The Poet as Chronicler: An Overview of Contemporary Poetry in Northeast India

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In this essay written specially for this edition, Kynpham Sing Nongkyrnrih takes a look at poetry from the seven states of the Northeast and finds that it can now be characterised as, in the words of Tariq Ali, a “literature of real conflict.”

Most critiques on the poetry of Northeast India by analysts from the mainland would commonly carry flamboyant headlines like ‘Poetry in the Time of Terror’, ‘Poetry from the Troubled Zone’ (1) and so forth. A cursory look at these headlines would tempt one to think that the mainlanders are unduly engrossed with sensationalising anything to do with the Northeast, including poetry. But if the truth be told, there is a good reason for the region’s poetry to be described in these startling terms, and when this is done by serious literary commentators, it may be safe to assume that this reason goes beyond the need to sensationalise the subject.

The Northeast is, of course, not the homogeneous province it is made out to be by many. Its seven states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura are inhabited by such an assorted conglomeration of peoples, with such a melange of cultures, languages and religions that it would be simply an injustice to make any generalised statement about them. And yet, despite this confusion of tribes and sub-tribes, cultures and languages, the literatures of the region are not as tangled as may be imagined and some broad statements could still be made about them.

Modern poetry in the region could be found in the free verse of Bengali, Assamese, Manipuri and those tribal poets of the different states who write in these languages and in English. In stark contrast to the “neo-Victorian windiness” (2) which marks the poetry of some of the hill tribes, these writers, with their extensive reading of modern world literature, do passionately grapple with some of the psychological and social difficulties of present-day life. Having “cut their teeth on Lorca, Seferis, Arghezi, Neruda and the hard-edged modernists of the Third World” (3) they find common ground in chronicling their subjective realities and the particular predicament of their people.

Writing a foreword to the Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast (4), Jayanta Mahapatra draws attention to this common ground, the shared values and concerns of the North-East poets: “Undoubtedly it is poetry that unites us. It is the poets who will not keep us away from one another, who will not separate us. This is the strongest feeling one gets when one reads these poems from the very different regions of the Northeast.” Why is the poetry of contemporary Northeast unifying?

Of his own poetry Neruda writes:

The frontier regions sank their roots into my poetry and these roots have never been able to wrench themselves out. My life is a long pilgrimage that is always turning on itself, always returning to the woods in the south, to the forest lost to me. (5)

This same rootedness is visible everywhere in the poetry of the North-East poets today. The roots of their beloved land; the roots of their people’s culture; the roots of their times; and most of all, the roots of the past that is ‘lost’ to them, have sunken deep into their poetry. And this is the chief reason why their poetry is found to be so bonding even though it may come from “very different regions . . .”

That these poets are bound together by their great love for the land and everything that it signifies could be seen in the overwhelming presence of nature in many of their poems as they carefully and imaginatively, and often romantically, try to chronicle its peculiar sights and sounds. But in their patriotism the poets are not blind to the fact that their land, is also “The Land of the Half-humans” where “For six months just head without body, six months just body without/ head . . .” (6). This disease is what the editors of the anthology call “the banality of corruption and the banality of terror.” The proliferation of corruption is best described in the words of the Khasi poet laureate, Soso Tham, who had, way back in 1936, said: “Government, Justice, Advocate,/ It glues with pus the Silver Piece.” (7). Added to this frightening condition is the menace of the gun and terrorism that came with ethnic cleansing and the growth of militant nationalism whose demands vary from greater autonomy to outright sovereignty.

In this kind of atmosphere the poet inevitably becomes a non-objective and involved chronicler, and the poetry that he writes is what Tariq Ali calls the literature of “real conflict.” (8). This is what characterises modern poetry in the Northeast.

Reacting to the rampant corruption the poets resort to the only weapon available to them – satire. There is a lot of it in their poetry as they denounce, with anger and disgust, those who are turning the place into a habitation of headless and bodiless monsters. Their irony is double-edged as they rail others and themselves in the same breath. But the hallmark of their satire is their sardonic humour as they ridicule their self-serving servants of the people. Chandrakanta Murasingh’s ‘Of a Minister’ is a brilliant example condemning the nihilism of those in power in one telling line: “The minister has neither inside, nor outside.”

But as the poets denounce, with lyrical grace, corruption like a moral teacher, they are more ambivalent towards insurgency in the sense that while they talk of the perils of terrorism, they also talk of the greater peril of lawmen turning terrorists. But whatever may be the case, as the common man gets caught in the crossfire between insurgents and security forces, the poetry becomes more and more a reflection of this reign of terror. The image of the gun, “thrummed calmly and gently by fingers,” (9) comes from every corner of the region, while the only “Colours of Truth” for most of the poets here are “disgorging blood” and “life-erasing black.” (10). In this poetry of a strife-torn world there is a pervading sense of pity at all the wanton bloodletting, and only rarely does one come across a sanguine statement as “the haunting madhavi escapes the rustle of spring,/ acrid with the smell of gunpowder.” (11)

In his review of the anthology (12), Rabindra K. Swain observes, “A land torn by terrorism can get balm only from a sage-like poet [like] Nilmani Phookan. He can only think in the line of ‘an earth warm with love.’ . . . In his quest for spiritual uplift, relief from the contemporary turbulence, Phookan seeks shelter in the legend of the protective Da-Parbatiya.” It is true that myth and tribal folklore are among the core subject matters of the Northeast poets in general. But there is certainly more to it than mere Romantic escapism. As the poets see their people – often themselves included – losing their way completely in the violent cultural changes of the times, there is born a desire in them to rehabilitate the past as high culture, for they realise that in every myth is embedded the wisdom of the race and that every legend speaks in symbolic overtones. Their quest, as such, is for this wisdom so that:

Like a child who absorbs his strength and energy from the mother and who takes care of her in return, we too should first sink our roots into our own Past. (13)

What has been done in this essay is to highlight the common ground and identify the broad themes that most typify modern poetry in the Northeast. But it would be a mistake to typecast the poets on this basis alone. There is in the Northeast an “uneasy coexistence of paradoxical worlds such as the folk and the westernised, virgin forests and car-choked streets, ethnic cleansers and the parasites of democracy, ancestral values and flagrant corruption, resurgent nativism and the sensitive outsider’s predicament . . .” (14). As chroniclers of their subjective realities, the poets of the region do reflect in their poetry this “world of eerie contradictions” (15) even as they explore their own mindscapes and the many-layered complexities of human relationships. But if after reading the poems from the region, Mahapatra still feels that “They certainly convey, in spite of our differences, our commonality and mutuality,” it is because these poets, living with the ugliness of the times, “cannot merely indulge in verbal wizardry and woolly aesthetics but must perforce” (16) write what Leigh Hunt calls the poetry of “felt thought.” Therein rests the universality of their poetry.

Interview with Chandrakanta Murasingh
Interview with Nilmani Phookan

1) The titles are from reviews in The Telegraph, 19 September by Rajlakshmi Bhattacharya; Kavya Bharati, No. 15, 2003 by Rana Nayar.

2)Nigel Jenkins, “Thomas Jones and the Lost Book of the Khasis.” The New Welsh Review 21 (1993): 56-82.

3) Ibid.

4) Jayanta Mahapatra, ‘Foreword’. Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast, ed. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin S. Ngangom (Shillong: North-Eastern Hill University, 2003) xi-xii. From here on the book will be simply referred to as the anthology.

5) Pablo Neruda, Memoirs, trans. Hardie St. Martin (Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1984) 191.

6) Thangjam Ibopishak, ‘The Land of the Half-humans’. See 4 above. 93-4.

7) Soso Tham, Ki Sngi ba Rim U Hynñiew Trep (Shillong: Primrose Gatphoh, 1976) 14.

8) Tariq Ali, ‘Literature and Market Realism’. New Left Review 199 (1993): 22.

9) Saratchand Thiyam, ‘Gun’. See 4 above. 106.

10) Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, ‘The Colours of Truth’. Kavya Bharati 15 (2003): 51.

11) Chandrakanta Murasingh, ‘Forest – 1987’. See 4 above. 254.

12) Rabindra K. Swain, ‘Some Things Are Sacred’. Chandrabhaga 9 (2004): 115-23.

13) Soso Tham, ‘Ka Jingpynshai’. See 9 above. x-xvii.

14) See 4 above. ix.

15) Rana Nayar, ‘Poetry from the Troubled Zone’. See 10 above. 125-31.

16) See 4 above. ix.

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