Robin Ngangom (born in Imphal, Manipur) is a bilingual poet who writes in English and Manipuri. A lyric poet and translator of long standing, he is a significant presence in the literature of North-eastern India. Since the publication of his first volume of verse in 1988, he has proceeded to consolidate his literary reputation with a poetry collection in every subsequent decade. He studied literature at St Edmund’s College and the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, where he currently teaches.
I find Ngangom’s unapologetic use of the word ‘autobiographical’ refreshing. But for those who still believe that autobiography implies narrow, navel-gazing art, a single glance at the work in question would be sufficient to banish that suspicion. Ngangom is capable of lamenting lost love with the same intensity as he can indict political injustice, and with no loss to the essentially lyrical tenor of his verse.
The strength of Ngangom’s work lies in the fact that it is anchored in a deeply internalised politics. Images of cherry trees and women’s “riverine hair” run seamlessly into the fabric of his poetry of political and social critique: “And the women heavy with seed,/ their soft bodies mown down/ like grain stalk during their lyric harvests;/ if they wore wildflowers in their hair/ while they waited for their men,/ I didn’t care anymore.”
In an earlier essay entitled “The Poet as Chronicler: An Overview of Contemporary Poetry in Northeast India” (written specially for PIW), poet Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih described the tremendous regional challenges — from insurgency to state-sponsored terrorism and negligence, from ethnic cleansing to corruption — to which the North-eastern writer is compelled to respond. As the poems included in this issue testify, Ngangom addresses these issues with fierce passion and moral outrage. It is clear that he sees the role of the poet in this ongoing “reign of terror” as that of witness, chronicler and collective conscience.
“Everywhere, poets only want to live,/ make love and sing”, declared Ngangom in a poem (not included in this edition). Nothing simple about that, of course: living and loving have clearly become endangered aspirations. But in the face of that daily siege, the ability of Ngangom’s poetry to ‘sing’ seems to have stayed intact.
And if the poet confesses to “an ancient desire for understanding” and a mistrust of “silken rhetoric or spice adjectives”, he is surely aware that ‘meaning’ — however fleeting, however provisional — is seldom found in estrangement from “the blue ode between pines/ and the winter sky”.
The Desire of Roots, Chandrabhaga, Cuttack,2006.
Time's Crossroads, Orient Longman Ltd, Hyderabad, 1994, ISBN 0 86311 456 3.
Words and the Silence, Writers Workshop, Calcutta,1988.
Muse India: Some poems by Robin S. Ngangom
Kavitayan: Some poems by Robin S. Ngangom.
SARAI: Poetry in a Time for Terror —an article by Robin S. Ngangom
Muse India: An overview of contemporary Manipuri Poetry by Robin S. Ngangom