Poem by Mamang Dai
“My centre is what I believe in, and when I write there are no boundaries.…”
Mamang Dai is a poet, novelist and freelance reporter from Arunachal Pradesh. She was correspondent for the Sentinel, Telegraph and the Hindustan Times, and Project officer with WWF in the Biodiversity Hotspots Conservation programme in the state. She is the author of Arunachal Pradesh- the Hidden Land, and Mountain Harvest- the Food of Arunachal Pradesh. Her other books include two novels: The Legends of Pensam and Stupid Cupid, two volumes of poetry: River Poems and El bálsamo del tiempo (The balm of time, bilingual edition), and two illustrated books of folklore: The Sky Queen and Once upon a Moon time. Dai is currently Advisor to the Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society, and Member, General Council of the Sahitya and Sangeet Natak Akademi, and Member, Raja Ram Mohun Roy Library Foundation, North East Writers Forum (NEWF), and the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
In 2011 Dai was conferred with the Padma Shree for Literature and Education. Dai lives in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh.
In this Conversation Mamang Dai speaks to D Ramakrishna about her two novels, The Black Hill and The Legends of Pensam; and about the centre of a writer, xenophobia, development in Northeast. We also present her poem, ‘The Voice of the Mountain’ featured here with her kind permission.
D Ramakrishna: In The Black Hill, the sorrow of woman is wonderfully described through the character, Auli who is in a loveless and broken marriage. She is bed-ridden and has tremendous faith in the spirit world. No one understands the sorrow of this lady, not even the lady herself. In your poem, “The Sorrow of Women”, you wrote about the need of empathising with women in sorrow in the following lines, “And they are talking about escape/ about liberty, men and guns/ Ah! The urgency for survival./ But what will they do/ Not knowing the sorrow of women.” What kind of response is expected from the male counterparts, and according to you what will the men do if they know the sorrow of women?
Mamang Dai: Actually The Sorrow of Women is a love poem. I was listening to a talk on internal displacement and it started me thinking about the anxiety of loving too much and the fear of losing loved ones. Other images crept in with notions of liberty, men and guns mixed with the anxiety of women when faced with sudden upheavals like moving to a new place, migration and exile. A woman’s focus is on keeping the family together and keeping her children safe and healthy. The poem is a woman’s thoughts on how love and dreams can change with time.
DRK: In The Black Hill, Kajinsha has marital conflict with his first wife, Auli. Marpa, her uncle played a trick for their marriage. Kajinsha disliked her from the beginning. Later, he loved and married Gimur. He deserted Auli for no fault of hers. When Kajinsha brought Gimur to Auli’s home, Auli did not scold anyone. She blamed spirits for her ill-health. There was no protest from Auli for her marital life because she might have thought that as she was sick, her husband had married another woman. The village elders did not do anything to solve her marital problems. Is the situation same even today in remote tribal places of Arunachal Pradesh?
MD: In The Black Hill Auli, Gimur, and Marpa - they are all fictitious characters. Perhaps there were people like them, but in the book they are all imagined, for me to be able to tell the story of Kajinsha and the French Priest who are the only protagonists based on a real life people with historical records whose story I wanted to tell. So Auli’s case as in the book does not reflect the present day scenario of marriage customs and marriages in Arunachal Pradesh. Once a man and woman are wed they are expected to make the marriage work and obviously every support is given from the families to ensure happiness for the couple. Generally people hesitate to interfere in marital disputes but an aggrieved wife can call a meeting of kith and kin and everyone tries to bring erring husband or wife together. If all fails the couple can separate.
DRK: In The Legends of Pensam, Nenem loved David passionately but she suffered from the pain of love due to eventual and final departure of David from this region. She faced problems as an unwed mother. Her problems were multiplied when she was deceived by a young road contractor. By marrying a gentleman, she rose above her sorrows. Such rising is not so common everywhere. By reading the literature of this region, one can assume that women of this region are able to come out of their tragedies comparatively better than women of other regions. Do you accept this assumption? How far are women of this region empowered in tackling harsh realities and oppression at various levels?
MD: Well, people face tragedies - cope, overcome and are happy or sad in different ways. I don’t make assumptions but yes, I know tribal women are courageous and buoyant. In The legends of Pensam it is what I imagined for Nenem when she struggled to bring meaning back to her life by digging deep within herself and facing whatever life threw at her.
DRK: Gimur in The Black Hill and Nenem in The Legends of Pensam are presented as the women who gave prime importance to self-respect. It is evident in the works of other writers of this region as well. In the aspect of self-respect, has the presence of women settlers from Bangladesh and the rest of India influenced the women of this region to any extent?
MD: Honesty, self-respect is a part of our social fabric. I can’t comment on the influence of women settlers from other parts of the country, but in cultural terms, of course, people look to each other to learn new things, new foods and style and attributes. For instance we can say of women from other parts of the country---north or south or west that they are strong and progressive, good looking, or learned or daring. We can say this of our neighbouring sister states too. In modern times women are by far the more enterprising in terms of taking up new business opportunities and learning new skills. We can appreciate and grow from contact with each other and even casual strangers can leave an impression that might change a life.
DRK: Outsiders are perceived in The Black Hill with antagonism and distrust. The tribes want to send Father Krick away from their land. The presence of outsiders is considered in The Legends of Pensam as an attack on their identity. In the two novels, the outsiders are viewed as corruptors of their culture and tradition. Tilottama Misra says, “Whenever the xenophobic fear of the ‘outsider’ has seized a community, a tendency to retreat into the cocoon of cultural isolation has been quite evident.” Is this xenophobic fear stopping the tribes from absorbing and assimilating better things from the outsiders and vice versa? Is this fear still relevant in Arunachal Pradesh? Is this fear still prevalent in Arunachal Pradesh?
MD: I must say that both The Legends of Pensam and The Black Hill are not about xenophobic fears of the outsider by the tribes. Both are about life in the bowl of the hills at particular periods of time and in the case of Father Krick, it just so happened that he arrived and chose a route through tribal territory that no outsider had trod before just at a time when a skittish China was recovering from the rout of the Opium wars and trying to consolidate its jurisdiction over its provinces that extended up to the borders of present day Arunachal. In his journals he writes that his appearance was met with consternation but he found shelter and was given food and drink.
By and large Arunachal society is keen to learn about other cultures. We have absorbed Assamese and Hindi languages and cultural mores. In fact most of us are multilingual, have travelled, and are studying, working and living in different parts of the country and abroad just as there are people from different parts of the country working and living here. The ‘outsider’ was not always viewed as corrupters of traditions. This is a later day interpretation. Xenophobia can be fostered and politically induced.
DRK: Most of the novels of this region, with no exception to The Black Hill and The Legends of Pensam, confine themselves to highlighting the plight of the people of only this region. The novels give a true picture of the society of the times, as the writers of this region have the firsthand experience of life in this region. However, many equally important issues are taking place in the rest of the world. To a writer, in my view, the entire world with its joys and sorrows is his/hers. Emotions are universal. Therefore, I wish the writers of this region could write on the plight and predicament of marginalised sections in mainland India in conjunction with the marginalised of the Northeast India. When the writers of this region are able to combine in their novels the life of this region with that of the rest of India, the people all over India can get a chance to compare and contrast the lives of these two regions. Can such literature cement the bond between these two regions and can we expect such novels from this region in future?
MD: This question of equating the region with the rest of the country in literature is already there. Even if the locale is, say, the Northeast, the feelings and emotions are universal. Otherwise we wouldn’t have readers. The problem is with perception. I feel there is so much talk about place, marginalisation, periphery, mainstream, centre etc, which only ends up putting everyone in a specified slot that is like a trap of expectation. What ‘centre’, what ‘belonging’ is envisaged? We write with a sense of belonging to the whole world. My centre is what I believe in, and when I write there are no boundaries. All of life belongs to the writer and literature is for opening windows and reaching out to illuminate our common human plight.
DRK: In general, most of the writings of this region stereotypically castigate only the Central Government for the lack of development of the Northeast region and they are not far from the truth. In The Legends of Pensam, you make an observation that the tribes have to hold their leaders accountable for the lack of development in their region but you have not mentioned the indifference of the Centre. What is the reason for it?
MD: We have heard the clichéd ‘step motherly attitude’ of the Centre. But even when times are propitious for development this has been very slow in coming. First we have to make a choice. What do we want for our state? The issues are rather complex and a debate can go on about development and preservation and who will be the keeper of our culture and who will define it. Ultimately I feel the dynamics of a society springs its own surprises and change happens when someone suddenly sets up a Nigella kitchen outlet, or introduces the idea of an exclusive club for the elderly men and women of the village. Someday someone is going to mobilise for a peace park in the tri-junction with Myanmar and Yunnan. As long as there is room for all sorts of ideas I think we can manage with or without Central aid. But we need leaders of vision.
DRK: In The Black Hill, the trans-border relationship of Kajinsha with Auli is presented. Kajinsha of Mishmee hills of India marries Auli who belongs to a Tibetan village named Sommeu. Are such marital ties taking place even in the present? If so, how does it influence the life of the people of Arunachal Pradesh?
MD: Arunachal is on the international border with three countries. In the past there has always been cross border affinities even on the Patkoi side with northern Myanmar, with Bhutan, Assam and with Nagaland. As mentioned in The Black Hill there are Mishmi people across the international border in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. They are an ethnic minority known as the Dengba- the Deng people of Nyingchi prefecture just across the border from Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh. With the demarcation of the border movement on the old trade routes is a thing of the past.
DRK: The tribes, in your two novels, believe in the spirit world. The spirit world is as real as physical world to them. The treatment of the sick is done by the miri, but not by the doctor. How far has the progress of science and rational thinking affected the beliefs and attitudes of these people who believe in spirit world? Do you, personally, feel that tribals should be allowed to follow their customs which lack the scientific spirit? Their unique culture needs to be protected but on the flip side, are we guilty of perpetuating superstitions and ignorance among the tribes? Is there any way to protect their unique culture as well as making them more rational and scientific?
MD: The miri is the doctor. That is why the shaman is so revered. In The Black Hill I have imagined that Fr Krick also realised this—that healing the sick is a surer way to win hearts than theology, that in the end all that matters is to speak with the language of the heart. He was also treating the sick in an Adi village and in his last letters to his superiors in the Paris Foreign Missions the request from him and his colleague was for medicines and ointments and some gardening tools.
About superstition I would say not all superstition is ignorance. Some of these beliefs are distilled, tested and tried over the years and are, in fact, quite rational and appropriate in the environment of the community.
DRK: The wind is almost personified as a character in The Black Hill and the same is the case with river in The Legends of Pensam. Even though the two – wind and river – are also present in the mainland India, they are not given high priority in its literature. Is it only due to your close affinity with these elements of nature or is there any special reason for giving prominence to wind and river?
MD: Arunachal is a land of rivers. The original five districts were named after rivers flowing roughly north- south, and I remember crossing streams and rivers since childhood with my father’s posting in different parts of the state. My hometown Pasighat is also on the banks of the river Siang. In winter a terrific gorge wind blows down rattling the town all night until it blows itself out at dawn. So these are first impressions. Perhaps it’s seeped into my DNA. The part of the town where we lived is also called mir-mir, after the sound of a gentler wind. I feel the wind brings news. It gives and carries away, and the river is about time, a constant journey.