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The Land as “Living Presence”

Mamang Dai talks to Arundhathi Subramaniam


Mamang Dai talks to Arundhathi Subramaniam about landscapes true, sacred and imagined – and the poetry of protest and love.

Arundhathi Subramaniam: The land – both physical and mythic – is a recurrent presence in your work. Could you tell us more about this?

Mamang Dai: I live in a small town surrounded by hills. If I travel to other parts of the state it is the same – more mountains and forest, river crossings and rough roads. So the physical presence of the land is very tangible.

Beyond this, these journeys here have another dimension. They take me into a landscape full of stories. My writing is an exploration into this world, so I guess this becomes a recurrent theme. What is true, what is sacred, what is imagined – it is still a mysterious landscape to me too, even though I was born here. I know not everyone will feel the same way about land and landscapes. I am very attuned to spirit of place and the natural world, wherever it may be. This is my response. To me it is a living presence.

AS: How has your approach to poetry changed over the years, in your opinion?

MD: I started with notebooks, feeling captivated by words. I wrote highly romantic verse and stories. Over the years this has been pared down, even though I feel I haven’t changed that much.

But time is a factor, and with it the way we live our lives. Now I think the theme has shifted from ‘self’ to an anticipation of something more, a larger reality. There is even a feeling that all these words don’t matter in the least bit. But still we sit down to write, struggling with words and thoughts as if the struggle will cleanse us. It is rather indescribable. But conceptually this is an effort to create an inner space, a meeting place of the self and that other reality, within the limitation of words.

AS: There is a strong sense of a ‘we’, or communal voice, in your poetry. Are you making a conscious effort to reclaim it? If so, could you talk about that process?

MD: No, I am not aware of this. The ‘communal voice’ must come from my close links with people living in the remoter district towns and villages. Arunachal Pradesh is still a very closely-knit sort of place where everyone knows each other in one way or another, especially if you happen to be of the same clan. It is wonderful to renew relationships this way. Even mudslides and bad weather sometimes work out in favour of this, such as when someone talks knowledgeably about the river, of the fish in it, or of monsters out of some ancient myth. At such times everything that I see and feel is poetic. Because I write in English and have to translate, in my head, from my mother tongue into English, I feel it is only fair that this should be as wide, representative and as true as possible.

AS: Do you believe that the poet has a public role to play – as the voice of tribal memory, or social conscience, for example?

MD: Well, not exactly as a public figure. But there must be someone we are writing for, or to. One is not removed from politics, the ups and downs of our states marching towards progress and all that. We are not removed from life on the streets. Sometimes we can churn out angry letters and talk about corruption. Sometimes we can rush out and actively protest on the streets, but there it is – sometimes we can’t.

Then there is this writing. After all, we write because we also care. Poetry is the voice of protest, and it is the voice of love. By this love I mean everything that one knows and has felt. If we can transform this feeling and this remembrance into a line that is recognised, then, perhaps, we are offering something to life.

The Poet as Chronicler: Kynpham Sing Nongkyrnrih takes a look at poetry from the seven states of the Northeast.

© Arundhathi Subramaniam  
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