Get notes, line-by-line explanation, summary, questions and answers, critical analysis, word meanings, extras, and pdf of the poem “Small Towns and the River” by Mamang Dai, which is part of ISC Class 12 English (Rhapsody: A Collection of ISC Poems). However, the notes should only be treated as references, and changes should be made according to the needs of the students.
‘Small Towns and the River’ by Mamang Dai is a reflective poem that explores the themes of life, death, and the human soul through the lens of the poet’s hometown. The poem establishes a contrast between the transience of human life and the permanence of nature and rituals to reflect on what gives meaning to our mortal existence.
The poem opens dramatically with the line “Small towns always remind me of death,” immediately setting up the somber tone and focus on mortality. The poet’s isolated, unchanging hometown is used as the backdrop to explore death’s constant presence. Any death brings grief to the close-knit community, highlighting the cycle of life and death.
In contrast to the impermanence of life, the poem points to the permanence of rituals across generations and the endurance of nature. The river beside the town is personified as having a soul, representing the timeless, immortal aspect of nature through its continuously flowing waters. In summer, it cuts through the land like a “torrent of grief,” underscoring the ceaseless mourning small towns experience.
The poet also reflects on the differing attitudes towards life and death in childhood versus adulthood. Children live carefreely in the present moment, while adults feel anxiety about the unknowns of death and the afterlife. The poem describes the ritual of placing the dead facing west, so their souls may rise in the east towards the rising sun, symbolizing renewal and rebirth. This illustrates the townspeople’s shared beliefs in the immortality of the soul, which will “walk with the gods” after death.
Through vivid imagery, personification, and metaphors centering on the river, the poem contemplates the paradoxical relationship between the permanence of nature, rituals, and the soul, and the ephemerality of mortal life. It reveals how people instill aspects of the transient world with endurance to find continuity and significance amidst impermanence. Overall, ‘Small Towns and the River’ is a contemplative reflection on how we mediate our impermanent existence through our environment, culture, and beliefs in the eternity of the soul.
Small towns always remind me of death.
My hometown lies calmly amidst the trees,
it is always the same,
in summer or winter,
with the dust flying,
or the wind howling down the gorge.
In these lines, the poet conveys a sense of timelessness and stagnation associated with small towns, specifically her own hometown. This unchanging character, underscored by imagery that evokes both the warmth of summer (dust flying) and the harshness of winter (wind howling), suggests a connection with death—not in terms of literal mortality but perhaps in the metaphorical sense of a lack of change or growth.
Just the other day someone died.
In the dreadful silence we wept
looking at the sad wreath of tuberoses.
Life and death, life and death,
only the rituals are permanent.
Here, the poet touches upon a recent death in the town, which leads to collective mourning. The ‘dreadful silence’ and the ‘sad wreath of tuberoses’ illustrate the communal expression of grief. The refrain ‘Life and death’ emphasizes the cyclic and ongoing nature of existence, while the permanence of rituals highlights the cultural practices that endure beyond individual lifespans, tying the community together in a shared experience.
The river has a soul.
In the summer it cuts through the land
like a torrent of grief. Sometimes,
sometimes, I think it holds its breath
seeking a land of fish and stars
The river is given a soul, which indicates a living presence that transcends its physical nature. Its cutting through the land is likened to a torrent of grief, perhaps mirroring the pain and sorrow that comes with death. The poet muses that the river, in its quest, seems to pause, holding its breath as it searches for something beyond the tangible—perhaps a mythical or spiritual realm represented by ‘fish and stars’, elements that inhabit different domains of the natural world.
The river has a soul.
It knows, stretching past the town,
from the first drop of rain to dry earth
and mist on the mountaintops,
the river knows
the immortality of water.
Reiterating the river’s soulfulness, these lines suggest an innate, almost ancient wisdom that the river possesses. It is intimately aware of its lifecycle, from rain to mist, and through this continuous cycle, the river embodies the concept of water’s immortality—ever-changing form but never ceasing to exist.
A shrine of happy pictures
marks the days of childhood.
Small towns grow with anxiety
for the future.
The dead are placed pointing west.
Childhood is nostalgically remembered as a ‘shrine of happy pictures,’ a sacrosanct time full of joy and free from worries. As time progresses, the small town’s atmosphere becomes tinged with anxiety about the future—a stark contrast to the innocent past. The tradition of placing the dead pointing west may be linked to the setting sun, symbolising the end of life, while also hinting at a ritualistic aspect of the townsfolk’s culture.
When the soul rises
it will walk into the golden east,
into the house of the sun.
Upon death, the soul is believed to rise and move toward the ‘golden east’, the direction from which the sun emerges. This movement symbolises a journey towards a new beginning or rebirth, echoing the eternal cycle of day and night. ‘The house of the sun’ may be seen as a metaphor for enlightenment, heaven, or an afterlife where the soul finds its ultimate peace or perhaps even immortality.
In the cool bamboo,
restored in sunlight,
life matters, like this.
Bamboo, which is cool and hollow, could be a metaphor for the body or life that requires something external to give it meaning—much like the sun’s light that restores and warms. Life is given significance and vitality through this ‘sunlight’, possibly a symbol for the soul or spirit, reaffirming the idea that life is precious and meaningful.
In small towns by the river
we all want to walk with the gods.
Ending the poem, the poet reflects the desire of the townspeople to achieve a state of higher existence or enlightenment. Living by the river, which has been a symbol of continuity and a soulful presence throughout the poem, they aspire to transcend the mundane existence and join the divine, in whatever form that may be—further accentuating the poem’s contemplation of life, death, and the possibility of an afterlife.
Remind: Cause someone to remember someone or something.
Calmly: In a quiet and tranquil manner.
Amidst: In the middle of or surrounded by.
Gorge: A narrow valley between hills or mountains, typically with steep rocky walls and a stream running through it.
Torrent: A strong and fast-moving stream of water or other liquid.
Grief: Deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.
Rituals: A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.
Soul: The spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.
Stretching: (Here) Extending over an area.
Mist: A cloud of tiny water droplets suspended in the atmosphere at or near the earth’s surface that limits visibility (to a lesser extent than fog); strictly, mist reduces visibility to between 1,000 and 2,500 m.
Immortality: The ability to live forever; eternal life.
Shrine: A place regarded as holy because of its associations with a divinity or a sacred person or relic, typically marked by a building or other construction.
Anxiety: A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.
Dreadful: Causing or involving great suffering, fear, or unhappiness; extremely bad or serious.
Wept: Past tense of weep, shed tears.
Wreath: An arrangement of flowers, leaves, or stems fastened in a ring and used for decoration or for laying on a grave.
Tuberoses: A plant with highly fragrant waxy white flowers and a bulb, grown as an ornamental or for its essential oil.
Restored: Bring back or re-establish (a previous right, practice, custom, or situation).
Critical analysis of the poem
“Small Towns and the River” is a reflective poem by Mamang Dai that offers a profound exploration of life, death, and the permanence of nature and ritual in the context of a small town. The poem is replete with rich imagery, poignant metaphors, and a deep sense of spirituality that transcends the mundane reality of everyday existence.
One of the most striking themes of the poem is the juxtaposition of the transience of human life against the constancy of nature and ritual. Dai portrays her hometown as an unchanging backdrop to the cycles of life and death that play out within it. This town, nestled quietly amongst the trees, serves as a microcosm where the permanence of nature and the rituals of life and death starkly contrast with the temporal nature of human existence. The recurrence of death within this small community highlights the shared experiences of its inhabitants and their collective mourning, thus drawing attention to the close-knit fabric of small-town life.
The river, personified with a soul, emerges as a central motif in the poem, symbolising the continuum of nature and the eternal cycle of water. It exists in stark contrast to the static nature of the town, suggesting a parallel between the eternal flow of the river and the immortality of the soul—a concept that is deeply rooted in Indian spirituality. The river’s ceaseless journey is imbued with knowledge and awareness, further emphasising the notion that while human life is fleeting, nature endures.
Dai employs evocative imagery and symbolism to weave a tapestry that speaks of life’s fleeting moments against the canvas of eternal nature. The ‘sad wreath of tuberoses’ at a funeral becomes a symbol of human grief, and the river’s ‘torrent of grief’ parallels the human experience of loss and mourning. The contrasting images of ‘the land of fish and stars’ and ‘mist on the mountaintops’ further underscore the vastness and mystery of nature, which knows the secret of ‘the immortality of water.’ This notion of immortality juxtaposed with the rituals of mourning and the placement of the dead pointing west signifies a cultural understanding of life’s cyclical nature and the belief in rebirth or the journey of the soul towards the ‘golden east.’
Dai’s language is rich yet accessible, marked by a careful choice of words that convey deep emotional resonance. The poem does not adhere to a strict metre or rhyme scheme, which allows the thoughts to flow freely, mirroring the river’s unbound journey. The use of repetition, as seen in the lines ‘Life and death, life and death,’ creates a rhythmic emphasis on the inescapable cycle of existence. The poem’s structure, with its shifts from the depiction of the town to the meditative focus on the river, and finally to the spiritual reflection on life and death, guides the reader through its contemplative depth.
Dai’s poem is laden with spiritual undertones that reflect a blend of personal reflection and collective cultural beliefs. The recurring motif of the east as the source of new beginnings, and the reference to walking ‘into the house of the sun,’ draw upon the spiritual iconography common in many Eastern traditions, where the sun is often a symbol of divine power, renewal, and enlightenment.
Critically, “Small Towns and the River” can be seen as both a celebration of the constancy of nature and a lament for the ephemeral nature of human life. The poem’s strength lies in its ability to evoke a universal sentiment through the particularities of a small-town setting. However, one might argue that the poem stays within the bounds of conventional symbolism without challenging the reader with new insights into the themes it explores. Nevertheless, the beauty of the poem is in its gentle and lyrical meditation on life and continuity beyond physical existence.
Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)
1. What kind of poem is ‘Small Towns and the River’?
(a) lyric (b) reflective (c) elegy (d) narrative
Answer: (b) reflective
2. Which of these statements is true?
(a) The poem deals with the immortality of human soul and nature. (b) The poem deals with only human life. (c) Nature is the only theme of this poem. (d) Human beings like to live like gods on the earth.
Answer: (a) The poem deals with the immortality of human soul and nature.
3. Which of these is personified in the poem?
(a) summer (b) rain (c) river (d) earth
Answer: (c) river
4. What kind of picture of the poet’s hometown is presented in the poem?
(a) happy (b) idyllic (c) gloomy (d) heavenly
Answer: (c) gloomy
5. What does line ‘Life and death, life and death’ indicate?
(a) that people make a lot of fuss about life and death (b) that life and death are significant (c) that life and death is an ever-moving cycle (d) that both life and death are meaningless
Answer: (c) that life and death is an ever-moving cycle
6. ‘The wind howling down the gorge.’ What kind of feeling about the town does this line convey?
(a) of loneliness (b) of restlessness (c) of death (d) of life
Answer: (a) of loneliness
7. Which of these is considered to be unchanging by the poet? Select the correct option:
1. towns 2. water in the river 3. rituals 4. life 5. dust 6. wind
(a) 1, 2 and 3 (b) 2, 3 and 4 (c) 2, 4 and 6 (d) 4, 5 and 6
Answer: (a) 1, 2 and 3
8. What is ‘cool bamboo’ a metaphor for?
(a) the soul (b) the wood (c) the body (d) nature
Answer: (c) the body
9. ‘We all want to walk with the gods.’ What does it signify?
(a) We want to leave this earth as soon as possible. (b) We want to compete with gods. (c) We want to be equal to gods. (d) We want to live peacefully and happily in after-life.
Answer: (d) We want to live peacefully and happily in after-life.
10. Which is the ‘house of the sun’?
(a) the west (b) the east (c) the north (d) the south
Answer: (b) the east
1. In a town any death is mourned by all the people because __________.
Answer: they are closely knit and share a collective sense of loss and community.
2. The poet views rituals as permanent because __________.
Answer: they are practices passed down through generations, remaining constant amidst the transience of life.
3. The poet repeats ‘life and death’ in the second stanza because __________.
Answer: it emphasises the continuous and inevitable cycle of existence.
4. The river to the poet seems to be immortal as __________.
Answer: it is ever-flowing and unceasing, representing a permanent fixture in the landscape of change.
5. The poet talks of the ‘immortality of water’ as __________.
Answer: a metaphor for the enduring nature of the river, symbolising continuity despite the passage of time.
6. The poet talks of a ‘shrine of happy pictures’ of childhood because __________.
Answer: it represents a time of innocence and joy, unmarred by the worries of mortality that plague adulthood.
7. Childhood is the golden period of life because __________.
Answer: it is a carefree time when one is free from the anxieties and uncertainties of the future.
8. The dead are placed towards the west because __________.
Answer: it is believed that the soul will rise in the east with the sun, symbolising rebirth and continuation of the spirit.
9. The ‘cool’ bamboo is placed in the sunlight because __________.
Answer: it symbolises the human body being vitalized by the soul, much like sunlight nourishes the bamboo.
10. In small towns people do not want re-birth as __________.
Answer: they aspire to dwell with the gods in the afterlife, seeking a peaceful existence beyond earthly concerns.
Short Answer Questions
1. How does the poet picture her hometown in the poem?
Answer: The poet depicts her hometown as a place that is constant and unchanging, associated with a sense of isolation, and a close-knit community where every death is deeply mourned.
2. What, according to the poet, is transient and what is permanent?
Answer: According to the poet, human life and death are transient, ever-changing events, while nature – represented by the river – and the rituals surrounding death are permanent.
3. How does the poet show nature to be immortal?
Answer: The poet illustrates nature’s immortality through the metaphor of the river, which is personified and depicted as ever-flowing and enduring, unaffected by the transience of human life.
4. Contrast the period of childhood with that of adulthood in the context of the poem.
Answer: In the poem, childhood is portrayed as a time of innocence and freedom from worries, particularly about the future or death, whereas adulthood is characterised by anxiety over what comes after death, suggesting a loss of peace that was present in childhood.
5. Comment on the use of imagery in the poem.
Answer: The poet employs vivid imagery, especially from nature, to draw contrasts between life and death and the eternal flow of the river. This includes personifying the river, describing the static towns, and using symbols like ‘cool bamboo’ to represent the body and the sunlight as the soul.
Long Answer Questions
1. ‘Small Towns and the River’ is essentially a reflective poem.’ Discuss.
Answer: ‘Small Towns and the River’ is reflective as it delves into the themes of life’s transience versus nature’s permanence. The poet contemplates the cyclical nature of life and death, contrasting it with the unchanging aspect of her hometown and the eternal flow of the river. This reflective quality is underscored by the poem’s introspective tone and the exploration of deep existential concepts, such as the immortality of the soul and the continuity of nature amidst human mortality.
2. ‘In what way does the poem reflect the Indian way of life and Indian mode of thinking?
Answer: The poem mirrors the Indian way of life and thought by emphasising community ties, where the collective mourning of a death depicts a shared sense of belonging, typical of Indian towns. Additionally, the ritualistic and spiritual aspects, like placing the dead facing west, speak to Indian customs and beliefs in the cyclical nature of life, reincarnation, and a soul’s journey post-death, aligning with Indian philosophies like Dharma and Moksha.
3. In what way does the poet use river as a metaphor in the poem?
Answer: The river in the poem is a metaphor for continuity and eternity. It symbolises the unending flow of life, transcending the ephemeral nature of human existence. By personifying the river and attributing it with a soul, the poet juxtaposes it against the fleeting lives of the townspeople, suggesting that while human life is temporary, natural elements like the river endure, thus reflecting on the permanence of nature in contrast to human mortality.
4. The poet is concerned about life, death and spirituality in the poem. Discuss with close reference to the text.
Answer: The poem’s focus on life, death, and spirituality is evident through the recurring motifs of the cyclical nature of life and the eternal character of the soul. The reflective tone of the poem, with its references to the grief of death, rituals of mourning, and the belief in the soul’s journey towards walking with the gods, underscores a spiritual inquiry into the nature of existence. By invoking the imagery of a river with a soul and drawing parallels between the physical world and the spiritual journey, the poet engages deeply with these universal concerns, inviting contemplation.
Additional/extra questions and answers
1. Describe the imagery the poet uses to depict the small town in different seasons.
Answer: The poet employs vivid imagery to describe the small town as unchanging and monotonous, whether it’s amidst the summer’s dust or the winter’s howling winds through the gorge.
2. What does the poet mean by saying “Small towns always remind me of death”?
Answer: The poet’s phrase “Small towns always remind me of death” likely denotes a deep sense of stagnation and the unchanging nature of small towns, which evokes a metaphorical connection with death. This statement could also reflect a personal sentiment, where the poet feels that small towns, with their close-knit communities, often bring to mind the collective experiences of loss and mourning, making the presence of death more pronounced.
19. In what ways do the small towns by the river embody the cycle of life and death?
Answer: The small towns by the river are witnesses to the enduring rituals of death and the ever-present, life-giving river, symbolising the constant cycle of life and death.
20. Discuss how the structure of the poem, with its varying stanza lengths and lack of regular rhyme scheme, contributes to its overall meaning and impact.
Answer: The irregular structure and lack of a fixed rhyme scheme reflect the poem’s exploration of life’s unpredictability and the complexity of its themes, while the varying stanza lengths may mimic the ebbs and flows of life itself.
1. What significant change does the poet notice in the transition from childhood to adulthood in the poem?
A. A shift from joy to sorrow B. A move from education to employment C. A transition from innocence to experience D. A change from dependence to independence
Answer: C. A transition from innocence to experience
2. What does the ‘sad wreath of tuberoses’ symbolize in the poem?
A. Celebration of life B. Natural beauty C. Mourning and loss D. Wedding ceremonies
Answer: C. Mourning and loss
19. What could the ‘shrine of happy pictures’ likely represent?
A. A photo album B. Memories of childhood C. A place of worship D. Art in the local museum
Answer: B. Memories of childhood
20. What is the emotional tone when the townspeople weep for the deceased?
A. Indifference B. Resentment C. Solidarity D. Jealousy
Answer: C. Solidarity
About the author
Mamang Dai is an Indian English language poet born in 1957 in Pasighat, located in the East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. She belongs to the Adi indigenous community. Dai attended Pine Mount School in Shillong, Meghalaya and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Gauhati University in Assam. In 1979 she was selected for the Indian Administrative Service but later resigned to pursue a career in journalism and writing.
As a journalist, Dai contributed to major Indian publications like The Telegraph, Hindustan Times and The Sentinel. In 2011, she was appointed a member of the Arunachal Pradesh State Public Service Commission. Among Dai’s notable literary works are the novels The Sky Queen, Stupid Cupid, and The Black Hill, as well as the food book Mountain Harvest: Food of Arunachal Pradesh and her poetry collection River Poems.
Dai has been recognized for her writing with prestigious honours including the Padma Shri in 2011 and the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2017 for her novel The Black Hill. She is regarded as a significant contemporary Indian writer, highlighting the culture and landscapes of Northeast India through her poetry and fiction.
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