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Folklore, hymns, modernity in Arunachali writing

A new book, ‘The Inheritance Of Words’, brings together women’s voices from Arunachal through poems, essays, short stories and art

Detail from the 'Bait and Switch' by Rinchin Choden. Courtesy: Zubaan Books
Detail from the 'Bait and Switch' by Rinchin Choden. Courtesy: Zubaan Books

Doni ane aji ko ne/ Dongore olo e yorne kone ai/ pedi pe bayuk e bikai

These are lines from a penge, or a ballad tradition of Arunachal Pradesh’s Adi tribe. It is a dirge, a song of lament. But like most oral traditions, it too is fading away. In penge, the soul of a man is addressed as bayuk, “meaning to transform, signifying the transformation of the physical body into the released soul”, writes Ing Perme in A Ballad Of The Adi Tribe.

This chapter is part of The Inheritance Of Words, a one-of-its kind book that brings together women’s voices from Arunachal Pradesh. Through poems, essays, short stories and art, the contributors have delved into oral traditions, folklore and ancient practices, etching their views on a changing society. The subjects range from identity, home, language, orality and Shamanism to women’s empowerment. Published by Zubaan Books, the book has been edited by Mamang Dai, an Itanagar-based novelist and poet who won the Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel, The Black Hill, in 2017.

The book is particularly significant since modern writing from the state finds few platforms—this includes the sizable chunk of poetry, research-based writing and fiction emerging in both English and Hindi. Some of the writings in Hindi have been translated for this book. “There is no common language in Arunachal. Every tribe has its own language. Hence Hindi is a medium for all of us to communicate with one another,” explains Dai.

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The book came together last year, with Dai coordinating with the writers on phone and email. In the introduction, she writes: “In a patrilineal society women’s names are often lost even though it is women who really are the custodians and transmitters of culture through storytelling, food, clothing, festival preparations, prayer and ritual.” Through new writings, she wanted to offer the woman’s perspective on oral traditions and shifts in society.

'The Airy Fury' by Rinchin Choden. Courtesy: Zubaan Books
'The Airy Fury' by Rinchin Choden. Courtesy: Zubaan Books

“A lot of young men are also writing poems across the state. We hope that this book of women’s writings is a start and more such work shall emerge in the future,” says Dai. Despite the pandemic-mandated restrictions, she has tried to ensure most tribes and districts find representation. “I didn’t just want writings from my tribe, the Adi group, or a few communities,” she says.

Some contributors needed more persuading than others. “Women as custodians of culture and harbingers of change are not given their due. We have pieces by two journalists, Nellie N. Manpoong and Tongam Rina, and also by Doirangsi Kri and Mishimbu Miri, from the Lohit and Dibang valley districts respectively, covering the Mishmi belt. A lot of people, who are first-time contributors, were extremely shy to come forward with their thoughts,” says Dai. “They think, what will we contribute, we are not writers. Once published, they are no longer hesitant to put pen to paper.”

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Mishimbu Miri, a state government employee from the Idu Mishmi community, has written about having an igu, or a shaman (faith healer), for a father. She writes about how her late father, Rano Miri, wanted her to be a powerful shaman like him. Not only did she get to participate in rituals, she learnt the importance of traditional hymns. He told her about the legend behind Athupopu, a sacred place for the community near Keya Pass. Through the chapter Revelations From Idu Mishmi Hymns, she traces the connection between the pilgrimage spot and yaah, the moment that marks the beginning of the death ceremony, aimed at safeguarding a person’s afterlife.

Jamuna Bini’s poem Those Idle Days, evokes a longing for the land, and simpler times. She writes: “Now we don’t live in bamboo houses anymore, no more fires burn to glow through the cracks of those bamboo houses. Our houses are made of concrete now. Our nights are stretched, sunk in laptops, mobiles and TV, SMS, Facebook and WhatsApp have become the medium of our bonds.”

The book is particularly significant since modern writing from the state finds few platforms. Illustration on the book cover by Nori Norbhu
The book is particularly significant since modern writing from the state finds few platforms. Illustration on the book cover by Nori Norbhu

There is an interview with the first Arunachal woman Everester, Tine Mena from the Dibang valley district. The state’s northern frontier is remote and sparsely populated and Dai wondered about the dreams of a young girl born in one of the villages there. The interview explores how Mena, a girl from Echali village, became the first woman from the North-East to climb Mount Everest on 9 May 2011.

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The Tina Ceiling, an essay by Ronnie Nido, talks about the appointment of gaon buras, or village (elder) men, and gaon buris, or village (elder) women, who head the local governance structures. It’s a hereditary process for many tribes but the Nyishis of Kamle district nominate their representatives. Once, it was generally men who held the post. In the 1990s, though, the rise of women-centric campaigns opened doors to women.

Nido writes about Yarup, who is campaigning to become the gaon buri. Her performance as secretary of the All Kamle District Gaon Bura Buri Association makes her a promising candidate. If elected, she wants to give women the choice to break marriages fixed in infancy—a practice that is still common.

Dai hopes such books will prompt people to revisit the folklore of their tribes and tell stories in their mother tongue. One of the challenges remains the absence of a script among Arunachal’s tribes. “There is the story of an old man who had the history of his tribe written on deerskin, but this got burnt and he ate it,” Dai mentions in her introduction, explaining the absence of a script. The spoken word, she says, has become the custodian of a tribe’s collective memory. Oral renditions of epics and performance rituals by shamans have thrived.

During the days of NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency), she writes, written records were the work of government departments and anthropologists. Today, however, a growing number of young writers are trying “to retrieve oral history with research, collaboration and primary sources”, she writes. Toko Anu delves into the issue with a hard-hitting essay, Indigenous Tribal Languages Of North East India, in the book.

“This kind of writing will make people re-look at their mother tongue and promote it through their work,” hopes Dai. “Literature and art are necessary for a society to grow and thrive. There should be space for discourse, and writing is a way of offering new possibilities.”

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