Conversation with Robin Ngangom

In a conversation with the Editorial, Robin Ngangom offers his heartfelt opinion on various issues that matter to human lives today – from the dangers of climate change to the decadence of poetry and poetic audience. The following is a moderated version of the conversation: 

Q.  There is a strong presence of a poetic persona in your poems, a persona  that floats through lyrics, violent happenings, and autobiographical elements. The persona sometimes takes the form of an adult  remembering his childhood days  and at other times  a man that is consciously talking about his homeland from a faraway (at least metaphorically) place. If you had lived  in Manipur, would this persona have been different?  How would have your musings on violence appeared in that case?

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A Northeasterner’s Reflection on India’s Equation 

The question of how one perceives India’s Northeast as a single geopolitical entity – as frontier or border, or as a diverse constituent of different communities. The narratives of constructing or understanding this space called the Northeast are multidimensional depending on from which quarter it emerges and they are undoubtedly contesting narratives. Increasingly the academia is also frequently asking how we research India’s Northeast which perhaps draws the methodological attention. Often a politics of difference, different from the political and cultural identity of India is what identifies politics in the Northeast. The politico-cultural complexities of the region in the presence of a such differential perception; the differences between ethnicities; and the gap between how one perceives as an insider and how the other gaze India’s Northeast leaves one far from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It is in such a context that I attempt to understand and elaborate my reflection of Northeast from a commonsensical approach based on observation and reading of the texts as an insider (Meitei person). This essay is also inspired by the beauty of mosaic and the idea of building solidarity for emancipatory politics in Northeast. 

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Learnings of Culture from the Northeast

Two broad temperaments towards culture can be discerned in our times. One temperament manifests in the form of cultural self-assertion (including intensifying fundamentalisms), which is quite often rooted in whole systems of belief, race or religion. At the heart of self-assertive tendency is a will to claim visibility in the public sphere and secure increased access to shared resources. The self-assertive tendency often mobilises a sense of injury: present or past, actual or imagined on which to build its claims for assertion. Cultural self-assertion can yield productive outcomes as was seen in the Indian subcontinent when a certain introspection in the face of colonialism generated a sense of cultural self-confidence that in turn strengthened both the desire for Indian independence as well as the means to achieve it. However, a decontextualised sense of victimhood i.e. an unsound and unreasoned sense of having been violated, can imbue the will for cultural self-assertion less with meaning and more with emotional charge, which in turn can excite human energies in all sorts of poor ways including such extremities as violence. What gets lost on such occasions is the intelligence and power of culture.

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“Should we undress these graves”: Review of Tarun Bhartiya’s Unaddressed postcards from Khasi-Jaintia Hills, 2021

Drawing from the picture postcards tradition, Tarun Bhartiya’s Unaddressed Postcards from Khasi-Jaintia Hills (2021) is a rich tapestry of texts and images. The juxtaposition of black and white images works on the trope of timelessness, a colonial construction of tribes as people without/outside of time, residing in a so-called mythical times and yet every text-image is a palimpsest —the present is always present as a way to see the sepia tinted past in a better light. To comment on Unaddressed postcards as a whole is difficult as the array of visuals is astounding. The images juxtapose many layers of encounters and intimacies — Gwalia, Khasi, India that are framed through the genre of picture postcards.   

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No Nation for atheist

When I pronounce
I am an atheist,
People around
looks at me suspiciously.
There is no nation for atheist.
The country is for Hindus.
The other country is for Muslims.
The countries are for Christians.
When I pronounce
I am an atheist,
Young boys and girls around,
looks me at with amaze.
Where there is Nation,
there is religion.
No Nation for atheist.

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I Came Home

Waddling in the fields
Chasing grasshoppers
Filling my basket with greens
this was the life I left behind
when I first moved to Chennai

Life looked better
Posh and modern
until one day in class
a friend asked me
how I dodged bullets in the streets
to come this far
and some men auctioning my worth
in the streets
from hundred
to five hundred rupees

So, I left.

Delhi sounded warmer
Until I had to sit
For the final call of interview
who ridiculed me for
what I aspired to become
Still, I stayed.

In my first job
my lunch break was separate
they blamed it on the work
so each day
I rummaged my lunch box alone
but scrumptiously
even though they called me a cow
when I walked in
saying I must’ve eaten
Even the grass in the lawn

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Ei Shor Amare Ki Dise

This city, what has it given me
These two hands that built each building 
This city, what has it given me
My hands that cleaned the drain
Brought food to your door
Made each street footpath drinking hole
The heart of each brick in your home is stained with my blood
Drops of my sweat on the floor of your factory 
This city, has it given me anything but thirst at high noon
I had brought myself to this city on a dream
Planned a family under a tarpaulin tent
Sitting on the pavement my wife 
Pushed her dried breast into the mouth of our child
While I carried pots of butter on my head 
To feed yours
I boiled the entrails of a chicken in my pot
And delivered Shahi Kabab to your mouth
I drown in a darkness that’s darker than the inside of the factory
While you take an afternoon nap on your bed of notes
With my hands I pulled every cart in the city
My youth peeled off with every turn of the rickshaw pedal
This city what did it give me but walking and burning 
There’s no more fermented rice it’s been ten days now
And this city changes channels to bide time
Your channels don’t shout about my hunger
Don’t show you how I am walking to my death
The city I built, so one day I may find joy here 
This city is not mine anymore
Look at the streams of the walking dead 
Leaving your city
What did the city give me
My hands laboured to build each building
Apart from stabbing me in the heart
What has this city given me
It was me in your railway lines
It was me in your vegetable markets 
It was me in your labour lines 
It was me in your sweeper colonies 
I came for two handfuls of rice 
I came for a foot of space
City, what am I to you?
Tell me, city, I got here 
Where do I turn and go???

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The current issue of Yendai is conceived around the theme of discrimination, specifically narrated in the context of political and humane experiences of discrimination of Northeast India and its people. Discrimination is a frequent occurrence in everyday living, and one can talk about it at various levels of human interactions. It can be an outcome of things as complex as fraudulent democracy, geopolitical trappings, and things as intimate as one’s rituals and habits. Frequent occurrences many tend to dismiss acts of discrimination in the garb of intimacy and harmless jokes, leading to silence and passive acceptance on the part of the one that is discriminated against. It is when discrimination acquires a discernible political tone that it is contested and debated. 

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Lockdown 2020 – Ground Notes

The masks were yellow in colour, kept in a transparent plastic bag. As we prepared for our Sandakphu trek, we combed for it in our rented apartment in Jatia. Six months ago, I moved into this apartment (after my marriage), not more than 500 metres from the home I grew up and lived for 30 years. For many days in the beginning, I would often locate my home from the terrace and bedroom balcony of our apartment. Each time I went to the terrace, I would spot the whitewashed walls in the hill towards the north, and a figure – usually moving, who I had often thought to be my father as he would mostly keep busy in cleaning the house and its premises. It wasn’t a surprise, when I was told by my mother that she too had located our building from the kitchen door and by standing under the mango tree near our rain water harvesting tank. It was a neighborhood of poor and lower middle class families. Not only did we share pithas, homegrown vegetables, and fruits like mangoes, bananas, jujube, coconut, and jackfruit, we also shared food that we had brought from our village homes and from our travels, from different events at a relative’s place like birthdays, funerals, ethnic events and rituals. On some days, we did not have to cook at all. Picking flowers like roses and gardenias; stems, leaves or roots of medicinal plants; cutting banana leaves and trees from were done in the neighborhood without the need to ask for permissions from the owner.

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Pandemic Diary

COVID-19 came and demanded urgent understanding. Strange as it is, this way of talking makes the invisible visible. To this end, we inscribe upon it, structures of our making. Yet, there is this uneasy feeling that the virus does not care for our structures. It does not play by the rules of our ‘universal’ reason or our humane emotions. It just borrows the machinery of our cells to multiply its being, which consist of a rudimentary chain of proteins. So rudimentary that it is broken down by bubbles of soap. This miracle of simplicity has disrupted our complex moves; we misstep and falter. It rides on and weighs down the terms of our self definition, the terms of sociability.

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To my daughter

Dear Naobi,

I saw the girl speaking on social media. She must be of your age. She spells out her anger well, with guarded words. Such poise. I thought she would burst out with anger. But no. I feel good that she could speak up. Wonder how her parents must be feeling. The cowardly creature who spat on her face must be celebrating. Somewhere in the dark Delhi lanes. He must be sharing his spoils of spitting on a ‘Chinese look-alike’ girl among his friends. He knows well that he will not be reprimanded or punished. For he and his fellow creatures have thrived in an ecosystem. In such an ecosystem virus of hatred and prejudice flourish. There are no vaccines for them yet. Perhaps they will never be found.

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Migrant series

All these works are executed during the Lockdown Period, 1.0 to 5.0
These works mainly concentrate on migrants, how they try to cope up with the unprecedented lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic, and above all, the challenges of life.
The materials used are Charcoal and pastel.
The essence of these series is – We are all migrants after all.

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“Touch me not”, A Quarantine Story

What a bummer! Being killed by a stupid virus!
Goku’s dialogue (Dragon Ball Z)

In Dragon Ball Z, when Goku, the major protagonist of the franchise, returned to Earth from the Namek planet, future Trunks, another protagonist,  told him that he (Goku) would die of a heart virus in the near future. Goku, one of the Earth’s bravest fighters, was unimpressed. True to his fighting spirit, Goku did not want to die of the disease, he would prefer to die fighting. I consider Goku’s statement as an important metaphor of my condition at the quarantine centre I stayed for 14 days – I needed courage to overcome some of the most miserable situations at the centre. We, people of the planet Earth are facing a pandemic now, and I want to reiterate that my personal allegiance with Goku does not mean to downplay the seriousness of any deadly virus.  Covid-19 is not stupid, while suffering itself is life’s illuminating experience that makes us our own protagonist. The number of deaths and pain that family/friends of those who died and who recovered faced should not be fiddled with for ideological and sensational cravings.

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Theatre in the Time of Crisis

Was there a time with no crisis at all? Can one appreciate art without a crisis? Can an artiste keep silent in the time of crisis?

Manipur has been living with crisis for many years. AFSPA has been part of our life a long time now. But it has not deterred our creative faculty. Rather artistes have produced more creative arts in this land. Art in a land of crisis can never be the same as art in a more peaceful place. Moreover, Art in a period of global crisis can never be the same as in more stable times. It could be remembered that Khongjom Parva emerged just after the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. One Dhobi Leinou, a balladeer, mourned the tragic loss and praised the great heroes of the War who sacrificed their lives for Manipur. Later, it accentuated into a collective mourning of the people of Manipur. Another important event is that the first recorded Meeteilon/ Meiteilon song in gramophone “jati koubi sakhenbi, leiranglaktagi athoibi” was recorded during the turbulent Japan Lan (2nd World War) in 1944.

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Reclaiming Time with Aribam Syam Sharma’s Imagi Ningthem and Ishanou

This year’s March did not begin right. The familiar incongruous blend of Yaosang and board exams was tinged with the growing fear of a disease that was almost visible at the horizon. Till then, it had mostly existed in news reports and memes featuring Mexican beer and aeroplanes with masks. I went out to see a concert on the fourth day of Yaosang. Later, after shaking hands with someone I was meeting for the first time, I cleaned my hands with a sanitiser. That night, I read a status update on Facebook that roundly abused the fools celebrating the festival in groups and crowds.  There were no reported victims yet. People were still flying in with only a thermal scan waiting to check if they were infected. All shops were open. We discussed the disease unhappily, but not with that massive shadow of fear and suspicion that would soon take hold once the lockdown was imposed, and the first victim identified.

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Waiting for Galahad

There is some comfort in knowing that scorching heat would kill it,
force its death in the stomach, maybe.
The newspapers also say that it wouldn’t survive in extreme cold
but that is only for the foreign born. Till then, we linger between
the passing of the hours and the silent streets—one day living into
the next
the next
the next

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Barefoot in the Garden

As lockdown laid bare the unpredictability and newness of everyday, my life seemed indistinguishable from an ordinary March day to the other. One early morning, my eyes followed a rather talkative bird in the garden. It was scruffy, bluish-black and pecked at some seeds that I may have spilled during my gardening endeavours. The bird was a starling. It noisily chirped and hopped about the hedges. As I continued to trowel the soil, some wood pigeons flew above me, cooing. A chaffinch joined in from the roof of the garage. I sat still on the ground with peaked ears. Listening out for birdsongs quickly became a favourite part of the lockdown.

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The Old Man by the Lake

I often met an old man in his 80’s sitting alone on the banks of the Loktak lake in the early evenings before the Covid-19 lockdown. I used to wonder at his solitude every time I saw him when the sun almost hid behind the hills in the West and the evening breeze blowing across the Tamu soothed passersby by the lake.

When the lockdown started in February, the initial shock of the pandemic drove me slightly paralysed that I didn’t go out for days other than going to the engkhol a kilometre away from our present house. I was perturbed by the number of people gathered in shops, konthongs and sumang. I avoided talking to people and silently performed my daily tasks of watering the vegetables in the evenings and returned home at sunset.

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Brahmanical Supremacy and Workers in the Time of Pandemic

We seem to be living in times that are haunted and shaped by long enduring structures that keep getting dramatically revealed and then dissolving into the mundane, recently exemplified in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. While complex histories and everyday plays of power and their contestations can alone make for a robust understanding of our present, this article was provoked by the compelling force of structures as hauntings that seize and arrest everyday life and moments in history. An attempt to grasp hauntings is likely to over-emphasize certain aspects while undermining others, but it helps to ascertain some structural forms and forces while they are writ large. In this article, I try to outline the forms and workings of caste supremacy in relation to workers[1].

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Studying Touch (ii), GIRLS W GIRLS series

Sense-ing the City

New Delhi city. Enclosed spaces. Women in each other’s company. The settings include girls’ PGs, corners at restaurant, and bedrooms. Subtle moments of interactions among them; the tenderness of words unsaid.

These women would often confront public spaces with steely gazes and compose themselves in the manner of knights taking on quests. Who could blame them for having to do so after the hostilities the city lashes upon them? However, the same subjects created and shared safe spaces among one another, letting go of their defenses they wore as armours previously. They established trust within the sanctuaries they created together.

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Contested Landscapes? Imaginations beyond Gorkhaland

In a conversation with one of my respondents S Lepcha she tells me, “We Lepcha’s are often seen as primitive tribal people even within the Nepali community… Although we do share the same space we have our own culture, language, myths and so on which are slowly getting lost…Of course it is important to respect different ways of living right? We Lepchas have our own stories of origin, our own relationship with the surrounding environment and I feel we should not lose touch with it.”[1] Her friend takes cue from her to say “…You know we Lepchas are the original inhabitants of this region, we believe that we have a special relationship with the land and that binds us Lepcha’s together although religious conversions have created many differences within the Lepcha community. I am a practicing Christian but I feel that conversion to Christianity has led to a loss of some our cultural heritage, so I feel it is important to be aware of who we are, where we come from, our special relationship with Mount Khangchendzonga…”[2]

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Raas Vignettes

Personal notes from ritual spaces


Ensconced within the ramparts of the Manipur University at Canchipur is Langthabal hill, the location of the raasmandop where it is believed the first Raaslila was danced in 1779. The ruins once stood as Chingthangkhomba’s palace. As an archaeological site, the ruins are protected under Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1976, Sec:4:1). Perhaps due to a panoptic view, Langthabal hill has been the Company Operating Base of the Assam Rifles for many years, making it an impassable zone. I had narrated the historicity of the site to a high-ranking officer in the summer. Within a few days I had received a text from him informing that the commanding officer of the base would be happy to host me for an hour under his supervision. At Langthabal, a junior officer from Bihar was instructed to walk me around. He twice requested me not to photograph any part of the army base, but the old ruins. Walking through the tightly packed quarters of the soldiers, I find a clearing where a temple stands. The small, bulbous spire and four minarets are reflective of the eighteenth-century Bengal style. Leaving those intact, the rest of the structure had been white-washed peach sometime in the recent past. The crevices which carry motifs and gods in temples from the same time, lie bare. The interior walls however were plastered with posters of Hindu gods.

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Subverting Violence and Working Peace: Understanding March 5th Incident

What does it take for an incident involving an orgy of violence to transcend the barriers of state censorship? More so, how does a dominant projection of an incident tend to subsume the worldview of the inhabitants? Teresa Rehman indeed provides hope in the context of Manipur protests of 2004 against the brutal gangrape and custodial killing of Thangjam Manorama. She says that state censorship is flat footed and cannot keep up with the swiftness and pervasiveness of personal accounts and the depth of that all-encompassing commons which is popular memory (Rehman, 2017). The quest for reality thus gets entangled in the deficit of projecting a highly charged protest on sexual violence and its dominant projection as a communal incident.

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Nupi Maanbi Thabal: A Brief commentary on Gender and Cultural Subversion

The nupi maanbis are a man to woman transgender community of the contemporary Manipur (the essay exclusively discusses transgender women, although other queer communities need crucial attention). The 21st century nupi maanbis occupy a paradoxical place in the Manipuri society. One may observe that many nupi maanbis are accommodated in family and society, mainly for the social roles they perform today, such as a beautician or a designer or a breadwinner for the family (it is still very common for people to mock a lay nupi maanbi on the roadside). (The role of the beauty parlour industry in bringing a social role for nupi manbis requires a deeper analysis). The act of “accommodation” however does not ensue cultural legitimacy, which would involve a wider acceptance of the values necessitated by a gender variant identity. In this intersection of denial and cautious inclusion, nupi maanbis’ social relations are framed by “tolerance”, not “acceptance”. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, nupi maanbis have begun to mark their presence in the Manipuri society albeit entrenched marginalisation, they have acquired different means of articulating identity and community, and socio-cultural legitimacy that were not feasible in the past. What makes the contemporary period an unprecedented one for the visibility of nupi maanbi subjects? The global movements for gender and sexual minorities (including queer initiatives in India), aiming at acquiring civil rights for queer subjects, is a broad spectrum within which the visibility of nupi maanbi community in Manipur is contextualised. Alongside the discourses of democracy and human rights, the age of information has seen people from different minority positions documenting their struggle in social media, culture, cinema, fashion and beauty industry, etc. Conterminously, there are structural interactions between the society and various minority groups mirroring each other’s politics; a crucial outcome of these interactions is the element of cultural subversion.  In this trajectory, the nupi maanbi identity today poses challenges to the conventional understanding of gender in general and the societal construct of womanhood and femininity in particular.

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