U Soso Tham – born in 1873 in Sohra, or Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya, was a Khasi poet. He was the first poet to initiate secular literature with diction, both singular and genuine. He was also the first person to make use of Khasi idioms in a form taken mainly from English poetry. U Soso Tham is basically remembered for his beautiful poems. His “Ka Duitara Kshiar” (The Golden Harp, 1925) – a compilation of poems, is one of the most distinguished works.

U Soso Tham was born to a very poor family. He was the third and only son in a family of four children. His father was Hat Tongper and mother, Lyngkien Tham, was said to be a very pious woman. Due to acute poverty after his father’s death he had to discontinue his studies after eighth standard. Despite his little formal education he rose up to a level of a high school teacher and excelled in his teaching career.

Soso Tham has got 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. His another creation “Ki Sngi Ba Rim U Hynniew Trep” (The Olden Days of U Hynniew Trep) (1936) is a bright star in the Indian literary sky. This is a single long poem having 181 stanzas of six lines divided into 10 sections, each under a separate heading bearing unique names. The poem is about the Hynniew Trep people, ancestors of the seven Khasi sub-tribes comprising, the Khynriams in East Khasi Hills, the Pnars in Jaintia 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 lost and not recoverable.

Soso Tham was a man of enthusiasm and spirit. He was a revered figure for many who were in touch with him either as students or as admirers. He had always been against of the so called English living style and culture what many Khasis adopted and considered a status symbol. He wrote, “British had enmeshed us completely with their wiles and guiles when they succeeded to make us sing ‘God save the king’ with heads held high when we should have hung them low, had dug the grave of our culture when they had been able to make us look down upon it to ape their self which had stunted our intellectual growth and warped our natural outlook on life”. He considered the foreign going Khasis as unwanted who pretend to have forgotten the motherland and own culture. He expressed the same feeling through his poems,
“There’s such a one!
Near him don’t go,
With him to eat and drink is owed!
In towns and cities let him be outlaw’d,
His bag and baggage, he all be fraught.”

So So Tham was a natural poet. One can see spontaneity in his poems just like the clean fountains of the hills of Meghalaya. He was an exponent in the field of literature and poetry. But he expressed his inborn simplicity by saying, “I know nothing about the art of poetry. Foot, meter, rhyme, rhythm, idea – these are just like the scattered bones of dead cows. Nobody taught me how to create Khasi poetry and literature.”

Soso Tham’s life was not easy. He 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. In his personal life So So Tham received injustice and hatred. Some intellectuals even ignored him and his creations, considering him a half-learnt mad teacher. They did not assist him in bringing out his creations into light. Only an illiterate fan of him assisted him with financially to bring out his first book of poetry “Ka Duitara Kshiar”.

He worked as a teacher of Khasi in Shillong Government High School, Mawkhar (the only high school in the Hills in those days) from October 12, 1905 to July 30, 1931. He took his last breath on December 18, 1940 and not only Meghalaya or the then Assam, but the whole Indian literary world lost him forever. So So Tham will always remain as the greatest literary icon in the history of literature of Meghalaya.

Dr. S. K. Bhuyan, the prominent historian of Assam, 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.

Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, a prominent Assamese musician and film director says, “Even though in the 19th century Khasi writers Rev. Morkha Joseph Khain, S.M. Amjad Ali and Dr. John Roberts advanced the Khasi literature to a great extent, but nobody touched the boundary of epic poetry till the arrival of U Soso Tham. 1930 to 1970 can be seen as the golden era of modern Khasi literature when the writers and poets like Radhansingh Berry, So So Tham, D. Wahlang, Rev. Elias, B. Ankew, Primrose Gedfo, Victor Bareh, F.M. Piu, D.H. Khongdup, H.J. Dancan, O.M. Wahlang, B.B. Jiura, B.R. Kharlukhi and many others placed Khasi literature on a high altar. Khasi, no doubt, is the ripest among all the Mon-Khmer languistic groups.”

Professor Radhan Singh Lyngdoh of Meghalaya says , “The name of So So Tham rests on the highest pinnacle among the literary towers.”

Lastly I would like to say to the tune of Wahlang, “Erase out U So So Tham or belittling this superman in Khasi literature, then the Khasis are left without the reminiscence”.

by -
Dr.)Ankur Deka
M.Mus., M.B.B.S.(AM), M.Phil.(Music Therapy)
Email: ankur@musician.org