“A need to leave the water knows” by Nitoo Das
Does the day break
With the sound of guns?
It breaks with the cry
Of that bird
Which nibbles through
The night’s darkness
These lines from Nirmal Prabha Bordoloi’s poem “Dawn” address the irony of human existence and freedom within the paradigm of a larger society which holds the key to any form of agency in the Northeast, and would be the best way to introduce the symphony of verse formations in the contemporary times. Looking at the limitations of the canon of Indian Poetry in English, as it presently stands, it is important to etch out some of the issues that remain controversial and in need of address. In delving into politics of canon-making from within specific and consciously constructed categories, the myth-folk-unity manifested in poetry from this part of India has been hitherto stereotyped under conventional mainstream formulations. This essay will attempt to suggest ways in which multiple possibilities could be addressed in order to create ways of reading literary texts that are inclusive and expressive of subjective realities. Indeed, in resisting stagnant definitions and cultural hegemony, we are looking at ‘Northeast Literature’ as an amorphous category. Hence, one of the alternate approaches would be to figure out the multiple possibilities, and the discourses emerging from this sphere in terms of poetry, arts, literatures and other popular representations.
That literature from the Northeast is conflict literature is a huge myth because these poets writing in English share the romanticism and mytho-poetic vision of their vernacular counterparts both past and present. The common bond of poetic sensibility is predominated by love for the land, nature, myths, narrative tribal folklore. The universal coherence of these poets, gets reflected in their love for the land and the love of humanity which coalesce into surreal images.[ii] The interactive nature of their poetry helps to form an integrated, committed and conscious discourse on the present times. Rooted and autobiographical, these poets are also not particularly concerned with technique, form, and symmetry; they are not remarkable experimenters with metre or craft. It has been noted that contemporary verse from the Northeast subverts all compartmentalised definitions of rootedness and rootlessness. Often lacking the linguistic sophistication of the metropolitan poets, perhaps the fluid nature of diversity in this body of work renders it impossible to form the canon. Further, these poets create a ‘mytho-poesis’ that acknowledges individual creativity as a living experience. Joseph Campbell writes that this communication itself will function as a living myth. But this is true only if one’s recognition and response to the mythic images are uncoerced. He goes on to express the characteristics of this communication carries “a mythological canon, symbolically organized, ineffable in import by which the energies of aspiration are evoked and gathered toward a focus.”[iii]
While at one level, Northeast writing developed as an opposition to Indian English writing and this tradition was perpetuated particularly through poetry, some writers and poets however feel that they need to write about conflict because the national media and the mainstream haven’t spoken about it with empathy. However, that doesn’t mean that the only stories from Northeast are about conflict, the subterranean tales are never brought to the focus of academic syllabi, just as there are stories of floods and terror, there are also stories of love and peace. This means that our approach to reading conflict in any genre of literature also needs to be undertaken with subjectivity and care because one of the most important mediums of connecting different cultures is fiction and the perspective to which that fictional work is written go a long way in building bridges that can be cultural, literary and political.
Mamang Dai’s poems landscape the past and the present with recurrent images embedded in nature. They are not just an impassive witness to the existential despair of men and women as in the contemporary wasteland of modernist poets (who form the canon of Indian Poetry in English), but a living presence for small scale commotions. Mamang Dai and her philosophy of animism is reflected in the poem ‘Green in the time of flood’:
Time is a miracle where the colour green is wrapped
in the stillness of waiting
like the birth of days before time,
and every night the rain cloud descends,
yet the meaning of words is dancing before our eyes
in the mysterious fire of a single flame
lit from the fire of your hands
In many parts of the Northeast, Christianity has not been able to totally displace the local folk religion but co-exists and beside it lies an uneasy tension. The animistic worldview contains both the observed or physical world and the unseen or spirit world without any sharp distinction between the two realities; what happens in one affects the other. The earth plays a prominent role because it is viewed as a living entity and Mamang Dai’s verse resonates with the ecofeminist trends of contemporary times, though her characters have bodily connections with nature, this is not the Euro-centric association between women’s bodies and a degraded nature; it is rather a reconfiguring of nature, bodies, and the relationship between humans and the natural world. To use Stacy Alaimo’s terms from Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space, it is a “grounded immersion [in nature] rather than bodiless flight [from nature]and how it reconstructs and redefines gender, nature, and the body partly through a denial of value hierarchies and value dualisms”.
I am the woman lost in translation
who survives, with happiness to carry on./../
I am the place where memory escapes
the myth of time,
I am the sleep in the mind of the mountain[iv]
These lines talk of the bodies of men and women who are personified with the help of tribal(animist) associations with nature, and partly through a re-conceptualization of nature as a dynamic agent. The past re-creates itself, with the rocks, the clouds, the estuary mouth, who have been a testimony in this poem that ‘peace is a falsity’. In an interview with Subash N. Jeyan[v], Dai says, “Ours is an oral tradition you know, I was trying to meet people and collect and record these oral narratives. You know, the small histories which were getting lost and when you talk to people even small things can trigger these memories off”.
In her book Legends of Pensam she investigates primitive customs and beliefs of her people to recount the many legends that influence the lives of Adis. Her documentation of these tribal lores, ensures that they are preserved and not lost and forgotten in the sweep of modernisation[vi].
Anjum Hasan’s poetry finds solace in spaces that are not just antagonistic, but flows out of one another. Deep longing and alienation in these poems are choked with an awareness of existential despair. Memories become subterfuges in her poems, taking the cue from the chapter, ‘the dialectics of outside and inside’, her poems “Where I now live” and “Distant Gods” seem to question “Where can one flee, where find refuge? In what shelter can one take refuge ? Space is nothing but a horrible “inside-outside”.[vii]
In the poem “My Folks” the poet characterises certain uncharacteristic qualities of her clan/folks, who despite having ‘hills in their blood’ seem to be moving out of the hills, and who, despite being story tellers ‘with vast memories’ have ‘no name-plates.’ On a similar note, the poem ‘hills’ portrays a multi-dimensional view to the understanding of the solemn hills. They are ‘clichéd things’ they are ‘metaphor for every loveliness’ and ‘home’ too. Perhaps the divided persona of the poet who is not domiciled surrounds the culture scape of Anjum’s poems; it is a celebration of a cosmopolitan outlook which keeps moving back and forth with the nostalgic artifacts in her evocative poems and her novels, too.
Robin Ngangom, a Manipuri poet from Shillong, employs clean and fresh images that paint elegiac vignettes of scenes like the persevering poetry of Jayanta Mahapatra. In “This Stranger, My Daughter,” “The Landscape of Return,” “The Face” and “The Faces” striking images float, highlighting a melancholic overview and his frantic search for identity. Both the poets steep their verse into tones that are now conversational, now dramatic, now lyrical, now prosaic, and simultaneously honest. Ngangom while commenting on the aesthetics of experience and not just aesthetics of style says living with the menace of the gun does not permit him to indulge in verbal wizardry or woolly aesthetics, but is a constant reminder that he must perforce master the art of witness. The hills of Manipur and Meghalaya haunt him passionately as he celebrates their ecological glory blending the traditional pattern of life with the modes of transition:
on eastern hills,
Hills with spires of churches
hills with rice-fields for siblings
hills with genial steps
where earth’s tribes
Robin’s second collection of poetry, Time’s Crossroads, has been divided into two parts: ‘Poems of Love and Despair’ and ‘Poems of Time and Tide’. The ‘lost times’ bring peace to the mind as a token of immutable love. He says “The poet loses his metaphors, when you don’t return, and he merely repeats himself in the dreadful arithmetic of the day…/…./The murmuring river is hushed as it loses its course in a sunless kingdom/…/And I write these letters of winter, asking you to return to the hills, on grey pages I send you happiness because it has left my home…”[ix]. Poetry for him bridges the gap between the paradoxical worlds of the primitive and the modern, and forages an identity that has been homogenised by the lens of the mainstream while discussing the land of the clouds.
…Above all this poem is not for you or about you,
even though I am jealous of the widowed city
that holds you in her embrace../../
It is not a poem that will speak of the things for which we have no remedy..[x]
These lines from Mona Zote’s ‘Anti-love poem’ stands out because of its questioning of the whole purpose of poetry, similar to Uddipana Goswami’s rhetorical lines
…They were dreamers who thought poetry
Was about nation, revolution, freedom/../
Their dreams died as they slept…
The already entangled issues of identity, style, content, is compounded here not only by the dissent (political) brewing within the region but also by the all conspicuous asymmetric power relation between centre and the Northeast. Uddipana Goswami’s subversive verses are also iconoclastic, in inspiration and function. In her poem ‘Mother Goddess Kamakhya’, the power of images and myths provide a verbal representation of hunger and satiation of the goddess, as understood in the conventional religious sense of the term (the archetypal destructive goddess). She says:
The mother goddess loves blood.
She drinks thirstily
Goat-blood, pigeon-blood, bull-blood.
And once a year, she menstruates.
A great event: the only time her devotees
Consider menstrual blood sacred.
(You cannot worship a vagina
And expect it will not menstruate)
satirising the political bloodletting of the Northeast culture-scape through the female experience of menstruation, which is often subjected to constraints of controlling hunger and fasting.
The body, as a visual expression, actively participates in the transmission of myths and folklore. The mythological narrative or legend surpasses the aesthetic line of vision. Such an extraordinary way to use the body as a visual expression of the native cultures should be recognised, valued and studied. Every part of the body is used to express and say something. Body as a site that is exploited is a recurrent motif of poems by Nitoo Das, Uddipana Goswami, Nabina Das among others. Northeast poetry could then be contexualised within the body-politic too.
Kynpham S. Nongkynrih’s poem “Sundori” has a musical tragic quality, which is achieved through the device of repetition that emphasises the blame game in the region and rings like drumbeats. He writes
Yesterday one of my people
Killed one of your people
And one of your people
Killed one of my people
Today they have both sworn
To kill on sight…
Ananya Guha while referring to this poem states that Kynpham “leaves one gratified to taste his poetic impulses; range and flexibility as a poet. From love, politics, satire and the world of Nature typified by his home land, Nongkynrih emerges as a very astute craftsman chiselling horizons of poetic edges with every poem. What is striking in his poetry is always an after thought as the poet can infuse the lyrical with the satirical, the humorous or love or the political at the same time…”[xi]
Desmond L Kharmawphlang, a poet and folklorist writes “I wintered in its silken cacoon and a season later I was spun into thread whistling looms: I became a folktale. Deft fingers plucked me and I exited the tale, grafted my tongue of experience: I became a proverb”, to suggest the living rhythm of oral literatures that bind the tribal lives in harmony. In discussing the problems of poetry in translation and its influence in folk life, he says: “The imperviousness of languages and texts to translation is not a new phenomenon, but the exigencies of the problem were felt primarily by poets with an interest in folklore, anthropology, and linguistics and among folklorists, anthropologists and linguists with an interest in poetry. This led to the development of Ethno-poetics, which studies creative expression of non-western and marginal cultures through translation, performance, and criticism”[xii].
In order to specify the myths of cultures the term “folk-myth” has been found handy. The oral-written continuum can be stressed here to make the tribal literary study fundamentally useful. The co-operation between the folklorist, the poet and the historian can be a possible way of bridging the several fissures that occur while forming criticisms over such a huge body of work.
Temsula Ao from Nagaland is a prominent poetess whose concern with the loss of identity is often portrayed through use of myths intricate in the ancient Ao-Naga religion. She describes an Ao-Naga folk belief that the transient human soul takes the form of a bird, or an insect in “Soul-bird”:
They are chanting prayers,
But I watch a lonely hawk
Amidst the swirling blue..
The mourners depart
From this obscure bit
Of disturbed earth…[xiii]
Such a metamorphosis is of enormous importance to the memory of people, the sighting of birds, especially hawks (‘See that keening bird in the sky? / That’s your mother’s soul/saying her final goodbye..’) is considered the last appearance of the loved one on earth.
Temsula Ao’s poem, “Stone-people from Lungterok”, comprehends all knowledge (‘the poetic and the politic’) that is transmitted orally and all crafts and techniques are learnt by imitation and example as well as the product of such crafts. In this process, folk poetry, craft, dance, rituals become forms of ‘folk speech’ holding significance of expression within folk literature. Folklore is an echo of the past (‘ Stone-people, savage and sage, who sprang out of Lungterok’) but at the same time a vigorous voice of the present, so we are looking at the timelessness of such an understanding that is past and that have been facing tussles under forces of social stratification. Here, folks and myths provide a metamorphosis too, when communities seem to be losing their way in the midst of cultural colonisation, the traditional storytellers and shamans could be evoked to recall the lore of the tribe.
The power of the poetic image in Y. Ibomcha’s poems ‘Story of a dream’ is enormous because the traumatising objects become the erotic, bullets become ‘luscious fruits’. It is interesting how the ‘thanatos’ (death) is overpowered by ‘eros’ (of the senses/life/love). In the poem ‘the rivers are deeply moving’, natural sands ‘soak up ancient stories’ while the river carries ‘tremulous memory-shadows’. The waves are overwrought ‘like aroused breasts of newly married women’ as boats float on the river and the image reminisces about their ‘poignant maidenhood’ The poet, (and eventually the reader) on seeing through the image begins to see the way the image sees itself. David Miller[xiv] suggests, this reflects “transparency of soul” and calls the strategy “poetic in the extreme.” Miller means metaphor turned diaphor. This, he says, implies “a certain transparency both within oneself and toward all things”.
Interweaving folklore and sexuality has remained a contested domain as it traces the link of the community to their history, as well as to a historical tradition of resistance. Oral expressions help in the representation of a sub-culture, whose imprints have been denied adequate space within the dominant discourses of class and gender. Poetry from the Northeast too constructs gender consciousness and espouses on a society liberated from any form of authoritarianism. Mona Zote says “Mizo society is so inherently self-contradictory that it took me a while to see it’s just the same old patterns of patriarchy and class at work here as elsewhere”. This is evident in her fragmentary styled poems like “Rez” where the ‘boy and his gun’ becomes an image that sums up our times; likewise, in ‘What poetry means to Ernestina in peril’ voices out how farcical institutions like the Church has made ‘drunks of us all’ and a poem should remind a woman in the hills of ‘sweat and dusty slaughter’, ‘raw like a side of beef’.
Nitoo Das’ poetry deal with the inner conscience of women that is equally political and performative. ‘How to cut a fish’[xv] draws our attention to the ‘victimhood’ of the fish, of the ‘body’ that is to be soon consumed despite the ‘resistance of the white flesh staring eye’. Because the constitution of the entire fish will have to be dismantled and wrecked, to leave no bones intact so that they ‘do not disturb afterwards’. The imagery and tonal contours of the voice speaking in the poem ranges from the raw to the violent; yet the violence evoked would be more of the organic sort than alluding to anything destructive. The corporeality of the two bodies (just as a master and a slave) – that of the fish being cut and of the one cutting it – is juxtaposed.
From this inner world, we move to the subtle exploration into the outer with Nabina Das. A contemporary poet from Assam writing in English, she touches on nostalgia that food and memory carries in the prose-poem ‘Come, Aitaa’[xvi], in which the current of socio-political underpinnings cannot be ignored or wished away. The conjoining of the personal and the political, the inert and the violently volatile, all combine to create a dreamscape that is at once beautiful and shocking. “Come Aitaa, she says… we want radishes in this year’s garden green gourds climbing a common fence, sure, you can have some also coriander to sprinkle on the pitika for a late afternoon meal bhoot-jolokia that no one will eat, the army fancies it now we know the newspapers have it all, the tea shops get their fortune told; Come Aitaa, Let’s talk about the one-legged pigs and calves born this year the ducks that won’t stop chasing the hens even if you yelled, about the corner-shop Bipin I’m not sure, his ma died crying for he was gone in the forest, they say, to become an insurgent, but the mother said… to find the old dog Gela of the mangy coat–to those stories Aitaa, my answers are slippery feet on oil… I’d have to invent a new fairytale”.
The oral-written continuum is evident from this instance; if asymmetrical relations of power have established what is the projection of interior turmoil, neo-colonialism and terrorism do seem to go hand in hand. The grandmother’s (Aitaa) plight here may be comparable not only to the woman speaker but also to that of the subject of a form of domination to which she has no access, let alone any control over.
Another trend of contemporary cyber-poetry from the Northeast that has arisen over the past decade dwells on the interactive nature and connectedness of the worldwide web with poetry that is integrated, feminist, interactive, committed, and conscious of itself. How do we classify this assemblage of cyber-poetry then, where the personal becomes the political, where verses subvert traditional tales of history and mythology, simultaneously detaching the poets and creating realms that they are very affectionate of ? Cyber-poetry could also be a way of challenging the print – elite culture which dominates the process of canon-building. As chroniclers of paradoxical realities, Northeast poetry could also be read through the “presence of myths and legends from a past that is still within touching distance of the present, as it were. These add a different dimension to these works. Indeed, we must also look at English translations of original works to get a full flavour of this rich legacy of legends and myths that still live even today”. [xvii]
The language of poetry from the Northeast is thus multi-faceted. Aruni Kashyap, poet, author and translator, says “Sometimes I wonder how different my first year in Delhi University would have been if the ‘Twentieth Century Indian Writing course’ had included at least one author from North East India in its syllabus. During those years, Indira Goswami was heading the Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies Department of Delhi University; yet, her stories weren’t included in the syllabus of the English department of India’s premier university. If her brilliant novel The Moth Eaten Howdah of a Tusker, about the turbulent life of three high-caste widows in a religious monastery in Southern Assam, was part of the syllabus, people would have known about an Assam without the shadow of the gun, an Assam without ‘some terrorist activity…”[xviii]
To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture[xix]. As these poets have themselves pointed out, the politics of language no longer concerns them, as English is used for subversive intent. However, one needs to highlight the current trends of a new readership outside the Northeast. As Mitra Phukan writes, the metro-isation of the Northeast is a trend more visible in the world of publishing and writing. Every publishing house worth its name is today seeking out and finding writers from the Northeast. Thus, English, the metro-ised language, becomes the key to unravel the linguistic complexities of such a diverse literary mosaic. However it is not so simple, because more often than not, it is through English that the literatures of the region have been homogenised. Even the few institutes which offer courses on these writings club them as “Northeast literature” with compulsory background readings on insurgency and tribal conflicts, while the realms of harmony in folklore, myths, ecological features are kept under the surface. So while unsettling the canon of Indian Poetry in English, it is through language that we fall back into the trap of creating counter-canons, and thereby reading poetry from the Northeast solely from the perspective of political crisis can lead to stagnancy of another plethora of writing that also captures the mundane breathe of an individual who has absolutely no access to the policy makers of his area.
Nilamani Phookan’s lines “Poetry is for those who wouldn’t read it, … for the anxiety in fire and water, for the mothers of five hundred million sick and starving children, for the fear of the moon turning red as blood…” is a discourse of class and speaks truly of the audience of poetry as a genre. In the recent years, marketing nostalgia and terror through literature has become almost an erudite exercise, and the very nature of canon seems to be against shedding the shackles of class. This raises a few debatable questions, “Do we reject the canon of Indian Poetry in English entirely?” “What are the consequences of reading the Northeast through the representations of a class of elitist poets who have had the advantage of English instruction and who cannot be easily accessed by the lower classes?” “Does it lead to romanticising the victims of everyday dissent and suffering and gets thrice removed from reality?” “Does the poet become a passive observer of the world around him?”
The intervention of a translator also determines readership. Much that is written about today in the fictions and poetry in English coming out of the Northeast has never been placed through this language, before an “English reading public”. This obviously also is a play of class even within the northeastern region too, as writing in English was naturally the only way to get published. Another issue here would be, without a translator what would happen of the “unwritten word”, the oral folklore, which is poetry too? In the poem “An Obscure Place” Mamang Dai speaks about the unheard tales of her home which have an oral legacy that is shamanic in nature.
The history of our race
begins with the place of stories.
We do not know if the language we speak
belongs to a written past.
Nothing is certain.[xx]
One of the complications of translated poetry and language differences, as A.K Ramanujan points out in ‘The Interior Landscape’[xxi], is that of ‘translating a non-native reader into a native one’. He states that the translations and the afterword (which some readers may prefer to read first) are two parts of one effort. Anyone translating a poem into a foreign language is, at the same time, trying to translate a foreign reader into a native one.
There is thus a need to adopt a more holistic appreciation of Indian literatures which can create a form of inter-connectedness across the country, yet retain their indigenous flavour of diverse genres and cultures that we co-habit. Just as writers like Rushdie and Walcott refuse to see the English language as a barrier, using it for its pan-Indian, inter-regional versatility , Northeast poets writing in English too are convinced that the English language is now , ‘the property of the imagination’. The ethno-socio-linguistic components can only be cast as a pattern of the poetic abundance in the region. The emerging multiple perspectives help to deconstruct the multilayered reality of the region and the people and in turn enrich the poetry canon.
In the words of Aruni Kashyap: “…Writers from the Northeast do not write with a sense of regret or bitterness though their fiction emerges from a very violent and brutally exploited region. Though India has a tenuous relationship with its northeastern states this fraught bonding seeps into the fiction (poetry) of this region in complex ways and as if stresses that fiction isn’t a place for confrontation, but of integration, of connection. In fact, I believe, anger is a tiny and insignificant emotion to write from…”[xxii]
Northeast poetry is a symphony of narratives, songs, folklore, myths and nuanced storytelling that wishes to transcend its expiatory aspects. As has often been pointed out, oral poetry is a way people transmit their culture, law, tradition, ceremonies, generation after generation; the purpose of poetry is not so much representation as the earnest endeavour of producing an effect, which is at the same time aesthetic and emotional. In fact, it is important to question the ‘wooly aesthetics’ of the arm-chair poets and critics studied under the canon of Indian Poetry in English.
Reading poetry from the Northeast is but a moment of confronting such paradoxes and yet focusing on the melody that is ever-present as conflict of the conscience pervades all great poetry of the world. The complexities of multiculturalism and cultural diversity, particularly in societies with both indigenous and immigrant communities (also illegal immigrants in the recent decades), require cultural policies to check any form of hegemony in the realm of literary expressions. A challenge to both the domiciled and the poet living outside the region lies in the fact that while lying at the heart of a community’s identity and cultural heritage, they are representing phenomena that are constantly recreated and studied in retrospect, as poets and artists also bring innovative perspectives to their work. Therefore, traditional creativity is marked by a dynamic interplay between collective and individual creativity and it is significant to locate this dynamic within the parameter of academics too. A genre of immense potential, the myth and folk visions of poetry from the Northeast are ever-changing, and will evolve its alternative vistas further, in the years to come.
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[i] Bordoloi, Nirmal Prabha, ‘Dawn’ Bezbaruah. D.N trans. Dancing Earth, An anthology of poetry from North-East. India pg 73
[ii] Guha, Ananya .S. March 2011. “North East Indian Poetry: ‘Peace’ in Violence” in The Enchanting Verses International
[v] The Hindu, Jan 3, 2010, accessed:20 April 2013
[viii]Ngangom, Robin. 2009. ‘When you do not return’ Dancing Earth , An anthology of poetry from North-East. 198-200
[ix]————————-(1988) Words and the Silence, Calcutta: Writers Workshop.
[xii] Kharmawphlang, Deshmond. ‘Why Ethno-poetics’, Indian folklore, serial no.27 November 2007, pg 8-9
[xiii] Ao, Temsula. ‘Soul bird’ 2009. Dancing Earth , An anthology of poetry from North-East. pg 4-5
[xv] Das. Nitoo, Boki. 2008 page 82
[xix] Fanon, Frantz. 1952. Black Skin, White masks
[xxi] Ramanujan. A.K ‘Theory and practice of translation’ (114-141) Vinay Dharwardker, Post-colonial Translation Theory and Practice , Susan Bassnett and Harish Trivedi, ed. 1999 Routeldge.