This is a story of how the hills, plains and mighty rivers of the North-East came to be. Written by the Naga professor and poet Theyiesinuo Keditsu, with art by the Mizo children’s book illustrator Alyssa Pachuau, the luminous tale of love, longing and creation from the Angami community in Nagaland has been reimagined for young readers aged seven and above.
The book’s eponymous heroine, Ukepenuopfü, is a woman with lustrous long hair. She wears the sun and moon as earrings, day and night being determined by the shoulder on which she places her thick braid to hide or reveal her ears. Her husband, “with flesh as brown as earth and yawning dark caves for eyes”, is a giant. Their two sons are kept away from their terrifying father but the story’s tipping point comes when the boys ignore the warnings of the forest spirits and accidentally discover him. This leads to a chasm in the family. The father and one of the sons leave, walking down a mountain. Wherever he steps, the tale goes, “his enormous feet flattened the hillsides into steps that became the first terraced rice fields”. The bottom of the mountain, where he lies down, is transformed into an “expansive plain”. The couple’s sons go on to become the forefathers of the hill and plains people.
It isn’t a happily-ever-after love story but it spins a layered narrative of how different states in the North-East came to be. And it paints an evocative picture of the birth of the North-East, a region largely absent from children’s literature. Moreover, as any good story ought to, it contains multitudes—from the poignancy of relationships to a reverence for nature and new beginnings.
The imaginative plot is brought alive by captivating illustrations—my favourite part of the book. I wouldn’t be surprised if children poke their stubby fingers at a page, pointing to far too many things and asking a whole lot of questions. The drawings skilfully hold multiple stories within the book’s 17 pages, even mindful of details that signify the multiple communities of the North-East, through distinct clothes and jewellery.
The book is also evocative of Keditsu’s keen interest in the textiles of Nagaland and its neighbouring states. She uses her Instagram account @MekhalaMama to promote indigenous jewellery and clothes through personal styling posts. Not surprisingly, these choices seep into the book. Ukepenuopfü wears a white Naga mekhala bordered with red and black stripes similar to Keditsu’s wedding mekhala set.
By reviving a little-known Angami folktale, Keditsu draws attention to a mother—in Angami, Ukepenuopfü translates into “the one who birthed us” . It is indicative of the author’s feminist leanings. In 2018, she published a collection of poems, Sopfünuo, that portray the plight of women in patriarchal Nagaland.
Ukepenuopfü is Keditsu’s first attempt at a children’s book. And by rethinking the folktale in English, she has unlocked it for young readers from all corners of the world. Perhaps it will find a place among the Eric Carles and Enid Blytons.