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Book Review: A High-Profile Anthology of Queer Poetry, Also Featuring Works of a State Nupi Maanbi, Resonates Openness, Joy and Quirky Humour

Here’s a new anthology of queer poetry written by South Asian writers ‘The World That Belongs To Us’. Like a funny bone it twitches and tickles with its joys, pathos that’s unknown to most, and allows its inner spaces to be explored freely. The genre may seem kind of odd at first look but is widely cultivated currently all around the globe. The book mirrors today’s queers who refuse to be reduced or minimized and do not accept tokenism as a price offered for adherence to long standing social conventions. They wouldn’t barter an inch, in all sophistication, and would share the pie as good as it can be cut.

According to the two editors Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal, the queer poets experimented with a startling range of forms and subject matters. The collection travels through desire and loneliness, sexual intimacy and struggles, caste and language, body and gender, activism both on the streets and in homes, the role of family (both given and chosen) and heartbreaks and heartjoins.

Another clarity envisioned in the anthology is whether only themes of protest, anger, love, loss, gender, loneliness, body, joy, sexuality, law, social change or desire qualify as queer poems. A broad-based list there, and the anthology has more than a hundred contributors, poets and those who translated their poems, and by its sheer largeness is exponentially rich in experience and variety, and by itself able to answer the earlier question about what qualifies as ‘queer’.

Indigenous nupi maanbi activist Santa Khurai features in the anthology as a lone but strong voice from the contemporary Manipuri literary platform. Beyond timidity that is the purchase of social suppression, she’s queer life’s beacon of hope even as she reserves the traditionality, of Manipur’s nupi maanbis, that is entrenched deeply in the socio-cultural history of the place. Her poems in the anthology are portrayed in homely, and at the same time internalised personal experience. It’s a rare instance too where while others remain confounded, the queers are able to easily break free and stay unaffected by the rigidity of systemised ceremonial bindings that life and social circles tend to be in general. The tone of protest, when there, is dignified, not jarring or inimical. Their mirth too is innocence and oddity an island of joy – and that’s the import if one is liberated enough to get the hang of it.

It would be very difficult to find a Manipuri writer sharing an anthology of poems with the likes of established names from South Asia like Vikram Seth, Kazim Ali, Hoshang Merchant, Ruth Vanita, Rajiv Mohabir and Minal Hajratwala, some of whom are queer writers. Santa Khurai meets her role squarely as a nupi maanbi writer and in one of her poems the nupi maanbis have questions and wonder in their minds as they head for a thabal dance festival. The group stuffs soft sponge and water filled condoms as balloons resembling female breasts. Stereotyping, which Manipur’s religious and social ceremonies are limited by, is thankfully missing in this instance of the nupi maanbis having a great day at the thabal.

What follows is also normal among young people; the feeling of defeat and exhaustion as they traverse back to usual life “one with the (false) lashes missing on an eye/Another one with her shapeless (water balloon) breast”. The depiction of everyday life juxtaposed with the euphoria of the transitory thabal bash is done authentically with literary deftness. And further the poet takes us into the inner realms of ‘longing and passion’ of the “Goddesses of the Dark” who just before their tired bodies go into the world of ‘snoring and dozing’ sleep, question themselves, “Who are we? What is the purpose of our lives? Are we in the real world?”, shedding tears ‘silently in agony’ at the end of the exertion of having battled with the world of onlookers ‘thronged at the battlefield’, who ‘enjoyed, applauded and judged the warriors’. The battle, though, seems won and the nupi maanbis vindicated by the poet’s ability to talk about this intimacy to a larger audience from the smaller innerscape. This one stroke of imagery encompasses the beauty and life of queer space. The poem is vigorous and not ashamed of the public. It’s like walking into a room with curiosity and also is telling on how to honour the internal spaces of different communities – something from which a lot of people who ‘other’ the nupi maanbis, could learn from in Santa’s homeland.

Fellow feeling is the essence of any community and Santa Khurai seeks that in holding on to community values while prodding readers to assume their social responsibilities towards the queer community in Manipur in the poem ‘My father’, where her father and a teacher bear down on her as she’s growing to give her a masculine personality in spite of her feminish self, expecting she would “shoulder ‘manly’ responsibilities – Dig, cultivate, harvest and mend fences”. There’s a discernible voice in the poems by Santa. In according freedom to others, it makes them think and realise queer freedom, and talks about the queers’ own needs for it also.

It’s quite hilarious, even during a sombre funeral, that a person who identifies more as a transwoman imbued with all female qualities should be asked by mourners, in a situation, PG Wodehouse like, to wear a pheijom (men’s clothing) on the occasion and the transwoman finds the advice repulsive, as much as being in a bathing pond full of tillaikhombi insects, that cause profuse itching and rashes, crawling all over her. The instance reveals to us with a common imagery how the question of gender stereotyping can cause a complete withdrawal and mortal uneasiness in those who live in gender fluid compartments and where impingement is as if black and white contours which can’t be undone or merged by emotion, pain, joys or the sheer intensity of education or sophistication in profession – so much the world polarises the queer.

The ‘World That Belongs To Us’ has already had a book launch internationally and in India, and will very soon see a formal release in Manipur too. Without letting out too much I would say this is one collection worth a read, for it has a wholly new approach to a globally accepted contemporaneous subject matter for discussion that digs into a variety of historical, contemporary, traditional and customary conversations in the South Asian queer literary scene. The writers find out for us how to approach or comment on terms like gay, lesbian, intersex, femme, bisexual, drag king and drag queen, gender queer, non-binary etc. which we will not be able to brush aside so easily without compromising on our own conscience; that’s the kind of impact such literature has made and found its acceptability worldwide. Santa Khurai has done a good job here in familiarising the nupi maanbis of Manipur to a larger audience. Kudos to her before the forthcoming release of the book in Manipur, and editors Aditi and Akhil, and the publishers Harper Collins for bridging the distance between normal and queer.

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