Served raw: How poetry from north-eastern India captures the trauma of everyday violence

In sparse, clinical language, it asks vexed questions of identity and struggle. 

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

Army officials patrol the violence-hit areas of Imphal in Manipur on June 16, 2023.

Army officials patrol the violence-hit areas of Imphal in Manipur on June 16, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

India’s north-eastern region has a conflicted relationship with the arts, especially poetry, reflecting the militancy and political tensions that have long plagued the region. The poet Robin Ngangom (born 1959), who is from Manipur and is now based in Meghalaya, puts it succinctly: “[T]o be a tenacious witness to the agonising and recurrent political violence without sensationalising it, is also a risk that the Northeast poet has to undertake often.” He adds that “unquestioning ‘nationalism’ in the face of a fear of loss of identity and encroachment of territory and cultural values” is not the topic of poetry here. Rather, it is “a nervous internalisation of the increasingly complex politics of the region”.

As a poet from the north-east, I second Ngangom. For me, poetry is an act of defiance against the violence we face every day: in this conflict, poetry is both a shield and a weapon. As Irom Chanu Sharmila (b. 1972) says in the poem “Victorious Worm”, from her collection Fragrance of Peace:

kanglei, the mirror of my vision

on the new page of history

so written in red ink

in the battle between god and worm

worm has killed god

By internalising the violence of everyday life, poetry from north-eastern India asks difficult questions of identity in a sparse, clinical language. | Video Credit: Presented by Abhinav Chakraborty; Camera & Editing by Samson Ronald K.

Sharmila’s long hunger strike (2000-16) against the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in Manipur was celebrated by the media, but her poems are rarely included in poetry anthologies.

Irom Sharmila writes at Imphal’s J.N. Hospital in 2010. Her room there was declared a sub-jail.

Irom Sharmila writes at Imphal’s J.N. Hospital in 2010. Her room there was declared a sub-jail. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement 

The poet and writer Soibam Haripriya points out in her essay “Irom Sharmila’s Poetry and the Politics of Anthologizing Indian Literature” that Sharmila tends to be seen as an activist or a goddess or an insane woman rather than an artist. But her poetic self is critical to her identity: “To sever her poetic life from the political is a narrative dismemberment that refuses her personhood with all its contradictions,” writes Haripriya.

Sharmila’s poetry is deeply gendered, as is the fight for peace she represents: they embody the great inequality of the battle between “god and worm”. Like the resilient worm, she burrows deep in to lament and protest. Haripriya writes that Sharmila’s direct, conversational style is inseparably connected to the brutality of events such as the Malom massacre of 2000 and other state-sponsored military excesses. When violence becomes a part of quotidian life, poetry cannot be written in flowery sentences.

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The margins of war are filthy and riddled with false narratives. The only way the brutality can be matched is with razor-sharp words and imagination. Thangjam Ibopishak Singh (b. 1948) has a rare weapon against warmongers: caustic humour. In Ngangom’s lucid translation of Ibopishak’s poem “I Want to be Killed by an Indian Bullet” (in The Smell of Man), the poet is asked whether he is someone who pens “gobbledygook and drivel” or if he is a “seer” or a “maniac”. None of these attributes calls for a bullet in the head, but he is to be killed nonetheless since he is from the “borderlands”. Curiously, the poet learns upon enquiry that none of the weapons in the hands of the oppressors is India-made: “All our guns are made in Germany, / In Russia, or China. We don’t use guns made in India.” The poet pleads:

Whatever the issue, if you must shoot me, please

shoot me with a gun made in India. I don’t want to die

by a foreign bullet. You see, I love India very much.

The issue of “borderlands” keeps recurring in the poems.

Cover of The Smell of Man

Cover of The Smell of Man | Photo Credit: By special arrangement 

Hope and the weapon

The long agitation of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) spawned poetry that urgently questioned the idea of homeland (janambhoomi). The poetry of Mithinga Daimary (b. 1967), the self-styled publicity secretary of the banned ULFA who wrote under the pseudonym Megan Kachari, offers a unique perspective in this regard. In 2000, when Assam was ruled by the Asom Gana Parishad, unidentified gunmen reportedly killed Kachari’s entire family. His poetry presents itself as an answer to systemic institutional violence.

In “Void” (translated by Manjeet Baruah), Kachari speaks of the strangeness he feels as a result of the wrongs he has suffered.

The waves never know the depth of/The sea...

The banks never know the length of/The river...

The blood never knows where lives/The heart...

For him, poetry is both the hope and the weapon: it can enable him to live on with “spring hailed into its embrace”. It also gives him a sense of a belonging when he cannot be sure whether the land mass to which he belongs can be called home. So, he digs “a grave / For all the gods”, and implores his comrades to declare war, “Like people raving mad with the dark night” (“Soon as Night Descends”, translated by Pradeep Acharya).

Something unnatural

The Bodo poet Anupama Basumatary (b. 1960), who writes in Assamese, uses idyllic metaphors to give a sense of the disruption suffered by her home State. The images in her poem “Snails” (translated by Pradip Acharya) are soft, tactile, until they turn into their opposite. Snails, a common part of the Bodo/Assamese natural world, evoke the homeland. But snails are boiled for consumption: it is “fun removing the shells / and watching their recoiling tongues”.

Anupama Basumatary

Anupama Basumatary | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The onomatopoeic Assamese word mormor, evoking the creaking sound the shells make as they are crushed, also recalls the command to die (mor means “die!”): Basumatary notes how this “strange rhythm... hid the agony of their dying”. Like the vulnerable snail, the indigenous community must wage a war every day to protect its shell from cracking.

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Malsawmi Jacob (b. 1952) from Mizoram also uses images from nature to hint at something unnatural. “The Songster’s Lament” from her 2017 collection, Four Gardens and Other Poems, notes that the cicadas in her beloved land have “stopped singing” as bomb blasts shake the “blue mountain”. Jacob takes recourse to local lore to cope with the catastrophe:

I’m waiting, waiting

Will the great bear turn around

over our bamboo hills?

Cover of Malsawmi Jacob’s Zorami

Cover of Malsawmi Jacob’s Zorami | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In the poem “Zorami”, she invokes the shackled motherland, weighed down with thousands of dead young men, by using Mizo myths of the fiara tui, a stream of the clearest water, and thim zin, a time of total darkness when drastic transformations, such as a corpse becoming a constellation, take place. In the darkness that has befallen the land, no miracle, such as the one suggested by thim zin, can be expected.

wanderer in the night

seeking for a place to rest

shadow of fiara tui

Waiting for another thim zin?

The darkness at skull hill

covers all.

In the militancy-torn State, the hills only evoke sorrow: here the “Twilight lingered” (“These Hills”).

“Like a side of beef”

The powerful pen of Mona Zote (b. 1973), who calls herself a poet “disguised as a government employee”, fires words like a gun. In one of her well-known poems, “What does Poetry Mean to Ernestina in Peril”, her protagonist, Ernestina, ponders about the violence that has numbed the hills. Ernestina asserts: “Ignoring the problem will not make it go away”. When blood and pain are the reality, what purpose can poetry serve?

Mona Zote

Mona Zote | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Poetry must be raw like a side of beef,

should drip blood, remind you of sweat

and dusty slaughter and the epidermal crunch

and the sudden bullet to the head.

The “crunch” in this poem takes us back to Anupama Basumatary’s “Snails”. The Meghalaya poet Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih (b. 1964), who writes in Khasi and English, observed in an essay that poets must function “as chroniclers”, diligently recording “the banality of corruption and the banality of terror”. Nongkynrih quotes the Khasi poet Soso Tham to evoke the deep-rooted, all-encompassing rot: “Government, Justice, Advocate, / It glues with pus the Silver Piece”.

Robin Ngangom

Robin Ngangom | Photo Credit: Rachna Books

For Robin Ngangom, whose State, Manipur, is still racked with violence over questions of belonging and identity, the homeland can only be “invented”. He says in his poem “My Invented Land”:

My homeland has no boundaries.

At cockcrow one day it found itself

inside a country to its west,

(on rainy days it dreams looking East

when its seditionists fight to liberate it from truth.)

Miyah poetry

Within the contested space of north-eastern India, the Miyah poets of Assam inhabit an even more conflicted zone. The Urdu word miyah is often used pejoratively against the Bengali-Muslim population inhabiting the riverine plains of the Brahmaputra. Fighting the stereotyping, which ignores their cultural and linguistic bonds with Assam to define them only in terms of their religious identity, these poets wear the slur miyah as a badge of honour. In “Write Down ‘I am a Miyah’” (translated by Shalim M. Hussain), the poet Hafiz Ahmed (b. 1962) says:


Write Down

I am a Miya

My serial number in the NRC is 200543

Shalim M. Hussain

Shalim M. Hussain | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The open challenge voiced by the poet, in the style of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, is a forceful assertion of identity, which is all the more effective because of the sparse language in which it is expressed. In the everyday wars, Shalim M. Hussain deems the “lungi”—attire that is vilified by the mainstream—a mark of assertion, even victory, that he will wear even in space. Space is the performative word here, a space that the individual is denied owing to the religion they practice, the language they speak, and the composite identity that they wish to keep. He says in “Nana I have Written”:

  • Poetry from India’s north-eastern region reflects the militancy and political tensions that have long plagued the region
  • For poets from the north-east, poetry is an act of defiance against the violence they face every day
  • It is also a space of freedom where the poet can imagine the end of wars and a blurring of those boundaries which result in wars

See me catch a plane get a Visa catch a bullet train

Catch a bullet

Catch your drift

Catch a rocket

Wear a lungi to space

And there where no one can hear you scream,


I am Miyah

I am Proud.

Cover of Irom Sharmila’s Fragrance of Peace

Cover of Irom Sharmila’s Fragrance of Peace | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Reimagining boundaries

In the poem, “Maming Thondaba Sheireng” (“The Untitled Poem”, translated by Haripriya), Sharmila expresses the desire “to tear open my chest” to show the sorrows and traumas hidden there. Since poetry offers her the space to voice her agony, she hopes that it will always be free of the “shrapnel of bombs” and reduce all “filth to cinders” so that every face turns radiant “with the hope of a new era!” Sharmila writes:

This one weak step

wants to leave a hundred footprints

And become chants of courage

Come, open your door

For born with lips

For endowed with thoughts

How can I leave

without protesting?

As Haripriya points out, a “notion of a collectivity” emerges in this poem—the desire for “a hundred footprints” to emanate from “one weak step”. The march dreamt of by the poet here suggests not war but the end of war, brought out by a radical reimagining of boundaries, with the poets acting as cartographers. The margins of that imagined state are fluid and self-determined.

Nabina Das’ latest poetry collection is Anima and the Narrative Limits. A longer version of this essay was presented at a conference on war and literature, held at St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata, in January 2024.

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