Robin S Ngangom is a bi-lingual poet who writes in English and Manipuri. A lyric poet and translator of long standing, he is a significant presence in the literature of North Eastern India. Since the publication of his first volume of verse in 1988, he has proceeded to consolidate his literary reputation with a poetry collection in every subsequent decade. Adarsh Onnatt sits with Robin S Ngangom to talk on the recent developments of North Easte literature on the sidelines of the Third South Indian Writers’ Ensemble in Kerala.
Q – How you view the literary developments in North Eastern states?
A : English writing from the North Eastern parts of the country is on a progressive path. Natives have also developing the literature by using either the Roman script or Devanagari. If you take note of English writing from the region, it is difficult to talk about a tradition or movement but I can say with confident that there is some kind of a boom, perhaps, something happened in Latin America in the 1960’s and 70’s. There are many writers writing now. The mainstream publishers who usually ignored writing in English have started publishing these writers, both fiction and poetry. We are in for an exciting time.
Q – Even we say that the literature from Northern Eastern parts of the country is on a progressive path, the readers in the other parts of the country are left with little knowledge of this literature. Is it because of translation is inadequate?
A : That is one of the main reasons for that. There is no adequate translation of these literatures in making known the literature of North East to the readers of other parts of the country. There are some translations from regional languages from the North East are available now. For example, a friend of mine and I co-edited the first anthology of poems of North East recently. The anthology is called ‘Dancing Earth’ and is brought out by Penguin. Anyone who is curious about the North East literature can read that anthology and will get an idea about the kind of literature written in the North East.
Q : Many of the writers from North East are writing in English language, but they seldom get a mainstream notice or recognition?
A : I think that is something that the mainstream publishers and readers from the rest of the country can answer. There could be a number of reasons. Alienation is a fact. I think there is certain lack of interest or curiosity and because of differences of culture. Most the state or people of the of North East have not had any legacy attached to the freedom movement, which is crucial when comes to shaping of India. Apart from few groups from Assam and Manipur, the rest of the part had not played any pivotal role in the freedom movement of the country. Moreover, there is a sense of alienation is strong among the rest of the people that you are different and you are from the other part of the country. The incidents of North Eastern people are subjected to racist attack various parts of the country including in Delhi can be seen according to this.
We have differences in caste, culture and language. These elements go into the making of India. We have to accept that. We have to include everyone. There is this kind of a misconception noticed that we do not like to be called Indians. That is not true. I may be not be a proud Indian but am an Indian. There may be several reasons like politics, corruption and fundamentalism that pull you back from being a ‘proud Indian’, but we are Indians.
Q : What interested in you in literature, especially poetry?
A : During my growing years, I have been a subjective, private person. I have been painfully shy. I escape into the world of imagination. I used to read a lot romances, Mahabharata, Arabian nights, Bengali literature in translation and English romantic poems. I grew up in that kind of imaginary world. I have the experiences of both the world-city and rural alike. When I did not want to be part of the either world, I would go and lock in my room to read. That really drew me to the world of literature. I have started writing poetry at the age of eleven.
Q : Why it is said that you are one of difficult poets to translate in Manipur?
It is may be because of some of the political aspects of my poetry. I have been living rather safe in Shillong; if some of the stuffs I have written in English (His poems are written in English originally and then is translated into Manipur) are translated into Manipur I invite trouble.
Q : Why is so much violence in your poetry?
A : That is not true. I write every kind of poems and I would say it would be unfair to tag a poet with a particular genre. Poets change according to his subjective environment. The violent aspect that you see in my poetry comes as an immediate response to the political reality I see in my society. I become sometimes angry at the mindless violence happening around and I write in response to that. I am not trying to be righteous through my poetry. I do not want to preach people too. I believe in Karma and I want people to remind about their karma through my poetry.
Q : The rising intolerance against the writers is of a serious concern these days. How you respond to the recent right wing political attempts on writers in the country?
A : I think by the token of his writing, a writer is a natural dissident. He can never be a conformist. He always is a non-conformist-just writing by himself, writing about his dreams and his wishes. He automatically becomes a non-conformist. As I said earlier, I am responding to the immediate realities in my society. If it is terrorism, I respond to it on my own way through my poetry. But for the moment my concern is not about the religious fundamentalism or terrorism. I am concerned more about the ‘Ecological Suicide’.
We continue living as if it is as something of not real but it is real! Out of 20 most polluted cities in the world, Delhi is on the top position. Can we ignore that? Terrorism and corruption will continue. In fact, we are talking it about too much that people have become ‘banal’ to it. But for me the immediate concern would be like that the fate of the earth, which we are least bothered. I believe that corporatization is posing a huge threat to our environment. They are the most powerful people these days. They are the one who wants every piece of land turned to be a Special Economic Zone. Corporatization is a threat to the world. They will be happier if there are no farmers left on earth.
Q : Does any factor limit your creative freedom these days?
A : I do not need to be judgmental. As I said, I will talk about things that are of immediate concern to me. If virtual reality is the reality now, I will talk about it in my poetry. I feel that, perhaps, the duty or function of the poetry is to reflect or to mirror the body or the mind of the times. Nothing more! Poetry cannot make you a better person. A poet cannot be a PRO. He has to tell the truth he knows, that is all.
Q: What is the fate of Manipuri poetry?
A : The regional Manipuri writing is doing quite well with 15-20 books are being published every year. It is a kind of churning with the hope that ‘the great poem will come’. If you ask me about the quality, it is being at low. However, as the writing continues, I am hopeful with the progression Manipuri poetry and fiction makes. We have very fine poets in the language.
Q : Is it there a promising younger generation coming up?
A : I have been living away from Manipur for quite a while and I have not had the opportunity to read many of the younger poets. However, whatever little I have read, I am little disappointed with the younger generation in terms of quality and content. The older poets who would be in their mid 60’s and 70’s are much better. There are few poets, and I found the poems of Thangjam Ibopishak and Ibomcha are wonderful. When the reality becomes too much to bear and oppressive they resort to surrealism. A poet friend in Manipur has told me that they have been honing ‘the poetry of survival’ with guns pressed to both temples: the gun of revolution, which I would call it the gun of terrorism and the gun of state.
Ibopishak’s ‘I Want to be killed by an Indian Bullet’ is a perfect example for the use of surrealism. The terrorists visit his home in the guise of ‘Panchabhootha’- five elements-Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. He says that they are the avatar (incarnation) of power. They can take away the life and create life. The poem is very deep.
Many new poets seem to be preoccupied with insistent realities such as ethnic violence, corruption, terrorism, oppression and drug addiction. As a result, experimentation seems have slowed down a little.