One of the finest poets of our generation, Jiban Narah was born and brought up in the Mising indigenous community in Assam’s Golaghat district. Jiban, who teaches Assamese language and literature at the Anandaram Dhekial Phookan College in Nagaon, has five books of poetry in Assamese to his name and his new collection of poems is to be published this year.

When I first met Jiban at a poetry reading session at the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi in 1997, our poetry and we were both young. I remember reading his Mother, a poem about the anxiety of a son over his mother’s drinking but one in which you can experience a whole village’s life. After reading the poem, we went out together and became friends from that day on.

Jiban’s new poems, while keeping their unique tribal and lyrical elements, are pregnant with multiple layers of meaning and resonate with the political subversion of Assam’s ethnically complex society. Excerpts:

Anvar Ali: How would you place yourself as a poet before a pan-Indian reader?

Jiban Narah: My sense of being an Indian is rooted in the soil I was born and brought up in. The place of my birth has taught me to be the proud inheritor of a pluralist socio-cultural ethos and a rich literary tradition since the time of Charyapada (collection of mystical poems). My small voice as a poet also emerges from a sense of a rich poetic tradition I bear in my bones.

Festive offer

Poet Nabakanta Barua has said no other poet has ever used the olfactory image in Assamese language so beautifully and effectively as you. Poet and critic K Satchidanandan also mentioned the untranslatable beauty of your Assamese idiom. Two decades ago, when Anitha Thampi and I tried to translate you, we named that beauty ‘tribal lyricism’. As an offspring of both, the Missing folklore tradition and Assamese poetic tradition, what do you think about this uniqueness critics have found in your idiom?

The sensuous quality as noticed by Nabakanta Barua is perhaps not exclusive to my works. The point he makes in the context of the poem You Smell like Ripe Corn is that the poem evokes three of the five senses at the same time. I owe a great deal to Satchidanandan for his critical insight into my poetry. He is right in his comments on poetry that defies translation. The aesthetics of the poetry he talks about is created by the unique beauty inherent in the mother tongue. Yet, there is no other option besides translation for having the taste of one another’s poetry.

Most of your critically acclaimed poems are about the sensual beauty of nature. Still, the turbulent political moments of your terrain resonate in many of them.

I believe that politics in poetry is a matter of connotative undertones. The human condition is evoked through various images, metaphors, and symbolic nuances and I personally do not believe in opening up the poetic space for any such overstatement where politics takes the better of poetics. All poetic endeavors, except those passionately self-absorbing ones, cannot remain detached from a political consciousness. The post-colonial destiny in our situation has been complicated with the growing conflicts, socio-political rifts, and displaced communities brutally ravaged by floods, erosion and political gimmicks. How can serious poetry turn away from burning issues?

Why don’t you write poetry in the missing language? Is there a visible movement or trend of writing poetry in the tribal languages ​​of Assam?

I feel proud to be an inheritor of two cultures — one in which I was born and the other in which I have been brought up. There was little chance of choosing my missing tongue even in school. The irony is that the Missing language is yet to evolve competently from its status of a dialect to the standard medium of instruction. Thus, my dialect, although rich in folk aesthetics, has remained a dialect. Of all the ethnic languages, only the Bodo language has evolved to that literary status. So, I enjoy my identity as an Assamese poet from the Missing riparian community.

Assamese language nationalism is big in modern Assam. Can you talk about the contemporary language movement in Assam, especially, the ‘O Mor Apunar Desh’ movement that you led, and the struggles for Assamese medium schools, and the tradition of multiculturalism in the country?

We have a bitter history of agitation in Assam to safeguard our language. You have referred to ‘O Mor Apunar Desh’ – A Journey for Harmony and Peace, which was an event for celebrating Laxminath Bezbaroa’s 150th birth anniversary. Laxminath Bezbaroa, the pioneer of Assamese literature and culture, has been the prime source of inspiration for the resurrection of modern Assamese identity through a representative body of literature after the Vaishnavite poets and litterateurs. His great lyric O Mor Apunar Desh, composed in 1912, was subsequently accepted as the state anthem. While celebrating his 150th birth anniversary, we planned to work out an ambitious project of rendering Bezbaroa’s O Mor Apunar Desh (O My Motherland) into dozens of ethnic languages, including those in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and the Garo Hills. It was a symbolic gesture to arouse a consciousness of belonging to our mother tongues. For our own poetry, we need to save our mother tongues and that alone will lead to safeguarding our pluralist ethos and aspirations.

We vehemently oppose the state government’s decision to implement the medium of English from Class lll onwards for teaching Mathematics and Science in schools in Assam. The learning of such comparatively tough subjects by budding learners in English is certain to have an adverse effect on them.

What about the possible contradiction between various tribal cultures and Assamese nationalism, especially in language and literature?

The Assamese language has gone through various challenges and crises from within and outside since the colonial period, and the pioneers of Assamese nationalism, while forging a pan-Assamese identity, have focused on safeguarding the language. For obvious reasons, that was the only affordable means of achieving the goal of regional identity among a heterogeneous community with different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. But sometimes mainstream chauvinism has a tendency to impose upon them the Assamese language which had been fueling the spirit of a separate identity and tribal nationalism. For a healthy growth of the Assamese language, it is essential that ethnic languages ​​survive. I personally believe that for the survival of the Assamese language, the native languages ​​and dialects have to survive and for the survival of the native languages ​​and dialects, the Assamese language has to survive.

(Jiban Narah’s responses were translated from Assamese by Dr Kamal Saikia)

Poems by Jiban Narah


Aai, you drink too much these days.

Anxious about your fast graying hair

you drown yourself in bowls of country beer.

Mourning our long absences from home

you burst frequently into loud sobs,

your tears soak the skin of pillows.

You are getting old Aai, but don’t whimper.

Those spats with Pitai is no excuse to drink.

You’re becoming an alcoholic,

you trip and fall most nights,

then rise and wave at the moon and stars,

You scream, and sing as you cry.

Cry no more, Aai.

Let the doves perch on the trees

Or their sorrows would spill in collective wailing.

With their wailing your breasts would shrink.

A river that shrinks will swell again,

your breasts, never.

A common plight of all old women,

live with it, Aai.

(Aai: mother; Pitai: Father)


You smell like ripe corn

I love you

when you step into the river.

You are a raindrop,

take a dip in the river.

You smell like ripe corn,

a scent the wind scatters.

Step into the river.

The sun takes the east, men the west.

Take a dip in the river.

You are drenched

Just as I had longed for.

You step out of the water wet

Your fingers are the scent of ripe corn—

I will harvest and store them in my barn.

I love you till

Men take the east, the sun the west.

Come, let’s carefully turn yellow

like the ripened sun.