IPEN - Poems by Shruti Sareen


This poem is about the Indian bullet.
It is about Naga tribes in Manipur
and the Meghalaya which was
a part of Assam. This poem
is about the island of Majuli.
This poem is about the fertility of guns
and the orality of bullets.
It is about the reality of the unknown
It is about you, and me, and them.
It is about us. This poem
is also about flowers.

In the tea garden of Tebhaga

I don’t have even two bighas of land
I work in a tea garden
As a labourer.
I don’t have money, it’s
the famine na
There is nothing to eat, so
I eat khichdi everyday.
There are three daughters, a family
They don’t have clothes so
After washing them they wait
For the clothes to dry.
The zamindar’s men come to sell water
I tell them “no money.
Don’t want water.”
The bastards, they pour the water on the ground
And ask me for payment.

         --Shruti Sareen, Delhi

INKPOT - Chameli Memsaab : Nirode Choudhury

Translator: Siba K Gogoi

Bangles jingled. I looked around. I saw no one. After a while, a bawarchi put a liquor bottle and a glass before Berkley Sahab. He fetched me a cup of coffee. Berkley Sahab had already started drinking. I, too, started sipping my coffee but my mind was wondering where Chameli Memsaab was.

Berkley Sahab was gulping down one bottle after another. I was amazed at his drinking prowess. He was sitting, puffing on his pipe intermittently, immune to any external influence. Maybe he understood I was not feeling at home. He told me he was very happy that day because I was beside him talking and drinking coffee.

I felt embarrassed. So I didn’t object to him. But I couldn’t hold back my curiosity about him anymore. I simply said: “Why don’t you go back to England?”

“Shut up. Who are you to ask that question?” yelled Berkley Sahab, hurling a look of spite and hatred at me, just as a snake would spreads its hood immediately after being injured.
I bowed my head. Berkley Sahab, realising that he had reacted sharply, walked up to me and patted my shoulder, and asked me not to get him wrong.

I didn’t misunderstand him.

It was getting dark. I took leave of Berkley Sahab. When I was returning home, one thing was lingering on my mind: why is there so much disparity of human life? Someone gets everything in life, someone doesn’t get anything. The pain of not achieving what one wants can be deeply felt in the harshest moment of life. Someone experiences that moment, someone doesn’t. That moment did not come to Berkley Sahab either.

In the dead of night, Berkley Sahab told me of things about his life, things that were perhaps – or perhaps not – known to others in the tea estate. But I guess no one knew what I knew about him.

Berkley Sahab told me how he fell in love with a girl, called Chameli, working in the tea plantation, how his love for her deepened, and how he finally brought her to his bungalow. He didn’t hide anything about his feelings for her; he candidly asked Chameli’s father, Birbal Sardar, if he would allow him to take her to his bungalow. Birbal Sardar found no reason to disagree. Chameli of Line 2 became Memsaab. Chameli Memsaab.

Days went off well for Berkley Sahab and Chameli Memsaab. It was not long before a misfortune befell them. Berkley Sahab had a gnawing suspicion that Chameli was out of condition, which he initially chose to overlook, treating it as a simple thing. He let his physician friend know the matter the day he had come as a guest to the tea estate.

After examining Chameli, the doctor looked grave. “It’s a case of leprosy. Her body shows clear symptoms of the disease,” said the doctor. Berkley Sahab breathed a sigh of frustration. Chameli cried. Berkley Sahab couldn’t bear seeing her cry. He decided that Chameli would live separately. He had a house built to the east of the tea plantation. All the people on the tea estate came to know of this. Berkley Sahab arranged for her treatment but it yielded no result. After a few months, Chameli gave birth to a baby girl. That day Berkley Sahab, forgetting all his sorrow, smiled and so did Chameli. Then came a day when Chameli laughed until she wept. Berkley Sahab became very sad again. The growth of the hands and legs of the little girl was not in proportion to her age. She had not spoken a single word even after three years of her birth. The doctor said: “.....”

Berkley Sahab was overcome with grief. The worse was yet to come. 

He made a point of seeing Chameli every day but never stayed with her at night. That day, too, he went to Chameli. When he wanted to leave Chameli in the still of the night, she told him that she would probably never get well, for her entire body was becoming dysfunctional. She wished him to give her company as she felt something was going to happen to her that night.

Berkley Sahab didn’t stay back. He consoled her with deep love and then went away.
Chameli also left him. And she was gone.

Next morning there was a commotion on the tea estate. Berkley Sahab arrived at the scene. The body of Chameli was still hanging at the school. A green saree was wrapped around her neck. It was a ghastly sight. Flies were swarming all over the body and a stench pervaded the air around the school building.

Berkley Sahab told me those things impassively. After some time, he finished off the bottle and asked me to follow him into the inner part of his bungalow. It was a neatly ordered room with a bed in a corner. A mosquito net hung on the bed. As I was hesitant, he himself took me close to the bed. Pointing to the bed, he said: “Look, she’s sleeping.”

A girl, as innocent as a flower, was sleeping, a girl who will never live like a human being; hers is a living death. On hearing the jingle of bangles I turned my head. The ayah was coming. Perhaps, she had woken up from deep sleep. She saluted her master. I looked at the face of the girl through the tiny holes in the mosquito net. I wanted to see on her face the face of Chameli who I had never seen but only heard about. While I was gazing at the girl, Berkley Sahab said: “I’m just waiting for her death. I’ll return to England once she is dead.” I looked at him as though I didn’t understand what he said. “She must die, my boy ... must die,” said Berkley Sahab. His voice later broke when he cried. I didn’t ask him anything again. Without turning back, I came out of the house. I didn’t have the courage to look back at Chameli Memsaab’s bungalow.

It was well into the night when I reached home. Pehideu and others were sleeping. After entering my house, I saw food was kept for me in a room. I silently washed my hands and face. I didn’t have any desire to eat. I drank a glass of water before lighting a cigarette. Niloy was snoring raucously. I opened the window. A light breeze wafted in. I again looked at the bungalow with the reddish tin roof. Lights were still on there. Perhaps Berkley Sahab was still there. Who knows how long he will stay like that. I went to bed leaving the window open. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Still, I’ll have to sleep. I’ll have to drift off to forget everything.

The eyes of my mind remained restless.

“Xon da, does man become a ghost after his death?” This is a question from Niloy. Pehideu feels “Berkley Sahab is a bad man, a man of bad character, and has earned a bad name.”
“She must die, my boy... must die...,” Berkley Sahab had said. The smell of green leaves of verdant tea bushes... Memsaab... Chameli... Chameli... Chameli...

Nirode Choudhury, one of the most well known Assamese writers, has written many stories. A number of his works like ‘Chameli Memsaab’ and ‘Banahanxa’ have been made into classic movies

INKPOT - Post-colonial Poems : Kamal Kumar Tanti

Manjeet Baruah


We, the guards of the Water Fairy
From the depths of the river
As we reached its bank

The last ship of the remorseless merchants
Laden with all the river had
Had sailed away, tearing through the darkness

The waters of the river flowed, over the stains
That stuck to the sands, like greasy
Blood stains
Like thick clots of dry blood
Thickening and growing, over the ages

The Water Fairy became
A woman alive

And she told us and our robbed wretched people, that
‘For long have we stayed silent. Silent witness
To the suffering and suffering of justice long denied.
But today we have got back
Our mind and our strength
Our conscience
And our speech.’
We are guards of the Water Fairy
Alert guards of her water country

History is on our side now.


At dawn, one day
The Old Spirit of the old tree
In the middle of the muddy pool
Stood standing next to the lotus bloom.
His lonely mind in flight, to the
Expanse of the field of the plants of rice

From the field of the plants of rice
Had come carried then, screams of neighing
Of horses of war
And had come carried then, a loud load of music
Of their victorious masters
…and the last cry of a
Dying aged man

Famine struck the people
And famished people famished towards death
They remained no longer human
For human became inhuman

Days passed, and passed into the forgotten
Nights passed, and passed into the past

The Old Spirit of the old tree
His mind took flight, again
To the expanse of the field
Of the plants of rice

At dusk, one day, in the village
The old and the wise
Saw the lifeless corpse of the Old Spirit
In the naked field of the
Plants of rice

Nearby were footprints and hoof marks
Of men and their animals


When the birds cried in the blue hills
When the fields of paddy dripped, dripped in blood

The hills and its forests, and its birds cried
People’s hearts burst of pale blood
And the day when the termites sang in the woods
And sang and screamed –
And the ships of the merchants waded upstream

Then the tiny boats and their wounded boatmen
All sank, sank deeper, all boats, and river, and blood and men

Scared, shrunk, the poor countrymen
They lost their speech, they lost their courage
And dawned then the dawn of the eternal night
Of the war for power between those brown and white

On the last day of the war, the crows gasped –
Water, water, water, water –

The riders of the horses pushed, pushed the brown
To one end of the black iron chains
And the other end of the heavy chains were tied
To the hoofs of the horses of the fair

People crawling in front of death
Crawling in the mud of life, growing roots
And metamorphosing into ghosts of glory
Chained around necks, alive in slavery
                                                                the ghosts of glory


A gust of the Windy wind
And swept away were dust of the road, old waste of the fields

But there remained beside the ancient pond
Seated our Old Man
A windful of memory held in his restless thoughts

We too were ruminating, studying
… Of lives perished long ago
… Of time that perished long ago.

So we asked our Old Man
What is life: … ‘Momentary water slipping off yam leaf’
And what is history: … ‘Tales of rich and famous
                                      … Of people and country bought and sold’
                                           … ‘Of minds and thoughts no longer one’s own
                                                   … Of wasted shorter routes to being bought and sold’.

We asked him again
Who are we?

‘Nothing and nothing yam leaves, crushed beneath their white feet’
‘Muddy waters under stomping hoofs, left behind in the path of riders’
‘Startled souls in fear, at the very ringing of a gunshot’

Then who are you?
We asked again our Old Man

‘I am History: of two lost centuries
Of centuries lost in the time of the colonial
Of centuries lost in the time of the colonized’

CLOSE READING - Authoritative, with a fresh perspective : Subir Bhaumik

Sharma’s interest and deep insights makes this book a fascinating read and a volume worth collecting for anybody interested in Assam, Northeast and India

Empire’s Garden is the most authoritative and well-documented historical analysis of the transformation of medieval Assam into a colonial province. But it is also a study of how Assam – and its adjoining regions – came to be part of India.  So the book is not only about Assam but also about the evolution of modern India, specially the transformation of its far eastern frontier into a constituent part of the nation-state. David Ludden is justified in describing Empire’s Garden as a “new departure for the historical study of Assam” and in expressing his hope that it will “anchor histories of Assam for years to come.”

Jayeeta Sharma
Permanent black, 2012
`750, 324 pages
Hardcover/ Non-fiction
Though focused on a province, Sharma’s scholarly range is extraordinary because she has so much to offer on South Asia’s post-medieval history, on colonialism, nationalism and regionalism to ethnicity, elite formation, migration, capitalism and economic progress. That is perhaps because when someone studies Assam closely, and as thoroughly as Sharma has done, one would surely come out intellectually richer about so much else that affects the whole of the subcontinent. Assam is the microcosm of India and also encapsulates its many problems, developments and social processes but in its own distinctive way. Because Assam (and the rest of what is today India’s Northeast) is a link region between the civilisations of the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Southeast Asian highlands, it is the flower-garden that replicates India on a smaller scale but it is also the fluid corridor through which population movements have shaped the future of South Asia.

But despite so much relevance to India, Assam is that part of the subcontinent that has received much less attention from serious historians of the subcontinent, except those working on the tea industry. Jayeeta Sharma’s fascinating details of Assam’s history become more relevant because they relate local themes to larger issues of South Asian history: colonial ideologies of race and the importance of these ideologies to the political economy, the structure of colonial rule, the development of these public spheres and the reformulation of identities under colonial circumstances.

As Douglas Haynes aptly sums up, Empire’s Garden “helps us to understand the historical dimensions of contemporary conflicts in the region, without making the conflicts seem predetermined by what happened in the colonial period.” Sharma takes us back to the colonial processes by which the tea industry came into existence through the planned growth of a cultivated system of plantations in what was just a jungle-laden frontier. But she details and analyses the orchestrated migration of “tea labour” from the Chotanagpur region and later the large-scale migration, again encouraged by colonial rulers, of a huge underclass of land-hungry peasants from East Bengal.

She argues that the racialised construction of the tea labourer catalysed a process in which Assam's gentry sought to insert their homeland into an imagined Indo-Aryan community and a modern Indian political space. Various linguistic and racial claims allowed these elites to defend their own modernity while pushing the burden of primitiveness onto "non-Aryan" indigenous tribals or migrant labourers. As vernacular print arenas emerged in Assam, so did competing claims to history, nationalism and progress that continue to reverberate in the present. Sharma’s interest and deep insights into labour and culture, migration and social change makes this book a fascinating read and a volume worth collecting for anybody interested in Assam, Northeast and India.

POINT BLANK - ‘Poetry always voiced protest’

Seven Sisters Post speaks with Sameer Tanti, poet, social thinker and one of the Adivasi community’s most respected voices over the last few decades. He talks about what inspires his works and the socio-political situation in his community today

What’s your view on a poet? Why do you write poems?

A poet performs a solitary exercise when he seeks to bridge the chasm between infinity and the great human family. In doing so he suffers without letting others suffer. History is witness to many instances where the poet has sacrificed his life at the hands of tyrannical rulers and states to safeguard the greater interest of mankind, or to bring justice in an otherwise unjust world.

I was born and brought up in a remote tea garden in Assam. I grew up in an environment of humiliation, poverty, ignorance and deprivation. The proletariat or the people working in the tea plantations in Assam have been one of the most exploited communities in India. These factors have been influential in shaping the person and the poet I am today. French-Lithuanian poet Oscar Milosz once said: “Poetry must be aware of its terrible responsibilities, for it is not a purely individual game and it gives shape to the aspirations of the ‘great soul of the people’.” It was because of this desire to give voice to all those unsaid things in society that I chose to write poems.

Do you think poetry can be an instrument of social change?

I think so. Poetry has always given voice to the common man’s protest against injustices in society. Having said that, poetry cannot directly bring about social change but it can inspire people to think, judge and act. We have already seen this in our country, especially during the freedom struggle.

We see glimpses of Pablo Neruda or Federico Garcia Lorca in your poems. How have they influenced you? 

"Love is the greatest and
most beautiful gift we have
received in our life. Where
there is love there is
rebellion. A poet can be both
a lover and a revolutionary"
--Sameer Tanti
The underlying tradition behind all art forms – literature (poetry being one of its sub-genres), music and painting – is universal, just like experiences of people everywhere. Poetry is also a medium for sharing these experiences in keeping with that tradition. As a poet or common man from Assam I must say that world poetry, especially that from Spain and Africa, has enriched me a lot. Whatever my poetry is today it is basically nourished by generational poets like Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, and many of my native land. My social existence and cultural beliefs have their roots in Assam.

The tea tribes are a result of colonial policies. Was there any difference to their lot after Independence?

When our country attained its freedom, we had come to the conclusion that the roots of slavery had been totally uprooted from the subcontinent. We thought that finally our people could live in peace and prosperity, forgetting the trauma of colonialism. But we did not have to wait long to realise that what we had thought would be a new dawn was actually an illusion of darkness, of ignorance and poverty which had engulfed us once again. A new regime of tyranny, force and intimidation, endless corruption and exploitation has come about in the form of new governance. Cultural values and family bonds have been eroded, with people falling prey to fanaticism and insurgency. Neo-colonialism, with a new face and a new order, has appeared in this country to determine our identity and status in society in an almost absurd way.

The community has historically been seen as passive sufferers of exploitation. How accurate is this image?

These people, these Adivasis, before their migration as bonded labourers to Assam, were the indigenous peoples of their respective lands, the ‘sons of the soil’, and they had the right to determine and define their own identity. During the times of feudal landlords and zamindars, they revolted against the tyranny and exploitation of their so-called masters. Even the ones who were brought to Assam during colonial rule to serve in the tea plantations were simmering with discontent and were not as timid as they now seem to be. There are several instances of these people’s bravery and heroic deeds during the Raj. Their cultural richness was their only strength and source of inspiration to retaliate against any effort at domination and subjugation. But surprisingly enough in Assam, the people in the tea gardens have been kept isolated intentionally and forbidden to mix with the local people. Though they seem to be free from colonial bondage, in reality they still remain subjugated to their new masters, the national bourgeoisie.

Has the situation been made worse by the kind of leadership the community has got?
From the time of India’s first election, the people in the tea community have been given the right to franchise and select their own leaders, in order to lead their life in a new and better direction of development and fulfilment. But, every time, all they have been given are tall promises and time and again been betrayed by the ruling class. The ministers, trade unionists and local leaders once embodied the aspirations of the people for the new dawn. Now, instead of keeping their promises, try to play the same tricks to baffle their own people.

Assam has changed since the turbulent times of the 1980s and 1990s when you emerged on the literary scene as an advocate for deprived sections of society. How do you see today’s Assam which has of late witnessed an uprising against the Establishment?

Times have changed, but the nature of the Establishment hasn’t. As long as deprivation, ignorance and injustice persist, there would always be discontent amongst the people leading to unrest in society. The greed of today’s leaders has no limits and any attempts to unmask it soon get termed as either ‘Maoist’ or ‘the involvement of foreign hands.’ But discrimination and segregation still exist in the social life of Assam.

It is said in jest that Assam has more poets than readers. Is this a reason why poetry is not read by too many people in the state?

Yes, absolutely true.

Critics can make or mar a poet. What’s your take on literary criticism in Assam at present? 

A critic is an architect who bridges the gap between a poet and his readers. Good critics have been playing a crucial role in the history of art, literature and culture. A critic’s point of view helps in understanding and appreciating poetry, thereby developing a good taste among readers. Critics are supposed to take a dispassionate view of a literary work, so their role is one of responsibility and depth. But unfortunately in Assam, after prominent critics like Hiren Gohain, Bhaben Barua, Nalinidhar Bhattacharyya, Hirendra Nath Dutta, Hare Krishna Deka, Pradip Acharya, and Prabhat Bora, very few have made the grade. However, in recent times, Arindam Borkotoky, a young critic, has shown much promise.

Do you feel that you have not got due recognition? 

I have never chased publicity during my 35-year writing career. As a poet or human being I have no regrets. I believe that time is a true judge of merit and relevance of any work.

What, according to you, is love? Can love and revolution complement each other or coexist?

Love is the greatest and most beautiful gift we have received in our life. Where there is love there is rebellion. A poet can be both a lover and a revolutionary.

Which of your poems is the best?

It is difficult to say. All my creations are very dear to me.

Your favourite book/writer?

Memoirs (Pablo Neruda), War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy), Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), The Plague (Albert Camus), Gitanjali (Rabindranath Tagore), Leaves of Grass (Walt Whitman), The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway), 1984 (George Orwell), Nrityarata Prithvi (Neelmoni Phukan), Faust (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) and many others.

How do you spend your free time?

Reading, interacting with and learning from friends and my children, and reconnecting with nature.