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The Thud of Boots and the Odour of Gunpowder

An Interview with Chandrakanta Murasingh


In this conversation conducted in December 2004 for PIW, Chandrakanta Murasingh discusses a region in a state of grave unrest, and a poetry that despite all the odds, still “develops in the lap of hills and descends from there in a cascade of rhythm”.

Chandra Kanta Murasingh (b. 1957) is one of the most well known poets from the North-eastern state of Tripura. Writing in Kokborok, the language of the indigenous tribe of that state, he has published five collections of poetry. He received the Bhasha Samman Award from Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, in 1996 for his contribution to the development of Kokborok literature. He lives at Abhoynagar, Agartala and works in a bank.

KSN: Chandrakanta, can you tell us a little about yourself: your life, career, and achievements as a poet?

CM: I was born to a family of shifting cultivators in the remote Twibandal village in Sonamura Sub Division of Tripura in 1957. My career as a poet, you may say, has been chequered. For instance, I had difficulties in receiving my primary education. In those days there was no decent primary school in my village and my father, Shyamapada Murasingh, decided to send me to a distant school. But this was vehemently opposed by the village chief who felt that contact with outsiders would dilute my tribal and Vaishnavite Hindu identity. There was a great tussle between the two. In the end, however, the chief agreed to my admission to Mirza S. B. School in a neighbouring village.

I started writing poetry for the wall magazine of our high school, N.C. Institution in Sonamura. That was in Bangla. The praise my first poem received from my teachers greatly inspired me. I realised that I did have the gift for poetry and so I continued writing in both Kokborok and Bangla. My first publication outside the school magazine was in the Bangla newspaper, Chinikok, in 1979. This was after my matriculation. But my most fruitful years as a poet came after I joined the Tripura Gramin Bank. I have now published five volumes of poetry. I have also edited three poetry anthologies including a Kokborok anthology of folk songs and poems.

I cannot really speak of achievements. My poems have been published in various prestigious journals and anthologies including those from Dhaka. Some have been translated into several Indian languages. I have won two state literary awards and the Sahitya Akademi has recognised my contribution to Kokborok literature by giving me the Bhasha Samman Award in 1996. But there is still a lot I have to do. There are goals I have set for myself, and unless these are attained I cannot really say that I have achieved anything much.

KSN: What is it that inspires you most as a poet? What are the recurrent themes in your poetry?

CM: I have always tried to capture the sights and sounds, the lights and shades of nature and Tripura’s beautiful landscape. I was in love with the forest. As a kid, I would sometimes go to the forest with cows and sometimes accompany my parents to the jhum fields. I think the forest with its musical rivulets and swirling leaves has grown quite profusely into my poetry. Besides these, the erosion of human values and traditions caused by modern influences and material development also form recurrent themes in my poetry. I would like to think that I have covered subjects ranging from the lush green jhum fields of remote tribal areas to the sophistication of seminar halls in the universities of Calcutta and Dhaka. But what preoccupy me most at present are the agonies of life in contemporary Tripura.

KSN: You mentioned having won the Sahitya Akademi Bhasha Samman Award for your contribution to Kokborok literature. Can you tell us more about the Kokboroks and their literature?

CM: Kokborok is the mother tongue of the Tripuri people. It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman stock. The language had been neglected for a long time, even by its own kings, before Tripura merged with India in 1949. It is only in 1979 that it was declared as a state language. This recognition boosted the morale of the poets and writers and helped them to develop Kokborok literature according to modern trends.

KSN: You are very familiar with the Northeast poets and their works. Tell us a little about them and their poetry. What is it that binds them together, or differentiates them from each other and the poets in the rest of the country?

CM: Though the Northeast is known as ‘the seven-sister states’, yet we do not know each other all that well. One cannot understand another’s language, culture, poetry, and so on except through translations. Through such translations there is now a little interaction. Of course, in some languages like Assamese, Manipuri and Khasi, good poetry is being written. But the problem is with the small ethnic groups, which are unable to develop their mother tongues.

Yes, some similarities in the poetry are definitely seen. This is because of the similarities in the landscape and the contemporary situation. The neglect of the region by successive governments seems to be unending. From the age of the Mahabharata this land has been treated as a hunting ground. Because of this continuing neglect there is now an identity crisis, resulting in unrest. In the forest, instead of the fragrance of flowers, there is the odour of the gunpowder. The ugly thuds from the boots of both extremists and Indian Army have replaced all natural sounds. In the poetry we hear the shrieks of the victims caught in this vicious conflict.

As the poetry here develops in the lap of hills and descends from there in a cascade of rhythm, it retains its own identity. It has not wandered off like a fleeting cloud. The face of time has been engraved on the poetry of the Northeast. This is what simultaneously binds the Northeast poets together and differentiates them from each other.

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