Political Poetry: Examining Parshuram Thingnam’s Poetry

Politics and the political

Aristotle says humans are by nature political animals because nature has endowed man alone among other animals with the power of speech (Politics, I). Speech is different from voice which other animals also possess and use to indicate pain and pleasure. Speech, on the other hand, enables humans to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and what is just and what is unjust, and have perceptions of good and evil, and a shared view among them about these matters makes a household and a state. Thus in modern Aristotelian terms, every individual, who is neither a beast nor a god, has a part in the act of governing and being governed.

Jacques Rancière, however, argues that another form of distribution precedes this act of partaking in government—the distribution that determines those who have or don’t have a part in the community of citizens. Not everything about humans is political, but politics, in the strictest sense as Rancière conceptualizes it, rather rarely happens. There is always an imposing social order which Rancière calls a “police order”, which is a set of implicit rules and conventions determining the distribution of roles in a community and thus determining the forms of inclusion and exclusion which operate within the order (Rancière, DPP, 1999). This order is built on the “distribution of the sensible” or the way in which roles and modes of participation in a common world are determined by establishing certain modes of perception within which these are inscribed. Distribution, thus, refers both to forms of inclusion and to forms of exclusion. A police order is anti-political, anti-democratic, and by nature it tends to depoliticize the world because it attempts to perpetuate the existing patterns of distribution of the sensible, or the patterns of inclusion and exclusion. The police order demands “things should go back to normal”.

Rejecting the Habermasian and liberal concept of politics as consisting of a rational debate between diverse interests of equal political status, or struggles between pre-established interest groups or classes of equal political status, Rancière says “politics is not the exercise of power” (Rancière, DPA, 2010), and it happens when there arises a “dissensus” between the included part and the excluded part which has no part in the distribution of the sensible, and when the police order or the distribution of the sensible is intervened in and challenged by the excluded themselves (not by their representatives as in a democratic order) to bring about a re-configuration of the distribution of the sensible. “Dissensus” is not to be understood as the confrontation between interests or opinions (Rancière, DPA, 2010); it rather is a dispute over what is given and about the frame within which we sense something is given (Rancière, DPA, 2010). Consensus, on the other hand, is the reduction of politics to the police, ‘end of politics’ and not the accomplishment of its ends but, simply, the return of the ‘normal’ state of things which is that of politics’ non-existence (Rancière, DPA, 2010). Thus, the “political”, as Gabriel Rockhill points out, is relational in nature, and is founded on the intervention of politics in the police order rather than on the establishment of a particular governmental regime (Rancière, POA, 2013, p. xiii).

Political poetry

In the widest sense of the term “politics” everything in the human realm of things may have a political side to it, but this side does not necessarily make it primarily political. For example, there may rarely be a living Manipuri poet (perhaps even the least political one) whose poetry collection does not contain a poem obviously informed by the state’s political turmoil. Therefore, there arises the need of identifying ways to broadly determine what is political and what is not. It seems Rancière’s recent political writings the main theme of which has been briefly outlined above would provide a useful framework. Quite interestingly, Rancière points out the inherent relation between politics and aesthetics, a concept which may be quite easily misunderstood:

The distribution of the sensible reveals who can have a share in what is common to the community based on what they do and on the time and space in which this activity is performed. Having a particular ‘occupation’ thereby determines the ability or inability to take charge of what is common to the community; it defines what is visible or not in a common space endowed with a common language, etc. There is, thus, an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics that has nothing to do with Benjamin’s discussion of the ‘aestheticization of politics’ specific to the ‘age of the masses’ (Rancière, POA, 2013, p. 8).

Summarizing this “intimate and attested interrelation” Gabriel Rockhill writes in his editorial introduction to Rancière’s The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible:

The essence of politics consists in interrupting the distribution of the sensible by supplementing it with those who have no part in the perceptual coordinates of the community, thereby modifying the very aesthetico-political field of possibility (Rancière, POA, 2013, p. xiii).

Thus, in the Rancièrean scheme, political poetry is a poetic maneuver seeking to interrupt the police order and to reconfigure the distribution of the sensible, and in this sense political poetry is quite revolutionary.

Along the same line but in a less revolutionary way Angela Michele Leonard manages to come up with a working principle to define political poetry in her Political Poetry as Discourse: Rereading John Greenleaf Whittier Ebenezer Elliot, and Hip-hop-ology. In the Leonardian scheme, political poetry seeks to understand historical reality from certain political perspectives, cry in disgust and protest, and attempt to produce, affirm, or subvert specific historical and social institutions. When understanding historical reality politically political poets in effect present:

an individualized vision of reality, one which not only corresponds to the modes of activity in their cultural context, but also one which corresponds to his or her perception of the process which produced the reality that may be agreed upon by all as reality (Leonard, 2010, p. 9).

In both of the political models of poetry above the poems challenge the political establishment and assert an alternative distribution of the sensible. However, the Leonardian understanding of what is political is very much general and loose against the Rancièrean regime of political aesthetics. The Leonardian scheme covers a wider political field and accommodates some poems which the Rancierean scheme would not consider to be political enough.

Poetry, as a form of art, is not just about its content as it is usually the case with non-aesthetic texts of mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, history, and even political science. A smaller dose of political content than that in a prose plitical philosophy text should be enough for the content of the art form of political poetry, and perhaps this toning-down will save political poetry from the possible aesthetic failure of its content far outweighing and precluding the poet’s primary artistic concern, which is symptomatically characteristic of majority of political poems ever written.

Parshuram Thingnam’s poetry

Parshuram Thingnam has so far two poetry collections to his credit—Meegi Machu (2007) and Ei Amasung Eigi Ima (2011). Born in 1987 and brought up in a political condition when Manipur’s state political institution, stewing in its own juice, had failed to serve its political raison d’être, and when the “revolutionaries” had already stooped so low as to yield to personal selfish temptations thereby turning the whole of their movement into a informal industry operated systematically within the democratic state set-up, young Parshuram seems to be instinctive and on a survival mode as a poet, protesting spontaneously like a child confronted with arbitrary obstructions to his natural desires.

In the two collections Parshuram gives disjointed snapshots of Manipur’s police order in almost clichéd terms, and protests and challenges the order without, however, presenting an alternative distribution of the sensible. He passionately writes about sleeplessness from several obvious reasons, oppressive state armies and equally oppressive revolutionaries, untimely unnatural deaths, the political destitutes, metaphorically and literally homeless children, endless nights, never-coming mornings, darkness, haunting, rape, disappearance, internecine struggles, among others. Parshuram’s poems do not literally challenge the prevailing political regime allowing these things to happen, but as speaking is always a political act, and speech (and silence) a narrative (meaning that it is strategic, and upholds certain things and hides certain other things, and they are presented in certain order—certain things first and the rest later, or even never), they speak what they say not just to mean what they say on the literal plane. Parshuram’s style is mostly ironical and his use of words very much metaphorical. His poems, thus, very much say what they don’t say, which is a polito-aesthetic tactics. For example, “disagreement” is what charges the very metaphorical poem Kaang Amasung Ei (Mosquito and I) from his firts collection, Meegi Machu politically:

Guarding against mosquitoes
I
have not slept for nights.

I asked mother
for a mosquito net,
to sleep
undisturbed just one night
if not more.

Yesterday, and the day before,
Every day
the news of
mosquito bites
of deaths from mosquito bites
make an awful din
in every village.

Mosquito net!
Poor mother
Couldn’t provide a mosquito net (Thingnam, MM, 2007, pp. 17-18).

This poem with a couple of others sets out the topography of the political order which Parshuram holds up to attack in his poetry collections—the civil population settling a narrow strait is constantly tormented by the state and the non-state who flank it and claim to be representing the civil will. However, the civil population is sleepless at night from fear of the blood-sucking “mosquitoes” haunting every street, alley and flying around every house—the mosquitoes of both the state forces and the insurgents.

Deaths at the hands of these state and non-state forces are like deaths from insect (mosquito) bites or snake bites. You can do nothing more against these inhuman forces than against mosquitoes and snakes. You cannot pull these mosquitoes and snakes in to the court—the courts are for those who share the same legal and moral codes, but these insects and reptiles don’t share any moral or legal codes with you. Thus they just romp through the population and go about their sportive biting business. Indiscriminate killing since the Merger of 1949, thus, has taken a heavy toll on the Manipuri civil population to such an extent that the state seems to be metaphorically haunted by the dead[1]. In one way these destabilizing forces, with whom the people cannot share the basic principles of being, with whom they cannot reason, are like zombies terrorizing the narrow strait. These zombies, as another poem Ashiba Mee (Dead Bodies) says,

…propagate their ideology of death.
……………………………………………
They rule all—public, private, local
Families, women and children (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, pp. 97-98).

While the affairs have worsened to this extent, majority of the Manipuri civil population has been politically conditioned in such a way that they now suffer from a kind of “false consciousness”. They think their condition is inevitable, and they cannot change it because, they believe, this is how things are meant to be. The population partakes in the formal democratic practices of the state in the way Aristotle’s any normal citizen does as part of the state. Democracy, as we know, is “the count of the uncounted” (Rancière, 2010, p. 33), because it is made up not only of the included members of a community but also of those that it excludes. Thus, majority of the population has no part in Manipur’s prevailing distribution of the sensible—the state and non-state distributions of the sensible exclude them in a way their false consciousness is unable to see the reality. Thus Parshuram writes:

Hypnotized students of my land
willy-nilly
sat in files in the magazines
as bullets. (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 29).

Manipur’s what Sanjiv Baruah (DD, 2005) calls “durable disorder”—the prolonged political problems—has deformed its democracy, corrupted its economy, warped its judicial system, poisoned and maddened its security services, paralyzed educational institutions, destroyed public distribution system, corroded moral sensibility among the members of its society and reduced all of its members to the status of mere animals perpetually in a neurotic survival mode in the competitive environment. The overall scene is the noisy disorderliness of a live battlefield. Fortunately, however, the survival instinct functioning based on pain/pleasure principle is able to sense and differentiate sumpheron (useful/pleasurable/advantageous) and blaberon (harmful/painful/disadvantageous). Thus that what remains after the state and non-state anaesthetization can interpret as harmful or advantageous detects something wrong in the police order and considers, in its survival urge, to terminate the source of the pain. However, the sheer size of the oppressive police machine and the magnitude of its cruelty intimidate Parshuram’s personas, who helplessly find fulfillment of this instinctive urge of retaliation in self-immolation.

While engaging in this self-immolation the self of the persona is split into two, one of which remains true to the persona while the other is used as the scapegoat to put under transferred retaliatory blows of the victimized persona. Splitting the self into two and finding a scapegoat in himself is only what the persona can do to satisfy his retaliatory urge when the real culprit is far too insurmountable and intimidating. It is to highlight the murderous/revolutionary spirit, despite the persona’s inability to rise against the police order, that Parshuram alludes in the poem, Numit (Sun), to the Numit Kappa myth in which Khwai Nungjenbam Piba shoots one of the two brother sun kings who, when he has to serve them, keep him restless day and night, interfering with the myth’s distribution of the sensible thereby redistributing its sensible. However, in this poem, differently from the myth, the suns are intimidatingly too many and they have spawned too many of their young ones, which, as the poem says, will grow up soon for the sky to be thickly studded with them. Perhaps that’s why, differently from what the mythical hero does,

Children of my land
These stunted children make their own bows and arrows
of bamboo and shoot up in the sky
so the arrows fall on themselves and they die (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 20).

though the political value of this act of self-immolation is quite questionable.

The sun in the above poem is a metaphor for the oppressive ‘police’, but in another poem Eigi Lamdamgi Numit (The Sun of my Land) it is the source of the light of life, the soul of a society, whose absence throws a society into the embrace of eternal darkness. In this poem the sun has disappeared, and the people have to search for it in the darkness ironically using search lights, and holding its photograph they talk about the sun as if about some endangered or extinct species. Thus, in the current police order

Manipur has not had a new morn for long
(Since when the sun was gone) (Thingnam, 2011, p. 31)

throwing Manipur into a metaphorical perpetual darkness, its night endless. Generations have died and new generations come and go, but all this happens in this perpetual darkness, and the endless night continues, and there is no hope of a morning coming either, thus condemning the state into a perpetual present with all the poisons of the past and what’s happening at the moment acting diabolically together to conspire against the people’s future.

The word used most in both collections is ‘ima’ (mother) to mean motherland. However, this word and the emotion that goes with it are already messed up by the “revolutionary” practices rendering the term “leibakningba” (patriot or patriotism) along with “imaleibak” (motherland) nauseous in the last 20 years. This phenomenon numbs several minds as the poem, Imagidamak (For Mother), says:

Mother! What’s left for me to do—
Your sons maddened by love for you, intoxicated
For you
They pour out of their homes with swords and guns in hands
They are patrolling every street and alley, guarding you.

My legs can’t be pulled free as if in sleep
My deadened organs,
But mother, this is not a dream—
I feel lethargic
Don’t feel like doing aught for you, mother (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 89).

At the same time every person who obviously loves his native place quite consciously (no matter whether he is different from the revolutionary patriots), not differently in kind from the way a normal Bengali in Calcutta may love West Bengal, or any other person from anywhere in the country may love his or her own native place, is looked at with some degrees of suspicion by the state agencies (especially the army), and his movement would be kept under surveillance. Theoretically, as anyone is free to lead the democratic life they want to live, choose whatever career they like and deserve, a person should also be free in Manipur to just live a civil life and spend his/her daily life doing nothing but loving his own native land, however old-fashioned or parochial it may sound. Manipur’s political climate of the moment is so unsympathetic toward this sort of people that they always undergo an identity crisis which may land them in either (self-)exile (Robin S. Ngangom, for example (Bhattacharjee, 2013, pp. 136, 137, 237)), or discontented, compromised life in the state or a some form of state-prosecution most cases of which are extrajudicial. Thus, in Ima Ningba (Loving Mother) Parshuram writes:

Mother!
Your land
Where loving you is prohibited
Where worshipping you is prohibited
I have immigrated from there I dislike
Determined to love you freely
In peace here in this foreign land.

Here in this foreign land
I can chant your name aloud.

(To love mother—should mother be loved stealthily?
We must love to the heart’s content.)
……………………………………………
There at your place
Even loving you quietly in one’s own heart
To say your name quietly

Pushes one underground (Thingnam, EAEI, 2011, p. 90).

This is quite perplexing, and this is what the prevailing police order wants to depoliticizingly perpetuate, and this is what Parshuram’s poetry challenges.

Despite some powerful original expressions, Parshuram’s poems in both collections draw almost exclusively on common sense, and do neither draw on nor advance any set of doctrine or a coherent system of beliefs; however, common sense is ideological, representative of the people’s political and social will, their collective consciousness shaped by what Frederic Jameson calls their “political unconscious” (PU, 2002), because, as Catherine Belsey argues,

ideology is not an optional extra, deliberately adopted by self-conscious individuals (‘Conservative party ideology’, for instance), but the very condition of our experience of the world, unconscious precisely in that it is unquestioned, taken for granted. Ideology, in Althusser’s use of the term, works in conjunction with political practice and economic practice to constitute the social formation (CP, 2002, pp. 4-5).

Belsey further maintains that “ideology is inscribed in language”, and rather than a separate element existing in some free-floating realm of ideas and is subsequently embodied in words, it is a way of thinking, speaking, and experiencing (CP, 2002, p. 5) given majorly by common sense. Common sense, thus, is the repository of the most pervasive form of ideology; and common sense or ideology, therefore, is not an inherently negative force, as understood by Marxist-inflected theories, used to contain the oppressed classes, but a system of matrices which are the determinants of thinking and behavior, which every class has as their own. An oppressed class may, therefore, be unwittingly complicit in their own oppression—an analytical understanding “without assuming that individuals are necessarily simply passive victims of systems of thought” (Mills, 2007, p. 27). Parshuram’s political position, thus, presents an ideological rival in Manipuri society, a kind of thinking which has already been embroiled in the imbroglio.

Most of Parshuram’s poems (despite his occasionally powerful original expressions) build on literally hackneyed ideas and motifs, and are more of a moan and helpless cry than a coherent and self-conscious political trajectory with a sharp vision or an alternative ideological formation. And they have many very poor artifacts which would linger on to prove that Parshuram had a lowly start if he is destined to become a great poet. In fact such a shocking political-poetic situation is not the case with just Parshuram—as the state’s socio-political limbs have been stuck into an impasse, with the best of (poetic or otherwise) minds of neither the state nor the country being able to break it, all other contemporary political poets, young and old, also write invariably with varied degrees of confusion. However, despite this confusion or lack of vision, and though probably each of these poems, because of this confusion and lack of vision, is not remarkable by itself, they as a whole release a cumulative historical and political energy of high/great magnitude, in the same way the hundreds of almost continuous small rebellions and uprisings before and after India’s first major independence struggle of 1857 cumulatively posed a massive resistant force in their totality against the British (Chandra, Mukherjee, Mukherjee, Mahajan, & Panikkar, 1989, p. 44).


Note

[1] Justice Santosh Hedge Committee on the AFSPA, appointed by the Supreme Court of India on 4 January 2013, reported (30 March 2013) that the government maintained “no official record” of the number of civilians killed and injured by the state forces. Some human rights organization submitted a list of 2,713 cases of extra judicial deaths at the hands of the state forces during the last five years out of which only 13 have been charge-sheeted, while the rest (2,700) are still under investigation. The committee made a thorough inquiry in the first six cases of these, and found all these to have been innocent and killed in fake encounters (Hedge, Lyngdoh, & Singh, 2013, pp. 1, 99). However, unofficial sources report more than 20,000 such extra judicial deaths, as many cases of disappearances and hundreds of reported rape cases since the beginning of insurgency in the state.


Works Cited

Aristotle. (n.d.). Politics, I. (B. Jowett, Trans.)

Baruah, S. (2005). Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India. New Delhi, Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.

Belsey, C. (2002). Critical Practice (2nd ed.). (T. Hawkes, Ed.) Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Bhattacharjee, K. (2013). Che in Paona Bazaar: Tales of Exile and Belonging from India’s North East. London, United Kingdom: Macmillan.

Chandra, B., Mukherjee, M., Mukherjee, A., Mahajan, S., & Panikkar, K. N. (1989). India’s Struggle for Independence. New Delhi, Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

Jameson, F. (2002). The Political Unconscious. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Leonard, A. M. (2010). Political Poetry as Discourse: Rereading John Greenleaf Whittier, Ebenezer Elliot , and Hip-Hop-Ology. Lanham, MD, USA: Lexington Books.

Mills, S. (2007). Discourse. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Rancière, J. (1999). Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press.

Rancière, J. (2010). Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. (S. Corcoran, Ed., & S. Corcoran, Trans.) London, UK: Continuum.

Rancière, J. (2013). The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. (G. Rockhill, Ed., & G. Rockhill, Trans.) London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic.

Thingnam, P. (2007). Meegi Machu. Kakching Khunou, Manipur, India: ALAMKHOL.

Thingnam, P. (2011). Ei Amasung Eigi Ima. Kakching Khunou, Manipur, India: ALAMKHOL.

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