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The power of words

When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

This excerpt from the speech given by US President John F. Kennedy on October 26, 1963 at Amherst College in Massachusetts, in honour of poet Robert Frost, is just ideal for raising the curtains on U Soso Tham’s poetry to the non-Khasi world.

Madeline Tham, who has been teaching English for the last 15 years, and continues to do so at Lady Keane College, Shillong, undertook the onerous task of translating U Soso Tham’s poetry into English for the benefit of those who wish to read the creations of one of the greatest bards the Northeast has produced.

The book — The Golden Duitara: Translations from Soso Tham’s Duitara Ksiar — was recently released here, a day before the 73rd death anniversary of the celebrated poet who originated from the lap of nature — Sohra. As reflected in his poetry, U Soso Tham was famous for his love of nature and his homeland.

Published by the North East India Society for Indigenous Studies (NEISIS), Shillong, the translated works contain 31 poems of U Soso Tham, and two poems penned down by his close friends — Hewitt Singh and S.J. Duncan.

The Duitara Ksiar consists of three sections — the first portion comprises Khasi nursery rhymes, which are taught by parents and elders to children before formal education commences.

The middle section consists of U Soso Tham’s original compositions along with poems of Hewitt Singh, S.J. Duncan, and U Soso Tham’s son G.G. Gatphoh; and the third section contains of U Soso Tham’s Khasi translation of English poems.

Madeline, daughter of the late M.D. Rapthap, an IAS officer of the 1960 batch, translated the middle section from the Duitara Ksiar, and had kept some of the words in Khasi in the translated works like the duitara (a two-stringed musical instrument) while water colour sketches depicting the flowers, fruits, traditional musical instruments et al are an added attraction.

Although written many years ago, the works of U Soso Tham still serve as an inspiration to writers and general citizens alike.

Excerpts from the interview with Madeline Tham as she poignantly remembers her eldest brother Anthony Christopher Tham, who breathed his last a few days ago:

t2:The Golden Duitara: Translations from Soso Tham’s Duitara Ksiar authored by you was recently published in Shillong. Can you share with us what inspired you to translate the works of the doyen of Khasi literature?

Madeline Tham: My friend Janet Moore from Cambridge wanted a translation of a Soso Tham’s poem for a Japanese university. So, I translated U Dieng Bilat and titled it “The English Pine”. This could have been the “tipping point”, which spiralled me to translate 33 poems from Soso Tham’s Duitara Ksiar.

t2:Soso Tham’s poetry is still an inspiration for many as his works are being widely quoted by present-day Khasi writers. How difficult was it for you to decide that Soso Tham’s works should also be published in English?

MT: A good translation of the poems of Soso Tham is long overdue. It was not difficult for me to decide as I do want to share with the non-Khasi community our rich culture, tradition and environment. It is also to make the 21st century Khasi realise the need to protect and preserve this beautiful land of ours. The way we are going with stone quarrying, sand banking and deforestation, to name a few, there will not be any more natural resources left for our children.

t2:How complex it was to translate the Khasi poems into English?

MT: Though I did encounter difficulties in finding the right word to convey the right meaning, I overcame these challenges and was determined to seeing it done. I, however, did have a dual advantage. I grew up in a very traditional Khasi household where only Khasi was spoken. However, while in Loreto Convent, I learnt English from the Irish nuns who were native speakers of the language.

t2:It must have been a mammoth exercise to translate the poems. How much time did you take to come up with the final draft of the book and ultimately the publication?

MT: It is no mean task. It took me around two years to complete the work. Some poems took less time while some like Ka Biria U Bieit took a lot of time because it had 93 stanzas!

t2: Soso Tham is often compared to William Wordsworth. Do you agree with the comparison?

MT: There are similarities between the two. Both are lovers of nature and they wanted to protect and preserve nature. They were both conscious that greed and materialism would erode our values, culture, nature and traditions.

t2: Do you have any plans to translate the other works of Soso Tham like the celebrated Ki Sngi Barim U Hynniewtrep (The Ancient Days of the Seven Huts)?

MT: I would love to do more translation but my busy work schedule makes it a challenging prospect. Ki Sngi Barim U Hynniewtrep is the pinnacle of Soso Tham’s literary achievement. It is layered with complexities, and has a lot of philosophical depth to it. Kudos to anyone who would take up this challenge!

t2: Which is your favourite poem from Duitara Ksiar? Please quote a few lines.

MT: This is like asking a mother which child is her favourite! I put my heart and soul into each poem, and enjoyed translating them. But, if I had to quote verses that made me feel I nailed it, then it would be the stanzas of Ka Duitara Ksiar or The Golden Duitara.

Lano ka hima-blei kan wan?/U briew u iai kylli/’Wat khmih hangne hangtai,’ la ong/‘Ka don hapoh jong phi.’ (When will God’s Kingdom come?/Man forever questions/’Don’t look for it, here and there/‘It is within yourself’)

Bunsien na me, ko lum Shillong/ Ha kawei pat ka shkor/Ki iaid ki ksai duitara ksiar/Jong kiwei pat ki por. (Many a times, Oh Shillong Peak/In another ear I hear/The strumming of the golden duitara/Of good old times gone by).

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