Tag Archives: Issue 8

INTERPRETATIONS OF LOVE

Mihir Vatsa

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

I

To love
is to be in a battlefield
after ceasefire
to sense your hand
over my skin breaking
in the sun
to know the colour
of our clothes and yet
search in that difference
for warmth within
the fabric
to wait
together for our people
to take us home in
photo frames
to wait
together for vultures
in the waning sky—
without moving
without speaking.

II

There is certain friendship among cars
waiting at a red light; between you and I,

laughing at them. If urbanity is culture,
we could put honks into a song and play it

through earphones, discover peace
in irreverence. Our mothers could

probably wake up after such a dream,
not us, who live by the noise of the city.

And where must these professionals go,
if not away from homes, from walls

that personalise, from families unaware
of their ten-a-day smoking habit.

The next green breaks the infant trysts;
we inhale silence like mountain air,

greedily, hungrily, unsure if it could
ever return from disrupting intervals.

I shadow your fingers on the table. We
love each other without falling in love,

speak when nothing makes a sound,
& stay still, the warmth of your hand

melting my shadow.

***

Mihir VatsaMihir Vatsa grew up in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, and currently attends Delhi University for an MA in English. Winner of the 2013 Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize and a 2014 Toto Award for Writing, his poems appear in SOFTBLOWEclectica MagazineUCity Review, and The Four Quarters Magazine, among others.

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BLESS THE BROKEN PATH

 Mildred K Barya

© Divya Adusumilli 2014

© Divya Adusumilli 2014

I’m restless, fixing myself a second cup of coffee, feeling no desire to pick up a brush and paint. So I read The Daily Monitor from the first page to the last. Normally, I skip the Sports page because I’m never interested. Now, The Cranes—our soccer team—has beaten South Africa’s 3-1. The Heathens, our rugby team, after triumphs over Kenya, has scored 51 points versus South Africa’s 44, in the International World Rugby Cup, and will proceed to play against New Zealand, and then Italy. I realize the young coach, Mutamba Davis, was in my political science study group at Makerere University. His eyes always smiling, I didn’t think of him as particularly competitive. Now I see from his photo the poise of challenge, the muscular body slightly leaning in, hands gripping the ball, left foot forward, ready to run.

But it’s the Arts page that absorbs me; pictures from Gallery Kitgum, and the woman who owns it. A tremor runs through me as I take in the most scarred face I’ve ever seen. I hold the newspaper close to my eyes and run my finger across the image to be sure it’s not the print creases. Once in a while you find a page that has malfunctioned during the printing process. One irregular child that still must keep company with the others. But no such glitch, she’s an acid victim probably, or war casualty. Patches of pink, grey, and black all over her face, cheeks pulled towards the neck. Even the flesh on her hands, bust, legs, and feet seems to have been scissored and sewed roughly together, textured gravel. There’s no telling her age, without eyebrows and eyelashes, but I’d say 50 or above. The story reveals that she’s in her late-twenties. We’re in the same age group.

I’m sweaty and furious because throughout the article, the woman is referred to as the Artist. Without a name. We are many artists; we could do with a name. Her provoking sculptures remind me of Murambi Memorial Centre in Kigali. An obsession grips me. I want to meet her.

You have to take this trip, a voice inside me compels.

The only time I ever went to Northern Uganda was to bury my best friend, Akwap. We were tight like peas and carrots during our studies at the University, and remained so after we completed and left the campus. She introduced me to her friends: Aisu, Arot, and Akitoi, who also became my friends. My first task was how to tell them apart.

“Do all your names have to begin with A, Tweedledum and Tweedledee except there’s three of you.”

“Don’t insult us,” Arot said, and smiled broadly, revealing a gap in her front upper teeth. Milk-white, her gum raven, I envied her. What else to say to keep her smiling?

“What does Mugera mean?” Aisu asked me, her voice like a dove song.

“A river.”

I was the only one from the western region. Akitoi said hers meant a tree, so I called her Akitree, and she let go a ripple of laughter, deep and distinct.

I looked at Arot inquiringly. She was the tallest among us. Where you have a tree there is a giraffe, I was thinking.

“A road,” she said.

“The one taken or less travelled?”

“You’re incredible, really,” Arot said, shaking her head.

Me, admiring her long neck. Really liking her.

Two distinct lines like they were curved across her neck by a pencil, another mark of beauty among my people. Some young women I knew tried starving themselves and stretching their necks in exercise, hoping to get at least one line. I saw clearly how Arot stood out. Her face was ordinary but the fact that she had rare things; lines on her long neck, a natural gap in her white teeth, black gums, in addition to tallness; slender up, full-figured downwards—what we called figure six—she was beyond extraordinary. Who knew what else lay fathomless beneath her supple skin?

I already knew Akwap’s name stood for “earth.”

“Don’t you feel like Atlas carrying the whole earth?” I teased. “At least a river flows on its own.”

That’s how we joked about our people’s fascination with symbols, our desire to break free, yet somehow, we also found moments of pride.

Aisu said she was “the wilderness,” and we all burst out laughing. My gospel-filled mind imagined John the Baptist running in a tattered cloak, hair unkempt, scraping bits of honey and syrup off trees, catching locusts for food, because that’s all he could find in his wilderness.

“Wait till you hear what names the South Africans came up with at the end of Apartheid,” Aisu said, and we agreed we were outdone. “Wall, Wardrobe, China, House, No-violet, No-purple, No-blue and so on.”

I started calling us the five green bottles hanging on the wall. Now four are dead. Never would I open my mouth to sing that depressing nursery song. I was terrified I’d started a joke that took on a frightening reality. A nightmare to see one green bottle hanging on the wall and think, will I fall too?

We’d made plans in 2003 to open a studio together when we returned from Christmas holidays; the only time most of us left work and the city to visit our families and birthplace. I never missed celebrating Christmas in the village with my parents and siblings. While I headed west, the girls went north. The last time I saw them was when I accompanied them to their bus park. They boarded Gulu Coach, and I left with Akitoi’s laugh in my ears, luxuriant joy when she recognized an old friend on the bus.

Wiggling my way out of the park, I turned casually and looked at the bus, the number plate catching my attention. Ever since I was young, I’ve always been drawn to number plates. When I was four, dad’s friend visited once in a white van. He passed away when I was twelve, and I remember instantly asking my dad: the one with UVT 131 van? He was stoned, struck by what I could remember. I notice and store number plates even when I don’t consciously aim to do so. I know most of my friends’ by heart, and I’ve started to put some in my paintings with just a little manipulation here and there.

Back home, I was feeling at ease, having packed my bag and ready to leave for my village the next day. Late in the evening, I sat down to eat dinner and switched on the T.V news. I placed my feet on the coffee table, plate on my lap, and the image of a bus took centre stage as the reporter’s icon moved to a corner. “Kony rebels attack,” the reporter was saying, people spilling out of the bus, being engulfed in gunfire, the license plate unmistakable before my eyes. Then everything ablaze: people, bags, and vehicle. No, no. This is not happening. This is not the bus my friends boarded. This can’t be real, I told myself, and violently pushed away the plate. I couldn’t scream even when I opened my mouth to do so. I couldn’t move either. I wanted to reach for my phone and call someone, anyone and ask, did you watch the news? Confirm if they saw what I saw, but I stayed where I was, as if glued. In the news repeat it was the bus, same license plate. I felt like I was in the smoke, choking, so I licked the tears streaming down my face and swallowed hard, hoping that once they reached my throat, air could come in.

Three years, the bus park hasn’t changed. I weave my way through the crowds, the bus conductors calling for people, asking if I have luggage, ticket book in hand; ready to receive my fare and issue me a ticket. I take a good look at the Kitgum bus I’m to board. Nile Coach, in blue capital letters across the white background, a red, orange and black pattern of a river stretching from the body into the tires. No premonition. I glance at the Cheetah buses and wonder, between the fastest animal and the river, how do I wish to travel? I go for the river. I have my large thermos flask full of cinnamon-flavoured coffee. I cross myself as I get in, although for a few months now traveling to Northern Uganda has been relatively safe. It’s Southern Sudan and Eastern Congo where wars are raging. Joseph Kony’s children soldiers are blazing the Congo and Central African Republic, while some other rebel with a name like “weed” is wreaking havoc in Southern Sudan. Do these rebels even know what they’re fighting for?

I settle in the aisle seat and place my small bag in the little space between my feet. The passenger on my right falls asleep after we exchange greetings, and I’m thankful to not be the one near a window, in case I see something I’m not prepared for. How can we ever prepare for ambushes anyway? I think we beguile ourselves to even imagine that in war or post-war circumstances we can see trouble coming and know what to do. Throughout the journey I read newspapers and fill out crossword puzzles. The moment we arrive in Kitgum I set out for the gallery.

The entrance to the gallery is narrow and arched. It resembles an ancient church door with shady creepers hanging over it. I stoop to walk through the small passageway and I’m met with darkness. There’s no electricity? I cannot see my hands touching the wall but I feel the wall. I start to imagine giant caterpillars crawling out of the dark to meet me. I’m claustrophobic, even in open spaces. In this dark tunnel, my nerves are fried. Have I been tricked? Eleven hours on the bus and I’ve consumed nothing but a finger of plantain and too much coffee. I don’t want to turn back but what if—? Should I get ready to scream? Cries are a natural response in darkness. Even Jesus cried out when darkness came. I tread on lightly, trying to make as little contact with the ground as possible.

The end of the passage admits light. It leads to a large room that’s painted yellow, a luminous yellow like sunflowers. I remain tense. I take a deep breath.

“You’ve got to work on that entrance,” I say, before I see anyone. The sound of my voice in this mysterious room surprises me. It feels contained, as if I’m speaking from a large box, as if no one might hear me beyond the walls. I look around and see big, varnished shelves that give off a rich coffee hue. I swipe one nearest me with my index finger. Not a speck of dust. Newly polished. Coffee-smell. It could be my breath, or does the polish give off the aroma of Uganda Robusta coffee?

Suddenly I feel someone standing right behind me. Say something positive, a voice inside my head. You know how dust easily settles on things. Compliment the shining.

“This is spick and span,” I’m touching the shelves again. Forcing a smile.

“Don’t touch.”

Her voice is commanding but gentle.

She removes a white cloth from a drawer and starts cleaning. OCD candidate, I suppose. She also applies polish. Whiff of coffee, ah.

Now that she’s focused on cleaning what can be cleaned, what has been cleaned again and again, I can look at her face, and try to appear as if I’m not scanning her. I don’t want to be caught. The face in the newspaper didn’t lie: scarred beyond recognition. Whoever did this to her deserves to rot in hell. But if it was an accident, say she was driving and lost control of the vehicle, then it’s a miracle she survived at all.

“We paint the walls every six months,” she says, wiping the walls.

At the mention of “we” I look around but there’s no one. Not even another visitor.

“Inside is fine but that entrance,” I say, with my nose in the air.

“Yet you came in.”

“Why that way?”

“Humility is a forgotten virtue.”

Not another theology, please.

Stepping further in, I realize some of the shelves contain systematic arrangements of severed parts, heads to toes, the human body inglorious. Hands reaching nowhere. Elbows. Lips. Legs. Knees. Breasts. What looks like penises… and then, small skulls—probably children—medium skulls, large skulls. What if she’s a witch instead of an artist?

I stretch my hands to touch. To my amazement I’m not afraid. I stare into the skulls intently looking back at me.

“I warned you not to touch.”

This time her voice is electric. Knife-edge.

“Hey, relax.”

She tries to smile. All I see is the large star-like scar on her upper lip. I take my eyes off her and lay them on the skulls. There’s a warm sensation in my left hand that’s making me ache to touch, as I move from one collection to another. I fight to restrain myself. I close my eyes and pray this temptation will pass. How did she infuse this kind of yearning into her work? Her creations are not that special, not extraordinary, I’m thinking; body parts, bones, yet I’m pulled in.

I feel her following me but I do not hear any footsteps. Not even mine. We’ve become ghostly. The carvings have bewitched us. In my daze faces appear. Five green bottles crowding my head. It’s the coffee it’s the remembering it’s this strange place it’s the hunger it’s this woman trailing me… Boom. I fall into a cabinet filled with more wood skulls.

“I’m really sorry.”

“I know who you are,” the artist says with something that looks like a teasing glare.

“That’s terrible,” I say, because I don’t want to be known by her, but she laughs.

I know that laugh. Only one person—

“You’ve forgotten me, Mugera.”

She’s regarding me intensely and continues, “I’m meant to be a river, but sometimes I feel like a reservoir.”

I used to say that.

“Akitoi, really?”

Glancing around perhaps to make sure we won’t be interrupted, she then opens her blouse.

“Here,” she touches the mole near her left ribcage. “Liberate yourself.”

I hug her.

She grips me so fiercely she’s bound to leave marks.

“I didn’t die.”

“Clearly—”

We laugh and cry.

Whatever had me edgy releases me. I cup her face in the palms of my hands like I used to. At first she says no, and pulls back. But in remembrance perhaps, she steps forward and allows my hands to feel her face. We counted acne and traced the mole, felt our skin’s texture and believed we would always know one another even with our eyes closed. I could tell Akitoi from Akwap, Aisu, and Arot, with the touch of my hand.

“What about the others?”

She puts her hand across my back as she walks me to a section marked, “Special.”

“If you look at that round, peaceful mask on the second shelf, you’ll see it’s meant to be Akwap. And that one over there with a self-assured look, it’s our proud Aisu. Check her wide nose, like an avocado. And do you see Arot with her long neck and dangling earrings?”

I close my eyes and see them. When I look at the masks, it’s as if the girls’ spirits have been moulded into them.

“Please let me touch them.”

Although I’m shaking, Akitoi trusts me and puts them in my hands. I embrace them. I sit down holding them closely, thinking, here’s what remains when the flesh is taken, when the heart is gone. What restores. I understand why most of the sculptures are ebony black. Akitoi recreates her dark-skinned people who have been murdered like mosquitoes.

Akitoi says when the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels waylaid the bus, the men who grabbed her dragged her to the bush, raped and cut her many times she lost count.

“Shooting Arot, Aisu, Akwap and others wasn’t enough. Those skunks chopped them up, and set everything on fire. I do not know how I survived. Death did not want me.”

The picture comes: the bus on fire. Afterwards, singed pieces sent to families for burial. There’s a he, she, so and so… Dismembered. It occurs to me the dead may never find peace if they’ve been given the wrong funerals. If their parts have been mixed and assembled wrongly. In an effort to accept closure, families of the ‘deceased’ arranged burial ceremonies. Akitoi documents the slain, renames them.

“For a long time now I’ve been thinking about the word malevolence,” she says. “How come there’s no such a thing as femalevolence?”

That’s a stretch, I want to suggest, but she speaks from memory and personal pain inflicted by males.

“No woman unleashes evil like man. In the origin of language there are no evil females. We will never have a female equivalent of Kony, Hitler, and the rest of them.”

“Alice Lakwena,” I say. In 1986 she proclaimed herself a Holy Spirit warlady and mobilized young men to fight the government and other perceived enemies. She commanded her army to drink and smear themselves with shea oil, that it would repel the enemy’s bullets and turn them into feathers. Thousands died. When she was finally defeated and fled to Kenya, Joseph Kony took what was left of her army, regrouped, and established his own inferno—the Lord’s Resistance Army. In his charge hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced.

Akitoi shakes her head. “She was delusional and quite insane but not malevolent,” she says. “Rape and murder were not her way, and she didn’t kidnap children or tell her soldiers to cut up bodies of the victims, cook and eat them as a booster for bravery.”

This is an argument I do not wish to sustain or win, so I listen. She talks until the sun sets, hiding its nakedness in the darkness of night. She talks until the owls come out to sing dirges. She talks until there’s nothing but blackness around us, and my head is full of fragmented images. How to comfort her? Say I understand? Where are the right words when you need them? When we finally say goodnight, I approach the bed she’s made for me like a still river, deep with silence.

In my quiet before I fall asleep I wonder why she did not reach me. Why she kept from me the fact that she was alive. Hadn’t we meshed and melted into the five?

“Five green bottles. Five green—”

“Wake up, Mugera. You’re talking in your sleep.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.”

She had a boyfriend. What became of—?

“Is your boyfriend—”

“Dead.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t kill him.”

“Still.”

It’s not yet dawn but I’m afraid to go back to sleep. I sit up in bed and listen to Akitoi’s breathing. When one is young it is easy to carry hope like a perfumed handkerchief in the pocket. It is easy to be ignorantly happy and fall in the web of stupid yarns. Worry not when in trouble. Spinner of yarns casts dreams, in which a good warrior—a seasoned saver, a skilful hunter—comes to your rescue. He carries you safely to his hut decorated with animal paintings and hand-woven crafts. Leopard skin to walk on, nothing ever to harm you. Falling. They call it love. Common tale, the ending the same: Happily ever after. Stupid. Stupid. Where was the good warrior when my four needed him?

Akitoi leaves her bed and lights a lamp. “You’re awake, I can tell,” she says. “This is the forth night in a row without electricity. “You wonder why we pay the bill.”

“Aren’t you afraid all by yourself?”

“I’m not alone,” she says. “Besides, what’s the worst that can befall me that hasn’t?”

I carry the lamp and follow her to the other room. I watch her polish the girls. She cleans Arot’s eyes, until they sparkle with the passion she always had. It was Arot who said a writer’s journey starts from nothingness, and the painter’s job was to give that nothingness shape. She spoke like that, and for a long time her words walked in my head. I believed them.

Next to be cleaned is Akwap. A mango in my chest, I find it impossible to look while she’s being wiped.

As for Aisu, Akitoi has given her the most sensual and wondrous lips. No wonder, Aisu once held us in her song after one of her brothers died. We had agreed we would comfort her. So we said, why not meet at her favourite coffee place, 1000 Cups? We ordered white coffee. Moral support was on our minds.

As soon as we were seated Aisu started to sing, “Abide with Me.” Our Enya, she imbued the hymn with the mournful emotion of a spiritual. We avoided looking at the waiter hovering around us, and even wished we could leave silently. We’d be a long way gone by the time she finished her song and opened her eyes. But we couldn’t leave, of course. Embarrassed as we were, we seemed stuck to our chairs. By the fourth stanza she transposed down an octave.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;

Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.

Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still, if Thou abide with me…

To our surprise the waiter brought us a bigger pot of coffee and cookies. On the house, he said, and looked admiringly at Aisu. We waited for her to break. But that was all. Alone perhaps, she did break. In our presence she carried on with fortitude so we gave in to her ability to encourage herself.

“Akitoi,” I say, wishing to see myself through her eyes. “If you were to carve me—”

“You’re not dead yet.”

“Do you understand a hypothetical question?”

“Obviously not.”

“I know what you’d be,” I say, turning to her.

“What?”

“Sturdy, like a 300-year-old baobab.”

She looks at me angrily, and I realize the mistake I’ve made. Of all the trees, the baobab has the roughest bark with hard rings forming everywhere. That’s not what I meant.

“We don’t have to talk,” she says. “Let’s be quiet.”

At first I can’t silence my brain. I blame myself for offending her but also think that being alone here, looking the way she does, and me showing up, we’ve forgotten how to make conversation.

My hands begin to twitch, and I wish I had a brush. I hadn’t packed any of my tools, thinking I was making a one-day visit. Now there’s energy in my hands, I want to work. I get a pencil and make sketches till daybreak. Then, I run into town and buy materials. There’s a sense of urgency as I paint. Release, no doubt, but also the feeling that the ink will eventually run dry. Best to seize the gift as long as it lasts. So I stay. I borrow Akitoi’s clothes and share food. We work quietly, take short walks and go to town when we need to make purchases. But mostly we work. We have few visitors, and I have my own workspace.

I do not paint anything but bones. Some look brittle and fragile, easy to break. Others are robust and heavily built. Imposing like concrete towers. Defiant. Unlike Akitoi, I use different food-colours for hues, although I mainly paint black bones. I use henna designs on women’s hands and feet, intricate geometric patterns: tattooed bones.

I give my bones names. Male names like Olemo, which means warrior, Otiang, which means animal. Female names like Aneno, which means I have seen, and Akiru, which means rain.

At night when I retire from painting I lie awake. My eyes feel heavy, but there’s a sweet lightness in my head like I used to get when I drank fermented banana juice. I feel as if I’ve been living too long. I hug the beautiful bones close to my body and I’m comforted. I read Fred D’Aguiar. But he annoys me very much. In The Longest Memory, a dreadful phrase leaps out at me, and attempts to strangle me. “The future is just more of the past waiting to happen.” Go away. The book drops. I do not want to imagine the past or present continuing to happen. Yes, but— he has a point. What point? Back and forth until clarity seeps into my brain: What strangles is fear, it touches my hands and I get up: begin to paint bodies and faces, not just bones. The future must have space among the breathing, among flesh and blood. Akitoi is awake too in her workroom. I hear her carving. I feel so good. Swelling. I’m rising, rising, flowing and flooding the canvas.

When I’m done I show Akitoi my paintings, wondering how she might react. She looks at them carefully, one to another.

#1

Children with lips parted in horrifying screams. Flies feasting on drooping tongues, chests bloated.

#2

Parents crying. Their tears and agony stem from a place buried deep where children can never return. These parents…if they could, they’d pay with all they’ve got for a little ignorance. They know too much and it cannot save them.

#3

Crowds killed and hurriedly bundled. Buried in mass graves. One cannot tell how many they are. It would be a bad sign for the government. International watchdogs can only say, many. Toll unknown.

#4

Forms that death has rejected. I prevent them from facing the light directly. I’m subtle and sparing with my brush. I use my fingers to soften and blur the edges. Limbs eaten by landmines, festering sores, gashes, pus… It’s all there.

#5

The moon bleeding. Imagine a ruptured ovary.

#6

Emaciated figures stealing food from relief trucks, sharing and passing the food through bullet-holed walls. Figures that have refused to die but are growing daily into skeletons.

#7

Figures dying of exhaustion. They’ll never reach a granary or a storehouse. Figures that have forgotten they were used to plenty before the war. I sponge them. I use acrylics for little girls whose bodies look like they’ve been borrowed from older women. I give them names like Dikeledi, which means tears, Enitan, which means person of story, and Lindiwe, meaning I have waited. I give them hands that beckon: Here, take me. Don’t you recognize me?

#8

A deranged sun, shrieking, emitting rays like poison arrows.

#9

Reporters reading war news like robots. Faces detached from life. Expressionless.

#10

Burning houses. Smoke. Peace talks. Empty promises. Inspired by the president of the Republic on the TV, saying, “This war is just a jigger in the foot. We shall end it soon.” Soon is 21 years and there’s no end to war but fading.

#11

Misty faces that have been missing since the war started. Faces that aren’t clearly dead or alive but might show up one day. Faces that may never return. Faces we might read about in the papers someday. Faces whose ghosts might turn up and shake things a bit, begrudged they weren’t given a decent burial. The right burial.

#12

Old and young folks singing in camps even when their voices are long gone out of tune, even when their strength is dried up like mangoes in the scorching sun. Among them are women who worship, women so devout that, even though time and time again their prayers have not been answered, continue to pray. Men have plans. Sounding the trombone, banjo and thumb piano, they make music and dance. Children are laughing, saying look, life is expensive but laughter remains tax-free.

Akitoi says, “What would you do without me?”

Relieved, I hug her.

“You know what,” I say, “if I don’t leave soon I’ll not be able to carry all these paintings with me.”

“The rate at which you’re creating one would think you’re going to die.”

“Please don’t say.” I’m still not comfortable joking about death. “I’d love for you to visit,” I say.

“I’m thinking we could have a joint exhibition in town. I don’t want to leave this place, but you’re more than welcome whenever you like.”

“You should come see my studio.”

“I’m not ever getting on a bus, car, plane, anything,” she says resolutely.

“That’s so like a tree.”

“And be sure to call.”

It sounds like a dismissal but it’s an encouragement.

We hold our joint exhibition in two connected sections within the same hall. Some visitors look at my paintings and turn away. Some deposit their tears. There are also those that stay longer.

“Why do you paint bones?” they ask, after circling the paintings more than once.

“Bones remain when life is gone.”

They buy my paintings. Bones are feeding my family.

A man I used to know walks into the hall arm-in-arm with an attractive young woman. While he’s examining the paintings, I notice pure disgust on his face. Good!

“She’s lost it,” I hear him tell his attractive friend. “Disturbed artist.”

I take it as a compliment. I’m in reality, brother. Does this look like fantasy to you?

Folks who owned something once and lost it keep coming. An old lady holds the darkest painting and says, “This is how my children died. Eight of them.”

How can I not say I’m humbled?

“Would you like to keep that one?” I ask.

“I cannot afford it.”

“Take it.”

The woman smiles. “We’re not even allowed to know our dead,” she whispers in my ear and squeezes my hand.

A young man with a porcupine head I’d recognize anywhere appears. Mutamba Davis. Famous rugby coach. Back in the days we’d say a head like his was either full of intelligence or chicken poop. He stares at #10 and asks, “Is that how it is?”

Surely he remembers me! But before I can utter a thing, a well-dressed woman in a striking olive green and yellow dotted kitenge says, yes, and adds, “Let’s not trade in delusions. We don’t want to be kept in the dark. We really want to know what’s happening. We can handle it. But we can’t trust the politicians.”

A gentle tap on my shoulder and I turn to see Akitoi smiling. “What do you think of him?” She’s looking at the porcupine head longingly.

“You don’t say.”

“Yes,” again the smile. “He’s bought nine skulls.”

“Hmm. Good luck, my sister.”

I want to warn her to be aware of false hope but she probably knows that already.

“He was telling me he knows a good doctor. Says something can be done, plastic surgery and whatnot. But I’d have to move.”

My heart is afraid to rejoice. Of course she has feelings. Expectations. She’s young. Certainly, she has dreams. She was once attractive and can be attractive again but how precarious! Her laughter fills up the hall and the porcupine head stays by her side until closing time. He absolutely has no eyes for me and I see no point in trying to jog his memory.

On the eve of my return to Kampala, I put some money in a jar with a note: Surgery fund. Akitoi will find it when it’s too late to resist accepting it.

She accompanies me to the bus station walking dreamily, knocking stones in her path.

“You’re in love.”

“Who knew,” she hoots.

“I want to know about the surgery. I’ll be with you soon as you give me the date.”

“You shouldn’t trouble yourself. He will be there.”

“It will be a pleasure. Come on!” I open my arms to hug her farewell.

“Keep flowing, Mugera,” she says. “Do not let male evil turn your waters sour.”

I feel her breath on my neck, her scarred body tightly holding mine.

Even in my studio, the blood of my canvas does not dry before a new face or bone grips me. The oil keeps burning, and the waters keep flowing. I paint to stay sane, to avoid awaking into a future that’s more of the past waiting to happen. I paint freely. I do not hold back. I am a river shaping watercolours and paintings that bless the broken path.

When I call Akitoi sometimes there’s so much to tell. Work to explain, and other times nothing at all. I listen to her moods and rhythms and know when to hold the phone and say nothing, hear nothing, yet keep the minutes going for a time. She also calls and leaves her laughter. I haven’t found anyone who laughs like her.

***

Mildred K BaryaMildred K Barya graduated from Syracuse University MFA program in creative writing, and is currently a PhD fellow at the University of Denver, Colorado. Her short stories include: Black Stone published by Per Contra, USA, 2012, Scars of Earth, published in “The African Love Stories” Anthology, by Ayebia Clarke, UK, 2006, Effigy Child, published by Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) UK, 2004, and republished in “Gifts of Harvest” FEMRITE, 2006, Land of my Bones, published in “Dreams, Miracles & Jazz” anthology, Picador, Africa, 2008, and Raindrops, published in “Words From A Granary” FEMRITE anthology, 2001. Besides fiction, her poetry books include: Give Me Room to Move My FeetThe Price of Memory After the Tsunami, and Men Love Chocolates But They Don’t Say. She blogs at: http://mildredbarya.com/
 

 

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AN UNFINISHED DREAM CALLED GORKHALAND: NUN CHA

Chaiti Mitra

Nun Cha, a sprawling Bengali novel by Bimal Lama on the Gorkhaland Movement : one of India’s most protracted, violent, and inconclusive armed secessionist movements

Darjeeling Toy Train Image : Wikimedia commons

Of all the secessionist movements that have rocked post independence India, the Gorkhaland movement has perhaps been the longest drawn, most volatile and inconclusive. What began with a demand of recognition of the linguistic and ethno-minority status of the Gorkhas or ‘Indian Nepalese’ by the Hillmen’s Association as early as in 1907, and then again in 1917, 1930 and 1934, has seen several changes in leadership, and subsequently in stances, policies and demands.  The All India Gorkha League (AIGL) demanded a representation in the government, followed by a demand for a separate state in 1946. In 1947 the undivided Communist Party of India also demanded a separate state of ‘Gorkhastan’, though the demand was later modified to autonomy within the state of Bengal. 1980 onwards, there have been several demands for a separate state of Gorkhaland outside West Bengal, first by the Pranta Parishad, and then by Subhas Ghisingh’s Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), and now by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), a party formed in 2007 by Bimal Gurung, a former GNLF member.

Interestingly enough, these 35 years of agitation have hardly inspired any major fictional work (Kiran Desai’s Booker Prize winning novel The Inheritance of Loss uses the Gorkhaland movement only as a partial backdrop). This void has been finally fulfilled by the debutant novelist Bimal Lama’s novel Nun-Cha or Salty Tea (Calcutta: Saptarshi Prakashan, 2012), which speaks of the dreams and disillusionments of the marginal small time farmers and tea garden workers in the wake of the Gorkhaland movement (Nun Cha or salty tea is the poor hill-man’s everyday drink, a spoonful of sugar is a luxury he can ill afford). One of the most talked about works in recent Bengali literature, Lama’s novel is unique for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is a novel in Bengali written by a Nepalese. Secondly, this Bengali novel is about a movement which seeks to establish the Gorkha or Nepalese identity of a people who consider themselves marginalized primarily by the Bengalis. Born in the late 60s, Lama spent his childhood and youth shuttling between the tea plantation ‘bustee’ and the factory workers’ colony in Chinsurah, in the industrial belt of suburban Calcutta. An insider to the violence – physical as well as psychological – spawned by the Gorkhaland movement, Lama is unabashedly critical of the ruthless manipulation of the unsuspecting Nepalese youth by the GNLF leadership as well as the State machinery. He questions the very foundation of the Gorkhaland movement – touted as the struggle for the establishment of the ‘true’ Gorkha identity – by questioning whether there at all exists a single inclusive Gorkha identity to begin with.

Nun ChaSet in the early 1980s which saw the beginnings of a long period of instability and unrest in the Darjeeling hills, the novel traces the epical journey of the protagonist Urgen, an insignificant farmer cum vegetable seller from Dhanmandhura, one of the numerous tiny hamlets dotting the green slopes of the Darjeeling hills, from invisibility to prominence, charting his dreams and disappointments. Like many young men and women of the sleepy village close to the Singtam tea eastate, Urgen’s only ambition had been to be a wholesaler of the fresh green vegetables that he hauled up to the weekend market at Darjeeling Chowkbazar every single week of his adult life. And then the movement for a separate land for the Gorkhas starts taking shape. Life in the sleepy hamlet, uneventful except when interrupted occasionally by sudden bear attacks, annual communal feasts, elaborate ghost busting ceremonies, or drinking competitions and drunken brawls, remains untouched by the initial stirrings in the town, marked by distant fires in the hills. No newspapers reach Dhanmandhura, Shubash Ghisingh makes an appearance in the form of a hazy photograph in a torn and soggy newspaper wrapping of piece of bread or a chunk of meat, and finds a place in the village elder Gajey Jhankri’s homespun ‘library’ consisting of a few scrapbooks filled with similar chance findings.

Along with Ghisingh, the terms Gorkha and Gorkhaland too enter Urgen’s life quite by chance. Urgen, as the GNLF leader Tara Daju points out, held a unique strategic position in the three tier hill structure – he hails from a village within the tea estates, but also has access to the wholesale market at Pulbazar (midway between the plantations and town, where the farmers gather every week with their fresh produce), and the retail market in the hill town of Darjeeling. During one of his weekly visits to Darjeeling, he is singled out by the leaders and assigned the task of campaigning and recruiting for their cause. Hesitant at first, the naive youth gradually yields to the fiery speeches and idealism of the leaders. Soon Urgen and his friends Milan, Param, Kundan, Pemba and their families dream of Gorkhaland a land of their own. It is a magical term, egalitarian  and inclusive, which promises to remove all barriers between the strictly observed social categories and sub castes – the Rais, Limbus, Tamangs, Kamis, Damais, Gurungs, Magars, Chhetris – and give them one single identity, that of the Gorkha, the brave warrior and worshipper of Lord Gorakhnath. Even the village outcast, the ‘fallen’ Jashomati, finds her place in this wider canvas; she becomes ‘Jashudidi’, her humble cottage at the edge of the village becomes the meeting place of the newly initiated Gorkhas. Urgen suddenly finds himself sucked into the middle of violent political action; plots, counterplots, attacks and counterattacks rule his world. He steadily grows in stature, organizing and leading his people, opposing the powerful trade union leader-trader Bijoi, deciding the fates of refugees from CPM dominated villages, bargaining with Party leaders for arms, training and protection. At the same time his long cherished dream begins to materialize – he becomes a wholesaler, and then a shop-owner in Darjeeling, as the once powerful Bijoi recedes into the background, and is finally murdered.

However, his success, both as a leader and as a trader, is followed by personal tragedy. First, Dolma, a Tibetan young woman and Urgen’s well wisher, is severely beaten up because she had warned him of an imminent attack. Next, his village is burnt down by CPIM supporters, and the homeless villagers have to start life afresh in a makeshift refugee colony. Urgen’s fiancée Juny, the doe-eyed daughter of the village tailor, is brutally gang raped by a group of CRPF personnel barging in at night in search of Urgen. She gets pregnant, is advised abortion by all including her fiancé, but refuses to give up her child. Urgen and Juny are temporarily estranged; she chooses to fight her own battle, alone.

As Urgen’s involvement with the movement increases, to his dismay he finds that in their quest for one single identity, and in their efforts to establish that as their only identity, they have overlooked all other affiliations that have existed for years. Urgen gradually realizes how the entire community has been split, and how the powers manipulated and exploited them by playing one section against the other so that their struggle is not against the State, instead it is the State which is making them fight their own brothers, fellow Nepalese, affiliated to the Communist Party led tea workers’ trade union. He is bitterly disappointed and disillusioned at the shortsightedness and moral failure of the men in power when, after the Kalimpong firings, the movement suffers a setback under State aided violence unleashed on the agitators and supporters alike. All hopes come to an end with the failed tripartite meeting between the State, Centre and Subhas Ghisingh, with Ghisingh agreeing upon an autonomous Hill Council. The novel ends with a drunken Urgen on the road, walking unsteadily towards the hospital when Juny lay waiting for him, writhing in labour. He gives his comrades a torn ‘Gorkhaland’ sticker for safekeeping, as he proceeds to sign the hospital form. Ghisingh’s signature at the tripartite meeting temporarily sealing the fate of the Gorkhaland movement coincides with Urgen’s decision to sign as the father of Juny’s unborn child, and assuming responsibility for an unknown and uncertain future.

Bimal Lama

Bimal Lama

Central to the quest for Gorkha identity and its critiquing in Nun Cha lies Lama’s successful narrative strategy of merging the real and the symbolic, the private and the public. One single metaphor that forms the leitmotif of the novel is that of journeys – uphill and down, across meadows and streams, through the maze of tea bushes and bamboo groves, through burial grounds and vegetable patches, through broad arterial roads and narrow winding by lanes. In fact, Urgen’s epical and adventurous journey from his sleepy native village to the turbulent streets of Darjeeling traversing the three tiers of hill life actually symbolizes the entire causal sequence of the Gorkhaland movement: years of neglect and poverty leading to popular discontent; strategic politicization of that discontent; and finally its actualization in violent action; and finally, compromise. The novel begins with the timid and shy Urgen following the rest of his group to the vegetable market. On their return, he takes lead in a bear hunt. His meetings with Juny, hesitant at first, then confident, are all on the road. Meetings with the GNLF leaders and comrades, snatches of information and rumour, confrontations with CPIM leaders and workers, with the Police and RPF personnel, all take place while Urgen is moving. It is at the end of such a journey that he finds himself hoisted on a platform, addressing a crowd eager to listen to the untrained speeches of a ‘kode’ or country bumpkin. The novel ends with Urgen on the road once again, shuffling towards the hospital, alone and unsure, not unlike the hesitant Urgen that we first meet.

The women in Urgen’s life, too, perform a representative symbolic function. While his mother and younger sister Sushila represent tradition and rootedness, Jashomati, the enigmatic femme fatale turned ‘godmother of the movement’, is a deviation from tradition. The three women who love Urgen – Dolma, Juny and Prakriti – belong to the three tiers, and together represent the spirit of the movement. The young Tibetan refugee Dolma, from the middle tier of Pulbazar, a quiet sympathizer of Urgen’s cause, almost sacrifices her own life to save his. Prakriti – the beautiful, self-effacing city-bred hotel owner from Darjeeling is a source of strength and stability. Juny – pure, virginal, elemental and exquisitely beautiful in Urgen’s eyes, is the doe-eyed beauty from the ‘chia kaman’ or tea gardens. She embodies the fierce passion, the unbreakable will power and self-negating love. The Urgen- Juny relationship too, with its promises, hopes, disappointments, and commitment, acts as a strong metaphor for the movement, its failure, and inconclusiveness.

Urgen’s story is a story of naïveté as it is of deception and manipulation; it is a tale of trust as much as of betrayal; it speaks of dreams and the shattering of those very dreams, of promises not kept, of hopes buried under the rubble of burnt down homes, of lives cut short abruptly. But the complexity of Lama’s debut novel arises from the complexity of identity of the community it minutely depicts in the microcosmic world of Danmandhura. In the beginning the small village community, segmented by a strictly observed hierarchy of castes and sub castes along with a rigid system of inclusion and exclusion, manifests the fissures within the class and caste conscious Indian-Nepalese community. But once the community comes together for the greater cause of Gorkhaland, trying to erase the deep rooted differences, biases, and prejudices for a promised homeland, there appears another, much more threatening division, a division imposed from outside. This division splits their Nepalese identity into two irreconcilable halves: the “MaCPa” and “GoRaMuMo”, local names for members of the CPIM led trade union in the tea plantations, and the Gorkha Rashtriya Mukti Morcha (GNLF) members respectively. The violence of the movement arises out of the clash between these two identities, subverting the essential ethnic identity of the group, and diluting the strength of the movement. Lama’s novel thus critiques the Gorkhaland movement by boldly exposing the fissures within the idealized Gorkha figure, and holding this fractured identity responsible for an unfinished dream called Gorkhaland.

 

 

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WINDHORSE RIDER/WRITER

Jyotirmoy Talukdar

Kaushik BaruaMy latest reads in 2013 were two novels. One was The House with Thousand Stories by Aruni Kashyap which did not disappoint and the other was Windhorse by Kaushik Barua. Both are debut novels. Barua, based in Rome where he works with the United Nations, was in India briefly to launch his book. We at Delhi University invited him to an informal adda where he shed light on the journey the book has taken.

Prior to that, we conversed briefly on the topic he was dealing with, geopolitics, the outsider-insider dichotomy in literary commentary, among other things. What I heard from the publishers and the book’s Facebook page is that the Windhorse is the first major work of fiction set in the Tibetan struggle of the 1940s-1970s and the turbulent period immediately following the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The narrative switches between Lhasang and Norbu. Lhasang grows up in a village in eastern Tibet, but is forced to flee soon after the Chinese arrive. Constantly struggling against poverty and frustration, he finds some measure of solace in the armed resistance. Norbu grows up in an affluent expatriate Tibetan family. As he befriends a young college girl, Dolma, and interacts with the newly-arrived refugees (in North Delhi), he is slowly drawn to the resistance. They meet a diverse group of fighters: Athar, a monk who renounces his vows of non-violence; Ratu, a former serf who is scarred by his past; Thupten, a trader who joins the resistance for profit but becomes the reluctant leader.

“I saw Lhasang as the insider who’s shunted out of home and then trying to find his way back. And Norbu as the outsider, whose search for his roots draws him to the most radical route to what he views as his true identity. And somewhere between their respective narrative arcs, they both try to make sense of their lives and the struggle that they share,” says Barua to me. “But what I see as the underlying thread, the inherent conflict in the narrative, is the fact that most of them are practising Buddhists (at various stages of faith or disillusionment). And one of their motivations is to reinstate Tibetan Buddhism in their country. But to do so, they must first defy the teachings of their faith, and defy the vision provided by the Dalai Lama. And all this is happening while they’re planning an armed insurrection against a mammoth enemy whose resources are far bigger than they could imagine.”

This reminded me of a story by William Dalrymple included in his book Nine Lives. “A Monk’s Tale” described the inner conflict in the Monk Tashi Pasang when he realises, like Athar in Windhorse, that to protect his faith, he must first relinquish it. Barua said that he did read Dalrymple’s Nine Lives after he had started working on his novel. And he was immediately struck by the monk’s tale. He was like a flesh-and-blood incarnation of the ex-monk Athar who plays a key role in Windhorse. And of course, both are a reflection of what actually happened. Barua said that he heard of a number of monks who shed their vows and their saffron robes and took up arms against the occupation. “Exchanging a prayer wheel for a gun: that was the drastic transformation, and the conflict that accompanied this shift, that I wanted to cover with Athar’s character too.”

I was also curious to know about other conflicts that had to do with differing ideologies and classes. Barua agrees that there are conflicts within the group in Windhorse. Some of it revolves around the ex-monk and others, and some of it around the leader and the ex-serf who sees many of his colleagues as the class that had previously denied him equal rights. This happens both because of differences in class or ideology and because the rebel fighters, while on a heroic mission, can also be angry, vicious or just plain bitchy. “I think the conflict between the characters in the novel served two important purposes. I wanted to study and portray the group in all their flavours and nuances. So obviously, there were tensions and competing interests within the group even as they all fought towards the same objective (and fought very heroically, I always maintain). I think, overall, the Tibetan cause has suffered from the clean stereotypes that are drawn: of a Shangri-la filled with happy, peaceful monks. The situation, as in any country, was messier. And some critics of the Tibetan movement point to these class

Windhorse Kaushik Barua HarperCollins 2013 English Fiction/Paperback pp 390/INR 450

Windhorse
Kaushik Barua
HarperCollins 2013
English Fiction/Paperback
pp 390/INR 450

tensions and archaic practices as an excuse for Chinese intervention. But class tensions or other perceived flaws in a society do not mean they could lose their right to self-governance or independence. By the same logic, India would still be under the ‘civilising’ influence of the British!” Barua makes his position clear. The author makes this point clearer at the adda at Delhi University. The characters in a resistance have the same failings as the rest of us (and as a group too, they fall victim to the same pressures that any of us would). It is preposterous to imagine that that they would be talking and thinking about arms and enemies every minute in their lives. “I think creating some tension among the characters also helps to create more nuanced, multidimensional characters instead of cardboard heroes… but they still mustered the courage to wage an almost-impossible war to get back home.

I think that makes them remarkable,” says Barua. One immediate question that comes to mind is how much of the book is fact and how much fiction. “Did you meet and interview those who were actually involved in the resistance? What did the research involve?” I found myself asking him. And what Barua told me sounded rather interesting. He first stumbled (almost literally) upon the story in a bookstore in Dharamsala on one of his many trips more than 5 years ago. He had asked the bookseller in the store for a recommendation. And when he finished reading the bookseller’s choice (In Exile From the Land of Snows, which is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the modern history of the community), he was back in Dharamsala and told him how much he enjoyed the book. He told him that the armed resistance fascinated him, though that was covered in just a few pages out of a few hundred. “And that’s when the book-seller revealed that he was part of the actual resistance. That’s how I first met Lhasang Tsering, who I later realised is also a leading Tibetan poet and voice for the movement (and the inspiration for the character Lhasang). I heard a lot of his stories over many cups of chai. Later I also met some more members of the older resistance. And for the background research, the video footage collected by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin for their movies (which are unfailingly fabulous, I’ve found) was of immense help. I devoured everything I could find on the topic: gleaning details on the resistance through the work that Mikel Dunham had done, the political situation through the writing of leading scholars such as Tsering Shakya and Jamyang Norbu (both of whom I haven’t had the opportunity to meet, but I learnt a lot from them, as Eklavya did, from a distance!), and understanding the contemporary aspirations by reading the current generation of poets and activists: Tenzin Tsundue and Bhuchung Sonam come to mind at once,” says Barua in one breath. “So how much of the book is fiction?” I asked him again. He said he was initially very concerned about re-creating the times (Windhorse spans from the 1940s to 1070s and across Tibet, India, Nepal and the US). But in fact, he found his first draft too heavy in atmosphere, which is when he started cutting down on a lot of the context and focusing on the characters. “After all, the primary responsibility (and pleasure) of anyone who writes fiction is the magical task of breathing life into a character,” Barua justifies. What being an outsider involved is something that always interested me. “While drafting and re-drafting and re-re-drafting the novel, I was always careful to conduct my research meticulously. Especially as a non-Tibetan I really wanted to create a setting and a voice that was authentic. Hopefully I have succeeded; at least I feel like I’ve put in the effort and have been honest to the work. A lot of this was achieved because of what I learned from many. If any flaws remain in the narrative, at least I have the satisfaction of knowing they’re honest mistakes!” Barua assures himself. I had a vague idea that America played a crucial role in this resistance. After Barua educated me on this, I came to know that America plays a small but very crucial role: that of providing the group of rebels support and training. He informs that an excellent account of this aspect of the resistance is provided in Shadow Circus, an early movie by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin. As usual, of course, a local conflict found larger political forces trying to influence, or interfere in, events. In this case, the forces were all enmeshed in Cold War politics: US versus China and both parties trying to determine how they could shape this conflict into a proxy war for their interests.

“That is my reading, but should be plain to anyone familiar with the history of those decades,” Barua adds a caveat. Of course, one would not let him off without asking him about his UN job, how it affected the writing of this novel and the UN’s stand on these issues. Barua plays safe, as one might expect him to. He says that his experience with the United Nations has only been restricted to development work, and he can’t really comment on it, and is not qualified to form a considered opinion on the UN’s political stand on the US and their international forays. As to his job, he says to me over chai that he has now spent a decade working in the development sector. And he has learned that policies addressing poverty, which are usually shaped by people who have never experienced poverty themselves, fail because the policies don’t build on the experiences, aspirations, constraints and voices of the poor. In that sense, working in development is also a continuous act in empathy and in listening to, and understanding, many different stories. To that extent, his work in development has informed his view and understanding of the world. “Also, at another level, having a day-job, and especially one that is removed from the world of fiction or literature, helps to insulate me from the results of the writing. The job takes care of the bills, and leaves me free to write on my own terms. Not being dependent on writing, in financial terms, is liberating. Having said that, of course, I hope the book does well and enough people read it: that’s the least the story deserves,” he says. And I certainly agree.

The third time I ask Barua whether his UN job indeed did not threaten his novel, not come in its way, he is genuinely exasperated. “I can’t really comment on the UN and their interventions or policies towards Tibet. The writing is separate from my day-time professional career and has been a personal endeavour. As with any creative effort, a very personal journey in fact.” He effectively concludes the uncomfortable topic. I had read about most of the refugees in Nepal complaining about increasingly hostile conditions, including the government’s refusal to document and give them Refugee Cards (RCs). “Have you, in your novel, tried to look at how the geo-political shifts, tensions and pressures affect the common Tibetan refugees and how they interpret them?” He gave me a thoughtful response pointing out that the novel is not strictly contemporary since the narrative stops in the 1970s. But the same political themes keep getting played out through the decades: as farce for the nation-states and as tragedy for the marginalised people who are at the mercy of larger nations. So Windhorse also shows how individuals, and a people who once had a home, are left at the mercy of geo-political shifts. They become pawns in larger games and if they serve no strategic interest, are simply ignored. With the rise of China as a trading and financial power, the situation is even worse now. “One immolation sparked global headlines about the Arab Spring. But over 100 self-immolations in Tibet haven’t prompted even a single global power to forcefully address the issue. This is perhaps the tragedy of our times: the conscience of the world is far more selective than we think, and is shaped by the powerful,” sighs the author. A research scholar at JNU who interviewed refugees from different age groups told me that the idea of and desire for a free Tibet and return to it differs from the older generation and the newer generation of the refugee population.

“Is that true from your study for the novel too?” I asked Barua. I found him disagreeing with the JNU student’s conclusion. Barua believes that the desire to return home is as strong for every generation, or for any one who is a forced exile in the world. “As a non-Tibetan, I can’t really comment on internal dynamics and can only talk about what I’ve seen: I have noticed, even among my Tibetan friends who were born in India, a total commitment to the cause. I am aware that there are some differences in views, as would be natural in any community. And as a well-wisher, I can only hope that the community, the administration and groups with different views can forge a common understanding of the best way ahead.” Personally, he had been inspired by the accounts he read of the earlier generation (most of the stories he had heard or read concerned the first generation who left Tibet in the 1950s and in the decades that followed) and these stories motivated him to write Windhorse as a tribute to their struggle. And among the current younger generation, Barua says he has been fortunate to meet many brave young activists, including the leaders and volunteers of the Students For a Free Tibet, some of whom were, by the way, present at the recent adda at Delhi University.

Kaushik Barua 2

Many say that the Tibetan administration in exile is concerned not only about the conditions of the refugees, but also the onslaught of modernity in Indian lives and how to preserve their religious identity in the face of it. The time span in Barua’s novel would coincide with the advent of modernity and technology in South Asian daily lives. As to there being the hint of a prospect of this insecurity and conflict in the book, Barua feels that preserving religious identities and practices is increasingly a concern for people across the world. “I feel the Dalai Lama is among the most rational and modern of philosophers or religious figures. If I remember correctly, he has on a few occasions even said that if science disproves any religious beliefs, then the faithful must be willing to concede and adapt their faith to these new realities. And perhaps both are not as incongruous as modern thinkers would have us believe: an adherence to rational thought and scientific progress along with a desire to understand the inner self and to develop a moral framework for one’s life,” Barua asserts.

Windhorse does cover the initial encounter of refugees with some modern technology: their initial awe and confusion and later their adoption of the same tools for their own cause. The insecurity arises when one group tries to enforce its notion of modernity on another. Such forced ‘modernity’ can have disastrous consequences, especially when local contexts and histories are not taken into account. For example, the effects of many policies on nomadic communities in Tibet, or the ecological damage cause by mining or other large-scale projects. Both issues are contemporary and could be even more crucial in the future. One criticism of Tibetan society is that it was ‘not modern’. “Every nation or community has had its own trajectory of modernising, with differences even among the nations of ‘the West’, which are not as homogenous as we think. With increased exposure to the world and to technology and with its own progress, Tibet would also have found its own path to becoming ‘modern’ (though what that means exactly could vary, depending on who we ask).” Barua signs off.

***

Jyotirmoy TalukdarJyotirmoy Talukdar is a freelance journalist writing for several Assamese dailies and Open Magazine.

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ORANGE COUNTY BLUES

Vineetha Mokkil

© Divya Adusumilli

© Divya Adusumilli

Dear Ama,

The villa I live in has glass walls. Not brick or solid stone like the houses we know. The walls are a special kind of skin – thin enough to let the light in, tough enough to keep the world out. All the houses in Orange County are built this way. Their reflections shimmer in the waters of a giant, egg-shaped pool (in which only the residents of Orange County are allowed to swim) on sunny days. Security is tight. The guards are always on the lookout for trespassers. If they catch anyone trying to sneak in, I’m sure they draw their guns and shoot the intruders dead. Orange County is a fortress – nobody gets in or out without permission, not even the wind and the rain.

Does this sound like a make-believe place to you? A picture I painted in brooding shades of grey? I wish … I wish this place would crumble to dust and let me come back home where the mountains loom and the breeze carries the hum of monks’ chants towards snow-capped peaks. In my dreams, I see the two of us walking down Dharamsala’s narrow, winding streets. Prayer flags flutter over our heads like rainbow-hued birds. The sun glides out from behind the clouds. The mist lifts. We head to the market, past the gates of the Dalai Lama’s temple where tourists and devotees line up, past a row of cafes teeming with the Sunday evening crowd. We take our time, stopping to chat with friends and neighbours on the way. There’s no rush. The market will stay open. After our weekly vegetable shopping is done, we drift towards old man Tsering’s momo cart. He has set up shop in a corner of the market. ‘Eat, Tashi,’ he says, giving me a toothless smile. ‘Fill your tummy, child. You’re all skin and bone.’

Was that just a dream? Then why does it feel more real to me than the life I live at the Dhawans’ glass house in Gurgaon?

This house has too many rooms. There are empty bedrooms on all three floors, high-ceilinged halls and lounges nobody bothers to step into. Babaji has the ground floor to himself. His room has a four-poster bed and a couch angled close to it for his nurse to sleep on. A stroke has left Babaji paralyzed. His right arm and leg are of no use to him. He can’t sit up straight or feed himself. His nurse helps him get around and bathes Babaji and feeds him and wheels him to the park in the evenings when the weather is fine. I’ve been to the park with them a couple of times. Babaji gave me a crooked smile when we got there. I think he likes my company – must be a change from spending all his time with Rana, the morose nurse.

The floor above Babaji’s is home to his eldest son and daughter-in-law. They have a gym up there, a den to screen movies, a bar, a billiard room with a pool table and a dining room that can seat more than a dozen guests. The floors are white marble, the walls the same dazzling white. The furniture is all silver and white. On the walls hang silver-framed mirrors. Marble statues, crystal swans, candelabras, silver salvers and silver centrepieces are scattered all over. I step on the first floor and sink to the bottom of a sea of white. Madam bosses me around when I polish the silver. Nothing escapes her – dust bunnies, a stain on a tabletop, a wrapper hidden under a corner of the carpet, a flimsy cobweb. I have to work hard to please Madam. When she is satisfied, she thanks me for a job well done and lets me climb up another flight of stairs to get to the second floor where the youngest member of the Dhawan family lives.

This floor is always empty. There are dustsheets on the furniture and the blinds stay drawn. Nobody has cooked in the kitchen for months. A ghostly silence hangs in the air when I go up there to mop the floor and make the beds. The floor belongs to Rohit Saab. But Saab has been home for only a fortnight since I got here. I saw him walk into the house late one night with a dazed look on his face, the expression of a traveller who had lost his way and was too stubborn to ask for directions. He went to bed straightaway and lived out of his suitcase for the next fortnight as if he were a guest at a hotel. Madam says her brother-in-law is too busy to feel at home anywhere. He is a man who hops across the world on jet planes. His home is up in the air. Rome, Paris, New York, Berlin, Dubai, Beijing – work takes him everywhere.

We should have travelled the world, you and I. Caught a flight from Dharamsala and gone for a spin. Seen the blue oceans. Seen the sprawl of cities and bald-headed skyscrapers buried in the clouds. Circled over craggy peaks and jungles and rivers in spate … We should have tasted the freedom of flight. We should have grown wings and travelled the world.

I clean and polish and run errands. Grocery shopping is my job too. The head chef and queen bee of the kitchen, Satyadi, hands me a shopping list every day. Two assistants scurry around, doing her bidding all day. They snivel when she pulls them up for putting too much salt in a dish or overcooking the meat. I am not like them. I can take on Satyadi when she throws a tantrum. We argue a lot and slug it out like a couple of prizefighters in the ring. Afterwards, I turn around and apologize to her. The thrill of winning an argument is nothing compared to the taste of the dishes Satyadi whips up, so I have learnt to say I am sorry even if she was the one who started the fight.

Satyadi is always at work. When she is done serving breakfast, she starts planning for lunch and dinner. Madam gives her special instructions when she is entertaining guests. Even the whiners who keep complaining about the weather and the overcrowded streets of Delhi cheer up when they taste Satyadi’s cooking. They ask for second helpings, polish off all the food and walk away from the table with a smile on their lips.

Satyadi is the first person to wake up in the house. She starts work at sunrise and goes to bed at midnight. Her room is tucked behind the kitchen, like a sparrow’s nest. The only piece of furniture there is a bed – no tables and chairs or cupboards, no photographs on the walls, except for the pictures of gods and goddesses she has cut out from calendars. Most of those pictures show snatches from Lord Krishna’s life – an infant Krishna with his mother, a toddler Krishna in the company of friends, a handsome young Krishna dancing with Radha in the rain. Satyadi shoos me out of her room when she catches me staring at the pictures. ‘Go to bed, Tashi,’ she orders, pointing towards the staircase.

My room is up on the terrace. Of all the people under this roof, I live closest to the clouds. My room is an island adrift in an ocean of green. The terrace is filled with flowering plants and creepers. Roses and lilies and marigolds sway in the breeze. Vines of jasmine cling to the walls. Potted bonsai figs and lemons shoot up next to a bower of fragrant herbs. Flowers bloom in every season. The air smells sweet. Bhagvan Kaka cares for the garden like a mother hen fusses over her chicks. He has been the Dhawans’ gardener for decades. Working for the Dhawans is the only profession his family aspired to – his father and grandfather also used to work for Babaji. I stick close to Kaka when he waters the plants. If he is in a good mood, he lets me plant new saplings and spray pesticides on the older ones.

Kaka is an encyclopaedia about the Dhawan family. He remembers every wedding and birthday, every fight and reconciliation, every ripple that crossed the Dhawans’ lives. Kaka told me that Madam’s father forced her to get married to Saab. She was in love with a classmate – a boy her family disapproved of. So her father fixed an arranged marriage to solve the problem. The wedding was a grand affair, with a celebrity filled guest list and a venue modelled after the Sun Temple in Konark. Madam’s father had hired a crew to recreate the famous temple in the heart of Bombay. Madam cried throughout the ceremony and the guests sympathized, thinking that the bride was upset about saying goodbye to her family and moving to Delhi. Nobody guessed that she was mourning the death of a dream.

‘Such idle chatter, Tashi,’ you say, knitting your eyebrows. ‘Gossip is for ghouls. Keep away from it.’ I haven’t forgotten your allergy to gossip. But Kaka is not a ghoul. He is a good soul who likes to keep me entertained. Also, he gives me useful information. Like what? He tells me things about the neighbours I should know – who does what, who lives in which villa, who are the friendly souls and who the worst snobs … Orange County is home to people with masked faces and veiled eyes, a crowd dressed up for a stage on which the spotlight shines all the time. This is a tribe I’ve never met before. We don’t speak the same language. We are not from the same planet. Kaka understands my confusion. His stories make me feel a little less lost, a little less like a fish thrashing around on land.

Thanks to him, I know that my next-door neighbour Leela’s father is a famous politician. A red light blinks on the roof of his car – like a one-eyed monster – when it zooms in and out of Orange County. The light tells the people that a Very Important Person is passing by. A second car filled with guards trails after Leela’s father’s vehicle. The guards follow him like a brood of puppies – they drive when he drives and follow him on foot when he goes for a run in the mornings and after-dinner walks in the park.

Leela has her own set of armed shadows. She hates them. I’ve seen her shooing them away. She yells at them when she is out on the lawn or at the poolside and doesn’t care if the neighbours hear her. ‘Leave me alone,’ she screams at the men, her heart-shaped face contorted with disgust. ‘Go away,’ she says, balling up her fists and punching the air like it’s her worst enemy.

Leela does not act like a Very Important Person’s daughter. She doesn’t dress up or wear make-up. Her shorts are frayed at the edges and she wears faded tops which look like they have never seen the inside of a washing machine. Her hair tumbles down to her waist, uncombed. Unruly curls spring up like dancers when she moves her head. Leela likes to walk around the lawn barefoot. She looks happy when her feet sink into the soft carpet of grass. She paces up and down furiously and then slows down to take a deep breath. The light shifts and a smile flits across her lips. I’ve seen her stare at the setting sun with something close to contentment on her face.

I am going to paint a picture of her standing at the edge of the lawn with her face angled to the light. Her shoulders won’t be hunched up with tension on my canvas. Her fists won’t be balled up in frustration. Orange County will loom behind her, scooping up the last rays of the sun like a mirror. Leela will stand there, scanning the horizon in search of something – a lost planet, a shooting star, a comet blazing a trail in the darkening sky. But a flicker of hope will light up her eyes. This is how I will paint her, standing there at the edge of night and day, suspended between dream and reality. When I’m done, I’ll sign the picture with my initials. My signature will float forever like a speck of dust in the periphery of her gaze.

More later.

Yours,

Tashi

 

Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil

Vineetha Mokkil is a writer and reviewer based in New Delhi, India. Her stories have appeared in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal; The Missing Slate; Ginosko Literary Journal; Cha: an Asian Literary Journal and the anthology of contemporary writing Why We Don’t Talk. This short story is extracted from her collection A Happy Place, published by Harper Collins in February 2014. Her first novel is in the pipeline.

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THE MYTHOPOEIC IN CONTEMPORARY NORTHEAST INDIAN POETRY

Rini Barman

"A need to leave the water knows" by Nitoo Das

“A need to leave the water knows” by Nitoo Das

Does the day break
With the sound of guns?
No,
It breaks with the cry
Of that bird
Which nibbles through
The night’s darkness
Very slowly[i]

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:

Solitary light
on eastern hills,
tender rivulet,
evening bells,…

Hills with spires of churches
hills with rice-fields for siblings
hills with genial steps
where earth’s tribes
intercourse”[viii]

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

Beloved Sundori,
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
Soaring
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.

Works cited

Alaimo, Stacy. Undomesticated Ground: Recasting Nature as Feminist Space. Ithaca: Cornell University P, 2000

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space, Maria Jolas trans. Boston: Bacon Press,1958

Campbell. Andrea, ed. 2008. New Directions in Ecofeminist Literary Criticism,  Intro. first published byCambridge Scholars Publishing

Dai, Mamang. 2004. River Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop

Daruwalla. Keki N. The Hindu. ‘Poetry and the Northeast: Foraging for a destiny’ Sunday, Nov 07, 2004, http://www.hindu.com/lr/2004/11/07/stories/2004110700350500.htm accessed : 25 march 2013]

Das, Nabina. 2012. Blue Vessel.Éditions du Zaporogue.(ebook)

Goswami, Uddipana. 2010. We Called the River Red, Poetry from a Violent Homeland. New Delhi: Authors Press

Hasan. Anjum 2004.Street on the Hill. New Delhi: UBS Publishers’

Distributors.

Ngangom, Robin. ‘Alternative poetry of the North-East’ http://www.museindia.com/viewarticle.asp?myr=2010&issid=32&id=2014accessed:15 December 2012

Ngagom S. Robin and Nongkynrih ed.. 2009. Dancing Earth , an Anthology of Poetry from North East India. New Delhi: Penguin Books

Ramakrishnan E.V and Makhija Anju. 2009. We speak in Changing Languages (Indian Women poets 1990-2007): Sahitya Akademi

Zote Mona, http://www.poetryinternational.org/piw_cms/cms/cms_module/index.php?obj_id=13505 (Accessed on 20 July 2012)

————-. 2005. Poems. New Delhi: India International Centre Quarterly,India International Centre.


Endnotes

[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

[iii] Pope, Stephanie. “Mythopoesis in the 21st Century Or “Poetry In The Extreme” https://mythopoetry.com/mythopoetics/sch12_pope_mythopoesis.html accessed:24 April 2013

[iv] Dai, Mamang. ‘The Voice of a mountain’ http://www.museindia.com/viewarticle.asp?myr=2006&issid=8&id=354accessed:20 April 2013

[v] The Hindu, Jan 3, 2010, accessed:20 April 2013

[vi]  Rao, GPS. Issue 48, Muse  India. ‘Legends of Pensam’ http://www.museindia.com/regularcontent.asp?issid=36&id=2553. accessed:21 April 2013

[vii] Bachelard pg 218

[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.

[x] Zote, Mona. January 1,2011. ‘Building the universe of the poem’. The Hindu http://www.thehindu.com/arts/books/article1020727.ece .accessed on 21 July 2012)

[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

[xvii] Phukan, Mitra. Muse India, ‘Writing in English in India’s North-East’ http://www.museindia.com/featurecontent.asp?issid=48&id=4026. Accessed:27April 2013

[xviii] Video link Aruni Kashyap in http://youtu.be/CQsXvrG0pwY accessed : 21 March 2013

[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.

[xxii]Kashyap. Aruni, ‘Where The Sun Rises: The peripheral imagination, writing the ‘invisible’ India’http://ibnlive.in.com/group-blog/The-North-East-Blog/3304/where-the-sun-rises-the-peripheral-imagination-writing-the-invisible-india/63572.html  accessed:21 March 2013

Rini Barman

Rini Barman

Rini Barman is currently pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Jamia Milia Islamia and has graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in the same field. Her writings  have been published in Muse India, The Seven Sisters’ Post, Kritya.in, The Bricolage-An independent Arts and culture magazine,The Four Quarters Magazine, the Eclectic and several other dailies of the North-East.

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