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Pan-Indian and Cosmopolitan Concerns in Temsula Ao’s Writing

By Devastuti Sharma

North-East India is a melting pot of different ethnic groups, communities, cultures, and faiths. The uniqueness of the region lies in the fact that it is one of the most culturally and historically vibrant regions of India. This region is very different from the rest of India. For decades now, the North-East has continuously been pushed to the margins for its nonconformity to the stereotyped norms and concepts of ‘Indian-ness’. This dismissal finds reiteration even in the world of literature. As if in an act of rebellion and as a marker of resilience, we now have a distinct genre of writing known as ‘Writings from Northeast India’. These are, so to say, not writings from ‘India’ but from ‘Northeast India’. To add to that is the sub-genre of Women’s Writings from North-East India. Now, this very terminology poses as a conundrum. For, the literature of the region, when thus defined, runs the risk of delimiting itself within the very confines that it sought to break free of. However, the emphasis on being from the ‘North-East’ perhaps takes the focus off India and gives rise to a sub-national ethos. Similarly, when we talk of Women’s Writings, as distinct from ‘men’s writings’, are we not, in a way, practising the gendered separatism that feminists strove to dismantle?

As a student and lover of literature, as someone hailing from the North-East, and as an individual identifying with the feminine gender, I have been initiated into writings from this region right from an early age. In the process, I have read humble chunks from the repertoires of contemporary poets and writers like Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao, Mitra Phukan, Jahnvi Baruah, Esther Siyem, and Monalisa Chankija. Each of them is unlike the other – the content, language, styles, concerns, perspectives, and insights they employ vary. In fact, through each of their creative lenses, we see a different North-East emerge, so that we have no ‘North-East’, but ‘North-Easts’. The works of these writers, it is felt, outgrow the assumed parameters of the genre of Women’s Writings from North-East India in a multitude of ways. In this context, the poems of the Naga poet and writer, Temsula Ao, are quintessential examples of the ways in which women’s writings from the region transcend the genre and gain a pan-Indian and even cosmopolitan dimension.

A professor by profession, Temsula Ao is one of the most widely read and studied women writers of North-East India. She has been the recipient of many awards including the Padmashri in 2007 and the Sahitya Akademi award in 2013. Her most widely known works include two collections of short stories called, These Hills Called Home (2006) and Laburnum for My Head (2009) and an essay called, Henry James’ Quest for the Ideal Heroine. Songs That Tell (1998), Songs That Try To Say (1992), Songs Of Many Moods (1995), Songs From Here and There (2003), and Songs From The Other Life (2007) are some of her notable collections of poetry. An Ao-Naga by birth, her works heavily reflect the cultures, traditions, practices, and beliefs of the Ao tribe of Nagaland, a tribe with its own overflowing cultural archive. Yet, she is more than a writer-informant of the region. She draws extensively from her locale, yet her concerns are humanitarian and universal. Time, love, death, beauty, nature, etc. are some of the recurrent themes in her poetry. She also talks of issues pertaining to identity, colonialism, moral and cultural decadence, and modern existential crisis – issues that are of global (and not merely North-East Indian or feminine) concern.

Her poem “Blood of Other Days” is a personal favourite. The words are crisp and incisive. She talks of colonialism, the advent of Christianity, and its aftermath. She talks of how there “came a tribe of strangers/Into our primordial territories/Armed with only a Book” and declared the indigenous faiths as “nothing but tedious primitive nonsense”; and how we “Allowed our knowledge of other days/to be trivialized into taboo.” Describing the “hybridization of culture” that resulted out of colonialism and the advent of Christianity, she writes, “We borrowed their minds/Aped their manners/Adopted their gods/And became perfect mimics.” The language is powerful and the poet lashes out her opinions undiluted; and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Chinua Achebe’s magnum opus, Things Fall Apart (1958). The contexts are different, as are the modes of writing. But, the concerns are quite similar.

Many of Temsula Ao’s poems are also deeply personal and are reminiscent of the kind of Confessional poetry written by the likes of Kamala Das, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and even W.D. Snodgrass for that matter. Feelings of love, loss, desire, pain, and loneliness find an expression in these poems. The poem “Confessional”, where Ao talks about being “unawakened in maternity/And stifled/By matrimony” is not unlike the anguished portrayal of women’s ambivalence found in the poems of Kamala Das. In this poem, Ao doesn’t situate herself as a woman from the North-East India, but as a woman – as any woman from anywhere in the world. Similarly, other poems like “Parting”, “A Lover’s Prayer”, and “Loneliness” also strike confessional chords.

The enigma of death has been one of the most pondered upon issues in literature. Intertwined with the very consciousness of human existence, death has been treated by the practitioners of literatures all over in various ways. Shakespeare, Donne, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, amongst countless other poets, have all contemplated upon death in their poems. Temsula Ao is no exception. She talks of death in many of her poems like “Dying, “Death” and “What are You Death?” She maintains that death is “the invisible companion to life” (“Death”); and asks, “Are you/Friend, foe, deliverer?/Are you/ Benefactor, creditor, destinator?” (“What are You Death?”). She also mulls over “Dread of Winter”, “October”, “The Autumn Sun”, and “December Rain” in her poems, much like any other globally known poet. “October” is a paean to the month and it is regarded as the one “which has a way/With my heart/And turns it nostalgic/With its magic.” Just as Keats’s “To Autumn” celebrates the “mellow fruitfulness” of the season, Ao celebrates winter and creates encomium to October and December.

There is also a Blake-like appeal to Temsula Ao’s poetry. The poem, “The Deer and the Tiger”, specifically takes one back to Blake’s famous “The Tyger”. Only, the tone is ironic. And instead of a tiger “burning bright” with its “fearful symmetry”, Ao creates a vegetarian tiger who is shooed away by a goat – “Go find another patch…/Do not encroach/On my territory.”

There is no denying that Temsula Ao’s poetry draws extensively from the indigenous archives of the Ao-Naga community. Her poems are replete with images and allusions to the myths and lores of her culture. But, despite the context being local, her concerns are universal. She talks of violence, cultural loss, and environmental degradation. She also talks of womanhood and the hold of patriarchy over women. Her works provide scopes for postcolonial, feminist, and eco-critical readings from transnational perspectives and do not merely reiterate the typecasting ascribed to the region. The same perhaps can be said of most, if not all, contemporary women writers of the region. The ethnic and gendered specificity carried forth by the concerned corpus of literature only opens up doors to a kind of aesthetic appeal. This leads me to ponder upon the plausibility of the term ‘Women’s Writing from North-East India’ – Do we even need such a genre? Given the current trends of racial, cultural, and gendered fetishism, perhaps such terminologies add to the visibility and ‘saleability’ of the literature of the region, and make it commercially viable. But, when bracketed within such constructed spaces, the literature (and by extension the people of the region) remains circumscribed in and overpowered by the various essentialisms attributed to the region. The agenda of identity assertion thus becomes a Sisyphean task. Any attempt at establishing the genre of Women’s Writing from North-East India (vis-à-vis its difference) is exposed to the perils of belaboring stereotypes; while expunging such stratifications of genres also entails imposed homogeneity and loss of visibility. The dynamics remain dicey, the questions unanswered, and the dilemma unresolved.

Photo: A Caged Bird by Maulee Senapati

Devastuti Sharma teaches in North Guwahati College, Assam.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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