Eco-critical Concerns in Kokborok Poetry from Tripura: A Reading of Select Texts in English Translation
The jungle keeps a sleepless vigil by our bedside,
bamboo groves and trees jostle with each other,
overhead the thaichul vines form a shrouding canopy
(Gupta 2006: 65)
These words from Sachlang Tripura’s ‘Spring in the Blue Forest’ seem to reaffirm and restore the age-old notion that nature has always been an indispensable part of human existence since time immemorial. Man has depended (and still does) on nature for innumerable reasons and on uncountable occasions, and nature too, in turn, showers blessings or curses on him according to the human-treatment that she is being subjected to. Thus, on the one hand, humans on the earth experience natural calamities such as devastating floods and ruthless storms, and on the other hand, they enjoy the beauty of the lush green meadows or the dark dense forests – all gifted by nature to human society. An interesting thing to note is that this close camaraderie between nature and the human society gets reflected in the works of several writers and poets across the globe, who, by virtue of their being a part of the ecosystem, engage into verbal wizardry by narrating tales and delineating emotions based on their relationship with the surroundings, the soil, the flora and the fauna, the rain and the sky – all part of nature. In this context, a new approach to literature has come into vogue since the late 1980s – Ecocriticism. According to Michael P Branch, the origin of the word can be traced back to William Rueckert’s essay titled ‘Literature & Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism’ published in 1978 where he had defined ecocriticism as “the application of ecology and ecological concepts to the study of literature.” But ecocriticism as a concept gained popularity after the publication of a remarkable work by Cheryll Glotfelty (Associate Professor of Literature and the Environment at the university of Nevada, Reno and a Graduate student at Cornell University in 1989) titled The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. She took the term ‘ecocriticism’ to a different level and explored different possibilities of its application to the study of literary texts. Thus, after the publication of her work, Glotfelty has been acknowledged as the founder of the approach in the USA. In the introduction of the book, Cheryll Glotfelty and her co-editor Harold Fromm define ecocriticism as an “earth-centred approach to literary studies.”
The word ‘eco’ comes from the Greek ‘oikos’ meaning ‘house’, and ‘critic’ comes from the Greek ‘krites’ meaning judge. Hence, ecocriticism deals with the expression of judgment upon the writings which delineates relation between nature and man or effects of culture on nature.1 Thus, ecocriticism as a discipline, studies literary texts in relation to nature which directly or indirectly casts an influence on the writings. Therefore, ecocriticism explores ‘the relationship between literature and environment’ (Nayar 2013:242). This paper attempts to offer a close reading of select poets from Tripura from an eco-critical point of view and carve out a pattern of environmental concerns as reflected in the writings of these lesser known poets. One of the main objectives of the researcher is to bring forth a handful of chosen poets from this part of the country who have been writing for quite a considerable period of time now, but have largely remained ‘out of the league’ and have not got much representation in the larger literary arena since they don’t write primarily in English, and can reach out to a larger section of readers only through the translated versions of their original work.
Rini Barman in one of her essays writes that ‘the literature of north-east’ cannot be exclusively called ‘the literature of conflict’ since the writers and poets of the region write on many other issues as well, ‘conflict’ being just one of those. True, the writings that come from this region of the country cannot be labelled under a uniform head because one size does not fit all. Just as it is a stereotypical concept to imagine that the north-east is a homogenous unit, it is more stereotypical to imagine that the literature produced in this region deals only with the sound of bullets and the cries of the survivors. It is because one of the major themes of the writings of this region is nature. Be it those writing in different regional languages or those writing in English, nature has always found a unique place in the literature of the region in the form of lush green valleys, perennial rivers, mysterious mountains and so on. Poets such as Robin S Ngangom, Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih etc. to name a few have painted vivid images of nature in their writings. These poets (who primarily write in English) paint the beautiful hills and the valleys, the folktales and the myths, the mighty rivers, the barren and the fertile land, the forests and the flowers, the mist and the fog, the explored and the unexplored aspects of the region in their poetry, with the stroke of their creative and imaginative brush of thoughts and words. Rivers and mountains form a recurrent theme in the poetry of Mamang Dai who belongs to the beautiful snow-capped land of mountains, Arunachal Pradesh. In the poem ‘In An Obscure Place’, Dai regards the mountains as an omniscient entity since they know all about the past present and future of the hill people, who climbed them and slept by the river (Vohra 2013: 45-54). She writes:
There are mountains. Oh! There are mountains.
We climbed every slope. We slept by the river
But do not speak of victory yet.
(Ngangom and Kynpham 2009: 88-89)
The Khasi legend of the “seven huts” is explored by Robin S Ngangom who writes:
Seven Huts, of my solitude, my first love.
Your rain, your wind, searched my face for signs.
Shillong poet Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s love for Cherrapunjee and its natural beauty finds expression in the lines:
Cherra, dear Meikha,
Crowds have sung for you,
Competing Sunday bells
Tolling abroad your pulchritude
Those foamy-white cascading ornaments,
Your roaring falls;
those leafy green dresses
your musical forests.
But unfortunately, it is not just the beauty of nature that finds a place in the writings of these poets. Often their writings present the bleak state of nature, deforestation and degradation of nature due to excessive urbanization and ill-practices by humans. Thus, the works of these poets also feature the declining relationship between man and nature, the ecological crisis and the deterioration of the environment with its adverse effect on the psyche of the inhabitants of the land. In ‘The Ancient Rocks of Cherra’ Nongkynrih writes:
There is nothing remarkable here
only this incredible barrenness.
Men and trees have left their habitats
to a crude and lowly breed like brush.
(Misra 2011: 67)
Robin’s concern for the land is reflected in the lines from ‘The First Rain’ where he writes:
I’ll leave the cracked fields of my land
and its weeping pastures of daybreak.
Let wolves tear our beloved hills.
(Misra 2011: 46)
Nature and environmental concerns form a major theme in the writings from Tripura, one of the eight states located in the north-east of India, and the third-smallest state of the country. Tripura is home to a band of extremely talented poets who primarily write in Kokborok, the principal language of the original inhabitants of the land. Kokborok belongs to the Bodo branch of the Tibeto-Burmese family of languages and is spoken by Tripuri, Reang, Jamatia, Noatia, Koloi, Rupini, Murasing and Uchai communities of the state. The distinguished names in the field of Kokborok poetry are Chandrakanta Murasing, Nanda Kumar Debbarma, Sudhanya Tripura, Kishore Murasing, Narendra Debbarma, Sachlang Tripura, Shefali Debbarma, Shyamlal Debbarma, Bikash Roy Debbarma, Bijoy Debbarma, Dipali Debbarma etc. Some of these poets are themselves translators of their original work while others have been translated into English by eminent translators of the state. The English translations of the works of Chandrakanta Murasing, Nanda Kumar Debbarma, Shefali Debbarma, Sudhanya Tripura Bijoy Kumar Debbarma and Narendra Debbarma have been included in two important anthologies on north-east writings namely The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India edited by Tilottoma Misra, and Dancing Earth: An Anthology of Poetry from North East India, edited jointly by poets Robin S Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih. In addition to this, a significant volume of Kokborok poetry translated into English by eminent translator Dr Ashes Gupta titled The Fragrant Joom: A translation of Kokborok poetry in English features the works of twelve distinguished poets of the state. For someone who does not know the language (Kokborok), without these anthologies, it would have been a herculean task to attempt any analysis of Kokborok poetry and to write this paper.
The word ‘ecology’ was coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1869. The earth’s total skin of air, water, skin and the biosphere, the planetary system, agriculture, industry, biological processes and everything whatever exist on earth organic or inorganic, constitute ecology (Sen 1978:2). The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ecology as “the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.” Thus simply put, everything that we see around us forms a part of the ecology. An insight into the English translations of the works of these poets originally writing in Kokborok reveals that nature and ecology form an important backdrop of their poetry. In them, nature announces her indispensable presence in the form of forests, rivers, hills, flowers, seasons, birds, folksongs etc. In addition to these images, the imagery of the bountiful or the barren joom field runs riot in most Kokborok poets. Joom (also written as jhum) or shifting cultivation is considered to be the lifeline of the tribals of the state, and has a unique presence in the writings of the poets. In his poem ‘Groping for words’, poet Shyamlal Debbarma speaks of nature’s healing touch in the lines:
One day while walking mesmerised by the forest path,
I reached a tiny joom
with a tongghar at the centre.
I wandered amidst the yellow paddy of the joom
and felt the watermelons, cucumbers and beans touching me.
I hummed a delightful tune.
(Gupta 2006: 16)
That the arrival of different seasons cast a comforting spell on the lives of the inhabitants of the land is expressed by the poet in the lines from ‘The Inner Song’:
When the wind blows on Faguna,
and the sky weeps during the rains;
in Ashwina when shiuli flowers are strewn like corn,
when winter grass takes a shower,
I sing in my mind,
deep in my mind – I sing.
(Gupta 2006: 17)
Nanda Kumar Debbarma, a Rabindra Puraskar awardee and a leading Kokborok poet writes on the forests of Tripura. He considers forests to be an inseparable element of the tribal life. Most of the tribal population in the remote areas are forest dwellers and depend on nature for their livelihood. They worship the forests which have become a part of their identity. In the poem ‘Jungle’, he emphasizes on the importance of the forest and depicts the emotional relationship between nature and men:
You cannot abandon her,
She is embedded in your heart.
Neither consumed by fire,
Nor destroyed by water,
waking up in your dreams
she speaks to you.
You too cannot wipe her out,
she is wrapped in your emotions.
(Gupta 2006: 23)
The undying relationship between the native jhumias (people engaged in joom or shifting cultivation) of the land and the soil under their feet is beautifully spoken of in Nanda Kumar Debbarma’s ‘Rain after the drought’ where a couple is seen happily welcoming a splash of rain after a painful drought:
‘God has graced us this time’
they were saying.
Their clothes just reach up to the knees
their faces are timid
their bodies smell of corn and earth.
(Ngangom and Kynpham 2009:101)
Poet Bijoy Debbarma celebrates his relationship with nature in the poem “Why should I go?” in the lines:
My path leads to the Chethuang forest,
Leads to the tongghar in the orchard;
All around my path is Longmaku, Shampari
and Longtorai, Shakantan, Jompui, Atharamura.
Embracing the blue sky all over my body, walking
and walking I get engrossed in an intense dialogue.
(Gupta 2006: 49)
The poet seems to be engaged in a process of self-introspection where he is being nostalgic regarding his identity and finally towards the end seem to realise that he cannot go away from his roots:
Why should I go? Why?
-discarding the roots, far away from the origin.
(Gupta 2006: 49)
Nature has a unique presence in the lines from Sachlang Tripura’s poem ‘In close proximity to people’ where he paints a beautiful picture:
White bata flowers bloom
in the Longtorai Valley.
Along with it blooms the toksha yadobsa.
The cry of the Kungkok bird and
The rambling of rain laden clouds
spread pollens of love.
(Gupta 2006: 62)
The Nuyai bird often considered as a symbol of happiness and prosperity finds a mention in these poets for obvious reasons. Poet Dipali Debbarma addresses the Nuyai bird and beckons it thus:
Come flying past our joom;
the maize is ripe
and watching you come flying,
the watermelons and cucumbers have ripened to colours.
(Gupta 2006: 66)
Nature comes to life in the words of Sudhanya Tripura who presents a kaleidoscopic view of nature in the lines:
The hill washes its feet
in the waters of the river,
the green mingles with the river water.
Spreading out branches and leaves
the green touches the sky.
The blue of the sky and the green blends
and a strange coloured moon rises.
(Gupta 2006: 55)
These ‘sons and daughters of the soil’ poets successfully portray not only the bright and rich aspects of nature and its influence on the tribal life, but also bring forward the gloomy and deteriorating relationship between nature and man that has of late, come to create an imbalance in the ecosystem, characterised by several phenomena such as global warming, irregularity in the cycle of seasons etc. Population explosion, increasing demand for cultivable land, stringent forest laws, deforestation, soil erosion etc have also taken a toll on the earth that feeds these tribal populations of the land. In addition, modern ways of livelihood and lifestyle are gradually creating a wide gap between nature/culture and man, and this deep sense of an eco-cultural crisis has been felt and lamented by the poets in their writings. The dilapidating condition of the joom fields is a major environmental concern for many poets and has often formed the central theme of their poetry. In ‘Woo-wang’ poet Sudhanya Tripura writes about the painful condition of the jhumias in the lines:
The crops of the jhum are lifted.
Now in the empty jhum hill
the groans of my heart
( Ngangom and Kynpham 2009: 299-300)
In another poem ‘Displaced Heart’, he narrates the tale of Puslati Tripura whose jhum fields have become dry and lonely.
Sachlang Tripura presents yet another bleak picture of loneliness of the joom fields and the isolation of the modern tribal man who perhaps yearns for the ‘lost times’ when man was closer to nature. He writes:
Fingers of half burnt tree stumps in my hand
on the new Year eve, bamboo shoots rise
piercing my palm from the deserted joom.
My scratching fingers search for the long lost story
of love and desire of my primeval ancestors
in the desolate joom.
( Gupta 2006: 63)
Shefali Debbarma, one of the strongest voices of the state, expresses her concern on deforestation, man’s ill-treatment of his surroundings and the dying condition of the joom:
The bubbling unruly river at Dumboor
has been tamed and held captive by slashing the hills.
Men who live by the joom
respond to the call of their bellies
in the dry river bed crowded by boulders
lying upside down.
(Gupta 2006: 78)
She further adds that nights have become longer and devoid of sleep, the reason being the reckless ‘extinction of forests.’
Another poet Pradip Murasing writes in his poem “Kaulanda-I”:
I am a scarecrow in the joom,
standing amidst termite sculpted time.
I smell the fragrance of dark nights.
(Gupta 2006: 68)
Veteran poet Nanda Kumar Debbarma too writes on the half-dead condition of the joom fields and the dense forests which once upon a time served as the hallmarks of tribal identity and culture but now are being threatened by human malpractices. In ‘A Trip to Shakhangtang Hill’, he speaks of a “tong ghar” that stands motionless in a joom field. There, he searches for old tales, festivals of harvest and “grandma’s blobs of rice” but cannot find any. The poem ends in a sad realisation where the poet seems to be comparing the trees to humans who bleed like the latter and the lines seem to shock the reader:
Along the long way back on the green trees,
I saw signs of axing…
and oozing juice.
Who knows! May be its blood!
(Gupta 2006: 28)
The poignant naked truth of the degradation of the environment and its immediate effect on the human life is reflected in Bikash Roy Debbarma’s “Bunyan Tree” where the poet hints at the loss of nature and the immediate need to replenish the environment in the lines:
Shadow? – nowhere today,
not even a speck,
not even a single tree anywhere.
On the right and left a few saplings-
broken branches and twigs,
scattered helter skelter.
No load of sunshine on their heads.
The sun burnt hills
with scorched dehydrated tongues
are flung here and there
like the folds of a worn out cloth.
A tender cool breeze and
the shade of a huge tree
are immediately in need.
(Gupta 2006: 44)
To sum up, this paper is an attempt to present the ecological concerns reflected in Kokborok poetry of Tripura, a land marked by hills, jungles, river and indigenous people who share a timeless relationship with nature. Thus ecocriticism as an approach to interpret literary texts helps the author, the reader and the critic to analyze and build not only social relationships between man and man, but also natural relationship between nature and man, as observed in the translations of a handful of chosen Kokborok poetry of the state.
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