Review of by Paul Pimomo
Songs speak and record all experiences
Understood universally, inspiring to resist oppression
Though sung in alien tongues. (A. Kamei, “Echo of the Birds’ Songs”)
Achingliu Kamei’s dedication of her book of poems to “My Foremothers, Past, Present and Future” suggests to the reader right off the bat that women’s collective memory may be the spine that holds the book together, and it does. The poems in Songs of Raengdailu that apply to the theme of women’s experience and memory (the focus of this review) would indicate that the fore-mothers Kamei honors are timeless in their relevance even in anonymity. They come from be-fore written history’s past and present and merge with the yet-to-be recorded future-in the manner a writer who has rebuilt her wounded humanity through poetry born of suffering and resistance to oppression in her own life and society can generate a healing pathway for people elsewhere. Women writers from many parts of the world have often done this in their vernacular and “in alien tongues.” They belong together in the living memory of every generation. It is in this sense that the eponymous foremother Raengdailu of this book is as much a keeper of the collective memory of Achingliu Kamei’s own generation of the women of her society, as she is a stand-in for women’s collective memory anytime, anywhere. The particulars and degrees of gender-based discrimination vary from society to society, but the injustices are all parts of an ancient malady that has lasted for millennia throughout the world. And it is the malady’s persistent currency even in our time that makes J.S. Mill’s trenchant observation, made more than a hundred and fifty years ago, as relevant today: That the ways in which women are regarded, treated, and placed in a society is an accurate measure of that society’s advancement as a people (Mill, “The Subjection of Women,” 1869).
Mill’s remark invites us to put Songs of Raengdailu in its geographical and historical context. Kamei’s poems are set in Naga country (home to the colorful Raengdai/Hornbill bird) that straddles parts of today’s northeast India and northwest Myanmar. More precisely, Raengdailu is the foremother personified of the “four cognate tribes of Liangmai, Zeme, Rongmei and Inpui” (Kamei), but she also represents and speaks for the traditionally sidelined women of Naga society as a whole, from before recorded time to now.
Raengdailu does not just derive her name from the remarkable hornbill. The two inhabit the same beautiful Naga sky and land out of which they both evolved and which nourish them. But the earth-bound Raengdailu has neither the freedom nor the opportunity to flourish as she may. The repressive sexism of her society stunts her growth and prevents her from realizing her full human potential. So from within the constraints of her life she nurtures a voice with which to protest the wrongs. Her hope, expressed through the speaker and the women of Kamei’s poems, is to expose the oppressive legacies of patriarchy, which would help deform the unjust system and clear a space for something of the Hornbill’s airborne “beauty, grace, strength, courage and integrity” (Kamei) to dwell on the darker human side of the verdant Naga homeland. That is the hopeful vision.
The book has two parts. The poems on women’s experience and memory in the first part clue the reader in on the daily lives of Naga women in their natural environment and amongst themselves. The second part deals with the menacing layer of male domination in the women’s lives.
The first feature in Kamei’s rendering of Naga women is the intimate link between them and the land. The womenfolk work the land, they feel at home in nature, they are in their elements. The book opens with “Puangbiu Puang (Princess Flower).” It sets the scene. It’s a warm summer day, a red dragonfly is flitting about for nectar among wild flowers, and the laughter of “young girls, soft as breeze,” can be heard. The reader soon realizes that this happy mix of nature’s company is but the opener for two headliners of the surrounding hills and valleys: Puangbiu Puang, the sturdy foremother flower-plant, and her human alter-ego, the anonymous representative woman of these parts.
Puang biupuang sways in remembrance
The hard life of a woman.
She gives it recognition and love
The interdependence, love shared.” (ll. 7-10)
The narrator informs us that this reciprocal empathy between the puang biupuang flower and the woman centers around mutual recognition of their tough existence: a flower whose resilience comes from being neglected and left untended and a woman whose life is defined by daylong toil and hunger. Their empathy is intuitive and caring: “Never bringing you home to domesticate/…. Giving yourself to sustain another unacknowledged flower”; and the flower/woman identification finds completion in love leading to their “interdependence.” Interdependence is an important word here whose function goes beyond the poetic. Interdependence is also how ecologically-centered nature scientists would describe the flower/woman relationship in this poem, while mindful-living gurus are likely to call it inter-being. Either way, the context the poet creates for the reader in the first poem of Songs of Raengdailu (and others to follow) is an imaginatively rendered primal scene in nature, consisting of hornbill Raengdai in the sky, woman Raengdailu on the land, and flower “Puangbiu-puang” rooted in the land. The three may be taken for representative figures of the creatures and elements that constitute planet earth: air, fire, water, land that together make life and existence possible. What Kamei’s opening poem presents may then be read as a synecdochic scene for the all-encompassing circle of life. And the scene is naturally local and universal.
“Memory,” the second poem, reinforces and expands on the nature scene presented in “Puangbiu Puang,” filling the sky in with more details like “a bird soaring above the clouds,” wind, wings, and “feathers rippling in the breeze”; and the land gets populated with trees and orchids, buds and flowers, along with the arrival of human beings and other life forms on the scene that show stress and traces of smoke, spark, and flame of a “dormant volcano,” whose marks are indistinguishable from the movement of its elemental opposite -- river currents and waves. I think it is accurate and insightful of Naga poet and novelist Easterine Kire to describe the poems in Part I of Songs of Raengdailu as “the poetry of geography” (“Foreword” to the first edition of Songs). The geography of “Memory” is both ancient and contemporary. It has in it the formative energies of life and destruction. So it ends, as perhaps all stories of life and death should, with images of the sweet fragility of existence that blooms for a season and is soon gone (ll. 19-20) -- but only after it has bequeathed “wings and roots to the next unborn” (l. 23), like Foremothers past, present, and future are born to do?
The second feature of the world of the women in the first part of the book is that the symbiotic nature of the lives they make with the creatures of air and sky and land is transferred to relations among themselves – grandmother, mother, and daughter. Appropriately, the intergenerational bonding starts with “Whispers from Mother Earth” herself. The young speaker in the poem watches Mother Earth rise at misty dawn that turns into “The warm glow of the languid winter sun,” and she can feel Mother Earth’s message for her by the “tingling sensations on my fingers”: “Watch and never forget--”, the girl hears Mother Earth whisper: “Take care of love and life in your generation…. Never forget your own insignificance…. Bloom and be gone without a regret.” Readers who remember what was said in “Memory” about the fragility of existence can anticipate how the girl would receive the offering: “I clasped to my heart the soft blooms” – blooms of morning glories bound for glory (l. 9) -- for a time.
One way or another, in a broad sense, taking care of love and life in one’s generation is the theme that animates Kamei’s book. “Mother’s Corn Cobs” and “Digging Potato on Grandma’s Field” are good examples of caring that get passed down the generations. “Mother’s Corn Cobs” opens on a “Blistery windy day in a forlorn village” of huts made of bamboo and mud. The village is in the middle of a forest. The cold air has filtered into the house of a family huddled by the hearth for warmth. Above the fireplace is “The smoky raft [that] holds the treasures of the folk/The smoked stuff”: dried beans, “bones for the sick and elderly kept aside for soup,” and such. The poem ends with a line that needs no commentary: “Mother took down corn cobs kept away for a rainy day.”
Likewise, the setting for “Digging Potato” is the memorably evocative figure of a pair of “Tender tiny hands” carefully digging up sweet potatoes on her grandmother’s field, under grandma’s gentle, watchful supervision. The little girl is quick to learn. She digs up potatoes not just for herself but “for us,” which leads into the line: “The river runs on” (l.5) -- the river of intergenerational life that is. In the rest of the poem, but for the last two lines, the granddaughter goes into a mental recall and rumination about her ancestors; their simple and struggle-ridden lives lived with exemplary grit and integrity. She comes to “wonder how the DNA of courage got replaced,” lost, down the line; how the “ancient footprints” of her ancestors, who “lived their words” and “died keeping their words” and who “went hungry to feed the hungry,” disappeared. The four irregular stanzas end with three iterations of the girl’s lament: “I watched the river run dry.” Though left unnamed, this is the river that has run dry on the male-dominated public life of her village and society, where Mother Earth’s message of every generation’s responsibility to “take care of love and life” has been erased. Still, in the domestic inter-personal lives of the womenfolk her grandmother’s footprints are fresh and ready for her to step into: “That’s enough potatoes for us,” grandmother lovingly said./I looked up and smiled. The river run on” (ll. 36-37).
There is no smooth segue from the hard but intimately comforting intergenerational community of the women in their natural environment to the gendered world of patriarchy. To the women, the contrast is menacingly real. What should have been an unbroken extension of the bond among them to the menfolk never took place; instead, women came under an unnatural and cruel dispensation where the men believed it was their right to control, dominate, and deny equal rights to the women. It was as if the women had been left behind to watch their river run dry. This is what Easterine Kire also refers to as the ugly disfigurement of the face of Naga society: “When surrounded by the great beauties that make up her land, the poet [Kamei] reflects on the blots on its beautiful face, and the biggest blot is the in equal treatment of womenfolk” (8).
Kamei’s poems explore in memorable ways the kinds and the depths of injustices women are made to endure in private and in public. The second section of the book opens with “To Women.” Every line of the first stanza is accented by a verb, and together the verbs unravel the house of patriarchy that women must live in and suffer: “She is lashed by the patriarchal tide,” “pounced upon,” “judged,” “caged by her circumstances,” “scarred by fate,” and “stalked by the shadows of ignorance.” All this, even while “In her body thrives humanity.”Poem after poem castigates and exposes the multi layered real-life consequences of sexism on the women. The women’s humanity and dignity will be tested relentlessly by “lurking men” at every stage of their lives; some will be pursued by “vindictive men” from childhood and adolescence to adulthood, and through to motherhood and old age (“The Resilient Woman”). They will be rendered voiceless, will lose their agency and identity in marriage, and as widows become property-less and saddled with loneliness and self-isolation till death; and in death they will be buried with less honor than the men (“What Happened to Your Voice?”). The sum of it all leaves them belittled and excluded from the public roles that matter in their society, so that many become defenseless against physical and verbal abuse starting at home, culminating in their degradation as individuals and as a group.
That was the condition of women in the domestic sphere when the Naga political struggle for autonomy and freedom started in the late 1940s. Predictably, gender inequality that had prevailed in Naga society heightened the vulnerability of women with the onset of the political problems. From the early 1950s on unspeakable forms of violence against Naga women by the Indian army became part of their military campaign to put down the Naga movement for independence. “I Write for You” is in part a dirge for the Naga women victims of the Indian armed forces Operation Bluebird in 1987, in the village of Oinam, in Manipur:
The sky and I are blown open
7 women’s bodies the terrain for
Power, murder, rape, arson, illegal detention
Innocent blood smeared by hatred.” (ll. 22-26)
Atrocities and human rights abuses committed against women in Oinam had many precedents for decades earlier and many more have followed since. The imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1958, still in use, further exasperated the political problems and human rights violations on every front. The once peaceful Naga homeland was turned into a militarized zone, which over time further vitiated the conditions for social unrest, communal strife, and a contrabands culture in the region. Strife and violence have been normalized, further jeopardizing the safety and security of women. In short, outrageous forms of public humiliation and violence against Naga women, which were first used to crush the Naga national movement, helped politicize and fetishize women’s bodies. The danger now is that in a region enmeshed in armed conflicts for so long, the politicization of women’s bodies and violations of “women’s honor” under competing patriarchal patriotisms can easily become indistinguishable from violent enactments of a preexisting false chivalry and communal hatreds, as has happened between two non-Naga ethnic groups in Manipur since May 2023. The picture is clear. Supposed patriotic male heroism in the form of barbaric violations of women has become an excuse for perpetuating male dominance in India including in the northeast region.
In light of this intertwined political and gender backdrop, encountering “Song of Raengailu,” which immediately follows after the dirge “I Write for You,” makes it all that more significant for the reader. It is a remarkable poem of a woman engaged in a ritual of exorcism --exorcism of hatred and fear from the women victims -- by returning their hatred and fear back to where they came from: “to the Army, the invisible power”:
You who burned down our homes and villages;
Raped our infants and sisters,
You who whipped our fathers and brothers black and blue,
You who hanged our elderly upside down and tortured,
For days till their spirits gave up.
You who razed down our paddy fields and
Stole our food when we were starving,
We release you, fear, and hatred…. (ll. 7-14).
This is poetry of healing through purgation of the waste and dross of barbaric violence toward the possibility of transformation. There’s no self-pity in the poem, only prophetic truth-telling and life-giving energy. The title poem, “Song of Raengdailu,” reminds the reader that this is the song of the resilient human Foremother Raengdailu who shares the beautiful Naga land with the colorful Foremother Raengdai/Hornbill of the sky and Foremother Puangbiu Puang of the hills and valleys. Speaking on behalf of the women victims of abuse and atrocities, the speaker continues:
But [we] are no longer ashamed of ourselves
We are not afraid to talk about it, write about it, speak about it.
You have tried to kill our spirits, but we have each other
We take back our honour. We take back our lives (ll. 18-21)
We move on to the future. You’ll no longer be our nightmares,
You can’t live in our dreams, our kitchens, our voices,
Our minds are purged from the fear of you (24-26)
The same powerful theme of women’s resilience against impossible odds runs through the whole of the second part of Songs of Raengdailu. The strength of “The Resilient Woman” returns like a refrain for reaffirmation and inspiration in a variety of scenarios with different images and words. The last four lines of “The Resilient Woman” declare:
You have not broken my spirit
For you have not crushed my hope
For you have not killed my dream.
My dream is killed only when I killed it.
For the women of Songs of Raengdailu patriarchy’s denial of equal rights to them did not mean they were not men’s equals. As humans, they saw themselves as already fully-embodied of rights, “In her body thrives humanity” after all. They had never surrendered their rights in the first place. Self-agency was their natural birthright. The first poem of Part II “To Women” asserts this -- women’s full, complete humanity. “Her spirit is suppressed, but not broken.” “She has the mind to understand”/ “the capacity to feel”/ “the power to forgive”/ “the heart to love”/ “the peace to forget”/ “She has the calmness to nurture” (ll. 31-37). And a later poem “Just a Woman” confidently understates her case, as if to say, do I even care? “I am just a woman/ My womb holds humanity/ My only authority” (ll. 10-12).
Creating the fictional Raengdailu, who inhabits her poetic landscape, serves Kamei well in two ways. It allows Kamei to engage in what American poet Jessica Jacobs calls “self-portrait by proxy,” a creative process in which the poet identifies herself with and loans her voice to an actual or imagined other who reflects the poet’s thoughts and voice, and returns the same back to the poet – but significantly changed. The process allows the poet to be both an insider and an observer of her experience. It equips her with a double insider-observer lens to see the cultural, social, and political ethos of the land she is writing about, with the result that her life undergoes a renovation along the lines of the writing and to the degree her writing has shed new light on the realities of her society. Because Kamei’s book does not directly engage with personal experience, Songs of Raengdailu is not quite what immersive cultural nonfiction writers refer to as “auto ethnography,” but it has the feel of authentic immersive creative writing. Kamei’s Songs of Raengdailu may then be seen to enrich the fast growing Naga women’s literature while also inaugurating a tradition of poetry writing by the womenfolk of her cognate tribes of Liangmai, Zeme, Rongmei and Inpui.
• Kire, Easterine. “Foreword,” Achingliu Kamei, Songs of Raendailu, Authors Press, 2021.
• Jessica Jacobs. Pelvis with Distance, White Pine Press, 2015.
• J. S. Mill. “The Subjection of Women,” 1869.