"A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution." — Martin Luther King, Why We Can't Wait.
The birth of Miyah poetry in Assam is a testament to how a revolt can transform into a revolution. ‘Miyah’, an Urdu word meaning gentleman, is bastardised into a slur and used for referring to the Bengal-origin or Bengali-Muslims settled in the riverine plains of the Brahmaputra in Assam, known as ‘Char Chapori’. Largely treated as second-class citizens, the Bengali-Muslims have been at the receiving end of consistent social othering since their arrival during Partition. The violent discrimination against the Miyahs — or landless peasants from erstwhile East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) — as witnessed during the Nellie Massacre in 1983, and the recent National Register of Citizens (NRC)-Citizenship Bill fallout, has found expression through their poetry against oppression and loss.
The Char Chapori is a belt of fallow wasteland, as a result of which its residents have fallen prey to not just social abuse, like illiteracy, rejection, and poverty, but environmental damage like floods and erosion as well. Through their poetry, the local youth has decided to raise their voice against the unchanged subhuman living conditions, society’s indifference towards government-initiated violence on their people, and the prevalence of vile language used against the community.
"The way ‘miyah’ is used is against the very word itself. Over the years, it has been used with so many negative connotations. We are trying to reclaim the word — that is the main agenda of the community," says Shalim M Hussain, a Miyah poet and research scholar at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, and one of the founders of the Facebook page ‘Itamugur’ — an online forum that celebrates the poetry, music and performing arts of Assam’s ‘Char Chaporis’.
According to Hussain, oral traditions like music and poetry have existed in their community for decades, with a large body of work talking about issues like erosion and floods, and how they affected lives. However, Miyah poetry focuses on more contemporary issues prevailing in modern society.
"There’s a wealth of oral literature which we, unfortunately, have no trace of. But, as far as the printed form goes it is 1939 — that was the first wave. In the 1980s, the second wave came up with poetry mostly written in Assamese by a large number of writers like Khabir Ahmed and Dr Hafiz Ahmed. While the form was called ‘Char Chapori poetry/literature, the writers also called themselves ‘Char Chapori poets’. Some of that was protest literature, some wasn’t. What we [Miyah poets] are, is essentially the third wave of writers, with just a change in nomenclature," Hussain says.
He informs that their poetry does not just confine itself to wording their miseries and sufferings, but has also taken a rather celebratory tone in recent years. "In 2016, it was mostly protest and resistance, but now it has widened further. Now there is more experimentation with the language."
"We are trying to look at our history of existence in totality and not just the history of our continuous victimisation," the poet says.
Miyah poetry is usually written in Assamese, specifically in the Char Chapori dialect, and then translated into English and other regional languages. Hussain, who apart from writing poetry alongside his peers Abdul Kalam Azad and Kazi Neel (who are co-curators at Itamugur), also does a considerable amount of translation in English. The poems are not only translated into Bangla, Assamese, Hindi, Bhojpuri, and Maithili, but also Malayalam, which was a mean feat for Hussain, given the physical distance between Assam and Kerala.
"There is this word called ‘auli bera', which is a wall made of jute sticks that acts as a fence for houses. It is seven-foot-tall and is usually placed in such a manner that two walls completely obstruct the view from outside. Its purpose is to work as a system of purdah – that’s why the walls are tall. How does one translate that into English? It is impossible,” the poet says about the challenges of translating into English.
He further talks about the limitations of the English language, which he believes “is not actually suited for sub-continental literature”, mostly because of the large and diverse family relations and emotions that it is linguistically incapable of handling. “We try to be as approximate as possible. So then, 'auli bera' simply becomes a jute-stick wall — that’s absolutely not a good translation."
Above: Shalim M Hussain
Itamugur's collection comprises poetry, translations, recitals, videos, songs, and so on. Therefore, as much as writing the original poem is important, translating and circulating it among the masses is just as crucial to the Miyah movement. "You might find recordings of these poems done by people we absolutely don’t know, and people recite them in many places. We have been at places where the audience was very familiar with Miyah poetry and they knew some of the poems by heart," mentions Hussain.
Much of Miyah poetry's existence and the emerging fan base is rooted in its social media presence. When the first poem came out on Dr Hafiz Ahmed’s Facebook page in 2016, Hussain wrote one in response for others to read. What followed was a slew of poetry from numerous other writers. "It’s not by design, it’s just that it happened on social media," Hussain says, commenting on how accessible social media is as a publishing space, and how unparalleled its reach is.
"It could have possibly happened in a newspaper too, — someone would have written something and someone would have responded to it. It was just a coincidence that it happened on Facebook...Itamugur started as the only Facebook page which was recording Miyah poems. Today there are multiple pages, maybe 100-150. There are collectives who are writing their own poems that we are not aware of."
While the outside world has openly embraced the Miyah movement and its poetry, the response and contribution from the Char Chaporis came in over time. There was a lot of apprehension within the community about using the word ‘miyah’, and about writing poetry in their native tongue. "This is really not an identity movement. It is a protest against the word ‘miyah’ being used. Some of the apprehensions are that we may turn into an identity movement and play our own identity politics, seek our own language or build our own diction, etc. But that is not what Miyah poetry has in mind — we are least bothered about the language or the politics behind it," Hussain asserts.
Above: Miyah poetry session held in Delhi in November 2016.
In recent years, the Miyah movement has faced flak for being an essentially 'masculine' movement, with almost no female voice. The poet-scholar acknowledges this and ensures that the community is working towards being more inclusive. However, he maintains that the process will be slow. Citing illiteracy as the major factor behind gender inequity in the community, he explains: "Combined with patriarchy, there are very few women in positions where they should be. Until that is solved, their participation in Miyah poetry seems a little bleak. A protest is a privilege, not everyone can protest. The trolling that we as men get is very different from what women would get. Many women don’t choose to do that, it’s an unnecessary burden on top of all that they already have."
Above: Miyah poets Rehna Sultana and Kazi Neel. There are currently five women poets active in the Miyah poetry movement.
As for the future of Miyah poetry, he is optimistic. "We were not ambitious, to begin with. We thought we will start with ten poems and now there are almost 200. That it [Miyah poetry movement] would continue after three years is something none of us ever imagined. That we would have enough poems to bring out two anthologies is something we never imagined. That the Bengali translations would come out even before our anthologies were published is something we didn’t anticipate...So it’s going its own way. But I believe Miyah poetry has done its job," the poet says.
The movement had set out with an agenda of protest, awareness, and a message of love and hope. That, Hussain believes, has been accomplished. “So, even if there are no new Miyah poems, it would still be fine. But there are Miyah poets coming up every day,” he says with unmistakable contentment.
I BEG TO STATE THAT
— Khabir Ahmed. Translated by Shalim M Hussain
I beg to state that
I am a settler, a hated Miyah
Whatever be the case, my name is
Ismail Sheikh, Ramzan Ali or Majid Miyah
Subject - I am an Assamese Asomiya
I have many things to say
Stories older than Assam’s folktales
Stories older than the blood
Flowing through your veins
After forty years of independence
I have no space in the words of beloved writers
The brush of your scriptwriters doesn’t dip in my picture
My name left unpronounced in assemblies and parliaments
On no martyr’s memorial, on no news report is my name printed
Even in tiny letters.
Besides, you haven’t yet decided what to call me -
Am I Miyah, Asomiya or Neo-Asomiya?
And yet you talk of the river
The river is Assam’s mother, you say
You talk of trees
Assam is the land of blue hills, you say
My spine is tough, steadfast as the trees
The shade of the trees my address…
You talk of farmers, workers
Assam is the land of rice and labour, you say
I bow before paddy, I bow before sweat
For I am a farmer’s boy…
I beg to state that I am a
Settler, a dirty Miyah
Whatever be the case, my name
Is Khabir Ahmed or Mijanur Miyah
Subject - I am an Assamese Asomiya.
Sometime in the last century, I lost
My address in the storms of the Padma
A merchant’s boat found me drifting and dropped me here
Since then I have held close to my heart this land, this earth
And began a new journey of discovery
From Sadiya to Dhubri…
Since that day
I have flattened the red hills
Chopped forests into cities, rolled-earth into bricks
From bricks built monuments
Laid stones on the earth, burnt my body black with peat
Swam rivers, stood on the bank
And dammed floods
Irrigated crops with my blood and sweat
And with the plough of my fathers, etched on the earth
Even I waited for freedom
Built a nest in the river reeds
Sang songs in Bhatiyali
When the Father came visiting,
I listened to the music of the Luit
In the evening stood by the Kolong, the Kopili
And saw on their banks gold.
Suddenly a rough hand brushed my face
On a burning night in ‘83
My nation stood on the black hearths of Nellie and screamed
The clouds caught fire at Mukalmua and Rupohi, Juria,
Saya Daka, Pakhi Daka - homes of the Miyahs
Burnt like cemeteries
The floods of ’84 carried my golden harvest
In ’85 a gang of gamblers auctioned me
On the floor of the Assembly.
Whatever be the case, my name
Is Ismail Sheikh, Ramzan Ali or Mazid Miyah
Subject - I am an Assamese Asomiya.
I AM YET A MIYAH
— Shahjahan Ali Ahmed. Translated by Shalim M Hussain
Mine is the story of
A burning bone-crunching sun
My manhood the cautionary tale Of bent shoulders
And the pricking of salted thorns
Mine is the story of
‘Grow more food’, man-eaters
And a fragrant revolution scattered by
In a forest of thorns
Mine is a story of heroes.
Mine is the sacrificial offering of ‘61
Of blood screaming through
The binds of history
Mine is the story of 83, 90-94, 2008, 2012, 2014.
Mine is the oppression, the ignominy
The deprivation of Dravidians in Pragjyotishpur
I am the colour of a shame
Holding its ears, bending its knees
While kings and dynasties pass
I am the one under the fool’s cap
Standing in line with dumb cattle
I am a painting of heritage
Hung in a stable
Because though the bottles look different
The wine is yet the same
And judging by birth alone, I am yet a Miyah.
— Kazi Neel. Translated by Banamallika Choudhury
I walk through a half village half town
Over my head, the cheap sky has opened a rain-shop
A hundred years of darkness turns to snow
Puddles and ponds drown in the rain
In this rain, I too am getting wet
In my heart cotton balls of rain float, like a stifled cry
I skid in the rain
Death sleeps in a gutter
I walk up from the final wound of death
And I limp across the cheap town
I walk and I remember the story of a bird
A bird that sits in a far away rain-starved city
On top of a leafless branchless tree
Whenever I remember the bird I forget
My limp legs,
This cheap sky and my childhood
Those black days of agony,
of the hungry youth I forget and I become blind and
I am left with no fear of falling in the gutter
I have told the bird
I will bring her a tree of life
Let there be no branch, no leaves; I will still be there
Like a deathless shadow
I have told her - at the end of every black night of her city
I will come by the morning train
Cutting through the mountain of light
Like it happens in every half story
My endless journey will not be like that
I know this darkness, this storm, this deathly cold- its nothing
I will have to cross a vast sea of anguish
And I will have to traverse a slippery century like an even powerful monster
I have given her my word
I will come with the taste of wet rain in my heart
Carrying all the foliage of a half forest
With the croaking of frogs in heat I will come
To the port of a dusty city like an ancient sailor
I walk through a half village and half town
With death like agony I walk along suffering
The cheap sky has opened a rain shop over my head
In my heart cottons of rain float, like a muffled cry
O humanness, when the Kadam’s scent spreads the Koel will call
A breeze will rise from the distant sea,
I will come by the morning train
Shalim Hussain's Miyah poetry recital was part of Godrej Culture Lab's Migration Museum.
— All images of the Char Chapori courtesy of Reuters. All images of the Miyah poetry sessions/ Miyah poets courtesy of Itamugur and Shalim M Hussain.