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Tracing Eco-consciousness in Temsula Ao: The Voice from the Northeast


Debasis Samaddar

Assistant Teacher of English

Chowhatta High School

Birbhum, West Bengal, India


Although the term “eco-consciousness” is a 20th century phenomenon, it has long been rooted in Indian literature and particularly in the literature of the Northeast. While special feelings for nature is evident in Indian classical literature, Northeast literature has developed in the lap of nature. Temsula Ao is an important part of this literature and at the same time she is one of the major eco-conscious voices from this region. This article intends to trace out the presence of eco-consciousness in some selected poems of Temsula Ao. In these poems Ao not only highlights ecological richness of their region, but also reveals ugliness of modernization that is increasingly destroying human-nature harmonious inter-relation and at the same time she tries to generate eco-consciousness and eco-sensibility among her readers.

Keywords: Eco-consciousness, Ecocriticism, Northeast literature, Temsula Ao   


Literature gets proper nourishment in the lap of nature. Often Literature deals with the power and beauty of nature. However, several ecological factors and the natural hazards in our environment that are imposed on humanity has been the centre of attraction of many writers. These ecological factors are responsible for the emergence of the new branch of literary theory, called Ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is the branch of study of nature in literary works that deals with the relation between literature and environment. So, obviously there is a close relationship between Ecocriticism and literature. Though Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, published in 1962, signposted the arrival of modern environmental writing, in 1978 the word ‘Ecocriticism’ first appeared in William Rueckert’s essay “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Eco-criticism”. Here he says that Ecocriticism is the “...application of ecology and ecological concepts to the Study of literature,( Rueckert, 107). In 1990 Ecocriticism created its separate existence by specifying the relationship between man and nature. According to Lawrence Buell “Ecocriticism implies more ecological literacy than it advocates reformation of literary studies via rapprochement” (Buell, 8). Ecocriticism deals not only with literature but also with science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc. It studies the attitude of mankind towards nature. Now Ecocriticism has acquired few modern names like  Ecopoetics, Green Cultural Studies, and Environmental Literary Criticism.

But with the advancement of civilization, irresponsible human activities are constantly harming nature by ravaging its biodiversity and ecosystem all over the world. Naturally, Northeast region is not out of this impact. Here nature’s resources  rivers, forests, mountains, wildlife etc. are severely affected now due to urbanization, industrialization and modernization. In the present scenario literature has a major role to play in spreading eco-consciousness and eco-sensibility among the people.

The literature of the Northeast belongs in the genre of indigenous literature on the one hand, and in the broader ecocriticism genre, on the other. Although the term “eco-consciousness” is a 20th century phenomenon, it has long been rooted in Indian literature and particularly in the literature of the Northeast. While special feelings for nature is evident in Indian classical literature, Northeast literature has developed in the lap of nature. The influence of nature on the Northeast poets can easily be traced through the opinion of N. Chandra and Nigamananda Das as expressed in “ Myth and Mystery: Contemporary Poetry in English from Northeast India” :

Indian English poetry from North-eastern part of India is rich in enshrining various aspects of the ecology, of the region. It has been a fashion with the poets of the region to celebrate the ecological glory of the region and their ecological awareness. The ruthless act of deforestation and oppression upon the Mother Nature in various ways by destroying the serenity of the nature, obliterating the natural environment, killing rare birds and animals and distorting the landscape and biodiversity, have been sharply reacted upon by these poets. (Chandra and Das, 35)

Temsula Ao is an important part of this literature and at the same time she is one of the major eco-conscious voices from this region. This article intends to trace out the presence of eco-consciousness in some selected poems of Temsula Ao. In these poems Ao not only highlights ecological richness of their region, but also reveals ugliness of modernization that is increasingly destroying human-nature harmonious inter-relation and at the same time she tries to generate eco-consciousness and eco-sensibility among her readers.

Temsula Ao is one of the important literary voices from the Northeast in general and from Nagaland in particular. This retired English professor from Northeast Hill University is a poet, short story writer and an ethnographer. As the former Director of North East Zone Cultural Centre, she tried to provide the cultural richness of this region a national level recognition. As an ethnographer she worked on the oral tradition of her own Ao Naga community. Her contribution is no less than of an environmentalist as she voices not only for the cultural transformation but also for the environmental degeneration in the Northeast. According to GJV Prasad, “Temsula Ao sings of her landscape, one that is often an objective correlative for her mindscape and even more for the community’s ecology – the changes in the land reflect the damage done to her people, their rootlessness (a sense of uprootedness), their wounds and pains” (Prasad, xvii). Ao’s poetry is marked by a deep understanding of eco-consciousness and therefore they can be analysed from the eco-sensitive point-of-view. In this paper the following poems of Temsula Ao are taken to discuss: “Lament for an Earth”,  Blessings”, “Earthquake”, “The Garden”, “Bonsai” “The Bald Giant”, “My Hills”, “A Strange Place” and “Prayer of a Monolith”.

Temsula Ao’s  poem Lament for an Earth(Songs that Tell, 45-47) reveals her lamentation over the miserable condition of our planet as a result of  urbanization, modernization and industrialization. Ao here represents nature as a living organism by using personification and feminine terms. She laments for the earth where once upon a time there was a “verdant”, “virgin” and “vibrant” forest which was full of tall trees that provided cool shades to the birds and animals:

Once upon an earth
There was a forest,
Verdant, virgin, vibrant
With tall trees
In majestic splendour
Their canopy
Even by the mighty sun,
The stillness humming
With birds’ cries. (Lines, 1-10)

While on the one hand by using the phrase “once upon an earth” (Line, 1) Ao creates a fairy tale like effect to portray a picture of  the primitive earth in the reader’s mind, on the other hand by using the word “virgin” she makes a clear comparison between the forest and a woman. In the next stanza Ao depicts the present condition of the forest which was once rich and full of luxury. Losing “splendour” it has become infertile now. Ao presents the devastation of the forest by comparing it to a helpless molested girl:

Alas for the forest
Which now lies silent
Stunned and stumped
With the evidence
Of her rape.  (Lines, 21-25)

Here Ao also highlights how irresponsible human activities are encouraging deforestation. Men are constantly destroying forests for their own material benefits and the tree trunks are taken with the help of the elephants to the mills which is also a symbol of industrialization:

As on her breasts
The elephants trample
The lorries rumble
Loaded with her treasures
Bound for the mills
At the foothills.  (Lines, 26-31)

In this poem Ao also represents the devastating condition of the rivers. In her imagination  the forest and the river are as if bound in the bond of sisterhood. Like the elder sister, forest, the younger sister, river, also becomes the victim of human molestation. Ao reminisces how once upon a time there was a river whose crystal-clear water was the shelter of many species of small and big fishes. Its honey like water used to quench many tired and thirsty deer:

Once upon an earth
There was a river
Gurgling along
With gay abandon
Clear and content
With little fishes
Growing big
With the seasons
The deer at her bank
Timid, tired and thirsty
Lapping each crystal mouthful
As though it was honey.  (Lines, 32-44)

But today the crystal-clear water of the river becomes “muddy”. Its natural flow is chocked, and it becomes infertile. Nothing is left for tomorrow:

Cry for the river
Muddy, mis-shapen
Chocking with the remains
Of her sister
The forest.
No life stirs in her belly now.
The womb
And the bleaching powder
Have left her with no tomorrow (Lines,53-62)

All of these because of the irresponsible human activities and of their lack of eco-consciousness.

In Blessings(Songs That Tell, 20-21) Ao criticizes the apparent advancement and development of human civilization misusing the blessings of nature and the natural resources. She also criticizes the inequal distribution of natural wealth that arises class struggle. Proper utilization and equal distribution of natural resources have also close relation with eco-consciousness. According to Ao the poor people are blessed :

For they shall inherit
The crumbs
From the rich
Who knowing no hunger
Cannot savour
Of their plenty
Though they possess
The granaries of the earth.  (Lines, 3-10)

The phrase, “The granaries of the earth”(Line, 10) signifies that natural resources are mainly utilized by the richer section of the society. Ao also considers the blind to be blessed because at least they are not seeing what the people with eyesight are doing to nature:

                                        Blessed are the blind

                                        For they see not

                                        What they with sight

                                        Have done to the light.  (Lines 11-14)

Temsula Ao in her nature poems not always deals with the theme of violations done to nature but she occasionally shows the devastating face of nature also. Urbanization, modernization and industrialization in the hill areas create ecological imbalance that directly or indirectly acts as a catalyst for natural calamities like soil-erosion, flood, drought and obviously earthquake. In the poem “Earthquake”(Songs That Try to Say, 14-15) Ao warns the society about the rage of nature by using the image of a pregnant woman who conceives not to bring new life but rather to destroy by bringing out lava from her womb:

When the earth rumbles
And contorts
To throw up her secret
Like a pregnant woman

After conception,
It is no portent
Of new life.
But of death and disaster
For those who dwell
Upon her swell.

She gapes open
To devour
Toppled towers
And torn limbs,
And incites
Mountains to slide,
Rivers to rise
And volcanoes
To vomit
Lava and deadly ash.

She heaves and hurtles
As if to uproot
The very moorings
Of life.  (Lines, 1-20)

Eco-consciousness not only protests the destruction of nature, but also emphasizes on its preservation with care. Ao expresses this view in her poem “The Garden” (Songs that Try to Say, 16):

A slice of the earth
On the ground,
Or firmed in pots
Of any imaginable
Size, shape and colour
Becomes the respectable
For new life.  (Lines, 1-7)
They grow
Goaded by hormone,
Aided by fertilizer
And tended by your loving care.  (Lines, 14-17)

When greenery is gradually devastating by the human activities, Ao argues in support of the garden. Taking cue from the Naga culture Ao suggests that taking care of  garden is actually  serving the God :

The slice of earth
Thus nurtured
Brings forth
In praise
Of all gardens.  (Lines, 18-24)

Ao’s similar attitude is also reflected in the poem entitled Bonsai(Songs that Try to Say, 17). Here she criticizes human beings’ inhuman attempt to control the natural growth of a plant for the sake of their optic pleasure:

Giant trees
Stunted by man’s ingenuity
In search of a new beauty.  (Lines, 1-3)

With the advancement of civilization man’s concept of beauty has also changed. His insatiable hunger for new pleasure and beauty leads him to interfere in the rules of nature. His dominating quality is revealed through his futile effort of minimizing the vastness of nature:

Earth’s vastness
Diminished and displayed
In tiny potted space.  (Lines, 7-9)

But “bonsai” also symbolizes the imprisonment of modern civilization. It symbolizes human beings’ increasing detachment with nature, their hollowness and their lack of eco-consciousness and eco-sensibility.

In “My Hills” (Book of Songs, 157-158) Ao laments at the loss of peace in the North-East region and presents her longing for the past. She draws the picture of once paradise like state of the hills:

Once they hummed
With bird-song
And happy gurgling brooks
Like running silver
With shoals of many fish.  (Lines, 4-8)

But simultaneously Ao also presents the ugly face of her region that losing beauty of the yesteryear has become a place of social unrest and even has become unknown to the poet:

But to-day
I no longer know my hills,
The birdsong is gone,
Replaced by the staccato
Of sophisticated weaponry.  (Lines, 19-23)

The sky is no longer for the birds now. Instead of birdsong, the sky is now filled with the heavy sounds of weaponry. The similar attitude is also expressed by Ao in her poem, “A Strange Place” (Songs that Tell, 18-19). Here Ao considers the world as a strange place where nations are fighting for the right of the skies. They hardly care for the birds and rather they are only concentrating on supersonic jets:

This is a place where
Nations vie
For mastery of the skies
Of birds
In the whirr of jets
Faster than sound. (Lines, 5-13)

In “The Bald Giant” (Book of Songs, 175-176) the metaphor of a bald giant is used to signify hills and Ao tries to show the bad effects of deforestation that makes the hills withered. Like the metaphoric giant who became bald losing his “green cloak”, the hills also losing their past greenery become bald:

All that is now gone
All of him is brown
From base to crown
And his sides are furrowed
Where the logs had rolled
Once I thought him friendly
But now he looks menacing  (Lines, 19-25)

In “Prayer of a Monolith” (Book of Songs, 293-295) the speaker is a monolith, an inanimate object. Using her poetic imagination Ao expresses the dejection of a monolith, a large single upright block of rock. She imposes personal entity on it. Separating from its beloved the rock is uprooted from a deep forest and is placed at the village gate by some strangers for the beautification of the entrance:

I stand at the village gate
In mockery of my former state.
Once I stood in a deep forest
Proud and content
My beloved of the laughing dimple
Standing by my side.  (Lines, 1-6)

The poem ends with the lamentation of the monolith requesting to the “elements” of nature not to tell its beloved the story of its disgrace:

O you elements,
When you pass by the forest
And my beloved queries,
Just tell her
I have gone to my glory
But please, please, never
Tell her the story
Of my ignominy.  (Lines, 49-56)

By giving life to an inanimate object and telling its miserable story Ao tries to criticize the exploitative tendencies of human beings towards nature and their lack of eco-consciousness and eco-sensitivity. The monolith of this poem which can easily be related to the garden of Vera Alexander’s essay entitled “Environmental Otherness: Nature on Human Terms in the Garden”. Vera says, “While decorative and recreational, even paradisal, the image of the garden also encompasses histories of displacement and violence: unwanted plants and animals are exterminated for the sake of aesthetic ideas, and many of the plants assembled in any garden have been manipulated and uprooted from their natural habitants” (Alexander, 2).


Therefore, to conclude it can be said that in the present scenario Temsula Ao, the eco-conscious voice from the Northeast, is very relevant and she is truly the ray of hope for the eco-sensitive community. Through her poetry Ao expresses her deep love for nature and culture and at same time tries to generate eco-consciousness among her readers. She not only raises her voice against the obliteration of nature but also emphasizes on its preservation with care.

Works Cited

Alexander, Vera. “Environmental Otherness: Nature on Human Terms in the Garden.” Otherness: Essays and Studies 4.1, September 2013, Accessed 18 September 2020.


Ao, Temsula. Book of Songs: Collected Poems 1988-2007, Heritage Publishing House, Nagaland, 2013.

Ao, Temsula. Songs That Tell, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 1988.

Ao, Temsula. Songs That Try to Say, Writers Workshop, Kolkata, 1992.

Buell, Lawrence. “The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture”. London, Massachusets, Cambridge, USA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

Chandra N. D., and Nigamananda Das. Ecology, Myth and Mystery: Contemporary Poetry in English from Northeast India. Sarup & Sons, New Delhi, 2007.

Prasad, GJV. Introduction. Book of Songs: Collected Poems 1988-2007. By Temsula Ao, Heritage Publishing House, Nagaland, 2013

Rueckert, William. “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism.” In The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, The University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1996.