Birth Pangs of a Poet: The Early Works
of Soso Tham, Chief Bard of the Khasis
by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih
Soso Tham (1873-1940) is the uncrowned, though acknowledged poet
laureate of the Khasis and his death anniversary falling on
December 18 has always been commemorated as a state holiday
since the late 1970s. According to his most authoritative
biographer, Hughlet Warjri, Tham was born in Sohra, or
Cherrapunjee, in 1873 (actual date unknown) into “a poor but
happy family,” newly converted to Christianity. He was the third
and only son in a family of four children. His mother, Lyngkien
Tham, was said to be a very pious woman and married one Hat
Tongper from Sohkha, a village near Dawki, who had come to Sohra
to work with the Welsh missionaries. Though poor, the young Tham
was fortunate in other respects, for he grew up in a cheerful,
God-fearing family, in a place which had not only become
world-famous because of its record-shattering rainfall and the
breath-taking beauty of its landscape, but also because it had
been the first headquarters of the British empire in the Khasi
Hills, where the new religion and school education had first
taken root. Warjri says in his book, U Soso Tham bad ki Jingtrei
Jong U (1980) that Tham was among the few who were able to take
advantage of this education and that he studied in one of the
missionary schools there till Class VI, although his father had
died sometime before that. A little after this first tragedy,
the family shifted to Shillong, which had replaced Sohra as the
new capital in 1874, and Tham was reported to have continued
with his studies in the new township. But the early death of his
father, it seems, proved too much for his family, and this
consorted with grinding poverty to force him out of school when
he was only in Class VIII.
Warjri also records that at that time there was an attempt to
induct Tham as a student in the newly-established Theological
College at Sohra, but that somehow did not work out and so he
began his career as an itinerant teacher in village primary
schools and finally landing up on October 12, 1905 as a teacher
of Khasi in Shillong Government High School, Mawkhar (the only
high school in the Hills in those days). Tham remained in the
school till he retired on July 30, 1931.
Soso Tham’s total output as a writer is rather small. He has two
volumes of poetry to his credit: Ka Duitara Ksiar (The Golden
Harp, 1925), comprising 46 short poems, including lyrics,
ballads and nursery rhymes, and 14 translations of various
English poets; and his “crowning work,” 1 Ki Sngi Ba Rim U
Hynñiew Trep (The Olden Days of U Hynñiew Trep (1936), 2 which
is a single long poem having 181 stanzas of six lines divided
into 10 sections, each under a separate heading. The poem is
about the Hynñiew Trep people, ancestors of the seven Khasi
sub-tribes comprising, the Khynriams in East Khasi Hills, the
Pnars in Jaiñtia Hills, the Bhois in Ri Bhoi District, the Wars
in the foothills bordering Bangladesh, the Marams, Lyngngams,
and the now-little-heard-of Diko in West Khasi Hills. Tham had
also translated Aesop’s Fables, Charles Dickens’s The Life of
Our Lord and the great Shakespearean comedy, The Tempest, to
which he had given the title of U Kyllang. Unfortunately the
manuscript of this translation was irrecoverably lost because of
“the reckless negligence” 3 of his heirs.
All this then, along with some translations and original
compositions of religious songs, constitutes the entire volume
of his work as a writer. There are very important biographical
details to account for this lack of prolificacy, but then again,
it is this very fact which has become the surprise of surprises,
where his fame and popularity as a poet is concerned. How could
a poet whose output is so meagre, who had started writing so
late in life and who had confessed in the preface to Ki Sngi ba
Rim U Hynñiew Trep that “he had never known about Art or Poetry:
foot, metre, rhyme, rhythm, idea” and that all these had seemed
to him “like a confused litter of cattle bones in the hills”
rise to become a national 4 poet and stand towering over Khasi
literature like someone who “doth bestride the narrow world like
a Colossus,” to borrow Cassius’s description of Caesar.
Some of his poems were set to music and became immediate hits.
His inspiring words were heard everywhere: in casual chats, in
public meetings, in funeral gatherings and wherever people had
anything to say about the burning issues of the day and the
future of their land. Such was his powerful appeal that he was
quoted by the learned and unlearned alike; by the old and the
young, as if his poetry was like the vast expanse of the
horizon, accommodating the motley crowd within it.
Although all this glory had come only 33 years after his death,
there were those among his eminent contemporaries who had
immediately spotted his genius and heaped praises upon him. S.
K. Bhuyan, 5 called him the “Robert Burns of the Khasi
Highlands” in his book, Studies in the Literature of Assam
(1956), which also contains a chapter on “Modern Khasi
Literature.” Rev. Oliver Thomas, the then General Secretary of
the Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian Church of Wales,
described him as “a man of great gifts” and continued, “had it
been possible for him, as a young man, to have had the
advantages of an academic training, he surely would have risen
to great heights as a scholar.” 6 Contemporary Writer like
Homiwell Lyngdoh and R. R. Thomas were simply captivated by the
sheer magic of his poetry. Homiwell Lyngdoh was inspired to
write an essay on the origins of the Hynñiew Trep people after
reading Tham’s long poem, Ki Sngi ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep and
Thomas called this poem “one of the best if not the very best in
Khasi Literature. It is decidedly the best in verse that a Khasi
has produced and is undoubtedly a classic.” 7
To the later writers and critics, Soso Tham was not only a poet
but also a visionary, a philosopher and a moral teacher. H. W.
Sten compared his crowning work with Milton’s Paradise Lost in
his book Na ka Hyndai sha ka Lawei (1980) and writing earlier,
R. S. Lyngdoh had even gone further as to say in the “Soso Tham
Birth Centenary Souvenir 1973’’ that “If Rabindranath Tagore
could achieve world recognition through his English version of
his ‘Gitanjali’ U Soso Tham can as well achieve such fame if
only his masterpiece [Ki Sngi Ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep] could be
translated into other languages.” (P 71) Lyngdoh’s dream may or
may not be realised, but all this high praise decidedly prove
one thing — that Soso Tham is a poet worthy of study and
research. Such a study is all the more exigent because to the
outside world, to the non-Khasi readers, he was but a name, a
reputation, whose aura shines but whose poetry still lurks in
the dark confines of Khasi Literature.
It is something very strange that the works of so popular a poet
among his own people have never been translated and the few that
have been are so bad that they have not only not found a place
in any recognised journal of poetry in the country, but they
also threaten to be a disservice to the memory of this poet who
had once written about himself and the apathy of most of his
contemporary readers in the following lines:
Jar-jar hapoh ki dieng ha khlaw,
U san hapdeng ki ñiut;
U syntiew pher, u tiew-dohmaw,-
Jar-Jar harud ki wah ba tngen,
Ban iwbih ynda stai;
U tiew tyrkhang ba ai jingkmen,
U jyrngam khadar bnai.
Iathuh, premmiet ba ieit ki blei,
Bad phi ki lyoh bun rong;
Iathuh ia nga u don haei
U khlur ba paw nyngkong.
Jar-Jar u im, jar-jar u jah,
Hapoh rai-eh rai-dam;
Jar-Jar ha jingtep ai un thiah,-
Hapoh u phlang jyrngam. (P 12)
(“U Phlang Jyrngam,” Ka Duitara Ksiar )
Below is the English version:
(Quietly in the wood,
It grows among the weeds;
An uncommon blossom, u tiew dohmaw, *
A thing of lofty thoughts.
Quietly by shadowy streams,
To be a fragrance when faded,
The joy-giving fern
Remains green for twelve moons.
Tell me twilight, beloved of the gods,
And you the motley clouds;
Tell me where is that star
That first speckles the sky.
Quietly he lives, quietly he dies,
Amidst the wilderness;
Quietly in the grave let him rest,
Beneath the green, green grass.
*A wild flower, symbol of great wisdom.
(“The Green Grass”)
If we place this poem side by side with that of Yi Kyu-Bo, a
world-famous Korean poet, we will understand how Soso Tham has
been able to transcend the immediate boundaries of his life, his
time and his culture to appeal to the universal feelings of
mankind itself. The poem of Yi Kyu-Bo reads: 8
I have always feared withering sooner than grass and trees,
But I find the volumes of my poor poems worse than nothing.
Who will know a thousand years from now,
That a man named Yi was born in a corner of Korea?
(“To My Son Editing My Poem”)
It is this transcendence, this affinity between Tham and other
poets of the world that has been the inspiring force behind this
assessment. It might well be a surprise if the readers of Tham’s
poetry come to know, that writing in 1936, Tham had already
pre-empted J. F. Kennedy in his famous call to his countrymen,
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do
for your country.” 9 Writing 24 years earlier, Tham had made the
same call in his famous lyric “Ki Sngi U Hynñiew Trep” 10 when
he said, “Ngi im ha kiwei pat ki sngi, / Aiu ngin leh namar ka
ri?” (“We live in other days than our own / what shall we do for
our land?”). One therefore feels that it is time to draw more
attention to Tham, to exhume his works as it were, from the
crypt of Khasi literature and exhibit them to the world so that
they may be read and appreciated by all.
It was Tham’s hiraeth, 11 his love and forlorn longing for his
language and literature that had made him turn to writing and
poetry. According to Warjri, it was Tham’s entrance into the
Shillong Government High School as a teacher that had brought
him face to face with the stark realities of Khasi literature in
those days. The predicament Khasi literature was in then
profoundly disturbed him and he committed himself to shoulder
the responsibility of developing it. A brief summary 12 of its
history till Tham’s teaching commission in the school will
afford more insight into the situation.
The Khasis, who had a rich oral literature consisting of myths,
folk stories, fairy tales, fables, narrative poetry, gnomic
phawar (verse) and lively traditional songs, 13 had never
obtained the blessing of the written word until the
mid-nineteenth century, that is, until the appearance of the
Welsh Presbyterian Missionary, Thomas Jones, on July 22, 1841.
Prior to this, around 1831, there were indeed attempts by
Krishna Chandra Pal and Alexander B. Lish of the American
Baptist Mission of Serampore, to reduce Khasi to the complex
Bengali script. But these had proved unsuccessful and it was
left to Jones to take up where they had left off. The tenacious
and inventive Welshman resorted to Welsh orthography and the
Roman script to cast the language in written form. The outcome
was the publication, in early 1842, of the First Khasi Reader or
Cacitab Ban Hicai Ca Citien Cassia. It is out of this little
book that all other Khasi books have emerged.
Since that time till the year 1895, the writing and publication
of Khasi books rested solely in the hands of the Presbyterian
missionaries and therefore, the literature of this period of 40
years or so was “almost exclusively Christian and moralistic in
character.” 14 Jones himself translated the Welsh Rhodd Mam (A
Mother’s Gift, 1842), the Gospel of Mathew (1846), a book of
scriptural catechism and a collection of hymns for use in the
mission’s first three schools in Sohra. From the pens of his
successors came translations of Rhodd Tad (A Father’s Gift),
Watt’s Scripture History (1859), Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
(1864), Longfellow’s “The Psalm of Life” and the complete
translation of the Bible (1891).
The only books written during the period that had little or
nothing to do with religion was William Pryse’s Khasi Grammar
(1859) and Hugh Robert’s Anglo-Khasi Dictionary (1870) and Khasi
Grammar. John Roberts, 15 who had earlier translated Pilgrim’s
Progress, the “Psalm of Life” and the Bible, added the less
religious-centred Khasi First Reader, Khasi Second Reader, Khasi
Third Reader and Khasi Fourth Reader to the treasury of Khasi
Others followed in the footsteps of these later writers and came
out with their own books. Among the first non-missionary writers
to take up the task of further developing Khasi literature, was
another non-Khasi, S. M. Amjad Ali. In 1888 he brought out the
first ever book of self-composed Khasi poems, Ka Myntoi Lane ka
Kot Boit, and thus earned for himself the distinction of
becoming the father of Khasi poetry. After Ali, the precursor
who called on the Khasi people to stand up and chart their own
course of history, came what has been described by R. S. Lyngdoh
16 as “the great cultural revival at the turn of the century,
ushering for the first time, a coherent and purposeful challenge
to the influence of Christianity and the missionaries’ monopoly
over intellectual and cultural affairs.” This awakening was led
by three erudite Khasi scholars, Rabon Singh Kharsuka, Jeebon
Roy Mairom and Radhon Singh Berry Kharwanlang. Rabon Singh 17 is
reputed to be the first Khasi to ever write a book. Among his
well-known works are Ka Kitab Niam Kheiñ Ki Khasi, a book about
Niam Trai or Khasi indigenous faith, published between 1897 and
1900, followed by Ka Kitab Jingphawar (1905), a collection of
traditional gnomic verses and Ka Kot Jingiathuh Khana Puriskam
(1908), a collection of folk stories and fairy tales. Jeebon Roy
produced altogether 11 books including Ka Kitab Shaphang Uwei U
Blei, a tract about one God, and the history of India in Khasi.
Radhon Singh Berry came up with the still-popular Ki Jingsneng
Tymmen, a collection of Khasi aphorisms. Others like Sib Charan
Roy Dkhar, Morkha Joseph Chyne and Hormurai Diengdoh contributed
with their works to broaden the circle of secular Khasi
But because the schools were run by the missionaries, the
outstanding efforts of Ali and the Khasi pioneers went largely
unnoticed. According to the historians of Khasi literature, 18
when Tham joined the Shillong Government High School in 1905 as
a teacher in Khasi, he discovered that it was mostly religious
texts like Ka Kitab U Joshwa (The Book of Joshua), Ka Kitab U
Job (The Book of Job), Ka Kitab Ki Proverb (The Book of
Proverbs), and others that had been prescribed for the Entrance
or Matriculation Examination. The only exceptions to these were
John Robert’s Khasi Fourth Reader and Ka Kot Jingiathuh Khana
Puriskam of Rabon Singh.
This state of affairs continued till 1919. During that time, as
may be gathered, Khasi literature was still at a very incipient
stage, and as most of the books written by non-missionary
authors were not on the school curriculum all literary
activities came to a sudden halt, leading to a sudden slump in
the production of new texts. This meant that Tham and other
teachers had to teach the same things repeatedly for about 14
years from 1905. For Tham, the bibliophile and conscientious
educator, there could be nothing worse than this. In the preface
to Ki Sngi ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep he confessed that he was quite
fed up with having to “teach the same books over and over again
for years.” (P x) He added that even the students “were bored to
death with having to read the same stuff from class VII to class
X.” (P xi)
In his book, Warjri 19 confirms that Tham, who had tasted the
sweet kernel of Khasi texts and who had realised the vast
potential of the Khasi written word, could not accept this
somniferous situation. At this point of time he was not aware
that he would himself be called upon to shoulder the
responsibility of promoting Khasi literature. He did not know
that he had the talent or moral strength to do it. Indeed he did
not know that he held the “Gilded Pen” 20 in his own hand and
that one day he would be using it in the most effective manner.
His natural reaction, therefore, was to turn to his contemporary
authors, to plead with them to write and bring out new books
that could be incorporated in the syllabus. He had appealed to
them many times but had received not so much as a hint that they
had heard him: “…deaf were the ears of the wise (missionaries
and Khasis) …” (P x) he wrote of their unresponsiveness in the
preface. So what was he to do? He was at his wit’s end. If the
learned would not do it, who else would, or could? Was the seed
of Khasi writings, sown by Thomas Jones and nurtured into a
healthy sapling during the period of the cultural revival, to be
stunted now by the combined inertia of his contemporaries? These
were forlorn questions that furied him night and day and made
his life miserable. He had been moved by the great moral
teachings of Christianity in the translations of the
missionaries. He had delighted in the splendour of traditional
wisdom in the books of the Khasi scholars: was he to lose
forever what he had once possessed? Was he not to see his own
literature grow to the full height of its early promise?
In the grip of this awful hiraeth, he wrestled alone with his
“longing like despair” 21 until one day when strolling along the
cliffs of Sunapani (Waterfall in the suburban west of Shillong),
he heard this persistent whisper: “Do it yourself.” 22 But even
this inspiration only brought him more misery and restlessness.
How was he to go about it? When he thought of writing and poetry
he only saw a thick black cloud masking the path ahead, for
after all, had he not confessed that “he had never known about
Art or Poetry: foot, metre, rhyme, idea…?” It was only after
losing sleep over the matter for weeks that he finally came to a
One morning, Warjri relates, he marched into a classroom and
proposed to his Class X students: “Young men, let us try our
luck in writing our own books!” 23 The class broke into a
deafening roar as the students laughed at what they had thought
was the best joke of the morning. But their teacher was never
more serious than at that moment. He called to one of the
students to bring him the anthology of English poetry 24 they
had been doing for so many years and told the whole class to
translate (it is not clear, by chance or design) W.E. Hickson’s
nursery rhyme, “Drive the Nail Aright.” The students thought
their beloved “Babu,” for so they called him, had lost his mind.
It was unthinkable for them to embark upon such a task. Warjri
quotes Tham himself as saying, “some looked at the poem and
scratched their heads; others tittered like a shakyllia [a type
of bird], and still others sat with folded hands and drooping
eyelids as if they were hearth stones.” (P 54)
Meanwhile, Warjri goes on, Tham on his part sat in his chair
with pen and paper in hand, lost in thought and straining hard
to come up with a Khasi translation of the first line, “Drive
the nail aright, boys.” He remained in this posture of intense
reflection for a space of ten minutes after which he
triumphantly cried, Archimedes-like, “I have found…I have found
the fibre.” (P 54) And there was another deafening roar as the
class cheered its teacher’s success. The fibre was “Sah beit ia
u prek, hep,” from which Tham started working on the poem, as
one would do when breaking a particularly knotty block of wood.
Having experienced the thrill of his first triumph, and now
fully realising that he did have it in him the talent to write
and create, his hiraeth grew in force and like Shelly’s “West
Wind,” drove him forward as if to a predestined destiny. The end
result was hugely satisfying. As Tham wrote in the preface, from
this “mustard seed,” that is “Sah beit ia u prek, hep,” grew
others, till gradually they evolved into “the branches and
leaves” (P xiii) of Ki Sngi ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep, his piece de
But Tham did not have an easy going of it. His onward course as
a poet was slow and painful. Having sown his “mustard seed,” he
wanted, as he said in the preface, to “pursue onwards as if for
a prize.” (P xi) The prize that he sought was a fuller
understanding of poetry and its intimidating paraphernalia,
which had at first seemed to him “like a confused litter of
cattle bones in the hills.” This, he felt, was the only means
through which he could fulfil his heart-burning desire to
contribute, through poetry, to his literature and thus push it
along the difficult path of progress. But he was impeded in his
high objective by three things which Warjri lists as, “… His
lack of education; his lack of travel; and his lack of
assistance from Khasi literature.” (P 57)
Since nothing much was happening in Khasi literature, especially
in the field of poetry, Warjri reports that Tham had to take
recourse to English poetry. But because of his rudimentary
education, seeking enlightenment from the English world of
letters must have been a very formidable task indeed. Warjri
suspects that Tham must have struggled “like a farm bull to plod
his way through English literature.” (P 61) And struggled he
did, for the hiraeth in his heart was a hunger, inappeasable, a
fire, unrelenting. With a zest that would have done the most
industrious schoolboy proud, he dug into the works of
Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantic poets and any other he could
lay his hands on, in his quest to discover what is prosody and
the metrical laws of English poetry. Eventually, after three
years of this gruelling ground-breaking, Tham was said to have
felt confident enough to complete the translation of “Drive the
Nail Aright” in 1922.
The extraordinary time taken by Tham to translate this little
poem can be explained further by the manner of his translation.
He had not only translated the words but had followed its
metrical pattern to the letter. A comparison between the
original and the translated version will bring out the
similarities, at the level of form, more vividly:
Drive the nail aright, boys,
Hit it on the head;
Strike with all your might, boys,
While the iron’s red.
When you’ve work to do, boys,
Do it with a will;
They who reach the top, boys,
First must climb the hill.
Standing at the foot, boys,
Looking at the sky;
How can you get up, boys,
If you never try?
Though you stumble oft, boys,
Never be downcast:
Try and try again, boys,
You will win at last.
Drive the nail aright, boys,
Hit it on the head;
Strike with all your might, boys,
While the iron’s red.
(“Drive the Nail Aright”)
The Khasi translation:
Sah beit ia u prek, hep,
Ai na shata dar;
Tangon eh taiñ-taiñ, hep,
Myndang saw u nar.
Man ba trei jingtrei, hep,
Naduh mynsiem trei;
Ki ban poi sha kliar, hep,
Ban kiew lum ki dei.
Phai ka khmat shaneng, hep,
Sdang naduh ba sdang;
Kumno phin poi kliar, hep,
La phim da pyrshang?
La jynthut bunsien, hep,
Wat ju tieng ne kyiuh:
Pyrshang iai pyrshang, hep,
Phin jop hi khadduh.
Sah beit ia u prek, hep,
Ai na shata dar;
Tangon eh taiñ-taiñ, hep,
Myndang saw u nar.
(“Sah Beit ia u Prek”)
Both versions are written in four-line stanzas with the first
and third lines of each stanza containing six syllables, while
the second and fourth containing five. In both, the first stanza
is repeated as a refrain at the end, while the rhyme scheme also
follows a similar pattern of abab, acac, adad, aeae, and abab.
All these points of comparison call attention to the fact that
Tham had clearly succeeded in the task he had set out for
himself, that is, to achieve an absolute understanding of
English prosody. This is also borne out by later translations
and original compositions arranged in the popular metrical
designs of the day.
With the successful completion of this poem, Tham threw himself
into his translation work with more vigour and translated a
total of 10 English poems into Khasi. These include, among
others, William Shakespeare’s “The Passionate Pilgrim;” William
Wordsworth’s “Lucy Poems” and “The Solitary Reaper;” Lord George
Gordon Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib;” Sir Walter
Scott’s “Patriotism;” and William Cowper’s “The Diverting
History of John Gilpin.” These translations, in turn facilitated
the composition of his own poems, which started as nursery
rhymes and then matured to a more serious type of poetry as the
poet gained in skill and aplomb. These were later collected
together with the translations in Ki Poetry Khasi, afterwards to
receive wide recognition and plaudit as Ka Duitara Ksiar.
It must be reiterated once again, however, that the emergence of
Tham’s first collection of poetry in 1925 was not at all a
smooth nine-month gestation. Later, Tham wrote in a number of
his poems about these difficult beginnings: the loneliness, the
exacting toils, the hardships, and the pain that he had to
endure during his long and arduous search for the essence of
poetry. Compounding the problems directly linked with poetry
writing, were a host of others, which nearly made the
publication of this book impossible. Warjri recounts that the
poverty that had forced him out of school in childhood still
haunted him in manhood. He was but a poorly paid schoolteacher
and a widower with the responsibility of raising four sons and
the children of his only daughter, who died prematurely in 1926.
As if poverty was not obstacle enough to discourage a man from
the costly business of publishing books, there was, in those
days, no financial support from the government for authors who
wished to print their own books. Tokin Rymbai, 25 confirmed this
when he wrote in the Dr. Homiwell Lyngdoh Birth Centenary
During the days of Babu Soso Tham, to write Khasi texts and have
them printed was a very expensive affair. There was no grant
from the Government to support and encourage authors as is the
practice today…” (P 77)
But the worst vexation for Tham and the writers of his day was
perhaps the lack of readership. Readers form the backbone of
literature. They are the sponsors who inspire writers to
ever-greater feats. It is for this reason that the most
developed literatures of the world are invariably those that
command the interest and goodwill of the greatest number of
people. But unfortunately for Tham, this was not the case with
Khasi literature. Writing an introduction to Tham’s Ki Sngi ba
Rim U Hynñiew Trep, S. K. Bhuyan said:
U Soso Tham has been born an age too early. His countrymen have
not as yet been trained to appreciate the inner beauty of his
poetry, nay of any poetry. In such an atmosphere even the most
poetically-minded genius will languish for want of inspiration
and stimulus for self-expression. (P vii)
It is because of this that Reverend Oliver Thomas 26 said in
1920: “It is not easy to publish books in this land. Most of
those who had published earlier had lost quite a bit of money
and, therefore, people are hesitant to write books.” Even Tham
had commented on this hopeless situation in his “Ka Tien Khmat”
(preface) to Ka Duitara Ksiar:
Hynrei u Khasi mynta um treh pule lymda phñian ha u ha skul bad
ha ïngmane. Bad ki khynnah kim pule ia ka kot Khasi, la ka bha
katno katno, lymda ka ka dei ka Text Book. Don jingmatlah kaba
kham thlip nalor kane? (P ii)
(But the Khasi today refuses to read unless compelled to do so
at school or the church. And the young people do not read a
Khasi book, however good it may be, unless it is a Text Book. Is
there a blindness more opaque than this?)
Warjri even tells us that Tham had to go from house to house
like a peddler to try selling his first published work, Ki
Phawar U Aesop (Aesop’s Fables, 1920), which has become the most
widely read book in Khasi society today. If Tham had to assume
the role of a door-to-door salesman to hawk his first book, what
is it that had made him battle against all odds in order to
complete writing and publish his second in 1925? His second is,
of course, his first collection of poetry, Ki Poetry Khasi or Ka
Duitara Ksiar. Poetry as a norm attracts even fewer takers than
stories and fables. Yet in the face of all these harrowing
afflictions, Tham had not only completed this first volume of
poems but had gone on from there to the even more rigorous
employment of writing his most significant work, Ki Sngi ba Rim
U Hynñiew Trep. What is it that had impelled him to compose this
poem of 181 six-line stanzas?
These queries have been partly answered earlier when hiraeth for
his native tongue and literature has been ascribed as the poet’s
prime mover. But to face down all these traumatic experiences;
to “depart from the familiar world” as he himself had written in
the preface, and drudge on “in good health or in sickness—
amidst the ups and downs of life, amidst scorn and praises;” (P
xi-xii) the poet must have been motivated by a much greater
compulsion than hiraeth for his language and literature.
Of himself and his poetry, the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda,
Under the volcanoes, besides the snow-capped mountains, among
the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean
forest…I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that
silence, to roam, to go singing through the world…. 27
In a way, Neruda’s confession can be used to discover the secret
repertoire of Tham’s strength as a poet. Like Neruda’s poetry,
it is out of an immense love for his land, his people, 28 and
all that they imply, that Tham’s poetry had risen like a
nourishing plant from a literary field that was degenerating
into a dry and fallow patch. This was the implacable compulsion,
which had driven Tham to the calling of a poverty-stricken poet
and eventually, in his people’s estimation, to greatness.
In his book, Warjri also speaks of the “pure and profound
patriotism” of the poet. He notes, “The words of wisdom which
are more often accommodated in his [Tham’s] writings are those
that refer to his land.” (P 71) In fact, Warjri insists that it
was the poet’s patriotic fervour that had spawned many of the
poems in Ka Duitara Ksiar and that had been the seed from which
had sprung the colossal tree of Khasi poetry, Ki Sngi ba Rim U
Hynñiew Trep. One who has gone through the works of Soso Tham
will not hesitate to agree with Warjri, that it was indeed
patriotism, the mother of all hiraeths that had been at the
heart of his most powerful creative impulse. It is an emotion
that reveals itself almost everywhere in his poems, in all its
infinite varieties. It becomes not only the subject matter of
his poetry, but truly its inspiring and sustaining power. It is
this parent hiraeth that had gifted him the courage to embark on
what must have seemed like a mad pursuit to his countrymen, and
Don Quixote-like, “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the
unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow….” 29
1 R. S. Lyngdoh, “ A Review on Ki Sngi Ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep,”
Soso Tham Birth Centenary Celebrations Souvenir 1873-1973, ed.
B. Chedrack Jyrwa (Shillong: Souvenir Committee, 1973) 71.
2 ‘Hynñiew Trep’ literally means ‘Seven Huts,’ but this is a
proper name referring to the ancestors of the seven Khasi
sub-tribes as explained in the lines that follow. The writer
therefore chooses to retain the name as it is.
3 Hughlet Warjri, U Soso Tham bad ki Jingtrei Jong U (Shillong:
Hughlet Warjri, 1980) 5.
4 This term should be taken in the Khasi context since the Khasi
and Jaintia Hills were under British rule and had not become a
part of India till the signing of the Instrument of Accession by
the different Khasi-Jaintia states in 1948. See I. Nongbri, Ka
Histori Ka Ri Hynniewtrep (Shillong: I. Nongbri, 1982) 51.
5 A well-known Assamese writer, S. K. Bhuyan was the
Vice-Chancellor of Gauhati University during Tham’s time. For
more of his comments on Tham see “Modern Khasi Literature,”
Studies in the Literature of Assam (Gauhati: S. K. Bhuyan, 1956)
6 The quotation is from a letter by Reverend Oliver Thomas,
General Secretary of The Foreign Mission of the Presbyterian
Church of Wales, Liverpool (n. d.). See Minnette Sibon Tham, I
Mabah Soso Tham (Shillong: Minnette Sibon Tham, 1990) Appendix
7 The quotation is from R. R. Thomas’s, “Opinion” printed as a
foreword to Ki Sngi ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep, by Soso Tham. xviii.
Prof. Thomas (1888-1959) was the younger brother of the
distinguished statesman and first Khasi Member of Parliament,
Reverend J. J. M. Nichols Roy. After a brilliant career as an
academician, beginning with his lectureship in Philosophy at
Scottish Church’s College, Calcutta (1914-16), he became the
first and only Khasi Principal of Cotton College, Gauhati
(1944-46). See Charles Thomas, “Roy Rowland Thomas, Eminent
Educationist, Scholar and Teacher,” Shillong Centenary
Celebration (Shillong: Celebration Committee, 1976) 69-72.
8 The poem quoted appeared in the Penguin Book of Korean Poetry,
Sam Kim-Jung, ed. and trans., (London: Penguin, 1986) 56.
9 Inaugural address of J. F. Kennedy as President of the USA, 20
January 1961; J. M. and M. J. Cohen, The Penguin Dictionary of
Modern Quotations (London: Penguin Books, 1980) 181.
10 This poem appearing in Ka Duitara Ksiar, P 54-6 should not be
mistaken with the book, Ki Sngi ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep.
11 Welsh word loosely translated as longing for something once
possessed. It is marked by a love-lost-longing or
praise-lament-yearning syndrome in literature.
12 See 3 above. 54.
13 The summary is based on the following:
i. R. S. Lyngdoh, Ka Histori ka Thoh ka Tar: Bynta II (Shillong:
R. S. Lyngdoh, 1983) 131-7.
ii. Hamlet Bareh, A Short History of Khasi Literature (Shillong:
Hamlet Bareh, 1969) 49-72.
iii. H. W. Sten, Khasi Poetry: Origin & Development (New Delhi:
Mittal Publications, 1990) 93-221.
iv. Kitbor W. Nongrum, Ki Nongthohkot Khasi: Bynta I & II (Shillong:
Kitbor W. Nongrum, 1982).
v. Nigel Jenkins, “Thomas Jones and the Lost Book of the Khasis.”
The New Welsh Review 21 (1993): 56-82.
14 See 13 (v) above. 61.
15 John Roberts came to the Khasi Hills in 1871. Many Khasi
scholars feel that the title of “the father of Khasi literature”
belongs more properly to him as his literary contributions far
outweigh that of the other missionaries.”
16 See 13 (i) above. 83-84
17 This was according to R. S. Lyngdoh, writing in “U Pahep
Rabon Sing Kharsuka,” Soso Tham Birth Centenary Celebrations
Souvenir 1873-1973. Details as 1 above. 35.
18 See 13 (i-iv) above.
19 See 3 above. 53. All biographical details from here on are
from this book unless indicated otherwise.
20 Soso Tham, “Ki Symboh Ksiar,” Ki Sngi ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep (Shillong:
Primrose Gatphoh, 1976) 3.
21 Matthew Arnold, “Switzerland: To Marguerite — Continued,” The
Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the
English Language, ed. Francis Turner Palgrave (Calcutta: Oxford
University Press, 1964) 364.
22 As revealed by the poet in the preface. x.
23 ibid. xi.
24 Proper title unknown.
25 Noted writer and leader of Seng Khasi, R. Tokin Rymbai was a
student of Soso Tham.
26 Quoted by F. M. Pugh in his Ka Jingiarap ia ki Kot B. A.
Khasi: Bynta III (Shillong; F. M. Pugh, 1970) iv. See also 5
27 Pablo Neruda, Memoirs, trans. Hardie St. Martin (Middlesex,
UK: Penguin Books, 1984) 5.
28 As stated earlier this ‘love’ must be taken in the Khasi
29 From Joe Darion’s song, “The Impossible Dream,” as sung in
Man of La Mancha, a television play by Dale Wasserman, based on
Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s Don Quixote de La Mancha.
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