ALTERNATIVE POETRY OF THE NORTHEAST

Robin S Ngangom takes a closer look at some of the poetry written in English language


This article was originally published by the Imphal Free Press on 19 April 2014

It would be pointless to ask the new generation of poets from the Northeast who writes in English why they have chosen the colonizer’s language. The politics of language no longer concerns them; linguistic quarrels for them might well have been consigned to the archives of literary history. On the contrary, the new generation writes with a confidence which would be the envy of their older fellow poets.

In the English language poetry of the Northeast, one can discern an emerging tradition, an alternative to the poetry pioneered by the metropolitan poets of the 1960s and their present-day descendants. Schooled as they were in the Pound-Eliot academy, these metropolitan poets perfected a detached, formal, craft-driven poetry. It is a self-regarding, albeit passionless, ‘internationally minded’ pursuit, motivated by a fashionable philosophy of exile and alienation. The poetry of the Northeast, on the other hand, can be ‘statemental’ in comparison to the verbally-dazzling metropolitan artefact, rooted as against the alienated stance of modernist city poets, autobiographical as against the impersonal. The Northeast poets are also not particularly concerned with technique, form, and symmetry; they are not remarkable experimenters with metre or craft. Their verse often lacks the linguistic sophistication of the metropolitan poets, and read like ‘translations’, as someone pointed out. Further, instead of the expected radical break with the near past, Northeast poetry written in English suggests a continuity with the past.

What are the distinguishing traits of Northeast poetry written in English? It is the native world, most of all, which comes into view in the work of these poets. A predilection for images and motifs drawn from nature is proof that Northeast poetry in English is deeply rooted in the land. ‘Nature’ is not an impassive witness to the existential despair of men and women as in the contemporary wasteland of modernist poets, but a living presence for the Northeast poets, where hills and rivers are also deities (‘Everything has life – rocks, stones, trees, rivers, hills, and all life is sacred,’ says Mamang Dai) and the fates of natives are inevitably intertwined with them. Thus, in spite of the trappings of modernity, the life of most communities of the Northeast is defined by their folk origins. The mythic world still survives at the frontiers of the civilized world, and the ‘folk’ still continues to assume the ‘intensity of reality’ for many. Myths provide a key to the cultural behaviour of a people, but when communities seem to be losing their way in the midst of cultural colonization, mythopoeic poets, out of a deep-seated desire, step in and try to emulate the traditional storytellers and shamans by recalling the lore of the tribe. The chronicling of contemporary events, the fallout of violence above all, is another important aspect of Northeast poetry in English. This has led to the charge that some Northeast poets are unduly obsessed with the poetry of politics and brutality. However, to be a tenacious witness to the agonizing and recurrent political violence without sensationalizing it, is also a risk that the Northeast poet has to undertake often. This is not the poetry of unquestioning ‘nationalism’ in the face of a fear of loss of identity and encroachment of territory and cultural values, but a nervous internalization of the increasingly complex politics of the region.

Could there be regional varieties within English language poetry in India? Regionalism as a literary phenomenon seems to have arrived, the ‘regional’ often perceived in creative friction with the centre. If Mumbai and Delhi constitute the centre of English language poetry in India, Northeast poetry in English makes up the ‘regional’. The alternative tradition offered by Northeast poetry has perhaps created a body of verse that is more approachable. Northeast poetry in English has great variety, the region being the home of diverse communities, speaking different languages and embodying discrete cultures. The poets featured in the supplement represent this variety to an extent.


A Poem for Her
By Anurag Rudra

These days are long and dusty
Do not blame me if I turn to stone
Like a false god. I have seen many a
Sullen afternoon die a slow death
Baring themselves to the hungry night
Like unwilling women selling love
This day, beloved, will it be any different?
Today, like other days, you shall not rouse
As this indifferent commotion recedes
Into the lull of this sunlit funeral
Today, I shall roam these streets again, this
Ancient burden of being a man, weighing
On me, like an insipid, forgotten sin
And we shall remain mere tombstones
In these dusty graves. Will this winter
Promise another bout of hazy memory?
Only these lifeless lines shall banish us
To the hope of this brutal love, and us.
Strangers in this tepid, misty rain
Me
By Aruni Kashyap

Even I have words.
I can clay-mould them
I have languages, literatures
forest songs.
They crawl back centuries,
earthquakes generational.
Grandmas circulated them; with betel nuts
on courtyards under honeyed moons,
like rains, they drench minds, and more—
When first-drenched ones are time-parched,
to the new ones who are parched for stories.
With time, they have descended
Like seasons and mists, to rest with us.
I have tunes too, books
written on bark with earthworm's blood;
they are different,
independent, like these rivers
in my chest, legends- laden
mournful, yet swelling with energy furious
Love-lost like singing spring birds
Anonymous, beyond the hills
Where rivers and rains are born
To flow down as legends, life-blood.
My history is different, defined
by grandmas, rivers, hills,
singing spring birds behind green trees
and seventeen victories.
My words: they have legends in them.
The way tea-leaves run in my veins
instead of blood.
Stories, of new-born speaking from backyard graves
About dogs transforming into man
Man to sheep, goats
And a girl, singing through lime trees,
gourds and lilies from backyards.
And I still wait, for a warm embrace
My throat peacock-parched, in longing
All the rivers from my land
legends, rains weary
Cannot quench my thirst, I need your love
Don't you see,
I'm different?
Even I have words.
Languages, literatures
And stories to tell you
Are you eager to listen, at all?
In the Hills of Seven Huts
By Ibohal Kshetrimayum

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.
Orchards in the hills shivered in winter’s palms,
golden oranges plucked for city bazaars,
a young leaf wanted to go along,
discontented orange tree held it back.
A fleeting rainbow across Noh-Kali-Kai,
a glimpse of her precious final steps,
before she became a waterfall.
Twangs of hammer on hot iron,
a dagger hissed in a bucket of water,
Mylliem’s blacksmiths keep their tradition throbbing.
Mylliem’s giant boulders,
memoirs of the great earthquake,
we were cast out recklessly-
says a mossy stone.
Sunday morning in the church,
a pair of long legs walked past a pew,
a clergyman sighed in agony.
Christmas in Shillong,
roast turkey on the table,
rush of stampeding shoppers,
merchants carol their way to the bank.
A dog swallowing the moon,
beating of empty tins, chasing the dog away,
I became a lunar-eclipse drummer in Shillong’s hills.
I went down on my knees,
and asked God for my Biblical rib,
and I found her snoring gently beside me,
in the hills of seven huts.
Cyril’s Award
By Nabanita Kanungo

Are you sure
what left your bow of habit
on the plains of the Surma,
was a pencil and not an arrow?
What then spirals up from below
to sink into our hearts
that poison-tipped story,
enough to curdle even your darling Europe’s blood?
Tell me whether it was a Hindu or a Muslim night
when you flicked my grandparents to nearby hills..
….and destined dispossession for all times?
They took only the names
of their homesteads and courtyards with them
because only names become of memories
and only memories can be fiddled around with
in a land of blasted palms.
Sun-baked feelings, the nose of dung’s sweet wiped floor,
the golden thatch of desh, nights of bari and bhite,
rustic Lalan* fakir songs are names.
But the sun was killed after the moon
they would have said if they lived to see our impotence.
For only cartography drips from our retro-roof
and we try to plumb the rift with a gooey tongue,
gazing stars of bygone sixty, seventy and ninety year-old faces.
History kills slowly but surely.
Cyril, who are you?
I am a twenty-seven-year-old refugee yesterday
stunted beneath blaming anyone else
and my cheeks are still bloody
with the costly pinch of your charity.
Note:
* desh refers to a sense one’s own country, bari means a home founded on one’s soil and bhite is the hearth therein.
* Lalan fakir was a popular, almost symbolic figure who sang Sylheti folk songs with a sufi touch.
North A.O.C.
By Poireinganba Thangjam

The toothless pimps smile at the passers-by
from the second floor of the three-storey building
like wooden puppets in the market.
Then a wayward wind wafts in with such license,
the income tax collector sulks in a corner.
It swept the wine tumblers down like an invisible broom.
Where its drops fell down the wooden floor
someone screamed just down below
“Blood, Blood”
and the homeland security drove in lazily with exhausted sirens
like an experienced gambler lurking in rummy shades.
Everybody ran under the sheltering sky
as the search for a murdered corpse began.
Sixty minute ticks of the weary clock and
they couldn’t find a dead body anywhere,
so fired two shots on the ground floor making up for lost time
where the carpenter and his wife Seema rented a place to sleep
upsetting the Bihari coolis as they slept with their iron hooks.
The sugar traders at the top floor with spring-board arses
pounded buttocks over the roof-tiles, jumping over the other buildings
while the over-fed prostitutes chattered in naked Burmese
as the policemen drove away in their olive green combat vehicles,
and I, in my rickshaw, swollen-eyed cycled back
believing they had just killed my lover and his man.
One Day, Ema!
By Shreema Ningombam

It will rain
And you will unbind your hair and wash it
In the slow dripping from the thatch
One day
The flowers will bloom
In your dark mystique bun
As if they were never plucked
One day
The wind will carry the scent
Of your fresh steamed rice
Through the corners of this ravaged street
One day
They will come
For whom you have waited for so long
In this life or in this death
One day
The rainbow will color
The ashen shawl around your bosom
With your darling shades
One day
Your children will fling open
The eternally closed gates
With the cries of “Ema! Ema!”
One day
The kites will fly
In your blue sky with tails of freedom
With no one to harness them
One day
I will garland your neck
With the wreath so painstakingly woven
As you walk past the triumphant crowd
One day…Ema.

* ‘Ema’: Manipuri word for mother.

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