Editor's Note

Drawing from her life as an obstetrician-surgeon, as a woman, and as a Muslim, Nilima Thakuria Haque brings a unique perspective into Assamese and Indian poetry, to let readers into otherwise inaccessible spaces. There is a sense of magical realism (as when clouds oversee a surgeon at work) as well as the magic of the mundane (when rain drips off schoolgirls like ittar). These poems use and abandon metaphors to directly address a reader. Anindita Kar’s translation is careful and yet succeeds in preserving the music of the Assamese poem.

— Mandakini Pachauri
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Afternoon on our street

 

Hidden in clouds the afternoon plays

with barefoot half-naked children,

their chirrups pour drop by drop

to puddle on the street.

 

On the roof of the half-constructed building

Rezina’s daughter looks for Yusuf mistry.

The rusty iron bars know,

even the crow on the antenna knows,

that here too, it rains,

here too the afternoon plays.

 

The neighbourhood girls

return from the madrassa

veiled in thick clouds—

their smiles strike like lightning.

With every step they drip

a trail of attar on the street.

 

The veiled girls come home,

rain sniffing around their heels.

Weepy clouds answer the call of Azan,

a cool breeze scatters holy verses,

lapping at the walls of the shanties,

brings faith, soothes grief.

 

Suddenly the afternoon gets tired,

the children too.

The afternoon is hungry,

the children too.

When a child sobs loudly

the rain lets out a wail.

 


 

The Surgeon and the Clouds

 

The clouds come down thick and grey.

While she soaks in the world’s pain

the sky’s white veil slips.

 

In the courtyard of the building,

clouds gather,

rub their faces against glass windows,

sneak in through the exhaust.

 

Sometimes they ride on someone’s breath

and build a nest in their lungs;

in their eyes the monsoon sky

bursts into an ugly cry.

 

That is when they need her.

When they see her coming

beating the wings of her white apron

the swarming clouds make way for her.

 

Day and night are the same to her.

At an unpredictable hour

the stage is set for a performance.

The knife dances like one possessed,

the scissors move like a ballerina.

 

In the sky of the operating room

the life-sun shines, the only spectator

of a strange and beautiful dance.

The knife pirouettes

on the soft floor of skin and fat.

Inside, there’s a deep forest.

In one swift move

the knife has to cross a stream of blood,

the strong currents of veins and arteries.

 

The flesh is a curtain of pink velvet.

Push it aside and it reveals

the mysteries of the body.

She loses herself in this mythical setting.

Though the knife seems to dance

it is, in truth, her fingers

wearing the beaks of a bird of prey

that dance.

 

Her gloved hands know

where the disease has rooted.

As she improvises this dance sequence

between the knife and scissors

in the dense forests of the body,

she finds the seed of disease,

and doesn’t stop till she uproots

the sapling of pain.

 

This eagle-eyed woman is a surgeon.

The clouds peek through the window

as she lifts pain from a pool of blood

and drops it on the metal plate.

 

The eyes of the one who has just returned

from the unconscious to the conscious

are still laden with dreams.

Everything is fine, assures the surgeon

and throws her apron to the clouds

 

At her word, the moist-eyed clouds

flap their wings and fly back up

to become the white veil of the sky.

 


 

Stillborn

 

The trees look dishevelled tonight,

 

somewhere, the screams of falling leaves

 

stir the wings of a wounded swan.

 

now, he must cross

 

this short, but impossible stretch,

 

sailing across the obscure ocean

 

to the shores of light.

 

In her pain-marked body

 

the weariness of nine months seven days.

 

The wait is over.

 

Darkness comes down the path of light

 

or, piercing the gloom light emerges, lifeless.

 

Oh how beautiful, how delicate

 

her newborn’s face!

 

Yet again, she holds that face to her own

 

as two lactating breasts harden to stone.

 

One cannot fathom the grief of this stoic woman.

 

One wouldn’t dare touch the tiny bluish toes of the stillborn.

 

 


 

The Aroma of Roasted Maize

 

The aroma of roasted maize fills the air,

 

the deep red of charcoal sears the soul,

 

the wind fans a fire.

 

Claiming the corner of the middle-aged woman’s eye,

 

burrowing into her flesh, a spider’s web

 

unfurls wider until death.

 

Rubbing a slice of lemon on the burnt maize

 

she thinks:

 

Life’s lemons bear no scent,

 

or those could’ve been swallowed with a pinch of salt.

 

She then seasons the roasted maize with her anguish.

 

Beneath the lightless suburban lamp post

 

braving a chilly morning on Shillong Peak,

 

when she waits with her maize on a bustling sidewalk,

 

her clamouring hunger burns like coal

 

and the maize kernels pop;

 

she can smell it in the air.

 

When the unsold maize

 

begins to rot in a corner of her unlit hearth,

 

she wraps a sigh around her shoulders.

Acknowledgments

Image credits:

Photo by Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images. All rights reserved.

This photo was certainly taken in monsoon season, but the kids are playing in the Noida, Delhi and not 2,007 kilometres away in Assam. There is something universal however, about rain and mud and kids at play. A long line of shrieks and tumbles and laughter stretch all the way from the kids in Nilima Thakuria Haque’s poems back to the plains of Hadar, Ethiopia, where Lucy’s hypothetical kids would have certainly played in the rainy afternoon light, some 3.2 million-years ago.

Author | NILIMA THAKURIA HAQUE

Nilima Thakuria Haque (1961) is an artist and leading poet with one of the most distinctive female voices writing in Assamese. Her collections of poems include Puharato Andharato (In Light And In Darkness, 1999), Hridayar Chitrapat (Canvas Of the Heart, 2001), Bhalpuwa, Bishad Aaru Dhulir Stabak (Verses On Love, Sadness And Dusts, 2005), Kiba Paharila Neki (Did You Forget Something, 2008), Surgeon Aaru Meghbor (The Surgeon and the Clouds, 2012) and Duporia Tu Ekhon Nodi Hol (The Noon Turns Into A River, 2017). A gynaecologist and obstetrician by profession, she wrote Doctoror Diary (2003) in the autobiographical fiction genre and also has a novel, Jalarekha (2007), to her credit.

Translator | ANINDITA KAR

Anindita Kar (translator) is an Assistant Professor of English at Jagiroad College. Her creative pursuits include poetry and short fiction, but it is in translation she finds her true calling. She speaks three languages in her day-to-day existence and translates from two of them – Assamese and Bengali – into the third, English. Her work appears or is forthcoming in several journals and anthologies including Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, Muse India, The Antonym, Poetry at Sangam, Jadavpur University Press. She has translated four short story excerpts for the book Indira Goswami: Margins and Beyond under the Writer in Context series published by Routledge, UK. Some of her poems and microfiction are forthcoming in an anthology of feminist writings from Assam to be brought out by Zubaan Books.

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