We are honoured to have remarkable poet, teacher and birder Nitoo Das guest edit the monsoon issue: a special on Poetry from the Northeast. This spotlight has been long delayed, precisely because of the sensitivities that Nitoo brilliantly lays out in her curatorial note below. You can read her poems here.
I understood Nitoo’s initial hesitance to curate this issue. Here’s a quote from my Introduction to Fafnir’s Heart World Poetry in Translation (Bombaykala Books, 2018) selected from Poetry at Sangam which is perhaps relevant. ‘Fafnir’s Heart is far from the anthology that sets itself up as canon or as anti-canonical dry-run for a canon, as launching-pad or stock-taker. Rather, it runs against this grain, offering selections as sampler, revelation, and open- minded provocation…. But evaluation is always personal. My editorial taste is driven by poetic delight, and a desire for diversity … formal rigour and adventurism [and] beauty and depth… Rapture rules here, not representation.’
However, what finally prompted the focus on Poetry from the Northeast? Not to emphasize mere geographical identity or migration and marginalization. But to find new markers of the heart. For does the heart ever belong to one place?
A trigger was a visit to a mall. The young salesman was from the Northeast. With my interest in interstate migration I asked, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘From India,‘ he replied. ‘Yes, I know, but from which part?’ ‘Imphal, in Manipur.’ We chatted about Manipur rekindling my memories of a visit there which still glow, gem-like. As he was packing my purchase he said, ‘People think we are from China because we don’t look Indian.’ I asked, ‘Does a Malayali look like a Kashmiri or a Gujarati?’ He smiled wanly.
Besides feeling sorrow, hurt and anger after our conversation, there was swarming heartache for places I hadn’t visited in the Northeast and its many cultures which I know I will love. How better to fulfill this longing, at least partially, than by reading poetry from the region?
Over to Nitoo Das.
And the moving, finely crafted and deep poetry she has selected for our monsoon issue. My heartfelt thanks to the contributors for making this issue truly special. One that lifts the heart though the notes may be somber or sharp. If only we could have a fat anthology filled with pages and pages of their poems!
High summer is not the right time to visit Majuli. In July, the Brahmaputra is at its fiercest, birds are in hiding, shiny insects crawl out of every corner, and you can see the land crumbling away into the river right in front of your eyes. However, July 2011 was the time I chose for my first birding trip to the largest river island in the world. Bubu, the young man who drove us around and showed us non-touristy places, used to play music in his car. He was very fond of one particular Bihu song. The Assamese singer made many romantic overtures to his beloved to which the woman replied in coquettish nays. Finally, exasperated, the man sings thus (translation mine): If you say no/I’ll go/And live with the Mising beauty/I’ll sing with her, have fun, make merry. The woman replies: Go away, go/to the Mising woman//She will not stay at home/She will go out to work/She will meet other men/She will not cook for you/When you come back looking for me/I’ll not let you in.
This song stayed with me showing me the falsity of syncretism and the violence of hierarchies within the place where I was born. When Priya Sarukkai Chabria requested me to guest-edit a special Northeast issue for Poetry at Sangam, I was reminded of the rain-drenched humidity of Majuli and the shock of the song’s anger.
I have always been wary of anthologies: objects that are constructed out of an opaque system of inclusion and elimination. The editor plays voyeur, manipulates as she pleases, pigeonholing meanings, fixing definitions. This issue has to deal with definitions, though. What is the Northeast of India and who is a Northeastern poet? In December 2008, I had my first public reading at a panel for poets from the Northeast, which resulted in an angst-ridden blogpost:
I may resist this identification… the pull that tells me name yourself, name your home, but what if other people are anxious to do it? I also have to think about what happens when a self-conscious mantle of marginality is worn. Will I have to be on the margins in order to write truthfully about marginality?
More than a decade ago, I was keen to escape this label because like all labels, it came from a place external to me. It is an imposition when used simplistically or merely as a cartographical marker. I employ this term with great caution now. The Northeastern identity is large, amorphous, heterogeneous, splintered into parts like the Bihu song above. Any acceptance of such fissuring can come only from a space of acknowledgement shaded and contoured by critique and subversion. It has its academic and political uses, too. I have grown into the label. My skin has distended to allow its arrival and seeding.
My process for this folio was straightforward. Poetry at Sangam follows a magical arithmetic: six poets and six poems per poet. I felt that this would not be enough to fit in all the poets I had in mind. In spite of medical emergencies and emails that died waiting for a little conversation in Kokborok, I was able to, with Priya’s always generous help, settle into the interesting number of ten poets plus one translator with two poems each. Yes, selections deal with limitations! During this process, I also had to take into account questions like whether the work of significant poets from the Northeast (Mona Zote, Nabina Das, Janice Pariat, for example) had already been published and featured in the journal. I needed the room to bring in newer voices; a wider representation. Robin Ngangom, whose poem appeared in the special archive on mothers curated by Sumana Roy, makes a re-entry as a translator of Thangjam Ibopishak’s irreverent poems, which are full of that strange combination of rage and comic timing. Poets like Namrata Pathak and Shalim M. Hussain have recently published their first collections. Lalnunsanga Ralte and Soibam Haripriya are working on their manuscripts, but their fine wit has already found a reliable readership. From more established, almost–and I fear writing down this word–canonical writers like Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Monalisa Changkija, Easterine Kire, Guru T. Ladakhi, Desmond Kharmawphlang, and Nabanita Kanungo, we have examples of the kind of poetry that illustrates lives lived closely with the dangers of language.
This monsoon edition was conceptualised by Priya almost four months ago. In the intervening months, I procrastinated, struggled with work, wrote innumerable emails, travelled to new, inhospitable places in search of ever newer birds, but always at the back of my mind, was the tragic, funny, profound poetry that I received in my inbox. The words deal with a wide multiplicity of articulations and concerns; memories and protest. A murdered young man says, “I died last night./But, I died a long time ago./Like yesterday.” This interplay between death and time was something I noticed in several of the poems. In another poem, a man watches how his own after-death rituals are conducted: “he feels reasonably pleased,/especially, when later in the house, the body turners/tell his family how beautifully the body had burnt;/how quickly it had turned to ashes;/everything had gone off smoothly;/ nothing untoward, no cause at all for worry.” I read about changing notions of love, wayward politicians, the geography of faces, the secret ethnography of food-talk, the lyricism of letters, how best to (or not) commit suicide this summer and why a poet persona’s “wife will be Mandalika, Manjulika or Chitralekha/Not Ibemmu, Sanahanbi, Leipaklei or Urirei.”