In Assam, Syed Abdul Malik's Ode to Composite Culture Is Being Vilified on Social Media

Jyotirmoy Talukdar translates the poem 'Moi Axomiya', which narrates in first person the tale of Muslim Mughal soldiers who fell in love with Assam's beauty and decided to stay back.

New Delhi: ‘Moi Axomiya’ (I am Assamese), an Assamese poem by noted writer-poet-playwright Syed Abdul Malik (1919-2000) has been at the centre of an online controversy since Tuesday. In this poem, Malik, a Padma Bhushan recipient and Sahitya Akademi award-winning author, versifies the Mughal invasion of Assam and narrates how many Muslims who were part of the Mughal soldiery fell in love with Assam and its beauty and decided to assimilate with the Assamese culture by staying back. An ode to Assam’s composite culture, this poem finds itself in the middle of a shocking accusation that it is ‘fundamentalist’, ‘jihadi’ and ‘anti-national’.

A stanza from the poem where the narrator speaks in the voice of the invading Mughals and their plans has been quoted out of context and repeatedly shared on social media in Assam. This is not the first time in recent history that poems by a Muslim have been put under rigorous scrutiny in Assam. Slightly less than a year ago, the eminent author Hafiz Ahmed was vilified for writing a poem on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and as many as four FIRs were filed against him and a set of young poets. Ahmed was also mistakenly accused of plagiarism for the same poem.

A native of Naharoni in the state’s Golaghat district, Syed Abdul Malik did his BA from Cotton College and his MA in Assamese from Gauhati University. He taught Assamese literature at the Jagannath Barooah College in Jorhat until his retirement. A popular writer, Malik also presided over the Abhayapuri convention of the Assam Sahitya Sabha held in 1977.

Syed Abdul Malik’s Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal, a biography of Assam’s Vaishnava saint Sankardev, published by Student Stores, Guwahati. Photo: The Wire

Malik, who wrote many short stories, plays, novels, travelogues, poems, children’s books, had won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1972 for his novel Aghari Atmar Kahini (A Tale of a Nomadic Soul). Another important work of Malik was Dhanya Nara Tanu Bhal (1987), a biography of Sankardev sprinkling on to the pages Brajavali, a language the revered 16th-century saint used to spread his Eka Sarana Dharma, a simplified religion based on Bhakti or devotion to Lord Krishna against Vedic ritualism. The dharma proved to be a significant unifying factor and bond between communities residing in Assam. Sankardev also had pupils from the Muslim community.

Considered a pioneer of biographical novels, Malik also wrote the life story of one of Assam’s cultural icons, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala in Rup Tirthar Yatri (1963-1965). Noted Assamese writer and parliamentarian Hem Barua once called Malik “an inspiring creator of character”, taking note of a great variety of characters he used in an Assamese novel.

Like Barua, Malik too dabbled in politics. Akin to many youngsters from the Assamese Muslim community, Malik had joined the Muslim League prior to Partition. Like most Assamese Muslim families, he and his family too didn’t move to Pakistan though, and stayed on in his homeland. In Independent India, Malik joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) and thereafter the Congress. He contested from the Jorhat parliamentary constituency as a CPI candidate in 1957 but lost to Congress’s Mofida Ahmed. In 1983, with the Congress’s support, he became a member of the Rajya Sabha.

Here is my loose translation of the poem ‘Moi Axomiya’ for the discerning reader to get a sense of Malik’s approach to and the thoughts behind the poem, and his immense pride in being an Assamese or Axomiya first.

I am Assamese

The day we left our place
Faraway in the west
Left our stately home
And journeyed east
So we did with august fervour
And sang of victory on the banks of the Luit river

We set foot on the green doob grass
And saw Assam had her own king and top brass
Her flag fluttered, free and sovereign
Tunes of triumph resonated, confident and keen

And, on that day, to show our strength we did will
The invincible Mughals shall gallop and take the wheel
Muslims will reign supreme
Assam will be ours, and Kamrup
Will be won by us – the Mughal troop.
As we debarked on Assam’s battleground
Where lush grass was to be found
The hengdang sword that in a bright afternoon shone
Was Assam’s own

Man or woman, each came to war for a free homeland
Full-hearted, not ones to retreat nor bend
The same Mughals who brought the Rajputs to their knees
Now stood listless before an army
That fed on mere water and hand-pounded rice

Victorious Assam sang paeans to liberty
And to a winning dignity
As the Mughals conceded to a worthier display
Of love for and loyalty to one’s country

The Mughals, defeated, looked around and saw Assam’s beauty
How it was a mine of love and of bhakti
Distant strains could now be clearly heard
As a free-minded Assam sang no holds barred

The Mughals turned back and glanced –
This is Assam, hills faintly visible in the distance all around
Each leaf luxuriant
The emerald grass tickles the feet as you walk
People here make sandals of ivory
And wash their feet in waters that glisten with corals

They wear bangles and toe-rings made of tiger claw
And play the pepa made with buffalo horn
The king builds temples with a sticky egg white and rice mortar
Their feet spall the gold on riverbeds
Pool barbs wear golden earrings
And the toads a precious stone
Here, sluggards successfully build a state road
New ‘sagar’s are dug in backyards,
And are built Rang Ghar and Kareng Ghar, pretty as paradise

A golden Assam it is
Where gemstones abundantly mingle with dust
Gold and silver are found aplenty
The sweet-toned songs can melt a rock
Is there another such Assam on earth, another Assam so beauteous?

Foreigners from a far-off land
Enchanted by another that resembled heaven
The Mughals were now a champion of Assam’s beauty
That day on, Ahoms are our kings
That day on, Kamrup is my nation

I live for Assam and die for Assam
The incense stick of life burns away here in this land
That day on, I am an Assamese from Assam
My dharma, my jaati, dearer than my soul

Amid Assam’s green foliage do I dream of happiness
I am Assamese until I am alive
And after I die
If I were to be born again
I would be born an Assamese here, carrying memories past

Assam’s nature has composed my language
My words, my songs
Birds and celestial performers
Stand still when they hear an Assamese song

Soon after my birth
I cried “Aai” (mother)
And when I die
My two lips will quiver, “jaao” (bye).

When I am up there in heaven
A bright place sans memories
If someone remembers my name
In Assam’s mellifluous Assamese
I will still comprehend, I will still recognize
And I will hang on her words
Even from the skies

I am Assamese in life
And in death
I am Assamese when alive
And when I die
It’s a peaceful Assamese death I crave

Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a senior writing fellow at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University.