Small Towns and the Rivers Poem Summary & Explanation in English Class 12


Written by Mamang Dai, this poem consists of stanzas of unequal length. The speaker describes a small town by relating it to images of death, grief and mourning. The various elements of Nature become manifestations of the souls of dead people.


Stanza 1

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.

The speaker begins by describing her hometown that lies calmly amidst the trees. This calm town situated amidst trees is symbolic of the ominous silence of death. The image of this small town brings back memories of the dead ones. To the speaker, the town seems unchanged as she says, “it is always the same, in summer or winter”. This monotony or never-changing nature of her town is also characteristic of death which is an unavoidable truth. The wind is personified as howling down the gorge, and becomes a symbol for the valley of death. 

Stanza 2

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.

In this stanza, the speaker then recalls the day when someone died in her hometown. She recalls how the town mourned the death in dreadful silence. She reflects on the transient nature of life. Only the mourning or weeping on death is constant, as the speaker says, “only the rituals are permanent”. 

Stanza 3

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

After personifying the wind in the first stanza, the poet now personifies the river. She says that like a human, the river has a soul. However, while the soul of a human is transient, the river has an eternal soul. The river cuts through the land like a torrent of grief means that the river makes its way through the land just like grief pierces into the human heart. This again reiterates the ideas of grief and death.

Stanza 4

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.

The river’s soul is eternal and immortal because it contains water. This is why the poet says that the river knows the immortality of water. It means that the constant flow of water makes the river live forever. Also, by saying that “it knows”, the speaker means that the river flows through many areas and experiences different terrains of the plains and the mountains. It also witnesses everything from the first drop of rain to dry earth and mist on the mountaintops. It is as if the river gains wisdom and knowledge by flowing over such a long path. This makes the speaker reiterate that the river knows

Stanza 5

A shrine of happy pictures
marks the days of childhood.
Small towns grow with anxiety
for the future.
The dead are placed pointing west.
When the soul rises
it will walk into the golden east,
into the house of the sun.

The speaker then assumes a nostalgic tone remembering the happy pictures that mark the days of childhood. As the carefree phase of childhood passes, people become anxious about their futures. The worries of the future overwhelm their present lives. According to the town’s ritual, the dead ones are placed in the direction pointing west. It is believed that the soul of the dead people rises from their bodies to ascend towards the Sun in the east. The Sun serves as a symbol of hope and afterlife.

Stanza 6

In the cool bamboo,
restored in sunlight,
life matters, like this.
In small towns by the river
we all want to walk with the gods.

The poet ends by saying that though the dead ones leave, the life of the people in town is restored to normalcy after the mourning rituals end. After the gloomy picture of death presented in the previous stanzas, the final lines present hope in the thought of an afterlife as the poet concludes, “we all want to walk with the gods”. 


Thus, the poem presents a contrast between the mortal humans and the immortal Nature. The human beings die but the river and the Sun continue to live. The permanent nature of the river’s flow is in contrast with the transient nature of human life. Death cannot be avoided and is destined to come to all humans. But there is still some hope for the human soul that can walk with the gods after the death.