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.

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