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Anthology-Making, the Nation, and the Shillong Poets

The exclusion of well-known poets of the north-east from contemporary anthologies that claim to represent Indian poetry is due to two reasons: their work does not follow the poetics of the Anglo-American world that continues to dominate Indian English poetry and their writing is strongly political. This exclusion mirrors New Delhi's disinclination to listen to the politically restless communities of the north-east.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 18, 200819thesis which argues that a “state-temple-corporate complex” (STCC, my term) is emerging to fill the space left behind by the neoliberal state which is retreating from its public sector obligations. In the name of promoting economic develop-ment, thisSTCC is openly promoting “tem-ple tourism”; in the name of promoting “Indian culture”, it is promoting Hindu symbols, rituals and practices; and in pro-moting “values education”, it is promoting pseudo-sciences like astrology, yoga, Ayurveda and vastu. Globalisation is turn-ing out to be great for the gods in India. Take this case of pilgrimage to Naina Devi. It would be wrong to see the rush of pilgrims as an index of the “natural” religi-osity of Indian people, for this religiosity has been actively fostered by the suppos-edly “secular” Indian state. Just last year, the state of Himachal Pradesh where Naina Devi is located, received a grand sum of Rs71 million from the central government for promotion of tourism. An unspecified but a large enough chunk of it was assigned to “promote temple tourism in a big way,” to quote the relevant minister of the state. Taxpayers’ money was used to promote the state as the “land of gods”, complete with the Puranic legends of Naina Devi as one of the Shakti-peeth temples – an idea that completely defies all reason. Such promo-tion of superstitions makes a complete mockery of the state’s constitutional obli-gation to promote “scientific temper” among the citizens. Not only that, state bureaucrats on the government payroll acted as fund-raisers, advertisers and book-ing agents for the state’s pilgrimage spots. The supposedly secular government put more of its resources in promoting a Hindu yatra thanin actually preparing for the rush of pilgrims. Why are we so surprised that there was such a deadly stampede at the temple? What happened in Amarnath is even more appalling. For years, the state gover-nor, S K Sinha, actively and routinely par-ticipated in Hindu yagnas and darshans, bringing the prestige and the power of his office to the Vaishno Devi and Amarnath temples. In his capacity as the ex officio head of the management trusts for these two most well-known temples/pilgrimage spots, the governor acted more as a Hindu activist than as the head of the state which is supposed to have no religion. Tax- payers’ money was used not just to provide facilities for the pilgrims but to actively promote pilgrimage by organising cultural festivals including dance, drama, food and handicrafts. Why are we so surprised at the communal rift that has opened up afresh in such a geopolitically sensitive state as Jammu and Kashmir?God-Deluded CountriesWell, after about a month in India, I came back to the United States. I happened to attend a music concert in the Hindu Temple in Middletown, Con-necticut recently. There, among other notices, the list of “religious services” caught my attention. Among priestly services for wedding and funerals, I found the following:“Vahan Pooja: $ 31”. Well, why not? When Indians move from one god-deluded country to another, that is what they do. So it goes…Prasanta Das ( is with the Department of English and Foreign Languages, Tezpur University, Assam.Anthology-Making, the Nation, and the Shillong Poets Prasanta DasThe exclusion of well-known poets of the north-east from contemporary anthologies that claim to represent Indian poetry is due to two reasons: their work does not follow the poetics of the Anglo-American world that continues to dominate Indian English poetry and their writing is strongly political. This exclusion mirrors New Delhi’s disinclination to listen to the politically restless communities of the north-east.Anthologies are often constructed on the same principles and per- ceptions as those that underpin the nation. Contemporary movements in literary studies (post-structuralism, post-colonialism, Marxist approaches, new his-toricism, feminism, etc) have made us aware of the need to make room for the voices of the excluded and the less privi-leged. However, the more things change in theory, the more they seem to remain the same in practice. Penguin Books India has just published 60 Indian Poets, edited by Jeet Thayil. Thayil’s anthology was originally put together for Fulcrum, a poetry journal from Boston, and included the work of 56 Indian English poets.1 The Penguin India edition with four additional poets is easily the most comprehensive anthology of Indian English poetry to date and is likely to become the definitive one. In an interview given prior to the book’s publication in India, Thayil lamented the restricted scope of existing anthologies of Indian English poetry: “I don’t know why Indian poetry has been so clannish, so fragmented…We have seen slivers of Indian poetry, tiny parts of the whole – women poets, the younger poets, post-independence poets, diaspora poets; different ‘versions’ of Indian poetry, it’s so fragmented, so clannish, and it’s only when you put it all together that you realise Indian poetry is an enormous thing.”2Thayil’s claims for inclusiveness seek to give his anthology a national status. How-ever, he completely ignores a group of poets who we may call “the Shillong poets”. Thayil’s exclusion of these poets is analo-gous to New Delhi’s neglect of the north-east – and for much the same reasons. Earlier another poet, Ranjit Hoskote, left out the Shillong poets from Reasons for Belonging (2002), his anthology of the work of 14 contemporary Indian English poets.
COMMENTARYoctober 18, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly20The Shillong PoetsShillong, which has a tradition of good missionary-run schools and colleges, has of late emerged as something of a centre for Indian English writing in the region.3 The poetry scene is particularly notable. The Shillong-based poets include Temsula Ao, Robin S Ngangom, Desmond L Khar-mawplang, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, Ananya S Guha, Almond D Syiem, Indari Syiem Warjri, Esther Syiem, and Donbok-lang Rynthathiang. The best known and the most successful in terms of content and publication are Ngangom, Kharmaw-plang, and Nongkynrih. Ngangom has three books of poems: Words and Silence (1988),Time’s Crossroads (1994), and The Desire of Roots(2006). Kharmawplang has two books of poems,Touchstone (1988) andHere (1992). Nongkynrih also has two books, Moments (1992) andSieve (1992). Between them the three poets have pub-lished in journals such asChandrabhaga, Kunapipi, and New Statesmen. They are sought-after poets in the north-east, often invited to give readings, and their poems have been translated into a number of languages, Indian and foreign. In 2004 Nongkynrih received the first North-East Poetry Award from the North-East Poetry Council, Tripura. An anthology works in a way that the work of no single poet could. The claims of completeness that Thayil makes for his anthology seek to validate it as represent-ing the nation in all its complexity (and, by implication, contradictions). However, the exclusion of Ngangom, Kharma-wplang, and Nongkynrih means they are given no role in defining the national imaginary. Distinctly DifferentTwo reasons seem to lie behind the omis-sion. First, the poetics at work in the poems of Ngangom, Kharmawplang, and Nongkynrih is not poetics of the Anglo-American world which has dominated and continues to dominate Indian English poetry. Ngangom, Kharmawplang, and Nongkynrih have been students of English literature, and Ngangom and Nongkynrih are teachers in North-Eastern Hill Univer-sity, department of English. However, Ngangom, Kharmawplang, and Nongkyn-rih are dismissive of the work of the English and American poets. The poets they feel close to are the political ones like Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Mahmoud Darwish, and Yehuda Amichai who by choice or circumstance (or both) voice the anguish and aspirations of their land and its people. Because Ngangom, Kharmawp-lang, and Nongkynrih feel they have an obligation to write about the crucial con-temporary problems of their region they write about terrorism, insurgency, human rights abuses, environmental and ecolo-gical concerns, erosion of tribal values, and the corrupt politician-businessman- bureaucrat nexus. This gives their work a distinct identity within Indian English poetry but it also makes itdifferent. The three write poetry that is narrative, emo-tional, and lyrical; they also make state-ments in their poems. Thus their poetry runs counter to the taste of “the Bombay poets” like Thayil who generally prefer poetry of symmetry, intellect, irony, and wit. Ranjit Hoskote, who left out Ngan-gom, Kharmawplang, and Nongkynrih from his anthology,Reasons forBelonging, is a Bombay poet too.That most self-conscious of Indian Eng-lish poets, A K Ramanujan, once said that Indian English poetry reminded him of “certain deep sea fish that can only live in a narrow band adapted to a certain depth, they neither go up nor down”.4 A reading of 60 India Poetsbears out Ramanujan’s judgment. In his introductory essay, Thayil admits to a “preference for craft”.5 The result is a sense of sameness in60 Poets. Indian English poets have not chosen to exploit the resources of Indian English. Despite Thayil’s claim that Indian English poets used “chutnified” English well before the novelists, the language used by Indian English poets has been relatively formal and unadventurous. No Indian English poet has made a worthwhile attempt to do in poetry what Salman Rushdie did in a novel like Midnight’s Children. (Nissim Ezekiel’s attempt at writing very Indian English poems was partial and controversial.) Indian English poetry has chosen to be limited. The emphasis on the personal with attendant values like understatement and irony has meant that Indian English poetry has con-sciously turned its back on a role that poetry has often fulfilled in non-Anglo Saxon countries. Pablo Neruda and the recently deceased Mahmoud Darwish (the latter’s poetry readings could fill up football stadia) are good examples of public poets. But there are examples closer home, like Faiz Ahmed Faiz who memorably wrote: There are other sorrows in this world,/com-forts other than love./Don’t ask me, my love, for that love again.6 By writing in a recognisable idiom Faiz combined enormous popularity with revo-lutionary politics. Political PoetryThis brings us to the second reason for the omission of the Shillong poets – their poetry is insistently political. Ngangom and Nongkynrih have jointly edited a book entitledAnthology of Contemporary Poetry from the North-east(2003). In their Edi-tors’ Note to the anthology, Ngangom and Nongkynrih have argued that the creative aims of the writer from the north-east cannot be the same as that of a writer from elsewhere in India: “The writer from the North-east differs from his counterpart in the mainland in a significant way. While it Association of Academics, Artists and Citizens for University Autonomy, Vadodara, supported by India Foundation for the Arts (IFA), Bangalore Announces an International Conference:Archiving the Art Histories: Exigencies and Challenges in Pedagogy Research5, 6 & 7 February, 2009 at Vadodara, Gujarat State, IndiaFor the concept note and other details see URL:http// email:

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