ‘In the heart of the Borogang
Amid silvery sands
Flickering between stalks of jhau grass
Where there are no roads, no chariots
Where the feet of big men seldom fall
Where the air is a grassy green
There, there is my home.’
When I leave the chars for the city
They ask, ‘Oi, what is your language?’
Just as the tongues of beasts and birds|
Have no books, my language has no school
I draw a tune from my mother’s mouth
And sing Bhatiyali. I match rhythm with rhythm
Pain with pain
Clasp the sounds of the land close to my heart
And speak the whispers of the sand
The language of earth is the same everywhere.
They ask, ‘Oi, what is your jati?’
How do I tell them that my jati is man
That we are Hindu or Musalman
Until the earth makes us one.
They try to scare me, ‘Oi, when did you come here?’
I came from no ‘somewhere’
When Bajan left the chars for the city
With a bundle of jute leaves on his head
The police jumped on him without reason
And the examination
Of pieces of paper began
Every time Bajan passed with laurels.
Just because he was a sandman
They gave him many, many colourful names:
Choruwa they called him, Pamua, Mymensinghia
Some called him a Na-Asomiya
And some ‘Bideshi Miyah’
He carried these rashes on his heart
To his grave.
The rashes combined, raised their collective head and hissed at me.
O mister snake charmer
How long will you slither and slide
My son goes to college now
He has learnt to cuss like the city
He knows little but he knows well
The sweet twists and the sweet turns of poetry.
Translated from the Char Chapori dialect by Shalim M. Hussain
Shalim M. Hussain is a writer, translator, and researcher based in New Delhi. This translation first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Asymptote, as part of its Indian Languages Special Feature. Asymptote is the winner of the 2015 London Book Fair’s International Literary Translation Initiative Award and a founding member of The Guardian’s Books Network with “Translation Tuesdays.”