CLOSE READING - Talent robbed in translation : Shalim M Hussain

Tattooed with taboos is an anthology of 77 poems by three women poets who try to understand what it means to be a young Manipuri woman. Like most of the recent literature from India’s Northeast, the answer is struggle. The poems are divided into three categories – ‘Tattooed with Taboos’, ‘Angst for Homeland’ and ‘Love and Longingness’ (sic). The first set deals with the woman question – the problem of female sexuality and the possibility of and need for emancipation. However, it is a very political and essentially Manipuri question. The second set moves slightly away from this theme to the wider political condition in a Manipur torn between tradition and change. Again, this is not an un-gendered condition as the problem of politics is strongly embedded in the femininity of the women poets. The third set is a collection of ‘love poems’. However, the love and longing is only sometimes about romantic or sexual love. Mostly, the tone is severely sarcastic and the style one of parody.
Tattooed with Taboos
Chaoba Phuritshabam,
Shreema Ningombam,
Soibam Haripriya
Siroi Publlications and
Loktakleima Publications, 2011
`200, 133 pages
The book is, however, an example of how a great deal of talent is lost for the want of a good editor. Atrocious grammatical errors and a generous amount of clich├ęs make some of the better poems almost unreadable. For a very long time, Indian English Literature, especially the literature produced from non-metropolitan areas has been criticised for exhibiting a ruggedness of translation. Sadly, many of the poems in this collection suffer from that drawback. The translation of thought from the languages of Manipur to English is not very smooth and betrays the process. Some of the phrases are out of place and in a few places the idiom seems to be borrowed directly from the mother language. Confusion of tenses is another hindrance to smooth reading.
The third poem in the first set, Soibam’s ‘I Died a Little’ deals with the three stages of a woman’s life – puberty, loss of virginity and marriage. It is through these rites of passage that the persona is introduced to the patriarchal codes set for a woman and her individuality dies a little while passing through the three steps. A few common images run through the poems. One is the Swiftian technique of using the image of clothes as an extended metaphor. In Soibam’s ‘Of Clothes and Robes’, a sash represents individualism and femininity and the persona’s act of replacing it with another sash under the influence of other voices that speak of ‘freedom’ and ‘culture’ represents the polarised political situation of Manipur. The sexual politics of women’s clothing, especially the traditional phanek, surfaces heavily in the poems of Shreema Ningombam. In ‘Unburdening Dead Spirits’, ‘To the Ema Lairembi’ and others, the ‘uncleanliness’ and inauspiciousness of the phanek are celebrated. Shreema’s poems are red-eyed and restless. The female personas are charged with the energy of protest and are unwilling to adjust within patriarchal norms. In the poem ‘One Last Time’, a phrase of which forms the title of the anthology, the woman seeks emancipation through the pursuit of prohibited pleasures and the reversal of societal codes. However, the frenzy is interspersed with absolutely delicate gems like ‘In Red’ where the surrealism shifts from gloom to mellowness and the magical concluding line: ‘No, you must go before the night turns red’ is filled with yearning.
Chaoba Phuritshabam’s poems are less energetic and unlike Shreema’s personas, the voices here are more universal. The language of the poems, however, is simple and unassuming. It is this property that gives a sharp edge to their meaning. Sample the business-like tone adopted in the poem ‘Fruits of Your Taste’ where varieties of female bodies are put on display for the male gaze:

Welcome to the market of fruits
Some are like your favourite apple
Some looks (sic) like your juicy orange…

Chaoba’s ‘Questions on her’ is placed strategically at the end of the ‘Tattooed with Taboos’ section. In its analogy between the prostitution of a woman and the prostitution of the Loktak Lake, it anticipates the next section, ‘Angst for Homeland.’ This section deals basically with the identity crisis of the average Manipuri women. ‘Between two flags’ depicts the problem of a state caught between its monarchical past and its current status as a state of the Indian Union. ‘Patriot of My Land’ shows how power corrupts the self-proclaimed liberator. For Shreema, home and mother are indistinguishable from homeland and the angst arises from the feeling of strangeness on revisiting the primeval stage after a period of experience. The phanek ‘stained with primeval blood’ returns to remind us that the angst is, again, very gendered and personalised. The conflict between the new and the memory of the old is summarised in the first stanza of ‘Broken’:

I am home and they are still here
The streets still scarred
These hills still in reverie
Which one is more sore?
The broken strings of your guitar
Or the broken notes of their Pena

The analogy between the guitar and the Pena resonates with the guitar/balalaika pair in The Scorpions’ ‘Wings of Change’, though in an exactly opposite context. The home gives the persona everything except, like the tragic Mughal prince,

… a tiny corner
To rest at long last
Broken bones of our hearts.
Soibam’s poems in this section are vitriolic attacks on various aspects of the Indian democracy, especially ‘India whining’ as opposed to ‘India shining.’ In ‘Another Polish for My Nails’, my favourite poem from this set, an ordinary voter pines after the politician like a beloved waiting for her lover to fulfil his ‘promises.’ The electoral ink is satirised as a lover’s gift of nail polish for his beloved. The poem concludes in a mock-pining note

Yet I believed
Like a love struck luckless lover
I wish I have (sic) chosen
Another polish for my nails.

The final section, ‘Love and Longingness’ (sic) is the weakest link in the anthology. The metaphors are stale and the language is stiff and prosaic. Shreema’s ‘Becoming of You in Me’ is heavy on metaphysical conceit but the selection of words and syntactic errors make the poem almost unbearable. Only Soibam delivers in this set. In her pleasantly caustic love-letter-like ‘To the Researcher,’ the relationship between the government survey analyst and a villager is parodied as a romantic relationship. The language shifts between a lover’s rebuke and a song of yearning.

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