Culture & Society

An Adda Between Two Poets

Angshuman Kar and Robin Ngangom have a conversation on literature, politics, and the Northeast India between.

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Photo Credit: Sandipan Deb
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Angshuman Kar and Robin Ngangom sit for a conversation on poets' seclusion, politics, Northeast Indian literature, corporates, and literature festivals. Transcript:

Angshuman Kar: Morning, Robin. This is going to be an informal talk between ourselves —an adda, right?

Robin Ngangom: Yes. I like the adda idea—the conversation between idlers.

A: After writing poetry for so many years and after getting a kind of recognition as a major voice of the Northeast as well, how would you situate yourself as a poet? 

R: I would describe myself as a struggling poet because I cannot honestly call myself a full-time poet. I’ve been doing other things. Even the job that I hold on to for dear life may not allow me to become a full-time poet. That’s why I would still call myself a part-time poet.

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A: Do you believe in the notion of a part-time poet? Can there be any part-time poet at all? Even when you are not writing poetry, are you not living the life of a poet? Pranabendu Dasgupta, a Bengali poet, a professor at the Comparative Literature Department of Jadavpur University and a colleague of Nabanita Dev Sen and Amiya Deb, once said that a poet is a poet even when he is tying up the laces of his shoes. 

R: I think it differs from a poet to a poet or from a person to a person. But why obsess with a poet’s status or the life of a poet with a feeling of some entitlement? A poet is just another crafts worker with fewer advantages than a fictionist, a painter, or a musician. Poetry, as someone said, cannot be mainstream art.

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A: So, you then believe in the notion of a part-time poet?

R: No, actually, I don't believe in it. But I think I have been forced by circumstances to become a part-time poet. What I am trying to say is that sometimes I feel that I have not given myself completely to poetry.

A: Do you feel restless at those moments? 

R: Not exactly restless, but I feel that maybe it’s inevitable. You know that a majority of the famous poets, whom maybe both of us admire, have devoted their lives entirely to poetry. 

A: Yeah, that’s true. Some of them even decided to quit their jobs as well.

R: Yes, some did quit their jobs. And you know that many of them (not just poets, but artists too) might have died poverty-stricken. Maybe it’s a romantic idea, but at one point, you feel that if you are a poet, you have to breathe, eat, or sleep poetry. I have not been able to do that because the quotidian or existential intrudes. What about you?

A: I don’t consider myself a part-time poet. But one thing keeps on troubling me. Because I live the life of a poet, I think that I have not been able to do justice to the people who are close to me, who matter to me. I have not been able to take the kind of care that I should have taken of them. Do you also think so? Are you happy with the way you have dealt with your kids?

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R:  No, I’m not. That’s why I said I’m a struggling poet. Because some regrets are always there. I could have done much more. I mean I wasted so many days and nights doing other things or just not doing anything.

A: That happens. We enjoy the time we spend not doing anything. But let me ask you something else. As poets, we enjoy seclusion. How do you relate this individual seclusion of yours with the kind of seclusion that the Northeast has suffered as a region? Have you ever thought about this? I mean, when you are thinking in terms of the seclusion of the Northeast, you are no longer a secluded man because you are speaking out. And you are speaking out on behalf of so many people.

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R: I may not have done it consciously, this ‘speaking out’. And I won’t presume to speak on behalf of people. I think people from the mainland may not be really interested in the history and the stories of the Northeast. I don’t blame them, they have their histories, and their lives to worry about.

A: No, no, no. I am not at all pointing out that it is something which has been done consciously. But what is it then? Can there be any pure form of seclusion? 

R: No, no. I am a little reminded of Yeats, you know. Personally, I am a terribly shy person. Yeats also said the same thing about himself. But maybe because of circumstances, he talks about wearing a mask and stepping out into the public. Maybe he didn’t do it consciously. But later on, he took on the role of becoming the national poet.

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A: Yeah. What he did later was a conscious attempt on his part.

R: You also write political poetry. What about you?

A: I always feel that there are two selves within me–one that loves seclusion and the other that wants to come out of the cocoon of a secluded self and be one of the masses. I keep on oscillating between these two selves. It has happened that in the same day I wrote an intensely passionate poem about love in the morning and an overtly political protest poem in the evening.  Maybe that something happened in the afternoon that triggered me to write the political poem. As a poet, I do respond to politics—to what is happening around me. I’m actually, out and out, a political man. I’m helpless in this regard. But to go back to my earlier question, how would you describe the literature of the Northeast?

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R:  Look, I’ll talk about it as conflict literature. This is not an original idea. I mean, I have borrowed this idea from a critic or some other writer. A conflict can happen at different levels. The most obvious, and I call it superficial conflict (I'm talking about the writers or the intellectuals from the Northeast, in particular) is the one between the margin and the centre. It's very easy to write about those things. That's what you had hinted at when you talked about me speaking on behalf of the region.

A: Yes. Of course. Others have also written about this conflict.

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R: Yeah, many people. I mean, not just writers. Creative writers don't usually write about it directly. Although some have.

A: Some have. Some of the famous poems of the Northeast are about this kind of conflict.

R: Yeah, but when it's done consciously, then it becomes. . .

A: Propaganda. 

R: Exactly. It becomes propaganda, it becomes bad poetry. This is often true. Anything which is done consciously, with preconceptions (like a priori theoretical apparatuses), whether it be Feminist literature, Dalit literature, etc., becomes less rewarding, I think.

A: I agree with you. You cannot write with an agenda. Your experiences will automatically speak up in your work if you are honest as an author. But I have something different to say as well. When something happens which is deeply political and does have a kind of impact on your people and might be on the entire region as well, then if someone responds to that very consciously, what would you call that? 

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R: No, you can respond to it consciously. I'm objecting to that kind of writing which is driven by some kind of agenda.

A: Yes, that is the point. 

R: When there is a programme, then it doesn't work.

A: That’s the point. It's not about writing consciously or not. It's about whether you have a specific agenda in mind. If so, you become schematic.

R: Let me go back to your question, about seclusion and solidarity.  Let me refer to Zagajewski, the famous Polish poet. He talked about a very interesting thing about solitude and solidarity. The writer is always torn between these two things. He, however, preferred solitude. The same is true about me.

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A: But sometimes you need to show solidarity as well.

R: You are always asked to show solidarity. The forces —your own community, your own society— may ask you to express solidarity. But, finally, the writer is not beholden to anyone. He does not owe anyone anything. If he doesn’t have that kind of freedom, then he is done as a writer.

A: Absolutely true. But what about the conflict that you were talking about?

R: I am coming to that. Apart from the centre-margin conflict, conflict can happen between the poet (the individual) and his people and his history and his society, politics, everything. And conflict should happen. Because, as Yeats has said, there is no creativity without a kind of friction. And maybe at the deepest level, the conflict can happen between the poet and himself. Because you cannot typecast a poet. You cannot say that this poet is a political poet or that poet is a love poet. As you said a few minutes ago, those categories don't work because a poet keeps on changing his role. He is a very slippery character.

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A: Absolutely, a true poet is always on the move. 

R: Today I may say something, tomorrow I may say something new. And you should give that freedom to the poet. 

A: But people always want. . .

R: Want to typecast him as a political poet or a social poet. 

A: And want him to maintain consistency. I am reminded of Foucault. Maybe the readers want the ‘author function’ more than the authors. As a reader, you need to typecast an author in a specific role. 

R: This is exactly what happened to Neruda. He wrote, “Come and see the blood in the streets.” But then, he never stopped being a romantic poet till the end of his life. In my opinion–and many would agree with me–he is the greatest poet ever.

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A: It’s a tall claim. There are some people who keep on talking about Neruda’s personal life.

R: Exactly. That is very interesting. And this, I think, first came up during Browning’s time. Then this same question was posed to Yeats. Later on, Auden said it so beautifully in the poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.” Let me tell you something. Perfection of life and perfection of art–you cannot have both. 

A: Yes, absolutely true.

R: As writers, as artists, most of them lived terrible lives. They did terrible things. But how do you judge them? And Auden said in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” that time will forgive them. Because time worships language, and if you live by language, then time will forgive you.

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A: But what do you think about those writers who went on supporting, defending or taking sides with the autocrats, the imperialists and the fascists?

R: But it is true not just of writers, but of so many other people. You find that they have clay feet. Whether it be Lata Mangeshkar, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, or even Subhas Chandra Bose. I know that this will offend so many people, especially the Bengalis. But I have been reading things about Bose which have not been discussed openly. 

A: True.

R: So, you cannot have both–perfection of life and perfection of art.

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A: Let me go back to the centre-margin binary. Since I was born in a village and now live in a small town, I have found it extremely difficult to make the big shots of Bengali poetry look at my poetry with respect. It took a long time for me to get minimum recognition. In Bengal, everything is so Kolkata-centric! Do you think that in Indian English poetry, too, everything has been Mumbai-centric for long? 

R: Things are changing now. But perhaps many were not given the kind of recognition that they deserved. The Mumbai poets may not be much concerned about not admitting anyone into their charmed circle. Why should they? There are many fine young poets who are not part of their circle. It does not really matter.

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A: Let me tell you at least about one Mumbai-poet whom I know very closely. Ashwani Kumar is full of regards for you and the other poets of the Northeast.

R: No, Ashwani is not actually a part of that circle.

A: Mumbai circle, yeah. But he lives in Mumbai. 

R: Ashwani is different. I think Jayanta Mahapatra was not in the canon of modern English poetry in India for a long time.

A: Absolutely. Such a great poet like Jayanta Mahapatra had to wait for long to get due recognition. 

R: He is one of the finest of the Indian English poets.

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A: Let me now ask you something about the label ‘Northeast.’ So many of the intellectuals, poets and authors like you have talked against the tendency of homogenizing the Northeast. Why are you against the term ‘Northeast poet’?

R: I have taken a stance. I don’t know whether it’s kind of a resistance. You know as well that the label Northeast has actually been foisted on us.

A: Of course. It was never there before colonialism began.

R: Yes, it was a colonial label consequently adopted by post-colonial forces that some feel have been indulging in internal colonization. The concept of the Northeast is a political construct for administrative convenience, to govern a culturally and ethnically heterogeneous region. Hence, Northeast writers have often been clubbed together too.

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A: But you are also using that tag when you’re publishing your anthologies from the Northeast. What about that?

R: I feel that this idea about the mainland and the margin is a little superficial. But it has been foisted on us and they insist on this categorization—the Northeast. Whenever we are invited to a literary festival in big cities, they don’t invite us as individual writers. We are always Northeast writers. They usually have a panel of poetry from the Northeast. I may invited as a poet, but they may be not interested in my poetry and often do not ask me to read my poems. They want me to talk about the Northeast and its politics. Incidentally, I’ve been called an overtly political poet.

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A: So, are you tired of this?

R:  I do get a little tired. When you are invited to a festival, you are invited as a Bengali poet. You don’t carry the tag of your region. Do you?

A: No, I don’t. But a Dalit poet does. A poet from the Northeast does. It is a part of the identity politics.

R: Exactly. But if they have inflicted this label on us, I’m going to wear it now. It’s an inverted form of resistance when I accept the label. And I do feel that we, that is, most of the poets from the Northeast do write differently from the Mumbai school of poets. Perhaps an alternative poetry of the Northeast, a regional kind different from the centre, is emerging.

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A: Yes, you are not writing in the way Esther is writing, or Desmond is writing. Each of you is very distinct. The way Mamang is writing was not the path of Temsula Ao. 

R: Yes, there is a variety. 

A: But let me tell you one thing. You have said that the label has been imposed on you. But what about the support that you have got from the governments because of this label? There are so many different government bodies to support the Northeast. The state governments also have special funds for the Northeast. Special allowances are given to the people who are working in this region. So, don’t you think that, to some extent, that label too is necessary? I mean, on the one hand, we should resist any kind of homogenization, and, on the other, the label brings in support. Now you can afford to talk about dismissing the label. But there was a time when the emergence of the Northeast as a kind of category (in politics and in art and literature as well) was a kind of necessity. Don’t you think that initially it was a kind of necessity which fostered such wonderful literature? Your tradition was huge but nobody paid due attention to it. You have been able to bring that tradition to the centre make people talk about it because of this labelling. What do you think?

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R: It is a vexed thing because we do have some established writers—I won’t take names—from the Northeast who do not accept the label. They don’t want to be identified as Northeast writers. I don’t think the label actually got us any support by way of publishing, for instance. I was rejected by Penguin and HarperCollins recently. And I’m not sure if I can talk in terms of a tradition really. Some academics cautioned that looking at this literary phenomenon in terms of a ‘tradition’ may not be justified. There can be no single defining feature of this body of poetry, except that the poetry springs from the region, and reflects the ‘needs and experiences’ of the different peoples who inhabit the region.

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A: But you have been invited to big festivals. Do you enjoy participating in these events?

R: I can’t say I’ve been inspired by festivals to write better poetry. Although very few such as the Kritya International Poetry Festival were rewarding—we just read poems to each other without the usual mock literary exercises. I attended some litfests because it’s a good excuse to meet friends or see a new place—like Mountain Echoes, the Jaipur Literature Festival, Bhutan edition. But an incident disturbed me just before I went to Bhutan. One of the sponsors of the JLF, London (the Alchemy Festival?) in 2016, was the mining corporate company Vedanta. You might have heard of Vedanta.

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A: Yes, Vedanta.

R: They are a blacklisted company that has a terrible worldwide reputation for human rights and environmental destruction in India and in other countries.

A: But I don’t really know anything about this.

R: There were two Indian writers, if I remember correctly, who were invited. I read that writers, academics and activists urged them not to attend. I believe one backed out but there was someone from Mumbai who participated in that festival. I’ve been wondering if one should participate in a festival sponsored by a blacklisted company which has done great harm to the environment?

A: Of course not. But you cannot say ‘No’ to corporate houses now. I have participated in some big festivals and my experiences are not bad. I would specifically mention the Kolkata edition of Tata Lit Meet. It is a wonderful platform. I have always been able to freely express my views at this festival. Look, if I can express my own views in a festival organized by a corporate house if there is no censorship, I’ll participate.

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R: I will probably not for reasons of my own if the festival is sponsored by an organization like Vedanta. I’ve begun to understand what Solzhenitsyn said that even if the artist does not owe anybody anything it hurts to see how he, retiring into his ivory tower and disregarding the world outside, can surrender the real world into the hands of men who are mercenary. There’s an overarching presence of nature in my poetry, nature is my real world. It would be difficult to participate in a festival sponsored by the likes of Vedanta, men who are mercenary and out to harm the environment. If nature is going to be taken away from me, my poetry will die. To use a line from Louis MacNiece, I need trees to speak to me. I need to talk to birds and animals often. But if writers (not just writers, but intellectuals or thinkers or academics) are consciously or unwittingly going to help these people destroy or hasten the climate disaster then they are perhaps themselves mercenary.

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A: But there is hardly any corporate house which does not cause harm to the environment. The degree of harm varies, definitely. We cannot pick and choose. We can at best ban the blacklisted companies. But we cannot reject the corporate as a whole now. We must use the big lit fests for our own purposes. We should use these platforms to express our views. Participation in these events could be acts of subversion as well. You should participate in these festivals and exert your opinions.

R: You won’t be able to. Your views will be ineffectual and quickly forgotten.

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A: I understand that you are firm on this. Let us end on this note of difference. Let us agree to disagree. Let us respect differences.

R: That is really important.  

(This conversation was transcribed by Abhranil Kundu.)

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