Lamjel (Race). Thangjam Ibopishak. Imphal: Irungbam Publications, 2015.
Thangjam Ibopishak’s latest collection of poems is primarily about his evolving as a poet. Forty six years after his arrival in the Manipuri poetry scene, Lamjel (Race) delves into the link between poet, poetry and its journey. This link, as a defining theme of his eleventh book (written between 2012-2015), unfolds in the form of odes to people who have shaped his artistic sensitivity, through the metaphor of sailing, and not insignificantly, the looming spectre of death. Other themes include his worship of nature mainly inspired by a sense of atheism, and the frank appreciation of the female form.
The reader enters the book with ‘You Dead’ (Ashiba Nahakna) which depicts a conversation between him and Death. ‘A Dream’ (Mang Ama), has the image of a white elephant having the face of the poet’s long dead father and surrealistic mix of the senses: “The blind sees myriad hues while dreaming in technicolour / These hues emit a sweet scent.”. Such is Ibopishak’s eclectic canvas that just when one begins adapting to his ruminations of life and death, a poem which is as allegorically relevant today as it is satirical, soon regales us:
Dear God, I have written a letter to your end
But having no address it has been tucked away under my mattress.
(A reminder – Your humble servant’s wife hardly climbs into my bed.)
When I asked the khaki-clad postman about your whereabouts
He shook his head in ignorance and said, ask Narasingh Mouchi, I don’t know.
I asked again where, in which land this Narasingh Mouchi lives
I don’t know that either, perhaps Go-dhara – he replied.
But Go-dhara was reduced to ashes more than a decade ago – I said.
The innocuous queries here are characteristic of his style. Be it breaking poetic expressions, his unflinching take on social norms, lackadaisical outlook towards the world we inhabit and the dehumanising effects of rapid modernisation, critiquing the powers that be, or his prolonged struggle with religious beliefs—the poems strike us with their honesty, satirical subtext and self-directed irony. The unpredictability in subject matters of the assembled poems in Lamjel symbolises the variety and growth of themes, forms and styles of his corpus.
Death as a theme in Shrimati Tomcha Babu (2007) and Draupadi (2010) is tied to the socio-political circumstances of the 2000s Manipur, it becomes a part of an existential search for meanings in Lamjel. Anger, anxiety, fear, violence and resistance, collective or his own, that formed the lamentations and the satire in his previous works give way to a personal contemplative inner debate on life and death. One can see an older Ibopishak, whose cynicism used to fuel much of his dark humour, reconciling with forces beyond his control. The inner tussle leads to a fractured psyche, being depicted in two poems composed on 22 November, 2012. ‘This Night’ (Ngasigi Ahingdi) shows the poet frolicking with Death and getting lost in her dark being, whereas in ‘Stop Calling Me’ (Eibu Kourakkhinu) he refuses to go where he is summoned.
The poet’s angst is projected through a melancholic slice of nature in ‘Untitled-1’ (Maming Thondaba-1), the descending twilight reflecting his own fears about the impermanence of his poetic consciousness:
The light is closing on to the limitless emptiness;
Trees and groves, rocks that are like chests and shoulders of he-men
The reddened soil of the earth
Are tinted with darkness.
Bit by bit the star-lamps light up
And spread across the vast skies.
His belief in nature is a constant search for solace in place of the “arrogant” atheism of his early years as seen since The Wandering Spirit (Apaiba Thawai) (1969). Here, it is found in poems like ‘The City Ghosts’ (Sahargi Bhootsing), ‘Evening Song’ (Sandhyagi Eshei), ‘October Moon’ (Meragi Purnima), ‘The Final Question’ (Aroiba Wahang) and ‘In Darkness and in Light’ (Amambadasu Anganbadasu). One is reminded of Yumlembam Ibomcha’s quip, as recalled by Ibopishak himself in Mayadesh (1999):
From an angry poet he has
Turned into a poet of the firmament
Who gazes at tree-tops.
The attempt at studied temperance is well depicted in ‘The Late Night Guest’ (Athengba Ahingda Atithi Ama). He is visited by a ghost who remains chillingly silent to the multiple questions posed by the poet. After an agonising night, it dawns upon him in a flash that silence is golden for the poet instead of “jibber-jabbering”.
Sailing is a dominant metaphor in the book and the poet encounters the boatman in many of his poems. He sails without purpose or destination in ‘The Inauspicious Hour’ (Phattraba Khenpham), and his interaction with a cryptic boatman continues in the prose poem ‘Story of a Boat’ (Hi Amagi Wari). Evocative of a Kafkaesque exchange, the poem depicts the boatman as similarly compelled to sail alone in the sea as the poet. ‘Take me With You’ (Eisu Natung Induna Chatningi) has him eagerly asking questions to an unknown traveller and comparing life to a continuous sad-song. The theme recurs in ‘Life’s Dinghy’ (Punsigi Hinao), which could well symbolise life itself or an individual choice.
Even the pessimism in some of the poems is reduced due to the conversational and confessional elements. However, if one feels being weighed down by the philosophical undertone, the playful satirical facet of the poet intermittently emerges. Glimpses of the same can be seen in ‘Shrishti – 2’, in which a man just returning from the netherworld describes its people as walking with their heads that have their feet protruding from the sides. The topsy-turvy world, an allegory of today’s degenerating world, finds resonance in the prose poem ‘Land of Ghosts’ (Bhootki Leibak). Closely reminiscent of ‘I Want to be Killed by an Indian Bullet’ (Bharatki Nongmei Maruda Shijage), the poet is given a bizarre set of instructions by a man who calls himself “Laughing Buddha”. He is asked to prostrate before the heads of different nations, and change into a vulture to visit the far-off Land of Ghosts. As the instructions turn macabre, the poet is to fill his new fountain pen with the blood of beheaded people, and is asked to use only pens made in India: “Write with a desi pen, brother, write with a desi pen.”
In the eponymous poem ‘Lamjel’, the poet runs for life after being pointed a gun on his head by a youth. As the chase after him becomes a frantic race, the poet crosses the roads of Manipur, India, Asia, Europe, and in no time reaches America of the Oval Office. He finds Barack Obama in a “revolving chair” and Michelle Obama gloriously draped in Meitei costume, whose description could have come only from the pen of Ibopishak. As he transforms into a black cat inside the White House, he knows he is sheltered against any threats. The last poem, ‘At the Bank of the Nambul River’ (Nambul Turelgi Torbanda) (recited in a poetry convention on March 8, 2015) similarly surprises the readers with contrasting imageries and the meeting of unlikely places and people. As his conversation with drunken friends turn more and more imaginative, the persona of Devdas comes alive grieving of Parvati. Devdas in Ibopishak’s work varies from a tragic lover, to a subject of light ridicule, to a man consumed by a promise that he will visit Paro. In the poem, he paints Devdas’ last moments thus:
… Oh driver, oh driver, it’s midnight
How far to reach Hatipota?
Oh Paro…oh Paro… I’m here…
(Cough – Cough…Cough…)
I’m vomiting – blood… Oh Paro…!
(My poem ends here.
Clap, clap, clap…)
Far from the irony above, Ibopishak’s nostalgia for time and friendship past is poignantly captured in ‘Just a Glass of Tea’ (Cha Glass Amatang) that brings to life the lively chai-adda culture. The poem assorts the who’s who of the literary world into the crammed spaces of “Umesh Hotel” and “Satyanarayan Hotel” that are filled with the smell of cigarettes, samosas, kachouris, and the noise of clattering cups and saucers. Theirs was a shared love for the written word, intellectual exchange and stimulating talks carried into many late evenings.