Among the contemporary Assamese poets, Nilmani Phookan has a distinctive voice. His poetry, polished with a rare artistry and imbued with a deep sensitivity and deeper understanding of life and reality, has such richness and intensity, that it would immediately strike a chord in the hearts of discerning readers. His nuanced poetic expressions and sincerity of feelings and contemplative responses to trials and tribulations of life, unravel before a reader a broad vision of life.

Phookan began his almost five-decade-long poetic career as a neo-romantic poet with an ear for the tone, rhythm and idiom of the Assamese language and the nuances of its rich oral literature and has, over the years, achieved a remarkable mastery over the poetic craft, acquiring a deep insight into human life.

Phookan has always been an explorer, always excited by life’s hidden mysteries and possibilities, pained by sufferings of ordinary men and women, and troubled by the inequality, exploitation and mindless violence that so often threaten to dismantle our social fabric and destabilize our individual selves.

It is really a challenging task to capture and retain in translation his distinctly original poetic idiom and the layers of meaning-possibilities of his meticulously polished lines. Krishna Dulal Barua has done an excellent job of translating sixty-three poems, culled from Phookan’s eight collections of poems, into idiomatic, contemporary and highly readable English.

Barua must be commended for his sincere efforts to understand the deeper concern of Phookan’s poetic oeuvre and for sensitive, careful and smooth flowing translation of some of the extremely difficult verses (difficult because they resist any paraphrasing). An understanding of the cultural moorings of the poet and his innovative use of the resources of his mother tongue, together with a firm grip over the idioms of English, have enabled the translator to overcome apparently insurmountable difficulties. Barua has shown his creativity and his acquaintance with the idioms of English in translating such difficult lines as the following:

Original: He hridayar bhaga dalat olami thaka/golapi zamur lagna

Translation: Pendant from the snapped branches of the heart

O’ opportune hour of rose-berries.

An excellent piece of work is, undoubtedly, Don’t Ask Me How I Am. Phookan’s awareness of contemporary reality and conscientious response to it, to state terror, mass hysteria, mindless violence, his sense of terror, grief and regret, all have given the poem a new dimension. The natural, smooth flow of the rhythm and the pathos of the original are finely captured in Barua’s translation:

Don’t ask me how I am

Down the Kolong comes floating

A headless girl

For my corpse

Was lying for forty-two hours

On the pavement of Guwahati

For I’m open-eyed still

My death too has its eyes open

For in ditches—puddles rivers—lakes

Fish in shoals whisk about

Hey, ambling horsemen of mine.

Another fine translation is The Sky Throbs. The original poem Akaskhane Dhapdhapai, is an expression of anxiety, terror and grief of losing the poet’s mother. The tragic, contemplative mood of the original has been retained in Barua’s translation:

The sky throbs, I grope for the lamp

All of a sudden in full flesh and blood

My mother

The lamp in her eyes, blood all over her face—I shriek…

For Phookan, his mother and his motherland often become one. At times, his mother/motherland is represented as a toiling peasant woman who gives life to keep us alive. In Barua’s beautiful translation the poem reads —

Passing through the tree-leaves it sparkles upon the green

You’re my sun on the face of clouds

I see you arriving drenched in each shower

As if you come planting paddy seedlings somewhere sowing blood

A rainbow comes flying along with your glance…

Swaying in the autumnal fields

Endearing mother of mine

The raw-turmeric air of my heart

To one not acquainted with the original poems, Barua’s translation will surely give a fair idea about the richness, variety and originality of Nilmani Phookan’s poems. However, those of us who are familiar with the original, may be a little unhappy about a few translations. Perhaps, a little lapse of concentration on the part of the translator has led to the loss of the rich connotations and adroit play on words of the original in a few translated poems, for example, In the drizzle of a dimming day, Mating Song, She’s Staring at Our Faces,She’d been pursuing me and I found a plot of grass.

In the poem of the same name, the expression kin kin henguliar mazat (in / amidst the drizzle of vermillion) is an unusual and highly creative collocation. In Assamese kin kin (or kinkinia) barasun means ‘drizzle’, hengulia is vermillion, the colour of the afternoon sunlight or ripe paddy. As eminent critic Hiren Gohain very succinctly puts it, “The little bird (of the poem kin kin…) disappearing into the kin kin hengulia will surely dream of colours” (see Hiren Gohain’s preface to Sagartalir Sangkha by Nilmani Phookan). This “dreaming of colour” is not conveyed at all by Barua’s “drizzle of a dimming day.”

An inaccuracy has also crept into the translation of the following lines:

meli diya duti bahu/mar zak thupitarabah (Mating Song). Bah in thupitarabah is a classifier; it means “a bunch/cluster”, not “a nest”. Unfortunately, Barua has overlooked this distinctive feature of Assamese nouns (their use with classifiers), and erroneously, translated the expression as let the nest of constellation sink out/of ken….A more acceptable translation would be – let the constellation of stars sink out /of ken.. A similar kind of inaccuracy is noticed in the translation of a few lines of Phookan’s celebrated poem, Topanito teo mok khedi phurisil. The lines azio mor nitou nisa/kaliza gasaki roi have been translated as each night even today/she pauses trampling my heart, ignoring the fact that gasaki roi means go(es) on trampling. Furthermore, in the context of the preceding two lines, the translation could well be –

each night even today they (the two black horses of the preceding lines/stanza) go on trampling my heart.

Barua appears to have taken some liberty (perhaps, with the consent of the poet), in altering the structure of a poem like Tumi ze tilphul hoi (As a Sesame Flower ). The original poem consists of just one stanza, but the translator chose to break it into two separate stanzas. This has landed him in some difficulty. The original lines tumi ze parbattor namanit/tilphul hoi /halizali phuli asa have been translated as You bloom upon the foothill/Swaying to and fro/As a sesame flower. Foothill does not mean parbattor namanit as it actually means “one of the smaller hills below a group of high mountains”; at the foot of the mountain could have been a better option.

Such flaws , however, do not take away anything from Barua’s achievement as a competent and creative translator.

Translator Krishna Dulal Barua and publisher Sahitya Akademi deserve accolades for bringing out this representative collection of Nilmani Phookan’s poems in English translation. I am sure poetry lovers across languages and cultures will find in the translations something that touches their hearts, something that can make them aware of the broader horizons of life.

Madan Sarma