In the realm of Assamese poetry, there are only a few poets who have managed to make a mark in the global arena through their distinct voice, treatment of subject and language. One of the most distinctive voices which appeared in the Assamese firmament in the 80s onwards, and which continues to be heard with the same zeal,rebelliousness and love towards nature, is none other than that of Sameer Tanti. A legendary poet in his own right, his poetry is synonymous with life and a foray into the subliminal consciousness. Right from the glowing moon perched on the hill top, damp sand particles, lips of some unknown beautiful women, soothing sound of birds, roads like a dead snake and bullets ready to kill — his imagination encompasses everything in our day to day life.
When the 'stars fall asleep on the lap of the deep dark sky', the celebrated poet's imagination soars, his unconscious mind tiptoes up the conscious, and his voyage starts to the 'other side of the dream.'
Even today, the poet's mind still wanders across the green tea bushes of Mikirchang Tea State in Golaghat district, where he was born and brought up. The sun-burnt faces of the hard working labourers, the appealing sound of jhumur (an Advasi dance) and madal (drum), the unhygienic "lines" where the labourers were forced to live in, giggles of girls in a tea garden, sighs of hundreds of tea garden people who still feel the urge to return to the land their forefathers had left more than a century ago but cannot return — all are vivid in his mind. He has given them a place in his Kadam Phular Rati (2001), one of the handful of Assamese books, and an epic in its own right, based on tea gardens.
The writer of 14 poetry books,four critical and lyrical essays and two translations of African and Japanese poetry, Tanti's poems are resourceful from many sides. As a writer once noted, whether it is his first book Yuddhabhumir Kavita (1985) or the highly acclaimed Kadam Phular Rati (2001), every work showcases his versatility to deal with day-to-day life with a surrealistic vision. He brings to his work the sadness and oppression of the common man with great aplomb.
His poetry, in the words of many critics, gives one the feel of alien realities. Tanti's voice is raw, unadulterated and compels the readers to listen to him with full attention. Tracing his origins to the exploited tea garden workers of Assam, Tanty was among the few poets who heralded the emergence of a new breed of poets from different ethnic grounds in the 1990s. At the same time, they reflect the assimilation of different communities into a greater Assamese society.
African and Latin American poets, from Pablo Neruda to Seder Sanghor, have influenced him deeply. "I can easily relate to my surroundings (and connect) with theirs. There is a strong affinity between the African and Latin American countries with ours. They have a colonial past and the suffering and struggle attached with it are quite the same," he muses. "Their hunger, poverty and the constant struggle symbolise everything that India is going through. And we can't escape the reality, although it bites," he says. "So there is no doubt that my work reflects some of their plight, which are no alien experiences for our land," he explains.
The recipient of numerous awards and citations, it would be prudent to mention that he was awarded with the coveted Assam Valley Literary Award in 2012.
The melange team recently met him at his residence in Guwahati to talk about his journey in the world of poetry. Following are excerpts.
Can you please tell us a bit about your childhood. Where did you complete your education and how did you get interested in the world of poetry?
Ans: Even I am not aware of my exact birthday. When I enrolled into school, my school teachers gave me an official birthdate to keep in their records. But one of my friends, who is more like a brother to me, went through the records of the hospital where I was born and told me that my actual birthday was January 6, 1955.I was born inMikirchang Tea State in Golaghat district of Upper Assam.
My parents were tea garden labourers. My father's name was Karna Tanti and mother's name was Nuwago Tanti. My father was from Kalahandi and my mother was from Sambalpur and they got married here. Since our tea garden was located in the main peripheries of Upper Assam, one can safely presume that I grew up in a cosmopolitan environment. My mother said she gave birth to 13 children but only seven of us survived. I am the sixth among the seven siblings who survived. Since my father was a labourer, he could not ensure education for all of us and most of my brothers and sisters started working in the tea garden. I was among the two of us who actually had some kind of formal education.
Initially, I learnt Odiya from an Odiya guru who had come to our tea garden. After the guru left, I enrolled in Behora Hindi HS and studied Hindi for three years. Once during that time, I heard one of my friends singing 'O Mur Apunar Desh' in a beautiful voice.
I was so mesmerised that I asked him where he learnt the song. He said he learnt it in an Assamese medium school nearby. It was then I decided to study in an Assamese medium school.
I passed my matriculation in 1974 from Rajabari High School, did my higher secondary from Haflong Government College where I worked with a family as a helper alongside, became a graduate in English literature from Dergaon College in 1978 and finally did his masters from Gauhati University in 1983.
I had more or less a happy childhood and along with our regular chores, we used to study and partake in evening prayers daily. We were lucky to be brought up amidst rich nature and greenery all around us. Since my parents were very poor, I used to do sketching and postering work to add to my income. I had a keen interest in painting and I wanted to become a professional painter later on in life, although that interest somehow fizzled up along the journey.
How did you get interest in literature?
Ans: I always had an interest in poetry. I used to read epics like Mahabharat which my father used to bring home. In Rajabari HS, we had a few very bright teachers and I was lucky to come into their contact. We had a good library in school and I remember reading one of Homen Borgohain's novels when I was in Class 5. I don't know how much I understood the book but I began developing a picture of the images which he narrated in my book. I read a lot of books since then and got introduced to translations of Victor Hugo's La Miserable, Rip Van Winkle, novels of William Shakespeare, etc. After I came to college, I started reading English books with the help of a dictionary.
In Class 9, we brought out a souvenir of our school and I was the editor of the souvenir. I had written an essay on Basanta Utsav and that was the beginning of my literary career. I wrote a number of poems and essays after that but since my teacher always used to edit them in her own language, I never felt that it was my own writing.
Once I came to University in 1979, a poetry came to my mind and I wrote it down in a piece of paper. One of my friends, who worked in the Publications Division, kept that poem and gave it to Homen Borgohain sir. Homen Borgohain sir printed that poem in the front page of Sadiniya Nagarik. I would regard that as the beginning of my literary journey. I worked for a short while in Sadiniya Nagarik.
After that, Homen Borgohain sir helped me get a job in Janasanyog. I got a promotional transfer to Silchar but since I got married and we had our first child, my in-laws asked me not to accept the offer. I resigned from government service then and worked as a private tutor and taught in some private colleges and also worked in The Sentinel as a proof-reader. In 1984, I joined the Tourism Department and retired from government service in 2016.
Having read Homen Borgohain's work as a child in a tea garden, how did it feel when he actually printed your poem?
Ans: As a young school-goer, I had made up my own imagination of Homen Borgohain sir in my mind and he was like a god for me.
In those days, they did not use to publish the photograph of the author in the books and I had conjured my own image of him in my mind. I always wanted to meet Homen Borgohain sir and other writers I had read find out how they actually lived. When I actually met these stalwarts and interacted with him, I was always left spellbound and keep remembering my childhood in the tea gardens and how I traversed such a long journey to come into their contact.
Although you are from the Adivasi belt, your poems reflect more of the vagaries of greater Assamese society, unlike the staunch rebelliousness of the poems of Sananta Tanty. How would you like to describe your poems?
Ans: My first poem, Adhrishyotar Birudhe, which was against untouchability was rebellious in nature. Tea garden labourers worked so hard and did not get their due rights. In university when my food was stopped because of my inability to pay my mess dues, I became into touch with SFI. Sananta da grew up in Karimganj and his medium of instruction was Bangla while he wrote in Assamese. In my case, I was fortunate to assimilate with the greater Assamese society. My father was from Kalahandi but he was equally at ease with Karbi and Sambalpuri dialect. We grew up with Thengal Kochari, Misings, Ahoms, Nepalis and people from all communities. So you are right when you say that I managed to assimilate into greater Assamese society and the same is reflected in my poems as well. I am still trying to assimilate with other communities and it is a continuous process.
You have also worked for the documentation of oral poetry of indigenous communities?
Ans: Yes, I did work on adaptation of oral poetry of a few Naga tribes like the Sema, Lotha in a book which was released during the Guwahati Book Fair many years back. But it has always been a dream of mine to document the oral poetry and music traditions of the numerous communities and tribes of the Northeast.You can say that I have been greatly inspired by the book, Native American Poems and Songs. That is my dream project and I am still looking for like minded partners who can help me in this endeavour.
How many collections of poetry have you released till now?
Ans: I have 14 collections of poetry to my credit,four critical and literary essay collections, two translations of African poems and love songs and Japanese love poetry, and two story collections.
You have received a number of awards. Can you please tell us about the awards that you have won? Growing up in a tea garden family of Karimganz, did you ever think that you will earn so much popularity as a poet?
Ans: As a child, I never thought that I would become a poet, write books and get awards for the same. I still like to remain from all that. But destiny has played its part. Coming to your first question, awards and recognitions, especially the award money, did help me build my house but I have never writtenany poetry with the hope of winning an award. The Assam Valley Literary Award is something very close to my heart because my gurus like Homen Borgohain and others were also recipient of the same award.
Please tell us about your immediate family.
Ans: My wife's name is Liliban Kalita and we got married in 1980. Together we have a son Siddhartha and two daughters, Sanghita