Tuesday, January 8, 2008
(paper presented at Sahitya Akademi Seminar in 2006)
Folklore is defined as ‘the body of verbal expressive culture, including tales, legends, oral history, proverbs, jokes, and popular beliefs current among a particular population, comprising the oral tradition of that culture, subculture, or group’1. The academic and usually ethnographic study of folklore is known as folkloristics.
The concept of folklore developed as part of the 19th century ideology of romantic nationalism, leading to the reshaping of oral traditions to serve modern ideological goals; only in the 20th century did ethnographers begin to attempt to record folklore without overt political goals. While folklore can contain religious or mythic elements, it typically concerns itself with the mundane traditions of everyday life. Folklore frequently ties the practical and the esoteric into one narrative package. It has often been conflated with mythology, and vice versa, because it has been assumed that any figurative story that does not pertain to the dominant beliefs of the time is not of the same status as those dominant beliefs. Thus, Roman religion is called "myth" by Christians. In that way, ‘both myth and folklore have become catch-all terms for all figurative narratives which do not correspond with the dominant belief structure’2. Sometimes "folklore" is religious in nature, like the tales of the Welsh Mabinogion or those found in Icelandic skaldic poetry. Many of the tales in the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine also embody folklore elements in a Christian context: examples of such Christian mythology are the themes woven round Saint George or Saint Christopher. In this case, the term "folklore" is being used in a pejorative sense. That is, while the tales of Odin the Wanderer have a religious value to the Norse who composed the stories, because it does not fit into a Christian configuration it is not considered "religious" by Christians who may instead refer to it as "folklore."
On the other hand, folklore can be used to accurately describe a figurative narrative, which has no sacred or religious content. In the Jungian view, which is but one method of analysis, it may instead pertain to unconscious psychological patterns, instincts or archetypes of the mind. This lore may or may not have components of the fantastic (such as magic, ethereal beings or the personification of inanimate objects). These folktales may or may not emerge from a religious tradition, but nevertheless speak to deep psychological issues. There can be both a moral and psychological scope to the work, as well as entertainment value, depending upon the nature of the teller, the style of the telling, the ages of the audience members, and the overall context of the performance. Folklorists generally resist universal interpretations of narratives and, wherever possible, analyze oral versions of tellings in specific contexts, rather than print sources, which often show the work or bias of the writer or editor.
A common contemporary folklore is the urban legend, which this paper will primarily focus on. Urban legends are a ‘kind of folklore consisting of stories often thought to be factual by those circulating them. The term is often used with a meaning similar to the expression "apocryphal story." Urban legends are not necessarily untrue, but they are often false, distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized. Despite the name, urban legends do not necessarily take place in an urban setting. The name is designed to differentiate them from traditional folklore created in preindustrial times’3.
Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by e-mail. People frequently say such tales happened to a "friend of a friend"—so often, in fact, that "friend of a friend", or "FOAF", has become a commonly used term for this sort of story. In the UK, urban legends are sometimes referred to as WTSes (Whale Tumour Stories), from a famous World War II story about whale meat. Similarly, but this time based on a story about monkey meat, the Dutch came to their name for urban legends - they call them "broodjeaapverhalen" (i.e. monkey sandwich stories).
Some urban legends have survived a very long time, evolving only slightly over the years, as in the case of the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. Others are new and reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people being anaesthetized and waking up minus a kidney surgically removed for transplant. Urban legends often are ‘born of fears and insecurities, or specifically designed to prey on such concerns’4. It is significant that fears and insecurities often play a large part in the formulation of urban legends. In this sense they reflect the anxieties and preoccupations of the society in which they prevail, thus serving as cultural mirrors of the times.
Jan Harold Brunvand, professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah in the United States, used the term in print as early as 1979 (in a book review appearing in the Journal of American Folklore 92:362). However, even at that time folklorists and others had been writing about “urban legends” for a good while. Brunvand used his collection of legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings to make two points: first, that legends, myths, and folklore do not belong solely to so-called primitive or traditional societies; and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such legends5. Brunvand has since published a series of similar books. The field also credits Brunvand as the first to use the term vector (after the concept of a biological vector) to describe a person or entity passing along an urban legend. Oralility obviously plays an important role in the spreading of these legends since most of these are passed on by word-of-mouth.
Most urban legends are framed as stories, with plots and characters. The urban legends resemble a proper joke, especially in the manner of transmission, only that they are much darker in tone and theme.The compelling nature of the story and its elements of mystery, horror, fear, or humor are part of what makes the tales so attractive. Many of these legends are presented as warnings or cautionary tales. Other urban legends might better be called "widely dispersed misinformation", such as the erroneous belief that you will automatically pass all of your college courses in a semester if your roommate kills himself. While such "facts" may not have the narrative elements of traditional legend, they are passed from person to person and generally have the elements of horror, humor or caution found in legends.Urban legends also concern unexplained phenomena, like phantom apparitions.
The Mizo Context.
In contemporary times, the Mizos, generally speaking, are not very superstitious, largely as a result of the influence of Christianity, which has done away with many of the beliefs that existed in the pre-Christian era. However, like any other community, the Mizo community is also rife with its own share of urban legends, although the extent of the impact that such legends have on the people may vary according to the environment, educational background, and social and economic standing of the listener.Examples of such beliefs still persistent today in rural as well as urban settings are, the belief that an accident may befall members of a family if they embark on a journey in opposite directions (like north and south) on the same day from the same house; that it is bad luck to have a wedding in the months of July and August (which is strictly observed to this day), and so on. Another legend is that of the cat with horns that resides in Phawngpui mountain; it is purpotedly fatal to lay mortal eyes on the creature, but nobody has seen it yet!
Urban legends that emerged in Mizo society some time after the First World War are of a lighter vein. Mizo men numbering approximately 2000, were recruited in the French army as part of the Allied Forces to help fight the Germans. They were known as the Lushai Labour Company Nos. 26,27,28,29, and they were mainly employed in menial jobs as cooks, cleaners and coolies5. However, upon their return, these men gave glowing reports of their heroism against the Germans in the battlefield, and were hailed as heroes by the community, who swallowed everything they said. Later on, of course, it was common knowledge that most of these ‘heroes’ never even went near the battlefield, let alone perform heroic exploits against the Germans. Yet, with the full knowledge that these tales were fabricated, their stories continue to be passed on. Songs were composed in the traditional tune commmemorating their exploits, and to this day some of these songs are sung even in urban areas whenever there is a festival or a celebration involving the community. Here is a verse from one such song, entitled German Ral Run (The Storming of the German Troops);
Sikimanding Sap i lungmawl e, i lungmawl e,
German Rallian tawnin tir suh ka lungdi, chheih
Ka suihlung leng tur hi dawn ve la.
(Second Commanding Officer, you are thoughtless, O so thoughtless,
Do not send my Beloved to face the huge German troops,
Think of the loneliness I will have to endure).
The last verse is sung by the hero:
Ka Di tap ruaiin mi ring lo la, mi ring lo la,
German rallian kulhpui kan han tawn ni chuan e
A surin ngen mu a sur sung sung.
(Do not think I cried tears of terror, My Love,
The day we stormed the German fortress,
Bullets hailed like rain from the skies).
Folklores often tellingly portray the social ethos and preoccupations of a people. The Mizo’s love of humour and witty repertoire is seen in the lore that is prevalent in the society. A legendary character that emerged based on World War II tales is that of Rumliana, a non-existent hero who also went to join the French forces; his trademark wit, sarcasm, cunning, physical strength and bravery make him a much beloved and oft-quoted character even in contemporary times. This fictional hero’s exploits are told in the form of humorous anecdotes, and tales of his exploits are repeated and exaggerated at every telling. He was supposed to have resisted a dental check-up as part of the physical fitness evaluation prior to his enlistment in the army; he insisted that he would not be fighting the German army with his teeth, and his superiors were at a loss to refute this mixture of stubborn tribal wisdom and cunning. He was supposedly so persuasive and good with words that he was able to procure an extension of his short leave from the Army by stating that the floods prevented his return – and this was at the peak of summer, when there was a drought. Another tale relates of an incident where he was given the task of constructing a house by the British officers. Towards the end, when construction was nearly complete and the officer was inspecting the interior of the house, Rumliana, who was standing upon the roof, started urinating from the top right at the place where his superiors were standing. Needless to say, the officer and his retinue were livid with rage, but Rumliana, in all innocence, blithely protested that this was the Mizo’s traditional way of testing whether a new roof would leak or not, leaving the Britishman helpless to do anything by way of remonstration since he did not want to offend local sensibilities.
What characterises Rumliana as an urban legend is that he could have been a ‘friend of a friend’; though he actually existed, it is doubtful that all the stories of his exploits are actually ture. Yet he is a believable, if somewhat unusual character, authenticated by his possession of typical Mizo traits; moreover, it is probable that his tales are actually based on real characters and incidents. Not only that, he used his wit and cunning in such a way as to subvert the authority of the British without overtly showing disrespect. Beneath the servility and awe that the white man expected and did get, he, like many others, protested to such subjugation in his own subtle way. Perhaps this, and the ability of the Mizo psyche to identify with his sentiments, accounts for his popularity. Similarly, another urban legend that has this kind of believability is the lore of Tualte vanglai (‘the heydays of Tualte’, Tualte being a village in Mizoram). Although the village of Tualte actually exists, none of the accounts of the fame, greatness and notoriety that it supposedly possessed in its heydays, are historically true. Yet, to this day, when anyone wants to give a highly exaggerated or unbelievable story or joke with a twist of authenticity, he refers to it as happening in the days of Tualte, though none of what he says is taken seriously. For instance, the joke goes that gooseberry trees in the heydays of Tualte were so fruitful that the neighboring Mango tree would produce gooseberries too. And from there evolved the adage, ‘Nothing but gooseberries come from gosseberry trees’, a saying commonly repeated to this day.
An interesting belief concerns the nuthlawi (pronounced ‘nuthloi’). The nuthlawi is defined as a woman who is either divorced, and / or is an unamarried or a single mother. The status of such a woman is, perhaps not surprisingly, very low in the society, and her position is associated with shame and stigmatization, a common occurrence in other tribal and non-tribal societies of India. What marks the attitude of the Mizos towards this woman as different is the various myths that are associated with her status. A nuthlawi, for instance, is almost equated with the siren/ seductress figure which is found so frequently in literature produced by men. She is seen as someone who can deviously manouver her way into various situations and manipulate other people, especially males, by using her seductive charms. She is seen especially as someone who takes advantage of the gullibility and sexual weaknesses of men in order to get her way. She is portrayed as a flamboyant character without many scruples, sexual or otherwise, tougher and more hard-bitten than other women, and much of her success in any field is attributed to her ‘lack of shame’ more than anything else. In other words, she is believed to be someone who lacks morality and principles; at the same time, perhaps due to this percieved lack of morality, she is also one of the few women who have the courage to follow the desires of the heart, since she does not have anything else to lose, having lost her reputation anyway.
In other words, she becomes a larger-than-life figure, a legend, albiet in a very negative sense. She is seen as someone who can do things that a ‘normal’ woman would be unable to do; someone who can beguile, enchant and dupe even men who are normally considered practical and level-headed. She is a figure of fascination, the one who simultaneously attracts and repels, representing danger, taboo, and temptation. She is the one who tends to get blamed if anything goes wrong within the social structure that she lives in. Paradoxically, at an individual level, she may receive sympathy because the nuthlawi is very often a close relative or friend, or at the very least, a friend of a friend, in such a close-knit tribal society as the Mizo’s.
Ironically, with the impact of modernization, there is a significant leap in the divorce rates and families are breaking up in alarmingly large numbers especially in urban areas. An increase in broken families automatically translates into an increase in the number of such women, and the prevalent attitude towards such women is highly detrimental to their psychological, and emotional wellbeing as a result of the mythologizing tendecies of the society, which blows up the nuthlawi’s character out of proportion.
Urban legends, thus, may have extremely far-reaching effects since such attitudes may hamper the balanced judgement of a society; a woman is instantly transformed into a different person as percieved by the society, attaining almost mythical proportions alien to attributes possessed by ‘normal’ persons. It may be of considerable interest to the sociologist and the psychologist to delve into the reasons why such a character is seen as a threat to the society, arousing emotions of fear and insecurity, the two basic ingredients that tend to give birth to urban legends. One may wonder if there is a close link between the fear and insecurity engendered by such a woman with the increasing influence of feminist thought in a formerly conservative society that has always functioned on partriarchal lines. Women in tribal societies are no longer as dependent upon the males in the society, especially when there are no rigid class or caste distinctions (as is the case in most North Eastern tribal societies), and many women have evolved into strong, independent individuals living life by their own rules. This new-found independence is perhaps more strongly asserted or emphasized in the divorcee, who neccesarily has to fend for herself in order to survive, since she no longer has a male partner to share the burden with. Whereas the male has traditionally been the head of the house and the decision-maker in the family, bearing the brunt of the family’s burdens on his shoulder, of late, the situation is such that his support or presence is no longer as vital to the woman’s well-being. This may thus, give rise to a feeling of insecurity and resentment in the male. The question that arises then, is, have these myths regarding the divorcee or unwed mother been perpetuated by the men in the community? And are women themselves, still largely under partriarchal influence, conditioned to view themselves as such? These and other questions cannot be easily answered and may be a subject for another paper.
The widespread illegal immigration of Myanmarese citizens into Mizoram across the Champhai border has resulted in an influx of foriegners in the State. These immigrants usually seek employment in the domestic circles of the urban areas like Aizawl, Lunglei, Kolasib, Serchhip, etc. Most of the household help, as well as many taxi drivers, are people from these areas. This, in turn, has given rise to a number of new lores, again, arising from a mixture of fear, suspicion and insecurity, the added ingredient being that these tales are believable because there is a high probability that they may contain some truth. Such tales include the belief that housemaids give cough syrup and other relaxants to the infants they babysit in order not to be disturbed by them; that all of these workers are potential thieves waiting to gain the trust of their employers before robbing them blind; that there is a network between the women who double as sex workers, and taxi drivers, who act as their pimps; and that there are often severed body parts (like fingers) in the canned food imported from Myanmmar, and so on.
Although a majority of traditional beliefs and sayings are no longer in use in contemporary urban settings, some have survived. A man whose wife is pregnant still baulks at the thought of killing any animal, domestic or otherwise, lest something undesirable (usually a physical deformity) happens to the unborn child. Folklore is often didactic in nature, and such sayings as ‘it is never too late to have the misfortune of aquiring a physical deformity’ is a saying that has been and continues to be passed on, perhaps originally an attempt to discourage people who mock those who are physically chalenged. Other sayings are of a demeaning nature to women, like ‘women and crabs do not have any religion’, ‘dogs and women give their affection to whoever lavishes attention on them’, ‘fences and women are replaceable’, and so on. Although these sayings are not really vocalised nowadays, it is a different question altogether as to whether such an attitude towards women is still prevalent. Other sayings concern characteristics that some of the sub-tribes/clans have. For instance, the Raltes are traditionally described as an extremely noisy group, Pachuau and Sailo as stubborn, Chhangte men are considered henpecked, and so on. Again, these sayings, although not attributed as having too much truth in them, are still very prevalent.
The erroneous belief that Mizos have emerged from a big rock called ‘Chhinlung’ in olden times is a lore that has influenced and impacted many of our folktales. Although such a belief is considered to be false and without basis, Mizos, as a figure of speech, still often describe themselves as ‘Chhinlung Chhuak’ or, ‘emerging from Chhinlung’.The belief that no celebration is complete without the traditional drum (khuang) is one that continues to have an impact in modern times. Despite the modernization of the Church vis a vis the musical instruments used in worship, no church is complete without the presence of the drum. It is interesting to note that spirituality and church revivals are intensely linked with the drumbeats in the Mizo church. Any church revival worth its salt is never without dancing, which is accompanied by the rhythmic and almost ritualistic beats of the drum. Here, one may venture to draw a comparison with the role of drums in African tribal communities, where drums played such a major role that they continued to be used to relay information during slave uprisings. This, in fact, resulted in the banning of drums in America during the 1700s and 1800s6. Similar to the African context, the khuang (drum) plays an important role in the Mizo society, acting as a transmitter of the cultural and religious experiences of the people.
In conclusion, one may say that despite the changing paradigms that tribal societies have undergone as a result of modernization, westernization, and urbanization, tribal societies like the Mizos still do retain elements of folklore and folk culture in their everday beliefs. Christianity has had a huge impact on the society, bringing with it literacy, education and development in various areas, and significantly minimising the influence of traditional belief systems. Much of the beliefs and practices of old are viewed with a certain amount of scepticism by the younger generation, especially with the increasing exposure to western ways via the media explosion. Yet, such a society in transition is unique in that the old and new belief systems are able to eixist side by side. In this age of widespread literacy, rapid mass communication and travel, it is only natural that new legends will evolve and become popular. Chain letters, anonymous emails and endless SMS jokes are passed on and in a short span of time, new lores are easily born. Traditionally steeped in myths, legends and folktales, it is perhaps not surprising that, along with the old beliefs, new legends continue to develop in contemporary times, legends and lores that are unique to the urban lifestyle, enriching the corpus of existing lores and bringing a fresh insight into the evolution of the modern tribal society.
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/folklore. 18 July 2006.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/urbanlegends. 18 July 2006.
5. Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends And Their Meanings. (New York: Norton, 2003). p.2.
6. Walton, Ortiz. Music: Black, White & Blue. (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1972). p.20.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Well, we had a good time, friends dropped by and we watched the fireworks. I firmly refused to get all down at the amount of money people spent on crackers when there are places where people don’t have enough food to eat. And that is not to mention the noise and air pollution.
That’s what we were inhaling on New Year’s Night. The Pollution Control Board says that when the crackers were lighted, the pollution level went up to twice the level deemed safe by experts.
Well, enough food for thought.
Have a great 2008, everyone!
I realised that I was appalled at the amount of money people blew away on Christmas shopping sprees, the shops and markets so obscenely overcrowded that your elbows became lethal weapons used to shove people out of the way to get to the items you wanted. Here was a demonstration of the well-known theory of Darwin’s survival of the fittest…and since I am not the fit, neither physically nor economically, I eschewed going to the shopping centres and cocooned myself in the warmth of the house. The thought of dragging myself out of the bed to participate in the church’s Christmas feast nearly drove me crazy, especially when the words of my animal rights activist friend (who relentlessly hammered home the plight of animals during our festivities) kept ringing in my ears. And, since I had been too lazy and broke to go shopping, I didn’t have anything to wear…after all, I’m still a girl!
In short, I was becoming a regular Ebenezer Scrooge, which, when I think about it, is not that weird. In one of the bizarre coincidences that life hands out, I had been given a hard-bound foreign edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when I was in class two by my teacher as a prize for being the cleanest student in class. She bought it out of her own pocket, and with that one gesture, drove me into the wonderful world of books, converting me into a bespectacled bookworm for life. Ah, what a good teacher can do to shape your life! But that’s another story. The point is, I acted and felt like that Scrooge guy, and just stopped short of saying, “Bah! Hambug!”
It wasn’t always like that when I was younger. Santa Claus (or Christmas Father, as we called him) was a much loved and anticipated visitor. My sisters and I would literally hop with excitement on Christmas Eve, trying to sleep as early as possible so that we would wake early on Christmas morning and dive into the bags that we had hung, seeking the treasures and squealing with excitement.
One thing that I will forever associate with Christmas is the Boney M Christmas songs, not so much because I like them, but because they were played incessantly by the shop downstairs, which sold stereos and loudspeakers and the whole paraphernalia. By December 1, they would start playing the Boney M record, and I swear I am not exaggerating, they played the album over and over again the entire day, everyday, till Christmas. Depending on what mood we were in, it either set our teeth on edge or made us feel upbeat and Christmassy. Anyhow, now it is too deeply ingrained in my memory to be ever uprooted. Of course, Christmas also meant mom’s cakes and pot roast (thankfully, those smells are still with us), new clothes and midnight services in church when we got a little older.
Well, to get back to my “How I Spent Christmas” essay, the magic of Christmas finally did visit me, even if a little late. On an impulse, we decided to go for a quick drive around the city and although I cannot honestly recall anything that particularly touched me, I suddenly realised I shouldn’t be wasting time thinking about what was wrong with how we celebrated Christmas, or I would be engulfed in wave upon wave of disappointment. Rather, I should meditate upon why this particular day is celebrated, which, when I did, miraculously threw the whole night in a different light, a warm, tender glow that enveloped me, reminding me that I was in good health, that my family and friends were around, warts and all, and that is was good to share this night with people you love and who love you back. Peace on earth. It starts with you.
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
The wonders of modern technology! There I was, minding my own business, being a good girl and all that, whenI suddenly got an email from a person that belonged to a little corner in the dark alleys of memory lane. It was a really short note, just enough to keep me intrigued and unable to quiet the curiosity clawing my insides. He also left these phone numbers, and when I googled the numbers, they were UK numbers. Well.
So, anyway, I was crazy about him at one point of time. Then, I kinda pined for a while when things didn’t seem to be heading anywhere. Then, as most injuries, which have a way of being healed with time, my heartache also healed. And then we both moved on and lost touch. And now this.
I finally got to talk to him. He’s married and a very proud father of a week-old baby. Wow. I’m happy for him. But wow. It’s kinda wierd…you know what I mean?
Well, what I am reminded of is an old ABBA song:
“Our Last Summer”
The summer air was soft and warm
The feeling right, the Paris night
Did it’s best to please us
And strolling down the Elysee
We had a drink in each cafe
You talked of politics, philosophy and I
Smiled like Mona Lisa
We had our chance
It was a fine and true romance
I can still recall our last summer
I still see it all
Walks along the Seine, laughing in the rain
Our last summer
Memories that remain
We made our way along the river
And we sat down in the grass
By the Eiffel tower
I was so happy we had met
It was the age of no regret
Those crazy years, that was the time
Of the flower-power
But underneath we had a fear of flying
Of getting old, a fear of slowly dying
We took the chance
Like we were dancing our last dance
I can still recall our last summer
I still see it all
In the tourist jam, round the Notre Dame
Our last summer
Walking hand in hand
Our last summer
Living for the day, worries far away
Our last summer
We could laugh and play
And now you’re working in a bank
The family man, the football fan
And your name is Harry
How dull it seems
Yet you’re the hero of my dreams
And I can see him reading this post, grinning like a cheshire cat, because I told him I would be writing about it. It’s not about hanging on to memories that play tricks on our minds, creating illusions that are too fantastic to be real. It’s all about letting go. Closure. And making new beginnings. Yes, I’m happy for them. And below is the poem I wrote, once upon a time, for him, a poem that he coaxed out of me and which I never thought would see the light of day again.
I look at your picture
And am transported back
To the time of misty afternoons,
Serene waters lapping gently
Around our little ramshackle boat.
I remember how your eyes twinkled
With the joy of rowing on your own.
Emotions chased each other
Across the charismatic face,
And not least of them
Was the vague surprise you felt
As if it was wrong to derive pleasure
From so simple a thing.
I look at you smiling
A smile so perfect, and frozen in time;
A fragment of eternity
Stolen from infinity,
And ours alone to cherish.
I am reassured because I know,
Whatever else I stand to lose,
None can ever hope to snatch away
Those precious moments in time.
I remember a wet and muddy afternoon,
And the warmth of a voice that caressed.
Outside, the sky wept buckets
For the lot of man, who must face loss.
Victims of such a plight, you and I,
Yet forgot all for a day.
Safe from the world outside
Inside the cocoon of a cottage,
Enthralled by the magic of your voice,
In the strains of your music
Differences and defenses fell away.
I look at your eyes and wonder,
Do I see, mirrored in them,
My own perplexity and bewilderment,
My disappointments and insecurities,
The sense of loss I feel,
For something I never had?
Does that voice ever cry out in anguish
At a destiny that seems unfair
In tempting you with a taste
Of something that is destined never to be yours?
Do you ever think thoughts
That never lived to see the light of day,
And committed suicide before they passed your lips?
Have you ever lived to regret
The passing of a moment,
Of an opportunity thrown away,
Scattered to the winds?
I remember a Sunday afternoon
Of sweet fellowship and easy talk,
Punctuated by fizzy drinks and good food.
A time when your faith gave back life
To these frustrated and helpless fingers.
I travel back in time
To a lake mellowed and serene.
I remember saying :
Memories are like the mist –
All around you, enveloping you;
And when you try to hold them,
They slip through your fingers,
Satisfied to linger
In the periphery of your consciousness
Like an old tune you carry ; an intangible presence
Hidden deep in the recesses of the heart.
I look at your picture,
And remember so much more,
And the taste of you is bittersweet;
For my heart will not find it easy
To accept what my head decrees:
That it is better to have a fragment
To look back and dwell upon
Than to have nothing at all;
Not to press questions that have no answers,
Not to sing songs that have no tune,
Nor to have faith in something that is not.
I remember, thinking wearily:
We are worlds apart – you and I.
And I despaired, for my vision
Extended only to the superficialities.
I remember waving off a taxicab,
Forlorn, alone as never before,
Left alone with the ironies of my life,
Feeling like the last person in an evacuated world,
Wishing I could create a world for us
Where we would merge in defiant harmony.
I gaze at your picture,
And I am glad
For this frozen moment in time;
I am glad that the rainbow has many hues,
That the day has light and darkness,
For the piano’s ebony and ivory,
For the pied beauty of the sky,
For the variegated colors of the earth,
And the multicolored beauty of your shawl;
Each flows into the other gracefully,
Merging, entwined, complementing and uniting
Each providing a foil
To highlight the other’s beauty
Providing a finer tapestry
Of richer, many-hued, interesting detail,
Surely a mirror-work reflecting
The greater plan of the Creator’s artistry,
Where you and I are not castigated
For a mere difference in name,
But provide unique pieces that contribute
To the beautiful final picture
Of the divine masterpiece.
Today ten of my ex-students decided to “drop in” on me and we had an impromptu dinner at the house. Although it was totally unplanned, we did have a nice, all-girls time together. Despite the many challenges they threw up in the classroom (they were all very nice people, of course, just not very academically motivated, if you know what I mean) when they were “my” students, tonight was different because I saw them in a different light. And I was proud of them. For all our occasional misgivings, they seem to have turned our just fine. In fact, they are pretty fine young ladies. With attitude. The right kind.
It’s kinda wierd how attached you get to your students, how personally you take their achievements and failures. They say teaching is not lucrative…oh, but you reap so many benefits in non-monetary forms! And at the end of the day, you realise they have grown up. They are no longer just kids inside the four walls of a classroom, and that you now need to wake up and relate to them like the adults they are. And hey, one often finds oneself learning some valuable lessons from one’s students.
I’ve been watching TV, a rare thing for me. On Friday, the local channels broadcasted the arrival of the corpses of Mizo soldiers posted at Chattisgarh. I have been thoroughly depressed ever since. Their families, their young wives looking dazed, and especially their small children, who didn’t seem to be able to understand what the hue and cry was all about, nevertheless looking so scared, just made me feel so sad.
What amazed me most, however, was the callous attitude of the public. Sure, I’m aware that many went to the airport out of respect for them, at their own expense, and lots of organisations (of which we seem to have so many) have expressed their sympathy in the form of monetary gifts. I am not disputing the role of selfless men and women, particularly from the NGOs in their efforts to do all they can to ease the pain of death for the bereaved families.
But what about the larger public? What about those who used to send endless sms-es just to sympathize with those who had been voted out of some reality show or another? Or, for that matter, what about those who did not hesitate to spend money on telephone bills to cast those votes? Not to mention those donors who gave so many presents to the participants, they had to pile it up on the floor?
I mean no disrespect to those who wish to showcase their talents or their generosity. My point is, when you really look at it, what is more important? Don’t these soldiers’ deaths deserve at least some messages of comfort via the media from the locals? I’m sure it would go a long way in giving some kind of strength to those who are still reeling from the shock of a loved one. Solidarity, compassion, empathy, sympathy…are we so warped that we give these only to those who are public figures? By blatantly burying our heads in the sand in the face of anything unpleasant, by mindlessly seeking entertainment to protect ourselves from the real world, whom are we kidding? Nobody but ourselves.
-Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte, Mizoram University.
(Paper presented at International Seminar on History of Religions, JNU, October 8-10, 2007)
When one looks at the various myths found among the Mizo, one may discern areas in which Mercier Eliade’s concepts of myth and religion are vastly applicable. In the realm of religion, in keeping with Eliade’s conception of a High God (Deus Oteosis) found in many pre-agricultural societies, Mizos, too, believed in the existence of a benevolent God called Pathian or poetically, Khuanu, who was the Creator. However, they also believed in numerous spirits called Huais, who were ill-disposed towards humans. These Huais were believed to reside in high precipices, large rocks, caves, large trees, holes in the earth, water springs, waterfalls, and underwater. Living in poor hygienic conditions and without the benefits of modern medicine, the people of those days suffered from many diseases ranging from ulcerous sores to tuberculosis and mental disorders. They were convinced that all their illnesses were caused by angry spirits.1 When misfortune struck, they would try to appease the spirits they had presumably displeased. The exorcist (Bawlpu) or the priest (Puithiam) would determine which spirit had been offended, and what sacrifices must be offered. Much time and effort, therefore, was expended in seeking cures or reversing misfortune, so much so that many earlier scholars presumed that the religion of the Mizos consisted basically in the worship of these evil spirits.
Contemporary scholars like Mankhosat Kipgen2 contest this opinion, and offer instances to substantiate the view that it was to the beneficient Pathian (also referred to as Khuanu), or God, to whom the Mizos directed their true worship, in contrast to the sacrificial offerings made to the Huais for appeasement. John Shakespear, in 1912, had observed thus:
Practically all divisions of the Lushai-Kuki family believe in a spirit called Pathian, who is supposed to be the creator of everything and is a beneficient being, but has, however, little concern with men.3
Again, when one looks at the origin myth of the Mizos4, one finds a period that corresponds to Eliade’s conception of a “paradise” in mythical times, where contraries exist side by side without conflict, which represents a mysterious unity. In the Mizo origin myth, there is an account of a time, perhaps a “sacred time” when all living beings, flora, fauna and humans coexisted harmoniously and could communicate with one another.
Eliade focuses on the importance of the Sacred and its value, stating that Myth is the first appearance of the Sacred; therefore, mythical time is Sacred Time, the only time of value. Traditional man performs myths and rituals, and by recounting or reenacting mythical events, myths and rituals “re-actualize” those events. Religious behavior does not only commemorate, but participates in sacred events. Man enters “sacred time” by imitation, through the performance of rituals and ceremonies, a belief that is central to his theory of the Eternal Return, man’s existential longing to return to this sacred, mythological time.
Interestingly, though a majority of the pre-Christian beliefs of the Mizos were abandoned with the advent of Christianity, certain elements have been retained by Mizo Christians, especially in the area of songs. Since many of the traditional songs of old were intertwined with the pagan practices of the Mizos, the British missionaries discouraged their continued use in the church, along with other practices such as drinking liquor (zu), which had constituted a crucial part of their social gatherings. The traditional drum (khuang) itself, which always accompanied the songs and chants, was considered unsuitable for church even up to as late as the 1930s. However, with the passage of time, there has been a return to cultural roots within the church in recent times. The melody of typical Mizo songs (lengkhawm zai) such as the one sung by the revelers in the Mizo origin myth (the chai) have been adopted to religious lyrics and sung to the accompaniment of the khuang in the church as well as in other social gatherings. The khuang, the very instrument played by the mole in the origin myth, seems to have been restored to its former glory; in contemporary times, it plays a pivotal role not only in the church but also in the homes of bereaved families, where the community gathers to give solace to the family members by singing. Church revivals in Mizo churches gain momentum through the singing, which, again, is incomplete without the presence of a khuang, or even two khuangs, and despite the adaptation of western hymns and musical influences, the congregation tends to revert to traditional tunes when it is truly in the midst of an intense spiritual experience. Again, the Christian God is referred to as “Pathian”, the same name given to the pre-Christian God. Hence there is an ingenious intertwining of mythical practices and beliefs with Christianity in the Mizo context.
“Every ritual and every important human action gain their effectiveness by repeating a mythical archetype, and thus share in the potency and the sacredness that still inhere in that primeval happening.”5 The man who imitates a mythological model, whether in ritual or a private undertaking, is enabled thereby to transcend and abolish profane time and enter again the mythical, eternal time. Eliade further notes that the main function of myth is “to determine the exemplar models of all ritual, and all significant human acts.”6 The importance of the events related in myth is that they form a model or paradigm for all human undertakings thereafter. Thus, even in practical matters, there have been viable models in myth for modern man to follow. The communal work seen in the origin myth is a practice carried on even in contemporary times. To this day, in Mizo society, the entire community, regardless of social and professional status, participates in community activities such as the cleaning of the locality, the digging of graves, helping widows and the poor, and contributing time and expertise in all community and church feasts. The basic structure of the typical Mizo house built on stilts is retained especially in the villages, the presence of this kind of structure having been first seen in the origin myth. Time limitations prevent too comprehensive a study of all Mizo myths and their symbolic significances. On a closing note, mention may be made of Eliade’s concept of modern man’s “terror of history”, an anxiety that might be observed in contemporary Mizo society. There exists only as scattering of ancient practices surviving in Mizo culture today, a loss that might largely be attributed to the mass conversion to Christianity; however, this has been compounded by other forces of modernism and globalization. Eliade’s suggestion that the abandonment of mythical thought and the full acceptance of linear, historical time with its “terror” as one of the reasons for modern man’s anxiety7 may be a relevant warning to contemporary society in general. Modern man, according to him, has denied the Sacred and must therefore invent value and purpose on his own. Without the Sacred to confer an absolute, objective value upon historical events, modern man is left with a “relative nihilistic view of history” and a “resulting spiritual aridity”8, an aridity that is perhaps at the heart of much of the angst witnessed in the society.
1. F.W. Savidge, “Religion Without Scriptures II: The Religion of the Lushai Hillmen”, The
Missionary Herald, Vol. 89, No. 7, July 1907, p. 206.
2. Mangkhosat Kipgen, Christianity and Mizo Culture, Jorhat: Mizo Theological Conference, 1996,
3. John Shakespear, The Lushai-Kuki Clans (1912), repr., Aizawl: Tribal Research Institute, 1975,
4. See appendix for a review of the Mizo origin myth.
5. Robert Luyster, “The Study of Myth: Two Approaches”, Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 34, No. 3, July 1996, p. 236.
6. Mercier Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, , trans. Rosemary Sheed, London: Sheed and Ward, 1958, p. 410.
7. Mercier Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History, trans. Willard R. Trask, Princetown U Press, 1954, pp. 231-245.
8. Mercier Eliade, Myth and Reality, Willard R. Trask, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964, p. 65.
The Mizo Origin Myth.
Eons ago, in time immemorial, a goddess named Khuazingnu created the earth. To make it cool and habitable, she created all sorts of vegetation, and to nurture these, she periodically opened the windows of heaven and poured water upon the earth. She created humans and other living beings to devour the foods and fruits produced by the plants. All living beings could talk and communicate with one another.
Time went by, and these living creatures reproduced and multiplied, co-existing harmoniously. They never harmed each other, and they were never in want of food. With the increase in population, beings of different natures and temperaments emerged, and they decided that they needed a ruler to protect them and rule over them. So, they chose one among them to be their king.
One night, after having had his supper, this king took a nap. It was the night of the full moon, and all creatures made merry dancing and singing, celebrating the moonlight. In the midst of their revelry, the moonlight suddenly began to fade and disappear even as they were looking on. The creatures became frantic with worry, and proceeded to make a loud commotion by banging on whatever object that could produce sound. After a while, the moon reappeared, and this made them very happy. In the meantime, the king had awoken at the tremendous noise that his subjects had made. In response to his query, the elders narrated what had transcribed. The king said, “Listen, while I was asleep, I dreamt that I had swallowed the moon; then, I heard a terrific noise, and I became scared, so I spat out the moon again with great difficulty.” The elders then noticed that the king’s mouth indeed had deep gashes and bloodstains at the sides, and they believed that the king had truly swallowed the moon.
Not long after, the king died, went to Heaven and was transformed into a Creature who could, and often did, swallow the moon. Once, he swallowed the moon for such a long time that the whole earth was plunged into darkness from morning till night. With total darkness enveloping the earth, there was complete chaos and nobody could do any work because they could not see anything. During this time, there were sudden transformations among the creatures of the earth; some humans became monkeys, while young boys and girls became birds. The village elders were transformed into a flock of birds, and the bravest hunter became a tiger, and so on. Their Creator, the goddess Khuazingnu, became anxious and sad that her creations were changed into lesser beings. Before they could all be transformed, she decided to put a couple from each human clan, as well as representatives of each animal species, into a deep pit, and sealed the pit with a huge rock called Chhinlung.
After four or five generations had been born, the goddess decided that enough living beings existed to sustain life on earth. She gingerly lifted the rock, Chhinlung. There was a loud buzz from within, and when she opened the covering fully, droves of humans emerged from behind the rock, like locusts. After many humans had emerged, the Ralte clan came out in a great multitude, noisier than the other clans, and full of arrogance. At this juncture, the goddess decided that there were enough people, and she closed the Chhinlung again.
While under the Rock, humans and sprites had cohabited freely, and produced offspring. Among these was an exceptionally strong and powerful man named Thlanrawkpa, born of a liaison between a human and a sprite. He became the king, and planned to host a great feast, later known as Thlanrawkpa Khuangchawi to show off his might and splendor. Unfortunately, he forgot to invite Sabereka, his father-in-law. Sabereka was furious, and caused a thunderstorm to rain for the entire night on the eve of the feast. The rain washed away all the earth of the village, leaving behind only the rocky layer underneath. It became impossible for the villagers to dig through the rocks to mount the pillar on which was hoisted the mithun’s head, a crucial part of the feast.
There was a fertile expanse of earth on the other side of a perilous body of water; the otter and the badger volunteered to make trips across the water to bring back the earth to their village. The earthworms volunteered to eat the earth once it had been transported so that it would be multiplied through their excreta. The legendary Chhurbura offered to beat the earth so that the level would remain even on the ground. In this way, all beings of the village cooperated with one another, contributing to the community work until the earth became habitable again, and the glorious feast could be held.
All creatures made merry during this feast, laughing, playing and dancing. The mole played the drum and in his enthusiasm, he donned a flower on his head. It was not a pretty sight, and the other creatures laughed at him. He became angry and retreated into his hole with the drum (khuang) and would not be mollified. Since the feast could not go on without the drum, they tried various means to cajole him out of his hole. Eventually they poured water down one end of the burrow, and he emerged, still sulking, with the khuang and threw it out. It landed just at the knee joints of the hen, who was nearby, and to this day, the hen’s knee joints are bent backwards as a result of this incident.
It was at this feast, which went on for several days, that many creatures were given their names, based on their performances and feats, and they retain their given names to this day. Also, as a result of this, the typical Mizo house built on stilts replaced the former homesteads of the Mizos, whose mud floors had been washed away by the torrential rain. In order to avoid such calamities again, it was decided that all houses would henceforth stand on stilts, well away from the ground.
During this prolonged feast, there was a great battle between the creatures of flight and the beasts of the earth due to a misunderstanding. The conflict resulted in a victory for the earth-bound creatures. They decided to celebrate their victory, which would also mark the culmination of the great feast hosted by Thlanrawkpa. However, the domesticated animals refused to bow under the dictates of their human masters any longer, claiming that they should have a more exalted position because of their contributions to the victory. They raised a great protest when some of them were to be slaughtered for the feast. The situation became critical until Sabereka, Thlanrawkpa’s father-in-law decreed that, henceforth, neither animals, plants nor humans should be able to speak the same language. Thus, with communication cut off between them, other creatures could no longer make protests, and order was restored with humans continuing to be masters over other living beings.
Mizo Thawnthu. Tribal Research Institute, Directorate of Art and Culture, Mizoram, 1992.
Translated into English by Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte.
Earth to earth, dust to dust.
My mother’s tears bathed my lifeless face.
I could hear women moaning,
Their agony sung out in dirges
In the land of the living.
Darkness sealed in my loneliness.
This crypt is cold, too cold.
I feel old.
The night they ripped me out
From the dank, damp earth,
I could not cry, though I did try.
A soundless scream wrenched my soul apart.
Kapa, kapa*, why have you forsaken me?
You were wrong – it hurts even after death.
Kanu, Anu*, I long for your warmth.
I feel old, too old.
I am cold.
• ‘Kapa’ means ‘my father’
• ‘Kanu’ and ‘Anu’ both are terms for ‘my mother’.
Your sacred Space.
Heaven and Earth.
Above, the sky
A black blanket
Patterned with stars;
Below, an inky darkness
And village lights twinkling
In the horizon.
The low resonance
Of your voice
With the quiet night.
Words are beautiful
When they come together
The way they do
On your lips
And a voice
Can drown one’s senses.
Knowing I matter
Enough to be shown
An unworthy devotee, perhaps,
Yet my breath is taken
Captive, by the sheer majesty
Of the shrine, and You.
Made heady by moonlight,
I spin round and round:
I think I catch a falling star.
Lying on this flat bed,
Feasting on the vista
And the magnificence of Night.
I realize this is a piece of Heaven
A rare taste of things unseen.
And then I shatter the peace.
My query is like a pinprick
That disturbs the solitude.
Your eyes become black, blank
Empty pools of disquiet.
Reminders of time.
Keepers of time.
Time that marches on
Heedless of my feverish attempts
To keep pace with its strident march.
Time, you are merciless.
Will you not wait for me,
Stay. I implore you.
Stretch this moment into eternity.
Another day, another hour,
Another breath, another glance –
The Sun, the Shadows,
The restless day
Become my foes, allies of time.
Time – in vain I try to hold on,
Until at last, letting go,
I await another time,
You ask about my life,
And my soul squirms,
Writhing in private agony,
Cringing at this invasion;
Panic-stricken, I answer you in clichés,
And you ruthlessly hack down my defenses.
You back down, feeling hurt,
While I retreat to a shadowy corner
To lick self-inflicted wounds.
Mortified, remorseful and guilt-ridden,
I fumble with words;
An attempt to articulate
Something I do not understand.
Paradoxes, contrasts, contradictions,
Trip over one another in the making of Me.
I am a confused bundle of opposed thoughts,
Full of conviction, yet unsure at times;
Aggressive, scared; open, anti-social,
A feminine feminist, a conservative non-conformist.
I make you uncomfortable, as with most people.
Despite your valiant efforts to comprehend
The complexities of my existence,
My socialist, secular, liberal friend,
You cannot begin to understand
What it’s like to be me.
Can you accept the harmony of discordant notes?
I can make you comfortable, but I’d rather not.
Having probed into my psyche, insisting on the truth,
Perhaps now it is time for you to squirm,
As I go back to the shadows, whimpering in solitude.
Self-appointed stripper of your illusions,
I despise myself, not for what I said,
But for forcing you into an ugly world
Devoid of justice and other ideals so noble.
I cannot bear the pain in your eyes,
The shock of recognition
That there is truth in what you hear.
Your world is shaken, you lose balance,
Anger, denial, confusion, disbelief,
Fight for supremacy in your eyes,
And I despise myself, not for what I said,
But for taking away your utopian dreams.
In dreams, I hold your hand
In dreams, the sun’s gentle warmth
Bathes my face as I look up into yours;
In dreams, we spread a blanket
And float away with clouds;
In dreams our carefree laughter
Rings out clear and pure;
In dreams, we sway together, softly,
A prelude to another dance;
In dreams, I exult in being yours
While you open up your heart to me;
In dreams, I love you
As though love were not a sin.
I. You tell me you know what’s best for me. You dissect my past, discuss my present and predict my future. You confine me within your walls – your narrow institutions without windows. You tell me how to live your life, when to respire and expire. You dictate your code of conduct, tell me what to say, impose your will upon my mind. You even decide what I should think. You expose my mistakes, revel in my failure and feast on my sorrow. I ask you, O self-appointed ruler of my life, tread lightly on my mind.
II. You say friendship is the tie that binds; that nothing can break the cords of our union. But you strangle me with those cords. You need me to hold your hand, be your therapist and cheer you on endlessly. You expect me to pour out my innermost being, to lay bare my deepest feelings on a platter, so that you can serve it to the whole world. You say you admire me, that you respect me; but where is your reverence for my privacy? An open duel is fair enough, but stabbing me from behind is not my idea of friendship. I entreat you, O self-serving friend of mine, tread lightly on my emotions.
III. ‘Blood runs thicker than water’ you say. Yours must be diluted because it runs shallow and false. So, you fed me, nurtured me from a shrieking, wailing infant to this confused, insecure, torn and disillusioned Self that I am today. You say my loyalty lies with you, and I ask what you have done to deserve it. You want to own me, chain me with your expectations, live out your dreams through my life; never liberating, never satiated. I beg of you, O self-satisfied predecessors of mine, tread lightly on my path.
IV. You tell me you love me. You define love the way you see it – on your own terms. You partake of me, you drain me, you abandon me, you leave me bereft, spent and alone. You want me to nourish your ego, to bow down to your dictates, to feed your ever-greedy lust for instant gratification. Well, what if I believe love should give as well as take? And I plead with you, O my self-styled amour, tread lightly on my heart.
V. Finale. You say you care, but you spare me not. You judge and weigh me on your scales and find me wanting; you trample me in the dust, and leave me bruised, broken and battered. You swarm over me, you pick me clean – like vultures over a prey – leaving only the spoils; and when I need you, you desert me, you treat me like an infectious virus. And thus, I ask you, O self-seeking, self-deluding, self-destructive, suffocating but necessary thorn in my flesh, tread lightly on my soul.
I would rather be woman
Than shadow or idol.
Flesh and blood
With human failings,
As also human feelings.
I would rather be a person
Than a representative of my tribe;
Individualistic and selfish
With personal quirks,
But also personal needs.
I would rather be an open book
Than an intriguing enigma,
If that entails your refusal
To reach across the chasm
That separates you and I.
Discard the prejudices and assumptions,
Delink the past from the present,
The legacy of customs, tradition and learning,
I would rather be a temporal reality
Than an intangible wisp of memory.