For better or verse: Miyah poetry is now a symbol of empowerment for Muslims in Assam

Miyah poetry has become the unlikely rallying point for Muslims in Assam

Nabina Das September 18, 2016 08:37:52 IST
For better or verse: Miyah poetry is now a symbol of empowerment for Muslims in Assam

A different trend has taken over the current literary scene in Assam. What was once considered hate speech is now a proud badge a literary practitioner can wear. 'Miyah' (or, 'Miya') poetry and performance is the new trail being blazed by a group of young scholars, teachers and professionals. The common force between them is that they are poets and writers, and very angry. Commonly, Miyah refers to Bengali-origin Muslims of Assam, long a sordidly marginalised group.

Abdul Kalam Azad, secretary of Jhai Foundation, an NGO working in the chars (silt banks) of Barpeta, Assam, and Jamia Millia Islamia research scholar Shalim Hussain were meeting in the latter’s rented house in Delhi last year. Pained and enraged by the term Miyah hurled by the Assamese at the Muslim populace, they spent sleepless nights debating the stigma and rejection embedded in this “identity” tag.

“Let me confess that I’m neither a poet nor a critic: I’m involved in the Miyah poetry series as a campaigner in a straight-forward political campaign for assertion of rights, entitlements and dignity,” Azad says.

Journalist M Reyaz wrote not too long ago that Muslims — particularly the Bengali-speaking Muslims — in Assam have been “at the centre of politics for all the wrong reasons”. They have grown up being labeled ‘foreigner’ or Bangladeshi. Past their own struggles and repercussions from hate mongering, the July-August 2015 Bodo-Muslim clashes was the last straw for them. It was the “‘maximum’ that the new generation of Muslims could take,” wrote Reyaz.

According to Reyaz, rich, educated Muslims never wanted to identify with their poorer cousins who wore lungis, pulled rickshaws or worked as labour. Once educated and upwardly mobile, they tended to ‘integrate’ more in a society where they are often seen with suspicion of being foreigners.

“For example, Muslims from the districts of Barak valley did not fail to mention their heritage in the state, (and) often took pride in how different they are from Muslims who hail from the Char region in western Assam,” wrote Reyaz.

While in conversation with Hussain, Azad was not at all convinced that asserting themselves as ‘Miyah’ would help them socially, economically or even politically.

“But it was not a simple calculation of profit and loss — it was all about telling our own utterly painful stories which our ‘story telling friends’ have been conveniently skipping for ages. The Miyah poetry series is a tip of an iceberg, the undercurrent is real and it’s running high.”

For better or verse Miyah poetry is now a symbol of empowerment for Muslims in Assam

Shalim Hussain. Image courtesy Facebook

Hussain protests in these incisive words:

And a 10% literacy rate
See me shrug my shoulders curl my hair
Read two lines of poetry one formula of maths
Read confusion when the bullies call me Bangladeshi
And tell my revolutionary heart
But I am a Miya

He not only portrays the socio-economic condition of his community, he also sees an almost impossible dream:

See me catch a plane get a Visa catch a bullet train
Catch a bullet
Catch your drift
Catch a rocket
Wear a lungi to space
And there where no one can hear you scream,
I am Miya
I am proud

As a genre, Miyah poetry is not drawn from any known literary tradition. The first poem in this series “Write down I am a Miyah” was written in English by Hafiz Ahmed, a teacher and president of Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad.

Azad asserts that “for us language is not important — suffering, agony and apathy is.” As Siraj Khan says:

Ami char thaika sahare gelei/ jigay —‘oi tur bhaxa ki?’/ poshu poxir bhashar jemun kunu boi nai/ amar bhasharo kunu eskul nai,/ mayer mukher bhashay bhatiali gai,/ dhukkher shure shur dhoira/ desher bhasha buhe noiya/ charer bhasha ghore koi,/ matir bhashatu jogot loiya ektai

When I leave the char for the city/ They ask me, ‘What’s your language?’/ Just as birds and beasts have no books/ My language has no school/ I breathe my grief through my mother’s words/ And sing in Bhatiali/ I hold the language of the state close to my chest/ And speak the language of the chars at home/ The language of the earth is the same everywhere

Miyah poetry is not a new trend, says Hussain, but thanks to the Internet, it is a more visible trend. Within the larger category of Bengal-origin Assamese poets, there have been some who have claimed the Miyah identity for themselves.

“Khabir Ahmed and Dr Hafiz Ahmed were doing it way back in the mid 80’s. Unfortunately, due to several factors including the lack of translations, these poems were confined to small circles only.”

Hussain agrees with Abdul on the fact that the genre doesn’t consciously follow any precedent but individual poets do take inspiration from other marginalised discourses.

“We’re open to emulating the poetry of black, feminist and queer writers. As far as aesthetics is considered, we are open to borrowing from all.”

As for the language of Miyah poetry — its semantics being at the crux of the protest mode this genre advocates — Azad does not call it “Bhatiali”, a term others have used.

“The river is an integral part of our life as is the boatman’s song,” he says, as are many other songs and cultural expressions in the Miyah community. “Farmers sing jhaari gaan while weeding their paddy fields. Now that the mighty Brahmaputra has eroded their land you can listen to the specter of jhaari gaan in construction sites in Guwahati and other metro cities including Delhi. These stories are definitely getting reflected on Miyah poetry. Hence I think, calling them Bhatiali is not appropriate.”

Hussain feels it is difficult to answer this question correctly because there is little relevant literature to base his response on.

“Dr Hafiz Ahmed, Abdul and I belong to the micro-community Bhatiya within the larger Bengal-origin Assamese community. Hence I call the poems and songs I write in our dialect Bhatiya poems and songs. However, we also write poems and songs in English and Assamese which are thematically similar to the ones we write in Bhatiya.”

The question of language defining this body of work challenges known theories.

“I personally think Miyah poetry is a far more apt term but this is a personal view. If any other Miyah writer writing on themes similar to ours wants to classify their work under a different head, we are willing to consider that too.”

So far an ugly hate term, no “Miyah” has ever loved being addressed as Miyah. The term has been used to incite strife, riots and the institutional rejection of a community. But Azad is optimistic.

“‘Miyah’ being seen as ‘derogatory’ will hit most and will hit directly at their heart,” he says, and quotes Langston Hughes:

I am a Negro:

Black as the night black,

Black like the depths of my Africa.

I have been a slave:

Caeser told me to keep his door steps clean.

I brushed the boots of Washington.

I have been a worker:

Under my hand the pyramids arose.

I made mortar for the Woolworth Building. (From “Negro”)

In a similar vein, Rezwan Hussain has written:

Amago tumra gail paro

Parle latthio maro

Amra kintu nirobe tumago attalika, rasta, dolong banaite thakum.

tumago ghorer kala marvel goisa chakchaka banamo

You abuse us

If necessary you kick us too

 But we will silently keep building build your homes, roads and bridges

We will polish your marble floors until they sparkle

Azad looks up to Shalim Hussain’s hard-hitting adaptation of the famous Gil Scott-Heron poem The Revolution will Not be Televised:

Amago ei biplobe banduk lagbona, buma barodh o lagbona

Amago ei biplop tumago ontor jalabo… purabo..

Puira charkhar korbo (Ei Biplob TVte Dehabona)

Our revolution will not need guns, grenades or dynamite

Our revolution will singe, burn,

Reduce your souls to ashes

Hussain perceives ‘Miyah’ as a matter of pride.

Mahakashe amar lungi dehuin

Aar jene amar daak keo huna na hare

Hene amare chillaite dehuin

Je ami Miyah

Ami gorbito

See my lungi in space

And there where no one can hear me scream,

See me thunder

I am Miyah

I am proud

“Let us look at our history of loss. We are a community descended from impoverished low-caste Hindus who converted to Islam. Our ancestors moved to Assam with little else but just clothes on their back. Even before the borders were drawn we began losing touch with Bengal. We are not a diasporic community with a nostalgic attachment to our place of origin. We have no standing monuments, no venerable ancestors, nothing. This might sound bleak but I consider it quite liberating because minus the baggage of chauvinism and jingoism, we have the freedom to be as hybrid as we want to,” says Hussain.

He speaks of a fascinating symbolism the Miyah literature enthusiasts have adopted.

“Our mothers and fathers broke the rock-solid earth with itamugurs and softened it for agriculture.”

The “itamugur” or a heavy wooden mallet, not quite a hammer or a pestle, and used in agriculture and construction, is strong enough to strike a hard surface to cause cracks.

“We carry metaphorical itamugurs to schools, colleges and workplaces. For every stone a regular Indian breaks, we are compelled to level a mountain just to remain in the race. So if I’m proud of anything it is our potential,” Hussain says.

The poet and performer in Hussain sees ‘My lungi in space’ with the hope that someday there will be a Miyah astronaut. The Miyah identity is built on self-identification but the markers of ‘Miyahness’ are not self-chosen, he stresses.

“For example, the lungi as a symbol of the Miyah community has been forced on us: we haven’t chosen it. But as writers I believe it is our responsibility to take the lungi and other similar symbols, divest them of their negative connotations and give them new meanings.”

Apart from poetry, there has been an upsurge in other mediums as well. Miyah writers have started telling their stories.

“There are many folk tales like Rahim Rupban still alive among Miyah community. Late Elim Dewan published a collection of such folk tales,” says Azad.

In all this heady semantic shifting in a society where such communal rifts are decently covered up but run deep, Azad says he doesn’t know where Miyah poetry and performance is heading. However, it seems the only option is to tell the stories in whatever form it may be.

“Yes, it is a highly political. The assertion that our stories of suffering, misery and perpetual indifference need to be told is in itself a highly political act.”

This is politics of empathy, emphasises Azad, and not of hate mongering. The fight between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is to have the mainstream realize its historical apathy and acknowledge the rights, entitlements and existence of the Miyah community.

If one knows well the internecine politics and identity clashes in Assam’s history, the question to be asked naturally is, when did this new trend become a modern tradition? According to Hussain, the Miyah poetry series began as recently in May 2016, and it began spontaneously sans any facilitator. Very quickly it spread over social media, attracting attention.

“Over the last four months, a number of poets have written in their own individual capacity and that, I think, is the direction Miyah poetry is going to take.”

Armed with a voice and the vocabulary to communicate, Miyah poetry now looks to foster discussions.

“And as we appeal to the rest of the world to listen to us, we have also begun to listen to each other: this was part of our political agenda and so far it has been successful.”
So far, the other poets of the series are Aman Wadud, an advocate and civil rights activist; Shajahan Ali Ahmad, a student leader, and Sultan Mahmud Mirdha, journalist and web and graphic designer – all diehard fans of Assamese language and literature. The hope is while they’re “suddenly” asserting their identity, they remain as Assamese as the others. The identity assertion is only a timely cry for justice, as seen in Hafiz Ahmed’s lines from April 29, 2016:

write Down
I am a Miya
My serial number in NRC is 200543
I have two children
Another is coming
In the next summer,
would you hate him
As you hate me?

And Shalim Hussain’s response to it:

Nana I have written attested countersigned
And been verified by a public notary
That I am a Miya

While Wadud has responded with anger:

You murdered me in Nellie
Because I am Miya
You murdered me in Khagrabari
Because I am Miya
You abused me by calling me Bangladeshi
Because I am Miya.

A second phase following the success of the poems is being planned. This will be a series of videos on YouTube, a page called “Itamugur” curated by Azad, photographer and aspiring film maker Kazi Neel, and Hussain. Assamese literature is witnessing its “new wave”. The best would be to clear off from the silts and banks and see the river flow on.

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