Eastern Muse - A Song of Multiple Voices

Review by: Nabanita Sengupta

Eastern Muse: Poems from the East and North East India
Edited by Malsawmi Jacob and Jaydeep Sarangi
Price: ₹ 395.00
Pgs: 267
ISBN: 978-93-89110-21-0
Publisher: Authorspress, New Delhi, 2019


Eastern Muse - A Song of Multiple Voices
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta

An anthology is one of the best ways to celebrate plurality of voices. They are important because they introduce the readers to a number of poets and whet up their appetite for more. Also it is the editor’s selection, omission, and arrangement of poems that sustain readers’ interest in the work. So editors’ choice plays an important role in shaping ay anthology. By bringing together contemporary poets from various parts of East and North East India, the two editors, Dr. Jaydeep Sarangi and Malsawmi Jacob have tried to present to their readers the best that this region has to offer; an immensely difficult task considering that this region has been extremely rich in terms of poetic tradition. But the editors, both of them also poets of repute, do a remarkable job here. Of course, there are some voices that could not find a place within this anthology, but that can be explained in terms of economy of space. It is always better to have an anthology that fits into your hands easily, or one that you can carry in your backpack to read while travelling than to collate a tome which would mostly find a place in bookshelves or for only an academic reading. Poets’ voices need to be heard and they should be accessible to maximum readers because as William Blake said, ‘Poetry fettered fetters the human race’. So it is imperative for poetry to be unfettered, to be accessible to as many readers as possible. The editors kept this in mind while putting together this remarkable anthology yet at the same time including most of the important and contemporary voices of the region.

Malsawmi Jacob
  As the subtitle of the book says, ‘Poems from the East and the North East India’, the anthology is divided into two separate sections – ‘Poems from East India’ and ‘Poems from North East India’. Though East and North East parts of India are connected in many ways, their sources of inspirations, their imageries, emotions and subject are vastly different as is their culture, literature and tradition. By dividing the anthology into two sections, poet editors do justice to the poets from these two regions, allocating them space of their own. ‘Poems from East India’ include poets from Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, a large section of this part being taken over by poets with a Kolkata connection. Kolkata has always been a city that has loved and celebrated poetry and as the editors say in their introduction, ‘Indian English poetry originated in Kolkata’ with Kashiprasad Ghosh and Henry Derozio as their founders. In recent years too it has seen a surge of poetry activities with various poetry groups originating and performing across the city. It also boasts of a poetry library ‘Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library’ of which Jaydeep Sarangi, one of the editors of this anthology, is also the Vice President. It is therefore only natural that an anthology on poetry from East and North East of India will have a number of representatives with various links to this city. Befittingly, we have around five poets from the East who belong to the city in various ways. The city also becomes one of the themes that the poets write upon.

Jaydeep Sarangi
Similarly, ‘Poems from North East India’ consist of poets from Nagaland, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur. The compositions bring out the uniqueness of each of the poets. The poets focus on nature, politics, love, ecology, death, gender and much more. While the themes are universal, they speak in a voice that is their own, in a language that can bear the nuances of their culture. English, the non-native language of India that has always been at helm of various controversies, becomes a tool for them to bring out the subtleties of their culture with perhaps the right amount of dissociation. The poems that make their way into this volume are rich in terms of meaning and enjoyable too. While some of them are for pleasure read, some jolt us into an ignored reality; there are still others that force us to contemplate or change perspectives. In many poems, local legends, old wives tales and fables form a part of the text. For example, in a set of two poems by the Sahitya Akademi award winning poet Mamang Dai, titled as ‘Man and Brother’, a local legend which says men and tigers were originally brothers, intertwines with an ecological consciousness of the poet. This juxtaposing of a local myth to highlight a global concern, adds various levels of meanings to the poem.

Regional identities play an important role in making India a country that celebrates pluralities. Yet, it is the regional identities that have time and again come under various scanners. North East India for example has been often associated with political unrest, instability, violence and other negative connotations, overshadowing the natural beauty of that region, its resilience in face of adversity, its own pluralities as well as a rich ethnography that it encompasses within itself. Eastern region too has its own share of political turmoils, ecological crisis, gender issues and many other problems which can be set against the beauty and richness of culture and tradition that it has been carrying for centuries. By identifying the poets with their places of origin, the editors beautifully celebrate the local which then merge with the bigger entity called India. So while the poets featured in this anthology have strong individual voices they also have a common cultural core that both distinguishes them and bind them together to give this region its distinctive identity. Spread across eleven states and twenty seven poets, this anthology truly represents the eastern and north eastern region of India. Though grouped together as Eastern and North Eastern states, each of them has a distinctive character, both in terms of their linguistics and culture. But just as geographical limitations never restrict a poet’s voice; these poems too speak across borders and cultures merging the global and the local in terms of culture, language as well as themes.

It is the title of the book that takes into account the regional identity of the poet, the poets themselves cannot be compartmentalised by that. Not just in terms of their poetic consciousness that oversteps the regional, but also in terms of their geographical stationing, many of these poets have multiple places with which they identify themselves. While Bashabi Fraser calls herself a poet ‘divided between two worlds’, bringing together Scotland and India, Lalnunsunga Ralte moves between Aizwal and Shillong. Poet and renowned academician Sanjukta Dasgupta and Shanta Acharya, though originally from Kolkata and Odisha respectively, their vast international experiences make their voices global in the true sense. In the poem ‘A Tale of a Sleeping Village’ by Sanjukta Dasgupta, the global and the local conflates – ‘Narcotized messenger boys and girls, men as pawns/ Mother Courage in a trance in a tropical village/ Brecht and Gorky’s mothers trapped by puppeteers’. Her ‘sleeping village’ that ‘suddenly disappeared’ can be found in every corner of a world turning increasingly insidious.    

The book celebrates the local too because it is in the interstices of local habits, customs and lifestyle that cultural richness and diversity exist. While Robin S Ngangom pays a beautiful tribute to the majestic hills of Ri Bhoi district interweaving a popular Khasi story of star-crossed lovers in ‘Spring at Ri Bhoi’, the poem ‘Elusive Monsoon’ by Saroj K Padhi underlines the importance of monsoon in his own state. Interestingly, the image of ‘God-Gurus who outraged million maidens’ juxtaposed with the deluding rains make this poem both topical and universal.

Ecological crisis, gender stereotyping, patriarchal hegemony and contemporary socio-political situation are some of the other prominent issues that find voice in this anthology. In the poem ‘Optional' Lalnunsanga Ralte attacks patriarchal prioritisation of the father’s name for all official purposes even though it is the mother who brings up the child. The poem closes with incisive lines, ‘My dear government,/ Know that it has been my curse,/ It is always with heart breaking guilt/ That I put his name before hers.’ In the poem ‘Waiting for the Militants' the bold and sarcastic voice of Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih talks of the ‘border villages’ where they have seen ‘a fish pond that has formed/ on a road that is no road/ and villagers fishing for fishes that do not exist’, expressing a sense helplessness and futility at the general apathy of those in power.

 The richness of themes and beauty of language makes this anthology an engaging work of poetry. The editors themselves add to the richness of the collection with their poems that range from the local to global – tending from the microcosm towards the universal. Jaydeep Sarangi in ‘Another Day in Kolkata’ captures accurately the essence of Kolkata in a few lucid lines. In a tribute to Manohar Mouli Biswas in the poem, ‘The Trusted Army’, he reinstates the poets as ‘unacknowledged legislatures of the world’, pinning his hope upon them for a better world, an important statement in a world where liberal humanism is fast losing its space. Similarly Malsawmi Jacob in ‘Beast’ contextualises ‘The Second Coming’ by W B Yeats in the present day scenario which has corrupted even the personal core of being, ‘The beast arises/ in you in me’.

One of the distinctive features of this anthology that requires appreciation is an almost equal representation of women’s voices. In spite of all the debates and conversations on feminism, rising awareness of women’s issues and rights, women poets remain under represented in world poetry map even today.  In such a scenario, this anthology does a remarkable job in representing women poets in almost equal number. The women poets featured here are not token representations but have very powerful voices. They write not just about women’s issues but also on ecology, tradition, national and international politics and many others thus rising above their gender identities. Yet their consciousness and experiences as women colour the way they see the world. An interesting poem is ‘The written word’ by Sharmila Ray where the activity of writing or creating is compared with the domestic act of cooking till the virtual world banishes the act of writing altogether and replaces it with typing.

Apart from the few poets discussed above, this anthology consists of poems by almost all the eminent poets from the East and North East India like Anjana Basu, Bibhu Padhi, Jayanta Mahapatra, Tabish Khair, Easterine Kire, Meenakshi Goswami and many others. The editors have done a remarkable job in trying to bring the entire gamut of poets writing in English within the ambit of a single book. Each poem in the anthology has been carefully selected and included. The poems speak at various levels and demand multiple reading because of the layers of meanings concealed within them. The book speaks of the time and brings to mind Kennedy’s words that where power corrupts, poetry cleanses. As Bashabi Fraser, the renowned poet and academician had said in an interview “Power of poetry from multiple poets can pierce the stratosphere with the brilliance and constancy of a constellation from which we cannot turn away without losing the only magical light that might be left to us on our darkest of journeys”. An anthology of poetry which consists of important and powerful poetic voices, gives us that magical light to guide us in our difficult times. Poetry here cleanses, and even fortifies us for the challenges of today’s world while at the same time awakening us to the beauty of life. Such multi-voiced anthologies are the need of the hour when at every moment we face the fear of losing our own voices.

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