Nini Lungalang is a
little-known poet from a region already marginalised by the mainstream Indian
literary world. While most anthologies of Indian English poetry do not even
recognise the existence of poets from the region as a whole (especially women
poets, though this is now changing), Lungalang is not interested in being
recognised. “I am a very private person and these are very intimate thoughts,”
she says, “and, therefore, I feel a certain sense of discomfort. I don’t like
being encroached upon. It’s not embarrassment or shyness, once it’s out in
print, it’s not really yours anymore.”
A notorious recluse (little children in Kohima, where she lives, are told that her house is haunted and that she is a witch) and more than a bit of a bohemian (she smokes, drinks, is known to have had a radical hippie past, is outspoken in her critique of false religiosity as much as militant nationalism), she is the kind of voice that the states of the Northeast and its cultures need to hear more but her impulse is against the social, against engagement with the world.
“I had no ambitions of
publishing or printing any of my poems,” she says. “My husband used to type
them and keep them. Then a friend stumbled upon some of it and insisted on
publishing them. Publishing is not important so long as one has the freedom to
go on scribbling.”
Yet her poetry does not shy from the outward:
I saw a young man
As I shopped in the market place.
Two thick thuds, and then he fell,
And thrashed a bit, on his face.
That’s all. He sprawled in the staring sun.
The outside world is mediated by the aesthetic and the political is never obvious despite that fact that she was born, as the biographical to her first and only collection of poems The Morning Years (1994), brought out by a small publishing outfit in Dimpaur, says “in that raging peace between Indian Independence and the Naga nationalist movement.” Not for her the obviousness of the hackneyed political poem.
Ask her a question about the role of poetry in contemporary Nagaland and her answer is about poetic craft: “There is a bifurcation among youngsters today. Most people have no time for reading at all. We are going through a phase in our social development where many people are turning away from activities that involve thought. There is a small minority who do get into the arts and for them poetry is still relevant. I don’t blame anybody, maybe the incursion of TV can be a reason.”
If you’ve read my poems, you might have noticed that I avoid metrical writing because I feel it detracts from what I’m really trying to say. I don’t use rhymes, I feel it makes ideas stilted although sometimes it unconsciously creeps in. When it does, I accept it but I don’t make an effort to rhyme.I feel every thought has its own rhythm and you have to catch it, that takes real work.
Language and the need to be alive to it are crucial to Lungalang. She is upset about what contemporary Nagas are doing to language: “There seems to be a system of trivialising language which is a pity. If thought and language are one, then your language better be good. You have to think in a language. Technical skills are important and they help in economic development but they do not contribute to the refinement of a human being. It is a pity that people do not read anymore and therefore do not think. One has to wrestle with a thought and make it your own. We have become too superficial and that saddens me.”
If Lungalang is beginning to sound like a disgruntled old fogey, she is quick to emphasise, “I hate poetry that sermonises. Spiritual and moral attitudes may be one but to seek a clergyman to endorse it is revolting. Many new writers take the easy way, write about God, ‘good things’ and scamper off to a local pastor for approval, some of whom went to study evangelical theology, maybe because they could not pass the regular courses.” The best testament of her aliveness is the tensile strength of her poems. Here is a remarkably precise one in its entirety:
Breathing dark, wombed
The distant highway moans;
The horizon’s vague nebula,
Pale cupola of light,
Pulses, cupping the town.
Curls warm, all wildness quenched
In sleep, my dream-drenched child.
It’s time to go: time to close doors,
Time to put this one to bed, time
To draw water for tomorrow…
(Time clenches its sinews,
Tightens its muscles,
Here, there is no time:
Mosquitoes’ thin melody.
Night birds’ cryptic tattoo, Insects’ morse-codes
Orchestrate the mystic music
Of summer polyphony.
And now, for all my years,
A child again, I cry
‘Let not this moment pass too soon!”
The pain of loss clutches the instant,
While a frog leaps,
Fracturing the mirrored moon.
A piano teacher at a school (Northpoint) in Kohima, Lungalang’s poetry does not follow traditional metrical patterns. Her prosody is determined by the sound and rhythm of words.
As she puts it: “As a child, I was fascinated with the rhythm of words and its natural progression. If you’ve read my poems, you might have noticed that I avoid metrical writing because I feel it detracts from what I’m really trying to say. I don’t use rhymes, I feel it makes ideas stilted although sometimes it unconsciously creeps in. When it does, I accept it but I don’t make an effort to rhyme.I feel every thought has its own rhythm and you have to catch it, that takes real work.”
Indeed, Lungalang is
clear that writing poetry is hard work and not a vatic state in which poems are
simply written through the poet. “There is no short cut to writing poetry. It
needs discipline. Correct grammar, good vocabulary (I don’t mean to say I am
perfect, I make my own mistakes). Vocabulary is vast, one has to hunt around
for the exact word that fits your thought. It is not easy but that’s part of
the fun of writing poetry. Also, you need something that’s a little more than
lexical correctness. The emotional character, the suggestiveness of a word, as
well as its sonic significance are very important.”
Lungalang is very critical of lazy writing: “Modern writing, good as the ideas may be, many writers (especially in Nagaland) seem to think that bad grammar, bad spelling, bad punctuation constitute modern writing. That’s not true, poetry is not disorganised, it is the most delightful and the highest form of thought. It demands certain refinement of attitude. This is not to say that poetry does not embrace certain crudities of thought but it is not same as a kitchen conversation, it is an intellectual activity.”
She may call her poetry scribbling but she actually works relentlessly at getting these poems right and the difference between the poems of the first collection and those written more than a decade later and published in more recent anthologies like Where The Sun Rises When the Shadow Falls: The North-East, edited by Geeti Sen and The Dancing Earth: An Anthology of Poetry from North-East India, edited by Robin Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih show an enormous maturing and tightening of her voice.
In a rare piece of prose entitled “Child of Fortune”, Lungalang spins a hauntingly poetic fable of the effects of the violence of the Indian state on the Naga movement. It is told through the story of a woman survivor of that violence and her daughter, the latter who, from her experience in the womb of the sexual violence on the women and the deaths of the men, including her father, does not speak.
She says: “I prune mercilessly. There are many who get it right the first time. To get to the core of an idea you have to keep stripping off what’s not necessary. All my ideas are not equal and are all not worth poetry. For ordinary people, like me, you have to plot. Being self-critical is important.”
This self-criticism is missing from much writing and certainly all the politics of the region. What perhaps does not allow Lungalang to sloganeer or partake of platitudes is this poetic discipline.
However, it is erroneous to see this discipline as pulling her away from the political. Indeed, it leads to the sharpest articulation of the political and helps renew our faith in both poetry and the political by defamiliarising and disorienting us. This is how “Dust” (the poem cited first) ends:
I stumble home through
My furtive footsteps hushed by dust.
I scan the sky—hard, limpid—deep—
O pure and high is heaven’s sky!
Is there no shade for me? I weep
To hide from the glaring eye of heaven.
(Cain, my brother—Cain!
I know your fear, your guilt, your pain –
I too have now a brother slain,
I too am sealed with the scarlet stain!)
My ink has crusted in my pen,
And in my heart—the dust.
Evoking an eviscerated landscape, re-working the Biblical in rhythms that resonate with the powerful incantatory quality of the Christian poetic tradition, she does not settle for an easy reconciling with faith but chooses to face the heart with nothing but dust in it.
Lungalang shuns the kind of identitarian politics foisted upon her because of the difficulties of the region she inhabits, what she disdainfully calls her “Naganess”: “My poems are based mostly on human feelings. Many people suggest themes and I find that exasperating. My response to them is ‘Oh! That’s a great idea, why don’t you write it yourself?’ I do not write on my ‘Naganess’, it is a social characteristic and as such are, in a way, universal. I refuse to mythologise my ‘Naganess’.”
This is not to say that she does not partake of the world in which she lives. Indeed, the most powerful effects of her poetry come from a close engagement with the Naga landscape around her. She says: “You need to be closer to nature to see the truth of yourself. Everything is so standardised. Many of them are not honest with themselves. Read Walt Whitman, he is so honest with himself, it’s beautiful.”
The English language and the English literary tradition are a crucial part of her poetic engagement. Consider her poetic influences: “I still get a high reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. Enjoy John Donne’s wit, Keats- it’s tragic that he died so young. I like Shelley, except when he raves too much. Some of Wordsworth, he takes himself too seriously, early works are good but later ones are smug. I love the flippancy of Byron. Love Browning. I like Whitman, he’s tough and muscular. I don’t like Tennyson, he’s too sentimental.”
This canon is a window into another culture, into the connections and dissonances with how others deal with similar and different questions. It allows her to be critical as much of the nationalism of the Indian state as of the tribalism within Nagaland. She settles for an internationalism, a global environmental critique:
My neighbours quarrel
over a strip of land
that runs between
their ancestral plots;
it’s just wide enough and
long enough to dig
a good deep ditch
to drain the poisons
that have festered
for ages between them,
but not nearly enough
to bury them, end on end.
It makes me wonder;
if we claim to own
the land we live on
down to the centre of
the earth, which after all
is just a pinpoint dot—
who owns that dot?
And who owns the rain
we drink, and who
the air we breathe?
Can you or I or
that millionaire buy
a ray of light,
the evening’s cool,
the moonlight’s mystery?
Who has the right
to sicken a child
to hurl a stone
at my neighbour’s cat?
In a rare piece of prose entitled “Child of Fortune”, Lungalang spins a hauntingly poetic fable of the effects of the violence of the Indian state on the Naga movement. It is told through the story of a woman survivor of that violence (and like her fiction-writing compatriot Temsula Ao, Lungalang does not mention tribe or name, erases detail and builds a story of the collective experience of violence) and her daughter, the latter who, from her experience in the womb of the sexual violence on the women and the deaths of the men, including her father, does not speak.
When the army returns, mother and daughter, gathering mushrooms on the cliff take a terrible decision: “The rocky slope was steep, and the cold wind rushed and snatched at her hair. We’re going home, she told her quiet child. Then she reached the top. The wind snatched and tore at her. We’re going home, she said, and clutching her child, she leaped into the howling wind.”
The story had opened with a terrifying account of the height and immensity of the cliff. Throughout the fable, as in her poetry, Lungalang stays with physical detail, with razor-sharp and precise description. The fable manages to convey both the terrible effects of violence and the importance of gendered protest. When the protagonist is pregnant, the whole village thinks it will be a hardy boy but she is convinced it will be a girl. The girl’s silence is the most effective critique of the violence marking Naga culture. That story-telling, oral tradition is kept alive in the fable; the auratic quality of the aesthetic is the political.
It is through the minutest effects, most often from nature, that Lungalang contains the tensions of her verse: the movement between destruction and the reaching out for life, the need to value the world because of the fragility of it. Prehaps it is best to stay with a Lungalang poem that holds this fragility even as it recognises the human inability to hold it:
And we complained
It's been a bad season
For flowers as well.
The winter too long
And the wind, when it came
Struck death to the very root
Of even the hardiest -
Those cruel thorned roses
That bloom each spring
Like a vernal song.
Drought set in:
We bought water by the bucket,
Each day dearer.
We grudged indeed the very sips
Our children left undrunk
At the bottom of drinking cups,
And called them thoughtless
Selfish little monsters,
And every vessel in the house
Was filled to the brim
With our fear and greed.
Then the rains came -
In torrents they came -
Roaring, Pouring, as if
The very floor of heaven
Had fallen out
And everything overflowed.
And we complained
It's been a bad season
For flowers as well.
For the rain, when it came
Drowned to the very root
Even the hardiest.
Those shaggy-headed dahlias
That bloom each June
Like a summer song. . .
(The author would like to thank Benjamin Vinito for his help)