11 July 2007

The Legends of Pensam

The Call of the Wild

Author:Mamang Dai
Pages: 192
Published by: Penguin Books
Date of Publishing: 2006
Price: Rs 200

Compared to other parts of India, the North-East still remains largely unexplored but like many others, I too have held a fascination for its rich bio diversity and wild life.
Mamam Dai's book provides one such rare glimpse into the life of a tribal community, residing in far away lands in Arunachal Pradesh.
While there are more than 29 major tribes in this part of the world, the author brings to focus intricately woven stories of the ‘Adi’ tribe with their myths, legends, oral history and daily living patterns. This is a community that lies at the foothills of the Himalayas, sharing borders with China, Myanmar and Bhutan.
The word ‘Pensam’ in the title, means ‘in-between’. As the author herself puts it, ‘
It suggests the middle, or the middle ground, but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart’
Truly, as the book will reveal, this is a small world where anything can happen. Being adherents of the animistic faith, the tribes here believe in co-existence with the natural world along with the presence of spirits in their forests and rivers.
The first few chapters introduce readers to this strange phenomenon as people get killed mysteriously inside thick, dense forests. Then there is an episode where Kamur, a perfectly normal man, hacks his baby girl and attacks his wife. The elders in the village realize how heinous his crime is, but also believe him when he says that he did it in a 'haunted' moment.
To readers of modern sensibilities, these chapters can seem a bit alien, though it’s still intriguing for sure.
What one can emphatize with, however, are the vagaries of the weather that people living here have to contend with.
The rain lashes ferociously day in and day out in this region, followed by times when the sun and heat become unbearable. This throws the tribals into a mad rage.
"Is this a place to live? Arsi had asked. ‘Why did our forefathers choose this place? Surely, we are outcasts dumped in this bone and knuckle part of the world!’
By what reason are we here with the rain, the mud and the fungas, can you tell me that?’
No doubt, the weather, with its constant fear of earthquakes, landslides and floods, is a part of nature’s cruelty that the people here have come to accept.
But the book also brims with descriptions of breathtaking natural scenes and Dai, being foremost a poet, has penned them in great lyrical style. The blue hills with its lush greens, the wild berries, the spring waters and the orange trees...all have a soothing effect on its inhabitants.
There’s also a story here about the intense love affair between a tribal girl Nenem and a British soldier called David. I must say that I loved this portion of the book the best, as it’s very vividly narrated.
The last few chapters of the book show how even a distant, far flung land near the Himalayas cannot escape the influence of the ‘new world’. The people staying here meet this change with both trepidation and hope.
Mamang Dai’s book, then, is useful in the understanding of the tribal community and how life functions in this lesser-known world. I liked it for its queer appeal and the author’s ability to transport its readers to this rain drenched land. Not to forget, it's beautiful front cover, taken from a painting.
-Sandhya Iyer


Janaki said...

I loved the book for 2 reasons : one is for sheer lyrical beauty of her prose - not one word out of place, not one word superflous - the book has been lovingly written and beautifully crafted and brilliantly edited. Such books are rare.

Two : while the topic addressed is the tussle between tribalism and modernity it is not blatant. The pathos, the confusion, the fear - and generally as to what the future will bring ... (which is true of all communities at that relevant point of time, in this case tribal) - all these issues are blended beautifully - These are so subtle but deep in its scope - i think she has done a marvellous job.

Also, while the region and its histories are mainly unknown for us mainland Indians, it also gives us a perspective from the other side. While literature from the North East has been primarily folk lore so far, we have not yet had (as far as i know) a very contemporary interpretation of traditional folklore. Mamang Dai thinks like "us" but is one of "them". This book she has written for "us" !!

sandy said...

Janaki: You've summed it up admirably here. I do agree about Mamang's poetic language, it's a delight to read.

While I agree with all the points you've brought out, I think the peculiar climate of the region --- soothing at one time, playing havoc on lives at other times, has never been captured so well before.

Qalandar said...

sandy and janaki: excellent set of thoughts here, amkes me want to check out the book. A book on the same terrain that I would highly recommend is Ramachandra Guha's Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India. Despite the unfortunately named title ("his" tribals? give me a break!) this is a worthwhile book indeed.