OUR METHUSELAH, KOKA1 PHUKAN
(from Essentially Speaking: Biographical Snapshots, a collection of selected biographical essays by Munin Barkotoki, translated to English. Edited by Meenaxi Barkotoki and Stuti Goswami, Gauhati University Press, 2015)
Nilamani Phukan (1880-1978), popularly known as ‘Bagmibor’, meaning an eloquent speaker, was a poet, freedom fighter and politician. His publications include Jyotikona (1938), Chintamani (1942), Gutimali (1950), Jinjiri (1951), and Mahapurushia Dharma, Omitra (1952). He played a pivotal role in establishing George’s Institution in Dibrugarh and was its founder Headmaster. Later on it was renamed Bagmibor Nilmani Phukan Higher Secondary School. He was one of the editors of Alochani and, later on, the chief editor of the first Assamese daily, Dainik Batori. According to Deepali Barua in Urban History of India: A Case Study (1994), though Sadananda Dowerah was the first editor of the Asamiya Phukan handled editorial duties to a great extent. He was the President of the Asom Sahitya Sabha at its Sibsagar and Dibrugarh sessions in 1944 and 1947 respectively. This essay taken from Bismrita Byatikram is translated from the Assamese original ‘Amar Methuselah Koka Phukan’ by Stuti Goswami.
One of the greatest playwrights of the world George Bernard Shaw—a man who lived a long life, who was vegetarian and worldly and yet an ascetic, a vibrant personality, one kind of a sage of our times has, whether on the strength of his philosophical, imaginative, mysterious life-force or the so-called élan vital2 or else some astonishing medicine, sought to show today’s short life-spanned people—the path to a long life like that of the Biblical Methuselah, and give them the requisite ‘know-how’. ‘Back to Methuselah.’ It is said that in the Bible, Noah’s grandfather Methuselah had had an astonishing life-span of a nine hundred and sixty-nine years.
Evergreen and a symbol of eternal youth Shri Nilamani Phukan—regarded as the universal grandfather of all our children, youth, even those who age prematurely due to the tarnishes of the Kali Yug3—has entered his ninety-fifth year. Of course, there is a great divide between ninety-five and nine hundred and sixty-nine. And yet, probably because my attention is focused on the ‘nine’ in both cases, I am reminded of the fabled Methuselah that Shaw, himself as evergreen and youthful as Phukan, was reminded of. It is only in fairytales that one is fortunate to live up to a thousand years. And yet one need not be a thousand years old too—in this world besieged and half-deadened by horrors of all kinds, it is a curse to wish even ones worst enemies to remain alive a thousand years. May our dear Koka Phukan live up to a hundred years, may he live even beyond that, may a day like this day come once again. It is my sincere wish that Nilamani Phukan, our Koka Phukan, becomes our Methuselah.
Bernard Shaw had said—‘You should live so that when you die God is in your debt.’ With an illustrious, profound and dynamic life traversing more than ‘four score years and ten’4 of the Bible, I wonder if there is anyone else among us who has been able to realize this Shavian philosophy as well as Koka Phukan has. He has repaid, with interest, the debt of each moment of this long life that the Almighty has bestowed upon him. I have seen him and known him since the time I was a youth; from close and far and it is my belief that Nilamani Phukan epitomizes a rare harmony of work and thought, pursuit of beauty and indefatigable passion for work.
Almost four decades ago, when the eminent educationist, founder of George Institution,5 resident of Dibrugarh and the Phukan of Upper Assam, Nilamani assumed responsibility of the chief editor-journalist of the first Assamese daily newspaper Dainik Batori, thereby appearing on the public sphere in Jorhat in a different role, the figure from that period had an altogether different image from the man as we know today. At that time, I didn’t know truth from falsity, but had heard and therefore nurtured the thought that the member of the Legislative Council (Phukan was probably an M.L.C.)6, educationist Nilamani Phukan was an Assamese gentleman devoted to the Western ways of life, a follower of the middle path, an epitome of etiquette and sobriety. I had read about his speeches, heard about his matchless oratorical prowess, and learnt that he was a magnanimous personality, free-spirited, and a worthy inheritor to the legacy of the great Maniram Dewan..
At that time, it was natural for our young impressionable minds to draw comparisons between this Phukan from Upper Assam and the other eminent Phukan from Lower Assam. Though my subconscious mind derived satisfaction that we too had a Phukan in Upper Assam who could stand up to Tarunram Phukan, the Phukan from Lower Assam; yet the conscious mind refused to place Nilamani Phukan on the same pedestal as the other Phukan, in spite of the fact that Nilamani Phukan was as independent minded, as splendid-looking, as good an orator, and as devoted to his motherland. Particularly in the light of the widely circulated notion, whether right or wrong, that Nilamani Phukan was on intimate terms with our then colonial masters, there was a sense of hesitation in us while drawing such comparisons. Also, whatever we heard about the difference between the oratorical skills of the two Phukans was a little inclined against Nilamani Phukan.
However, when I finally had the opportunity of meeting Nilamani Phukan as the editor of Batori at Thengalbari, later on the famous Raibahadur bungalow of Jorhat7, many of my prior notions were forced to undergo change. There were, I discovered, so many differences between the man of my presumptions and the man as he was in reality; and this unraveled a new facet of his personality before my eyes.
When an erstwhile educationist surfaced as a foremost journalist of Assam, we were both surprised and amazed at this new aspect of Nilamani Phukan’s personality. Of course, much before this, he had been the editor of the famous newspaper Alochani. But was he a journalist in the real sense? When viewed from today’s perspective, he too would probably agree, with a smile, that he wasn’t a journalist per se, but had to become one. He hadn’t assumed responsibility of the Dainik Batori to become a journalist; nor did he possibly nurture aspirations of being the Motilal Ghosh or C.Y. Chintamani of Assam. Rather, he had jumped into this field because he had found in journalism an effective medium for disseminating the ideas of Assamese nationalism and the ideals of Assamese philosophy that he felt strongly about. At that time, another Phookan worked as Phukan’s associate—Lakshminath Phookan—who was a journalist right from the inception of Dainik Batori. The very fact that he remained faithful to journalism till the end and Koka Nilamani, despite taking up editorial responsibilities with a missionary zeal, became disillusioned soon after, in my opinion, aptly exemplifies my contention. However, like the streak of lightning that illuminates the world, Nilamani Phukan opened a new vista in Assamese journalism in the early twentieth century and that immortalizes him in this field. Of course, journalism is just one marginal facet of his personality.
The daily Batori died an early death and with it, curtains were drawn on Koka Phukan’s journey as a ‘pure’ journalist8—this, of course happened a long time ago. However, a part of Phukan the journalist continued to live: though he bade adieu to news journalism, Koka Phukan tried his hand at literary journalism—something he had engaged in prior to his days at Batori. And so a monthly newspaper Na-Joon (literally ‘The New Moon’) emerged from Jorhat. One cannot assuredly say whether Na-Joon contributed anything seminal towards Assamese literature during its brief existence, but I shall always remember it with immense gratitude because through this monthly, for the first time, we the younger generations came to know the real Nilamani Phukan, the man as we remember him till date; and also because he inspired, encouraged and filled with hope, the emerging generations in their ‘adventure’ of foraying into a new sphere in contemporary Assamese literature. Nilamani Phukan, the eternal youth and the man with a vision to the future, welcomed us newcomers, struggling to find our ways in the dark, with open arms and by giving us an opportunity to express our thoughts and beliefs, lent confidence and recognition to an entire generation of new writers.
The memory is still fresh of how we, rank newcomers would approach Koka Phukan, with his voice akin to the sound of two mikes booming across the open space in front of the dharamshala-like Phukan Bhawan at Jorhat, with fear in our hearts and our writings in hand; and how he would make us patiently listen to the aphorism-like poems, prose poems he’d compose and read aloud seated in his courtyard; and how in turn he too with infinite patience would go through our writings, and rectify and improve them. The remembrance of Koka’s fiery words in those discussions in his verandah, along with the inevitable rounds of tea, fills me with delight even today. Even today it surprises me how, detached from the outside world, seated in that open space in front of his large house behind Chowk Bazar in Jorhat, Nilamani Phukan would frame ideas of profound Romantic poems to political booklets, and how he could manage his poetic exercises along with pamphleteering activities. If Carlyle was the seer of Chelsea, I think Phukan was the seer of Jorhat.
It is true not only in our country but in the whole world that there is barely any divide between journalism and politics. And therefore it was not surprising when the man who had thrust his head into politics, and had become an editor in between, increasingly turned towards politics and oratory. What was surprising, however, was that at around the same time, Bagmibor Phukan also appeared as a bright star in the Assamese literary firmament. The radiance of Jyotikona revealed before us a new Phukan, a man who belonged to an entirely different world, far removed from the man of politics and public life. Gradually, this Phukan became the President of Asom Sahitya Sabha and the lone Assamese Fellow at the Sahitya Akademi—and thereby leaving a political past behind him, he established himself as the national laureate of Assam.
Do we discern any sign of, what psychologists nowadays commonly term, ‘schizophrenia’ in Koka Phukan’s personality and in his mental evolution? From the very beginning of his ‘conscious’9 life till the present day, the kind of simultaneous evolution and brilliance he has displayed in active politics as well as in the fine arts is a unique and thrilling exception in Phukan and also in the front-ranking figures of our society. There are many eminent persons engaged in politics, poetry, or in ‘creating literature’ in our country, and in our state too. But it is hard to find another instance where two such divergent streams of life have simultaneously flown with such power and vitality. We have instances where a talented poet-writer, despite immense potentiality, has struggled to stay afloat in the whirlpool of politics, dousing his poetic talent or literary expertise in certain drawing-room soirees; or else a writer who, in the process of crossing the boundaries of literature and seeking the ‘loaves and fishes’10 of power politics, has ended up losing his hold over both domains. Phukan is probably our only active politician whose political activities haven’t rung the death knell of his literary exercises; an artist-poet-thinker who despite entering the literary field in the sunset of his life has established himself on the highest seat in the hallowed precincts of literature at the national level—bringing honour of the highest kind to Assamese literature.
Just as Phukan’s ‘translation’ or evolution from the comparatively secondary level of politics to the highest echelons of literature is amazing, equally intriguing is his easy movement from one position to another in the limited world of politics. In the earlier phase of his political life, Nilamani Phukan was a spokesperson and a guiding beacon of the movement for establishing Assamese distinctiveness and Assamese self-assertion. The kind of politics he advocated and the kind of political whirlwind he had stirred across the length and breadth of Assam with his ‘Sangrakhyini’11 at one point of time, leading the likes of late Ambikagiri, Gyan Borah, Madhav Bezbaroa and others in the endeavour of establishing ‘Assameseness’ against the diluted so-called national politics of the Indian National Congress, would seem outdated today, in this age of ideological clashes devoid of intellectual-stimulation. But the eternal youth Nilamani Phukan did not hesitate to march in step with time and forge new alliances. This virtue of flexibility enabled the erstwhile Congress-hating Phukan to voluntarily come forward to the party, and with his extraordinary oratorical prowess and earnestness, he took a front seat in the country’s national movement, accepting sorrow and offering valuable contribution towards politics.
1. Koka means grandfather in Assamese. Here, the term ‘Koka’ has been retained because ‘grandfather’ or ‘grandpa’ does not seem to convey what ‘Koka’ does in the context of Nilamani Phukan. In fact Nilamani Phukan is popularly known as Koka Phukan in Assam, so much so that the form of address has virtually become synonymous with the man himself.
2. Élan vital is a term coined by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in his book Creative Evolution (1907) to imply the creative force (in Bergsonian philosophy) in organisms that is responsible for its growth, evolution and adaptation.
3. Kali Yug or Kalyug is the last of the four yug or eras that succeed one another in a cyclic manner in Hindu belief. Kali Yug is said to be the era when vice asserts itself. The age is named after Kali, a demon and enemy of Kalki, the tenth incarnation of God Vishnu.
4. 'Four score years and ten’ refers to Psalm 90: 10 of the Bible
5. On 2 February 1912, the foundation stone of this institution was laid. It was named in honour of King George V who had paid a royal visit to India in December 1911.
6. Member of Legislative Council
7. Thengalbari is Thengal Bhawan, the residence of tea planter and philanthropist Siva Prasad Barooah in Jorhat. It was built in 1880. In 1937, he was awarded with the title of Raibahadur by the British government and thereafter his bungalow began to be known as Raibahadur bungalow.
8. By ‘pure’ journalism, Barkotoki possibly refers to news journalism.
9. By conscious life, Barkotoki probably means the time from which Phukan had moved out of infancy.
10. ‘loaves and fishes’ is an allusion to ‘Feeding the multitude’, a combined term that refers to the two miracles of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels; the first being ‘The Feeding of the 5,000’ with five loaves of bread and two fishes while the second is ‘The Feeding of the 4,000’ with seven loaves of bread and fish. As an idiom, ‘loaves and fishes’ means material wealth.
11. In 1926, Nilamani Phukan, along with Ambikagiri Raichowdhury, Gyannath Bora among others formed the Asomiya Sangrakhyini Sabha or Society for the Preservation of the Assamese. This organization in its memorandum submitted to Nehru in 1937, the Sabha argued that since Assamese nationality was facing grave threat and danger, separation from the Indian Union was the only alternative if the rest of India did not look into the concerns of the people of Assam.