Tuesday, January 8, 2008

‘It Happened To a Friend of a Friend’: Urban Legends in Contemporary Mizo Society.

Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte
(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.
2. ibid.
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/urbanlegends. 18 July 2006.
4. ibid.
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.

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