Dreams of a lost land

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Ibohal Kshetrimayum. He is a poet of images; his poetry has an unfailing visual impact. Photo: afsdf

Paddy fields on the outskirts of Imphal in Manipur. At times, Ibohal's homesickness gets projected on to the natural world as when in the poem "The History of our Rice", he mourns the loss of old rice fields that had a variety of rice with specific aromas. Photo: RITU RAJ KONWAR

THE readers of this column may recall my earlier discussions of the poetry of north-eastern India when my focus was on the diversity of its traditions and manners.

Here, I would like to present one specific poet from Manipur who lives in Meghalaya impacted by the culture and landscape of both places and unique in the way he blends the personal and the social in his intensely moving, magical, autumn-fresh poems with their primitive energy. Ibohal Kshetrimayum’s work does not easily lend itself to the stereotypical clichés often deployed by regular critics and anthologists in their discussions of the poetry of the north-eastern region.

In fact, the stereotype is as much an illusion as the region itself, which is an amorphous, vaguely defined construct of the mainstream imagination. North-eastern India, as anyone who has been there or has even looked closely at its culture and literature will testify, is itself as diverse as India with its many languages, cultures and subcultures, belief systems, forms of worship, oral traditions and genres of written literature. Just as we need a comparative paradigm, and not a composite one, to understand the literatures of India, we will need a critical strategy that looks both at the shared and the specific aspects of the literature of the “north-east”—which is no more than a convenient umbrella term, more geopolitical than aesthetic—to discuss its literary corpus.

Ibohal is a poet of images; his poetry has an unfailing visual impact. Look at the very opening poem, for example: the blind laughing in the heart, the woman’s hair darkening the dream’s path, a sea roaring in her curls, an animal felt on her skin, a burning river rushing out of her crevice, a cuckoo crying for the moon’s silver drops, the dawn coming with a yawn, the coconut trees bending to comb her dishevelled clouds, heart lost in the crumpled pillows, drinking mountains from a bottle of sunsets, the moon moaning for a window. These concrete and semi-abstract images—accompanied by colours and sounds as in a multimedia manifestation—strikingly capture the feelings of love, desire and desolation in the poet’s heart.

At times, the images can be strikingly exotic like “the ebony breasts flapping like a pair of vanilla pods from Madagascar slapping me with the sandy flames of Sahara” (“Perfume”) or semi-abstract as in “the Western horizon cremating the past where we could have been” (“Wet Curls”). At times, they are images of metamorphosis: “The drunken fathers become sad winds/ Engulfed by the chaotic madness they lost their daughters” (“Bardoisikhla”).

At other times, they are magical: “Needles of rain fell on a puddle, became infant circles/ which died after three tiny ripples and my heart skipped/ a beat for the bubble we broke that night:/ which was almost a placenta” or “In the hills of seven huts,/ where WAR is either a place or surname,/ and dreams are translated into numbers,/ and a number became a gambler’s sad song,/ I found God breathing through the pine trees” (“In the Hills of Seven Huts”).

In a casual conversation we had while travelling together from Shillong to Nartiang, Ibohal told me how he could only wait for poems to come to him—and never force a poem out of himself—and they often come in the form of scenes and images, often in his dreams, that he just writes down and organises tightly in the terse structure of a poem. That may be the secret of the dreamy, dusky, revelatory quality of these poems that seem to emerge from that twilit zone of the subconscious mind with the force of magic and ritual.

There are, too, times when they acquire the quality of legends. “Black” (the meaning of the poet’s friend’s name, Musuk in Manipuri) is an example. It is the real tale of a childhood friend who died in 1974, but in the poem it takes on the colours of a legend, with a bit of drama thrown in. Black was a thief, people hated him; only the poet knew his “other colours”. He loved the same girl as the poet did and won her over, wearing a shirt stolen from the poet so that he would look clean—which he returned to the poet later with an apology—and one cold morning in January, his body was found hanging from a tree. The jealous were happy, but his beloved’s tears said he had actually been murdered. The poet has now forgiven him for his love for the girl and the stolen shirt and he keeps the shirt clean in his painful memory. The shirt grows into a symbol that connects all the three characters central to the whole narrative.

Search for lost roots

“Shipih” is another narrative of the kind. Shipih, half Khasi, born to an outsider, is introduced in the very opening lines: “Forty-seven years old,/ but he remains lost at eleven./ He smiles at dogs and people,/ with effortless honesty.” He walks rolling an iron ring all the time and talks to that wheel. One day, he tells the wheel that they will follow the sun until they find the east, and then trails westward “under a coughing sky”.

Durga is another character that gives her name to a poem. She was the village whore who had warmed the speaker’s nights and would always tell him she wanted to be a goddess. Then, she became mad, and once out of the madhouse, she began to roam the streets singing strange songs. One day, she stole a sari from a sinking idol on the day of immersion and wore it herself. She was pursued by the pious and stoned, and the poet saw her forehead bleeding but walked away like a coward. “I looked back at an idol, and remembered:/ the goddess was actually born in a mound on the courtyard of a whore!”

Or look at the poem on Thynroit, a Khasi village. The poet looks at the village with amused detachment: “A middle-aged village drunk/ shouts obscene warnings to a black bull,/ for molesting his wife’s cow grazing nearby./ The village masseur sits in a rickety chair,/ and waits for city clients with broken limbs./ Screaming urchins in dirty red, blue and pink gumboots/ stampede on the dusty path to the crowded water shed/ where their aunts and sisters wash smudged linens.” But suddenly the poem takes an eerie turn when the night transforms the village and urges him to recall the village he had once left behind. “But when the sun sets behind the emptying hills,/ after the church doors have been locked,/ and the Good Book has been closed for the day,/ a calm silence has settled down on the village,/ and the moon takes the shape of a clipped fingernail,/ while a dog barks at it in wolfish superstition,/ between echoes of mothers calling their children home,/ Thynroit urges me to remember a village,/ in a faraway land I left behind.”

And there is Lazarus Bologre: a truck rams him from behind while he is peeing on the fence of the Pundit Nehru Park, and he is no Lazarus of the Holy Book to be called back to life (“Lazarus’s Onward Journey”).

This search for the lost roots and the lost people of the past is followed up further in a poem like “A Cruise to the Past” where the poet is in search of his relatives lost during the devastating Burmese attack on his land in 1819. It begins alluding to his obsession with the past: “Friends of the family say,/ That I inherited this obstinate habit/ Of chasing mice in my head/ From my promiscuously adventurous grandpa,/ who could live with ease in the cramped and babbling company/ of my four grandmas under one roof!” He knows it is like searching for a needle in a haystack, but he has inherited a “genetic agitation” from his grandfather that sends him on a cruise down the river Chindwin to where it meets the Irrawaddy. Following “the footprint of an unknown smile”, he reaches a red light street and finds himself with a girl, a schoolteacher fallen on bad days, in a nightclub offering her body for 1,000 kyat: he gives her the money but rejects the offer. The search then takes him to a Maitei Brahmin family where the father offers his daughter to him in marriage hoping he will take her back to Manipur where they belonged. The daughter too joins her father in the request, but again the poet excuses himself and goes up a hill to meet the monk at the pagoda who only expresses his anger when the poet mentions the name of the general—Than Shwe —who he thought would help him as this general is abusive even of Aung San Suu Kyi. The poet’s search leads him nowhere and he is left with a feeling that he shares with that Brahmin girl, “I am as rootless as you are.”

The pain of loss is also reflected in a poem like “I Won’t walk on It” when the poet speaks of “our ancestral acres now reduced to a mossy courtyard”. If his toddler niece refuses to walk on the untilled land, he himself refuses to walk on the road “amidst randomly pointed rifles”. The same sense of loss characterises a poem like “Rain Dance”: “My mother puts on her royal attire,/ to do the rain dance of a princess,/ but her feet are barren,/ for it no longer rains like before.”

Ibohal is no less political than most of his contemporaries such as Yumlembam Ibomcha Singh and Thangjam Ibopishak, but he carries his politics lightly and gracefully; his aggressiveness seldom shows, as in “Some Reasons” where he mourns the destiny of his land whose history he doubts for its existence in a country that questions his citizenship and identifies its inclusiveness within an exclusive culture. “I drag a corpse/ whose funeral is kept at abeyance/ until you see my face”: the poet powerfully sums up the fate of his people in this single image in “Invisible Man”.

In another poem, “Misfortune”, he again speaks of his identity that renders him alien in his country: “My face, language and colour say I’m a misfit/ to live in your country or even be called your brother.” Even his father thought he was misbegotten. “If you really want to know me, come closer behind me, and I will/ Break the mirror with a stone: and there you’ll see me in my worthlessness/ And you’ll understand the mishap of broken faces.” Even when he thinks of his debts and obligations and is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and thinks of crucifying himself he is looking for a “deep-rooted tree” (“Debts”).

At times, the homesickness gets projected on to the natural world as when in “The History of our Rice” he mourns the loss of the old rice fields that had a variety of rice with specific aromas. The poem ends ironically, suggesting the contemporary state of things in Manipur: “Rife with hostility,/ roots dare not grow in caking mud and/ we no longer see startled catfish/ and lazy earthworm, when we walk/ through young rice fields./ Perhaps, we should plant guns in our fields,/ and hopefully bullets will become rice, and/ we’ll die without bleeding: a nobler way.”

“Is This My Home” also reflects this feeling of loss: “Memories only live here./ But even the shadows of my childhood/ had been moved.” He feels everyone at home is only playing an assigned role: “I as a good lover and a son./ You as a jubilant bird who has found a new cage./ My father as a man, who at last could show off his nothingness,/ when he justifies the statute disqualifying mother/ from sitting alongside him on the same mat, in public./ Your friend as a Good Samaritan, silently enjoying the irony./ My mother smiling joyfully on her final satire/ when she lights the cigarette I bought for her, in public./ And the act completes with the ultimate dance/ of a shrew’s broom sweeping away my footprints/ from the ruins of my grandfather’s dreams,/ while my brother remains possessed by her spells.” Elsewhere, he complains: “I am not even a dream, which could follow a crow’s flight” (“I am not even a Dream”).

Mission of poetry

The poet is very clear about the mission of poetry, reminding us of Czeslaw Milosz’s warning, “The Poet Remembers”: “You can kill the poet but not the poem/ For what is written remains written…. Even if you could kill the poet, remember don’t let his/ Blood spill for it will turn into ink and you’ll be drowned/ And even you, a colonial offshoot, will mouth poetry/ Infected by his madness, even as your lungs suffocate/ With that vision of indignant displeasure, waiting for you/ On the sea’s bed salted with blood from my brothers.”

There are moments of tender love, separation and reunion too in Ibohal’s poetry. Look at the poem “And the Train Leaves without Her”. His beloved leaves him and he is haunted by her memory; the community accuses him of being an irresponsible drunkard who has ruined her: “Daybreak brought injurious winds, which mocked me/ with such fierce jibes: ‘your invincible groin’s pride had caused/a lily to shed its dimples, and look at you—a malicious drunk’./ I knew, no star will be named after me,/ but I swore to stain the sky with my blood, and/ discourage conspirators from transforming our love/into a weighty theme of city gossip,/ before a choppy sea of rumours drowns all dreams.” But one day she comes back, with a baby whose eyes are searching for an answer, never to go back.

The same tenderness marks a poem like “Anxiety”: “How I wish everyday to wade/ In the swamp of your hairs/ Cut a reed and blow a precipitous tune/ To awake the dots of your sleeping rabbits/ Or surrender myself to a blackbird’s beak/ Pecking at a cloud for milk/ While you spread your tresses/ Sprawling on the snow of your dreams/ Making my existence spurious/ In this place where winds whisper poetry/ To moist pine needles/Multiplying my anxiety of your absence/ In my journey through deserts of wrinkled sheets.” In “Wet Curls”, he wonders: “What shall I do in Heaven now/ Without your moist locks?... What shall I do with blossoms/ If I can’t fasten them to your hair?”

In “Autumn’s Sweet Hurting”, he says: “First day of autumn,/ far more sacred almost/ than my own birthday. /For on this day,/ a long time ago, I fell in love with/ a breeze falling from your tresses….” “The Second Best” opens like this: “My love was naked, and she didn’t hide./ My heart flew away chasing a raven, her clothes, and/ my body covered her nakedness./ When she moved, everything moved: our bodies,/ earth and blood.”

Ibohal easily invokes the atmosphere of his land with references to the landscape, names of trees and plants, customs and rituals, myths, legends and archetypes, ways of life and kinship, sights, sounds and smells. He has a whole poem inspired by smell titled “Smells”: “I smelt milk in my room,/ when she entered wearing a cloud/ borrowed from the sky blue curtain./ Her breasts were wet with milk,/ eager to wean an infant poem,/ but I wasn’t ready to grow./ She then melted:/ her milk with the smell of/ a wet crow flying off with a broken wing/ from the sunset-ripples of the river, her lover!/ In my hills, breasts and udders have roots,/ and milk smells earth.”

Let me end these ruminations with a short poem, “A Land of Ripples”, that sums up the poet’s anger, despair and frustration:

A land where guns are no longer fired in anger,

but in deceitful dreams.

A land where people starve for a peaceful recipe,

till they are no longer hungry.

A land where hypocrites trade divinity,

with symbolic rituals.

A land where obituaries and condolences,

cost a lifetime’s earnings.

A land where a gang of dropouts burnt a library,

demanding a script.

A land where illiterate grandparents shed spiritual tears,

over the illicit affair of a god and his concubine.

A land where mongrels and swine debate upon,

the wisdom to rule or serve.

A land where vision takes a back seat,

and the cart pleads for progress to the reluctant horse.

A land where the sick politician prescribes antidotes to the sedated,

like the seasoned harlot who moans like a virgin.

A land where a poet wonders aloud,

though it’s against the grain to ask:

‘Who caused the Ripples?’

Email: satchida@gmail.com

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