Tattooed with Taboos: `Quietely and Unexpectedly Poetry Came and Woke us up`


Interview by: The Gender Studies Journal

Tattooed with Taboos, An Anthology of Poetry by Three Women from North East India was published by Siroi Publications and Loktakleima Publications in September 2011. The book was awarded the Best Book Production, 2011 in the recently concluded book fair held in Imphal organised by National Book Trust, Raja Rammohan Roy Library and Central Libray,Imphal. This is an interview of the poets Chaoba Phuritshabam, Shreema Ningombam and Soibam Haripriya by The Gender Studies Journal based in University of Delhi. The poets talk about the process of writing and publishing poetry, negotiating gender, Manipuri society and politics. (They are referred to by their initials)

Tatooed with Taboos
Tatooed with Taboos : Photo Courtesy : Kapil Arambam

What made you write poetry? How is your gender identity related to what you write?

S.N. : Writing poetry came to me in my school days. For me poetry is a revolt. It can hardly erupt from a banal feeling. It has to be from a deep pleasure, pain, passion or catastrophic disappointment. The feeling of being trapped in this gender construct, the anguish of the social norms associated with it and the sense of censorship and surveillance in our private and public life is expressed in several of my poems.

S.H. : This is a rather difficult question. Poetry is never apart from me and I write as a woman. There is no other way, there is no escape. I don’t think if I were a man I would have written poems.

C.P. : Seeking freedom which I don’t get in our society as a daughter, sister, and lover made me write poems. Women in our society still cannot express their own feelings freely without fearing judgement – even falling in love needs the consent of a man. My writing celebrates the desire of a woman while removing her crown of being a cultural ambassador.

What role do you imagine for poetry in feminist politics?

S.N. : Poetry can be a form of resistance and rebellion. As a part of literature it can be a medium for imagining and subsequently constructing a new world and new moral order which is fundamental to feminist politics. In this, poetry can be a means as well as an end.

S.H. : Poetry expresses what I feel as a woman and when I claim that poetry for me is very personal, how can that be divorced from politics? When I write about home, in the section ‘Angst for the Homeland’ I feel I have a certain ambivalence – why should I write for a homeland when I know it doesn’t have an inch for me?

C.P. : Poetry carries the untold dreams, desire and hopes of a person. It can provoke a reader to understand her womanhood and realise what she wants from her life. Once she claims her body and soul, no one can suppress or conquer her.

How have you three poets influenced each other’s work? Do you feel that the collective has a role to play in the process of writing?

S.N. : We have spent much time together talking, discussing for nights and days and almost eating from the same plate. If it was not for this solidarity and collective consciousness the poems may have not taken the form they have now.

S.H. : Not just this collective but ‘Burning Voices’ as a collective has shaped my poems. The discussions we have had, not of the form and structure of the poems (though I think we should take that up too) but the spontaneous emotive expressions we experienced remain a central influence on my writings. I would not have written ‘Five Day’s Untouchable’ if I hadn’t met Shreema. This poem came about after I read an article written by her.

C.P. : Without inspiration, discussion and help from my friends I would not engage too much into writing escaping my busy office schedule.

Who or what is a significant source of inspiration for you, an impetus to write?

S.N. : My grandmother was a poet though she was not a literate in the modern sense of the term. A phrase which she coined tremendously inspired me: thamna khenjongna wai wai, tharo thambalna hai hum (the lotus leaves swaying wai wai, and the lilies and lotuses swaying hai yum). She was standing in the midst of lotuses and lilies trying to gather lotus stems which she would sell in order to feed her children. Poetry is an arena of my personal resistance against the dogmas of patriarchy. When I seek freedom, I write poetry.

S.H.: Laishram Samarendra Singh, my introduction to his work is through a collection – Mamang leikai thambal satle, 1974 (And yonder blooms the lotus) a satire on the contemporary situation of the society we grew up with. In the title poem he with his trademark subtle sarcasm built a utopian Meitei community where people started caring for their work and the people around them. Thangjam Ibopishak of course, and Shri Biren for his absolute love and dedication to poetry. I read works of Memchoubi as a conscious decision, because she is a women poet. These are all Manipuri poets and I do get inspired by them though my poems are written in English.

C.P. : My mother who cannot read and write any script but has tremendous knowledge of literature. I wanted to paint her imagination in my writing. Also, being born and brought up in a troubled state like Manipur.

Please tell us about the production of the book.

S.N.: The book was printed at Kangla printers in Manipur. We had faced the price of paper zooming up because of the ongoing economic blockade. The ISBN number is given by Siroi publication and Loktakleima publication is our own consisting of the three of us as founders.

The cover design was done by Kapil Arambam. The four red drops on the cover were supposed to be on the phanek but he made it into four o’s in Tattooed with Taboos. It was wonderful. I also wonder if poetry can be for sale. So we tried to keep the price as low as possible.

S.H. : We had approached some mainstream publishing firms but since that was going nowhere we decided to pool in our own resources. Thankfully we did not know what it entailed. Publishing poetry in the time of economic blockade and socio-economic turmoil was rather difficult. Shreema was one woman warrior who coordinated the entire process through innumerable obstacles on our way.

C.P.: It’s a common goal for us to reach the people with our poems. Shreema’s father edited the book more than five times and I have no words to thank him. Kapil Arambam, who started designing the cover of this book since February of this year provided 37 cover designs, without his contribution this book would be incomplete.

Could you tell us more about the significance of the phanek?

S.N. : Phanek is a symbol and a qualifier of women in Meitei society, how we wear it, what colour we wear it and when we wear it has so much significance. From being a symbol of impurity to the symbol of resistance in nude protest phanek is a marked signifier in women’s lives in Manipur.

S.H. : That the book has a phanek for its cover is very significant in many ways. We were asked why a meitei phanek, why not any other ethnic community. But it is the meitei phanek which is tattooed with taboos. The phanek of other communities I believe, is not embedded with such stark ideas of impurity. Choosing the phanek mapanaiba as the cover was a very conscious decision. Firstly, it is untouchable, meitei men do not touch the phanek, and putting that on the cover of course will have many men touching the phanek unconsciously. Secondly, it is considered inauspicious. Of course this is strange because I am sure there is not a single man who has not yet touched a phanek.

C.P. : Its interpretation especially in Meitei society is still confusing for me. A piece of mother’s phanek is treated as something so powerful that it can even ward off evil spirits – so men living in far flung places used to carry a piece of their mother’s phanek to symbolise living under her protection at all times. On the other hand, a husband is not allowed to touch his wife’s phanek in front of others. I wonder, does a Meitei man avoid touching his wife’s phanek in the bedroom also? Phanek has now become a part of politics because self proclaimed moral police stated it as a symbol of our culture and tradition.

What does the phrase ‘writing with the body’ mean to you?

S.N. : It means a way to resurrect our own body.

S.H. : It would mean, to me, the poems ‘Five Days’ Untouchable’ or ‘His and Hers’ . Writing from the sense of feeling, in a very physical way. An articulation of the physical and its manifestation. Why, not only these two poems, I think I have written all of them with this idea of expression of an immediate urgent sense of feeling something and that feeling is through my physical manifestation.

C.P. : Signifying a woman’s claim to own her own body and soul . Understanding her physical and emotional desire and expressing them with freedom against the social and political restraints.

What does it mean to be a Manipuri woman and write of ‘mother’?

S.N. : Motherhood can be a powerful experience. In the context of Manipur it is a source of “hysteria” and “anxiety” in every woman whether you are birthgiver or not. As in the case of Meira paibi all women are mothers. Motherhood as an archetype is very easy to be appropriated. In my poem ‘Mother’ , I speak of myself as a mother waiting to mourn the death of my yet unborn. This is an existential reality in the lives of many women in Manipur.

C.P. :Expectations of Manipuri, especially Meitei women, are too high- we should have a good character, be hard working, beautiful, polite, independent, courageous, charming, religious etc Women are also the favourite topic of criticism among some groups of moral police. ‘Mother’ is the most respectable title given to a woman in our society. Manipuri mothers are known for their participation in many social and political struggles even against the British such as “Nupi lan”. Most of the supporters of Irom Sharmila Chanu and protesters of ASFPA in Manipur are women.

S.H. : As a woman it is still very scary for me to see the notion that people have about ‘mother’. To construct this entire myth of mother and embed in her ideas of chastity, forgiveness etc. and to assume that out of every woman, motherhood will ooze is absurd. I usually refrain from writing with reference to the idea of ‘mother’. The first lines I wrote about mother (ema) (not in this collection) were these:

Ema’s tender hands
Weary of
Creating flowers
One day
Grew barbwires
from her slender fingers

I feel it that way, and I wish my mother would be accepted even if she has barbed wires for fingers…


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