Poetry: Poems from Nagaland
Like many people during last year’s lockdown, Kohima-based poet Mmhonlumo Kikon wrote to keep his “sanity intact”.
“I generally try to write once or twice a week, but during the lockdown last year, I got some respite from official activities and, for two months, I was writing every day. I’m not necessarily a morning person but have now cultivated the habit of writing in the morning when the mind is fresh,” says Mmhonlumo, 43.
For the poet, the need to write is both innate and inspired by the fact that there isn’t much work about the Northeast out there for the common man to read.
“The Northeast only gets attention when something goes wrong. Even long after Independence, the impact of the multiple conflicts on society, which require attention, and the lack of knowledge of the basic geography of the region by many in India are still prevalent. Most people who don’t hail from the Northeast don’t know there’s anything beyond Assam. The representation and the mind space we occupy is minimal,” he says.
So, he took pen to paper with the hope of making the region and its culture mainstream with his third book of poems, Slingstones.
“Instead of explaining the Northeast to someone, just hand them a book. The best way to give people a peek into your region is by writing about it as you understand it,” he explains.
Mmhonlumo writes about the Naga experience, dealing with topics such as the interaction between religions, the Colonial period and how systematic changes have impacted daily life.
“Storytelling is part of our culture and the main agency to carry forward our history and poetry can best encapsulate the entire process in the shortest form,” says Mmhonlumo. “Our generation’s idea of India should also be recorded in the written word,” he adds.
He brings the region alive with references to everyday life such as using sesame seeds for cooking. “Acquiring and using ingredients from back home when you are living outside the Northeast is a way of expressing your culture through food,” he explains.
The chronological reader
Mmhonlumo started writing short stories at the age of 14, after making his way through the books of Enid Blyton.
“I realised it’s only your imagination that helps you find meaning in a world full of chaos. Books can take you on a journey that is beyond your present circumstances and daily life. Creativity and imagination go hand-in-hand,” he explains.
He started reading the ‘serious poetry’ of Edgar Allen Poe and William Hazlitt in class 11, before he came across Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which led to him discovering authors like Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh and RK Narayan. By the time he was in class 12, he was reading Pablo Neruda and Latin American poetry, even though he was a science student, But, in college, he read 270 books a year!
“When you’re young, you write a lot of poetry mostly about love,” says the poet as he reminisces about his Delhi University days at St. Stephen’s College and travelling to Daryaganj to buy books when he was broke. He then had his first short story published in the North East Sun for ₹250. But after he was snubbed by a magazine with national readership, he gave up reaching out to publications. “I started with the mission of writing a book. Instead, I have published three books of poetry,” he laughs.
He’s also quite systematic about how he reads an author’s work—always in the chronological order of publishing. “Where is the time to read 270 books a year now?” he asks, referring to his duties as an MLA.
Booked for the future
The father of three children—two girls aged 7 and 9, and a 17-month-old boy—Mmhonlumo has already ensured that the kids get into reading. This is not only to expand their imaginations, but also a way for him to introduce them to the cultural and historical background of their roots. “Because without knowing your roots, you can’t interpret the world around you,” he smiles.
Of course, they want to log onto YouTube, watch cartoons and play video games. But they are also becoming natural readers, reducing their screen time with physical books, he says.
How have online classes impacted his life? “Well, it’s taught us that the homework is mostly meant more for parents than kids,” he laughs. But it’s also given parents the chance to immediately assess the quality of teachers, he adds. Now, his seven-year-old wants a YouTube channel of her own, but he’s not allowing that till she’s 18. Or so he hopes.
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From HT Brunch, October 3, 2021
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