Meet Padma Shri Winner Mamang Dai, Poet-Writer Of The NorthEast Who Calls Poetry A Lifeline

Posted: August 1, 2018

Mamang Dai is a strong voice from the North-East, a writer and poet par excellence whose work has the fragrance of her land and people. Meet her at the Bangalore Poetry Festival.

Bengaluru Poetry Festival is a celebration of all things poetry. The third edition of Bengaluru Poetry Festival is on 4th and 5th of August 2018, hosted by Atta Galatta at The Leela Palace Bengaluru, and Women’s Web is proud to be a media partner.

If poetry makes your world go around, you should be there. More details here.

There’s something so cathartic of being able to express through writing. You never know when the writer in you appears. All it takes is one small spark from within or your surroundings to inspire you to pick up a pen. For Mamang Dai, a writer, poet and novelist along with being a Padma Shri winner (2011), it was the untouched, natural beauty in her home state of Arunachal Pradesh.

“Poetry,” says Mamang Dai, “is the real life line”

Born on 23rd February 1957 in Pasighat, many of Mamang Dai’s poems are inspired by nature and she says that this is a result of where she grew up. In school, she wanted to become a botanist. She read a lot when she was a child and says, she wanted to write like the greats – Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Her love for reading and having come across so many authors has also had an impact on her beautiful writing.

“At various times, I wanted to write like Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, the Russian masters. Now I wish I had the research and knowledge and beauty of Calvino, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez, Borges, and Rumi! So many!”

For Mamang Dai, travelling across the country has also been a major inspiration for her writing. She has travelled to almost every part of this country. She also says her favorite part while writing her book, Arunachal Pradesh: The Hidden Land was the travelling bit. It’s no secret how liberating and eye-opening travelling is as an activity. It gives one’s mind a chance to explore possibilities, along with cultures of the new destination, that can leave a lasting impression.

She writes both prose and poetry. On asking what her preferred medium is, Mamang Dai says that she feels the two can become interchangeable, “[…]crossing over from long lines to short ones, lifted on music, as it were.” However, she describes poetry as “the real life line.”

Journey into writing

Mamang Dai’s journey to the writer she is now has been a result of various other occupations as well. She was a member of the Indian Administrative Service which she later left as she wanted to write. She was the first woman from her state to be selected for IAS. She says, “Of all the things I wanted to do the civil service was the single, solid viable option do-able at the time. Then I felt I had to explore a bit more so I opted out.”

She was also a journalist and correspondent to The Telegraph, Hindustan Times and The Sentinel. She has also worked in radio, along with TV-AIR and DDK, Itanagar where she was an anchor and conducted interviews.

Mamang Dai, along with all this, was a program officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature. She worked in the Eastern Himalayas Biodiversity Hotspots program. The work she did during this period did increase and in a sense, intensified her love for nature. On being asked if this role has had any creative impact on her writing, she says, “The natural world also comes with people and cultures and their beliefs so this is the landscape that sustains my writing.”

She is also the General Secretary of Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society, a member of the North East Writers’ Forum and a General Council member of the Sahitya and Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Voice of the Mountain

Mamang Dai’s writing is a seamless combination of familiarity and imagination. You can connect with her words almost immediately but at the same time, you feel like you’re reading something you’ve never thought of before.

For example, her poem, “The Voice of the Mountain”. The words have the ability to help your mind paint a picture. The lines of the poem come to life as you read them. It’s fascinating! And for a brief moment, you become the Mountains in the poem. You connect with them.

The poem also talks of the indigenous people who belong to the land:

The other day a young man arrived from the village.
Because he could not speak
he brought a gift of fish
from the land of rivers.
It seems such acts are repeated:
We live in territories forever ancient and new,
and as we speak in changing languages.

She has also written a book known as Arunachal Pradesh: The Hidden Land. The book explores Arunachal Pradesh’s diverse culture that the mainstream media, sadly ignores. It focuses on the rich and age-old traditions that run deep in their society’s veins. It speaks of the people’s bond with the state’s scenic beauty and how important oral traditions are to them. The book also talks of the state’s transformation since India’s independence.

For Mamang Dai, her favorite part of the book was the travel and research bit. She says, “I discovered I did not know anything about ‘land,’ the rituals of survival in a hard environment, the endurance of people, the meaning of custom, tradition— everything was an eye-opener, and it’s not over yet.”

“Writers are witnesses who keep written records”

Many of Mamang Dai’s writings have strong women as main characters. These women are self-reliant and fight for what they deserve in a man’s world. According to her, women are resilient and have immense patience and tolerance. Her characters are brave but at the same time, she doesn’t separate them from their sensitive side.

On being asked about the inspiration for these characters, she says, “The odds are always in favour of those who have faith. I feel women are more resilient and have great endurance. It’s about hope, and it’s something to do with love.”

In a world and society where women are still expected to conform to society’s idea of a happy ending – that is, the woman gets married to the ideal man, it can be a little tough to run away from it. According to Mamang Dai, it isn’t imperative to get married. However, she says it’s a great ideal. She also adds, “I must say it’s a good feeling to be with friends who are happily married.”

It’s no secret that various creative professions in fields such as art, music and writing are important for us to see the world through various perspectives. Writers, specially, have a rather strong impact on the way we view our surroundings as they provide us not only with information but opinions different from ours’. Bottom line is that the writers play a huge role in helping us learn and grow.

Mamang Dai sums it up perfectly, “[…] writers are witnesses who are keeping written records.” She has played a rather important role in educating her readers about the tribal society of Arunachal Pradesh. Herself belonging to the Adi tribe, she has also been a fierce voice for the people. She says that writers don’t necessarily bring about a hard-headed change of thought but they do their bit by enlightening their readers.

“It can be a quiet revolution- not exactly shaping the conscience / trying to mould society, but more like trying to find and illuminate what make us human. The rest is up to the reader.”

Advice for Young Writers: Be Yourself!

She also writes for children and has inspired many to take on reading and writing as a hobby and passion. On being asked, how she feels about it, Mamang Dai says, “It puts an onus on you that could end up in compromise. I tell everyone: Be yourself!”

Indeed, an advice that is relevant in all spheres of life. It is important for us to be true to ourselves to get where we want to go and to be happy in life. After all, there can’t be another one like you.

Being a creative person often comes with various mental blocks while working on art. Writer’s often go through something known as a ‘Writer’s block’. Mamang Dai says she hasn’t exactly gone through a writer’s block but has felt dissatisfied with words or a narrative. On being asked how she deals with this, she says she leaves those words in the “[…] jumbled, irritable state […]” and waits, patiently. According to her, she knows that the words will come to her if she asks herself what she wants to convey or what she feels. She also adds, “[…] though sometimes this might mean rewriting from memory and starting all over again.”

Budding writers, take note! Ask yourselves the next time you get stuck what you want to convey to the readers and what kind of emotion do you wish to evoke.

As an established poet and writer, this is the advice Mamang Dai has to offer to upcoming writers trying to follow their dreams:

“There is a line of Yeats that I used to live by- I copied it down in every new notebook / and it went something like: ‘There’s nothing in the world that’s worth a fear.’ Now it’s a bit different- of course. Dreams can change, emotions alter. I would say: Never give up. Count your blessings.”

Be sure to catch this beautiful soul and writer at the Bangalore Poetry Festival being held on the 4thand 5thAugust!

Images source: Mamang Dai

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  1. It’s great to read about Padma Shri Mamang Dai. Thanks for sharing the information with all of us.

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