Mamang Dai is a poet and novelist. She lives in Itanagar in the North-east Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. She has one collection of poetry, River Poems, to her credit. Her next collection, Midsummer-Survival Lyrics, is due for publication in 2011. She writes in English.
Dai’s poetic world is one of river, forest and mountain, a limpid and lyrical reflection of the terrain of her home state. Nature here is mysterious, verdant with myth, dense with sacred memory. There is magic to be found everywhere: in the way lilies “navigating on a heartbeat . . . are shooting up like swordfish”, in the quiet equipoise of “cool bamboo,/ restored in sunlight”, in the “speechless ardour” of mountains. And there is no doubt whatsoever that “the river has a soul”.
You might be inclined to wonder initially if this is a somewhat facile lyricism. But as you read closer, you sense a more sinister undertow: you realize this paradisiacal landscape is also one of “guns and gulls”, punctuated by “the footfall of soldiers”. You also realize that the simplicity of Dai’s verse is not without guile. It possesses a gentle persuasive riverine tug that can lead you to moments of heart-stopping surprise. Consider the poem ‘Small Towns and the River’, where the reiteration of the river’s soul coexists with a mounting sense of human anxiety, leading you to the unexpected close: “In small towns by the river/ we all want to walk with the gods.”
For all its simplicity, Dai’s poetry does not arrive at easy conclusions. There is no dishonest sense of anchor here, no blissful pastoral idyll. The poet describes her people as “foragers for a destiny” and her work is pervaded by a deep unease about erased histories and an uncertain future. And yet, implicit in Dai’s poetics is the refusal to divorce protest from love. (An interview with her in which she eloquently articulates this view, accompanies this edition.) This seems to translate into a commitment to a poetry of quiet surges and eddies rather than gritty textures and edges. It also translates into a voice that is never raised in rage or indignation; a tone that is hushed, wondering, thoughtful, reflective. The strength of this poetry is its unforced clarity, its ability to steer clear of easy flamboyance.
So when she describes herself as a member of a tribe of “ten thousand messengers/ carrying the whispers of the world”, you realise you have a pretty succinct definition of what being a poet means to Mamang Dai. You also realize what makes Dai such an effective messenger.
River Poems, Writers Workshop Kolkata, 2004.
Stupid Cupid (novel), Penguin Books India, 2009. ISBN: 978-0143100331.
The Legends of Pensam (novel), Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2006, ISBN: 0-143062-11-5.
The Sky Queen (stories for young readers), KATHA, New Delhi, 2005, ISBN: 81-89020-32-3.
Once upon a Moontime (stories for young readers), KATHA, New Delhi, 2005, ISBN: 81-89020-32-3.
Arunachal Pradesh: The Hidden Land, Sky Prints, New Delhi, 2002. (Reprinted by Penguin India, New Delhi, 2009, ISBN: 978-0670083312.)
Mountain Harvest: The Food of Arunachal Pradesh, Anwesha, Guwahati, 2005. ISBN: 81-89003-12-7.
Varnamala: More poems by Mamang Dai
Arunachal News, Muse India, Thanal Online: Interviews with Mamang Dai.
Hindu: Brief review of Poetry and the Northeast.
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The Poet as Chronicler: Kynpham Sing Nongkyrnrih takes a look at poetry from the seven states of the Northeast.