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In a new anthology titled Again I Hear These Waters, poet and translator Shalim M. Hussain has collected poetry and songs from the Miyah community of Assam, a state in the northeast of India. The community is formed by the descendants of Bengal-origin Muslims living in the low-lying river islands (called “char”) of the Brahmaputra River and growing rice and jute for their livelihoods. The word “Miyah,” originally a term of respect which later became derogatory in the region, was reclaimed by these poets in 2016 as a response to the newly proposed Indian citizenship laws.

Published by Tilted Axis Press, Again I Hear These Waters brings together thirty-four poems originally written in Assamese or local dialects by twenty-one poets, as well as five songs that are not attributed to any individual. Images of the working-class poets’ relationship to the lands and the waters flow within these poems, and they are also replete with references to the multilayered politics of identity and belonging in Assam. I spoke to Shalim M. Hussain about the evolving Miyah poetry movement on email. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Uttaran Das Gupta (UDG): Who are the Miyah poets now?

Shalim M. Hussain (SMH): It’s difficult to define now because the context in which Miyah poetry originated is gone. Questions regarding citizenship were more frequent in 2016 in the context of the NRC.1 With the coming of the CAA,2 these questions became even more complex. Since that context is gone (however temporarily), it is difficult to define Miyah poets. However, very loosely, Miyah poets are/were poets belonging to the “Bengal-origin Muslim” community of Assam who wrote poems on questions of identity and belonging against the background of the NRC and CAA processes, and who identified themselves as Miyah poets. This definition also extends to the poetry itself: the main theme running through these poems is a need to belong and for this belongingness to be recognized. In other words, many poets who wrote Miyah poetry also wrote other poetry.

UDG: To readers unfamiliar with Assamese literature or the Miyah dialect, what are the aesthetic aspects to look out for when reading these poems?

SH: There’s a rhythm to the poems that comes from an amalgamation of folk songs, local dialects, and contemporary Assamese poetry. I hope I have been able to retain some of it in translation. The river plays a very important role in the poems, for example. The idiom comes from various places, but agriculture is prominent, as is the valorization of labor.

UDG: Miyah poets have effectively used social media to circulate their poetry. What are the ethics and dynamics of finding an online readership for protest poetry? What are the challenges?

SH: In 2016, when the poems were circulated on social media, Facebook was dominant. So, most of the poems were circulated there in draft form. Later, the poems were polished, and some of them were published in print, both in the original and in translation. Facebook was the most easily available platform then.

As far as ethics are concerned, I think it was ethical to circulate the poems online. The real-time response on social media helped the spread of Miyah poetry. The problem with sharing the drafts on social media, as is always the case in examining a literary artifact in isolation, is that the processes that necessitated or created Miyah poetry couldn’t be completely communicated to readers. Some of the readers fixated on minutiae. For example, one question that I get asked is “Is it ‘Miya’ or ‘Miyah’?” My answer, as a poet and translator, is that it doesn’t matter. Exactness is not what the poets were aiming for, I think. This is also why sometimes the poems appeared crude, unformed, or confusing. But that’s how things are. You can communicate only so much on social media.

UDG: What is the status of Miyah poetry in Assam’s literary scene? Do legacy publishers and the media show any interest in it?

SH: Yes, legacy publishers and the media showed interest in it. In the early stages, around 2016, it was welcomed. In fact, the phrase “Miyah poetry” does not come from the poets themselves. It appeared first in an article by a journalist who noticed the poems being written and circulated on social media. During the height of the NRC/CAA, there were apprehensions, but even then, Miyah poetry was published and continues to be published. As I understand it, the poems are being absorbed into the literary mainstream. They’re being published in anthologies. In Assamese too. There’s a lot of research work on them. Again, in Assamese too. Some of the poets are taught in literature courses (but I am not sure if they are being taught as “Miyah poetry”).

 UDG: Protest poetry often responds to a contemporary event. Do you think Miyah poetry will have any appeal for readers a few decades from now?

SH: I personally don’t think it matters. The poems may live on through readers, or maybe they won’t have lasting appeal. In any case, it’s all right.

UDG: Tell us a little about the songs that appear at the end of the book and that are not attributed to any individual poet. Was it challenging to collect and select them for this anthology?

SH: The songs are part of our lives in the chars. They have been passed down to us and adapted through generations and are a testament to how life and religion become one in the everyday. The joys and sorrows of daily existence flow easily into larger questions of being, the nature and yearning of the soul, the finality of all that is and ever will be, and of acceptance, of an eternal afterlife—if that is the truth we should prepare for—or an empty, meaningless void. I started collecting and translating these songs to trace one of the traditions Miyah poetry borrows from. However, it was an extremely difficult exercise given the religious and philosophical complexity of these seemingly simple songs. I think I came close to understanding how sounds, words, and utterances can be holy for the first time while translating these songs. So I stopped.

As for the second part of your question, about trying to trace the journey of a tradition, it is a humbling experience because it cannot be done alone. I hope the numerous research papers and PhDs on Miyah poetry have done a better job. Someday, if I am part of a team of translators, I may try translating some more songs, but then again, to really “get” the songs, one has to belong completely to their tradition.

UDG: Have the poems been translated into languages other than English?

SH: The primary language of communication for the Miyah poets is Assamese, and through Assamese they have expressed themselves and been heard. English translation was done to share these poems with an audience that doesn’t understand Assamese. English was seen merely as a medium of communication. There have been translations into other Indian languages, too, like Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, and Telugu, by other translators.

UDG: Though the word “Miyah” is male-gendered, many women—Heena Al Haya, Ameena Ahmed, Begum Asma Khatun, Rehna Sultana—have also identified as Miyah poets. How does feminism intersect with the subaltern politics of Miyah poetry?

SH: This is for readers to decide. Again, Miyah poetry is a process. There was no one person or group defining it or assigning it attributes. As such, it is difficult for me as a translator to pinpoint the areas of convergence between feminism and subaltern politics.

UDG: I was particularly moved by Rehna Sultana’s poems “My Mother” and “Our Ma,” in which the poet erases the distinction between the mother figure and the idea of motherland, which is complicated for Miyah poets. How do you think the challenges of finding a stable home affect Miyah poets, particularly the women?

SH: Again, the theme in Miyah poetry is not the search for a home but to assert that this, here, is home.

UDG: Rivers play a very significant role in Miyah poetry, as spaces of imagination and also as metaphors, as you have noted in your introduction. But due to the effects of climate change, river waters can also turn into a threating force . . . How do the Miyah poets register such changes in their work?

SH: I think the association with the river is complex. Because the community lives on the river and is nurtured by it, there is immense respect for the river in their poems. This respect also extends to the power of the river.

UDG: In your introduction, you write about how the poetry of some of the poets included in the collection is full of images of the violence that affected Assamese society in the 1990s. But I also found many of the poems to express tender human feelings, like love, friendship, etc. I am thinking of Johirul Islam’s “Heartache,” Ringkul Ahmed’s “A Two Hundred Year Old Spring,” or your own “My Love’s Letters.” What inspires such poetry?

SH: Assam was strongly affected by the turbulence of the 1980s and 1990s, and it is a relief that we have come out of it. Poetry from Assam tends to look back on this time. However, no poetry is defined by any one thing. I think that any collection of poems in any language will finally be about the human condition, and this is true of Miyah poetry too.

1. The National Registry of Citizens (NRC) was mandated by a 2003 amendment to India’s Citizenship Act 1955. It is supposed to document all legal citizens of India, and has been implemented in Assam since 2013–14.

2. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, was passed by the Indian parliament on December 12, 2019, and came into effect on January 10, 2020, accelerating the process of granting Indian citizenship to members of persecuted religious minorities in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. But it sparked massive protests across the country because many feared that the law, along with the proposed pan-Indian National Registry of Citizens, would unfairly target Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, rendering many of them stateless.

Shalim M. Hussain is a writer and translator based in Assam. His books include Betel Nut City (2019),  Post-Colonial Poems (2019), and Asimot Jar Heral Sima (2020). He was a Charles Wallace India Trust Creative Writing and Translation Fellow (2020–21) and has been awarded the Pen Translates Award (2021) by English PEN.