Small Towns And The River by Mamang Dai is a poem of Arunachal Pradesh where she was born, of Shillong, Meghalaya where she read it, did her schooling from, of Assam where her graduation with English Honours from Gauhati University and it all telling of the cartography and topography of the Northeast of India indirectly, how it was in the past, how it is now, how the indigenous tribes and cultures of it in contrast to as well as taking us far for an ethnographic, socio-linguistical study. A poetess from Pasighat, East Siang District, Arunachal Pradesh is first an IAS, but for devoting more time to journalism and literature she chose it otherwise. A recipient of Padma Shri from the Govt. of India and Sahitya Akademi Award, she comes from the Adi tribe with a folk base of her own deeply rooted into the soil of her land. To read her is to be reminded of Verrier Elwin and George Grierson and Jim Corbett.
In the poem, one can mark the history and growth of towns, Indian towns, hilly towns and the history of struggling folks trying to shed ignorance as well as underdevelopment, moving out for job and better opportunities and also, he feels towards the pull of the tradition of patriarchs or tribal chieftains seeing with the hawkish eye. But at the first instance it is a poem of the river and the small town. But mythically it is a song of man and Nature, how the connection is in between. The second thing is experience, the experience of life, the world, as seen and experienced and viewed. How the contrasts between society and development? How to clutch them along? How to myth and tradition with the stride?
Small towns always remind me of death.
My hometown lies calmly amidst the trees,
it is always the same,
in summer or winter,
with the dust flying,
or the wind howling down the gorge.
The poetess while starting the narrative says what she has come to feel it personally as an inhabitant, as an in-dweller what the town meant to her, how the history of their, how the trends and traditions of them doing the rounds, beliefs and faiths which but sustaining them so far. To read the poem is to come to feel the history of Assam and the frontiers, the history of the ethnographic tribes and tribesmen, the opening of colleges and schools. How was it Pasighat in the past? How is it now? Does development take a toll upon nature? And if not developed, can man be man? Let us study it the relationship between man and nature, the relationship between the town and the river.
The small towns remind her of death, what she has seen, come to feel it, how the communities have been living, burying their dead, carrying on with rituals and beliefs and in the midst of all, she lies with her divided self, split personality in choosing in between the two as for where to go, what it to opt for. Her hometown lies it calmly in the midst of trees and hills. It is almost the same, the same archetypal village; the same hutment she sees it over the years coming down to as an image and if to see it otherwise, ‘Home, home, there is no place like home.’
Just the other day someone died.
In the dreadful silence we wept
looking at the sad wreath of tuberoses.
Life and death, life and death,
only the rituals are permanent.
How life goes on, keeps on moving she narrates it here in this poem. How did happen it one day when someone of her close died and she kept weeping, mourning the loss in silence placed with a sad wreath of tuberoses? Life and death, death and life, it will continue unto the last as long as man is on earth. But it is the rituals which some may confide in for a repose.
Here identifying herself with the river the poetess tells the archetypal stories of life and death. How do they bury their dead? How do they do away with? The scene is one of silence and mourning; man coming and going which is but never-ending story. The lines remind us of Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears, Break, Break, Break, Crossing the Bar, The Brook and In Memoriam.
The river has a soul.
In the summer it cuts through the land
like a torrent of grief. Sometimes,
sometimes, I think it holds its breath
seeking a land of fish and stars
The river has a soul which she has come to feel it and it is also true that without the river, the forest, the hill and the land man cannot live. The river is a source of life-giving water as well as for agriculture and she has seen the river in different seasons. During the rainy days, it has a tale of own to tell about the babble and murmur by and during the summertime so different.
The river has a soul.
It knows, stretching past the town,
from the first drop of rain to dry earth
and mist on the mountaintops,
the river knows
the immortality of water.
Water, water, water, the drop of water for the thirsty, on the barren earth parching and dried, burning with heat and dust swirling, how to pray for to be blessed with a cold shower, the clouds gathering over Himavant for a cloudburst. No life without water is the thing. Water for fertility, vegetation, how to explain it, for the seeds to germinate? But Coleridge describes it with the sighting of the scenery and the return of the ship when retribution for the guilt is done.
To read the lines here is to be reminded of The Waste Land, Kailasha and Mansarovar, Meru and Vaigai river, the Ghagra which but Eliot, Yeats, Ramanujan, Daruwalla refer to into their poems. It is the river on whose banks lie it the settlements of the indigenous people. It is water for which the saints prayed to Shiva for emanating the Ganges from his matted locks to the earth. The tale of the Neelachal hills and the Brahmaputra of Kamakhya, how to allude to?
A shrine of happy pictures
marks the days of childhood.
Small towns grow with anxiety
for the future.
The dead are placed pointing west.
When the soul rises
it will walk into the golden east,
into the house of the sun.
What golden dreams does she dream? Where her Konark Sun Temple? How her land of the rising sun? Does she mean to hint towards the Tawang monastery too?
Life, what was it during childhood? How had it been the times? How did the huts after the growth of towns? There is something of Hood’s My Childhood and the loss of innocence. There is something of Lamb’s chimneysweepers. The sun has been used in as a myth and a motif too as Lawrence refers to in his travelogues, novels and short stories. There is something of Sea and Sardinia, The Lost Girl, Etruscan Places and Apocalypse; there is something of The Ship of Death, Bavarian Gantians and Shadows. Resurrection stories of Lawrence too can be referred to. The Mexican backgrounds which Lawrence refers to too take us to a different world of native myth and mysticism. What more do we know about the Mayan civilization?
In the cool bamboo,
restored in sunlight,
life matters, like this.
Life matters, as the bamboos keep murmuring in the wind adding to greenery and vegetation. The word bamboo has a mythical text. How do we use, when do we and for what purposes? Bamboos are needed for huts. Bamboos are needed for making the bier. Even for making baskets, cots, mud houses and for fences it is needed. This is how life goes in the forest ranges, the hilly terrains where there is life too and it pulsates with. Here we can hear the mystic drums of Nigeria not, but Arunachal.
In small towns by the river
we all want to walk with the gods.
The small towns dotting the riverbanks have a tale of their own to tell, the folks have a mythical base of their own to share with. The river is essential for every purpose. Even in the past the civilizations grew up on the riverbanks. Even now the Hindu people need them for pinda-dana on the ghat and asthi-kalasha to keep it hanging by the tree of to be immersed in.
To read the poems is read the alternative version of history; is to know history through folk mediums and local sources. It is also true we have neglected regional history so much in attaching importance to the war, loot and plunder. To read is to be remembered of the poems of Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Ben Okri and so on. To read the poem is to know the history of the seven sisterly states and to relate to and align it with otherwise to the main story. While reading the poem, the mind gets lifted to Nagaland and the Naga sadhus; their rigorous and austere sadhna and hathayoga which but few know it. What more do we about the Ahom dynasty and the Sikkimese kings?
Her theme is one of A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal where Wordsworth talks of the insensitive body of Lucy Gray turned into the rocks, stones and trees. Is it a poem of the Siang river or the Siyom river? As Mahapatra talks of the river Daya so does she here in this poem. Has Wordsworth not written about Tintern Abbey and the Wye River and London 1802?
The river of Time, the hutment of Nature, the presence of Man, the history of Earth, what to say it about? What it in race and ethnicity? What it in myth and mysticism? Where do they lead to ultimately? Should we not ask our own conscience to deliberate? Who can but about the pathway of life? But there must be something to confide in, repose in as for temporary solace.