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The “radical middle” in ‘Post-Colonial Poems’: Reviewing Kamal Kumar Tanti’s poetry in translation

By Sabreen Ahmed

Kamal Kumar Tanti is a Sahitya Academy Award winning poet and an established subaltern voice in Assamese poetry. Following a Marxist trend of thought with an academic base in Physics, I situate his poetry as a “radical middle” in the emerging post Marxist trends of contemporary theory. His powerful motifs and style of subtle resistance compare and contrast indigenous myths and traces of lived reality for his particular ethnicity that bears ‘adivasi’ origins of the tea-tribes in Assam and persuasively calls for revisiting the same through historical discourses. The recent anthology, Post-Colonial Poems, is published by New Delhi-based publication house Red River in 2019 and is very succinctly translated into English by young poets Shalim M Hussain and Dibyajyoti Sarma respectively. The translation semantically captures and retains in rhetorical imagery through an evocatively resounding vocabulary a poetic verisimilitude of the original Assamese poems, coloured with the poet’s Marxist hues of dialectic materialism, thereby making them available to the global reader beyond the boundaries of state, ideology and linguistic divide.

The dual nature of the poet’s existential crisis of ‘being’ within and outside the cannon or the mainstream linguistic or political discourse is a marked feature of his poems both in Marangaburu Amar Pita (Our Ancestor Marangburu) and Uttar Oupanibeshik Kobita (Post-Colonial Poems). The first collection for which he won the Sahitya Academy Yuva Purashkar in 2013 is a more intense representation of his subaltern thought process that consistently seeks to reclaim a lost history of belonging while the recent one seems overwhelmingly influenced by the theoretical praxis of post colonialism in a sort of narcissistic adherence to certain norms and terminology, especially the title. The term ‘post-colonial’ infers a political ideal of binaries and dichotomies of self and other rather than a philosophical inference to an existential divide of the being and its other. However, the recent collection as the selective translation of poems goes is more a reflection on existential philosophy besides the subtle ideas of nation and nationality and the belief in the right to territorial self-determination deliberately enmeshed in a postcolonial framework. The issue of racial discrimination which forms the crux of postcolonial literary resistance is marked in his poetry to a certain degree in the description of the dark-skinned women of his tribe emerging from the poet’s ideological position of a “radical middle” of a primordially contested and evolving ethnicity. He is also situated as a “radical middle” of lived experience and the “collective memory” in the several references to history in his poems and search for a civic culture to base his ethnic identity. There is no possibility for him to return to his roots beyond the academic medium of writing. The fossilized ‘imagined communities’ of his pre-historical forefathers annihilated through time, space and a hegemonic history of segregation and dominance as suggested in the poems pave way for the nascent ‘institutionalized communities’ for the poets’ postmodern progeny with an egalitarian hope for future nation-building on the edifice of an ethnic solidarity of regionalism in a globalized terrain.

The river is a dominant imagery in the recent collection. The river acts as a symbolic repository of historical annals of slavery and hardship borne by his kinsmen from which there is no way of return. In the first poem “Death” from his award winning collection, Our Ancestor Marangburu, the trope of death and the river coexist as a corollary in a predestined inescapable existential closure:

“All rivers perhaps
do not have islets.”

 The poem “Behind Closed Doors” is a search for his ancestral lineage in the present reality of life.

“And I – I’m the past, chaser of the past’s long shadow,
Guardian of the past and annihilator of the past.”

 The poem “Different” bears an ancient memory of blood, sweat and whiplash that he carries within him in the heirlooms of his ancestral heritage. The poems are short, precise and evoke images, situations and places. The last poem “Three Days” in the collection, Post-Colonial Poems, leaves the reader with a sense of suffocating enigma. It depicts a scene of stark hopelessness and starvation where the poet-persona has nothing to feed on except for a corpse and some stones on the river side that is perhaps symbolic of the cutthroat capitalist world which is devouring the blood of the commoner and the later has no other choice but to wait in deadly resilience for a foodless future. As Frederic Jameson puts it that globalisation is the cultural logic of late capitalism, Tanti seems have been ruled by this late capitalist critique while conceiving this poem which once again shows his strict adherence to a theoretical framework in building his haunting imagery. In the first poem of the anthology, he recreates the sexually potent figure of a mermaid and claims his clan to be a guardian of this figure. The figure of a mermaid is fiercely independent and freedom-seeking besides the trope of sexuality archetypally attached to it. By claiming guardianship over the same, the poet poetically and rhetorically intensifies a sum of human relations. The origin of the mermaid myth stems from the idea of an ambivalent relationship of the male infants with the mother that leads to an identity crisis in terms of searching a metaphorical predecessor. Following a psychoanalytical trend of thought, the figure of mermaid induces in a child both the desire to return to the secure comfort of the womb and also fears the loss of self that such reciprocation would entail. By proclaiming guardianship for the mermaid the poet perhaps aims at reclaiming a chaotic urge to life through a repository of myths buried in the annals of his clan’s nondescript history which now finds a sanctioned voice.

“We, the guardians of the mermaid
We, the watchful guardians of the mermaid’s lands,
We now had history on our side.”

Following an anthropological jargon of retrieving tradition and history from ‘collective memory’ of the elderly, his poems are replete with the figure of an old man, sometimes an old Kachari man as witness or forbearer of his traditional heirlooms of cultural heritage, a motif which also figures in Agha Shahid Ali’s poem “Snowmen”, from the cannon of Indian diaspora redolent with the suggestiveness of a post-colonial search for identity and history for ones clan.

“What is history: a story of the land and ancestors?
A ledger of buying and selling of land and people?
A deed for the purchase of mind?”  (p.16)

Though the poems are strong in imagery, an ideology of a consumerist globalized politics at times seems to be intended upon them rather than the poems themselves suggesting an ideology. For example, the concept of ‘othering’, or an acquired language seems to emerge rather than evolve on the developing imagery and make it reductive in rhetoric.

Gender politics and human relations are a core of his poetry that find an unabashed representation in the poem “Asexual”.  In “Love Poem 2”, a whiff of A.K Ramanujan’s poem “Love Poem for a wife 1” seems to be felt in the evocative idea of the mirror image of the self with other in a moment of physical merger between what he calls “rented bodies”. An apprehension for the loss of individual history of his kinsmen becomes the subject matter of his poem “Archaeological” where he foresees the extinction of the forbearers of his blood to be retrieved only as archaeological matter. History becomes the recurrent theme in many of his poems mainly overexposed in the fear of loss of the same as nondescript in mainstream historiography that selectively ignores the voice of the subaltern.

In short, Kamal Kumar Tanti’s evocative subaltern voice relocating his clan through poetry, situated as a “radical middle” in postcolonial discourse of self-determination resonates with the solace of the sylvan beauty of the tea-gardens painted through the poet’s imagery. This collection is a step further to make his ethnicity visible and audible in the mainstream academic field of Indian Writing in English and Translation.

Dr. Sabreen Ahmed, PhD (JNU), Dept. of English (A PG Dept. under Gauhati University), Nowgong College, Nagaon, Assam, India.


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6 Responses to “The “radical middle” in ‘Post-Colonial Poems’: Reviewing Kamal Kumar Tanti’s poetry in translation”


    I like your article about Kamal Kumar. I’ve never heard about this writer until now. I think, he is a good writer and i like the way he writes. You made a good job with this article. Congratulations!

  2. Dr. Suresh Kumar

    This a brilliant critical write-up on Tanti’s poems. I loved it.


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