A review by TARUN BHARTIYA
The Oxford Anthology of Writings From North-East India : Poetry and Essays
Edited by Tilottoma Misra
Oxford University Press
New Delhi, 2011, 332 Pages / Rs. 595 ISBN 0-19-806749-6
If you are on the marginalisation trip, and India’s North East is your illicit high, you should be worried. In the last ten years, trying to make up for the dark fifty years of Indian ignorance, anthologies of literature from the region have begun to appear almost annually.
But before I get accused of an inside job, a disclosure that I am loathe to make:
I know many of the poets (some of whose biographies smell of Shillong) who feature in The Oxford Anthology of Writings From North-East India : Poetry and Essays. We share little magazines, anthologies, dark bye-lanes of love, anger, feuds, booze, and journeys to find our next fix. So, I promise to dull my taste and leash my judgment. And only occasionally lapse into pointless gossip.
Two parts. 100 pages of poetry. 200 pages of essays. 35 poets representing their states of birth (mostly), and the states arranged alphabetically. 18 essayists in some curiously unfathomable order. And a 20 page introduction by the editor. This is a substantial collection of Poets. It includes most of the canonical Post Indian Independence Literary poets from the region.
But an anthology is not a telephone directory. It is a genre that does not merely gather writers and writing, but weaves their presence into a stance, constructs a tradition (or discovers one), or supposes a thematic attitude to which the writing/writers collected are supposed to contribute. Anthologies are about editorial reason and only then about the writers they are supposed to serve. In a sense they are like Nation-states.
This burden is more acute for the anthologists of North-East India. They have to first work out whether the unit North East is North East of India or North East India or Indian North East or India’s North East? Is it going to be a regional anthology contributing to diversity in Indian Unity or use North East and India as a convenient geographical address to have a gathering of poets? Having figured out the place, the anthologist then has to decide which poets to invite. The one who you like chatting with, or that crusty old fool who is miserly with his drinks but had published the first book of free verse in town, or that girl who broke your heart and sang all about it in a popular recording, or that man whose love poems are all about the boy who died in an encounter with Special Operations Team?
The Editor acknowledges this burden. “The umbrella term ‘North-East’, which is often used as an emotive connotation for the seven states nestled together in one corner of the country, does not actually denote anything more than a geographical region. But, as it happens elsewhere in the world, geography is history in many ways.”
With so many different histories coursing through the region, what histories of this geography is proposed? What assumptions about the country (India that is) does the editor have? The Introduction informs us that ‘three generations of writers of the post-Independence period’ are included here. Which independence is being talked about here? 15th August 1947? But there is 14th August 1947 too, when the Nagas declared their independence? What about Manipur that even ran an independent post-colonial Manipuri administration for two years? Or the Mizos who were bombed by the Indian Airforce? Or Wycliffe Syiem, the Khasi who chose exile into East Pakistan, rather than be a vassal of India?
The historian opens up oddities
Theorises with condensed letters shuffles the past
Learning about it the indigent lot
Burst into laughter years after and sing:
Cunning lads love naïve lasses
History loves the dumb
And none can close the count of the lies of history.
(The Subaltern : Jiban Narah)
In this shuffling of the past, draconian laws like AFSPA are not even mentioned. This regional laboratory of the Indian counter insurgency doctrine (secret killings, village burning) is sublimated into a Human ‘Rightist’ abhorrence of violence.
Do you see –
The flag that has been coloured
By the Blind!
(O Poor Hachukrai: Chandrakanta Murasingh)
It is this damp flutter of the Tricolour which worries Easterine Iralu, who in her speech, anthologized here, points out, “ there is a dismissive neo-colonial attitude towards Naga writing… Some publishers will produce Naga writing only if it is brought under the umbrella of contemporary Indian writing…”
There is no problem choosing to design a book from an Indian perspective but one has to factor in the provisionality of that Nation state as experienced by many in the region. The narrative may get messy, but it at least would not smell surgically safe.
But safe it is. The present volume does not really mess with the canon established by, say, Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast (NEHU, Shillong, 2003) and Dancing Earth, An Anthology of Poetry from North-East India (Penguin India, 2009) both edited by poets Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin S Ngangom.
Unlike the earlier anthologies, which do not really confound themselves with lit-crit apparatus (their introductions are 2 pages and 14 pages long, respectively), the present one calls to be evaluated in its critical claims, and the blue prints of its choice. It is looking for “an intense sense of awareness of the cultural loss and recovery that came with the negotiation with ‘other’ cultures… a recurrent feature of the literatures of the seven north eastern state” (or of most modern literature, I can not resist adding). Moving away from this ‘universal’ truism, we are reminded that, “ while there have been attempts at reviewing and critiquing one’s own society and culture in the light of the new ideas that have invaded the region from time to time, yet whenever xenophobic fear of ‘outsider’ has seized a community, tendency to retreat into the cocoon of cultural isolation has been quite evident.” I tried locating the cocoon, but it had been boiled and silked, and the caterpillar crunched down with salt and chilly flakes.
All of this the book chooses to do by administering the poets into the present provincial divisions of the region. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. It opens well. Mamang Dai as the solitary powerful voice of Arunachal pulls you in with the much anthologised ‘The Voice of the Mountain’. Then Assam, with the pioneer Modernists Navakanta Barua, Nilmani Phookan and Hiren Bhattacharya, covering the existential, formal and socialist terrain of modernist vocabulary. Harekrishna Deka and Nilim Kumar complete the Axomiya Assam pointing towards the ‘tribal’ voices writing in Assamese, like Anupama Basumatary, Sameer Tanti, Jiban Narah and a long overdue nod at the Bengali writing from the Barak Valley represented by Shaktipada Brahmachari (about whom we know nothing, because the book forgets to include his (?) biographical note) and ends with Aruni Kashyap, the youngest who writes in English. The selection, if you ignore the chronological confusion, is comprehensive and significant in mapping modern poetry written in Assamese.
I may be biased, but Manipur has been my pleasure ground of poetry from the region. Unlike Assam whose literary history can be read together with mainland Indian currents, Manipuri literary culture has some serious difficulties in fitting into the Indian imaginary. But don’t expect a history of literary modernism here. It ignores pioneers like Laishram Samarendra, incidentally a year older than Assamese pioneer Navakanta Barua. The crutch of chronology is completely abandoned in Manipur. Oldest, last; youngest somewhere in the middle. Curiously, it also abandons the state criterion, listing Shillong poet Robin S Ngangom, and Gambhini Sorokkhaibam from Tripura, in Manipur. Not satisfied with changing Gambhini Sorokkhaibam’s state, the book also changes her name to Gambhini Devi. But inadvertently, this careless shuffling of time and space helps to let the poetry speak. Although I have read them before in other anthologies, Thangjam Ibopishak, Rajkumar Bhubonsana, Yumlembam Ibomcha, Memchoubi and Saratchanda Thiyam’s playfully innovative, yet historically astute craft, make a nonsense of terror, corruption and pretensions of high Hindu culture. By sketching an unredeemed world, they remind us that thoughts of literary redemption may distract us from the fascinating horror of the real.
With Robin S Ngangom smuggled out to Manipur, the absence of Late Bevan Swer’s pioneering Khasi free verse or Pijush Dhar’s Bengali reworking of Shillong, my state Meghalaya’s poetic landscape is de-saturated into a monolingual, mono-ethnic grey. Desmond Kharmawphlang and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih do help me remember the excitements of Shillong poetry but de-contextualised and severed from the community of poets, you wouldn’t know their quirks.
And this is where the architecture of this anthology started unraveling for me. It started reading like an official programme note for the Indian Republic Day pageant. The minimal care that is shown in the Assam section vanishes into a ‘representational’ condescension for other states. Mizoram begins with its most exciting and most ‘un-Mizo’ poet, Bihar–born, Shillong–bred Mona Zote, and ends with L. Biakliana, a pre-Independence writer (died 1940) about whom one learns nothing about, because in their rush to collect, edit and publish he(?) is not mentioned in the Notes on Contributors.
With most of the poems having been anthologized earlier, it is interesting to note that there are curious thematic and formal absences as compared to the earlier anthologies. If ‘works… which have introduced new trends’, is the reason for the poet to be there, what about Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s landmark poem Blasphemous Lines for Mother, which he chose to anthologise in Dancing Earth (Penguin 2009). This is a poem whose simultaneous critique and reworking of the mother theme in a matrilineal society left the elite and cultured of Shillong squirming with embarrassment, and complicated the sentimental (NGO) liberal feminisms of academia.
I remember the time when she was a cantankerous
young woman. When she took an afternoon nap,
she was tigerish: ‘You sons of a vagina!’ she
would snarl, ‘you won’t even let me rest for a moment,
sons of a fiend! Come here sons of a beast! If I
get you I’ll lame you! I’ll maim you!… Sons
of a louse! You feed on the flesh that breeds you!
Make a noise again when I sleep and I’ll thrash you
Till you howl like a dog! You irresponsible nitwits!
How will I play the numbers if I don’t get a good
dream? How will I feed you, sons of a lowbred?’
I remember how, having no daughter, she would
Make me wash her blood-stained rags. Refusal
Was out of the question. So, always I would pick
Them with sticks and pestle them in an old iron bucket
Till the water cleared…
[Blasphemous Lines for Mother from Dancing Earth (Penguin 2009)]
Robin S Ngangom or Nilim Kumar, Jiban Narah or Anupama Basumatary all lovely poets of desire corporeal, have the erotic sucked out of their corpus.
…an ebony servant stripped
and laid bare the dark forest path below his navel
and for that
a young woman of widow aspect
sucked me with her unending nights
[Childhood : Nilim Kumar from NEHU Anthology (2003)]
And while we lit our cigarettes
He coughed knowingly in the smoke
While your bent knees made triangles
I saw your private parts, and the evening
Caressing our thighs
Maybe he was a sodomite like us…
[The Mossy Evening : Nilim Kumar from Dancing Earth (Penguin 2009)]
There is a prudish skirting around anything linguistically or morally deviant, homo or hetero. Thangjam Ibopishak may want to be killed by an Indian Bullet (great poem) but he is not allowed to dwell in the land of Half Humans where shitting makes its appearance! Or Yumlembam Ibomcha’s ‘Derived from a Puppy’ is purged because of its marital petticoats, non-existent underwear and a kiss that is actually sexual.
If I was not trying to be correct, I would have called this anthology prissy, but let me call it text bookish, proscribing themes and language so that it can be prescribed in syllabuses, boring generations of literature students to death with the grandiose literary themes, saturated with sentimental and liberal humanism of hope, and the search for ‘elements of commonality’.
This anthology shares with the other anthologies, an obsession with literary textual poetry. It differs from others in an intense angst about the loss of the folk and the muteness of orality or foreignness of language in which the literature is being made. And in both its obsession and angst it manages to ignore the vibrant culture of vernacular poetic songs which the contemporary recording and performative culture has wrought here. Ribald linguistic politics of U N Sunn or Snowwhite (Donboklang Ryntathiang) in Khasi, or Protest rock of Tapta in Manipur, or Scary Truth of The Ceremony (Ben Sooting & Osmond Lu) in Shillong or New Bodo songs or nu-Tea garden folk, none find a place within this sacred hearth of literature.
Interestingly some of the songs extracted in the essay on the Mizo Insurgency Movement and terror lore by Cherrie L Chhangte could easily have made an appearance in the anthology. It is not that some states have not ‘produced a harvest of good poetry’, but the problem lies with the farmer who doesn’t know that millet growing in between the paddy plants can be harvested too.
‘Curfew Kara Suihlunglen’ (Loneliness in the Time of Curfews) by K Rammawia
O, loneliness in the midst of curfews,
The anguish of my heart is beyond words;
My longing for Zoram’s past and Thadangi’s charms
Never will come to an end
Weary night descends like lassitude of cocks at dusk,
Curfew instills terror, and we are homebound;
Do you too, yearn for the ways of old Zoram?
As for me, loneliness forbids me to dwell long on it.
Or the ‘Siasluk Khaw Kan Hla’ song by Laltanpuia about the burning of the village by the Indian army which sees Every hilltop rife with soldier’s anger like wild elephants. If these be not poetry then our literature is poorer without them. And none of this is ‘liminal’ and in the past as one of the essays here is eager to claim for the folk. Even the Khasi folk is being reworked, re-sung, renewed in writings of peasant poets like Battimai Kurkalang. But, it is academically warmer to lament the past rather than to participate in the chill of the present.
Memory: In Shillong ambling between the poetry sharing chai-shop and the dark intoxicating practise rooms of musicians who sometimes for a change would come and read their songs for the poets as they tasted more curfew dates while we now get our anthologies.
Truncated, and randomized, yet the anthology inadvertently allows the poems to offer an out from the prison of simplistic consoling ideologies of hope and solutions. In a courageous, bleak and (hopefully) tragic responses ranging from Mona Zote’s nihilistic muse
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.
The sudden bullet to the head. Thus she sits, calmly gathered.
(What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril, Mona Zote)
to Yumlembam Ibomcha’s absurdist bearing witness:
In the next birth
I shall take birth as a bastard
You should also take birth as one
Then let’s meet at an ownerless shack of the marketplace
You and I freely.
(For the Next Birth, Yumlembam Ibomcha)
But Poetry only constitutes 1/3rd of this volume. I have 200 pages of essays that range ‘from the philosophical to the analytical and the descriptive’. We are not told why we should be paying for the essays. Are they guides to the region or guides to the literature? Or are they the best of non-fiction prose? Being an academic dkhar, not interested in the ways and tongues of academia, I thought of letting the essays go by but that would have been a mistake.
There are some good histories of Manipuri, Mizo and Kokborok literature (mostly done by poets and fiction writers), outlining literary histories of their respective nationalities and communities, filling in the silences and essentialism of the introduction. For instance, reading Margaret Ch. Zama on Mizo Literature, you hear the term ‘Concentration Camp’, describing the Public Punishment Village (Protected Progressive Village) to which villagers were brought in after their villages were burnt, and not a ‘painful interlude’ as Mr. B. G. Vergheses’ insensitive description quoted in the introduction.
But it is not the descriptive or personal which the introduction flags, but the theoretical and academic. So we are told that Mrinal Miri’s Metaphysical musings on the Spiritual and Moral is going to comment on ‘uniqueness of tribal vision of life’, but after making one go through 12 pages of philosophical prose, he devotes 2 paragraphs to this uniqueness and dishes philosophical cute: “The episteme of tribal vision is … is continuous between the natural, the moral and the spiritual.” Noble Savage, but now with an episteme.
While on the epistemic, I found that some of the essays (and the introduction) dangerously flirt with a Hindu notion of India. Birendranath Dutta goes in search of Hindu-Aryan elements in the folklore and folklives of North-East, because to him, “there is so much here that is obviously of all-India affiliation.” Yes there is, but not just Hindu. A more than eight-century-old History of Islam and especially Sufi Islam and its conversations with ‘Hindu’ heterodoxies in the region cannot be written out that easily.
It gets worse. The much-trumpeted inclusion of Barak valley Sylheti writing, is all Hindu. What about the Bengali Muslims? Are they all illegal, not worth the critical? An essay full of Derrida-Butler-Spivak-Said contributing to Sokalistic gibberish about the Sylheti narratives of immigration is finally all about Hindu Sylhetis. No overdetermination here.
Reading through simplistic assertions in labyrinthine academese of some of the pieces, made me sympathise with Easterine Iralu’s dismay in her essay, at the low expectations of the mainland publishers from this geographical area, making the walls of the prison more visible for the creative writers in the region.
Even in this collection the creative unmasking of nationalist readings of Assamese peasant ballads by Udayon Misra or the nuanced reading of two Arunachali writers writing in Assamese in the editor’s own essay, point to an existence of a much more interesting and variegated reflective writing available from the region, but annoyingly absent from the selection. Sanjib Baruah, A. Bimol Akoijam, or the new Assamese revisionist historians, or Naga intellectuals like Dolly Kikon or journalists like Pradip Phanjoubam or Mona Zote’s essays about Aizawl… the reason for their absence in favour of some of the banal printed here, escapes me.
But let me get away soon from my Ohs to Ouch.
This volume of poetry and essays also has a ‘separated at birth’ volume of fiction, which you cannot ignore because the introduction refers fictitiously to ‘the fiction in this volume’. When I glanced at the companion (in the bookshop), I realized that the same introduction, line by line, word for word, theory by theory appears there too. Interesting marketing strategy. Hopefully the publishers enjoin the volumes, so that the introduction doesn’t seem a mistake. I don’t dispute the blurb in its claim that all appears has been carefully selected, but the editing surely was lackadaisical.
How else do you explain the Notes on Contributors forgetting to list some contributors? Or seven nonexistent plates of photographs, making a run of the mill art historical essay turn meaningless for the readers because it keeps inviting them to look at plate 1 to plate 7. The Introduction refers to a new voice called Thanesia whose English poems are in this anthology and then forgets to include him (?), either in the poetry section, or contributors’ list or contents? When I flipped through the fiction volume, I realized why Thanseia (not Thanesia) is not in the poetry volume, he is a fiction writer and he writes mostly in Mizo not English.
This cut and paste ‘anthology’ is turning me into an auditor, not a reviewer. In this shoddy, cut and paste India , thanks to H D Deve Gowda, every central government department since 1996, is forced to spend 10% of its annual budget on its stapled appendage called the North-East to develop its troubles away. So it is no longer lack of money or lack of attention that plagues the region, but a lack of people’s auditing of this expenditure and attention. The Political economy that kick-started with this ten percent has meant rushed seminars, useless crumbling roads, and departments of North East studies from Diphu to Delhi… Moral lapses involved in this 10% non-lapsable fund from India is creating its own pacifying forms of ‘epistemic enunciations’ of which this anthology is a minor piece.
Even if the publishers ignore my ideological irritation, the editorial and publishing ouches call for a new revised edition. But recall is not happening soon. This ten percent land in the throes of something-is-better-than-nothing times does not acknowledge damaged goods.
As in, conference for peace is better than struggle for justice…
I know I must stop agonizing
(Perhaps I am the only one who broods about his land)
Even if people say
suffering must reach new heights
for a new beginning.
but whenever I touch my homeland’s streets
everyone seems happy and have no grouses.
(Everywhere I Go; Robin S Ngangom)
(Tarun Bhartiya is a Hindi poet and filmmaker based in Shillong. But mostly he does politics. A shorter version has appeared in Biblio.)