The poetic traditions and practices of Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya reveal an expression that gets bulldozed under the standardising concept of the singular north-east.
In this second part of the article on the poetry of the north-eastern region of India, the writer looks at poetry from Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
IF Assamese poetry and Manipuri poetry are so different from each other, we can well imagine how diverse will other poetic traditions and practices of the rest of the north-eastern region with its host of beautiful minority languages be. They inevitably interrogate the mainstream construct of a monolithic north-east and reveal the plurality of attitude and expression that somehow gets bulldozed under the standardising concept of the singular north-east.
Look at Naga poetry, for example: it was essentially oral until the Baptist missionaries developed a script for the 30-odd Naga languages used by 14 major Naga tribes. Even today much of Naga literature in print is only the recording or the retelling of oral tales and verses. Translations of the gospels inspired the first writers who tended to be didactic, and the story of Naga written literature began with the Ao Nagas who were the first to be converted and to have a script. Angami (Tenydin) followed and then the other languages evolved slowly from an initial religious phase to a secular phase by the 1970s. The old-world tradition suffered an onslaught during the period of the battle between the underground Naga army and the Indian Army. The ethos changed and the temptations of quick money by indulging in war business created a strange idea of “development”. The young got displaced from a placid rural existence to the dilemmas of a disturbed urban life marked by curfews and gunfire. This also transformed the very nature of Naga poetry, mostly written in English and caught between the revolutionary idealism of the militants and the disillusionment occasioned by their later fall from the professed ideals.
Still all modern Naga poetry—written in English—is not about guns, it is also about roses and rivers and the fabulous traditions of the Naga people and the wasted lives of the empire’s soldiers. Temsula Ao’s meditations on an epitaph in a British cemetery at Kohima, “The Epitaph” says: The smooth-skinned stone digresses/Does not talk about blood and tears / But of some tomorrows and todays. /maudlin lines / To mark the end of lives / Dragged over thousands of miles/By an empire’s relentless run. The marble slabs cannot explain why they are there on a hillside inhabited by wild tribes. So do not go away/Thinking of glory./ Think of the wasted tomorrows/ Buried beneath the stone slabs/And empty words/ To jaded tourists./ Go home then / And write an epitaph/To end all epitaphs,/Mindless mayhem. “Rumour” begins abruptly: There was a rumour / That God is dead./ Or worse still/That he does not care. The poem progresses like a fable as the poet keeps asking everyone whether this was true: the little bird says, it is no more easy to know the truth, and the ants hold the bird responsible for God’s murder and their procession shouts, Down with all birds! That leads to chaos, children leaving schools, offices getting emptied and the government declaring a holiday, and finally a stampede that kills a lot of people. As the procession reaches the fair ground, politicians of diverse hues begin denouncing birds, ants, government and one another. Now the little bird is sure God is dead or is at least indifferent to what happens on earth.
The whole poem is an allegorical comment on what is happening in Nagaland and even beyond. She also has a poem on the ancestors of Aos, “The Stone-People”, who had emerged out of the earth at Lungterok, which means “six stones”. It ends thus: Was the birth adult when the stone broke?/Or are the Stone-people yet to come of age? She recalls the history of colonialism beautifully in the poem, “Blood of Others”—when they had first come armed only with the Book and the promises of a land called Heaven, declaring war on all the tribal gods and calling their myths and songs just nonsense. The past was now taboo; the tribes could now tell their stories only to the silent forests and the songs were heard only by the passing wind. On their emptied minds now the intruders began scripting a new history, turning them aliens in their own land. Now those long-suppressed songs and reawakened stories are rising up asking for rebirth and articulation. Her poems like “The Old Story Teller” and “The Spear” too are marked by a strong narrative element that recalls the patterns of a lost life with a new self-assurance that rejects colonial notions of modernity.
Easterine Iralu has a more modern idiom though she too has a strong folk streak in her poetry. She speaks of another moon /When she [Keviselie, who remembers the happier days before “Plague” laid waste her young, her song and her hills] will be made whole, / Restored to her once again. She compares her love to mist that moistens the windowpanes and touches the hills with grace (“Mist”). In a poem addressed to Calcutta she warns of the dangers of solipsism (“Narcissus”). She tells her son one day when he asks her what colour was the sky before it turned grey, she might no longer have the answers (“To Justine-Pierre”). She recalls a parting in vivid images in the poem “For Emmanuel Lal”: I stood helplessly by/ as Septembers and cactus loves fled/ leaving/ lipstick stains on a napkin starched white/ gory remnant of a poetry-filled night.
Mona Lisa Changkija’s “Of a People Unanswered” is a declaration of personal liberty. The masters who claim they have led the tribe into the 21st century are strangely silent when the people say they are hungry. And she tells those who only know the language of AK-47s and still lay down diktats, ...but I am more / than a machine/ or a mass of molecules. She also questions patriarchy: I see it nowhere written / that your unironed shirts/ deserve my attention/ more than my flying lessons. She too like Temsula recalls the tale of their fall into slavery and dreams of the day when her generation will, like their forefathers, silence the gunfire with their songs in rhythm with all humanity. She tells those who want to destroy her race: Shoot, after all, we are only an inconvenience of a few lakh souls / so go ahead, shoot, blast us to eternity …wipe us out from the face of the earth/ You, all of you who swear by Christ or the Mahatma… Shoot we will stand firm and not move/ From our dreams of brotherhood (“Shoot”).
Nini Lunglang’s poetry is more personal. She speaks about her resemblance to her mother—who has put much of herself into her making—that seems to rob her of her identity, but she ends the poem ironically saying, Yes, I look a lot like my mother/ And my daughter looks a lot like me (“Mirror”). In another poem she says how her dead father and she were hewn of the same rock. Wait, my father; let/ Your rage of living/Sear and scorch my heart. In “Dot” she asks: Who has the right/ to sicken a child/ to hurl a stone / at my neighbour’s cat? Poems like “Listening”, “Nocturne” and “Going Back” are lyrical and inward, often touched by the pain of loss.
The tension in Tripura springs chiefly from the endless migration of Bengali-speaking people, especially from east Bengal who now constitute 70 per cent of Tripura’s population, reducing the local people of eight indigenous communities who speak Kokborok to a minority. This demographic upheaval has led to ethnic mobilisation and the battles for the preservation of identity by the native Tripuris, Reangs, Jamatias, Noatias, Halams and others.
There is also a strong Bengali literary culture in Tripura, but the contemporary Kokborok writers are going back to their roots to forge a different kind of literary identity as is evident in the poetry of some of the finest poets of the day like Chandrakant Murasingh. Hachukrai, whom he addresses in the poem “O, Poor Hachukrai”, seems to represent Tripura itself: he is anaemic, has not an inch of soil left to himself, all was sold out to cure someone’s myopia and the flag atop the tree has also been coloured by the blind.
Forging a different identity
In another poem he speaks of the minister who has neither inside nor outside; he is a windbag full of empty infertile words (“Of a Minister”). He is not sure the man with the gun will show the blind his path nor make them hear their mother’s laughter (“Your Dreams”). The haunting fragrance of the madhavi flowers is now acrid with the smell of gunpowder. (“Forest -1987”). Chandrakant often uses stark images like Treading on cakes and stumbling on meat/ The tipsy new year comes/ Once again while he employs a deliberately local idiom with a lot of terms with specific contextual connotations.
There are other poets too in Tripura, like Pijush Raut the Bengali poet, who relives his memories of the Kushiara river and the long-forgotten landscape on its bank with its temples and mosques (“Return”) and yearns for an adventure in the sea inspired by the colours of the fishes (“Feelings”) and mourns the thirteen people on a picnic killed by insurgents (The wrath of insurgents will present /Thirteen fathers with thirteen fresh corpses); Bijoy Kumar Debbarma, the Kokborok poet, who is angry with the Arjunas, Duryodhanas and Dronas, the chameleon-like who never let Ekalavyas climb the chhatim tree or go up the Longtarai lest they touch the sky by achieving dexterity in archery ( “Eklavya of the Longtarai”); Sefali Debbarma, also writing in Kokborok, worried about the diminishing forest and the blood-stained songs (“Song at Midnight”) and claiming, Through singing I become fire/ I can burn myself (“When I Feel You”); or Gambhini Sorokkhaibam, writing in Manipuri, who declares she is no Sita nor Helen, but a hurt woman who feels the earth where she lives and the road she walks are not hers anymore (“I Will be an Empress”).
Niranjan Chakma writing in Chakma sings about the spiritless body of a gang-raped hill-woman lying on grass clad in pungent gunpowder (“When Debate Has No Room”) and the displaced people whose voices have been strangled by the ponderous and stiffening woe (“The Words Will be uttered Boldly”). Kalyanbrata Chakraborti writing in Tripuri asks disturbing questions like “How long shall we escape?” or “Is it the time to wake people up?” and helplessly comments: None is there / in the field where Arjuna’s chariot/ Had sunk into silence. Krittibas Chakraborty, also a Tripuri poet, asks the north-east what he can dream up for her when she is caressed by the stars. He has lost his sleep now: If I crave something, only the stormy fire / If I move out, only the heat of the path! (“Northeast”). He dreams of the birds’ return, and the blissful song echoing once again in the valley of Longtarai (“Tripura”). Other poets like Jogmaya Chakma and Narendra Debbarma share these fears and dreams.
Between tradition and modernity
The most well-known poet of Arunachal Pradesh is Mamang Dai, who even while writing in English belongs completely to her native land: Where else could we/ be born, where else/ could we belong,/ if not of memory/ divining life and form / out of silence,/ water and mist / the twin gods.. /and the cloud woman/ always calling from the gorge…, she writes remembering the great river that turned away from the old land/ of red-robed men and poisonous ritual ,/ when the seven brothers fled south, echoing a myth about the vanished river (“The Missing Link”). River is a major presence in her Neruda-like poetry. I see your mould/ steadfast, in the outline of the hills./ On your dark shoulder/ lion and tiger/ circle the night. In these hills / the centre of being / one by one/ voices are extinguished, / exorcised,/ blameless,/returning, returning,/we murmur in our sleep (“River Poems”). She is assertive of her hope and her faith in the sacredness of things: One by one, we’ll recover/ the ornaments of grace:/I look at you,/ I see rivers of summer rain/ In your eyes/the forest lingers./ Some things are sacred. She sees the evening as a medicine-maker testing the symptoms of breath and demise. Attachment is a gift of time,/ the evening’s potion provides/ heaven’s alchemy / in chromosomes of light / lighting cloud-fires/ in the thumb-prints of the sky. In “The Voice of the Mountains” Mamang says: We live in territories forever ancient and new./ and we as we speak in changing languages,/ I, also, leave my spear leaning by the tree/ and try to make a sign. And elsewhere: I am the woman lost in translation/ who survives, with happiness to carry on. She does not want to speak of victory though her people have climbed every slope and slept by the river: We do not know if the language we speak/ belongs to a written past./ Nothing is certain (“An Obscure Place”). She, like others in her generation, seems to occupy that obscure place between tradition and modernity, a predicament she also deals with in her memorable book, The Legends of Pensam. Yumlam Tana also speaks of this dilemma when he says he is wearing kurta-pyjama which is not traditional like pomo-jupung and he lays claim to the Bible as well as the Quran and the Gita and all that man has created (“The Kurta and the Pyjama”).
Reflecting the new culture
Mizoram, which has passed through a painful stage of the erosion of village institutions and the traditional social fabric and the consequent urbanisation, is rich in poetry—written in Mizo as well as in English—that reflects the new culture, with poets like Mona Zote, H. Ramdinthari, Cherrie L. Chhangte, L. Khiangte and L. Biakliana. In Ramdinthari’s world the swish of rain and wind/ is a thief’s blue dream with its silk-spun threat and a lot of things happen before dawn while / the sly moon keeps watching. (“At the Sleeping Sawmill”). He is a poet of the atmosphere, creating beautiful natural contexts for love as in “Thinking of You”. Mona Zote has a very contemporary sensibility, a fine sense of rhythm, striking imagery and an eye for detail like shy snake-berries hiding under a mess of leaves, looking like drops of blood /from a deer’s flank or the gecko crying Mary, Mary from the roof (“Mary Winchester”) or a sheet of unnoticed music gathering about us and smothering us quietly (“This is So”).
Music tells the woman in the hills: 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. She finds a desert waiting for her and would have a hard drink before she walks into it (“What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril”). Cherrie Chhangte in her “Plea” asks to be demystified and demythologised so that she would be a temporal reality, a real woman with flesh and blood and human failings and feelings, not a shadow, an idol or an intangible memory. She is angry when treated by the self-proclaimed “Indians” as an ethnic curiosity or an anthropological or political specimen and asserts: An Indian looks like me, an Indian is Me (“What Does an Indian Look Like”).
Rooted in tradition
Modern Khasi poets share a deep sense of cultural loss caused by the different phases of colonisation and try to establish a link between their racial memory and oral literature partly lost due to the Welsh “civilising mission”, and global modernism. The poets of Meghalaya like Desmond Kharmawphlang, Esther Siyem and Kynpham Sing Nogkynrih are deeply rooted in tradition even while reaching out to the modern reader. We come to learn, not to teach, / We come with longing, we are the/ Forgetful generation, our hearts tapping/ A rhythm spawned in shame, a shame/ that splits our present from the past: this plea the Khasi poet Desmond Kharmawphlang makes on behalf of the city men is an expression of the new generation’s desire to retrieve their original self from the false one imposed on them by foreigners (“Letter from Pahambir”). He grows bitter in lines like: You stricken land, how they love/ Your teeming soil, your bruised children./One of them told me, ‘You know,/ Yours is a truly metropolitan city’. (“The Conquest”).
Esther Siyem draws her themes from the folklore and recasts them in the modern context as in “Retelling Nam’s Tale”. Like the African and Caribbean poets, she creates a new kind of rhythm using Khasi refrains and learns that this heaven/ the unmatchable suitor / promises me,/ has never been mine, / will never be mine. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih is more outspoken about the political situation of Meghalaya. He sees the colour of disgorging blood when he opens his eyes and hence he closes them and shades them with his palm when red is replaced by life-erasing black. These are the colours of truth and destiny, the same with which warring pawns/ are daily decorating our towns (“The Colours of Truth”). He celebrates the beauty of Sohra (“Cherrapunjee”) while recollecting a legend about its gorges having been caused by the death throes of a man-eating serpent, the Thlen. Come to Sohra and get wet, / unbothered by the stains of mud (“A Day in Sohra”). He has this to say about contemporary poetry from his land: Dear brother, we live in our memory/ in the memory of the world:/ stoking that memory with fondness/ is all that we can do. / We can do no more / we can do no less.