28 September 2009

‘I Write In A Language The Elite Frowns Upon’

Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, 45, writes in Khasi and English. His work in both is fuelled by the Khasi land and language

TIMES HAVE CHANGED/ the sound of our lives/ dwindles into different tongues/ and every day, tongues/ lap up our sound.” One first heard the poet of these lines at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2009, reading — aptly — in two tongues: the clipped, steady rhythm of his Khasi followed by a sharp and robust English. Kynpham is that rare thing, a truly bilingual writer. A Reader in English at North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), he has 12 books in Khasi and seven in English, the most recent being Around the Hearth (Penguin 2008), a retelling of Khasi legends. He has just published the first-ever book of Khasi haikus, and has a volume of poetry out with HarperCollins next year. “The desire to be read by my people makes me wish to write in Khasi,” he writes. “But how can one write in a language whose writings are, without being read, frowned upon as biblia abiblia by the elite? Most of my poems are begun in Khasi, simultaneously translated into English, and the Khasi thoughts often directly transformed into English. The creation of each poem becomes the birth of twins.”

His poems can provide an acerbic take on contemporary life in the Northeast (“the timid afternoon/ was slinking out like peace/ from this town”), but he returns constantly to the idea of roots – sometimes couched in the figure of a mother, sometimes as land or language itself. If the lyrical ‘Ren’ retells the Khasi tale of a fisherman who “loved so madly” that he left home for a river nymph, the scathing ‘Agartala Nights’ declares, “I learnt/ that the most effective way of silencing races/ was to cram them with one’s mother tongue”. He might count among his influences figures as far-ranging as Neruda, Seferis, Arghezi, Milosz, Amichai and Darwish, but his writing, he says, emerges from “the roots of my beloved land; the roots of my times; and most of all, the roots of the past that is ‘lost’ to me.”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009
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