The power of verse


(With Anurag Rudra)

India’s Northeast has a long standing tradition of literature and folklore, and one that is deeply rooted in the instinctive urges of the collective consciousness of its populace. Owing to the existence of a staggering spectrum of impulses, ranging from ethnic strife and conflict, to stupendous beauty and soulful music, the consequent expression of literary concerns have acquired a touch of exclusivity and brilliance, a rare quality peculiar to the incredible region. Addressing these concerns of the region has always been the creative preoccupations of the writers here. However, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the common stock of traditions, folklore and myths, in addition to the burning problems haunting the visage of the society have stimulated a stupendous school of writing and creative expression, branded as Northeast Indian Writing In English. Of this creative brigade, the poets have always assumed a special significance and appeal owing to the universality of the medium and the sheer brilliance of this avenue of creative expression.

Kympham receiving the Veer Shankar Shah Raghunath Shah National Award in 2008 by former Speaker and Madhya Pradesh Governor Balram Jakhar

The primary reason for which this school of poets have won worldwide acclaim and interest can be attributed to the avenues explored by their creative faculty in their brilliant verse work. From the metaphysical to protest, from love to languid beauty and from the singing hills to the gurgling river, the rich tapestry of thought and imagery woven by the poets have surpassed all creative barriers, transcending the mere trivialities of time, place and existence, and acquiring in the process an eternal, universal appeal. Folklore has always been a driving force of poetry from the northeast, and the region being a treasure trove of folklore and folk traditions, has provided great stimulus in exploring our roots and customs with a new found creative vision and a sense of perception. The exploration of cultural identity and the glorification of our folk traditions is one remarkable facet which manifests itself with such sheer dexterity and passion in the splendid poetry from this region.

The Northeastern poetry scene, at the moment, is churning out a corpus of remarkable and souls stirring poetry, admirable in its refined sensibilities, its harkening for one roots and laced with an eternal obsession with the universal concerns of beauty, tranquility, and naturally, conflict. The tag northeastern poetry is inclusive of an immensely wide horizon, and one that encompasses a variety of impulses. Conflict, beauty, identity and folklore etc have been the major thematic concerns of the poetic outpourings of the writers and poets from the northeast. It should be borne in mind that the aforesaid observation is neither, adequate, nor appropriate, but a sort of lump sump approximation of the same, for the purpose of analytical and practical convenience.

Most of the Northeastern Poets writing in English, surprisingly are based in Shillong and their collective creative innovations have led to the emergence of what has been informally labeled as the Shillong poets. As such, it was with great pleasure that we had the chance to feature one of the most prominent poets from the region, Kympham Sing Nongkynrih- a poet who dons many hats- that of a bilingual writer, poet, folklorist and translator. One of the most talented and prolific poets from the Northeast, Nongkynrih’s poetry encompasses a staggering gamut of impulses and thematic concerns and thus lending to his poetry, a touch of unparalleled brilliance and splendour.

For the uninitiated, please do go ahead and google up his name and you shall see a staggering list of publications with the most reputed poetry journals and publishing houses all over the world. Not surprisingly, Dr. Nongkynrih is one of those very few poets from the region who have managed to cut across boundaries and make a name for himself in the national, and ultimately, in the international poetry arena. As it is, Dr. Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih has published five collections of poetry, two in English, three in Khasi. These include Moments, The Sieve, Ka Samoi jong ka Lyer, Ki Mawsiang ka Sohra and Ka Jingpeiñ jong ka Por: Ki Haiku bad Senryu. And if that is not enough, it would be pertinent to note that when most poets from the region vent out the grievances about the pan Indian publishing houses not investing sufficient interest and applying greater stimulus to the poetry being churned out from the region, Dr. Nongkynrih’s third poetry collection in English, The Yearning of Seeds, is forthcoming from HarperCollins India.

In addition to the aforesaid achievements, it would be worthwhile to note that some of his poems have been translated into Welsh, Swedish and some Indian languages including Hindi and Bangla. Others have been prescribed for the MA English programme of various universities in the country and abroad and his khasi poems are also taught as a part of the higer secondary syllabus in his home state. His other books include edited volumes, critical and translation works in both Khasi and English. He is a keen chronicler of folktales, and his latest book, Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends, was brought out by Penguin India.

One of the most established names in poetry from the region, he was awarded the first Veer Shankar Shah-Raghunath Shah National Award for literature conferred by the Government of Madhya Pradesh (2008) and also the first North-East Poetry Award conferred by the North-East Poetry Council, Tripura (2004) besides a Fellowship for Outstanding Artists 2000 from the Government of India.

As they say, the earliest influences and impressions of childhood act as one of the major influences in shaping the consciousness of the person, and more so in the case of the poet, we delved deeper into his earliest impressions of childhood. “I was born and brought up in Sohra or Cherrapunjee, famed worldwide for the rain and the breath-taking beauty of its landscape, but also known in Khasi as the land of poets and educators”. Speaking of his family life and home, Dr. Nongkynrih says, “After my father’s untimely death, my mother worked as a lowly-paid basic health worker in the Health Department of the Government of Meghalaya. This means that we were quite poor and had a hard life in that sense. But poor doesn’t mean unhappy. Growing up among the sacred woods, the panoramic hills and clear rivers of Sohra; among warm and compassionate neighbours, that remains the best part of my life, and I find myself hankering back to that time again and again. This is why my only hiraeth (Welsh, loosely translated as various form of longing) now is for Sohra, for I still consider myself a true son of the wettest place on earth, baptised by its wind-driven rain and its impregnating fog.” Later on, he went on to complete his education from NEHU and earned his masters and doctorate in English before finally joining his alma mater NEHU as a faculty member. At present Nongkynrih is Associate Professor in the Department of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.

Coming straight to the question, we prod him about how his initial tryst with poetry began. As he opens up and says, “I started writing when I was quite young, in High School. I still remember how it actually began. I was staying in a rented house in Shillong when a beautiful young woman, with a little girl child, who had been abandoned by her husband came into the same compound. I became madly in love with her. But what was I to do? I was only “a strange and ragged rustic, struggling to be a day-time student, a night-time labourer.” She seemed to me, in her loneliness, like a flambeaux in the dark lanes of those nights. Something stirred inside me. I was racked by a sudden desolate yearning, something fierce and restless, a gnawing, tormenting desire to reach out, to touch— and I scrawled my first few lines, and then, furtive like someone committing a crime, one night I crawled up to her two-room residence and slipped the poem through the door. But in my foolishness I did not even write my name. For days after that, the woman kept looking for the man who had called her his “Light-in-the-Night.” But I did not have the courage to reveal myself.” As he goes on to say, “My poetry was first discovered by one of my teachers in MA, the late Prof. E. N. Lall, who encouraged me to have my poems published in reputed national journals. I was also very fortunate to meet with a group of already published poets. Among them, Robin Singh Ngangom has been my first reader and truest critic.”

Though he is a student of English literature, Dr. Nongkynrih strongly feels that he has not been significantly influenced by any of the English poets. This is because he has always been drawn to the poetry of some famous poets in Latin America, West Indies, East Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Japan. With such a diverse and wide range of influences, it was only natural that his poetry should represent such a staggering gamut of impulses and emotions in all their splendour. Speaking of the thematic concerns of his poems, it would be worthwhile to note that Dr. Nongkynrig comes from a land where folklore and myths are a integral part of the individual and social consciousness and psyche. As such, one is not surprised to find the poet dabbling extensively in folklore and myths. Speaking about how he incorporates folkloristic impulses in his poetry, he says “Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist and poet, once talked about “The Novelist as Teacher.” I would like to talk about the poet as teacher. This is what defines my approach to the folk material. As I said in one of my articles, ‘I would like to talk of our great festivals … and the vitality of their role in our social life… But most of all I would like to remind my people, as a poet raconteur, of the virtues of their ancestors’ ways and the necessity of perpetuating them. I would like to talk of our myths and legends and let those, who will, draw lessons from them.’”

Shifting our focus to the contemporary poetry scene of Northeast India, we ask him about his opinions on the poetry scene of the region, which has been attracting worldwide critical attention and acclaim. Commenting on the present situation of poetry In Northeast India, he comments adeptly, “As you know, the Penguin anthology of poetry from the Northeast Dancing Earth, co-edited by me, has just been brought out. In editing this anthology and the previous one brought out by the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, I realise that Northeast poetry is deeply rooted. The roots of the poets’ beloved land; the roots of their people’s culture; the roots of their times; and most of all, the roots of the past that is “lost” to them, have sunken deep into their poetry. And this is the chief reason why their poetry is found, by writers like Jayanta Mahapatra, to be so bonding even though it may come from “the very different regions of the Northeast.” Nature poetry, contemporary realities (like the “banality of corruption and the banality of terror,” influx and ethnic conflict) and the use of myths as a means of rehabilitating the past as high culture, are some of the major themes to be found in Northeast poetry today.”

But perhaps this is just one aspect of Northeast poetry. The fact is that the Northeast is a great melting pot of cultures and there is in it an “uneasy coexistence of paradoxical worlds such as the folk and the westernised, virgin forests and car-choked streets, ethnic cleansers and the parasites of democracy, ancestral values and flagrant corruption, resurgent nativism and the sensitive outsider’s predicament….” As chroniclers of their subjective realities, the poets of the region do reflect in their poetry this “world of eerie contradictions” even as they explore their own mindscapes and tackle the eternal themes of poetry and the many-layered complexities of human relationships. Because of all this, the Northeast poets “cannot merely indulge in verbal wizardry and woolly aesthetics but must perforce” write what Leigh Hunt called the poetry of “felt thought.” Therein lies the universality of their poetry.

It has been an interesting and long journey for the prolific writer and poet and with things looking brighter than ever for Northeastern Poetry, Dr. Nongjynrih has miles to go before he sleeps. Winding up our conversation with the prolific writer and poet, we ask him for his concluding opinions and views and true to our expectations, he comes forth with his comments and seals the conclusion with adept firmness and beauty: “ I just want to say that it doesn’t matter where we live and from where we are writing. The most important thing is to read great writings and emulate great writers. If we can do that, then, as Neruda suggests, it doesn’t matter if our poems have sunken their roots deep into our native soil; it does not matter if they are born of indigenous wind and rain or have emerged from a localised landscape. If they are worth their salt they must “come out of that landscape… to roam, to go singing through the world….” It is indeed a comforting reassurance for all poetry and literature aficionados from the region that he shall continue to enchant us with his mellifluous words about his hills, his people and these roads, all of which we call…. home.

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Posted on May 18, 2010, in Personalities/ Interviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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