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Jyotirmoy Prodhani
Date of Publish: 2015-09-20


Poetry from India’s North-East:

The Contemporary Voices


Jyotirmoy Prodhani

Way back in the early ‘90s when I was a student at the University of Poona, a girl from Ferguson College asked me, “Where are you from?” I said, “I am from Assam.” “Oh, from Assam! I love Assam.” She replied. I then asked, “Why do you love Assam?” She replied enthusiastically, “Oh, I love any foreign country.” In fact, North East was for India what Guatemala is for the National Geographic- exotic, wild and enchanting.  Distant and unfamiliar. The region nestles the ambivalences as well as the paradoxes for the onlookers ensconced in the distant couches.

Nevertheless, over the years perceptions about the region have definitely changed as it has become an increasingly familiar terrain. Contrary to the popular perception of the outsiders, Sibasagar a town in upper Assam is famous, apart from its historical importance,  as the town having the highest density of small cars in the country; Shillong is a regular host after Delhi and Bangalore to the most famous rock bands of the world like Mr. Big and Scorpions; it is also a  favourite destination for the fashion brands because according to them this place is, ‘lifestyle conscious’; this is the place where the guitar is almost a folk instrument and politicians address public rallies in English so that common people can understand the lectures easily. These realities defy the pan Indian parameters of defining a place in the adjunct or to put it in a more popular academic term- a peripheral territory. Despite all this, the region, nonetheless, manifests a perennial enigma.

In one of the first major anthologies of North- East poetry, published in 2003, edited by two well known poets of the region, Kympham Nongkynrih and Robin S. Ngangom, the editorial note underlined how a poet of the region finds the claustrophobia of menacing corruption and the uneasy spoor of gunpowder in the air as the abiding ‘banalities’ that inescapably resonate in the pages of poetry.  But then the disquieting perpetuity of violence engendered new contexts of possibilities. It has not only changed the imageries, it has also effectively altered the language of poetry, as poetry dislocates itself into fresh arenas of meaning that have hitherto been apparently walled out by the expansive prevalence of interminable silences.

North-East, unlike the other regional territories of the country, nurtures an inbuilt multiplicity. It has diverse and different voices. Modernity has made its penetration with all its mendacities yet, the vigour and verve of the oral preeminently persist, the folk and the modern too exist syncretically in the narrative of the region.

Arunachal Pradesh has been a distant land. Mamang Dai and Yamlam Tana are two major poets who are routinely featured as the two major literary representatives from the state.

For Mamang Dai, the geo-cultural landscape has been a constant inspiration for her writings as in her celebrated novel, Legends of Pensam. In her “River Poems” she traverses the landscape with an acute sense of nostalgia:


We practiced a craft

Leaving imprints

On sky walls

Linking the seasons

Coding the tailing mist

In silent message

Across the vast landscape

(“River Poems”)

Yamlan Tana dislocates the myths into meanings of contemporary experience:

He grew nails, he grew claws,

He grew fangs, he grew tail;

And asked me give him a scratch

And my nails marked on his body

The black stripes of a tiger.

                  (The Man and the Tiger)


Guru Ladakhi of Sikkim, who writes in English also, celebrates his intimacy with the land with similar intensity echoing Auden:

                                                Two clouds walk with moist feet

                                                Over the shoulders of the opposite hill

                                                Picking sunshine from the undergrowth



Historically, the literature from the Northeast is not a tradition having its origin in recent past. It is as old as any ancient literary legacies of the country. Assamese and Manipuri, being written languages, have literary history that dates as far back as the 10th century AD. But what makes these languages unique is their resilience to refashion themselves to accommodate multiple ethnic voices by bringing in effective changes in the character and dimension to their contemporary expressions.

Poems from Tripura have multi ethnic layers that address the respective imperatives of the poets. Niranjan Chakma tries to give voice to the voiceless in an apparently oppressive regime, ironically governed by the communists:


Because they are displaced

From their homeland

By the intruders,

Their dew wet

Courtyard inundated

With tears

Their survival’s tide

Has been seized by

The midnight lamentation


But someday

Their unspoken words

Will be uttered boldly


(“Words will be Uttered Boldly” translated from Chakma by Rita Chakma)


The Kokborok poet, the original tongue of the state, Chandrakanta Mura Singh is a well known poet. Kutungla’s wife or Hachukrai in his poems articulate the deep seated pathos of the native souls:


Hachukrai, how would you touch the soil

And swear by it?

You don’t have an inch of land left,

 (“O, Poor Hachukrai” translated from Kokborok by Bamapada Mukherjee)


Kutungla’s wife had assuaged her hunger

With boiled weeds and a marsh frog. She died.

(“ Slumber” translated from the Kokborok by Saroj Choudhury)

Owing to the variegated political exigencies, there has been distinctive emergence of new ethnic awareness with which arrived the eager yearning to retrogress far beyond the colonial and the missionary posts that formalized the history and culture of these entities. This anxiety to go past the defined categories of the masters, who are, to a great extent, responsible to equip the ethnic languages with modernity, script and ethos, becomes a persistent ambition that finds tangible echoes in the poetry of the contemporary Northeast.

The ethnic cultures under the active tutelage of the Missionaries got the opportunity to write down their words in Roman script such as the Khasis, the Garos or the Mizos. After having a prolonged familiarity with the Roman graphic signs and Christianity the writers have eventually gained the mastery to narrate their own worlds with its intricate nuances to evoke the reality and the universe of meaning that is intimately native, deeply communitarian. They have attained the confidence and the rhetoric tools to even legitimize the elements which have so far been interpellated, following the missionary interpretations, as the profane, the pagan, ahistoric or even barbaric.

The Khasis have produced some of the most eminent names who write their poems in English as well as in Khasi. Desmond Kharmawphlang, Esther Syiem and Kympham Nongkynrih are eminent among them. Desmond draws on the memories that persistently make one aware of the unease of loss:

The stories burn our memories like

a distant meteor searing

the unnamed gloom, by their light I examine

the great hurt I carry in my soul

for having denied my own.

(“Letter from Pahambir”)

Kympham is intense. In one of his poems, with apparent playful tone, violence becomes a metaphor by default:


When Prime Minister Gujral

Planned a visit to the city

Bamboos sprang up from pavements

Like a welcoming committee

But when he came, he was

Only the strident sounds of sirens

Like warnings in war time bombings


he came with twin objectives

a mission for peace and progress


And some say he came

Homing in like a missile

And left flying like an arrow


(“When the Prime Minister Visits Shillong, the Bamboos Watch  in Silence” translated from Khasi by the poet)


Carolyine Maraka, Fameline Marak, Jacqueline Marak are among the fresh voices giving an identity to Garo poetry in Meghalaya by resurrecting their natives mores.

Mona Zote and H. Ramthintari are two powerful young poets of Mizoram who write in English. In “Lilylium” Mona Zote makes bold nuances by drawing the lines along intangible contours of fresh faiths:

Oh Allah she thinks of Jesu

When out of the honeycomb of night

Church drums busily advertise

The high percentage of faith.


                The hybrids shall inherit the land.


                Thank God I see

No synthesis

In  your pained




At the same time she does not overlook the omniscient potentialities of violence around her:


Any day the bomb will fall

On those of us, unaware under

The catastrophe of houses against trees.

The word ‘tree’: recalls a summer month

Filled with the sounds of cars,

Lost keys lost voices… when suddenly

A row of pines, green, freshly aburst

Upon the backdrop of light soaked sky.

(“This is so”)


Robin S. Ngongom is one of the most well known poets from Manipur who writes in English. He betrays an intense nostalgia for his bucolic home:


                When you leave your native hills

                Winter is merely a reminder

                Of all past winters, of all

                The loves we lost, and there’s none  

to care for the old and the infirm. All

the hospices have closed their doors.

                                (When you do not return)


Among the other major poets from the state are the veteran voices like Yumlembam Ibomcha, Thangjam Ibopishak who famously said, “I Want to be Killed by an Indian Bullet”, as well as Ilbanta Yumnam, Arambam Ongbi Memchoubi, Raghu Leishangthem, Saratchand Thyam et al who write in Manipuri.   Thanngjam Ibopishak narrates the two perceptions of India prevalent among the elder and the new generation :

Whatever it may be, if you must shoot me please shoot me with a gun made in India.

I don’t want to die from a foreign bullet. You see, I love India very much.’

‘That can never be. Your wish cannot be granted.

Don’t even mention Bharat to us.’

(I Want to be Killed by an Indian Bullet)


Temsula Ao, Easterine Iralu, Nini Lungalang are the major poetic voices from Nagaland and write in the state language, i.e., English. Their writings narrate the unique tales of the people and the land that have remained substantially enigmatic and exotic for an onlooker from the outer space. But their writings have proved, yet again, how human predicaments and experiences are essentially universal. Temsula Ao, one of the most powerful writers of the region, goes back to the ‘profane region’ of folk history which perhaps the new faith would denounce as perennially pagan:


The six stones

Where the progenitors and forebears

Of the stone – people

Were born

Out of the womb

Of the earth


Stone people

Savage and sage

Who sprang out of LUNGTEROK



Nini Lungalang shows similar urgency to return to the mythic roots, her ancient belonging:

So I return to where I began,

I go because I must:

I return to the dust of which I was formed

And the air that breathes life in me-

And yet- through the misty height I see,

Your face strange now, shattered, refracted

In the prism of my tears

(“ Going Home”)


Along the mainstream of the Northeast, one can hear voices emerging from the new ethnic adjuncts. In Assam Bodo, Rabha, Rajbanshi, Garo, Gorkhalis and other ethnic communities rediscovering idioms for poetry in their languages. Hajong and Koch are the two major ethnic languages in which there has been new proliferation of poetry. In the coming years each state would find new poetry in new languages. This is the vibrancy of Northeast. It forever proliferates.

                Noted critic, Pradip Acharya, writes how the relationship between language and history gives uniqueness to the poetry of Northeast. But he reminds that by being just a witness alone could be a potential weakness that might even degenerate into obsession which can yield nothing substantial other than nostalgia. Poems must make attempts to overcome such vulnerabilities. He writes that in the literary narrative of the region there has always been resistance. But he warns that any hasty attempt to assimilate would fail to make allowances for real uniqueness. (The Telegraph, Guwahati, 2 February, 2012)

A Rajbanshi poem reflects the continuity of the untold story of Northeast poetry:


The tales of the gardener and his wife came to an end

The palms in the garden turned ripe and went dry

All sparrows flew back home

The strings of the bena got snapped

Yet I shall come tomorrow

To sing my soulful song’s final octave


(“Grandma’s Kitty” by Kamalesh Sarkar, translated from Rajbanshi by J. Prodhani)


( Jyotirmoy Prodhani is Professor of English, at North Eastern Hill University, Shillong )




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