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Mamang Dai

An Obscure Place: Five Survival Lyrics

Shoili Kanungo, ‘Thwarted Quest’

An Obscure Place

The history of our race
begins with the place of stories.
We do not know if the language we speak
belongs to a written past.
Nothing is certain.

There are mountains. Oh, there are mountains.
We climbed every slope. We slept by the river.
But do not speak of victory yet.

An obscure place haunts the hunter.
The prize slips away.
Yesterday the women hid their faces,
they forbade their children to speak.
Yesterday we gave shelter to men
who climbed over our hills
for glory of a homeland, they said,
those who know what knowing is,
and now the sleeping houses,
the men and the villages have turned to stone.

If there is no death the news is silent.
If there is only silence, we should be disturbed.
Listen, the tone of a prayer is hushed.
If a stranger passes this way
let him look up to the sky.
A smoke cloud chases the ants,
See, they have slain the wild cat
and buried the hornbill in her maternal sleep.

The words of strangers have led us into a mist
deeper than the one we left behind;
weeping, like the waving grassland
where the bones of our fathers are buried
surrounded by thoughts of beauty.

There are mountains. Oh, there are mountains.
We climbed every slope. We slept by the river.
But do not speak of victory yet.



The house is full of gardenias.
All these months we were waiting
for these white flowers, not knowing at all
how terror and pain would find us
in the midst of this tender perfume.

Now the people are asking for wreaths.
Hush, you said,
the dead are but asleep,
caught unguarded in dreams.

But my heart is burning.
I am afraid.
Red poinsettia in the garden
I weep for my children.

Open the window, you said.
Let the world come in.
Let the world know about sleep and death.
Tears have their alchemy.

So I opened the window
and hid my heart.
Now, in my hometown, no one knows
how the rose tree grows,
deepening colour for the sadness
of a new life,
and its similarities with the old.


The sorrow of women

They are talking about hunger.
They are saying
there is an unquenchable fire
burning in our hearts.
My love, what shall I do?
I am thinking how I may lose you
to war, and big issues
more important than me.

Life is so hard like this.
Nobody knows why.
It is like fire,
it is like rainwater, sand, glass.
What will I do, my love,
if my reflection disappears?

They are talking about a place
where rice flows on the streets,
about a place where there is gold
in the leaves of trees.
They are talking about displacement
when the opium poppy was growing
dizzy in the sun,
happy, in a state of believing.

And they are talking about escape,
about liberty, men and guns.
Ah! The urgency of survival.
But what will they do,
not knowing the sorrow of women.


Transparent heart

In the days when we were hunters,
hunting with our mouths and eyes,
every triumph and error was one more reason
to respect the other, suspended in a dark ocean
awaiting the arrival of nutrients, supply of air,
rising to the surface,
coveting the same things.

There is a burden of the deep.
A history of war when water rose up
chasing fire into rigid stone,
and tearing the branches off trees
for algae and seaweed,
to feed a tribe of exiled giants
separated in space,
with a memory of yearning, dreaming of land.

It was the fire god who changed the lines.
The territories of sea ice, swamp, a coastline,
separating the eagle and the whale
one day, when a glimmering eye
pierced the curving darkness
driving away the hard cold,
and conjured up the birth of time,
when our world was but a thought
waiting to be born.
A slow tide brushes the edge of continents.
Transparent heart,
It is your time to rise.
There is a way to re-enact the past,
to say whatever can be felt, is language.

Perhaps this life is but a spark, imagined,
but a spark loved, nurtured through centuries
that buries me knee-deep in hope
with songs of courtship
and heat trapped in my bones,
washed with wind and water,
smeared with the colours of the sun,
rising with the songs of dead ancestors
with one hand stretched to the sky
and this, my footprint,
on a clay tablet.


The desire of ink

They say a landscape drops from heaven
tangled with possibilities;
and a summer sun that directs the perfect
balance between the moment and the word
when everything falls into place.

Your laughter opens the world, creating space.
We could have diverted boats and nets
and claimed the words of the rose
entering a house, shy as a dove,
exchanging words to help each other survive.
But words are like water, flowing away,
these floating lines
but the tender scars of witness on a page,
replacement words, shaped around a hope.

Right from the start we knew how it would be.
It was about truth, or the recognition of it,
but the journey of words proved nothing.
We neither gave up nor decided anything.

In another world someone holds my hand.
My life is changing every day.
Restless, becalmed, in open water
the plume of water rising to fly
is the surrender of letters into the great circle
beyond language and the desperation of words
where the world is scalloped like a shell,
and the waves are roaring
in no direction,
turning with the growth and bend of the sun.


All poems from Midsummer – survival lyrics.