By- Dr. Ph. Jayalaxmi
Manipur has witnessed the rise of violence that remained unresolved for many years. Generally when we discuss the writings emerging during this era we cannot overlook the lurking violence that shapes the mental frame of the writers. Poetry has become one of the popular genres through which the writers from the violence-affected areas have taken recourse to as a purgative consolation. This present paper discusses the yearning for the lost homeland due to the violence, the loss of innocent childhood, the nostalgia for the memorable past, and the fractured identity in the section “Angst for Homeland” in ‘Tattooed with Taboos: An Anthology of Poetry (2011) by Three Women from North-East India namely – Chaoba Phuritshabam, Shreema Ningombam, and Soibum Haripriya. These young poets belong to the group of writers who write in English or are bilingual. They are educated outside Manipur and most of their writings reflect their vexations regarding the deteriorating condition of their homeland called Manipur due to conflict. “Angst for Homeland”, the second sub-section in this collection of poetry, generally evinces the disenchantment owing to the violence prevalent in the region which disrupts the political, economic, and social system. In the introduction, they have written:
‘Angst for Homeland’ looks at the dying landscape of a land of belongingness and seeks truth that seems like a mirage of oasis in wilderness. The predicament is of an emotional flux of our inability to love or hate; embrace or reject this land that we call home. [Chaoba and inter alia, 2011: ii]
The shifting perception of home, from a place of protection which provides shelter, care, safety, and security to the place of hostility, aggression, and death which disorient the tranquil existence, is being described here.
In the contemporary Manipuri poetry, we could discern the imageries suggesting to the menace of gun owing to the escalating armed struggle and its repercussion on the ordinary people who are trapped in-between the two potent forces. In the words of Robin S. Ngangom, the aftermath of the Second World War has transformed the medium of Manipuri poetry. The poets shift from the theme of romanticism in the pre-independence era to the realistic depiction of society where there is “a loss of traditional values in human affairs, the tyranny of those who wield economic and political power, rootlessness, dispossession, fragmentation of home, and family,’ and so forth. These are some of the shared experiences which many writers from this part of region have in common. While talking about the predominance of motifs in the contemporary poetry, Robin Ngangom states the Manipuri poetry is replete with the images of ‘bullets, blood, mother, the colour red and paradoxically flowers too’ [Robin, 2011: 297-299].
The Northeast India is understood by the mainstream India as the ‘other’ culture with its history of armed conflict. The incorporation into India has led to the emergence of various separatist crusades and often ‘the presence of a common enemy – India – often generated a degree of cohesiveness and a sense of shared destiny within these generic identities’ [Bhaumik, 2009: 2]. Manipur that forms a part of these diversified eight states is considered one of the most conflict-ridden regions. The recurrent motifs of Manipuri contemporary poetry are interwoven with violence, bloodshed, atrocities, and other numerous issues related to the imposition of Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). It may not be wrong to say that this draconian law is accredited as the root cause for many quandaries which persistently provoke violence. This inhuman law that resorts to fake encounters and inhuman activities results in the mass protest and the famous fast unto death of Irom Sharmila. Due to these factors, Manipur has become an insignia of the anti-AFSPA movement. As Shruti Pandalai has rightly enunciated:
One cannot also shake off the memory of the Meira Pabi movement in 2004, where 12 Manipuri women stripped in front of the Kangla Fort, the then headquarters of the Assam Rifles, shouting: ‘India army come and rape us all’—a dramatic protest to draw the attention of India and the world to the alleged abuse of AFSPA in the Northeast. As one recalls these episodes – the emotions that arise are contempt, distrust, helplessness and anger against the security forces. These emotions colour perceptions and with story after story these perceptions become belief systems. [Pandalai, 2013: 90]
Now AFSPA has become one of the belief systems of Manipur and it has ingrained profoundly in the consciousness of every Manipuri. The perpetual confrontation between the state forces and the non-state forces has become the essence of literature from the war zone. The ceaseless violence has made the home, the troubled home where people run for safe haven.
The troubled homeland suggests the tumultuous situation prevalent in the conflict-ridden region that has swallowed the subsistence of common people in the place called home which brings only restlessness and pandemonium of dead souls. The homeland mythology includes the cultural narrative of the magnificent past but for the children stemming from the violent area the mythology of homeland embraces the uncertainty, callous laws, fake encounters, rapes, violation of human rights, and many other apocalyptic movements. These three poets emphasize the sinking feelings which are ensnared in the labyrinth of conflict, violence, bloodshed, and rising crimes against women and men in the armed struggle.
Another significant aspect of their poetry is the intertwining of the nostalgic home with the excruciating past that affects the semblance of their present circumstances. Why is memory so important? While talking of the memory, Temsula Ao, in her preface to ‘These Hills called Home: Stories from the War Zone’, has encapsulated the importance of memory of the past and its remembrance to the people who are living in the conflict precinct. She says, ‘Memory is a tricky thing; it picks and chooses what to preserve and what to discard… memories are often sifted (filtered) through an invisible sieve and selections are made, of both the good and the bad, either to be preserved or discarded’. She further questions what about the memories of people whose experience is of pain and pain alone. With the intention of compensating the lost lives or to learn about the pain of a fellow human being it seems pertinent to ‘re-visit the live of those people whose pain has so far gone unmentioned and unacknowledged” [Temsula Ao, 2006: ix]. Many people may disown the painful history but it reverberates in the terror lore. Ao has rightly pointed out that “in such conflicts, there are no winners, only victims and the results can be measured only in human terms” [ibid. x].
The conflict has created a nihilistic feeling in which people have lost the valid sense of existence. When the homeland is created out of broken and fractured images of the thing of the past, it disorients the subject position of the individual. In that situation, they entangle between the past and the present thereby leading to anxiety and in order to overcome that anxiety they have started re-imagining or recreating their homeland by means of ‘memory but also memory’s stepchild, nostalgia’ [Walder 2011: 49]. Dennis Walder has given the relationship with nostalgia (past) and future (present). He comments that:
The dynamic of memory is that its existence is always in the present, even as it struggles to reclaim the past: this means that it constantly acts as a drain on the future, which cannot be imagined without reference to the past. [Ibid., 139]
The poems of these three writers demonstrate how memory and nostalgia grasp their existence on the individual level and facilitate in visualizing the bleak future. Remembrance of the past often intermingles with the disintegrated social realities of the present time. Memory interpenetrates the present thereby blurring the gap between the past and the future. When the dynamism of memory is lost it leads to the breakdown of the land of dreams which is lying before us with no certainty, no harmony but only affliction.
Nostalgia and memory of the past existence help the writers in chronicling the indelible past that is burdened with painful history. The nostalgia for the homeland often provokes the imaginary homeland where they lived their childhood without fear and terror. Despite the abhorrence of the not so convincing life at the homeland which becomes a home for ethnic conflict, degrading law and order situation, the corruption, the political subjection, the repression of the struggle for right to self determination, social and economic neglect, the writers often look back at his/her homeland. However, their vision is often blurred with memory that is no longer part of the present. While looking back at their memory, it reminds them of the conflict, the old scars, and bitterness. Thus, the nostalgia for the glorious past and bountiful nature has been the recurrent themes. The yearning for lost homeland, myths, love, and hills, are some of the motifs. The sense of nostalgia persuades their poetic imagination to visualize what they have lost in the route to modernity.
What enhances the pathos of human lives is they fail to comprehend the interrelationship between man and nature. The use of natural setting and imageries to show the impact of violence on the natural environment and human existence has rendered a new poetical sensibility that addresses the human predicament in a poignant manner. What happens when one fails to relate to the environment that is an essential part of our existence? Ecopoetics which means the place or home for dwelling proposes that ‘we must hold fast to the possibility that certain text marks called poems can bring back to our memory humankind’s ancient knowledge that without landmarks we are lost’ [Bate, 2000: 175]. Natural landmarks are part of our identities and the amelioration of natural habitat would mean the destruction of identity marker. Ecopoetics goes beyond the nature poetry. Christopher Arigo explains that ‘much of ecopoetry being written seems to take place more in the realm of the innovative, as opposed to more mainstream poetries. Perhaps, this is because innovative poetries are loci of resistance to mainstream poetic practices (and values) which presumably reflect larger social paradigms. Thus, innovative practices and ecological thinking/being/feeling combine to produce a site of resistance, of politics, of political resistance’ [Ibid., 3].
Therefore, poetry merging from the conflict-torn area focuses on the resistance to violence and politics by infusing the metaphors of natural/ecological descriptions. The ecopoetry not only talks about the nature poetry but it also conjures up the symbolism of displacement of home and annihilation of the environment. The ecopoetics accounts for the poetics of pathos on the loss of metaphorical nature which is the habitation of human beings. It intones how the annihilation of nature leads to the loss of human lives.
Greg Garrard, the famous environmental and ecocritical critic has rightly touched upon the modern environmentalism concern that originates with ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’ by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) which expresses the angst for the lost environment. Carson’s fairy tale opens with the words:
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above green fields. [Carson 1962]
He talks about the landscape of America with the great ferns, wildflowers, beautiful roadside, countless birds, houses, etc thereby ‘invoking the ancient tradition of the pastoral… concentrating on images of natural beauty and emphasizing the ‘harmony’ of humanity and nature that ‘once’ existed’ [Garrard 2004: 1]. Suddenly the pastoral peace has been disturbed and it leads to catastrophic destruction. Carson continues:
Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community; mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. [Opcit., Carson]
A strange and mysterious malady has swept the land thus ruining the peaceful existence. This very fable will soon be the anecdote of Manipur’s landscape as well. In the Manipuri poetry, we could find the image of crumbling and degeneration of natural environment that makes the writers to write about the idyllic past. The celebration of ecological grandeur of the region is reminiscent of the absence of the tranquil and serene pastoral life. In addition to it, the symbol of death is juxtaposed with the dying landscape to envision the apocalyptic and grotesque world with its impending end. Along with the memory of the glorious past, the quintessential characteristic that enhances their poetic creation is the suffusion of the grieving mother in the form of nature imagery. The metaphorical image of the dilapidation of nature exemplifies the annihilation of the equilibrium of human chain due to conflict and its resultant impact on its inhabitants and environment at large. Consequently, like other ecocritical poetry, their poems put across the concern for the environmental degradation in the wake of war, violence, technology, counter-insurgency, etc.
The poems in the collection “Angst for Homeland” have their genesis on the disconcerted moment and the discomfiture of the common people. Their poems accentuate the lamentation of the fractured memory that they have found in the present streets which are cracked with the ruined past. Chaoba Phuritshabam in the poem ‘Freedom’ laments the loss of freedom of life or the right to existence. She questions the intimidating life which the Manipuris are living under the aegis of the powerful people with guns. With the use of imagery of Thangal General who was a historical figure in the history of Manipur, she laments the fact that she does not have the competence and dexterity of the great general who fought against the British in the freedom struggle of Manipur. She avers that:
In an empty room
In the midst of darkness
I seek the meaning of freedom
I cannot rule with guns in my hands
Nor can I defend with an army
Nor did I learn
The way Thangal General diffused the bomb
With a sway of his sword.
[Chaoba and inter alia, 59]
She also evokes another historical figure like that of the valiant Bir Tikendrajit who also became an admirable figure fighting against the British. She gets frightened to live in a place where there is no freedom and even more threatening is that she does not have the courage to fight and stand against the people with guns. She fears the inevitable death which this gun culture would bring. Remembering the glorious past she remembers Paona, another historical figure, who she believes will infuse her the courage to fight against the excruciating circumstance where she has been landed. She laments that as none of them is alive the future generation is engulfed in darkness where everything has lost its meaning.
The poet could hear the sound of incessant guns in the distant hills and valleys. Pondering over the disordered condition, she inquires, ‘Whose freedom are we seeking?’ [Ibid., 59]. She further questions whether we are fighting to seek freedom for Shiroy Lilies in the hills which are the national flower or for the Nong-een (the national bird) or for the Taamna that sings in the hills. The metaphors of the flora and fauna have been employed to show the degrading nature due to the violence. The violence/gun culture has marred the forest and the hills which are the dwelling places for these precious flora and fauna have been leaving their habitats due to the encroachment by the men. Therefore, she states:
Tamna that sings in the hills
Left the nest in fear of invasion
Tracing its path through its gentle voice
Shiroy in the hills no longer blooms
In fear of being plucked before time
Indeed it must have asked in spite of being mute
‘Where is our freedom?’
She talks about the futile revolution which brings only harms and destructions to the bountiful nature. Thereby referring to the Loktak, the only fresh water lake in the nation, which has been the habitation of many birds, animals, and people, the poet says that due to the violence which has been brought by insurgency and counter-insurgency many inhabitants have fled. She says, “In the rhythm of ripples above Loktak/ Flight of swans no longer sways in dance/Exiled from this Meitrabak of Poirel” [Ibid.]. Consequently, not only the innocent lives have been lost but also the beauty of natural world is irreclaimable. The exile of the inhabitants allegorizes the fleeing of the common inhabitants who left their heavenly abode due to the torturous life brought forth by the violence.
Man-nature relationship is a holistic process and the disequilibrium will crumble the man-nature relationship. David Pepper conceives that alienation from nature means a failure to conceive of nature as a social creation. He furthers emphasizes that for the deep ecologists overcoming alienation means asserting the naturalness of humans by living in harmony with environment… for nature is the source of worth and it will be endangered unless we follow its rules [David Pepper, 1993: 114-115]. The poet has questioned the very motive of the freedom struggle that endangered many lives.
In her other poem ‘Operation Summer Storm’, the poet has revisited or remembered the unfortunate day that happened on the day of Cheiraoba. The State forces launched the Operation Summer Storm on April 10, 2009 to combat the insurgent groups. The poet explores the disillusioned life of common people by alluding to that unfaithful day when many innocent lives and home were lost due to the heinous nature of the armed forces. The State forces in order to control the armed resistant group launched the apathetic flush out operation and the attack on the ‘phumdies’ or floating grass which are also the home to many people. Without considering that many people would become homeless the State forces had in an undignified way turned to the worst form of violence and at the same time they also backed out to own the deeds by saying that no collateral damage had been done to the people. The Loktak that is the world’s only floating National Park – the Keibul Lamjao, and also the habitat of the Sangai becomes a battlefield. The poet unfolds the pitiable condition of a wretched mother who questions the meaning of living on this earth. The imageries of a hungry child and a dead husband on the floor have deepened the living condition of the common people who have to live from hand to mouth. The poet vividly pictures the prying eyes of the dead husband which breaks the illusion of a utopian life:
The tired corpse of my husband
Lay on the cold muddy floor
As he hides his pain and anguish
His eyes red and wild,
Stared and laughed at me
Mocking at my illusions of a yet to visit miracle
Silence was broken again with the cry of my child.
[Chaoba and inter alia, Opcit., 63]
It shows how such gruesome practice has affected the life of the common civilians who have been depending on the fishing as a source of their livelihood. This counter insurgency operation has displaced many people. The aftermath of this operation has left many without home and food. It only leaves a bleak future with endless questions without any answer from the people responsible for such mass destruction. She not only questions the sense of belongingness but also expresses her disappointment on the exploitation of bountiful nature due to the conflict. In her poem, she has brought forth the wretched condition of Manipur that is incapacitated by terror. Furthermore, she talks about how people are searching for the safe haven thereby migrating from their homeland. The serene home is replaced by terror, fear, and gun.
In the poem ‘Between Two Flags’, the poet addresses the fractured loyalty due to her allegiance to two flags one with chakra i.e. the Indian flag and other with shakok (the head of an animal) which is the symbol of valour of the Meetei people. Her sense of belongingness is aligned to both the flags. She is baffled by this entrapment which demand her loyalties which she says, ‘Beloved, both/ One, borne/ One, nurtured’ [Ibid., 57]. She says,
Mislaid at the warfield
Between two flags
I asked all
Who do I belong to?
Frequent, my thought
Can I belong to both?
The shakok embellished flag
With a sword
Stating a stranger, I am
Between two flags
She is mine
She is mine
Between two flags
Between these two flags.
The poet is experiencing the displacement and seclusion for aligning to both the Indian culture and the native culture. Due to her hybrid vision, she questions her own stand and loyalty towards the land which is her identity. Due to her affiliation to the Indian soil she is loyal to it, in the same vein she gets disheartened to discern the predicament and bewilderment of her native people and cannot imagine the atrocities meted out to her people by the Indian government.
In the poems of Shreema Ningombam, Ema remains the only unyielding figure who bears the impact of trying history. She is the wretched mother who is the exemplar of strength, courage, and brave spirit. Mother is the metaphorical home or dwelling place to which the weary souls find their solace and consolation. She is the widow whose husband becomes the victim of the armed rebellion and fake encounters, and she is the daughter who falls prey to the hungry perpetrators. Ema is the worn-out mother who wails for long hours after the death of her sons. Ema metamorphoses into different roles in different junctures of history. She has witnessed the nauseating history which has engraved her bosom with the angst for the homeless and dispossessed people. She is the victim as well as the victor. Ema/mother is the recurrent motif in the contemporary poetry from Manipur.
Shreema Ningombam in her poem ‘Mother’ envisions the image of the lost mother/motherland/culture who she desires to salvage/reclaim. She searches for the lost mother among the crowd and in the carnivals but she is nowhere to be seen. There is an intense sense of awareness to reclaim the land or home that has been lost somewhere in the dark alley of violence. She juxtaposes the literal mother and the symbolic mother with the image of home. She writes:
I came home,
To salvage your grave,
Where I found,
The skull of my ancestor,
The naophum of my ancestral kin,
A torn phanek stained with her primeval blood,
The imagery of ‘Naophum’ suggests the belief system of the Meitei where the placenta of a new born child is put in a pot and buried in the backyard of a house. Inducing such image to the mind is an act of recollection of cultural past that has now been dwindled with the advent of urbanization. Therefore, the poet could see the fading away of the rituals and beliefs so she is in a condition of poetic mourning where she grieves for the past as well as the future. Thus, she feels no pride to beget a child again in this unsettled situation as she could instinctively apprehend the bleakness of future generation.
With pride or with guilt I do not know,
Should I carry another mortal being in my womb?
I, a nameless mother wait and wait,
To mourn the death of my yet unborn.
There is sense of reclaiming the roots that is no longer there. Without the roots, the future progeny will fail to relate to the culture and belief system which is part of their ethnic identity. In the conundrum of violence, the poet becomes a nameless mother without her own entity and she has nothing to offer to her unborn child. She could prophesy the future that holds no meaning where only death is awaiting the child.
In the poem ‘Rainbow’, she with the heaving heart is nostalgic for her own childhood where she used to run behind the rainbow playfully and how she got accustomed to playing with pebbles and marbles. She remembers how the landscape evanesces in thin air due to the violence. When she is leaving her homeland for a prospective life, she says, the valley, where she has been born and brought up, seems to be calling her for the final settlement or truce. She remembered:
Green moors of this valley beckon me
Whenever I am exiled from this land
Like calling me for the last truce.
The poem ‘Fading Landscape’ explores the drifting apart of the bountiful nature which has been blighted by the human culture in the form of violence. The juxtaposition of the lost homeland and the new world that is not identifiable creates a space for analyzing the place and landscape as a social construct. The imageries of landscape suggesting environmental concerns have heightened the consciousness of the lost home with its serene beauty. In a way, it bridges a gap between what is lost and what is gained in the process of social interaction. It also highlights the rural and urban dichotomy and gives an objective to look at the past which we called home. Through the poetic creation, the poet desires to revisit the missing landscape and endeavour to remember the past but due to the disconcerted thought, she could remember her past in fragments. The fragmented images show the disconnection of thought and feelings which fail to capture in words. The poet’s emotional flux of mind oscillates between hope and hopelessness thus evoking the colours dark, bright, or grey in her poem. The image of owl of Minerva that is the symbol of wisdom fails to invest people with the knowledge, good judgment, perspicacity (insightfulness), and erudition. It shows the senselessness of violence that is ‘ready to sting to death the gods among us’ [ Ibid.,70]. The turning of white dove to the colour red also signifies the loss of peaceful life.
The poem ‘One Day Ema’ shows the optimism of the poet about the freedom. The poet thereby using the metaphor Ema says that one day the motherland will fulfill her dream of having an emancipated life. She says:
One day, Ema!
It will rain
And you will unbind hair and wash it
Flowers will bloom
In your dark mystic bun
As if they were never plucked
Kites will fly
In your blue sky with tails of freedom
With no one to harness them with a string
I will garland around your neck
The wreath so painstakingly woven
As you walk past the triumphant crowd
One day, Ema
Thus, the poet is showing that this land will get its due. This land will be crowned with the glory and liberty with the wreath on her head which is expressed in the image of a flower in the dark mystic bun. The flower imagery is often employed to show the mother/nature equation.
Soibam Haripriya’s poem ‘Another Polish for My Nails’ is a pun that refers to the black dot that has been put on a finger while casting one’s vote. It sarcastically mocks at the false promises made by the corrupt politicians.
Promises and promises
Give it a miss
You promised me the moon
And doted on my nails
The black stain of your promises
I live with the regret
Yet another five years
This is how the corrupt politicians lured the voters with their false promises and the state has to experience hardships for another five or more year under their lies. The young people are disenchanted by the manners of the politicians and the maxim ‘politics is the last resort for the scoundrels’ (Bernard Shaw) holds true for many years. It may seem derogatory but this is the harsh truth for the political scenario of Manipur. It demonstrates how democracy has been jeopardized by a handful of people who indulge in filth, corruption, deceitfulness, and treachery. Thus, the poet says:
Secretly folding your promises
Sliding it down
The box of dreams for another five years
Is lies and lies and lies
The poem ‘Fragments’, illustrates the disjointed picture of Manipur where the poet struggles to write about her native land but all the images, lines and words come in fragments and she could not see her land as a complete whole. She says: ‘In you I see/ Fragments and only fragments/ The whole departed/ And so will the fragments’ [ Ibid.,86]. Another poem ‘Joint Magazine Secy’ talks about how numerous insurgent groups endeavour to attract the youths to join their groups. When the entire land of Manipur was trapped in the new wave of patriotism, it also captivated the young minds to plunge into the struggle for self-determination.
In conclusion, we could discern that the social and political turbulence in the society has a profound impact on the writers. Through their poetic mourning, they have grieved over the things that have been fallen apart due to chaos and disturbances. These young and talented writers have questioned the meaning of freedom which only brings death and uproar in the society. The inception of the strife between the Indian State and armed non – state entities of Manipur or the ethnic conflicts induces numerous set of circumstances like the gross violations of human rights and injustice. This political impasse has led to the questioning of one’s subject position in their struggle for survival which only unfolds what T. S. Eliot has said in ‘The Wasteland’, ‘a heap of broken images’ (Eliot, 2006: 58) which illustrates the bleakness of future. Thus, their poems are the poetics of mourning and lamentation over the heart-rending loss of the golden era of harmony and belonging. Their poems are the poesies of fragmentation, despondency, uncertainty, absurdity, and uselessness of violence which could bring only large scale human mutilation.