Mona Zote lives in Aizawl in the Northeast Indian state of Mizoram. She describes herself as a poet “disguised as a government employee”. She writes in English. She has published her poetry in various journals, including Indian Literature and Carapace. Her work was also featured in the Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast, edited by Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin Ngangom. She publishes sparingly.
Zote’s poetry startles with its unsentimental and disquieting imagery, its register that moves from the formal to the colloquial and its determinedly fragmentary, non-linear style.
The landscape in the three poems selected for this edition is one of menace, of spiritual aridity, of paralysed initiative and “mindless action”, of “a head crammed by contrary winds” that oscillate between rage and ironic resignation, grief and grim despair. “A boy & his gun” is the image she selects to “sum up our times / to define the red lakes / and razor blade hills of our mind”. Nothing new happens in this cultural and spiritual desert; no one comes to say “the ship’s sailed, the bus / has left”. Trivia is all that sustains: long hours in the restaurant, punctuated by cigarettes and consommé, the movies, dance, origami. The echoes of T.S. Eliot are evident, and yet Zote’s voice remains stubbornly its own. “The dry clack of rain on bamboo” and “Star Trek via Doordarshan” are random moments that evoke a climate that is far too internalised to ever be mistaken for a simplistic import.
The source of the ‘peril’ remains shadowy. But it is clear that the complex history of Northeastern India is implicated here – the violence and neglect, the cultural genocide, the mummification of a tribal heritage, the ravages of insurgency, the terrorism of the state and the authoritarian reign of the church. What is lost is too deep and too irrevocable to be catalogued. In the face of such loss, Zote’s stance is one of studied nonchalance: tough, wise, smart and bitter, shot through with a thin lyrical vein of elegy.
It points us yet again to that irrational desire of poets, even in times of turmoil, to sing – nourished by the equally irrational faith that, the odds notwithstanding, they will be heard.
SPARROW: An extract from an interview with Mona Zote, part of an oral history recording by SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).
Mizo Writing in English: A blog showcasing writers from Mizoram, includes poems by Mona Zote.
Poetry International Web: “The Poet as Chronicler: An Overview of Contemporary Poetry in Northeast India”, an essay by Robin Ngangom
Muse India: ‘Locating Cultures: A Semi-Academic Essay on the English Poetry of the North-East’ by Sumanyu Satpathy