Yumlembam Ibomcha Singh (born 1949) is one of the leading poets from the North-eastern state of Manipur. A poet and a short fiction writer, he has won various awards, including the Manipur State Kala Akademi Award for literature (1974), the Sahitya Akademi Award (1991) and the Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize (2008). Since the publication of his first volume of poetry in 1973, he has published three more collections. He lives in Imphal, the state capital of Manipur.
Most striking in these five poems, translated by poet Robin Ngangom, is the Yumlembam Ibomcha Singh’s choice to respond to crisis with a spirit of exuberant comedy rather than lament or grim despair. In a region stalked by insurgency and terror (perpetuated both with and without the collusion of the state), the poet asserts his right to play witness without turning victim.
The alchemy of a quirky imagination can transform bullets into grapes, the muzzle of a gun into the caress of a young woman, gunfire into the notes of a sitar, wives into moles, poets into drongos, lovers into goddesses. Death and menace loom close in these poems, but there are still graceful women, and men to admire them. Bomb blasts and gunfire are seldom far away, but still the confident and hopeful celebrate the age-old business of living. The everyday world of political debate, strikes and shootouts is invoked with the same matter-of-factness as these surreal and comic images. The emergent vision is irrepressibly farcical.
And yet, the humour grows darker and the critique more direct in ‘For the Next Birth’, in which the poet declares that the only way to ensure a level playing-field in today’s world is for everyone to embrace an ethic of brutal expediency and naked greed: “You should live—/ grabbing / snatching / digging from mouths of others / then we’ll meet, you and I.” Perhaps the most disturbing suggestion in the poem is that the wilderness of the marketplace spells not just equality but freedom. It is freedom not just from family, kinship, love and morality bur from a life of perpetual dread and anxiety: “even if only for a few moments, / let us embrace / for a moment without fear.”
An uncomfortable thought to carry away in the midst of the “huge mad laughter” that it is the poet’s mission to evoke.
Rajkumari Amasung Uchek Machasing, Sh. Gopal Sharma, V.I. Publications, Imphal, 1992
Sandrembi Thoraklo Nahum Ponjel Sabige, V.I. Publications, Imphal, 1973
Shingnaba Vol. I & II, Imphal, 1972
Numitti Asum Thengjillakli, P. Brojendra, Writers Forum, Imphal, 1990; Sh. Gopal Sharma, Poknapham Publications, Imphal, 1999
Varnamala: Some more of Ibomcha’s poems.
Muse India: Robin Ngangom gives an overview of contemporary Manipuri Poetry.