In a television interview with DD Meghalaya, Robin Singh Ngangom said, “What distinguishes the poetry of the Northeast, even for people who write in English, is that there is a lot of heart in their art.” His latest book, My Invented Land, sumptuously corroborates this claim. When an admirer shared the YouTube link to this interview on Facebook, Ngangom commented, “Had to read much from an autobiographical essay, being a slow learner, slow thinker, with absolutely no presence of mind – notice the boring pauses. I’m no longer afraid now of sounding stupid in public.”

For a poet who has cultivated his quiet for decades, there is no cause for fear, and no better medium than poetry – for both self-advancement and meditation.

Ngangom registers his ambition without worry or pretence:

Like great poets
pardoned by time
I wanted to gather words
from arrows nocked in a turquoise sky.  

When it pardons, time confers both years and articulation – also years of articulation, not all of which will receive the benefit of transcription, to say nothing of publication. Poets like Ngangom do not hoard. All they do is gather, like birds free of avarice:

All I wanted was to sing
with the mystical sparrows,
but only a murder of crows
nest in my throat at dawn.  

A life in poetry demands exceptional skill in noise cancellation. The persevering poet knows that the
source of cacophony is as much without as it is within. Letting the inner voice speak, let alone be
heard, is a constant struggle. It’s the art of separating the smallest tributary from not only the river
but also the sea, yet an art that inspires renunciation of the sense of doership:

all that I’ve done
I’ve accomplished blindfolded . . .  

The political and the intimate

Yet, this realisation is no mean accomplishment in itself, especially because it’s rare in contemporary Indian poetry. At the same time, it is not simply a sense of passivity, but the will to accept. Ngangom balances the political with the intimate with extraordinary grace. Despite the occasional political stance he takes, he is essentially a lyric poet.

In his introduction to the book, he confesses that he has still not grown out of “dreamy-eyed adolescent stuff”. However, what he calls “dreamy-eyed” is pellucid poetry of a tenderness nurtured on mountain slopes that have imbibed the prayerful silence of minds steeped in myth. “In many ways,” he writes in the introduction, “my own Meitei culture, which is part of my childhood, has shaped my thinking.” No wonder “hills with rice-terraces for siblings” are never out of his sight.

He feels kinship with even the smallest living things:

Weighed down with misdeeds
I know I long forfeited my right to speak but
haven’t stopped speaking to ants and birds.  

There is longing in his poems, yet no self-pity. He is a witness aware of the trappings of desire who can move swiftly from “a city in ruins with a garden in its heart” to a place “with a hospital for its heart”.

In several poems, Ngangom makes good use of apostrophe, something that most poets now steer clear of. He can address a dead poet and a homeland left behind with equal felicity. In fact, the opening poem also uses this device. Addressing his homeland, Manipur, he says:

I cannot recall your night’s intimate tongues
or blend living voices with names.  

Blending memory and vision

Nevertheless, he is a practitioner committed to the art of blending memory and vision. He can appear both mythical and stark in the same poem. Consider the opening lines of the titular poem:

My native soil was created from tiny sparks
that clung to grandmother’s earthen pot  

The last stanza of same poem begins as follows:

My home is a gun
pressed against both temples  

He pours memory into this earthen pot and writes about the ever-changing reflections, while never forgetting the enigma of constancy. No shade of emotion is insignificant for him, but he knows better than to be weighed down by regret.

This book of poems is replete with lines that seem to have been written by a Zen monk. Ngangom’s preoccupations are as simple as his language. It is pertinent to note that he also writes in Manipuri, and many of his poems exist solely in that language. He is unafraid of untranslatability because his faith in the powers of transmutation is intact. The locus of his faith is the flora around him:

Trees fated to lie down
whisper in the wind among pines that
they want to resurrect in the forest’s spell.  

He has no complaints about the stasis that is inseparable from his life. For the awakened mind, even
inactivity is not what it seems:

I’m a brown dervish leaf on a forgotten web.
All voyages will be inward from now  

That’s a monk writing, a monk with no affiliations to any monastery. Ngangom’s is a presence free of pretence. To him, poetry is not a trip to self-aggrandisement, but a means to knowing. In My Invented Land, he is focused not on chronicling arrivals, but on recording the journeys culminating in slow epiphanies. Although the predominant season in these poems is winter, they leave behind a warmth that promises to last long.

My Invented Land: New and Selected Poems, Robin S Ngangom, Speaking Tiger Books.

Sarabjeet Garcha is the author of four books of poems, besides a volume each of translated poetry
and translated prose. He has translated several American poets into Hindi and several Indian poets into English. His poems have been translated into German, Spanish, Russian, Malayalam, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, and Hindi.