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,
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
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.
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
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.
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.