The 18th of December is a memorable milestone in the history of the Khasi literature. This date marks the death anniversary of U Babu Soso Tham, the most illustrious literary son of the soil and the undeclared poet laureate of the Khasis. He was a thinker and visionary who placed Khasi poetry on the rails together with world poetry, which remains the cherished legacy that he left behind for the Khasi generations to come - a poetry of their own and a guiding vision for their future missions.
A Little About U Soso Tham and his Times
U Soso Tham was born in 1873 in Saitsohpen, Sohra, when U Hajon Manik was the Syiem (Chief). His was a humble and pious family who had converted to Christianity. From the little that we know, his mother’s name was Ka Lingkien Tham and his father was U Hat Tongper from Sohkha. U Soso was the third, and the only boy, among four siblings. Their childhood was a happy one which must have shaped U Soso Tham’s character to reach the stature he did.
In the early 1800s the colonial British Indian government, in its foray to establish the new province of Assam to the north of Bengal, forged a path up the Khasi and Jaintia hills and made Sohra the provincial headquarters from 1829 until the capital was shifted to Shillong in 1874. The Britishers brought plainsmen from Bengal to man their offices and, hitherto, the official Khasi language was transcribed in the Bengali script.
Then in 1840, Welsh Presbyterian missionary Thomas Jones determined to bring literacy to the scriptless Khasi people and introduced the Roman script into the Khasi language. The foremost aim of Reverend Thomas Jones was, of course, to render the message of the Christian gospel into the Khasi tongue. From then on, the Khasi language took shape in black and white, giving rise to the rich literary culture it has grown to be today.
The government established schools but education was expensive and out of reach for the majority of the local populace. Only a few had the good fortune to get into schoolrooms and learn their reading, writing, and arithmetic. U Soso Tham was among the fortunate ones but even he had to leave school after class VIII when his father passed away and the family could no longer afford to pay for his education.
His Early Years and His Vision
He started working as a schoolteacher in small village schools in many places including Shangpung, the place he loved most but could never return too. He also worked as a muktiar, or court writer, in Jowai. After many jobs, he finally got appointed as a Khasi language teacher in the government high school, Shillong in 1905 and worked there from October 1905 till his retirement in July 1931. He performed duties as teacher, examiner and hostel superintendent. Whatever he did, he excelled.
Education, U Soso Tham felt, opened avenues to better opportunities but, at the same time, it brought contact with another world, an unsightly one. Although learning gave learners clear advantage, the ugly side effect was the erosion of the pure traditional values of the Khasi social order.
Visionary that he was, U Soso Tham saw, even in those early times, the rot that was seeping into the pristine Khasi society. He lamented the decadent culture that was slowly replacing the pure lineage of the mynbarim – the ancestors. The Creator, he felt, has put the Khasi clans into this world to earn righteousnesss or 'ban kamai ia ka hok'. However, the new-found provincial status of the Khasi nation that brought about the ingress of modern learning and a new religion became both boon and bane. The inpouring of a populace from outside the province meant easy and inevitable intermix of cultures and mores that diluted the ancient traditions and, in some instances, even effacing them forever.
U Soso Tham envisioned this disturbing scenario eighty decades ago. But he wasn't one to only stand by and watch and lament. Instead, he took up his pen and called out to his fellow Khasi countrymen and women through his poems and songs, urging them to keep awake, stay alert and to arise.
The poet was fiercely proud of his Khasi identity and critical, though subtly and gently, of those who thoughtlessly follow other mores, devaluing their own rich heritage. In the quest for knowledge, the modern Khasi has thrown away the indigenous wisdom of the longshwa and adopted imported learning that often stood at variance with innate values. Listen to his gentle chiding:
Jingshai ngi wad sawdong pyrthei,
(Around the world we search for light)
Jingshai ka Ri ngim tip ei ei.
(The light of our land we set aside.)
U Myllung ka Ri,- the nation's poet - as U Soso Tham is lovingly called, understood that poetry transcends history and that poems could withstand the onslaught of time. So his prolific pen wrote to arouse, to warn, to teach and to entertain.
He became at once teacher and conscience keeper, a pathfinder poet of singular integrity that others can emulate. Thus, posterity now hails him as the first Khasi poet while the legendary Assamese writer, poet, and historian, Rai Bahadur Surya Kumar Bhuyan once called him the Robert Burns of the Khasi Hills.
Down the last eighty decades or so since U Soso Tham wrote, in 1925, his magnum opus, Ki Sngi Barim U Hynniewtrep – The Ancient Days of The Seven Huts, a work that wielded phenomenal and immense influence upon the future of Khasi literature. This work is truly the standard, the torchbearer, of every other future work in the Khasi language. Thus, in Soso Tham, the Khasis have got their own, though unsung, poet laureate. Although he was not well educated, the richness of his mind ranks among the brightest literary stars.
Depth in Rhythm, Rhyme, and Metre
U Soso Tham's poems almost always have that inimitable anapaestic tetrametre ring in them that's heavenly music for the ears:
Te ki sngi/ ba la leit noh,/ki shlei/ bad ki shlei
(Thus the days that are gone flow over and over)
Ngam tip/ia ka jingsdang/kin kut/ruh haei
(I know not whence they start and where do they end)
Tang kawei/nga tip,/ ba bunsien/nga kwah
(Only this do I know that many a time do I yearn)
Sa shisien/sa shisien/ban long/ u khynnah
(Once more, once more to be a lad yet again)
For one who could not afford to complete even basic education, he brought out a body of poetical work that reflected his deep feelings – imprints of his deep love and care for the land of his birth and the moral values the longshwa – the forbears – have established. He lamented, even at that time, the erosion of these values, invaded as they were by imported philosophies. The changing times, the modernization, the influx of foreigners from the plains and elsewhere brought integral changes into society, spelling nothing but disaster and eventual death of pristine Khasi culture.
His poems were calls to an awakening of the jaitbynriew Khasi – the Khasi nation – to watch out less we are swamped by these foreign elements. It has happened now, unfortunately, as U Soso Tham had foreseen and forewarned. The wider tapestry of diverse identities has taken precedence over the exclusive identity of the Khasi nation.
And so U Soso Tham toiled. His works include translations of the works of William Wordsworth. It is said that he had translated several works of Shakespeare too, including The Tempest which he renamed U Kyllang. Unfortunately, those works were lost. During his lifetime he was not as acknowledged and he could not taste the fruits of his labour. His was a life of struggle and hardship and he lived from moment to moment to make ends meet. Even as he first lost his wife and then his only daughter, the twin tragedies shattered his body but never his spirit.
Money and fame eluded U Soso Tham during his lifetime. He lived in a rented house all his life, having no means to buy his own. His health was ever poor too but his intellect is beyond ordinary and his disposition ever helpful, there are lessons and more to be learnt from U Soso Tham.
Finally, on 18th December 1940, he breathed his last. Even at his funeral in the Anglican cemetery there few attendees. No photograph of him was found initially. By chance, a snap where he also featured in a suit and tie was found in a wedding photograph of his niece. As U Soso Tham always wore a turban in the Khasi tradition, they had to transpose his picture upon that of the U Syiem Jormanik wearing a turban!
But U Soso Tham must have had a prescience of things to come for he wrote:
Jar-jar hapoh ki dieng ha khlaw
(Quiet 'neath the forest woods)
U san hapdeng ki niut;
(Among the weeds he thrived;)
U syntiew pher, u tiew dohmaw
(A unique bloom, the dohmaw flower)
Laiphew na ar jingmut.
(Of high and lofty mood.)
Like the unique dohmaw flower, U Soso Tham led a quiet life, unseen and unrecognised until death claimed him. But after the flower had wilted under the grass, the fragrance exuded like the fern's flower, spreading happiness all around:
Jar-jar harud ki wah batngen
(Soft by the bracing rivulets)
Ban iwbih ynda stai
(To spread fragrance when it's wilted)
U tiew tyrkhang ba ai jingim
(The fern's flower, the joy-giver)
U jyrngam khat-ar bnai
(Stays green twelve moons forever)
Recognition at Last
It wasn't until January 1975 that visible recognition took place and a bust in honour of the Khasis’ first poet stands installed before the entrance to the State Central Library, Shillong. The library auditorium was also renamed the Soso Tham Auditorium.
Of course, the poet U Soso Tham, humble in life and humble in death, is now the most celebrated bard of the Khasis. Besides Ki Sngi Barim U Hynniew Trep (The Ancient Days of The Seven Huts), his other famous works are Ka Duitara Ksiar Ne Ki Poitri Khasi (The Golden Dotara or Khasi Poems), a translation work of Aesop’s Fables, Ki Phawar U Aesop and Charles Dicken’s The Life of Our Lord, Ka Jingim U Trai Jongngi. He remains the inspiration for many aspiring poets and more so, he also inspires every true Khasi son and daughter to be mindful of their heritage, to enrich and preserve it.
The body of work U Soso Tham left gently reminds us never to forget the ancient days of our ancestors who lived in harmony with righteousness and honour, in tandem with Ka Mei Ramew, Mother Earth. The roots are important because without history there is no future.
And when you pass the library, at the point where the highway forks, carved in stone you can read the words he envisioned long ago that continues to stir his countrymen to action:
Sa shisien pat kin win ki khlaw
(Once more will woods clamour)
Sa shisien pat kin khih ki maw
(Once more will the stones stir.)