The particular case of Shillong’s contemporary poetry!

As an educational hub and being a fast growing city, it has a long history of being a melting pot of cultures and learning.

Shillong has always been a hotbed for the arts in the north east of India. Be it in music or literature, many known artists and writers from across the region inevitably have some connection to Shillong. As an educational hub and being a fast growing city, it has a long history of being a melting pot of cultures and learning. Poetry has flourished in this city where the main auditorium for all major functions, is named after the famous local bard, Soso Tham. Many prominent writers who have come to define poetry from this part of the country have a connection to this city, having been born, lived or educated here. Renowned writers such as Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao, Robin Ngangom, Desmond Kharmawphlang, Kynpham S. Nongkynrih, Esther Syiem, Mona Zote, etc, the list goes on… Perhaps they have inspired younger generations as more and more people choose poetry as their medium for creative expression.

Contemporary poetry in Shillong, especially by younger writers, is mostly found online -websites, blogs, social media platforms etc. Easy access and reach to a wide audience has encouraged many young writers to share their works online. Always quick to assimilate latest trends, digital media has gained popularity with the youth in the city. As modern as the platform maybe however, the poetry that is written stands in juxtaposition, as the common themes are those of rootedness, histories and resisting the erosion of cultures and languages in the onslaught of uncontrolled modernization, ruthless capitalism and power politics.

An interesting aspect of poetry here is language. Being multilingual comes with the territory and most writers write in at least two languages –their mother tongue, and in English. The wide use and knowledge of English in Shillong can be attributed to the fact that it is being taught as a first language in schools, firstly. Secondly as the city has long been home to different communities and ethnicities, English as the lingua franca, has a long history here. Having learnt English since childhood, it has become the natural language also for critical and creative thinking. Most indigenous languages are only taught in native states. Given the history of conflict between the region and the centre, English, rather than Hindi, which is viewed as a language of the mainland, was adopted as the official language. It is therefore not uncommon for poets to write in English and sometimes even two versions of the same poem in their mother tongue and in English.

One of the earliest poets to make use of a digital platform to publish his poetry is Baruk Jacob. His blog Bottlebroke, later a website called Feddabonn, gained wide readership from within as well as outside the state. His poems such as, “in your language, not mine” and “I will not floss”, are fine examples of the rootedness and resistance that is common to contemporary poetry from Shillong. In, “in your language, not mine”, the precarious state of indigenous languages and the cultural memories they hold are dealt with passionately-

In your language, not mine
will tear at your histories
And when this well of anger
has boiled away
we will sit
and eat
and drink

and laugh and even talk,
though in your language,
not mine.

(in your language, not mine – Baruk)

Another poet, Reuben Lulam, a mixed martial arts trainer by day, blogs his poetry on Happy Red Rooster. Some of his poems have been published by both print and online media, including The Caravan. His poem “My People” echo the obsession people have with western luxuries and disregard for our own treasures –

My people said there is meaning in the movement of trees.
They said there is meaning in the flight of the eagle,
meaning in the mood of these streams.
When swallows fly, rain is sure to follow.
But, fettered to the comforts of wide-screen-mode,
my people have forgotten;
and for twenty years now,
the swallows have stopped coming, flying in from across Barsati’s house.

(My People – Reuben Lulam)

Avner Pariat, the author of the blog, From Mawlai, is a well known writer and activist. His poignant poem, “Khasis First”, speaks of the changes in the state with economic growth leading to the gradual loss of land and forest and also, traditional beliefs and ideals to accommodate ‘development’ and ‘progress’-

And as children, elders told us never to disturb the stones –
That is, the flat dolmen and the upright monoliths around it.
So we revered the stones, gave thanks to them, remembered.
We were Christians, but Khasis first.
Now the sacred stones are strewn aside, waiting to be ground;
Sacred woods are now in the way of progress and bulldozers.
Now we can explain away the fears, the tales of magical events
We are hardly Christians and no longer Khasis.

(Khasis First – Avner Pariat)

The poems by JobethWarjri present oral folk tales and traditional practices in a unique retelling. Poems such as “Pahsyntiew”, “The Fisherwoman (Ka Lidakha)” and “Shad Suk Mynsiem” transcribe myths and beliefs and uses them as metaphors and analogies for the struggles of a people, an individual, gendered communities in the modern context-

It wells up inside me, a scream
Against a dance that seems
It was only yesterday that shots
Were fired in the marketplace
And I watched
Blood becoming one with soil.

But the memory is erased-
Eclipsed by the necessity to preserve a custom
Of hope
As I witness the Dance of Peace
In a world that has none.

(Shad Suk Mynsiem – JobethWarjri)

In “On being a Khatduh”, Amanda Basaiawmoit writes on the complications of being a “khatduh”- the youngest daughter in the family who, traditionally, has to shoulder the responsibility of being caretaker to the house, family and clan. She examines the dilemma and often, the hypocrisy, of being entrusted to safeguard such traditions while society moves to a more modern concept of family-

Yes, even falling in love and marriage
Had conditions
The first was a case of
If you take me, you must accept two
Perhaps an emotional blackmail.
The second which frightened many
Was that I was a Khatduh
I inherit a houseful of responsibility
Family and the clan.

Here suitors’ negotiations began
Modernity demanded change

(On being a Khatduh - Amanda Basaiawmoit)

Donboklang Ryntathiang, a poet and musician, writes poems that explore what it means to be a Khasi and the failings he sees within his community. His critique of contemporary society is often replete with witty and humorous satires. In his poem, “Maram Sahbiej from Wahrit”, he writes of the prejudices faced by those from rural areas by urban, westernized folks-

Here in Mawlai I am clad in the infamous garb of a Maram.
"Go back to your Wild West Khasi Hills, you son of a maram", the customary reprimand of my father's kin, the original inhabitants of Mawlai.

He also writes about his grandfather, a traditional healer, whose significant role in society is fast diminishing-

The wise Doctor from civilized Shillong comes on a Friday only.
Do they miss my grandfather, a quack, an ignorant man who showed them patience and the
'Tiew lily in his garden when they broke a leg?

(Maram Sahbiej from Wahrit-Donboklang Ryntathiang)

Amanda Tongper’s poetry recalls memory with all the uniqueness and idiosyncrasy of belonging to a certain people, and its peculiar familiarities-

And our voices rose up with the dust at sunset. Your mother wailed your name like an effective abuse. She said she would beat you up with a broom. You continued…3, 9, 12, 16, 8, fif, pot. We won.

Though claiming that she cringes at her own poetry, she feels that she must write- for something within her, for something around her-

I cannot write without losing my mind. I cannot write without breaking. If I wake up one memory, the others wake up. His name is just a house built on a hill-top of inheritance. We can tear that house down, you and I, but the hill remains.
(Objections – Amanda Tongper)

Besides digital platforms, the growing community of poets in Shillong often meet to share ‘sha’(tea), writings and ideas. The local teashop or homes are the preferred venues for such meetings. Most of these poets are highly educated, some are academics, but they view themselves separate from the mainstream. This is apparent in the social consciousness and humanity that informs their poetry. Though most write in English and publish on modern digital platforms, their rootedness to culture and tradition and to humanity does not change. The hill remains.

Lalnunsanga Ralte, teaches English literature and is currently a PhD scholar at Northeast Hill University (NEHU). He is a member of the North East Writers Forum and has presented his work in many literary events across India. His poems and writings have been published in several online magazines. He has also worked on literary translations from Mizo to English.
Lalnunsanga Ralte (Sanga )
teaches English literature.