Category Archives: Non-fiction


Angelina Robertson

In school we were given a poem called ‘Children’ by Nancy Keesing, and had to pen an essay analysing it, and saying how the poem was memorable. We had to include its themes and use TOMPLIST (a device that helps analyse poems) – T for Theme, O for Orientation (of the author), M for Meaning, P for Purpose, L for Language, I for Imagery, S for Structure and T for Tone. We also had to defend our analysis and interpretation of the poem using visible quotes. We were made to write in a particular essay format called PEAL – Point, Evidence, Analysis and Link (to the next paragraph/point of the same paragraph). Anyway, we discussed this poem in class, and turns out that my interpretation of the poem wasn’t really what our teacher expected. Anyway, I think I defended my opinion and interpretation well, so I decided to share it with you. First of all, here is the poem for you to judge yourself:


Long-summer scorched, my surfing children

Catch random waves or thump in dumpers,

Whirling, gasping, tossed disjointed.

I watching, fear they may be broken –

That all those foaming limbs will never

Re-assemble whole, together.


All under such a peaceful sky.


All under such another sky

The pictures show some village children

Caught at random, tossed, exploded,

Torn, disjointed, like sticks broken,

Whose jagged scorching limbs will never

Re-assemble whole together.
And here is what I think of this poem:

The poem ‘Children’ by Nancy Keesing leaves a hollow feeling in the reader because of the strong emotions of devastation highlighted by the powerful imagery and carefully selected language which contributes to the main themes of violence around the world and how often bystanders are too scared to intervene and to stop gruesome wars.

The powerful imagery in this poem makes readers shudder when they read about how the children brutally died ‘under such a peaceful sky’. The stark contrast between the sky and the sea below it is very shocking and rather sad. The use of the word ‘such’ simply emphasises this same contrast – it reveals the grief of the speaker as s/he probably wonders how something so grotesque and sad could happen under something so beautiful, and due to this strong contrast of the tranquil sky and the limbless children, this event seems much more grim.

The excellent use of language devices to evoke feelings of grief in the reader is clear when the speaker talks about how the limbs would never ‘re-assemble whole, together’, in the form of a refrain. What leaves a lasting effect on the reader is the brilliant use of the comma, the slight pause after the word ‘whole’. The pause separates the phrase into two parts and allows the word ‘together’ to seem somehow distant and actually not together, which reinstates the main idea of disunity. However, are the children mentioned before simply children? Maybe not. Keesing subtly places a metaphor in the poem when the speaker talks about his/her ‘surfing children’. Maybe those aren’t simply frolicking kids; maybe they signify our world as a whole. Therefore, the author doesn’t simply mean that the children’s limbs are disjointed – it stands for the disunited people of the world, floating apart in each other’s blood and tears.

The themes of this poem are violence and wars, and the individuals who grieve and sympathise with these wars, but are far too afraid to speak out against them. The speaker represents all those frightened individuals when s/he is simply ‘watching, fear[ing] they might be broken’. The speaker simply watches on, frightened and deeply concerned, but helpless. The author tries to tell us that that is exactly how we shouldn’t be – we should be able to freely express our beliefs and punish what we assume to be morally wrong as a society (for a valid reason). The author tries to tell us that violence will be the end of us all if this continues. Respecting each other’s beliefs and opinions, we humans must unify and put a stop to this hate.

The word ‘hate’ has become so common that nobody thinks of it as a serious issue anymore. People fling it around casually to express their feelings about things or people they dislike. The words ‘violence’, ‘war’, and ‘bloodshed’ mean nothing to us, as does the phrase ‘Citizens killed’. We are taking this abuse far too lightly – we must resist it. But if we are not together as a species, how will we understand which mistakes to correct? Yes, freedom of speech, free will and liberty are all very important. We have simply misinterpreted these concepts to be that we must condemn anyone with opposing beliefs. No. Of course people will disagree with you – there are seven billion of us out here! We simply have to live with this disagreement, and not mercilessly slay whoever contradicts any of our own beliefs. We must unite and work together to survive on Earth. We must unite to maintain peace. But, most importantly, we must unite because if we don’t, eventually, we will be blown apart and left as jagged, scorching limbs who will never re-assemble whole, together.

Our teacher told us about how the poem was actually about a parent, worrying about his/her rebellious children drowning in the ocean while worse disasters happened to other undeserving, innocent children in a village somewhere, probably mocking parenthood. I was very surprised to know what a dramatic difference there was between my interpretation and my teacher’s. I obviously see more reason to my own, although the other one makes sense, too. I’d be fascinated to learn about my classmates’ understanding of the poem, and anyone else’s, too. From my perspective, it was rather sad and serious. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be like that, but that’s okay. I mean, snowflakes are pretty, right? And not one of them is the same as another.


Angelina Robertson is a twelve year old, grade seven student who lives in Bombay. She loves reading books andAngel listening to music. She prefers writing short stories to poems. This is her first published essay. She blogs occasionally at


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Jennifer Thangkhiew

My father passed away almost 20 years ago but I remember him every day. I remember him as a loving and doting father, a jolly, generous, kind, often compulsive person, always ready to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. He would buy us gifts – clothes, toys and food whenever he felt like. I would always be so happy and glad just to be in his company.

He had many names and identities you might say. He was known by his Muslim name as Abrar Hussain, his nickname was Khuku and Johnky, his Christian name was Peter.

My grandfather, Late Capt. Iqbal Hussain of IAMC and a major in the INA, was a medical doctor in the British Army. He was from Secunderabad, Peshawar, in West Pakistan. He married my grandmother Matilda in the year 1927. She was from Malki, Shillong, now the capital of Meghalaya. They had five children – three sons and two daughters. My eldest uncle was Altaf Hussain. He was a druggist at Peshawar. He remained a bachelor till his death. We heard a little about him from time to time. He had settled in Germany but moved back to Pakistan due to his failing health. He passed away in Pakistan a couple of years ago. My youngest uncle, Ikram Hussain, is now the only surviving member on my father’s side. He is now settled in Australia with his wife and five children. We are in touch with them and interact on occasion. He used to teach at a Government School at Adnersahar, Peshawar city.

My grandfather had remarried when he went back to Pakistan and no one knows about his wife’s name or identity. She was last heard of as staying with her brother in Karachi after the death of my grandfather. My grandparents lived in Shillong for a few years but soon after, my grandpa was posted at Benares. This is where my father was born in 1939. That very year my grandpa was transferred to Singapore. The family was evacuated from Singapore when it fell to the Japanese during the Second World War. They returned to Shillong but my grandpa stayed behind at his medical unit. He became a prisoner of war. Later on, my grandpa joined the Indian National Army (INA) and was the Special Medical Officer to Subhash Chandra Bose. After the fall of Japan in the war, grandpa was captured by the British Army and was taken to the Red Fort. He was later released when the British granted a general amnesty. He then came back to Shillong to his wife and children.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to personal and religious differences between my grandparents, my grandma filed a case against my grandpa for the guardianship of her children. She won the case and obtained a decree from the courts. But my grandpa deliberately took my uncles and my father away with him to Lahore in 1947. It was a quirk of fate that the area where they lived fell under West Pakistan when India was partitioned after independence. Grandpa had until then never sought or applied for Pakistani citizenship.

My father, on the other hand, when he was residing at Lahore, had always longed for his mother and desired to be with her. The situation at home became unbearable for him after my grandpa remarried a woman whose identity remains unknown. When my father turned 17, he decided to come back to Shillong, back to where his mother was, back home. In 1956, my father decided to obtain a Pakistani passport because according to him it was the only way he could come back to India at that time. For this purpose he took the name of Abrar Hussain. He told us it was a very arduous and long journey for him, traveling alone through unknown and unfamiliar territory. When he reached Guwahati, Assam, he told us that a kind and helpful taxi driver offered assistance to him even though they barely understood one another as my father knew only the Pashtu and Urdu languages. Due to this benevolent act of the taxi driver my father could reach Shillong safely. But he hardly knew the place called Malki. He did not understand Khasi, the local language of the state. He went knocking on each and every door uttering only the name of his mother, ‘Matilda’,  ‘Matilda’, over and over again till at last he was able to locate her. My grandma was taken aback when she saw her beloved son standing in front of her. What joy and happiness they must have felt when they embraced each other after being separated for such a long time.

Immediately after my father’s return, grandma engaged a lawyer who surrendered his Pakistani passport to the Deputy Commissioner. After it was returned, it was destroyed by my grandma on the grounds that he was a minor and she was his guardian. Moreover, he was an Indian.

My father then got admitted to one of the popular schools in Shillong, St. Anthony’s, where he studied till his matriculation 1961. He went to college at St. Anthony’s where he completed his secondary education in the science stream. It was during his studies there that he met my mother while they were watching a movie, fell in love with her and later married her. Soon after, father left college as he had to provide for his family. He began working as a contractor in Hind Construction which was situated at Barapani. He also had to take up cultivation at the family land there. He returned home and was unemployed up to March 1965. But the following month, he got appointed as a teacher in Pynursla Mission School, which is about 90 kms from Shillong. My mother also got appointed as a teacher in the same school. They lived there for some time with my eldest sister who was around two years at that time. However, their peaceful existence was shattered when one CID (intelligence) inspector contacted my father at Pynursla and directed him to contact the Superintendent of Police (SP) as he was a Pakistani national living without any authority in India. My father was kept in the lock-up and served with a Quit India Notice on 7th September, 1965. He was then taken to the Dawki border with Bangladesh and deported to Pakistan. As soon as he reached Tamabil (border area) he was arrested by the East Pakistani police for failure to produce the Quit India Notice. He was then taken to Sylhet (Bangladesh) where he was jailed. He was in jail for a week after which he was taken to the Dacca Interrogation Centre and locked up for 14 days.

During this period when he was in jail, he was interrogated by one army major, a DSP (CID) and many other plains clothes police officers. They questioned him about the location of army units in and around Shillong and about the political development in the hills. They read out names of various politicians of that time and enquired about their position and influence among the tribals and other issues as well. They also interrogated him about the economic conditions, about the Police Bazaar mosque. They gave him electric shocks and tried to ascertain whether he was sent to Pakistan as an Indian spy. He was then sent back to Sylhet where he was charged U/S 13 (3) of the Official Secrets Act and removed to a cell in the jail. During his stay in jail, my father later told us, he came in contact with some Pakistani Hindu leaders like Sadhu Babu of Lakkuthi, Sylhet, Nikunjabehari Goswami, editor of Janashakti and others. In January 1966, Wickliffe Syiem, Syiem (traditional Khasi king) of Hima Nongstoin also came to interrogate my father about the Hill State Movement and the mass support behind it and other political issues.

My father was facing a lot of problems in jail. So he wrote a letter to his younger brother Ikram in Peshawar, informing him about his various difficulties and sought his help in this matter. In July 1966, uncle Ikram came to Sylhet and got him released on bail-town bail. A person by the name of Sardar Khan hailing from Peshawar gave my father shelter in his house. Uncle Ikram had given my father 300 rupees and with that meager amount, my father somehow was able to survive. He got appointed as a salesman in the City Pharmacy, Bandarbazar. This was due to his prior experience of working in his father’s pharmacy. While on town bail my father had to go to the Thana everyday and to the DIB office once a week. This was his daily routine for the next six months.

After his release he came back to Shillong to his wife and children. However, their life was again disturbed. As ill luck would have it, my father was again arrested by the police under section 14 of the Foreigners’ Act, Preventive Detention Act, Defense of India Rules and other rules and regulations on 16 September, 1967, just after a few days after his arrival in Shillong from Sylhet jail, East Pakistan. He was released on bail till February 1972.

My father then filed a case against the Union of Assam and Meghalaya for having arrested, detained and deported him when he was in actual fact an Indian. The Munsiff’s Court at Shillong issued an absolute injunction on the three respondents restraining them from deporting him and also from considering him as a foreigner or a Pakistani National until the case filed against him under section 14 of the Foreigners’ Act was disposed of. This case was still going on when he was again arrested and detained on 14 July 1975 under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act 1973). The detention referred to my father as a Pakistani National, despite the absolute injunction. The renewed injunction issued that month again referred to him as a Pakistani National.

My father’s life was spent in and out of jails as though he was a criminal. He was tortured and subjected to all kinds of humiliation because of the false accusations levelled against him. Despite spending time in jail, my father was fortunate enough to get generous help from some kindhearted people to overcome those uncanny hurdles of life. During that time one of his lawyer friends helped him come out of jail. He had finally won the case. But he had to suffer a lot of trauma and was always worried and anxious especially for his mother and kids. But despite all that he had to go through, he never gave up hope and in the end, his honesty and resilience paid off and he was able to lead a normal and happy life till he passed away in January 1992.

This is the story of my father, a man wrongly accused and detained for the simple reason that he did not possess the valid documents to prove that he was legally an Indian citizen. He got separated from his mother. It was not only a partition of the Indian Nation but it was also a partition between husband and wife and a partition between parents and their children and also a partition between brothers and sisters.


Partition Memory and the Northeast: A Note

Jyotirmoy Prodhani

Partition of India is an epochal catastrophe of human history in South Asia. The partition narrative, proliferated in the wake of India’s independence, recaptures the torturous experiences associated with the birth of a nation and the haunting trauma suffered by many. The partition narratives have essentially redefined the memory of the time. The enormity of the human disaster is so acute and huge that historical accounts of the event quite often seem to have shrunk it into a mere footnote, or a reportage at best, for owing to its own narrative limitations, history is always an inadequate discourse to represent the deeper essence of human experiences at a particular juncture of an epochal moment. With the recent rise in the interest of studying memory as a significant discourse, memories associated with historical events like India’s partition have also gained renewed interest. In his book Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (2003), Andreas Huyssen quite significantly points out, “Historical memory today is not what it used to be. It used to mark the relation of a community or a nation to its past, but the boundary between past and present used to be stronger and more stable than it appears to be today.”

Retrieval of memory is, however, not a neutral rite; this is rather intimately symptomatic of the current imperatives. The literary proliferation on partition has quite distinctively recaptured the human tragedy in the wake the partition primarily in the context of the Punjab and Bengal, the Western and the Eastern locales of partition experiences. There are, however, several other tales of partition experiences that have remained peripheral and unheard of. Northeast India is one such location where partition narrative has a different dimension which is not only about the people dislocated from the other side of the new border to arrive here as homeless refugees, but the same event has some other protagonists as well. In the Northeast the dominant partition narrative is restricted to the Bengali Hindus forced to cross border in the wake of partition to relocate themselves mainly in Tripura and in the Barak valley of Assam. However, there are several other non-Muslim ethnic communities who had to leave behind their native hearth on the other side of the border and come to the India as an act of survival imperative. But their stories hardly find a place in the public spaces. Jennifer Thangkhiew, a young Khasi teacher from Shillong, has a captivating tale to tell about the impact of partition on her family. Partition in the tiny hill station of Shillong was a different experience for the native communities here. Jennifer recalls in this poignant tale how partition all of a sudden changed their intimate world of assurance forever. This is the story she accidentally narrated while interacting in one of my classes.


Jennifer Thangkhiew is an Assistant Professor in the Dept of English at Shankardev College, Shillong.
Jyotirmoy Prodhani is a Professor at the Dept. of English, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong.

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Roderick Chalmers

Cutlacherra Pagla Khanna

During the Christmas holidays when we were all together in Cutlacherra, the weather was fine; the temperatures were not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

It was then that we arranged “impromptu” picnics. They always took a great deal of preparation and planning.

First of all we had to choose a suitable location. Then we had to decide what food would be taken. The mode of transport to the chosen location was very important.

We did not have to wait for a bright and sunny day. During the winter months, every day was going to be bright and sunny. We just had to choose a specific day.

On the appointed day, two bearers would go ahead to make arrangements for our comfort. Workers were employed to take a table and chairs to a clearing at the edge of the forest which had been cleared of all twigs and overhanging branches. etc.  The earth was flattened and the table laid out with a tablecloth and napkins.

Someone carried the gramophone and a few records to the venue, usually nursed on the back of the lorry.

A primus stove was an essential bit of equipment as all food had to be reheated.

The food was not anything different from our everyday meals, plates and cutlery and drinking glasses and water all had to be taken.

My mother, grandmother and sisters were usually taken by car to as near as possible to the picnic site. The food was transported in the dekchis, in the boot of the car and my brothers and I would ride our bicycles to the spot. Table and chairs and morahs and all the heavier stuff was taken on the back of a plantation lorry.

My father would always break off from his work on the plantation (Kamjari) and join us. He would arrive riding on his horse with the syce (groom) running along behind.

We would play some music on the gramophone and sit around chatting and laughing and joking. Because it was the jungle, nothing different then, we had to ensure that there were not any nasty creepy crawlies about. We messed about under the trees and all the while the bearers were busy reheating and preparing the food. The ayahs were kept busy looking after the very young ones, they were my sister Sheila and my youngest brother Alfy (this may come as a shock to some who knew him as a team captain in school, or even as a grown up).

When all was ready we were called to have our meal in the jungle (Pagla khanna).

Then things started to wind down, all the plates etc were given a cursory wash in a stream. All pure unpolluted water was used then the dishes were transported back to the bungalow.

The primus stove was used to boil water and make tea and cake was cut for us.

After all the playing around we had to wash our hands in the cool waters of the stream, before we could be given cake to eat. All the other food was eaten with a spoon and fork.( I still use a spoon and fork to eat my Indian meals, my children all use a knife and fork to eat curry and rice. I ‘educated’ my wife Molly, to use a spoon for curry and rice. )

As it was getting towards evening, my mother, grandmother and sisters and the Ayahs would all get in the car to return to the bungalow. My father would make a short visit to the tea gangs before he returned home and all the paraphernalia for a Pagla khanna would be returned to the bungalow.

We boys would ride our bicycles around a bit and then pedal home.

We would all be tired but happy because it had been such an enjoyable day.  These days were memorable because they were so infrequent but also because they were a family affair. Best of all, my Mum was alive then.

Sometimes, only sometimes, we invited other planters and their families to join us.

The servants always referred to our picnics as Pagla khanna and could not see why we had to go to the jungle when we were perfectly comfortable eating at home.

In time we always referred to our picnics as Pagla khannas and never as picnics. (Sahib log Pagla ho gya)

Concert Parties in the 1940s

I wonder if anyone remembers the concert parties that used to come around the tea gardens.

They used to perform their plays over three nights, in the natch ghor.  In the absence of electricity, Petromax lights and Tilley lamps would be borrowed from all and sundry . The shopkeepers in the bazar were usually a good source. The lights needed to be pumped up frequently.

Very extravagant garish costumes were worn. The plays invariably involved a king. You knew that he was a king because he walked around with a crown on his head. Then there was the baddie with a large black moustache, there was always a man called senapati. Beards were much in evidence.

The orchestra consisted of a man with a loud trumpet, an harmonium and some drums.

The audience waited with bated breath for the king to challenge the baddie to a duel with the immortal words, ‘Dhoroe austroe thumi hamar songae judhoe koroe.’ A big cheer would go up from the audience. (Sorry, my spelling of Bengali words into English script is not up to scratch, but you get the drift).

The play ended with the king the victor and the baddie lying dead. Very hammy acting was always appreciated.

Our bara babu, in one of his patriotic moods decided that he would put on a play with a sahib as the baddie. He demonstrated how one should fire a pistol ‘dhai dhai’ with each dhai the left leg was raised up behind him.

He suggested that I play the sahib and dress up. Then he thought about it and decided that I didn’t need to dress up, but I should wear a sola toppee.

My dad soon put a stop to such nonsense.

Cutlacherra Dogs

Over the years we had many dogs as pets in Cutlacherra. Some died of illness. Others were taken by tigers. A puppy was taken from our front veranda just as it hopped over the door frame. There was a scream and it was gone.  We used to keep the door open during the evening for the cool breeze.

The night chowkidars slept on the verandas at night.  It was decided at one time that Ghurkha night watchmen would be a good idea. But that didn’t last.

Then there were the Lushais. Sena made himself out to be fearless so he and a colleague were employed to keep us safe at night. Sena asked my father for a torchlight so he lent him the very long beam hunting torch that took six batteries. During the night my father went out on to the verandas and found Sena and colleague sound asleep. So he picked up the torch and went back to bed.

Next morning I heard Sena explaining ‘Bahut shorom ko baat hay’.

The dogs also gave us a lot of heartache. One of my uncles working in the Assam Oil Company in Digboi had these beautiful black and white Cocker Spaniels. He brought them down to Cutlacherra for us.  Tojo was the male (probably named after The Japanese General) and the docile lovable female named Peggy.

They had two puppies, one was snatched from the veranda and after a great deal of thought and much imagination we named the other one Rex.

The jamadar Romesh was in charge of looking after the dogs. He fed and watered them and took them down to the river for a bath with Shirley’s dog soap. All the good stuff.


Tojo was bitten by a mad dog and started showing signs of hydrophobia. When Romesh took them down to the river for a bath, then Tojo bit him on the wrist.

Ideally, the dogs would have been shot, but my father had no cartridges. The only option was to bash its brains out. Just before it was killed Tojo bit Peggy on the mouth and it immediately started swelling up.  So Peggy and Rex had to be disposed of in the same way. Peggy made no struggle but went meekly to her death.

For days the bungalow was very quiet and my father was traumatised for days, with the thought of what he had had to do.

Romesh was sent to the civil hospital in Hailakandi for serum and our doctor babu gave him fifteen consecutive injections in the stomach. The rest of us, including the servants were given seven consecutive injections, in our arms as a precaution.

Maybe that is why I am a bit pagalled.


Roderick Chalmers

Roderick Chalmers

Roderick Chalmers owned  Cutlacherra Tea Estates in the 1930s and 40s. He’s retired now and lives in London.

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From a rebel to a mother, her stories of being a former Mizo Hnam Sipai (Mizo National Army) have become the son’s favorite bedtime story of Marini[1]. As she narrates her story, she reminisces of the period when they struggled for freeing Mizoram and the challenges she faced in rebuilding her life after the movement. Like Marini, there are many ‘female nationalists’ who joined the Mizo National Front (hereafter MNF) aspiring ‘Zalenna’ (Freedom) for Mizoram.

The Mizo in 1966 under the MNF declared independence and waged an armed struggle against the Indian state. After its establishment as a political party in 1961, the MNF became the main carrier of Mizo nationalism putting ‘self-determination’ as its main objective. Men and women, young and old, flocked together in numbers in support of the movement. Most recruits of the MNF were from the youths who enrolled themselves as Mizo National Volunteer (MNV). They have a military like functioning in their operations with units almost in every village headed mostly by ex-army men. They were trained to the art of military lifestyle with some holding ‘Thingfak’ (kindling wood) in place of weapons. This was then replaced in 1966 with weapons supplied from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and later on China. The journey of the MNF struggle thus concluded in 1986 with the signing of Memorandum of Settlement.

Hailing from Puilo village which is located in the northern part of present day Mizoram, Marini too remembers enrolling herself as a volunteer in the MNV. The MNF between the years 1961 to 1966 were busy recruiting volunteers and expanding their support base. This was the period when the MNF was expanding its base and diffusing Mizo nationalism to the nook and corner of every Mizo inhabited areas. As already put above, both men and women mostly the youth enrolled as volunteer. She notes that ‘I also enrolled myself as a volunteer and we were given basic nursing trainings in open fields’. The participation of women particularly was massive till the time when the MNF were pushed down to Bangladesh in 1969. While most of them may not be active in the movement or participating themselves as armed combatants, women like Marini were helpful in keeping the movement going by providing food and carrying important messages to the rebels.

As far as the discourse of MNF movement and Mizo nationalism is concerned, the contribution of women remains sidelined and suppressed. The stories of women rebels have so far been an angle which remains untouched and un-discussed in the larger discourse of MNF movement.

Needles to say, the MNF as an organization and as a government was run and administered by men. However, from the time MNF started recruiting volunteers, un-married women in particular enrolled themselves as Mizo National Volunteer (MNV). To this day, the contribution of women and their participation has been systematically excluded in the larger discourse of the movement. As we proceed, rather than trying to provide an alternative discourse, it will discuss women’s experience of the MNF movement thereby breaking the silence.

From Victims to Agents

Mizo Hills during the 20 years of armed rebellion witnessed one of the worst forms of sexual violence and punitive measures from the security forces. Civilians comprising of men and women face the brunt of military violence. The ‘culture of impunity’ unleashed by the security forces did not spare men nor women, young nor old. The suffering of the civilians remains unspeakable and to many also remains as a painful memory. Women in particular are extremely vulnerable to sexual violence. Among them, rape is the most common and mostly spoken about which is one of the extreme forms of sexual violence that further reproduces unequal gender relations. Women are therefore then predominantly viewed as victims.

The gendered discourse of MNF movement portrayed women as mere victims. Considering women as mere ‘victims’ is as tantamount to considering women as always in need of male protection. At the same time, such views put aside the women who have been part of the movement. Furthermore, the reduction of women as victims alone amount to a complete effacement of the participation and contribution of women during the movement.

Marini too was victim of sexual assault by the military personnel. Having a history of being a volunteer, she was a suspect by the Indian military personnel.. Also, as far as violence against women is concerned, rape comes at the forefront limiting our notion of violence those that women experienced in conflict situation. One could capture this when she says ‘since I was enrolled as a volunteer before the outbreak of the conflict in 1966, I was repeatedly summoned by the Indian security forces, my hands and feet were tied, I was then put before the public in such a manner’. The voice of Marini rebelled against the dominant impression that considers women as mere victims. It was due to such repeated humiliation that pushed Marini towards MNF, which she joined after a year from the outbreak of the conflict. As she note ‘I along with four of my friends were put in the jails and tied with ropes all over your body. Luck was however on our side as there was one Mizo security personnel. Seeing our condition, he asked me to call for him in the most desperate situation as he promised me to stand by me at any cost. After this experience, I promise myself that I will never be caught and punished by the Indian security personnel’.

The above narrative presents an interesting fact about the choice for joining the armed movement. The choice to join the movement was a decision not taken to escape mere sexual violence, but a form of resistance and self-liberation from such forms of violence inflicted by men. Sexual violence of different kinds in conflict situation in their reproduction of unequal power relations further translates itself into a patriarchal tool to suppress women. It strips women of their dignity by the usage of sexual violence as a strategic instrument.

Rebels, Patriarchy and the Women

The MNF as put in the initial part of the paper reflects the patriarchal nature of the organization. It is easily visible that the roles prescribed to men and women are within the boundaries of patriarchal norms. Before the outbreak of the conflict, men volunteers were trained militarily while the women received nursing training. And again, as she narrates ‘we were given basic nursing training in open fields and were not given military training but I however remember my father getting military training. As for me I on the one hand did not receive any military training’.

The above narrative speaks of how patriarchal mindset and norms seeps within the MNF as an organization. To put this forward, women therefore were tasked with the responsibilities of nursing. Traditionally defined roles get instituted in such process. The essentialist narrative which associates gender with caring is starkly evident further reinforcing the patriarchal norms. Majority of women who joined the movement entered as nurses and office staffs with a few like Marini who was a part of the army. Women therefore bore a major responsibility for caring the wounded and the injured, like Banerjee (2001) who notes armed outfits such as National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) and United National Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) as ‘armed patriarchies’, the MNF too is not free from such label. Rather, there is strong institutionalization of the traditional notion of Masculinity and Feminity. Needless to say, the major responsibility given to women testifies this notion.

The patriarchal mindset was enforced by their male comrades who consider women as ‘weaker gender’ which appears again in her narrative when she says ‘Except for few physical exercises, they did not provide us rigorous military training. Women do not receive the kind of military as men they were also freed from the duty even in camps as well. We are mostly put in camp which are relatively peaceful’. Also, in the mass surrender in 1971, women and the injured along with families were the ones who surrendered. Their surrendering was done as MNF needed to find a new base by moving their camp from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) to Arakan Hills in Burma. This ended the journey of her 5 years in MNF movement. The few women who were in the MNF also concluded their struggle here.

The role of women though rather unexplored is a crucial one when it comes to the MNF movement. Despite this, their status within the ranks both in the army and the civil line were low within the hierarchy of the organization. No women make it to the higher decision making body within the Mizoram Sawrkar (Mizoram Government) and remain overwhelmingly occupied by men. To expose the patriarchal character of the movement it is however not necessary to condemn the movement and the struggle of the Mizo. Rather, the bigger question that needs to be address is the location of women in the discourse of the movement. To put women as mere victims is to deny the participation and contribution of women in the movement thereby leading to the continual suppression of women’s voice.

Before concluding, it is noteworthy to mention that the experience of women and the varying roles they played remains mute and kept hidden till today. The larger corpus of literature on the MNF is silent on the issue of women too. The mentioning of women never crosses the boundary of ‘victims’ apart from being involved in the movement, women used to smuggle food and other supplies to the MNF rebels. Women are therefore an integral to the MNF movement. The MNF movement relied heavily too on women on various fronts. While certain notions of womanhood were magnified, yet, women’s rebel like Marini breaks such the essentialize notion of womanhood or feminity by choosing to rebel.


[1] The name of the respondent (narrator) is changed.


Puia-PhotoRoluahpuia is currently pursuing his doctorate degree at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), North-East Regional Campus (NERC), Guwahati. His doctoral research is about nationalism studies, with special focus on the case of Mizo nationalism under Mizo National Front (MNF). His areas of interest include issues related to ethnicity, nationalism and violence. Apart from this, he also works on various projects under the Autonomous Council of Manipur.

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Margaret Ch. Zama

Rambuai literature, literally translated, means literature of the ‘troubled land’, and this nomenclature is seen as most suitable for the purpose of this review as the intention is to be as inclusive as possible. This is to say, the fiction, non-fiction, songs and poems that have been generated by the troubled history of the Mizo National Front movement, be they MNF or non-MNF narratives, are included in the composition of this genre that is growing and likely to continue to do so in the years to come. The use of the terms ‘insurgency’ or ‘resistance’ literature/writing is avoided as these are found to be limiting and in several ways politically incorrect, for these terms can be seen as denoting an underlying implication of condemnation of an ideology that others have sacrificed their lives for, or died in the countering of it.

As with other conflicts throughout world history, the Mizo ‘rambuai’ conflict too had its supporters and detractors, the hardliners and those who tried to tread the middle path. There are also crucial questions to which there are several answers – questions such as why, where, who were the real victims, who were those responsible and the like. And as with other conflicts, there is always a suppressed voice which none dare to foreground. The sufferings caused by army atrocities were many, but so were those undergone in the hands of the underground and yet, most narratives remain untold. But with the passing of time, there comes a strong desire to set certain records straight, to retell histories, do justice to those no more, and to provide an unbiased history for the future generation. The Mizoram Upa Pawl (MUP), an association of senior citizens of Mizoram, have begun the process of this recovery of untold stories through 2 volumes entitled Rambuai Lai leh Kei (the troubled years and me) published in 2010 and 2014. More are expected in the future from this generation who underwent the entire experience of the troubled times to survive and tell their stories.

Before moving into a review of the songs/poems and fiction generated by ‘rambuai’, a brief review of the non-fiction is hereby given. There are layers of work and great potential for further research and study, and this review while attempting to be as inclusive as possible, will at the same time focus on key features only.

While focusing on a given period of Mizo history beginning 1st March 1966, it is crucial to recall the political propaganda that came into the public domain through booklets/ pamphlets, and of course songs. A few of such booklets/pamphlets that we can consider forerunners to ‘rambuai literature’ were Zalenna Thuchah No.1. (1962) and Zalenna Thuchah No.2. (1963) (message of freedom), the authorship of which is credited to MNF President Laldenga. To counter their ideology the Mizo Union issued pamphlets like Politics kal Sual lakah Fimkhur a Ngai and Independent Thua Mizo Union Thupuan (1963) which cautioned the public against the deviant politics of secession from the Indian Union, of the MNF.

One of the books considered by many to be a book of MNF ideology is erstwhile MNF Foreign Minister /Secretary Lalhmingthanga’s book Exodus Politics (1965). Others are former Defence Minister R. Zamawia’s book Zofate Zinkawngah Zalenna Mei a Mit Tur ani Lo (2007), former Information Minister Ngurkunga’s work Political Diary of Ngurkunga which was not printed but cyclostyled (date unknown), PB Rosanga’s book Insurgency in Mizoram (1980), Biakchhunga’s book Hnam Kalsiam (1996), Chawngzuala’s Ka Hringnun Zinkawng (1998), Zoramthanga’s book Zoram Zalenna Lungphum (1980) and Mizo Hnam Hlabu (patriotic Mizo songbook) published by the self-styled Ministry of Publicity of the underground Govt. of Mizoram in 1981. Incidentally, Exodus Politics was a book that was seized by the Indian Army during the time, according to the foreword of the revised edition.

In The Dagger Brigade by Nirmal Nibedon, we are told that “On 28th January (1967) the Assam Government announced amnesty and littered the jungles with leaflets” (112), the leaflets being Mizo Entu scattered from a helicopter. By 1967 and 1968, leaders of the Mizo Union party (Mizo Mi Ropui HK Bawichhuaka: 371 and Ch. Chhunga Chanchin: 115) were already talking about the need for forgiveness and reconciliation with the MNF brothers and sisters. There were of course several incidents and words spoken/printed at the time and in the following years, to bear witness to the fact that the voicing of such good intentions did not make an impact on everyone. Even Laldenga himself when asked at a public meeting at Bawngkawn on 20th September 1986 (post Peace Accord 30th June 1986), if he would seek pardon for the killing of over 200 members of the Mizo Union Party by the MNF, responded by saying that he did not find the need to do so! (Sakeibaknei Weekly, October 1-8, 1986).

In 1974, Brig. T. Sailo started the Human Rights movement and wrote several articles to educate and spread awareness among the Mizo regarding their rights and relationships vis-à-vis the military, both in Mizo and English. These also include a Memorandum submitted to PM Indira Gandhi on October 16th, 1974 regarding Village Grouping and so on. All these writings were later compiled and published as a book entitled Human Rights Report of Mizoram 1974 (2013).

Nunthara’s article “MNF hold Key to Political Stability” published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 9.50, Dec 14, 1974 could perhaps be claimed as the first academic attempt at ‘rambuai’ studies. Vol. 16.30, July 25, 1981 of EPW again published an article by him on “Grouping of Villages in Mizoram: Its Social and Economic Impact”. In 1989 Nunthara published a book that continues to serve as an important reference book in academia – Impact of Grouping of Villages in Mizoram.

The year 1986 was important in Mizo history marking the event of the signing of the Peace Accord on June 30th between the MNF leadership and the Government of India. It was also crucial and interesting for related reasons for the events leading up to, and after the signing of the Accord, generated so much public interest, debate and participation that the written outcome may be said to have contributed to the development of ‘rambuai’ writings in important ways. Some titles of journalistic writings in the local dailies and weeklies appeared to vie with each other in the use of sensational and provocative language that reflected the extremity of emotions of the times now let loose post Peace Accord, while there were also daily doses of very informative and interesting articles that fed the public.

The MNF returnees alone have given birth to several writers from whom over 30 books have been printed, not to speak of articles, memoirs and others published in dailies, weeklies, souvenirs and the like. These are the ‘MNF narratives’ referred to earlier in the review of this section. From the higher hierarchy of their structure, the written output usually touches on the origins and history of the movement including hiccups experienced, up to the Accord. The output from the ranks usually dwell on the action component, in particular between the years 1966-1971 considered to be the most violent period of the movement. The approach and writing style as well as the content of these works often reflect the level of, or lack of, formal education on the part of many of the writers. Many of the writings romanticize and valorize the movement while remaining silent on the resultant sufferings of the people, and at times, attempting to gloss over or justify several incidents that have not reflected well on them or the movement.

It was K. Hawla Sailo, former underground, who expressed a strong opinion on the fact that history is biased and incomplete when it is written from one aspect only. In his book Mi An Ve Nan (to be like others) 2007, he admits that admitting the many wrongs committed by him and his compatriots is a difficult and shameful thing to do, but if the wrongs are not admitted by those who actually underwent and experienced it, others will later misinterpret history, and this will not be a good thing (139).

‘MNF narratives’ no doubt offer some very interesting fare, but ‘rambuai’ literature does not end here. There are still many unwritten records of silent voices that refuse to speak out till date from both sides of the fence, for reasons best known to them. It also includes the flip side of many a story, the ‘non-MNF narrative’ emanating from pastors, church elders, pensioners, ex-servicemen, politicians, former bureaucrats, school teachers and all those who have something to tell, to narrate. In a sense this category of ‘non-MNF narrative’ can be viewed as the counter voice of the ‘other’. Though the corpus/output is still limited in number, the narratives come in the form of articles, books, memoirs, biographies and so on. Information provided by these writings depends largely upon how outspoken (or reticent) the writer chooses to be. The first-hand accounts of sufferings undergone by the writers themselves prove deeply evocative and provide an effective counter-balance to the undiluted ‘MNF narratives’. This is to be appreciated as a healthy trend that provides space for debate and growth besides its contribution to the enrichment of a balanced history and its records.

Several submissions found in Rambuai Lai leh Kei (2010) published by the MUP referred to earlier was at first, the outcome of the efforts of F. Malsawma, erstwhile Education Minister under the T. Sailo Ministry who invited school teachers of different villages across Mizoram, to write of their experiences during the troubled years. The submissions were kept in a file which much later got to see the light of day in this book. Thanseia, government official pensioner and noted social worker, wrote in his Foreword what has proven to be revealing about the written output of this particular genre of ‘rambuai’ literature. He reflects on the dilemma that, (my translation) one is afraid to reveal the truth, yet one is also afraid to be untruthful. He expresses the hope that the book will truthfully reveal the sufferings caused by both the army and the underground without bias, that the future generations to come will know the truth for whatever it is worth, that we will be able to trace if acts committed by the underground were acts in consonance with Mizo behaviour; that if acts committed by the army were acts in consonance with the behavior of an army long known for its good reputation, and that if acts committed against its own citizens deserved merit in any way (xii, xiii).

Such writings have critical value particularly for those who wish to learn and know more about the plight of the common man during the troubled times – who is the writer, where was he at that point in time? What was he doing? What was his involvement? Questions that will provoke some more of the ‘silent voices’ to speak up in times to come.

There is not much input to speak of from women writers. There were a number of female volunteers who joined the underground while some remained over ground to perform specific jobs given to them. Many who married members of the underground also became actively involved. Lalzawmliani is one who wrote on the sad lot of wives whose husbands left for the underground in books like Pathian Hruaina Kawng (1992) (the god-led path) and Tuara leh Malsawmna (2013) (travails and blessings) – the titles themselves are definitely reflective of Christian influence and the solace sought from the spiritual. B. Sangkhumi wrote a book I Pa Tak Tak Ka Ni (2011) (I am your real father) wherein she wrote about her father MNF MP Biaksanga. A female MNF volunteer Zaihruaii wrote of her own experiences in Thingsat Souvenir (2005). An article published in the weekly Hriatna, 29th July-4th August 1986 entitled “Ka Bialpa Ruhro a Tel Ve Lo” (my lover’s remains is not included) was written by Sakhawmawii – probably a reference to the remains / bones brought home for burial by the MNF returnees, of their fallen comrades from the jungles after the signing of the Peace Accord in 1986. Incidentally, these remains were provided a resting place at Luangmual now christened Martarte Thlanmual (graveyard of the martyrs) wherein the collected bones of 1563 individuals lie, all individually engraved in granite. Room for another 2500 is also in place. This was a project undertaken by the MNF Party over a period of time post the Peace Accord.

Buangi Sailo’s book Lunglen Zun A Zam (2008) is a work that contains her observations of the aftermath of ‘rambuai’. In Rambuai Lai leh Kei Book II (2014) we find one lone woman contributor Maj. Lalchhingi from the Salvation Army. Mafeli so far, is the only female writer who has contributed to the area of ‘rambuai fiction’ with her novel Nghilh Har kan Tuar (2010). However, in the ‘rambuai song/hla’ section we witness that contribution from women composers are much more. Some of them are Dr. Laltanpuii, Lalruali, Thansiami, RTC Lalduhawmi, Lalsangzuali Sailo, and Lalthanrengi. There is a collection of songs in a compilation made by the Peoples’ Conference (PC) Ram Kalsiam Hla Bu (2013) wherein is found several songs composed by women. Journalist Lalhruaitluanga Chawngte in Zozam Weekly, June 29, 2009, published an informative article “Zalenna sualin Mizo nulate”, the title itself being self explanatory – ‘young women who fought for freedom’.

‘Rambuai’ Songs / Poems

In order to emphasize the power and influence of politically motivated songs, particularly in the role played by them in ‘rambuai literature’, the review of this section will make a start from two important song writers / composers Laltanpuia (of Sialsuk) and Rolkunga who, in post-independent India, succeeded through their songs in arousing the Mizo patriotic sensibility with an intense longing for Mizo nationhood. RL Thanmawia in History of Mizo Literature, (2013), acknowledges the contribution of Rokunga’s songs in facilitating the MNF movement by emphasizing that such was the widespread popularity of Rokunga’s songs post 1960 that it was difficult to gauge whether it was his songs that gave birth to the MNF or the other way round. In any case, that the patriotic songs composed by him stirred the public imagination and accelerated the growth of the MNF ideology is an accepted fact, for in no time his songs immersed the whole of Mizoram.

Ch. Saprawnga too in his book Ka Zin Kawng (1990) gives particular reference to one of Rokunga’s song “Harh La! Harh La!” (1962) saying that it was this song with a marching beat that roused the Mizo youth with its clarion call (to rise, to wake up) (p 196). In Rambuai Lai leh Kei (2010) it is mentioned that the songs of Rokunga and Laltanpuia used to be sung by young boys and girls with tears in their eyes and that it seemed as if the whole of the land was convinced of the importance of independence (p 60-61). Laltanpuia had already composed in 1964, two years pior to the outbreak of the 1966 MNF-armed uprising, a song called “Independent kan Zoram tan” (independence for Zoram), “wherein he blatantly bore witness to the MNF nationalistic mindset and its policy of secession from India” (Emerging Literatures of Northeast India , p 67).

While writing of the influence and contribution of patriotic songs to the enrichment of ‘rambuai literature’, there were other equally important contributions to this genre. Even as some songs were composed to rouse the sentiments of people towards hope for a new nation, a new future, there were song composers and even prophetic voices like Thanghleia who foretold of the untold sufferings and death that would be the outcome of such an uprising. There were obviously very few takers to share such a view, if not none, for there was no room in those times of high pitched emotions, to reflect on the possibility of harsh reality. J.Malsawma too ironically comments in one of his essays in Zo-Zia 2001 (2nd ed), that songs such as those composed by Rokunga and others fell silent once the might of the Indian Army took over the land.

As the dark period of ‘rambuai’ unfolded, composer Laltanpuia was compelled to compose his touching song on the burning of his beloved village Sialsuk by the Assam Rifles on 15th June 1966. The song “Sialsuk Khaw Kang Hla” was composed in the month of August of the same year. Because the incident caused such deep sorrow in the hearts of the people who witnessed the pride of their lives reduced to ashes – a village of over 300 homes with a hospital, a post office, a Primary, Middle and High School and a PWD Inspection Bungalow, and the churches – that the composer came up with a second song of the same title in the month of December of the same year!

The burning of villages along with village groupings became the order of the day and in no time the prophetic words of Thanghleia came to pass. It was the turn of Suakliana of Lianpui village who was grouped in Vanzau grouping centre to compose his famous song “Khaw Sawihawm Hla” in 1968, sung by Siampuii Sailo in the AIR, that made listeners openly weep and came to be known as ‘hla lungchhia’ (the grieving song) (VLC Vanlalriatrenga. Pathian Thlaraua Mi Ril Suakliana leh A Hlate. Gilzom Offset, 2010). Below is the first verse and its summary for a sampling of the content of the song :

Kan huntawng zingah khawkhawm a pawi ber mai,
Zoram hmun tin khawtlang puan ang a chul zo ta;
Tlang tina mi khalhkhawm nunau mipuite,
Chhunrawl a vang, riakmaw iangin kan vai e.

(The most tragic of times ever encountered in our history is the village grouping, wherein the entire community is lifeless like a faded cloth, and people, mothers and children, herded from across the hills, are hungry and homeless like the ‘riakmaw’ bird in search of shelter).

Two-lined couplets and three-lined song compositions are not a new thing, particularly in the Mizo traditional songs. What is interesting is that there is a reversion to this type of composition though not widespread, during the troubled years. They, like the rest of the songs of the period, again provide an excellent landscape of the social and political history and mood of the times. For a sampling, in the month of September 1967, the Indian Army had rounded up over 600 men from the villages of Samthang, Zawlsei, Khuangthing and Khawbung, and imprisoned them in a confined space in Khawbung Middle School for 9 days and 10 nights. It took a mentally challenged man Lenchhuma to compose the lines below that reflects their miserable condition under heat and rain:

 Khawbung e, Samthang e, Zawlsei e,
Khuangthing e, Khawbungah pho ve;
A sat leh seng loh, a sur leh seng loh (Zoramin Zalenna A Sual. Vols 6 & 7 : 49, 50)

(the men of Khawbung, Samthang, Zawlsei, Khuangthing, were put out in the open without shelter from the hot sun, nor the pouring rain).

Again, the villagers of Ngopa worked out a strategy to avoid the harsh physical blows that the Indian Army freely meted out, by saying “ram ram sap” each time they passed them by. So out of this was born the following couplet which villagers on their way to work in the jhums in groups, would loudly chant :

Vai sipai kutthlak a na lua,
Ram ram sap ka ti e zang dam nan (Zoram A Tap : 169-170)

which means, “I say ram ram sap in order to spare my back from the heavy blows of the heavy handed Indian army.” Beyond the obvious pathos of the context, there is an underling note of subversive humour and the Mizo ingenuity to adapt which perhaps can be seen as an element of the coping strategies they developed for the dark period. There were of course, numerous songs generated by the period and composed by the MNF cadres themselves which have been compiled in Mizo Hnam Hlabu.

R. Thangvunga in commenting on ‘raltiang ram’ (ideal land beyond) romanticized by Rokunga in his songs, poses the question “is the breaking of dawn foreseen by songwriters not happening?…O songwriter, could it be that you misread the bravery of our ancestors in your people?” (my translation) (Zoram I Tan Chauh : pp 53, 54). Rochamliana Ralte in Mizo Nih Tinuamtu Rokunga (pp 290-298) enumerates the reasons for Rokunga’s deep regret and the burden of responsibility that he carried in his last days, for the tragic aftermath of the troubled times and the sufferings of the Mizo people. He composed a song that reflected this depressive mood of his in 1969, the year of his demise, “Ka Pianna Zawlkhawpui” (Aizawl, the place of my birth) wherein he expressed his sadness over the changes he witnessed in Mizo society and Aizawl town – the crime and corruption that used to be alien to the old Mizo way of life.

In contrast to Rokunga, the regret and heartburn that Laltanpuia (Sialsuk) underwent was quite different according to his daughter Chuhthangi who in speaking about his song “Kan Ram Hi Kan Ram Ani” (1964) (Zoram is our land), said, that in the midst of all the revelry and rejoicing as a result of the Peace Accord in 1986, he was enraged and said that no one now had the moral right to sing his song as it was composed for the cause of independence and not mere statehood (Laltanpuia Thu leh Hla Zirhona : pp 28,29).

Amidst these conflicting emotions undergone by song composers who through their songs had laid themselves bare for the cause, we have V. Thangzama who in 1971 composed a song that continues to be popular and touch hearts till today “Tho La, Ding Ta Che”, translated as “Arise and Awake” by the composer. It is a call to the people of the land to get on with the business of rebuilding their lives and society, and not to indulge in thoughts of revenge and anger. In other words, a song to regenerate and not look back, but to look ahead as there is a bright future before us all. (Deh Loh Sakei Huai : 118-119).

The songs and poems generated by the ‘rambuai’ period have their own individual stories to tell, each worthy and deserving of individual study. Just as the times and context undergone by the songwriters / poets are not the same, so also the choice of themes and personal leanings. It is this very variety that makes this genre a rich source of information and research for not only the socio-economic and political mapping of the times, but of the workings of the Mizo psyche as well. However, while it is the prerogative of researchers and academia to unravel subtexts and put forth interpretations, it needs to be a responsible and accountable study gleaned from careful research on the history and politics of the times and also the context of the individual narratives themselves.

  • A brief overview is provided here of more of the songs other than the ones already given, to showcase other aspects of this dark history :“Chawngtlai Khaw Hal Hla” composed in 1966 by TBC Zoramthara of Chawngtlai village. (Col. Lalrawnliana. Zoramin Zalenna A Sual. Vol. II. Zorin Compugraphics, 1996). This song is a lamentation for the burning of Chawngtlai village in which 180 houses were destroyed and an old woman Nawlchini burnt to death. This incident was followed by famine wherein the young and old were the most severely affected. This incident was army retaliation of the ambush carried out by MNF volunteers between Khawzawl and Champhai village.
  • “Chul Hnu Vangkhua” composed in 1966 by Roliana Ralte (L) of Lunglei (Leng-Hnem, Lunglei : Mizo Zaimi Inzawmkhawm, 2003). This is a song which relates the trauma and sense of loss experienced by him and his family as they fled their home to live for a period of time at Hauruang village in an old dilapidated barn belonging to a relative. He desires most by the grace of God, to return to his hometown which though destroyed, remains in the same place, the same hills. This nostalgic song narrates an experience that many families share, who had to flee their homes to seek shelter elsewhere with families and friends in other villages. For those who could, some fled to far off Shillong, Halflong, Nagaland, Manipur, and other places.
  • “Chang Khawpui A Chul Zo Ta” composed in 1968 by PL Lalnuaia (L) of Hnahchang village. (Lalbiakliana. “Hla Phuahthiam PL Lalnuaia leh A Hlate.” Thu leh Hla, Oct 1999).

This song reflects the twin trauma of having their village burnt just prior to their forced grouping at Pangzawl in 1968. (This was the method enforced for village groupings at the time). The song laments the very prospect of having the name of his village Hnahchang fade with time. The additional 5th stanza was promptly composed when, in 1972, permission was granted to grouping centres to return to their old village sites and rebuild. The stanza declares that they will now rebuild their old village never more to fade or be destroyed – “Chul lo tur Chang khawpui I din thar leh ang u”.

Songs composed on the theme of village burning and village grouping were plentiful and they more or less convey similar sentiments that reveal the trauma of having their strong link with the place of their roots so brutally cut off. Their repatriation elsewhere even though it be with their own kind, cannot replace the nostalgia and longing that is reserved for their original homes.

Other selected songs with themes that depict various other parameters of the impact of the ‘rambuai’ period are:

  • “Curfew Kara Suihlunglen” composed in 1967 by K. Rammawia (L), Lunglei. (Thuamtea Khawlhring. Zothlifim. Aizawl : Mizoram Publication Board, 2001). This song is interesting for the various dimensions it projects. It is a well known fact that curfew was imposed with rigidity during the ‘rambuai’ period and any trepassers were dealt with harshly by the armed forces. However, it is said that K. Rammawia used to strum his guitar and sing his way through the hated curfew hours with full knowledge of the authorities. Surely a subversive way to defy authority! The chorus of the song goes :
  • “Aw lunglen Curfew karah hian / Tuar I har hrilh ka thiam zo love; / Hmanah Zoram nun leh Chim loh thadangi zun, / Ngaih hian chin lem a nei thei dawn lo” which can be summarized as follows – one cannot explain the experience of the lonely curfew hours which only serve to enhance the endless nostalgia felt for the bygone life of Mizoram, and the ceaseless longing for one’s beloved.
  • “Jail Run Thim” composed in 1967 by C. Durthanga of Durtlang/Zawlnuam. (C. Zama. Mizo Hnam Hla. Aizawl : Mizoram Govt Press, 2005). This song was composed by C. Durthanga when he was captured and imprisoned in 1967. The song voices his loneliness and despair and questions if this is to be his lot decreed by destiny. He declares that he is not ready to accept such a life and wonders if happy days will ever return for him – “Engtikah her chhuak ang maw hlim ni tur, / Hei hi chantawk khuanu ruat em lo ni? / Ka zuam lo kumtluanga Jail run thim nghah reng chu”
  • “Prisoner Boy” composed in English probably in 1969, by Vanlalngaia of Aizawl. (C. Zama. Jail Run Thim. Aizawl : JP Offset Printer, 2013). Vanlalngaia was one of the top leaders of the MIS (Mizo Intelligence Service) when he got arrested and imprisoned in Silchar Jail. The thoughts that preoccupied him during his experience in the prison cell can be gauged from the lines “Someday I’m gonna write, / The story of a prisoner wall / For the sake of freedom call, / ‘Cause I’m a prisoner boy”.
  • “Aw I Hming A Dai Lovang” composed in 1967 by Chhawntluanga, Biahte. (Lalthangmawia. Thangrawiha Lungdawh. Aizawl : Bethesda Offset Press, 2012). This song is not only tragic, but contains an ironic twist to it, for the composer Chhawntluanga who composed this song in memory of his beloved comrade-in-arms who died at the hands of the army, two years later became a victim himself to a most gruesome death. Arrested by the army, his health deteriorated compounded by physical torture. While transferring him to the army camp at Seling from Khawruhlian, his escorts clubbed him to death on the way by the banks of the Tuirini river because he was too weak to move on. His song for his dead friend ironically came to be a song that told of his own sad fate. “Aw I hming a dai lovang, / Thang leh thar chhuan tam ral mahse; / Zoram chhana I tuarna hian a man tawk e, / Chham ang I zalna piallei hmun leh / Zan mu chhing lo doral karah; / Kan tuanna mual tuai ang tharin / Nghilni I awm dawn lo” can be summarized thus – though many generations may pass your name shall not die, earned most deservedly by your sacrifice for Zoram. The memories of the many sleepless nights we spent while at war, and our sojourns among the hills is renewed even as I recall the thought of you lying beneath the earth as one dead – indeed, you will never be forgotten.
  • “Rock Edict Number Thirteen” composed in English in 1972, by Jeremy Zobiakvela (L). (Ngurthankhumi. JB-a Damlai Sulhnu. Aizawl: Milan Press, 2000). One of the verses of this song expresses quite succinctly the dilemma experienced by the composer as well as many others who, as followers of Christ’s teachings about universal love, cannot reconcile with the continued bloodshed and hatred of the prolonged ‘rambuai’ years :“Why don’t we follow his footsteps of Peace if not his religion
    And live in Peace and Harmony into the future
    And then we’d smile again and say that this is what I longed for
    We’d never ever have to live our lives in fear of the next war
    I do declare I’m not gonna make no more war”In another song titled “Bad Dream” that is undated, he writes :
    “Make peace, make love, put down your gun…
    What do they do when people die?
    Who or what makes them lose their minds?”
  • “Biplobi Mizo Bhoni (Mizo Farnu Hel) composed in Assamese in 1980 by Ramesh Deka of Melpara, Assam, and translated into Mizo by KL Pachuau. (Hriatna, August 12-18, 1986). Ramesh Deka was a member of the All Assam Student’ Union (ASSU) at the time of composing this song in praise of a ‘rebel sister’ B. Vanlalzari who was arrested on 18th January 1975 for her involvement as a collaborator in the assassination of 3 top police officers at Aizawl on 13th January 1975. Her incarceration at Tezpur Jail ended in December 1980 and brought to Gauhati Jail from where she was released on 16th December 1980. The sufferings and sacrifice undergone by Zari inspired many inmates imprisoned at the time in Tezpur due to the AASU movement. The song is a salutation to Zari for her bravery and loyalty, and hails her as their role model.

Lalsangzuali composed / or gave tunes to a number of songs of lamentation over the political killings of persons by the underground above and beyond her other songs on the atrocities of the army during the ‘rambuai’ years.

  • “A Na Ka Ti – A Pawi Em Mai” composed in 1982 by Lalsangzuali Sailo (L), Aizawl. (Laldinliana, Lalsangzuali Sailo Hla Te. Aizawl : Hnamte Press, 2007). This song of lamentation was composed for Lalthlamuani, the widow of ex-MNA (Mizo National Army) R. Zadinga who was brutally murdered by the underground on 15th June 1982, and who at the time was an MLA of the People’s Conference Party touring his constituency Phuldungsei. The lamentation of a wife for her slained husband, with her only confrontation with his killers being the words “you have misunderstood, my husband is not a bad person” drew tears from many.
  • “Pu Lalthawmvunga Sunna Hla” composed in 1984 by F. Vanlalthuama and given the tune by Lalsangzuali Sailo (L), Aizawl. (Laldinliana, Lalsangzuali Sailo Hla Te. Aizawl : Hnamte Press, 2007). Lalthawmvunga was an MLA candidate of the People’s Conference Party for N.Vanlaiphai constituency. He was brutally murdered during his campaign, on 11th April 1984 by “unknown persons” though the lyrics of the song clearly insinuate who the killers were.

Rambuai Fiction’

History writing as we already indicated, is often biased as it is influenced by the context and hegemony wielded at the time. In creative writing however, the scope is more flexible and the hidden subtexts often come to light under this genre which we will call ‘rambuai’ fiction.

‘Rambuai fiction’ is no doubt creative writing, but behind the creativity lie several sub-texts that the writer embeds, and attempts to voice. The trauma and terror experienced during the troubled history, the trials and tribulations brought on by events often left untold by many, make their appearance in such writings under different guises. Though such writings can also serve as support to historical documents to a great extent, the extra-textual layering found in them which is often the product of the writer’s deep involvement with the text, affects the work of interpreting the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ and can be biased or unreliable at times.

A few selected fiction works are given below, to once again depict the rich variety of themes generated by the ‘rambuai’ years.

  • Pramod Bhatnagar. Zoramthangi : Daughter of the Hills. Delhi : Vikrant Press, 1982. (written in English). Set against the backdrop of the ‘rambuai’ years, this is the story of Zoramthangi and Ajay Kapoor, a police officer from Punjab who dies at the end of the book. Although Zoramthangi’s maternal uncle is an underground hero with a head bounty of Rs.10,000/-, their house in Lungdai village is burnt by the MNF, and her father Sangzuala is killed by them.
  • James Dokhuma. Silaimu Ngaihawm. Aizawl : Zosys (1992) 1999. (translated into English as The Beloved Bullet, published by Katha in 2005 in Fresh Fictions). This is a novella that tells the tragic story of Lalramliani and her lover Lt. Sanglura of the Mizo Army. Sanglura dies in an ambush with the army while his death brings on a slow demise to Lalramliani who dies pining in secret for her dead lover. Embedded in the story are details of the trauma, particularly one of loneliness and despair, suffered as a result of the Village Grouping by the army.
  • Hawlla Sailo. Mizo Ngaihdan Dek Che Tham. Kolkata : Display Printers. 2001. This autobiographical fiction comes from one who served for over five years in the underground government as a senior administrator high in the hierarchy. The book makes no bones about the cruelty of both the underground army and the Indian army. It has historical value particularly about the events of 1968 when the underground army moved through Sajek range into East Pakistan, and their involvement in the Liberation War and the shameful behavior of some of his compatriots best left unsaid. The book depicts in turn the narrator/writer, and the male and female protagonists Zoramhmangaiha and Chhiari.
  • Mafeli. 1966 Mizoram : Nghilh Har Kan Tuar. Aizawl. : Samaritan Printers, 2010. This novel is located at East Lungdar village during the darkest period of the ‘rambuai’ years and voices the lot of the women who are the worst victims of atrocities commited. In her defence of the people of Lungdar, she shows no qualms about lashing out at both the Indian and underground army who perpetrate sufferings of the people. Embedded in the book, which is a product of one of the younger generation of writers, are several uneasy questions that seek clarifications on several issues in connection with the troubled times.
  • Chhuanvawra. Rinpuii leh Seizika. Aizawl : JP Offset, 2011. Written by an ex-underground member, this story takes place in and around an imaginary place called Chhinlung during the years 1965 to 1971. The actual times and events of the period are interwoven with several fictional elements that involve a famous traitor or ‘kawktu’, the burning of a school named Champhai Gandhi Memorial High School, and the relationships of fictional characters like Capt. Sapana, AO Richard Lalnema, and Rinpuii.


margaret-zamaMargaret Ch. Zama is Professor in the Department of English, Mizoram University. Her areas of research are cultural studies, translation and northeast studies. As a member of North East Writers’ Forum, she had collaborated extensively as a language coordinator in translating works from the region. Her own translated works have appeared in The Heart of the Matter: Handpicked Fictions from Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Assam and Nagaland (2004) and Fresh Fictions: Folk Tales, Plays, Novellas from the North East (2005).



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Filed under Essays, Non-fiction, Tin Trunk


Gauraang Pradhan with Anu Kumar


For most of my life, I’ve lived in Mumbai, but oftentimes especially on long weekends, when the journey is not more than a day and a half, I’ve taken the bus down the Konkan coast. Later of course, when the Konkan railway began its service, it was easier. I was drawn as much to places, as well as the stories they carried, some that had to be hunted for. Once you leave the popular haunts of Goa and the smaller resorts, you come across places and people who have altogether different stories. There are such lost stories in the Siddi village in Kegdal, deep in the Dandeli reserve in north Karnataka.

I first heard these from my brother. In his college years in the nineties, he had worked in a stone quarry in Kadra, a small town in north Karnataka’s Karwar district. The quarry was set up to supply stone for the Kaiga Atomic Power Station. He was almost man Friday to the proprietor. Every time I spoke to my brother, he would tell me of the interesting African looking people who worked in the quarry/crusher. They had frizzy hair and spoke Konkani, Marathi and Kannada. In almost every way they were like the locals, though he added, with the frustration of a typical supervisor, that they worked harder.

He had also told me of mysterious events happening in the quarry, strange sounds in the night, the crusher wheel sounding as the wind caught in its spokes. He told me stories he had heard too: of nine-headed cobras that walked upright and green eyed leopards. I had no way of understanding all this and had only my curiosity; one I decided to satisfy when I planned a trip to the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary a place near the quarry. I boarded a train from Mumbai to a station called Alnavar, right on the border between Goa and Karnataka, from here it was a bus ride to Dandeli.

At the dusty bus station in Alnavar I spotted two girls with frizzy hair who were joined by their parents, the mother in a sari. They looked just like the people my brother had described. Once we reached Dandeli, we were housed in the tents that made up the sanctuary resort. Ours went by the name of Hoopoe, a colorful bird, with its impressive crown of feathers, found around India. We got talking to the forest department guide, a lean wizened man called Babu, who had spent years in the forest and knew quite an impressive bit. He was from the pastoral community known as “Gavli”, a word meaning milkman or herdsman in Marathi. Babu told us more stories of the forest, none of it as fanciful as my brother’s but just as fascinating: he knew the tracks left by black panthers who inhabited the forest, and the haunts of the king cobras and other jungle creatures. It was Babu who told me about the Siddis, their village called Kegdal and how they had been living in this particular area for centuries now. He smiled as I narrated my brother’s stories and offered to introduce me to one of his friends, someone who would soon become a friend of mine too.



As we approached Kegdal, village houses appeared, all with whitened walls, and low sloping red roofs, made of Mangalore tiles. In our forest jeep, we passed lush paddy fields, copses of trees, forest patches in turns dense and patchy and people with curious faces who moved to the very edge of that narrow road to let our jeep pass. They were soon lost in the blue engine smoke and the tall grass. Parts of these forests are regarded as sacred and hence protected – such beliefs are part of a system that have protected the ecology here for centuries.

Babu took us to a small white walled earthen house that he knew was Manuvel’s. When we reached he was resting on the small porch that was a feature of most houses. He had fractured his leg in a road accident a few weeks earlier. He made us welcome and spoke to me in Marathi. He was a lean, tall statured man, of indeterminate age. But I remember his browned skin that spoke of his knowledge of the earth, his frizzy hair and a smile that never left his face.



Though I was careful not to make my curiosity obvious, Manuvel spent hours telling me about the Siddis. He willingly shared details of his life and with his family, posed for photos too. There is a little boy in these photos who as it later became clear to me, appears in all.


The conversation took place in the neat porch with the church and paddy fields not too far away. At first the electric wires that ran like a protective circuit around the fields did not make sense but the advancing evening, the preparations made by the Siddi menfolk and the restlessness of Babu, the forest guard, told its own story. Despite the wires, there was the constant danger of elephants and wild boars, and the Siddis’ night time venture, with fire flares and drums, almost on a daily basis, was to ensure the animals stayed away from their village.

Electic Fence

Electic Fence

The lone bus going back to Dandeli however did not ply at night and that decided matters. We spent that night in the village, awake with the people who stood guard against a possible incursion by elephants. It was a strange reversal of life, here in the forests, the elephants decided things. But as I would find out in a matter of years, things were to change too soon.


The Siddis of Karnataka make up a distinct community, different in quite other ways from other Siddis who now live in pockets of India’s western states and also in Pakistan’s Sindh; each of these uniquely disparate in their own way. It is an identity developed as a consequence of centuries of dislocation, integration and also adaptation. Known variously as Habshis or even Abyssinians, it is believed the Siddis or even Sheedis (of Pakistan), originally sailed eastwards from East Africa to the Indian subcontinent, offering their services to the kingdoms of the time. Some of them also began life as slaves.

While sea-faring has been a way of life for communities ringed around the Arabian Sea, just as it is for all people living by the sea and inhabiting ocean islands, the Siddis became a familiar presence in history sometime from the early medieval period. In the early 13th century, Jamal uddin Yakut, first a slave caught the eye (and also her fancy, for the story has a tragic ending) of the reigning Delhi Sultan, Razia, for he was an expert horseman. He had a short-lived position as superintendent of the royal stables, but was killed as civil war broke out between the ruler and her conspiring nobles. Almost two centuries and a half later, Malik Ambar served as regent to the Ahmednagar dynasty in the Deccan, credited with not just saving it from the other Deccan kingdoms but also for his fierce resistance to the Mughals. Like Sher Shah, the other ruler whose valuable administrative and other innovations are simply brushed aside by reference to him as ‘Akbar’s precursor’, Ambar too was radical in several ways. Familiar with the rocky terrain of the Deccan, it was he who is credited with ‘guerrilla’ methods of resistance, something that Shivaji was to make good use of, some decades later. So frustrated was Jahangir by Ambar’s ability to thwart the Mughal armies, that he never referred to the latter by name, using contemptuous epithets as he penned his memoirs, the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri. Ambar’s designs for a new canal system to the city of Khadki (later Aurangabad) were first scoffed at, but diversion of the waters of the Kham, a small stream via a reservoir and a water wheel proved successful and the tower housing the water wheel stands to this day.

Ambar indeed had been a slave at first; in an earlier life, he was called ‘Chapu’. And as the Deccan witnessed political instability in the decades thereafter, the Siddis offered their services to different rulers including the Portuguese and the British from the 18th century onwards. It is their dispersal over the centuries, living in regions ruled by different rulers that also gave them distinct identities in other ways. Identities that are also fluid in a sense.

The Siddis in certain districts of Karnataka for instance, worship the local goddess Ellamma, and their rituals contain the dance rhythms and music that has the distinct influence of Africa. Listen to the song ‘Yera, Yera’ in MTV’s ‘Sound Trippin’ to get an idea. The Siddis pointed to their church, and its blue dome and columns shows a marked resemblance to local Islamic monuments.



The Siddis are dispersed and every small locality has its history and I was soon to learn more about the Siddis here in this part of north Karnataka. Manuvel’s family had converted to Christianity a long time ago, his father appeared in the photos wearing his favoured Nehru cap and he looked like a typical Indian farmer. But now their story for me had an intriguing historical context.

Manuvel Father

Manuvel’s Father


Some years later, I retraced my steps toward Kegdal. I had with me the photos of my previous visit, as something to help me find Manuvel, his family and the friends I had made on my previous visit.

Manuvel's family

Manuvel’s family

It wasn’t just that cell phones were now widely used, but from news I had garnered from the city newspapers, it did appear that changes in the intervening years had rendered the Siddis’ way of existence in Dandeli somewhat precarious. It wasn’t just related to the sweeping demands of development but that even well drafted laws like Forest Rights Act did little in reality to benefit those such laws were ostensibly meant for; in this instance, the Siddis who had some years ago been granted the status of Scheduled Tribe in Karnataka.

At one time more than two centuries ago, this region had presented a fierce resistance to colonial powers. It was the mid-1850s, a time of flux, when authority was contested, and there was no dominant power. It was in this period that the Siddis took up armed resistance, moving in groups, attacking symbols of authority, British and even the Portuguese in Goa. In the 1840s, a Siddi leader called Gajaveer joined forces with Sangolli Rayanna, a prominent chieftain in Kittur, a small royal principality in Karnataka, and close to the Siddi settlements in Belgaum. Kittur had been annexed by British in 1834 when its queen Chennama had capitulated. In 1844, three sons of Phen Sawant a well-known landlord from Sawantwadi, north of Kittur, entered Uttara Kannada and enlisted the support of two Siddi warriors, Bastian and Banove, from Dandeli.

There was a significant “bund” or political resistance in Supa again in the north Kanara region led by Bastian around the time the 1857 revolt flared in parts of north India, though it is doubtful how much inspiration this event provided. In any case, brigands and robbers against the colonial powers, took on the force of legend. Bastian and his associates, looted outposts in the Supa taluk and attacked choukidars, who were regarded as representing official authority. After every incursion, they escaped into the forested areas of Western Ghats or into Goa.

In April 1859, there was a raid on the munsiff (magistrate) of Yellapur and his retinue while they were on their way to Goa. Bastian’s outrages soon became the stuff of legend. In early 1859 offensive operations with the Portuguese allying with the British were organized against Bastian and Siddi rebels in the north Karnataka forests. A police chief by the name of Lieutenant W.S. Drever launched a successful offensive against leading to the capture of most Siddi leaders. Records are unclear about the capture of Bastian, while others indicate he was captured and killed in July of 1859. Finally most of the insurgents were caught, and around thirty were deported to Andaman and nearly twenty sent to Chingalpet jail to serve various terms. The Portuguese also deported several hundred insurgents, it is believed, and these included the Sawant brothers and their families to East Timor (Timor Leste).

For all that had happened some 160 years ago, some of the forests seemed to have been caught in a timeless warp. The journey took us past teak forests, the straight road leading us in a knife like path through the forest.

I was apprehensive that I would miss Manuvel. It was entirely possible that he had moved, like so many migrating families who left for cities in search of home and work. My fears were put to rest when I saw Manuvel at his porch, and he still looked the same despite the years. The house now had an additional room and the structure was now cemented. We sat in the porch reminiscing about my last visit, I had the photos of earlier visits and Manuvel mentioned that one of the ladies in the photos had died a few years ago.

The boy in all the photos of my earlier visit appeared too, I got to know his name as David. David, who had been around eight at the time of the first photos, was now a strapping young lad, wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt. He told me of wanting to be a boxer.



He had dropped out of school and Manuvel confirmed that most of the children were not interested in studies. He shook his head, unsure and then expressed the hope that the government would set up some facilities for sports for the Siddis. For it was clear they had an immense capacity for endurance and were able to walk and run long distances easily. The Siddis are now a scheduled tribe, yet long decades of marginalization and isolation implies that they remain backward in terms of educational attainments and living standards.

It was approaching lunch time and Manuvel’s elderly mother insisted on lunch. Her progenitors in the distant past, she explained, had come from Africa but in this village that has been their home for centuries, they had enough to eat and were happy. She wanted the government to recognize this simple truth of all their lives. That sunny afternoon after lunch we played with the children who were only too happy to pose for photos.

Manuvel Mother

Manuvel’s Mother

Later with Manuvel and his uncle who had worked for long years worked in the Gulf, we took a walk in the village and surrounding areas. Manuvel’s uncle had worked as an electrician in the Gulf for years but now looked happy to be back in his village, a place that is home to him.

Two years ago, Siddi families of Haliyal (near Dandeli) in north Karnataka, petitioned the state government to grant those rights to the forestlands that they already were long familiar with; they were not encroachers, they insisted. However, in the agitation that soon commenced several of them were arrested and sent to Dharwad jail. The struggle continues. It mirrors almost in a way the struggles of other Adivasi groups in forests of that area. In the Mudumalai and Bandipur reserve covering areas of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, ethnic groups have been petitioning the government for recognition to their rights on the land; rights that date to centuries.

The local inhabitants are caught between forest officials implementing laws such as the Forest Rights Act any way they see fit and developers who use prime forest land and their attractions for motives altogether different. There is a resort within the precincts of the Dandeli Wildlife Reserve that has been illegally developed. A forest official was killed when he tried to stop tourists feeding crocodiles at the river Kali. Meanwhile in an effort to develop the forests as a pristine forest reserve, grasslands are being planted over with trees unfamiliar with the region such as acacia and eucalyptus.



All this I read months after my return from the newspapers. Now that I knew this area, I couldn’t help wondering what Manuvel was doing. Was he among the protestors? Would the boy ever manage to reach his boxing dreams ever? But Manuvel never answered my calls. I heard the phone ring, and every time it went unanswered I thought of Manuvel, his soft even voice, expressionless but for that smile of hope forever on his face.


 Gauraang Pradhan has been with the Economic and Political Weekly in Mumbai and is responsible for circulation and marketing. He is an avid photographer, wildlife enthusiast and loves looking up little known groups and people with a unique way of life.
He is currently working on his website — to showcase some of his photographs.
Gauraang Pradhan

Gauraang Pradhan

 Anu Kumar is in the MFA program in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written for children and also for the older reader.  Her collection of short stories, Girl in a Washing Machine and Other Stories appears in early 2015 (Kitaab).
Anu Kumar

Anu Kumar


Filed under Non-fiction, Photo Essay


Anu Kumar

Image: Divya Adusumilli

Image: Divya Adusumilli

A Google search invariably brings up an impressive catch. But memories and people and things we loved?

Things like some of my father’s old classical recordings, from his collection that once included long playing and the shorter 45 and 78 rpm discs.    Black shellac discs, almost like frisbees with no lips, delicate in their thin paper covering,   with the grooved lines and the tiny writing at every disc centre.  There was one record whose every detail I can still recall. Its green and red cover, the cellophane over the writing and the letters that for a time made no deep sense – that is, in the way it takes for something to be loved.  Two singers and their song, a thumri, that lasted just four minutes or maybe a bit more. But I know from the way I listened to this record time and again, that the thin paper covering frayed in no time, the cellophane came to wear a blurry look.  And the times I was overeager to pull the disc out, so its paper cover tore a bit, I learnt to stick a piece of cello tape cleverly on the inside, hoping it would not catch  my father’s attention.

But the older that 45 rpm record looked, the more meaning it acquired. Not just for its frayed look but the music it had inside.  And of course, the two became inseparable, even in memory.  I simultaneously remember that thumri and the record it came from. Long after, when I glimpsed the two musicians in a YouTube clipping, it was like meeting something loved long ago but in a quite different way.  I was reminded of what I had listened to, almost in an obsessively repetitive way, but it rendered that memory sharper. Many years later, I listened again to the thumri of my childhood as it played on a CD I just had to buy. And while my old memories were not written over, yet the raw pain of nostalgia was considerably diminished.  And I can’t tell if that’s a good thing.   Some things are best left as they are.  I can’t quite explain to myself if its holding that thin paper cover of a 45 rpm disc that I really  miss, or something else altogether. The secret listening that became a secret falling in love and like all secrets, hard to ever find again.

The thumri I lost and then retrieved in a totally different and altered way lay in one of my father’s many 45 rpms. And I first had the chance to listen to it around 25 years ago. My father had several of these playing discs in every format. These had been stored in five boxes whose existence till then I had had no idea about. But these were taken down from an old wooden almirah and displayed on a low divan, the same day he came home with a portable player. We lived in Cuttack then, a city with only one notable music shop to its name, from where my father made his purchase.  Shopping then wasn’t  the consumerist experience as it is today, and people didn’t come back home loaded with plastic carry-bags,  so we all crowded around  father as he spliced  the carton open. There was in the end, after  all the strings had been loped off, the tapes slashed through,   a free standing portable speaker and a turntable,  with a hooked claw like apparatus that he said was very delicate. This was the stylus with a hardly visible playing needle hooked to its very end.

That night after he came home with it, there were other treasures he unveiled, such as the neat rectangular cartons that once opened, revealed his collection of vinyl records.  Most were covered by a thin paper sleeve, the bigger ones had a jacket with more details; several had the words ‘Columbia’ or ‘Hindustan’ on it.

It was from my father’s collection of records that I was first introduced to Hindustani classical music.  My father tells me now that his love too began in similar ways. In the mid 1940s, an uncle of his released after four years in jail celebrated his freedom by buying a second hand record player and some records of Khan Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyaaz Khan, Gangubai Hangal and some others. I can imagine the two of them, uncle and nephew, in that crowded house, listening to a music that only they loved (or had time for).  Still it was blissful: his uncle soaked in freedom once again while my father had found a love of sorts.

For my part, I listened to this music in secret. My father  would play his records as he sat in his lounge chair, on the darkened veranda that framed the house and overlooked the river Mahanadi.  He would listen to the music as the river  turned from  sombre blue to gray and then changed to a black ribbon as night came on, bringing with it the garland of forest fires from across the river.

I was supposed to be studying and not letting my attention stray but it did.  I would strain to catch and remember for myself the first line of most pieces, and this in the instance of Hindustani classical vocal always took some time as I soon realised. But when father was on tour or in office, I got his set out, read through every record label till I found the one I had heard the day before.  That was indeed how I first heard Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali’s thumri in Gorakh Kalyan, ‘eri mori ali piya’.


It was quite a chaotic education, catholic and secular in equal measure, but also much more than these words  can ever hold.  I randomly listened to other pieces,   and something about a piece could make me listen on: It could be the deep melancholy in Amir Khan’s voice, the sensual robustness in Gangubai Hangal’s, the thunderous majesty that came so easily to Bhimsen Joshi, the dexterity and free falling grace in Kumar Gandharva’s voice that reminded you of rivers of the plateau and that unique mix of youth and age that you noticed in DV Paluskar’s.

Because I liked their music and couldn’t understand what I liked, what the record flaps revealed was almost educational too.  Sometimes these explained the progressions and variations in a raag but had other information too: Ali Akbar Khan had composed Medhavi in memory of Rabindranath Tagore,  Ustad Amir Khan had died in a car accident in 1974,   Nikhil Banerjee had once been a disciple of Allauddin Khan, who had also taught others who would go on to make a name for themselves and others who couldn’t quite, such as  the khan sahib’s daughter, Annapurna Devi.  There would be things  I’d read elsewhere and randomly picked up, such as the short   biography of Allauddin Khan in my English reader. The great maestro had had a rich and varied life and  had run away from home to join a jatra group. His music education was eclectic but the maestro enriched the tradition with his own contributions.  Allauddin Khan learnt from Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur and even took violin lessons in the western classical tradition from a musician from Goa.

Years  later, this love stays with me,  though any random meeting with  a connoisseur can put me to shame.  For the life of me,  I cannot wax knowledgeably on the different  progressions of a raag,  its rhythmic variations and the modifications and experiments of great musicians.   I can tell what a drut is,  but will stumble between a khayal and a thumri.  In an age when in several ways a totally different kind of music is popular,  I remain an anachronistic, even at times a lone defender,  of Hindustani classical music.  And my defence of the music is at times more a loyalty to the artiste.  I can stay still while  Ustad Amir Khan sings the Hamsadhwani,  or at the evocation a cloud filled sky that Nikhil Banerjee conjures up in Raag Megh, even as I learn that raags too adhere to a distinct hierarchy.  So I know Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Amir Khan will render  Marwa in their own unique ways, but  I’d like a bhajan in Bhairavi by Shruti Sadolikar just as much as by anyone else,  for the bhairavi is that versatile after all. On the other hand, the powerful Malkauns would require the attentions of a genius to help it occupy the night.

In my amateur love and defence of classical music,  I have  felt like Zuleika Dobson in Max Beerbohm’s eponymous novel set in early 20th century Oxford, often echoing like her, ‘I don’t know anything about music really but I know what I like.’  The connoisseur can silence everyone by her knowledge  while the amateur lover knows  just what she loves. Such a  lover occupies a strange mid way land. At best she can put up a weak defence, offer a staunch loyalty or  a blind devotion.  Sometimes, it’s a treacherous love as I’ve found on some occasions.  It’s a love that I have most times also inadequately defended.

Any conversation with someone else,  professedly ignorant of classical music,  would go like this:

What he is singing?

Me: But he is a great man. 

How is he  great?

Me: He sounds good to me.  And he is good and great.

In college there were the SPICMACAY concerts organized at different venues and I travelled as much as I could to listen to artistes first hand and watch them perform for those were pre YouTube days after all.  It was an experience, to realize that for the artistes,  the fact of being great did not matter, or that it was not worth it.  They gave themselves up to music with an effortless grace and you  were moved by the divinity and the simplicity.

When Ustad Imrat Khan came to perform at the management school where I studied,  there were just five of us in the small music room, and we  had bunked our evening classes to listen to him.  The ustad  played before us as if we were a royal audience or rather as if the minimal audience  did not really register on him.  He had come that very evening on the train from Calcutta,  but there was no sign of fatigue in him as he played  timeless pieces over and over on his surbahar.

In Ahmedabad,  there was a lone music shop on CG Road that I frequented in my  underpaid, overworked days as a management trainee.  It was a small corner shop,  in a four storey building,  remaining there for a long time while glass fronted high rises grew all around it. The owner stocked cassette versions of most of the records I had once loved.  I spent hours there, while outside vendors played Altaf Raja and his then popular qawalis. My cassettes and   walkman moved with me as I moved cities, shifting from hostel to paying guest accommodations to tiny congested flats that I shared in suburban Bombay with  my husband.   The cassettes metamorphosed into CDs and the shelves occupying them grew in number even  as I remained hard pressed to explain my strange love.  The exuberance of an artiste at a particular note would evoke amused queries that would be a secret affront to witness and even a form of  disloyalty.  Yet sometimes a rendition could not be held within your headphones and there was a special happiness if a voice you loved was recognized.

‘So this is Amir Khan?,’ asked my husband once.

‘Ustad Amir Khan,’  I said,  touching my ears that I had learnt was a gesture of respect.


I was once part of a sparsely populated audience,   watching a dance recital by Pandit Birju Maharaj. That hall,  huge and majestic like a tiny universe,  its lights appeared to exist only to catch his every move,  heighten his twirls,  his mesmeric hand gestures.  His anklets had a  life of their own, resounding in all that space.  There was a man, ordinary in every way, in the audience.  He must have stopped by on his way back home from office.   His office bag and the way he was dressed gave that away,  considering that dressing up for an event is as much a performance today.  There he sat,  hypnotized,  the sparkle of tears in his eyes,  and when a particular movement was over, he got up,  as if he could not help it.  He walked  up to the foot of the stage and stretching out, he  held out something in his hand.  It was perhaps  an ill-expressed measure of his  happiness, for there  were titters,  even a hiss of shock.  But the Pandit acknowledging the man’s homage paused, raising the gift to his forehead in a brief gesture, twirled away and danced on.  The man did it time and again,  but I understood a bit of his sad, inexpressible love.


Anu Kumar

Anu Kumar

Anu Kumar is in the MFA program in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written for children and also for the older reader.  Her collection of short stories, Girl in a Washing Machine and Other Stories appears in early 2015 (Kitaab).

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Sankalpa Mahanta

During my winter vacations, I went to my grandparents’ house in Guwahati, Assam. In Guwahati, I played with my two younger brothers. In the previous year, my father went to Guwahati more than five times. I just went for ten days but it was really fun. Let me tell you about my journey. I started it in the T-1 terminal of Delhi airport. When I took a trolley, it was not working well. So I needed to change the trolley. But let us skip those details.

In Guwahati it was World War III between my brothers and me. I was outnumbered because there were two brothers. Apart from that, in Assam I went to the Pobitora National Park. I saw five rhinos over there. I also sketched some rhinos there. We stopped in a resort named Zizina in Pobitora. I also saw some traditional fishing equipment. They were Jakoi and Khaloi.

Back home I played hide and seek with the two brats and also listened to funny stories like “The Strong Man” and “The Guava Tree” from Grandma. It was not all play and no work. I did some holiday homework with Grandpa before coming back to New Delhi.

At the Guwahati airport I met my friend Diya. Delhi was very cold. In the remaining days I finished my holiday homework. I was really happy to see my friends again.


Sankalpa Mahanta

Sankalpa Mahanta

 Sankalpa Mahanta, 9 years, is a student of Maxfort School, Dwarka, New Delhi. He wants to become a paleontologist when he grows up. He knows quite a lot about quite a few dinosaurs. His second love is his grandma in Guwahati.

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Bijoya Sawian

A writer’s first book is usually deeply rooted in the environment she is familiar with, a world close to her heart.

Writing means so many things to so many people. For me it simply means connecting, communicating and, finally, liberation. The incomparable lightness of being I feel after I finish a piece of writing is the freedom I need to move on and to evolve further. That for me is the purpose of life.

I write with a sense of responsibility for I know I represent a section of  society in Meghalaya that needs to be projected to the world with the honesty and clarity that it needs.There are too many people misrepresenting it.In an international conference in New Delhi recently a participant said that the Seng Khasi was inspired by the missionaries and another said that before the missionaries came in mid 19th century to our hills, the Khasis had no concept of ethics and morals!

Fiction is my first love. It took a long time to get there because I had so many responsibilities raising a family and establishing a school in rural India,in a place where I was not so familiar with. Both were imperatives then for I was in my thirties and we also had to think of making a worthwhile living and a secure future as well. For fiction one needs mental space and peace and no outside intrusion and stress. So when my hands itch to write I would translate because one did not have to tax one’s brains too much or plunder one’s memory and mindscape. I am very happy I did that because the first book I translated was an important work by one of the luminaries of Khasi literature, Radhon Sing Kharwanlang. His masterpiece, Ka Jingsneng Tymmen (The Teachings of Elders) the Khasi book of moral ethics and etiquette published in 1897. I translated it in 1997. It was tough for it was in verse, 109 beautiful stanzas that rhymed perfectly. The teachings, of course, had been handed down the generations through the oral tradition for we had no alphabet till the Welsh missionary Thomas Jones introduced the Roman alphabet in 1843. Soon after I did the myths, legends and folk tales followed by About One God and The Main Ceremonies of The Khasis. The best part about my translating years was learning about my own culture and tradition while doing the translations.What I already  knew became thorough knowledge.

Fiction happened as only fiction can. Totally unexpectedly .Something that I had been waiting all my life happened when I least expected it.

I started Shadow Men on a turbulent August night. I seldom spend the summer and monsoon in Shillong. Winter was when I would come and that was the part of the year when it was quiet and the action had ceased with the closing of the schools and colleges and the chill setting in. That year I was in Shilllong because my father had just passed away and I decided to stay on with my mother.

My late sister-in-law and myself were walking up and down the hill in our compound, chatting. She was telling that I must write a book,the book that I had always wanted to and begged me not to destroy it like I did to two previous ones because I thought they were not good enough (actually I destroyed one but one is with me – am going through it).

We heard what we thought were crackers — actually it was the shattering of glass panes. We saw fires burning on the other hill and we thought people were burning dead leaves.It was only when we heard a sudden thundering of running feet that we rushed into the house to find the family already crouched in safe corners as the bullets whizzed by.The police were firing from the opposite hill. The running feet belonged to the militants who rushed down our compound to the safety of the gorge below.

When my mother asked me with bewilderment in her eyes — What has happened to our people? I told my sister-in-law — I think I will write a book. I made a few notes that night

The next morning I walked up to my younger brother’s house.No one was there I chanced upon Bob Dylan’s collection of songs. One struck me hard. “He was a clean cut kid but they made a killer out of him/That’s what they did …”

I knew I had heard these words before — similar, not so blunt but the suggestion was the same.

I knew I had found my story. I completed Shadow Men in one week but I didn’t think it would get published. My friend ,Neena De thought the opposite and she was right. I am deeply grateful to her.

With the short stories it was different. Images would dance in my mind.


DSC_1989 copyBijoya Sawian is a translator and writer who lives in Shillong and Dehradun. She is the author of several books, including Shadow Men.


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Rini Barman

“Hold your breath until
you are God’s green thoughts.
(…) Worship women and trees.”

— How to Be a Leaf  by Jeet Thayil

As the rains begin to pour, marking the much-needed transition into the sarod ritu (the season of autumn), I am reminded of my aunt’s endless bickering about a lesser known festival, the Kati Bihu. For the last couple of years, Kati would collide with Shakti, our Xarodiya Goddess in the calendar and so some households in Assam would be conflicted between festivity and melancholy.  Unlike Rongali and Bhogali Bihu, the festivals of spring gaiety and harvest plenty, Kati Bihu is also known as Kongaali (“Kongaal” meaning bankrupt).  Special respects are paid to the Tulsi plant and as a child I remember lighting Akash Banti (sky lamps) in the fields with my cousins. Lamps lit on top of bamboo plants are supposed to keep evil (in the form of insects, bugs) away from crops.

Though I have never known the hardship of a farmer’s life, I always wished that a little of the pomp and joy of the goddess be transported to village households. After all it is only because of their creative force (akin to Shakti’s power of fertility) that we get to celebrate the other two festivals and feel the texture of fresh paddy.

Pradip Khura, my old uncle at Palashbari would always be surprised at how wayward young men and women would desert the statues of Durga and her family into the rivers. They would never come back to look at what has happened of the river water later on, which remains till date one of the largest sources of the poor farmer’s paddy. On Vijaya Dashami, the last day of the autumnal festival, all the idols are immersed in water while folks depart after a cacophonous round of music and wild dancing.  “Idols were few”, when my uncle was young, he says, “But the souls of rivers were dearer. There was special care taken to not disrupt the flow of the rivers, especially those that are not as mighty as the Luit”.

Since I would often go for morning walks with him, I would be perplexed at how statues would be left even on the middle of the riverside parks, naked and bruised and covered in betel-flecked spit. Once there were five Kendriya Vidyalaya kids who pulled one such left-over statue of Saraswati, tied her eyes with a red cloth and began playing this weird game surrounding her. I was thinking she was supposed to reach her father Shiva, in the Himalayas by now along with her mother and siblings.

At which point exactly does the statue of a deity begin to lose its veneration? My first clues about the answer to this question came from the way women were treated within the confines of the Puja pandal.

Some of the real dadaas would wait in those very pandals to hoot and eve-tease women, steal their jewellery, laugh at their blouse-designs and molest them. At times, these incidents are also representative of how power games extend to the domestic domain. This purohit who performed most of our yagyas in the neighbourhood is rumoured to have turned up drunk at home after Maha-astami and beaten up his wife. All the neighbours would talk of it in the afternoon next day when Bhog (Prasad) would be served at the pandal premises. As a kid, I somehow understood that it was a serious, “adult” matter and decided to quietly gobble up the khichdi. However, I am still no closer to understanding why the Purohit would treat his spouse’s body in this manner.

Now when my parents gather for the celebration of Sati’s menstruation at Kamakhya Temple for example (she being another form of Shakti), I usually turn a deaf ear. Even the mere act of punishing the female body by religious practices, which nobody seems to challenge is a power-play meant to blind masses of people. So much so, that recently my cousin who attained her puberty was kept captive for thirty days. She was barred from eating because fasting is supposed to cleanse her body, and to add to her bad luck, it was the month of Ambubachi, when these restrictions are much tougher than usual.

This encroachment of the goddess in the private lives of women has a historical context. The constitution of a national identity in India was shaped through the dual function fulfilled by the figure of the goddess. She was a cultural determinant of status and rank among the rising Babus, identified with the women in their households. In this raging nationalism, Durga also became the allegory for the nation and it is through her that notions of womanhood were further disseminated in the private sphere. As scholars of postcolonial studies (like Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy) have observed, the introduction of the Goddess into nationalist propaganda was not a bridge between the material (hence animal) and the spiritual (hence god-like) world. Rather, it reduced womanhood into a worshippable ideal.  The idea of a “Mother India” percolated into all areas of domestic and intellectual practises. Gradually, the community worship of Durga Maa became extremely popular making it one of the largest festivals in the world.

Influential leaders manipulated the idea of Shakti to suit their individual interests (private or political), to blend in with the country’s Independence struggle.

Some alternate legends and myths also tell us how Mahisasura’s continued dark-skinned depiction is a manipulation by nationalist reformers. Durga – the invincible was utilised to propagate the tremendously oppressive regime of the nation-state in the nineteenth century. Mahisasura was painted as this dark, meat- eating fellow with a wild nature indicating perhaps the mlechchas (the lower castes) who were never considered dignified human beings within the Brahmanical fold.

As the warrior goddess and her family wave farewell for the Himalayas, men and women from all pandals compete amongst themselves to give her the most gaudy, opulent departure. The cramped streets of Guwahati are jam-packed with loads of traffic; all the major lifelines are blocked. Upon asking a clearly drunk traffic policeman to make way for an ambulance, he replied “This is the only time young boys get to make merry, sister, we can’t prohibit Devi Maa’s transport, the Devtaas will be angry…”  One can be sure there is no way even the most skilled driver will make much headway through the large masses; the roads become a writhing, heaving entity, a restless spectacle. My aunts specifically prevent their young girls dancing with the men unto oblivion, so they climb to the terrace and bid the goddess goodbye.

From the next day onward, the newspapers report how statues and plants have been immersed into rivers all around the state. Laksmi Puja and Kali Puja come next in the calendar and this ritual of immersing deities into the waters continues. There are however very few records of how increasingly this practise has devastating consequences for the aquatic and plant life around. In the rural parts of Pradip Khura’s hometown Palashbari, those farming rice and fish together suffer a huge setback. Their prayers to the Tulsi plant go mostly in vain and when the time for harvest festival arrives, it is painful to see them buying crops from the market. Fish hardly fare better; the local varieties of khingi (catfish) and bhangun (pomfret) are getting increasingly difficult (and expensive) to find. With the competition for the most elaborate pandal revving up, the amount of synthetic materials used also increases. The ensuing release of acidic content into the waters is bound to have medical implications.

The Jeet Thayil poem at the beginning of this essay urges the reader to “worship women and trees”, hinting at the eco-feminist nature of pagan rituals. Women, it is implied, hold the key to understanding all that is mystical about nature (recall Daenarys Targaryen’s horse-heart-eating scene in Game of Thrones?). When I look upon the remains of another disembodied Durga floating up at the river bank, I ask myself: have we no patience left for either women or trees?  Shall Durga Puja be the same without the sewali trees in Khura’s backyard?


Rini Barman


Rini Barman is currently pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Jamia Milia Islamia and has graduated from Lady Shri Ram College in the same field. Her writings  have been published in Muse IndiaSeven Sisters’ Post,, The Bricolage-An Independent Arts and Culture Magazine, Four Quarters Magazine, Eclectic and several other dailies of the North-East.

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