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Poetry and the Northeast: Foraging for a destiny

'Myth, landscape and nature, the particular predicament of people here and tribal folklore provide the core subject matter.'

REGRETTABLY, any mention of the Northeast to the average Hindustani brings visions of insurgencies, tribal feuds, Izak Swu and Khaplang, the Moreh-Imphal drug route et al. That there is some very fine poetry also being written here would astonish most. Two fine books have appeared — an anthology of Northeast poetry edited by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin S. Ngangom and a single volume River Poems by Mamang Dai, one of the finest poets from the east.

All the seven states are adequately represented in the anthology. Assamese and Manipuri poems are translated. Otherwise most poets stick to English. Myth, landscape and nature, the particular predicament of people here and tribal folklore provide the core subject matter. The book couldn't have had a better start than with the poems of Mamang Dai and Yumlam Tana from Arunachal Pradesh. Mrs. Dai talks of "the wind/ like a long echo/ snapping the flight/ of the river beetle"; and practising the craft of "leaving imprints on sky walls" and "coding the trailing mist/ in silent messages." In her poem "The Balm of Time" she, like the true animist that she is, asserts, "Yes I believe in gods, in the forest faith/ of good and evil/ spirits of the river/ and the dream world/ of the dawn."

Uneven translation

Yumlam Tana, a schoolteacher says sarcastically, "I write in English/ which is not my language/ You see I am a Nyishi/ A tribal claiming to be a man!" Then comes the expansive gesture (typically oriental) "I am all humanity/ With no geographical boundary." And he has a fine allegorical poem on man and tiger, both brothers.

One gets a feel of Assam in Nilim Kumar's poems; "families of bamboo" round an anthill, a little girl dressed "in the colour of sorrow" going to her mother's funeral. The later Assamese poems are uneven or done in by translations. Jiban Narah gives us a poem of unreal metaphors: "Even when the night is distraught in sleep". Can you be asleep if distraught? In another poem of his, one comes across the line "and duck your tears deeper in the pillow." There are grammatical errors in his translated poem "Rhythm". Nilmani Phookan redeems the section: "When you reach out/ the plantain leaf trembles/ When you let fall your hair/ The rains descend." But he talks of a "sighing hand". Hands don't sigh, Mr. Phookan.

Strong voices

Meghalaya has the strongest poets, with the two editors, fine poets both, leading the charge. "You are welcome to this century of flat truths" says Tarun Bhartiya (Hindi), and adds "My wife till yesterday has eloped/ With a Punjabi officer." Pijush Dhar has written five telling poems on Pokhran: "The blast blows the desert camels away/ towards a blue horizon/ where they fly with the sandstorm/ in quiet rhapsodies." But one can't possibly review region by region.

Some characteristics stand out — the gun's shadow, suspicion of the paramilitary and of immigrants, loathing for politicians, and treatment of women.

Bloodshed isn't far from their thoughts. Kunjarini Chanu of Manipur talks of all doors being locked, but when hunters "carrying poison arrows" stand in front of you, all the doors get unlocked. Robin Ngangom (Meghalaya) writes in "Native Land": "First came the scream of the dying/ in a bad dream, then the radio report,/ and a newspaper: six shot dead, twenty five/ houses razed, sixteen beheaded with hands tied / behind their backs inside a church." The poem ends with the despairing lines that "when the butchers were absolved" he, the poet, still lived on "as if nothing happened."

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, who writes in Khasi, talks about "alien policemen,/ their eyes longing/ to eat us up." He also has a telling poem on the Prime Minister's visit to Shillong. "When Prime Minister Gujral/ planned a visit to the city/ bamboos sprang up from pavements/ like a welcoming committee." But he came with strident sirens, "like warnings in war-time bombings", "homing like a missile" and left like a defused bomb, for nothing happened to scam-stained ministers.

Desmond Kharmawphlang has a disquieting poem "The Conquest", indicative of local distrust of the plainsman. For, after the British (who came with "bullets, blood-money and religion") left, there was peace, but then "came those from the sweltering plains."

Strong gender consciousness

There are strong gender-related poems here. The Mizo poet H. Ramdinthari talks of "the yellow scars on our foreheads", referring to the rope burns caused by carrying basket-loads, the rope circling the forehead. All the Naga poets in the volume are women. Monalisa Changkija has a memorable snub for the male: "Don't waste your time/ laying down your diktats... how to conduct my life./ For you do not know/ beyond the AK-47/ and so you survive/ prosper in darkness/ But I am more than a machine... "

Old world poetry

Mamang Dai was an IAS Officer, who resigned almost as soon as she got in, preferring writing as a career. She has written a beautiful coffee table book on Arunachal Pradesh. River Poems contains poetry which one can only describe as old world, neo romantic in essence — "a race of fireflies bargaining with the night." That's what her poems are, engaging with landscape and nature, through a half-animist, half-pantheistic outlook. "I know where memory hides/ in the long body of the mountain." "The river has a soul," she says, "it knows the immortality of water." She has a fine turn of phrase: "when lightning strikes, we'll dance again/ wearing our skirt of rain."

Mamang's love poems almost always end on a sad note, indicating perhaps she hasn't been too lucky in love. But the Northeast is a cauldron of politico-ethnic conflicts. One hardly gets a hint of all this except in the poem "Remembrance", where she talks of people from the region as "foragers for a destiny", and of "weapons multiplying in the forest." It is hoped such poems also multiply in her next book.

Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast, edited by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin Ngangom, Nehu Publishing. Shillong, paperback, p.270, Rs. 230.

River Poems, Mamang Dai, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, p.82, hardback, Rs. 150.


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