FRONTISPIECE - In Search of Freedoms – Contemporary Poetry in English from Manipur : Preetika Venkatakrishnan

 Why is poetry emanating from Manipur so deeply entrenched in images of the bullet and the gun? Preetika Venkatakrishnan tries to find an answer

Why do the poetry anthologies edited by Ranjit Hoskote, Jeet Thayil and Eunice de Souza, which have now come to showcase contemporary Indian poetry in English, not feature even a single voice from Manipur? Have we slighted regional writing in English while canonising mainstream poets who have turned solipsistic and failed to unravel what it means to be human in radical circumstances? Why was Irom Sharmila’s poetry from Manipur singled out by publishers in New Delhi to be published as an individual collection? With these uncomfortable questions in mind, when I travelled to Imphal in 2011 and met up with a few writers, observations made by two poets summed up for me the essential struggle taking place in the poetry of Manipur. Moreover, they dramatised an experience quite alien to those writing from the mainland. On a drizzly, dank January morning, while discussing the literature from the valley, poet Yumlembam Ibomcha spoke of how his soul is in violence, morbidly suggesting that he could be killed by any kind of bullet. When Robin S Ngangom added that the people of the region were put to a loyalty test every day, that they had to prove to the rest of the country they were Indians too, the anguish of the poet provoked insights into the political and human needs for artistic expressions about Manipur:

Poetry about Manipur
shares its intent with
Latin American
‘testimonios’ and
Third World poetry
of witness
My home is a gun
pressed against both temples
a knock on a night that has not ended
a torch lit long after the theft
a sonnet about body counts
undoubtedly raped
definitely abandoned
in a tryst with destiny.

(‘My Invented Land’)

The poets writing in precarious times seek for their art a liberating role that is deeply sensitive to a land bloodied by secessionist demands for territory, draconian counter-insurgent measures like the AFSPA, which operates under a perverse principle that you are guilty until proven innocent, and more recently, an intensification of communal intolerance that has ironically overtaken resentment for GoI. The poet writing about Manipur then, primarily gives testimonies for a trying period in history and articulates the anxieties of a large, dispossessed population. What evolves in the process is a poetics of violence that alternates between impressionistic images, surreal crossings between the real and the unreal and a realism that reiterates the stagnation of life albeit in unadventurous symbolism. In an article that examines the recent history of poetry from the state, ‘Contemporary Manipuri Poetry – An Overview’ (2007), Ngangom describes the dominant mode of writing as ‘a poetry of survival’.
In the much varied and substantial corpus of poetry from Manipur that has been made available in English through the translations of T Bijoykumar Singh and Ngangom, works of Laishram Samarendra written in the 1950s ushered in a pioneering modernist venture. In what appears to be an economical style speckled with a wry sense of humour, the poet searches for the humane in society. For instance, in the poem ‘Baby-land,’ pointing up serious political issues as petty childish squabbles, he defamiliarises ‘image’. Later, in the hands of the two ‘angry young poets’ who began publishing in the 1970s, Thangjam Ibopishak and Ibomcha, dissent and the avant-gardist undertones of the surreal became tools to cope with the overbearing violence in Manipur. In an interview with Ngangom, Ibomcha points out the inadequacy of traditional linear forms to represent the realities of a people in crisis that compelled him to stage a ‘huge mad laugh’ in his poetry. His poem ‘Story of a Dream’ opens with nauseous images of mangled dead bodies of children oozing blood over which the poet walks, followed by a bizarre profusion of gun muzzles. The poet-persona quite dramatically gets shot, turns euphoric in a heightened state of frenzy and likens bullets to ‘grapes, almonds and raisins’:

It’s hilarious!
It’s hilarious – the sound of gunfire,
It’s the soothing strain of the flute, the sitar, the violin.
It’s more hilarious than I can tell –
Flowers of lovely colours
Blossomed from the barrels of the guns.

‘Derived from a Puppy,’ again delineates a defeated society by using non sequitur, a common surreal technique of humour that results from a disruption of logic. The speaker of the poem, helped by his wife, disguises himself as a tiger. She disrobes him and sketches stripes on his body with colour pens but that does not change his timidity, ‘my throat only emitted/ a ‘miaow, miaow’ like a cat.’ Ibopishak fastidiously builds the tragic-absurdist tour de force in poems like ‘The Land of Half-humans’ and ‘I want to be killed by an Indian bullet.’ In the latter, all five elements of nature that later metamorphose into insurgents conspire to shoot the poet. The poet, however, cashes in on the insurgents’ disdain for everything Indian and escapes unharmed by entreating them to kill him using an Indian bullet. Shock-value, asperity and levity that strengthen the poetics of these angry men give way to a realism that seems to be the stance of Saratchand Thiyam, Ilabanta Yumnam, RK Bhubonsana, Raghu Leisangthem and Arambam Ongbi Memchoubi. Written in elegiac tones with a sincerity that is moving, Thiyam’s poems concern themselves with expansive emotions evoked by a society in ruins that bears resemblance to a ‘mangarak kanbi,’ the ravine where the Meiteis used to throw away the bodies of those who had died unnatural deaths. Thiyam has a knack for depicting pathos in its mostrun-down quotidian forms:

When that youth who journeyed seeking light
Returns covered with a white cloth
Who’d like to receive him?

(‘Gun Muzzle’)

Though a Manipuri poet’s eloquent gift may be the capacity to laugh at oneself to survive dark times, and give to lyric expressions a political flavour, there is also, as observed by Ngangom, a cloying profusion of images of gunpowder and bullets in a section of Manipuri poetry. In their art of subtlety and quiet charm, Memchoubi’s poems make a striking contrast to the hackneyed gunpowder symbolism. For instance, in the poem ‘My Beloved Mother,’ the poet empathises with a hill woman, most likely a Naga, and avoids predictable rhetorical flourishes about hill-valley fluidity.
Another face of Manipuri poetry belongs to poets who write of Manipur in English or are bilingual and may live away from their home state. Foremost among them is Robin S Ngangom, who lives in Shillong and writes about his vexed relationship with his homeland.
Among the younger poets writing in English like Shreema Ningombam and Poreinganba Thangjam, Ningombam is known for her bold feminist poetics:

The wicked wind licks lecherously
Her thighs along which the phanek
Yielding to the wanton wind
The phanek prostrate on the wayside cried ‘Hey woman! You have
dropped me’

She deliberately did not look back
She too is a revolutionary.

(‘The Other Revolutionary’)

Steeped in idioms of desertion and guilt, Ngangom’s poems exude a strong sense of homelessness and a need to transcend territoriality. This and his choice of the lyrical-confessional mode of writing and quite significantly, a debunking of Meitei feudal history and narrow ethnic claims set Ngangom apart from his contemporaries in Manipur. He intertwines sensuous love poetry with history and politics in an inclusive human vision, documenting as it were the violence of maps that create conflict-widows:

I’m the anguish of slashed roots,
the fear of the homeless,
and the desperation of former kisses.
How much land does my enemy need?

Poetry about Manipur then becomes a literary intervention into justice for a people, and shares its intent with Latin American ‘testimonios’ and Third World poetry of witness. If we explore how and in what conditions Manipuri literature becomes the voice of a people, Indian poetry will be richer for it. Simultaneously, it appears important to ask why the poets generalise about violence growing out of insurgency and state control and are reluctant to speak out openly about the hill-valley conflict and communal carnages in the state.

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