“Stories…words…I too have words…”
Mamang Dai, The Black Hill (288, 2014)
Sacredness of Words and Life: Indigenous Authenticities
Postcolonial studies invites challenging ground of discourse and inclusion, especially of literary works produced from smaller regions, on questions of canonicity. John Guillory in his book Cultural Capital (1995) talks about the critique of the canon debates - particularly between the classics and the liberal school. The canonical rites in literature studies speak to limited texts or authors, which invite debates on its failure to represent particular social groups. It also raises larger questions on why the canon debate represents a crisis in literary studies. What canon formation in literary studies leads to is a denial for an acceptance of aesthetic theories which do not include the discourse of the larger national narrative and places writers from the margins [North-East India, in the context of this essay] into categories with specific titles or what Easterine Kire, a women writer from the North-East India, terms as “definable box”, which she states as “the need (of publishers) to put writers, actors, artists in neat boxes” (Writing Nagaland – A Conversation with Easterine Kire 2016).
The problematic of postcolonial scholarship trails to a larger discourse on the problem of colonial language that constitutes a strong imperialist notion, which reduces other forms of language and its expression as unsuitable for carrying out literary dialogue. The linguistic assertion by the coloniser for wide implementation of their native language during the period of colonialisation continues to govern postcolonial literary space. Such persistence by the coloniser, however, has started questioning writers writing under the label of “minor language” of an otherwise potential opportunity that can be formed by insistently bringing their local language literature to the readers or by alternately using the coloniser’s language and re-forming it into new literary forms. In a succinct essay on postcolonial demotion of native language titled “Language” Jennifer Margulis and Peter Nowakoski refer to Ngûgî wa Thiong’o term “cultural bomb” for the practice of English language in Africa and in his departure from writing in English. The “cultural bomb” narrates the brutal process of “erasing memories of pre-colonial cultures and history and installs the dominance of new, more insidious forms of colonialism” (Margulis, Nowakoski Language Spring 1996). What it also tells is that the act of submitting to the colonisers language is an indirect form of negating one’s culture and allowing one’s history to be fabricated through foreign linguistic expression. Jennifer and Peter expresses on the dominance of the colonised language and how postcolonial writers have begun to reciprocate it by stating that:
In response to the systematic imposition of colonial languages, some postcolonial writers and activists advocate a complete return to the use of indigenous languages. Others see the language (e.g. English) imposed by the colonizer as a more practical alternative, using the colonial language both to enhance inter-nation communication…and to counter a colonial past through de-forming a “standard” European tongue and re-forming it in new literary forms. (Margulis, Nowakoski Language Spring 1996)
This act of “re-forming” the European language in works of literature is a very relevant exercise for contemporary writers from the North-East India or for any indigenous writer for that matter. Mitra Phukan in an essay expresses the diverse individual experiences and cultures that shape the vocabulary, the cadences, even the sentence structures of the literary works by acknowledging the several “Englishes” woven into the narratives of literary works from the North-East. Literature from this region is largely born out of its traditional oral art forms that define the literary, socio-political and economic thought of the community. While this kind of literary narrative is new to the mainstream readers, indigenous writings across the world has always had a rich literary tradition which can be seen in the writings of Native Americans, Australian aborigines, part of African-American writings. In the literary works of North-East, the aspects of orality in the form of narrative comes through the cultural history evolved from a distinct account of myth and folklore. For example, Temsula Ao’s poem ‘Stone-people from Lungterok [meaning six stones]’ talks of the genesis of the Ao Naga tribe of Nagaland from the mythical six stones, a community of tribal people who believe themselves to have emerged out of the earth. Similarly, in Mamang Dai continuity and engagement in oral tradition is maintained with a strong notion of belief that ‘there is always history in our words, the jungle is not just a patch of greens there are voices, the rivers is not just a flow of water and that all these and everything has a landscape’ (Keynote Address by Mamang Dai). Janice Pariat’s oral narrative is also worth mentioning here, in whose stories we read of souls turning into trees alongside the deeply entrenched oral practices of mantras that serve as a weapon for destruction, the description of which is read in the beautiful evocative opening story ‘A Waterfall of Horses’ of her debut fiction Boats on Land (2012).
These examples assert that language is closely connected to different cultural experiences and hence it is only important and relevant for scholars to frequently revisit, reinscribe and reauthorise the Imperialist notion. The need for language to find a valid platform for literary expression, that may not necessarily fit into the larger national narrative and yet is indispensable at the same time to assert the importance of minor literature, brings forth an expression from G Deleuze and F Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (1987), “… make language stammer, or make it ‘wail,’ stretch tensors through all of language, even written language, and draw from it cries, shouts, pitches, durations, timbres, accents, intensities.” (104)
This brings us to look at the creative construct and the expression of indigenous authenticities in Mamang Dai’s book The Black Hill (2014). Dai’s distinctive indigenous vocabulary in the book reverts to the structures of postcolonial studies as explained by Thomas King:
…postcolonial [is a colonial term] an act of imperialism [and the] postcolonial [study attempts to] effectively cut us off from our traditions, traditions that were in place before colonialism ever became a question (qtd. in Reading Native Literature… 25).
Mamang Dai is a well-known writer from Arunachal Pradesh in India’s North-East and a major voice in Indian English Literature. Her first publication River Poems (2004) acknowledged her as the most intensely poetic voices from the North-East. Most of her works are a foray into the world of myths and legends of her community through which she gives voice to the people through the imaginative space of prose and poetry. Her books such as The Legends of Pensam (2006) and Stupid Cupid (2009) with its intriguing narratives and plots demonstrate new literary possibilities.
Mamang Dai’s The Black Hill based on a real life story takes place on a rugged terrain, the quiet river and the mysterious mountain hill that covers two close neighbouring states of North-East – Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The book, set in mid-nineteenth century, brings us to a geographical location when only hills and rivers with no official territorial drawing of borders and boundaries divide the two states. The narrative is a reflection on the history of the region where two hundred years ago a French Jesuit priest came on a mission to find a route to Tibet by travelling through the Mishmeei Hills, - the location of the book where the story unfolds. Considering the historical period in which the story is set, the book opens up to a time when oral tradition is strongly valued, forms part of everyday existence and is the resource of an individual’s knowledge of his/her community. Gimur, the female protagonist of the book belonging to the Aborii tribe, can be looked at as the fictional representation of the contemporary female consciousness who challenges the expectation of society from women of mid-nineteenth century as we read from the opening section of the book of a fear disturbing her mother where she states, “(Gimur) was uncontrollable and daring, more like a boy, whistling and climbing trees and getting into scrapes” (2). In the course of the novel we read of Gimur taking a hasty decision to run away with a man from the other side of the hill, an attempt unexpected from a community where traditional values deeply specified that, “if a woman looks after the house, prepares food and feeds her husband and her children she will be loved, and she will be happy” (48). The book also takes us to a brief narrative where we learn of Gimur's displaying interest in the written word through the book given as a legacy by a Abor woman Moi to whom it was given by a miglun (white) lady. However, this is short-lived in the book as we gradually see her union with Kajinsha and the rest of the book takes us on a journey where orality is strongly suggested in the narrative and linguistic expression that connotes a history of unwritten words.
Orality in North-East writing or any other aboriginal texts around the world, does not end with the present engagement in the written context. It continues to survive and move in the process becoming aware of the many other small variegated details we miss out, such as in the case with the diversity of the North-East where different clans possess different roots that are re-born in every generation. Rajendra Bhandari a poet from Sikkim expresses similar feelings in one of his poem:
Hurriedly I peep inside the mirror and find that,
My prehistoric face still nourishes my primeval dreams,
I feel elated that my face still carries some archaeological value.
I scream- O come, excavate here, inside the wrinkles of my face
And you will find that statue of a poem/ ditched thousands of years ago....
(qtd. in Keynote Address by Mamang Dai)
Mamang Dai in a 2015 keynote address for Publishing Next tells of a question she often has to answer on the rather heavy indigenous material that forms the content of many works published from the North-East. To this she states that the essence of ethnicity is not just a definitive point from where dialogues for work are carried out but looks at ethnicity as an approach that is personal and yet importantly a journey toward recovering the lost story. As she states:
I am still searching and researching our myths but like this, I know, life becomes textured, layered, full of vibrations…it has so many subtexts…I am trying to look at this myths again to see if I will find something that could at least help me live my life with patience, grace.
(Keynote Address by Mamang Dai)
Mamang Dai’s books Legends of Pensam (2006) and The Black Hill (2014) let us understand her approach in juxta-positioning history and imagination and her return to tradition in the material she engages with. For Dai, her engagement with mythology is akin to sustenance and she maintains this balance in her work with a strong notion that there is always history in our words, the jungle is not just a patch of greens there are voices, the rivers is not just a flow of water and that all these and everything has a landscape (Keynote Address by Mamang Dai). This ability to identity such markers from ones culture and make it applicable, appropriate and to be able to fit itself as a literary scholarship, is a reminder to reflect and re-examine the anxiety of defined narrative and accompaniment. Let us consider a portion from the book ‘The Weight of a Stone. The Music of Heaven and Earth’ where Kajinsha meets Father Krick and a conversation is carried out in the half understood and half speculated language about religion, custom and belief. Kajinsha’s animist response to Krick’s question about the gods he believes in, is similar to Dai’s engagement with mythology; in her works:
The Tibetan lamas have books and you read your book for knowledge of God. We read the land. The land is our book. Everything here on this hill, the grass and rocks and stones is saying something. And what falls from the sky—rain, thunder and lightning—are also the voices of spirits telling us something. It is how we have learnt what is good and what is sweet or bitter, by living here…for hundreds of years. (140)
Dai's text is a reference to the many conversations and discussions that are carried out on marginal literature, such as the representation of community within the material. This idea of theorising works about one’s native culture in literature signifies that writers like Dai, Temsula Ao, Easterine Kire and Janice Pariat expresses such narratives as members of cultural consciousness. The prologue of the book under study informs us of a distinctive storyline as it advances to narrate the history of an unwritten past where, fiction juxtaposes with factual narratives of history. In the light of such permutations, where history is a subject that cannot be ignored, Dai's work arrives as an exemplary tool for documenting part of an unwritten past.
Every dawn I think all the stories of the world are connected. At night another voice tells me—no, there are more stories yet that are silent and separate. There are many lost stories in the world and versions that were misplace yesterday or a thousand years ago. Perhaps this is one or the other of them…there is another story from an unwritten past beyond the mountain wall. (ix)
The sacredness of life in The Black Hill proves an evident example in a section titled ‘Tibet! The Mishmee Connection. Hunger’ where Kajinsha remembers the geographical borders that have demarcated one region from the other by the authorities. He appears less concerned to the remaking of territory as for him and his people “empires and borders meant little (whose) worlds could not be divided, for they had lived in these lands for centuries, while empires had come and gone” (106). Kajinsha fixates his location to the open hills and mountains as he expresses in the following lines:
For us, what does it matter? ...We are people who belong to these valleys and rivers. We can wander at will travelling behind a wall of mist, find shelter with a friend, and disappear with the wind like the invisible men who have no regard for boundaries laid down by any authority. (106)
The book that primarily appears as a historical documentation of a tribal community based on two major characters—Father Nicholas Krick and Kajinsha, also points out to the reader the period of colonial history and its encounter with the Abor and Mishmee groups. In certain sections of the book we see passages that cite a sense of noncommittal to the native tradition and cultures as we observe in the conversations and acts carried out between the hill tribes and the outsiders. Fragments of dialogues from the book are cited below, that illustrates a reclusive, apprehensive, uncertainty and yet at the same time the consciousness of the erasure of one’s cultural and socio-political identity in the face of colonisation of the Abor and Mishmee tribals. Early on, the book opens up for the readers, in the section “We will not come this way again” to a segment where we come across the hills people intuitive preparation against the new cultural force that entered the region in 1826 with a “race of white men called the British” (7).
‘Be ready, my son,’ his father had said. ‘Prepare yourself. Be ready!’ But the old man had died without telling him what it was that he had to be prepared for. All Kajinsha remembered was his father’s perplexed gaze and the way he lifted his hand as if trying to point to something beyond. (11)
In another section titled ‘Kajinsha and Gimur’ there is a conscious resistance to the influence of colonialisation in the conversation between Gimur and her mother:
‘What kind of magic are you expecting by doing this?’ She lifted the book and shook it in Gimur’s face. ‘What are these things? Words! What are words?’ she cried…‘Go out and work! See how the leaves and shoots grow. Do they speak words or make a sound? No! If you work you will have no time for this idleness, wasting time with these white, dead leaves!’ (33)
The sacredness of words that indicates the authenticity of indigenous life and the reclusiveness to native existence is noticed in the section ‘Rendezvous. The Waters of Time’ in which Marpa, the uncle of Kajinsha’s first wife, admonishes Kajinsha for being ignorant about texts and the written script. The thoughts of Kajinsha cited below is a clear indication of how he, as the typical representative of his tradition-bound community and the fictional conception of the author close attachment to the rich orality, is a product of the mystical space where the natural surroundings play a predominant role in defining the community’s beliefs and practices.
If I do not speak of what I know, it is because I know words can be stolen. And what is the need to say anything? Yes, he had words to give Gimur, but even with her he was reserved, because in this matter there was too much in his heart to say. It was good to live without too many words. If he spoke anything aloud his thoughts might lose their power or, worse, some jealous spirit might try to prevent him from doing what he was thinking. It was better to be silent and carry his words inside. (229-230)
In this narrative we observe a sense of tactful action carried out on the question of colonialisation and the refusal of transforming or substituting to the socio-cultural set up. Till the end of the book Dai continues to incredibly arrest the movement of characters between history and imagination while simultaneously not deviating from the narrative of colonial history, that attempts to erase the history of a tribal community; the final section ‘The Woman and Her Love’ continues the narrative:
‘Tell them about us,’ Kajinsha had said to her that night in the jail. ‘Tell them we were good. Tell them we also had some things to say. But we cannot read and write. So, we tell stories.’ (288)
Although the text of Mamang Dai, primarily, looks at the history of a region, where the arrival of imperial force is indicative of the resultant massive geo-political shift, the narrative of this book and its use of language reveals to the readers a closeness to homeland and the story. Dai's illustrated characters represent a community which is largely resistant to change that disturbs the native culture, traditional practices and beliefs which speaks largely for the need of a native literary space where ethnic expression and the cultural negotiation performs as fundamental material in the region’s literary works.
[i] The Mishmee is an ethnic group of Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh, comprising of mainly three tribes, which are: Idu Mishmi, Digaro Tribe and Miju Mishmi.
[ii] Abor is an earlier term of what is now known as Adi, that was used by the outsiders. The literal meaning of the term is “uncontrolled or savage” due to the tribals reputation as fierce warriors.
- Dai, Mamang. The Black Hill. Aleph Book Company, 2014.
- Dai, Mamang. Legends of Pensam. Penguin Books, 2006.
- Dai, Mamang. River Poems. Writers Workshop Kolkata, 2004.
- Dai, Mamang. Stupid Cupid. Penguin Books India, 2009.
- Pariat, Janice. Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories. Noida: Random House India, 2012. Print.
- Ao, Temsula. Book of Songs: Collected Poems 1988-2007. Dimapur: Heritage Publishing House, 2013. Print.
- Sarma, Dibyajyoti. "Writing Nagaland – A Conversation With Easterine Kire." RAIOT Challenging the Consensus, 1 April 2016, www.raiot.in/writing-nagaland-a-conversation-with-easterine- kire/Accessed 20 August 2016.
- Margulis, Jennifer, and Peter Nowakoski. “Language.” Web log post. Scholarblogs.emory.edu. Postcolonial Studies Emory, Spring 1996, www.scholarblogs.emory.edu/postcolonialstudies/2014/06/21/language/. Accessed 12 May 2016.
- Mukherjee, Sumana. "Book Review: The Black Hill by Mamang Dai." Livemint. Http://www.livemint.com/, 7 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/TUOEFuIRdb4LjdAmJJ3NyK/Book-Review-The-Black-Hill-by-Mamang-Dai.html>.
- Phukan, Mitra. “Writing in English in the North East.” Muse India, no. 48, March-April 2013, www.museindia.com/featurecontent.asp?issid=48&id=4026. Accessed 23 Dec. 2015.
- Publishing Next. “Keynote Address by Mamang Dai (Publishing Next 2015).” YouTube, 21 Sept. 2015. Publishing Next, www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGSP6eqH6S0. Aceessed 21 May 2016.
- Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix. “A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.” Translated by Brain Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
- Rasevych, Peter. Reading Native Literature from a Traditional Indigenous Perspective: Contemporary Novels in a Windigo Society. MA Thesis. Lakehead University, 2001. Open Access Theses and Dissertations, www.collectionscanada.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/MQ60865.pdf. Accessed 15 March 2016.