Voices from the hills

Vibrant contemporary writing from the north-eastern region written in many languages, including English has begun to reach the rest of India and the world through translations and anthologies.

Published : May 24, 2013 16:52 IST

The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India. Tilottama Misra's scholarly introduction to the anthology gives one an insight into the heterogeneity and the complexity of north-eastern culture and literature.

The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India. Tilottama Misra's scholarly introduction to the anthology gives one an insight into the heterogeneity and the complexity of north-eastern culture and literature.

ONLY in the last one decade or so has the vibrant contemporary writing from the north-eastern region written in many languages, including English—Assamese perhaps is the only exception —really begun to reach the rest of India and the world through translations and anthologies. The reasons may be many: the marginalisation of the region in general in the mainstream discourses on culture and literature, the difficulty in comprehending the many contradictory worlds—the folk and the modern, the rural and the urban, the native and the Western—that uneasily coexist in the region and the shortage of competent translators who can directly translate into English or other Indian languages from languages like Karbi, Mishing, Bodo, Kokborok, Khasi, Mizo, Ao and Angami (Tenyidie) being some among them. (In some sense, these are also the reasons why Indian literature in the languages mostly remains inaccessible outside the English-speaking world.)

Our understanding of north-eastern literature even now may be skewed as the writing we receive is what comes filtered through editors and translators with their own prejudices and preferences; yet we need to thank the few who have taken the trouble to explore this less travelled world and bring us at least some good samples of what is being written in the languages of the north-eastern region. Journals like TheNEHU Journal brought out by North-Eastern Hill University; Yaatra , a journal of Assamese literature and culture edited by the writer Dhrubajyoti Bora; and the more recent Northeast Review , an e-journal edited by the young poet Aruni Kashyap have been publishing translations of and critical writing on north-eastern literature.

Besides these, my sources for this piece and the next include two anthologies of north-eastern poetry: Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast jointly edited by two poet-translators, Robin S. Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih (NEHU, Shillong, 2003), and Writings from North-East India edited by Tilottoma Misra (Oxford University Press, 2011). I may also suggest a book among many for background reading: The Peripheral Centre: Voices from India’s Northeast edited by Preeti Gill and published by Zuban (2010) that brings together a host of interesting, often moving, first-hand studies of conflict, insurgency, counter-insurgency, development, gender and health issues and the many forms of social protest in the region.

The editors’ foreword to the Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast tries to explain why this poetry is different from that of other Indian languages: The writer of the north-eastern India differs from his (her) mainland counterparts as “living with the menace of the gun, he (read she) cannot merely indulge in verbal wizardry and woolly aesthetics but must perforce master the art of witness”.

The writers here are expected to reflect on the paradoxes of existence in the region, to transmit the pains and fears of the people and to warn them against moral and social dangers. They have to meet the double challenge of truth and liberty, of identity and unity, of cultural loss and recovery, of ethnic specificity and aesthetic universality. They are caught between two threats to liberty: from the armed terrorists and the armed state. Geography, history, time, identity, violence: many are the concerns they are invited to articulate with humane intensity and the will to “recover one by one/the ornaments of grace”. The poems alternate between sarcasm and contemplation, solitude and society, the ecstasy of tribal dance and the biting sweetness of wild honey, mythopoeic imagination and moral indignation. Nature bearing the imprint of myth or of history is an overwhelming presence in these poems: the river with its magical voice, the twin gods of water and mist, the land heavy with memories, the forest that lingers, the flowers cursed to carry the acrid smell of gunpowder, the green valleys where death wanders freely.

The poetry of the region also reflects the many cultural encounters that happened there right from the Bhakti movement, other reformist moves, colonialism and the accompanying Christian missionary activities and the spread of English language and the Western idea of modernity and the new developmental trends all of which have led to the depletion of traditional culture as well as the creation of a culture of integration that absorbs heterogeneous influences as well as one of preservation of traditions and resistance to change. It is not my intention to discuss the whole vibrant scene here nor list all the significant poets. I shall just provide some samples that reflect the uniqueness of the poetry in the region. For the time being I would just recommend Tilottoma Misra’s scholarly introduction to her anthology to anyone interested in the heterogeneity and the complexity of north-eastern culture and literature.

Distinct Assamese literature Assamese language is distinctive because Assam has been a meeting point of many races, cultures and languages like Adi, Karbi and Mishing, which have all contributed to its literature. Assamese poetry has been part of mainstream Indian poetry at least since the times of Shankardeva (c.1449-1568) and many of the modern poets like Nilmani Phookan with his unique lyrical imagination ( when you let fall your hair, the rains descend : “Poem”), Navakanta Barua with his modern imagery ( Under the monstrous mammaries/ Of an insatiable witch, / Love will die a shattering death : “Bats”) or Hiren Bhattacharya with his radical concerns ( Grant me the freedom to hammer into pieces /The indifference of these familiar words/ Or , the brilliance of the invincible sword/ To cut into shreds/ This anaemic, moribund, unyielding reality : “The Lone Prayer for Poetry”) have been widely anthologised.

There are a lot of interesting poets too who came after them. Nilim Kumar is deeply lyrical and his poetry alternates between romance and nostalgia, mystery and melancholy. In “To my Son”, he warns the child that his days are going to be more difficult than his parents’ as his blood may turn against him. Like Troy, this city is dead/ I a deceased occupant/ I follow you about only/ because I had nurtured a dream in you/ but you too, my child/ is just somewhat alive . He finds his song singing of the body without future (“Childhood”) and his fox winds his way… to the dignity of civilisation (“Fox”). He also celebrates the woman who is cool like water and can stretch her camel-neck to the sea of moonlight (“Woman”).

Jiban Narah is another fascinating poet who asks the Buddha in what language/ do we read dreams/ in sleep at night?/ What’s the difference/ between your sunya/ and Aryabhatta’s “O”? and juxtaposes his sublime thoughts with the mundane sight of fat pigs roaming on the streets of his village (“The Buddha”). He asks his mother not to drink too much, not to howl at the moon because her hair is growing grey, her breasts are drying up and the father is angry (“Mother”) and speaks of a time when actors forget their lines, even festivals carry sorrow and people embrace one another to share their sadness and a dirge rises from the throat to the rhythm of the drumbeats (“Rhythm”). He plays with colours in the poem by that name: Grandmother ducks him in green, mother picks him up from among yellow, his lips merge with another’s in blue and the dappled waves of the threads/ will slowly lead me on to read/ Once I am ducked in the red/ There is no coming back then .

Shaktipada Brahmachari sees love and household duties being born together (“One Birth of Love, Another, of Household Duties”) and asks the assassin to turn his horse. The neighing is silenced,/ the axe reddened./ the river of the last dusk;/ I will be sanctified being washed by the blood .

Sameer Tanti’s sad poetry sees ashes of burnt-out books in the eyes of the dead across the dreams, unfinished poems, tears of golden tigers, shadows of butterflies: I wanted to know all and one day/ I forgot her identity/ My awakening seemed to be? close as death yet heartless as night. Nothing was said to me/ Nothing at all (“As the Night Thickens the Stars Nod Off”). He does not blame hunger as Hunger is my childhood’s bounty,… my mother’s first miscarriage,/ the third worlds of my agony (“How Do I Blame it?”).

Anubhav Tulasi has a rare intensity when he remembers the lost villages and the vanishing landscapes. He recalls the night when under the cheerful hooting of the owl, the ghost of a turbaned old noble came on a white charger and carried away his horn of plenty. Then he came to the city where the day began/ with colourful butterflies/ impaled on the barbed wire/ of trains’ shrieks/ long-tailed kites/ On blue skies/ The humped camel/ Among thorny desert shrubs . The Pushpabhadra river was now a skeleton; the devil blessed him to be a poet and he became a golden bristle/ On a grain of wheat in the field . He was charmed by the hellfires the devil showed him from afar and now he knows he will burn to cinders and return only as an ember to his village and his old house on a lonely tired evening to the sombre beat of a prayer hall’s drum. The poet also speaks with great empathy of Anna Akhmatova, that Russian poet of suffering and resistance whose joy lies buried/ in the breast-deep snow/ of Siberia . Poems like “Evening in the Village” and “Pied Autumn” articulate his bond with nature through fresh metaphors.

Anupama Basumatary dreams of her overcoming like the first sprout/ On the dark stout tree of winter (“Seasons”). She now identifies herself with the snails whose sap she used to suck as a child, her shell creaks in agony as her heart breaks making the strange measure of a sad strain (“Snails”). Premnarayan Nath has a bad dream of boatmen losing their faith in rivers, flowers in plants and the dead and the living cease to differ (“Poems”). Poets like Uddipana Goswamy, Nitoo Das, Nabina Das and Aruni Kashyap who write in English are trying to create a new idiom with deep echoes of their land, culture and language.

Manipur’s poetic tradition Manipur’s poetic tradition is no less strong. Colonialism and Christianity did not impact Manipur strongly because of the Vaishnavite tradition there. So the Manipuri writers developed a modernism of their own inspired chiefly by the pre-Vaishnavite Meitei past that is being reinvented now. Modern poetry was born chiefly amidst the ravages of the Second World War, according to Robin S Ngangom who has done excellent translations of a lot of Manipuri poetry. The new anti-romantic poetry of Manipur reflects the disillusionment of the writers with the accession of Manipur to the Indian Union and the subsequent militant resistance movement and its suppression, including the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) made famous through Irom Sharmila Chanu’s 12-year-old fast and the protest by women in the nude with the challenging slogan: “Indian Army, Rape Us.”

Rajkumar Bhubonsana, who often follows an anti-poetic style, does not mince words when it comes to stating the plight of Manipur: Thus according to the wish of the masses/ Light is put out and mind too is kept in the dark/ Front teeth bashed out/ in Manipur, the land of jewels (“Should Light be Put out or Mind Kept in the Dark”). Kunjarani Longjam Chanu warns: The hunters will surely stand in front of you/ Carrying poison arrows,/ Then all the doors you’ve carefully locked/ Will be opened one by one .

Yumlembam Ibomcha in “The Story of a Dream” sums up the nightmare that is life in Manipur: bodies of children, their entrails spilling, scattered in his dark house, running blood turning the soles sticky, gun barrels sticking out from the right and left of the road, a barrel near his cheek, a muzzle beside his lips, a bullet shot into his mouth, incessant firing that slowly becomes music to his ears to whose rhythms beautiful women dance: the whole scene becoming a cheer-filled wedding. “Derived from a Puppy” is equally strong and sarcastic. Here he is a puppy living among dogs, foxes and monkeys and wants to be a tiger. His wife paints him like a tiger and even fixes a tail. They make love, and the next morning he thinks he has become a tiger, but when he tries to roar only a “miaow” comes out of him. His wife drives him out and the poem ends ironically: This is why I’ve come running/ to hide among you, my friends! “For the Next Birth” is in a similar vein where he wants to take his next birth as a bastard and he wants his countrymen too to become bastards. Let them be orphans, let them love none. But then there should be one recompense: let them be free for one moment and hug one another free from fear.

Thangjam Ibopishak declares his love for Manipur in the poem “Manipur, Why Shouldn’t I Love Your Hills, Marshes, Rivers, Fields, Open Spaces”. He conceals his thoughts wearing dark glasses; he writes poems and then tears them up and asks: Which is more fragrant,/ the report of guns or the scent of flowers? and recalls Girish Karnad’s “Cheluvi” when he sees his wife half metamorphosed into a peepal. There is something surrealistic about Ibopishak’s imagination in this poem (“Dali, Hussain, or Odour of Dream, Colour and Wind”) and others like “The Land of the half-Humans” where his people live six months without body and six without head. The title of another of his poems is “I Want to be Killed by an Indian Bullet”. He asks the five elements that enter his room to kill him because he loves India so much that he wants to be killed by an Indian bullet. But they say India cannot even make plastic flowers, so the guns they use are made by Germany, Russia or China. His fastidiousness about death saves him as they leave him since they don’t have Indian guns. There is irreverent irony in the poem “Gandhi and Robot” where the poet says once Nehru owned a robot sent by Russia that could chant a thousand Hare Rama’s in a minute; Vallabhbhai Patel possessed a Gandhi borrowed from Birla which could spin ten balls of thread on the charkha in an hour. The dhobis on Delhi’s streets feed their braying donkeys with copies of Harijan and Today Sadhus proclaim:/ We will construct a pagoda at Pokhran/ to keep the “New Buddha”./ Elated I cried: “Bravo, Bharat, Bravo!” .

Raghu Leishangtham pays tribute to James Dokhuma, the Mizo leader, in “A Mizo Star”. He mourns the death of an old woman whose pitcher carried water to quell the wildfires; she dies with parched lips as no one offered her water at the moment of death. And now he wonders who will douse the growing fires. In “Politician and White Dove”, the dove wants to fly freely in the sky, but the politician says, To allow you to fly or not to fly/ Is my politics . The politician then points a gun at the dove and the dove now lies in his pocket: so much for the future of peace. Memchoubi is a poet of deserted villages and empty churches, charred hillocks and gushing blood as she appears in “Red Chingtrao”. She describes herself as the goddess of lightning at whose harsh and strident voice the old world crumbles (“Goddess of Lightning”). She discovers in her mother’s basket her old father and her brother flushed with youth. On asking why she is doing it she just says, How would they survive if not carried by me?

Gambhini Devi tells Hansapadika she may hang like a bat on an electric wire and crumble piece by piece and fall on the heads of those who mistake her lament for music (“Hansapadika”). In “A Village Girl” she says, Village girls do not unfasten their hair,/ not a strand of our hair/ Is tossed by the wind . They don’t look at the golden stars, no drop of dew falls for them. They laugh only when they smell the soil and the golden paddy or colour their mothers’ hair with charcoal from the hearth.

Saratchand Thiyam asks his sister not to go out as every road is reverberating/ With the deafening utterance of boots . And he himself is hiding inside the house (“Sister”). He has a nightmarish vision of Africa: Countless tongues fussing over food/ Are torn and flung/ Across Africa’s vast surface./ The cracks will be sealed/ with corpses (“Africa”). While he admires the beauty of Shillong whose sacred grove is guarded by the tiger and the snake and the forest goddesses, he also notices that Shillong’s wailing voice run over by time’s wheel has become hoarse (“Shillong”). In the poem “Pokhran, Kargil, Gaisal”, he observes: The bullet holes dwelling on icy slopes/ are carefully guarded by globs of blood, night and day . Ilabanta Yumnam sums up the plight of Manipur in these lines: On our lives were stuck the election posters of many parties, in a torn condition, when the wind blows amidst dust, with the words all disjointed, they soar to the sky where your head and mine seek refuge (“Sky—Yours, Mine”).

Robin S. Ngangom, the bilingual poet from Manipur, finds that the gnarled men and wrinkled women who work on slopes swaying in the rain like knotted weather-beaten pines do not require poetry. It does not matter if he cannot explain to them the nuances of an ode or ghazal or the iron and flint of a Vladimir Mayakovsky or a Nicolas Guillen. When he hears poetry,/ the peasant will lean on his hoe/ in exasperation while the fields lie fallow,/ the hunter will return empty-handed/ with a sad poem and if the goatherd listens to/ poetry’s demented cadences/ his goats will not give milk . He wanted to be a wordsmith, to sing with the mystical sparrows, but in the awn he finds only a murder of crows nest in his throat (“Poetry”).

He finds that after the Holocaust it has become easier to make culture and murder coexist. People believe the leaders who cast a spell on them while they think the poet is just exhausted when he speaks about the babies shot down from their mothers’ breasts. The poet feels banished to the last outpost of a dying empire. Only promises and maledictions have pursued him from the horoscopes of time. Can poetry be smuggled like guns or drugs?/ We’ve drawn our borders with blood./ Even to write in our mother tongues,/ we cut open veins and our tongues/ lick parchments with blood . He leaves the supine map of what used to be his native land to be gnawed by rats at night (“The First rain”). He still loves his land: Everywhere I go/ I carry my homeland with me .

People don’t understand its landlocked misery and its odd splendour. I must stop agonising or save what I can/ Such as the tunes of my homeland/ which dance in my blood .

Email: satchida@gmail.com

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