The 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,-
Laiphew-na-ar jingmut.

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 literature.

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 literature.

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 decision.

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 resistance.

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 Souvenir (1997):
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, had said:
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) N. pag.

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 iv.

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 above.

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 context.

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. Source: http://www.manoflamancha.com/index2.htm

Curtsy to Indian Literature 235 ,
Sahitya Akeademi's Bi- Monthly Journal , New Delhi

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