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The Lexicographer in Lower Assam

By Sumana Roy

There is a dictionary of light, the age-bent man tells me.
The shadows of his fingers are licking the wall.
He’s abandoned them. Once they kidnapped his mind.
‘Meaning must have a permanent shape;
You can’t trust shadows.’
I ask him about the Kamtapuri dictionary he’s compiled.
He looks at my shadow and begins speaking to it.
Meaning is always elsewhere.
I look to my left, and then behind, where my shadow is relaxing.

Because language must be like wine – old, aged, ancient –
he brings out the birth certificate of his mother tongue.
Kamtapuri, sixteenth century, language, conqueror –
the words acquire girth in the dimly lit room.
A kerosene lamp burns. That light’s pension is richer
than the man and his language. And mine.

I don’t need an interpreter,
I say to the man who’s brought me here.
Our shadows stand in a queue
like I imagine meanings do in a dictionary.

A sharp wind bursts into the room.
We sneeze, the man and I, and then the light.
Betel nuts and betel leaves arrive for guests.
Relationships must begin from the mouth.

Dictionaries are fat books, heavy to lift to the eye.
How could its compiler be so thin?
‘I have put my entire life here,’ he says.
My mind is diuretic –
Where is the subjectivity in dictionaries?
‘Everyone should know at least two languages,’ he says.
I grow nervous. I’m scared of meeting meaning half way.

‘Light,’ he says, pointing to the lamp, the wick eating itself,
and then stands in front of it, ‘Darkness’.
Meaning must come from comparison, he demonstrates.

The first volume is out already, the third is in his almirah.
It’s the second that is lost, he says. I look away from the tears.
That publisher has stolen it, he concludes.
Curses about darkness follow. I adjust my spine.
But light is both host and guest. I am too tired to debate.
What could a stolen dictionary mean?

We are a friendly people, he affirms. His shadow touches mine.
His grandson opens a black umbrella in front of the lamp.
A schoolgirl is learning her lessons:
‘Sunlight comes to Assam before the rest of India …’

‘Is a dictionary a natural thing?’ I ask.
Exhaustion’s given my voice a late accent.
He stands up. Anger’s a new immigrant in his voice.
‘A dictionary is the most hospitable place in the world.
Where else would the foreign find such accommodation?’

When I get up from my wicker chair to leave,
the hoarder of words turns me into a policeman –
‘Please help me to find my stolen dictionary’.

At the gate, he adjusts the hair on my forehead.
‘In a dictionary nothing can be out of place.’

Photo: North by Sumana Roy

Sumana Roy‘s first book, How I Became a Tree, a work of non-fiction, was published in India in February. Her poems and essays have appeared in Granta, Guernica, LARB, Drunken Boat, the Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She lives in Siliguri in India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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