Exploring Arunachal Pradesh through prose and poetry

Yater Nyokir

Surrounded by the Himalayan mountains in the north and the plains of the Brahmaputra in the south, Arunachal Pradesh is a land of exuberant forests, mountains, hills, valleys, streams, and rivers. It is the first region to witnesses sunrise in the country. The 26 districts of Arunachal Pradesh are home to many indigenous tribes, each having its own culture and language. The spectacular natural surroundings and its large ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity make Arunachal Pradesh stand out amongst the seven states of the Northeast. But for a long time Arunachal Pradesh remained isolated from the rest of the country due to policies under the British Raj and its complex geographical terrain. Added to this was the absence of the written word – a script, which became another barrier to communication with the rest of the country. The Arunachalis used to express themselves orally in their indigenous tongues, which was beyond the comprehension and reach of people outside its linguistic frontier. (The Monpa and Khampti tribes do have scripts, but all other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh belong to the preliterate society). Besides, the differences in culture, language, faith, social and physical features, and traditional practices from the rest of the country are also reasons that led to the region’s seclusion. Jamuna Bini, a distinguished poet from Arunachal Pradesh, expresses this socio-political dissonance in a poem:

your history
is full of pain
and neglect.
the British government
after freedom,
your own government also
ignored you.
(From the poem Arunachal translated from Hindi into English by Santosh Kumar Sonker)

Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh
Courtesy: www.commons.wikimedia.org

To bridge this gap, Arunachali writers started writing on ethnicity, culture, tradition, history, myths, and legends, providing an alternate source to understand Arunachal Pradesh and its culture. The prose and poetry from Arunachal Pradesh along with describing the beauty of the land also speak of cultural psychology, the traditional mind, and social reality of the region.

Writers draw inspiration from their interaction with social, economic, cultural, and political situations. Hence, literature cannot be understood in isolation. Lummer Dai, Yeshi Dorjee Thongchi, Mamang Dai, Yumlam Tana, Taro Sindik, Jamuna Bini, Gumlat Maio, L W Bapu, Nending Ommo, Doyir Ete, Ponung Ering, Joram Yalam, Bompi Riba, and Henkar Rokom Bado are prolific literary figures of Arunachal Pradesh. By intricately intertwining folk tradition with themes such as the relationship between modernity and tradition, individuality and collectiveness, past and present, politics and development, these writers sketched the cultural milieu and truth of the time. Their works extol and enliven the traditional and cultural life of Arunachal Pradesh.

It is said that to understand a culture one should study its literature. Literature is defined as a “mirror to society” for its ability to portray an authentic picture of the society. Lummer Dai’s first novel Paharar Xile Xile (1961) is considered to be the first novel from Arunachal Pradesh by an Arunachali. Belonging to the Adi tribe, his works revolve around the culture, tradition, laws, beliefs, values, faith, and myths of the Adi community.

When Dai started his literary career, it was the time immediately after independence. Arunachal was going through a social, cultural, and political transformation. Development, especially in the field of education, significantly affected the language and literature of Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachali tribes have a large repository of oral literature in their respective languages. With the introduction of proper education after independence, the culture of reading and writing began to take shape in the state. The oral literature was translated and integrated into written. Thus, the discourse of modern literature in Arunachal Pradesh began in the mid-20th century. Initially, Assamese literature had a major influence on the writers of Arunachal Pradesh. This is because during this period, Arunachal Pradesh (then known as the North East Frontier Agency, NEFA) was under the province of Assam. So the medium of instruction in educational institutions in Arunachal Pradesh was Assamese. This is why literary works produced by writers of this era are in the Assamese language. However, after the language policy of 1972, Assamese was replaced by Hindi and English as the medium of instruction in educational institutes in Arunachal Pradesh. This acceleration in the field of education brought intellectual revival and progressive spirit among the people, which led to the discarding of long conventional practices such as the slavery system, child marriage, exchange of bride price, and so on. In the widespread enthusiasm for social change, Lummer Dai made a deliberate effort to spread awareness to reform the society. He used his works as a platform to campaign for social change. He dared to discuss the harmful traditional practices of his community. His novel Paharar Xile Xile (1961) depicted the Arunachali society of the 50s, when slavery was still prevalent in traditional Adi society. In Kunyar Mulya (1978) translated into English as Bride Price, Dai unveils the noxious social practice of child marriage. Dai’s last novel Upar Mahal was written in the year 2003, 16 years after Arunachal Pradesh attained statehood. The novel portrays the spirit and psyche of the evolving Arunachali society due to the changing socio-political situation in the state.

Yeshi Dorjee Thongchi, a contemporary of Lummer Dai, is another important novelist from Arunachal Pradesh. He is the first Arunachali writer to receive the Sahitya Akademi award, in 2005, for his renowned work in Assamese, Mouno Ounth Mukhar Hriday. He was also a recipient of the Padma Shri in 2020. He retired as the State Chief Information Commissioner. This position gave him the opportunity to observe various tribal communities of Arunachal Pradesh closely. His understanding and keen observation of the tribal way of life are reflected in the vivid portrayal of the different tribal communities of Arunachal Pradesh in his novels. His works are a repository of the traditional and cultural life of the Sherdukpen, Monpa, Brokpa, Nyishi, and Pangchenpa tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. His first novel Sonam (1981) presents the lifestyle, customs, and practice of the polyandry system of the Brokpa community. His other novel, Mouno Ounth Mukhar Hriday (2001) tells the story of the Arunachal Pradesh of 1957-58, when it was known as NEFA. The novel describes the experience of the construction of the first road in Arunachal Pradesh. It also has interesting anecdotes of the experiences of the naive tribals during the 50s when they first encountered motor vehicles and experienced monetization due to the advancements made by road connectivity. The novel Sava Kota Manuh (2004) is based on the unique age-old Monpa religious ritual of disposing of dead bodies by chopping them into 108 pieces, a number equal to the beads in a rosary for Buddhist prayers. The chopped pieces are then thrown into a river for aquatic animals to eat.

Arunachali society is still in a state of transformation. It is moving from the old order and embracing new ways. Over the past decades, the state has experienced significant material developments, as well as integration and assimilation into the mainstream due to political and administrative attention. However, these developments have contributed only to partial positive outcomes. This exposure has also brought on racial discrimination and cultural prejudice. Twenty year old Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh was murdered in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi in 2014 after an argument broke out between him and the accused perpetrators, who commented on his hair and ethnic origin. This is not a lone case of unjust treatment faced by the tribals of the Northeast in other parts of the country. Also, the changing paradigm in socio-cultural and political structure has disrupted unity and peace in the state. Political rivalries, easy money, corruption, ethnic conflicts, aspiration for power, drug menace, etc., have led to the emergence of insurgency, disintegration, inequality, and annihilation of nature. Meanwhile, reeling under the influence of modernization, traditional culture is losing its significance. The changing equilibrium has resulted in cultural amnesia and identity crises among the younger generation.

All these experiences have driven people to critically reflect on their history and heritage. This phenomenon generated a group of writers who started writing for their ethnic identity, culture, and history. They explored subjects like history, folklore, social system, culture, and tradition to establish a better understanding as well as to preserve it. They integrated elements from oral literature into their writings to represent the larger reality of the Arunachali way of life.

A poet turned novelist, Mamang Dai is the first woman writer from Arunachal Pradesh. She is a recipient of the Padma Shree Award, 2011 and Sahitya Akademi Award, 2017. Engaging in factual history and oral memories, Dai has re-created the pre-colonial and colonial history of Arunachal Pradesh in her fiction and poetry. Her novels are often set against the backdrop of important historical events that changed the socio-political narrative of the state. She reconstructed history to present an insider perspective of the landmark events of the region. Her novels enhance an understanding of the historic past and political realities of Arunachal Pradesh. In The Black Hill (2014), Dai vividly presented the saga of the death of a Jesuit priest, Father Krick, whose murder brought the expansion of imperialism to the Frontier tract. In Escaping the Land (2021), Dai explores the cause and consequence of the murder of British political officer Noel Williamson by the Adi tribe at Komsing village in 1911 and Aching Mori in 1953, where 47 Indian government officials were killed by the Tagin tribe. The novel is also an elaborate narration of the political, social, and cultural history of Arunachal Pradesh.

Another significant characteristic of Dai’s writing is that she often incorporates elements of folklore in her narratives, providing readers with a deeper appreciation and understanding of Arunachal’s rich cultural heritage. Dai diligently reconstructed oral narratives in her novel The Legends of Pensam (2006). The novel imbibes the tribal philosophy that leads humanity forward and gives an identity to the animistic faith of the tribal communities of Arunachal Pradesh.

Nature is the core of the existence of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. They find the meaning of their existence and faith in nature. Dai’s poems are representation of hills, forests, mountains, rivers, and the belief and faith of her land and people. In her poetry she stays in old memories to sing the glory of myths and legends and retells the long-forgotten past.

Jumsi Siram is the first Hindi writer from Arunachal Pradesh. Like his contemporary Mamang Dai, he also explores historical subjects in his writings. In Matmur Jamoh Gumnam Swantantri Senani (2015) Siram has fictionalized the murder of British officer Noel Williamson at Komsing village, which led to the Anglo-Abor War of 1911. The novel is a retelling of the genesis of the incident from the perspective of Arunachalis.

The fictional world of the writers from Arunachal is filled with agonizing experiences of identity crisis, corruption in public life, and bucolic nostalgia. Their works are so proximate to the social reality that they can be viewed as an astute portrayal of prevailing political anxiety, fear, insecurity, and aspirations in the region.

To address the issues of discrimination and prejudice, which are the results of cultural ignorance and awareness, the writers creatively involved oral literature with modern literary genres. This sensitive blending with the setting in the indigenous ambience conveys the cultural and traditional interior of Arunachal Pradesh. At the same time, it also opens a way of negotiation through literature to develop a bond of affinity with the rest of the nation. Therefore, with stories and poems, the writers from Arunachal Pradesh entreat empathy, equality, acceptance, and solidarity to live in harmony amidst diversity.

The author is a Research Scholar at the Department of English, Rajiv Gandhi University, Doimukh. Her research focuses on literary tradition of Arunachal Pradesh. She has translated the works of contemporary Arunachali writers into English. Her essays and translations are published in noteworthy publication platforms like Zubaan, Prayas a literary journal of Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society and Matrix Anthology Arunachal Chapter of North East Writers Forum. She can be reached at materkara@gmail.com.

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