Pioneer Poet Laureate

Meghalaya is observing U Soso Tham Day to mark the 81st death anniversary
of the great pioneer poets of the state. But this genius, who battled
extreme poverty, had once been neglected and ridiculed in his own
motherland.

Many of U Soso Tham’s valuable writings are lost or untraceable today.
These could not be preserved in printed form due to a financial crunch. It
is an irreparable loss for the literary world.

Soso Tham expressed his tragic frustration in many of his poems that touch
every heart today. One such poem is:

*‘Quietly he lives, quietly he dies,*

*Amidst the wilderness*

*Quietly in the grave let him rest,*

*Beneath the soft green grass’…*

Soso Tham was a poet and philosopher of the mid-nineteenth century when
formal education did not reach the villages of the Khasi Hills. The
villagers took his spontaneous poetic expression as madness. His friends
and elders could not fathom the depth of his extraordinary thinking that
yielded beautifully stringed words.

Soso Tham was born in 1873 in the village of Nongsawlin in present-day
Sohra. His father, Hat Tongper and mother Lyngklin Tham were very poor but
pious. Since childhood, he had to struggle against poverty mainly because
of his father’s premature death. There was no scope for the education of
the village children in the backward hilly places of United Khasi & Jaintia
Hills; but his parents tried their best to give education to their son.
Young Soso had to go to Sylhet for education, crossing the hills on foot.
He studied up to class 8 but had to stop due to his father’s death
(Reference: A talk on U Soso Tham by Ba Tarani, Sohbar Punji on November
16, 1984).

Soso Tham was a self-made poet; his birth in an underprivileged family did
not give him access to literature. He ignored the ridicule and taunt of his
peers and pursued what he believed in. The beauty of nature would attract him
so much that when sent to collect firewood for domestic use, he would
sit under the trees and enjoy the surroundings, completely forgetting all
his responsibilities. In the evening, he would return home empty-handed and
would be scolded as the most worthless creature in the world. Nobody could
imagine then that the “worthless creature” would one day become one of
Meghalaya’s and India’s greats.

Soso Tham was highly influenced by the English lyrics he studied in school.
He pioneered in making use of Khasi idioms in his poems, mainly taken from
English. Sometimes he uttered his self-composed poems while speaking to
others.

In course of time, some educated people recognised his philosophical and
exceptional intellectual thinking and by dint of their sincere effort, he
was appointed as a Khasi (language) teacher in the Shillong Government High
School, Mawkhar on October 12, 1905. He served there till July 30, 1931. He
had to retire at the age of 58 years according to erstwhile government
service rule. He was often regarded a half-mad teacher because sometimes he
would mutter his philosophical thoughts that were beyond the comprehension
of his students. He was called a ‘lunatic teacher’.

Book-based education was secondary to Soso Tham. His philosophical thoughts
and ideas were far above his academic education and beyond the
understanding of the people then. Braving all pangs, he started composing
poems and in 1925, despite a financial crisis, published his first book ‘Ka
Duitara Ksiar’ (The Golden Harp) comprising 46 Khasi poems and 14
translations from English poems. Unfortunately, nobody appreciated his
noble venture. Like an ordinary vendor, he had to go from door to door to
sell his books without much success. Even the literate people of that age
did not give him the respect he rightly deserved.

Recognition came late after the end of his struggling life just like Robert
Burns of Scotland. Soso Tham expired on December 18, 1940, leaving many of
his poetic works unfulfilled. The day is observed today as U Soso Tham Day
throughout the state of Meghalaya.

S.K. Bhuyan, Assam’s renowned historian, called Soso Tham the ‘Robert Burns
of the Khasi Highlands’ (Reference: Studies of the Literature of Assam).
Burns (1759–1796), born to a very poor tenant farmer of Scotland is known
as the pioneer of the romantic movement for his lyrical poetry and
rewriting of Scottish folk songs. He had to swim against the stream
throughout his life to establish himself but remained unrecognised till his
death at the age of 37 years.

Bhupen Hazarika of Assam had lauded Soso Tham as a mystic poet. Praising
the monumental works of the Khasi poet, the Bard of Brahmaputra had said:
“Great people come once to the world to leave their footprints through
their golden creations such as ‘Ka Duitara Ksiar’.”

Radhan Singh Lyngdoh of Meghalaya said, “The name of Soso Tham rests on the
pinnacle among the literary towers.”

Today, U Soso Tham is honoured by the state government and the people of
Meghalaya, but his genius should not be confined to the state only. It is
the duty of all Soso Tham lovers, irrespective of community, to take the
genius to the national and international levels through apt translations in
different languages. That will be the right tribute to the great soul.

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