Miya poets, in their insistence to be counted as Assamese, have created an inclusive idiom
This is part of a movement to preserve the cultural heritage of Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims
I have been spending a fair amount of time recently with poets. With people who make the time to write, recite, translate and promote poetry, while also being teachers, campaigners, activists and researchers. Shalim M. Hussain has a shy, quiet demeanour and Abdul Kalam Azad has a charming, contagious smile that lights up his face and eyes. Both of them, in their early 30s, are from the char-chapori areas of Assam. Char refers to the shifting river islands in the Brahmaputra river, and chapori refers to the constantly eroding riverbank as the Brahmaputra and its tributaries change their course owing to annual flooding.
Both Shalim and Azad are PhD scholars, deeply invested in preserving and reviving the sociocultural and politically fragile status of their community of Bengal-origin Assamese Muslims—a people referred to as Miyas in Assam. Both are multilingual, fluent in Assamese, Bengali, English and Hindi as well as the dialects of the areas they were born in.
Natural calamities aren’t the only threat facing the people of the char-chapori areas, about 10% of Assam’s population according to a survey conducted by the Directorate of Char Areas Development Assam—they also live in dread of finding their names excluded from the National Register of Citizens that is being finalized.
In June, I was part of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat media team that produced a video titled I Am Miya—Reclaiming Identity Through Protest Poetry. The online release of the video triggered a backlash in Assam, leading to Guwahati-based television channels organizing prime-time debates to raise questions about the validity of the feelings expressed in Miya poetry. Leading writers and intellectuals like Hiren Gohain fuelled the debate by writing articles that question the legitimacy of the Miya poetry movement.
In a grotesque twist, multiple FIRs were registered against Shalim, Azad and their Miya poet friends, including Hafiz Ahmed, Rehna Sultana and Ashraful Hussain. In the police complaints, they have been accused of attempting to endanger national security through poems that assert their Miya identity.
This has inadvertently shone a spotlight on the Miya poems and people, giving them a wider platform and audience outside Assam. Friends, supporters, eminent writers and lawyers have rallied to defend the poets at both the state and national level. There have been press conferences, interviews, and new translations of the poems, including in Hindi and Punjabi.
As a result, Shalim, Azad, our common friends and I found ourselves with lots of time to try to connect the dots between poetry, protest and the expression of our fluid multicultural identities—though Azad likes to clarify that he is not really a poet, he has written just one poem and now gets counted as a Miya poet.
Miya means gentleman in Urdu, but its sustained use as an ethnic slur to suggest that a Miya person is an outsider or an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh has motivated poets from the community to reclaim the term with renewed pride.
In a literary revival of the oral tradition, many of them also write in the dialects spoken at home and support each other by translating the poems into multiple languages. “Every language or dialect is the community’s unique way of looking at the world and it is very precious," says Shalim, whose first collection of poems, Betel Nut City, was awarded the RL Poetry Award (Editor’s Choice) 2017. “When a language begins to die, or is made to die, a way of looking at the world begins to fade away.
“There are some things in the real world that standard English, Hindi or Assamese just cannot see. For example, the sound an earthworm makes while crawling through the mud," says Shalim.
I don’t want to interrupt Shalim’s train of thoughtbut I make a mental note that I will ask him later to describe the sound. The imagery of an earthworm creating a distinct pattern of overturned mud as it trails along slowly inspired me to lean in and try to listen to its movement. Poetry invites one to lend one’s ear. To listen deeply. To explore answers, rather than ask for them to be verbalized. Poetry can be deeply personal and specific, yet it taps into the universal within us.
Shalim, who writes, teaches as well as translates poetry, is a chronicler of the smallest detail. His resistance to being reduced to a flattened, detail-less stereotype is also asserted through the word images he creates from memories and imagination. In a poem titled Poetry Will Belong, he writes:
Poetry will be dadi’s cracked hands
Poetry will be turmeric caught in the cracks
And the old key she used to scoop it out
Poetry will be Mobil, poetry will be grease…
Poetry will learn its aukaat
Ma kasam, poetry will belong
“Poetry must belong; it has to be dragged down and shown its place," he elaborates. “The sense that one is writing something elevated or wise will only harm the poet—it will only lead to delusion. Poetry may or may not prevail but it must belong."
In their insistence to be included and counted as Assamese, Miya poets have creating an inclusive idiom. They draw from native dialects, from experiences with the soil and water bodies while connecting their stories to the wider universe.
In a poem titled My Son Has Learnt To Cuss Like The City, Siraj Khan writes:
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.
“What is the core of the conflict that has flared up in the form of police complaints against poets?" I ask Azad, as we get ready to record spoken-word poetry with him.
“One group wants to reclaim dignity and the other group is resistant to letting them humanize themselves. This is not a conflict that is unique only to Assam, but wherever it plays out, it wounds the individual soul.
“I called my four-year-old son after almost two days of being in hiding. He said, ‘Baba, you have become a bad boy? Why you didn’t call me for so long?’
“What is his fault, what is my fault? As a father, as a son, why did we get this punishment? What did I do wrong? Write poetry? I have experienced the same kind of violence in a more crude form in my own childhood. We have to speak up against the segregation and systemic discrimination against the Miya Muslims in Assam. Until we acknowledge it, we cannot sort it out," explains Azad.
Miya poetry is protest poetry; it is also a community’s way of telling their truths as only they can. It is a reclaiming of the narrative, an assertion of voice. Miya poems are also songs of lament. They express the angst of a community with a history of migration, a struggle for economic and cultural survival and a determined battle to belong to the land they have adopted as their own. The poems express the trauma of mass violence and social exclusion.
In a poem titled Digging A Grave, Kazi Neel writes:
I take out the fossil of my previous birth.
I see the slavery of two centuries has bent my spine.
I find the smell of wet soil inside my bosom,
the broken remnants of a plough in my fist.
Digging the grave I take out my sunless past.
I see everyone has a history of journey…
Digging my grave I myself carry my corpse to the graveyard.
Whether they declare me a martyr or not,
before this land is sold out, before this air is exhausted,
before these rivers get poisoned,
I wish to be devastated at least once in a tumultuous battle.
“As more and more Miya poems emerged, and we began to connect, there was also the joy of a community coming together, of discovering each other. We found mentors and champions amongst ourselves," says Shalim, recalling the time he collaborated with Azad and Neel to record their first video of spoken-word poetry for a YouTube channel they christened Itamugur.
As a community campaigner and activist, Azad has repeatedly been part of fact-finding teams. His work requires him to provide psychosocial support to survivors of mass violence and takes him to sites of fresh violence and detention camps. “I wrote this poem after days of fevered suffering. I was sleepless with anxiety and writing these words allowed me to let go of some pain. He shares an excerpt from his poem Everyday On The Calendar Is Nellie:
You have seen blood all your life, I tell my heart
Why are you scared of blood?
I close my eyes
Another handful of fear rumbles in my belly…
My world shivers in fear
I cannot sleep
lend me some strength, friends
Lend me some false hope
For one, just one night in this calendar
Let me sleep.
The backlash against Miya poems has left many of the poets and their supporters bewildered. It has also made them respond as poets will—by writing more poems.
After taking a break from his social media accounts, Shalim has returned with new poems, some of which are laced with a seething rage. In a poem titled Eat Your Inverted Commas, he lashes out at the condescension of literary elders who thrust a singular, narrow identity on others.
You cursed me with inverted commas.
This is what I call myself —Midas
This is what you made me—‘Midas’
These inverted commas, these donkey ears:
You planted them on my head
And praised your own large heart
I tear your donkey ears
And fling them at your feet
Roast them with salt, ginger, garlic,
Or ask me for a better recipe.
Eat your donkey ears, my lords
Eat your inverted commas.
“Societal and systemic discrimination is not just my story, it has been my parents’ and my grandparents’ story as well," says Azad. “Our generation has resources, privilege and the courage to fight. Perhaps this courage is born from the very strong connection we have with the land where we have been born. This earth, this soil is everything for us."
Where do you get your strength from? I ask both Azad and Shalim. They mention family, friends and community. “Writing poetry is legal, constitutional and completely democratic. I have a firm conviction in literature, particularly poetry," says Shalim. “It can bring about a change in perception and that is what we are trying to do."
“There is a bias against some communities whose voices of dissent are not tolerated and we are calling it out," adds Azad.
I turn to Shalim to ask for help with words. “What do we mean when we say someone is a poet at heart?" I ask him. “Like if Abdul says I am not a poet, I am likely to say—you are a poet at heart."
“That’s a heavy question," says Shalim. “Anyone who has the sensitivity to feel and build a story and then reproduce it orally or through words is automatically a poet. There is no set parameter on who is a poet or what constitutes poetry. A story that forms in a person’s mind and breaks through the prison of the mind to find utterance is poetry.
“What we need now," he adds, “is more and more poets telling their own stories. In poetry we are all the same."
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.