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Crossing Linguistic Boundaries

Crossing Linguistic Boundaries

The problem of language as a vehicle for articulating the growing crisis in an underdeveloped society, which is trying to evolve ways to cope with the demands of modernism, has not been sufficiently researched. This paper proposes to highlight how the politics of speech has interfered with the relationship between the writer and the reading public and has threatened the reception of a text in the very region that forms the material basis of its composition. While the influence of linguistic colonialism in the framing of educational policies by successive governments had been detrimental to the production of creative literature in the tribal languages, the more pragmatic approach to the politics of speech adopted by the tribal leadership in the hill states of north-east India also has not been very conducive to the growth of such a literature.

Crossing Linguistic Boundaries

Two Arunachali Writers in Search of Readers

The problem of language as a vehicle for articulating the growing crisis in an underdeveloped society, which is trying to evolve ways to cope with the demands of modernism, has not been sufficiently researched. This paper proposes to highlight how the politics of speech has interfered with the relationship between the writer and the reading public and has threatened the reception of a text in the very region that forms the material basis of its composition. While the influence of linguistic colonialism in the framing of educational policies by successive governments had been detrimental to the production of creative literature in the tribal languages, the more pragmatic approach to the politics of speech adopted by the tribal leadership in the hill states of north-east India also has not been very conducive to the growth of such a literature.


he artefacts of imagination which are today recognised as important indices to the understanding of the relationship between the individual self and the public world have been given little space in most recent studies on tribal societies of India. The focus of most of the studies on the languages of the smaller ethnic communities has been on questions of bi lingualism, lan guage-shift, language maintenance and on language as a rallying point of autonomy movements in the tribal areas. But the problem of language as a vehicle for articulating the growing crisis in an under developed society which is trying to evolve ways to cope with the demands of modernism, has not been sufficiently researched. This paper proposes to highlight how the politics of speech has interfered with the relationship between the writer and the reading public and has threatened the reception of a text in the very region which forms the material basis of its composition. While the influence of linguistic colonialism in the framing of educational policies by the successive governments which have ruled over the tribal regions of India since the British days had been detri mental to the production of creative literature in the tribal languages, the more pragmatic approach to the politics of speech adopted by the tribal leadership in the hill states of north-east India also has not been very conducive to the growth of such literature. For, language cannot be separated from the material lives of the people and from the culture which it reflects. “Reality for each society”, says Stephen Greenblatt, “is constructed to a significant degree out of the specific qualities of its language and symbols”.1A writer who tries to depict that reality in a language other than his/her own, is faced with the difficulties of translating the images, symbols and idioms of his/her native speech into a new language and in that process he/she often fails to grasp the reality. “Discard the parti cular words and you have discarded the particular men”, says Greenblatt.

I Politics and Identity

The tribal people of north-east India came into the fold of nationalist politics only after independence. In Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, for instance, where people speak a variety of languages not intelligible to each other, the process of nationbuilding has of necessity pushed language politics to the backseat and a more pragmatic attitude towards speech has been adopted. Perhaps the emerging nationalist politics in these regions have set a new trend by rejecting language as an important marker of the cultural identity of a people and people now prefer to remember their past in an acquired language which can bind communities together.

When Yeshe Dorje Thongchi2 and Lummer Dai3 write in Asamiya, they create a new tradition in Arunachali writing as well as in Asamiya writing. When Mamang Dai records the ancient legends of the Adis preserved in the collective memory of the people, she uses the English language with the lyrical softness of an Adi rhapsodist chanting his songs amidst the hidden mountains.4 Her rich and vibrant language may not be her mother tongue, but she has made it her own in the most convincing manner. The following passage, describing the haunting melodies of the rhapsodist and the rhythmic movements of the ‘ponung’ dancers, convey an idea of a new literary tradition that has been born in Arunachali literature as well as in Indian English fiction:

They have not slept for many nights. If they close their eyes for a minute, if their souls stray, if they miss a step, then the journey will be over before its time and they will return to the present overwhelmed with a sorrow that will haunt them to an early death. The man who leads them is dressed in a woman’s ga-le and wears the dumling, an intricate hair ornament that swings with the rhythm of his chanting. He is the miri, the shaman and the rhapsodist. Tonight the dancers have arrived at the crucial point in the narration of their history where they will ‘travel the road’.5

The writers from Arunachal Pradesh have crossed the linguistic barriers decisively in order to create a literature of their own. Their fictional works can claim a double parentage and are “twice-born” (to borrow a term from Meenakshi Mukherjee6) in the true sense of the term because they belong both to the tradition of Arunachali literature as well as to the literatures of the native speakers of the languages which they have chosen to make the vehicles of their own thoughts. A writer’s works do not cease to be defined by the region with which he/she is identified and which has shaped his/her sensibilities in the first place only because his/her chosen medium is not the mother tongue but an acquired language. At the same time, the acquired languages may create a distance between the writer and her world because there would always be the native speakers of those languages who would claim that the languages were theirs before they were acquired by the others. For the writers too, the distant lands from where the languages came would always remain the ultimate “repository of the word” with which they would continue to struggle to express their ideas or feelings.7For many writers, the decision to write in an acquired language is also based on the desire to target a readership which is wider than the limited one available in one’s own native tongue. The writers from many of the smaller ethnic communities of north-eastern India whose native languages do not have a script of their own or are spoken by only a handful of people have, however, adopted English as their acquired speech not merely out of choice but because the policy decisions of the state governments in these regions have favoured English above other languages as the medium of instruction in schools. Even in Arunachal Pradesh, Hindi which had once eased out Asamiya from the schools, has now been replaced by English and this decision was not propelled by any imperialistic design of a foreign power but as a measure taken by the postcolonial state to set the wheels of “progress” rolling. It would be necessary to locate the linguistic situation of the present-day Arunachal Pradesh in its historical context in order to understand the effect of the past on the present.

The long tract of hilly country bordering Bhutan, Tibet, China and Burma was historically almost a virgin land largely un disturbed by the succession of Ahom rulers in the Brahmaputra valley and by the later colonial projects of exploi tation which often go by the name of development. Myths, however, continue to speak of contacts between rulers from the Brahmaputra valley establishing kingdoms in the fringes of the hills at some mythological period. The stories of Parasuram’s journey to the source of the Brahmaputra, of the legendary king Bhismak and his daughter Rukmini who was carried away by Krishna, of Bana’s grandson Bhaluk who set up his capital at Bhalukpung, of the fugitive Kalita king Ramchandra who built a brick fort near the present-day capital of Arunachal Pradesh, have often been cited as instances of mythical connection between the hills and the plains.8 Historical records tell us however that the powerful Ahom kings of Assam followed a policy of noninterference in the affairs of the hill people except to carry out punitive raids in response to occasional raids and encroachment into Ahom territories by the different tribes inhabiting the surrounding hills. The British when they took over the administration of Assam in the early 19th century, continued the same policy of non-interference towards the hill people of the frontier regions. They kept up a rudimentary semblance of administration in the region through their political officer stationed at Sadiya on the bank of the Brahmaputra in the north-eastern corner of Assam. Occasionally, punitive raids were carried out in the surrounding hills to ward off any possible threat to the colonial projects in the valley.9 But, the imperial zeal to map, control and possess territories of strategic importance, did not fail to motivate the British to work through organisations like the topographical survey which undertook hazardous expeditions into the interior regions of the area identified as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA). These expeditions were primarily aimed at discovering alternate trade routes to Tibet and China.10

Post-Independence Policy

The government of independent India did not consider it expedient to abandon the British policy at one stroke and strike out in a completely new direction. On the contrary it followed in the lines of the colonial administration which was only discreetly modified to accommodate developmental projects without disturbing the existing tribal structures. The “Nehru Plan” which was largely an endorsement of Verrier Elwin’s vision for administering the NEFA as set out in his book A Philosophy for NEFA (1959), followed a policy of not “over-administering” these regions, but to bring in new ideas slowly. Nehru’s clear directive in this matter has been succinctly put forward in the following words:

We cannot allow matters to drift in the tribal areas or just not

take interest in them. In the world of today that is not possible

or desirable. At the same time we should avoid over-adminis

tering these areas and, in particular, sending too many outsiders

into tribal territory.11

The Nehru Plan sought to take up development projects to improve roads and communication, education and medical facilities as well as to introduce better agricultural techniques. But all these steps were to be initiated keeping in view the primary concern that “people should develop along the lines of their own genius and we should avoid imposing anything on them”. Whether this policy was actually followed in the letter and spirit , especially in the matter of adopting a medium of instruction in the schools, would be discussed below.

Amongst the projects that were taken up most vigorously in the post-independence NEFA were the establishment of schools in the interior regions and building of new roads to connect the hills with the plains. The early pioneers in both these fields were a band of enthusiastic school teachers and engineers from Assam who went into the most inaccessible areas to set up government schools and to assist in road-building projects. The zeal and earnestness of some of the Assamese school teachers of those days has left their indelible marks on a whole generation of educated people in Arunachal today who had their initial education through the medium of the Asamiya language.12 Many of those early writers and intellectuals from NEFA acquired such fluency and skill in handling the language that without being their mother tongue it became their “own tongue” which enabled them to use it for creative purposes.

Before entering into the fictional worlds of two of the writers from Arunachal Pradesh, Lummer Dai and Yeshe Dorje Thongchi, it is necessary to go into the historical context of the language situation in the Arunachal Pradesh and the response of the writers to the situation. Arunachal Pradesh is a state composed of heterogeneous linguistic and cultural groups. There are at least 25 major tribes speaking as many languages which are mutually unintelligible. The situation is similar in Nagaland too. As is common in such situations elsewhere, local pidgins or creolised languages have developed over the years for intergroup communi cation. These languages have become de facto lingua franca of the people.13 In Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh varieties of pidgin languages with Asamiya as a superstrate, known as Nagamese and Nefamese, are still being widely used for oral communication. These languages are also languages of the marketplace because local traders in the various rural markets bordering the hills communicate with each other in these tongues. But, in recent years there has been a marked change in the attitude of the tribal people towards these contact languages. After the introduction of Hindi as the official language and the medium of instruction in the secondary schools of NEFA in 1956, and of English as the official language of Nagaland after it attained statehood, the status of the linklanguages has undergone a drastic change. As the census figures of the two states show, people are generally reluctant to admit bilingualism and the young, educated sections are especially averse to admitting the pidgin languages as their lingua franca. This is a general tendency noticeable in other tribal regions of the country as well.14

This tendency is the outcome of the process of identity assertion as well as that of a major political decision of the government of India in the post-independence era. The policy of faster and more effective “integration” of the tribals into the Indian “mainstream” saw the vigorous pursuit of the policy of spreading the use of Hindi in NEFA, a policy that went against the so-called Nehru Plan of trusting the “natural genius of the people”. According to some analysts, the motive force behind this political decision to integrate the region with the mainland India rather than with Assam was the impending threat of Chinese attack in the late fifties.15 This political decision has played a crucial role in deciding the fate of a new generation of tribal students who are forced to adapt themselves to a situation where they can no longer cultivate a literal form of their oral contact-language for more sophisticated forms of communication. Tribal children were compelled to familiarise themselves with the Devnagri script and the alien sounds of the Hindi language. R S Rangila has pointed out the effect of such political decisions regarding language on the lives of the tribal people elsewhere in India. His focus is on the Wagri areas of Rajasthan where the decision to promote Hindi in the tribal areas has been guided more by political considera tions than by a genuine concern for the progress of education.16

The case of the Arunachali people is however more problematic. Here Hindi was totally unfamiliar to the people at the time of its introduction, though the situation has changed considerably after the invasion of the Indian market, especially in the form of Hindi films and television. When the NEFA administration which was manned by representatives of the central government from the Hindi “heartland” (NEFA at that time being under the ministry of external affairs, with the governor of Assam acting as the agent of the president of India) took the decision to remove Asamiya from the postelementary stage of education, there was considerable bewilderment amongst the tribal people. This was reflected in the contents of the two memoranda submitted by them to the government pleading for the retention of Asamiya at the primary level in schools because it was the natural language for inter-tribal communication.17 When the Asamiya language was ultimately replaced by Hindi in all schools of NEFA, a major rift was created between the hills and the plains because the Assamese teachers were gradually replaced by a new set of teachers who, like the administrators and the army personnel whose presence was considerable in the region, had little or no contact with the distinct history and culture of the hill people.

The relationship between the people of the Brahmaputra valley and those of the hills was, on the other hand, based on common memories of shared historical experiences and cultural practices. Despite the peripheral nature of the contact, there were many points of cultural similarity in dress, food habits, music, dance and folk festivals between the people of the valley and the hills. Language was only one of the natural manifestations of these cultural ties. This tradition of “mutual friendliness between the tribes of the foothills and people of the Brahmaputra valley” has been commented upon by Verrier Elwin who had carried out extensive studies on the culture of the north-eastern region. He has also observed the fact that “many of the leading tribal people, and particularly those along the foothills speak Assamese and they are now learning Hindi as well”.18 But, when it came to the problem of “integration” of the tribes with India, Elwin’s views corroborated those of the policymakers at the centre who had their own rigid views about the “mainstream” and the “periphery”. The following words of Elwin defending the govern ment of India’s policy smack of that prejudicial notion:

The NEFA administration has been accused of isolating the hill

people from the plains, the most curious charge being that they

are doing this by stressing the national language in schools.

This, of course is nonsense. The administration is not isolating

the tribal people at all. Indeed, if it is to be criticised, it might

rather be on the ground that it is bringing them a little too

quickly into the mainstream of modern life... It is encouraging

both the national language and Assamese to help the tribesmen

to communicate more readily with the outside world; it takes

schoolboys on tours round India and sends parties regularly to

New Delhi on great occasions;... its officers are penetrating into

the wildest regions with the message that beyond the hills there

is a friendly world with a desire to help and serve.19

The Language Conflict

The policy of “integrating” the tribal people with the “mainstream” through exposure to the “national culture”, however, ironically backfired in later times. Almost every tribal state of the region – Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh – virtually rejected Hindi as the medium of instruction and introduced English which subsequently became the official language of the state. In their “march towards modernity”, the tribal leaders did not waste precious time bickering over the suitability of one or the other tribal language or Hindi as the medium of instruction in schools, but opted for a language that would put them at par with the ruling elite of the “mainstream”. The newly emerging tribal elite in these states had realised that in modern India no matter how emotional one might get about one’s mother tongue, no regional language can empower the people as much as the English language can. The contribution of the English language in creating a divide between the powerful elite and the powerless “Other”, irrespective of caste or race, has been commented upon perceptively by Madhu Kishwar in a recently published article:

The English-speaking pan-Indian elite (which) is entrenched in

the higher echelons of bureaucracy, politics, the armed forces, corporate business and diverse professions, ...act as though they alone have a national perspective on vital issues of national importance and the regional language elites represent narrow sectarian and divisive tendencies.20

The tribal elite of the north-eastern states have unambiguously taken up a stand in favour of joining the ever-growing “new brahmin” class of India which is at home with the English language rather than being left behind with the “new dalits” who speak and write in the regional languages. Historical factors like the activities of the Christian missionaries in the region have also contributed to the strengthening of such an attitude. Most tribal leaders of the region today assert unambiguously that it is more in their advantage to opt for a “useful” language as the medium for school education rather than languages which are merely spoken by the people. A Naga intellectual has posed a series of questions in a recent article: “How useful is Bengali to the tribals of Tripura? How useful is Assamese to the tribals of Assam? And how useful is Meiteilon to the tribals of Manipur? For that matter, how useful is any regional or state language to the tribals of that region or state anywhere?”21

The pidgin languages (called Nagamese in Nagaland and Nefamese in Arunachal Pradesh) which have served as the link languages in some of the multilingual hill states have also failed to acquire the status of a “useful” regional language because, as a Naga politician has pointed out, these languages do not have “native” roots. But, elaborating this point further, he comes to the more significant argument that these languages are not “respectable” enough:

As a lingua franca Nagamese is O K But it would be unwise to make it a common written language – I think that’s the way in the present situation Nagas would feel – the situation can change, but it must change with the will of the people, and Nagamese may be difficult to accept. Nagamese is not based on any of our Naga languages, its roots are not “native”, and it is not a Naga language – not a marker of Naga identity. It is a borrowed language and people do not want to give it a place in their culture. Personally, I’d rather speak Hindi, which is much more respectable and useful.22

The regional languages in India today seem to be fighting a losing battle everywhere in the country and the future of creative literature in these languages hangs in the balance. The two Arunachali writers whose works had created a new tradition in Arunachali literature as well as in Asamiya literature have become representatives of a tragic generation of creative writers whose works are no longer read by their own people because they are written in a language that is not “useful” to the new generation. Lummer Dai accepted his death as a writer long before death actually snatched him away. This reticent, introvert writer once shared his painful thoughts with a fellow writer, Yeshe Dorje Thongchi who was still treading the thorny path. “Writers like you and me”, he said, “have no place in Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, people ridicule us because we write in Asamiya. When I sit down to write, these thoughts trouble me and I say to myself, for whom should I write and what? Is there any use in writing? And then my pen stands still, my words dry up.”23

These words reflect an unfortunate situation when authors feel that their readers have been alienated from their works. Yet, there was time, as Thongchi reminisces nostalgically, when young students of Arunachal who aspired to become writers themselves, read the novels of Dai with enthusiasm. The novels of Dai and Thongchi, which are sensitive representations of the lives of the people in the Arunachal hills, will perhaps have to reach their own people in translations before they are recognised as pioneers in creating a literature of Arunachal Pradesh.

II Depicting the ‘Native’

In the Asamiya literature of the colonial period, the tribesman was represented either in accordance with the pattern set in the English literature of the 19th century or as he/she had been depicted in the emerging colonial discipline of a Anthro pology. The tribal characters in the works of Lakshminath Bezbarua, Padmanath Gohainbarua or Jyotiprasad Agarwala are the “noble savages” of an idyllic world, a world that had been idealised in English Romantic literature. The most memorable of these characters are the female characters who epitomise innocence, natural grace and simplicity. Significantly they all bear typically Assamese pet names (such as Dalimi, Chinu, Jinu, Runuk, Junuk, Thunuk). A new trend was set by Rajani Kanta Bordoloi (1869-1939) in his novel Miri Jiyori (1894) where he attempted to combine the idyllic mode with the method of ethnographical documentation generally adopted by anthropologists. This novel, like most of his other historical novels, was based on the historical and ethnographic material collected by him as a part of his duties as a civil servant, for Sir Edward Gait’s monumental work, A History of Assam (1905). The story of the pair of star-crossed lovers, Jonki and Panei, afforded Bordoloi the imaginative space to depict the inner workings of a tribal society where individual rights are cruelly suppressed in the interest of community rights. This theme again becomes the main focus of the novels of Dai and Thongchi, but from a completely different perspective. Bordoloi’s representation of the tribal life of the Mishing (‘Miri’) folk was partly idyllic, focusing on the innocence, beauty and simpli city of these people living on the banks of the great river, and partly ethnographic, with details about their customs, tradi tional laws and religious practices. Bordoloi, however, failed to effectively integrate the two visions because he was bound by the limited perspective of an outsider for whom, despite all the sympathies of a liberal intellectual, the tribal folk remained the reified “other”. As a narrator, he adopted the stance of the colonial ethnographer for whom the other was always fixed in a timeless present. The tribal people, in such representations, are always referred to as a “sui generis configuration, often only a list of features set in a temporal order different from that of the perceiving and speaking subject”.24The following generalisation of the Mishing people, which attempts to create a clear distinction between the perception of the narrator and that of the tribal folk would adequately support this argument:

Readers! These people came to testify as witnesses in the case, though in an unintelligible manner. None of them would concede his rigid stand on the matter. We have already stated earlier that these Miris are a secretive race. They would keep their own purpose concealed in their tummies and go around the world with an innocent face. They would never come forward to tell you the truth.25

The author-narrator here includes the reader in the intimate circle of “us” who are judging and critically evaluating the other as a generic category. At one point in the same novel, even the central character, Panei, is made to recede into that mass of others when the author abandons his earlier perspective of the sympathetic observer and adopts the viewing angle of the Assamese babus who are the probable readers of his novel. The author joins them in gazing dispassionately at the inhuman scene of a tribal girl being dragged away from the district court by her kinsmen in assertion of their traditional custom, while the British magi strate refuses to interfere in what he perceives as the sphere of “customary” law.

The problem of gazing at another with the purpose of wielding power over her or him has attained great significance in modern postcolonial studies. The imperial gaze, according to this view, involves how the oppressor defines the mode by which the oppressed are to be seen and also how the oppressed people are to look at themselves.26An even more significant aspect of this theme is the one of resistance by the other which is expressed in the form of what, in postcolonial language, is known as “returning the gaze”. How an apparently illiterate, powerless people, gazes back boldly at the oppressor determines the status of the people in relation to the others. In Lummer Dai’s Prithibir Hanhi (1963) there is a brief moment of such a returned gaze when two Adi men come down to the town of Dibrugarh to sell their shawls and encounter the curious gaze of the plains people. Kardug is cunning enough to take things in his stride. But, Libo, the village idiot, is bewildered by this experience of being gazed at and innocently gazes back at them, assessing the urban culture of the plains in its true colours as inhuman and uncharitable compared to his own. In Thongchi’s Mouna Ounth Mukhar Hriday, there is an even more interesting description of returning the gaze. Dilip , a man from the plains, has his first uncomfortable experience of being gazed at and assessed critically when he first encounters a tribal group in the hills:

As soon as Dilip sat down on the blanket spread out near the

fire, the people surrounded him. Their inquisitive eyes seemed

to lick him up – every limb of his body. He felt like an animal

in a zoo.27

Lummer Dai and Yeshe Thongchi deal with the problem of defining the private space in a pre-modern community where individuals do not exist as separate units but as part of a closely knit family. Researchers of folk societies have observed that “behaviour in the folk society is traditional, spontaneous and uncritical” and there is little scope for critical objectivity or for abstract thinking in such a society.28 Dai and Thongchi, however, have effectively portrayed tribal characters who are questioning the validity of customs that have become inimical to a changing world. Though the revolt is not always forcefully staged, the very fact that individuals are expressing their dissent against the established norms of the tribal society, gives these novels and stories a historic status in Arunachali literature. The perceiving subject in these fictional works is not an outsider but one who is intimately a part of the tribal world. “All these people [in my novels]” says Dai, “are people I knew well. But, they did not come to me. I went to them on my own. I did not have any plans of writing a great novel. I merely wanted to paint a picture of these people exactly as I saw them. I got their permission to paint them. So, I drew the picture and printed it in the pages of this book.”29 The difference in perspective of Bordoloi and the Arunachali writers becomes at once evident if one examines the following passages from their novels. Bordoloi describes a meeting of the village council of the Hill Miris who were the traditional enemies of the Mishings of the valley, in the harsh language of the imperial subject:

It is the day of the village council meeting amongst of the HillMiris. About three scores of these Gassis have assembled. They are all wearing bamboo hats with cane belts around their waists. Each savage is carrying a dao in his hand and each has between his lips, a pipe made of bamboo, brass or some alloy. They are smoking those pipes with dry leaves stuffed into them. Two pigs have been killed with iron spikes thrust through their bodies.Then the pigs were roasted whole in the fire and with blood still oozing out of them, pieces of meat were chopped off and consumed. When those demons had gorged on the meat, then each sat with his legs spread out, like real animals. Today is their big meeting. The Baregam (the headman) has made his appearance. Something important is going to be decided here.It seems as if these beasts are holding their Sessions Court!30

The narrative stance here is one that is typically adopted by the colonial ethnographers whose accounts of the north-eastern tribes often tend to deny even the basic human attributes to the tribesmen.31 Bordoloi’s wry humour in the last line, comparing the proceedings of a ‘kebang’ to a colonial Sessions Court, seeks to project the indigenous institutions of the precolonial times as “savage” and “unjust”. Most of the writers and intellectuals of the 19th century had taken up such a stand in support of the colonial agenda to project the British system of governance as the best and most suitable for the Indian people. A refreshingly new stance is visible in another description of a kebang in Dai’s Prithibir Hanhi. Dai too is capable of adopting a critical attitude towards the tribal institutions, but his narrative stance is free from the superior attitude of the outsider who has never lived the life of a tribesman:

A kebang is being held at the village ‘munsup’ (a bachelor’s dormitory) today. All the people have gathered there. The meeting is about to begin now. Both the parties, the accused and the complainant, have brought ‘apang’ (a drink) for all the members of the kebang. The village elders have come in large numbers. So, the supply of ‘apang’ from both the parties is also proportionately plentiful.32

Dai and Thongchi belong to a completely different tradition of writers writing in Asamiya. They were educated in a postcolonial set-up where they never had to read textbooks that “represented” the indigenous people variously as “natives”, “savages” or “brutes”. They were the first generation of educated elite in NEFA who responded sensitively and enthusiastically to the new programme of development and opening up of the region which was being initiated by the government of independent India. They were intensely aware of the customs and beliefs which they considered to be obstacles for progress of their societies and often severely critiqued them. The strong element of social activism in their writings with the focus on women’s emancipation makes the novels of Dai and Thongchi even more powerful than some of the 19th century “renaissance” texts in Indian languages. The following dialogue between an educated Adi girl and her father who had “sold” her in her infancy for a bride-price, is an instance of such a powerful statement:

“Marriage of an infant?” Gumba laughed aloud in mockery of the whole idea. “An infant falling in love in her mother’s womb!” The very idea was hilarious for her. Her parents looked at her questioningly. “Father, I am asking you. When did you sell me? At what price? Answer me.”

“Keep quiet, Yaba!” Kargum said menacingly. “But, I must know! I should know when I was married!” Gumba replied. “Yaba, will you be silent?” This time Kargum spoke more harshly. “Father, I ought to know when and how I was sold in marriage!” “You have been sold, that’s all and you should have nothing to say on that”. “So, I am someone else’s slave, isn’t it?” “So what?” “Father, can’t you see that if I am a slave of somebody then your own blood is also a part of that slavery? And if your blood is enslaved then you too are enslaved?”33

The voice of protest and resistance heard in Gumba’s words is the voice of the enlightened opinion that is rapidly becoming audible everywhere in the tribal societies of north-eastern India. In Arunachal Pradesh, in particular, the “great leap forward” from a primitive lifestyle to a modern one which has wrought corres ponding upheavals in the sphere of ideas, has been spectacular. Social analysts have pointed out that in those remote hills, people who had never set their eyes on a simple potter’s wheel or a cart wheel have suddenly been exposed to the wheels of an aircraft. How the tribal societies would adjust their existing structures to accommodate the changes would remain to be seen in the years to come. But, in the novels of Lummer Dai and Yeshe Dorje Thongchi the society is presented as amenable to change and adjustment. The demand for change comes from within and it is heard in the dissenting voice of the younger generation of educated people. In the village kebang which is traditionally dominated by the elder males, women being in a marginalised position, the voice of the youth gradually makes itself heard. This is the message that comes through loud and clear in the last chapter of Dai’s Koinar Mulya. There is a long and sustained debate between the two voices, of rigidity and change, in this scene. Unlike Miri Jiyori, the kebang in this novel is respectful of democratic norms. The opinion of the youth, including that of the women, is not suppressed, but allowed articulation. The sane, balanced views of Minjup, an educated young man of the community, is ultimately shown to turn the tide of the whole debate in favour of change. Minjup speaks patiently and reasonably without giving in to anger and passion. He even allows the right to freedom of expression to his opponent, in the true democratic spirit:

Yejam is only expressing his opinion. Everyone has a right to speak up here. Otherwise this institution called the kebang will not survive.

Minjup’s long speech in support of women’s emancipation from patriarchal oppression ends with a plea for a humane approach to the problem:

Why do not we understand that by adopting such a cruel attitude towards our own daughters we are only deceiving ourselves? We do not realise that by practising such an inhuman custom we are turning ourselves into creatures worst than animals. When we claim to be human beings, we are actually being more shameless than the worst of the creatures!34

The story of Gumba’s resistance, the support she receives from the educated youth of her tribe and the ultimate defeat of the forces of orthodoxy in the hands of the organised opinion of the progressive elements in the society, reads almost like some of the early Indian novels of the “renaissance” period.

Lummer Dai uses the novel as a vehicle for social reform and his plea for the transformation of the traditional institutions is based on rational principles. “What is a social custom?” asks Borgan Gaken in Koinar Mulya. “Should we accept as our social laws today those customs which have been practised since the time of Abotani?35 No, I do not think so. Although our Adi society has been ruled by laws prevalent since the days of Abotani, yet, these customs have changed a thousand times in accordance with the needs of the times….” (translation, author’s) Dai questions the central role of the kebang in the lives of the tribal people and pleads for the need for a change in these powerful traditional institutions in order to accommodate the claims of individual freedom.

At the end of Koinar Mulya, the opinion of the new generation prevails over that of the old and Gumba breathes in the sweet air of this newfound freedom. The loud clapping of hands from the young audience in support of the new order resounds through the hills. The sound of this clapping is almost as momentous for the future of the community as the sound of the banging door at the end of Ibsen’s Doll’s House. It registers the triumphant assertion of ideas that would change the opinion of the society regarding the status of women. Significantly, Dai’s earlier novel, Prithibir Hanhi (1963) also ends with a kebang scene where a girl is being tried for alleged infidelity towards her husband. The novel concludes with the courageous self-sacrifice of a young girl, Liyi, in the hands of brutal patriarchal power. She speaks out defiantly in front of the elders of the kebang against the injustice and corruption of this institution. Her voice represents the voice of modernity which holds everyone spellbound in this small tribal community. But in that novel, written more than two decades before Koinar Mulya, the organised voice of resistance was not yet audible. The kebang, representing brute patriarchal force remains a silent spectator to the oppression of women. Perhaps, at that point of time it was not possible for Dai to visualise a more forceful ending for the novel because in the early 1960s the other voice representing the modern subject who is alone capable of exercising reason and critical opinion to empathise with others beyond one’s immediate family, had not yet emerged in Arunachal Pradesh.

Prithibir Hanhi is rich in intimate details about tribal life. The later novel, Koinar Mulya, is however more infused with an “idea” which makes its action more concentrated and focused. In the earlier novel, the action moves at a slower pace and the details about Adi life, as it is lived by the people, are worked out in a more leisurely manner. No writer before Lummer Dai had portrayed the inside of a bachelor’s dormitory (‘musup’) or of a family dormitory (‘chang’) in such authentic colours. The strengthening of the bonds of kinship that goes with the sharing of sleeping space and the problems of the individual who betrays those bonds, are very sensitively depicted in Dai’s novel. Dai looks at those secluded spaces of tribal life not with the inquisitive gaze of the anthropologist who violates the privacy of their inner spaces, but with the sympathetic eyes of someone who has lived and shared that life intimately. The almost modernist situation where a character shares his living space with others and yet feels alienated because of his mental state, has been effectively portrayed in the following passage describing the interiors of a tribal home where the son-in-law shares the sleeping space with his wife’s family:

Kardug sighed deeply. He straightened his legs on the floor and looked around. It was quite dark and he could not see anything. But, every object in that room was so clearly etched in his mind that he could almost see them. On the left, in the corner near the door, was the water-rack. Near it was the place where they made the ‘apong’ (a home-made beer). Move a little west from there, about fifteen paces south of the hearth, was the door to the pig-sty. South-west again, about ten paces from the hearth, was the big pestle. Next to that, hanging on the wall, were the bamboo baskets and trays…36

In this authentic delineation of a tribal home there is no self-consciousness of a modern individual who is jealously possessive of his “privacy”. If Kardug is unhappy in this shared space, it is because he suspects that his wife has admitted someone else into her heart, which implies that he is ousted from her hearth. Such a unique way of presenting complex relationships between the public and the private is, one may say, a feature of Dai and Thongchi’s writings which is authentically “Arunachali” rather than “Assamese”. It is an understanding that emerges from the very texture of the novels without any conscious philosophical intervention by the novelist.

Yeshe Dorje Thongchi represents another significant phase in the lives of the hill communities of Arunachal Pradesh, the complex and difficult period of transition from a premodern to a modern culture. In his novels and stories one encounters the birth of a new awareness in post-independence NEFA, about modern concepts like conservation and protection of wildlife (‘guard’), a scientific attitude towards diseases including leprosy (‘papor pukhuri’), and the popularisation of modern horticultural techniques (‘apel burha’).37 He writes about the miraculous transformation that has taken place in the lives of the common folk who had lived in isolation for ages. An illiterate villager who was once terrified by the very sound of an aircraft flying over the hills , has attained the expertise of giving smoke signals to aircrafts in the dropping zone:

Tachuk’s daily life is now timed by new concepts which include “dropping zone”, “smoke signal”, “wind-choke”, “CPO”, “LM”, parachute and ski-board.38

Such a transformation within the span of a few years, from a stage where a looking glass was the source of greatest wonder for the common folk (‘Dapon’) to one where villagers can talk easily about the difference between a Dakota, a Caribou, a helicopter or a big AN-32,39 has been realistically depicted in Thongchi’s writings. Thongchi, however is also assailed by doubts about this rapid pace of change in the hills and looks critically at the concepts of “progress” and “modernity” in relation to the more healthy values of the past.40 He has seen the positive effect of modern education and developmental projects like road-building, in a backward region. But, he has also discovered the rapid destruction of those elements of tribal culture which had kept a society together with bonds of kinship, loyalty and trust. The forces of modernisation have swept away many of the positive values associated with traditional relationships and Thongchi observes with distress the price one has to pay for “civilisation”:

When this road-building project would be completed, many good people would come along this road from the plains to spread the light of knowledge, to offer their services in the health sector and to take up other projects for the good of the hill people. But, along with them would come those hoards of exploiters – the thieves and robbers, the masked gentlemen. Unrest and discontentment would also spread to these hills some day. The tribal culture of the local people would gradually disappear when pitched against the onslaught of an alien culture, language, dress and manners….41

The problem of defining the individual’s private space in a primitive society where the claims of the self are submerged in those of the community, is again portrayed effectively in Dorje Thongchi’s novel Mouna Ounth Mukhar Hriday. Rinsin and Yama love each other intensely. But, they can never marry because they belong to different tribes and Yama has already been sold off to another man by her family. So, though there is no dearth of sympathy for the lovers from their young friends and relatives, still there is no protest when Yama is carried away by force by the men from her “husband’s” clan. The situation is almost similar to that in Dai’s novels and in Bordoloi’s Miri Jiyori. Thongchi depicts it realistically without any attempt to romanticise it beyond the limits of plausibility. It shows that the author is aware of the fact that the question of the status of women needs to be reviewed urgently if integration of the tribes in the new state is to take place effectively. Mouna Ounth also highlights another interesting dimension of the problem of intra-tribal communication in a multilingual tribal society of Arunachal Pradesh. Most of the diagetic portions of the novel in which the tribal folk from different linguistic groups speak to each other or with people from the plains, are in the pidgin Asamiya. Thongchi makes liberal use of this form of speech in the novel, unlike Dai who rarely uses it. Dai experiments with other inte resting devices, including “translation” of tribal speech into different varieties of Asamiya and even attempting to blend the lexicon of one language with the phonemics of another (as in the speech style of the village idiot Libo in Prithibir Hanhi). Thongchi is aware of the fact that the pidgin languge, though it might be a natural mode of communication for the tribals, is not a “respectale” language, nor is it equipped to convey complex human emotions. He does not refer to this hybrid speech as a distinct creolised language, but merely calls it “broken Asamiya”:

His (Dilip Saikia’s) sister and sister-in-law had teased him about this mode of speech when he was getting ready to leave for NEFA. “Don’t pick up that speech as your uncle had done before you”, they had warned him. “If you do, no one would give you a girl in marriage”. Dilip had vowed never to pick up that hybrid and defective mode of speech. But, now he has become so entangled in this new situation that it was impossible to perform his official duties without using the pidgin language.42

Mouna Ounth is a novel about building real roads between the hills and the plains, and metaphorically, it is also about cementing relationships between the different communities in the hills. The road-building project leads to the establishment of human relationship between people from different tribes who come together at the work site. The tribes which had been living on the same hills for hundreds of years without ever communi cating with each other, except perhaps as enemies, are brought together by work. The ancient silence between communities that had reigned through the centuries is broken by the sounds of dynamite explosion and of the car engine. The primitive fear and suspicion that had kept the tribes apart in their isolated existence, are finally dispelled by the new culture that gradually takes shape at the work-site. There is a carnival at the end of the novel to celebrate the opening of the road and the coming of a new era of inter-tribal cooperation and friendship. Thongchi highlights the importance of work in breaking old customary taboos that make the tribes xenophobic. Rinsin, the Sherdukpan youth and Yama, the Bangni woman, are drawn to each other by natural desire. Their relationship does not have the sanction of their tribal societies, but the two enjoy the days of newfound freedom while they are working together at the site. Rinsin even gets the opportunity to establish himself as a romantic hero when he plucks a wild orchid flower for his beloved from a gorge, risking his life. The two lovers are pursued by a series of adverse circumstances, the absence of a common language being one of them. They are incapable of breaking the ancient silence of their lips to articulate their deepest feelings in a language comprehensible to both. So, they communicate in the most primitive of languages, that of touch. This central theme of the novel finds expression in the following poignant passage:

There is a great wall between Yama and Rinsin – the wall of language. How will they reach out to each other through this wall and speak the language of their hearts? They can never do it, never! They are helpless like a pair of dumb doves. Their only language is that of furtive glances, trembling lips. “I knew I would find you here”, said Yama’s heart, “I don’t know where you come from, what is the name of your village, where your home is …But, from the moment I saw you, I have felt that I have always known you… How will you understand my situation, Rinsin? I am an object that has been sold to another. I have no identity of my own, no voice, no opinion. But, if you had been a Bangni man or me a woman born into your society, there would have been no such mighty wall of language and race between us…” (p 72).

The Bangni woman here has suddenly become aware of the multiple problems of race, gender and culture which affect her identity. The road-building project has at least laid the foundation of a new self-consciousness about individual space and identity amongst the tribal men and women. At the end of the novel, the Sherdukpan man tells his Bangni friend about the inadequacy of a pidgin language to convey the new feelings of a modern man:

Rinsin spoke hesitantly: “Tadak, I don’t know how to speak to you. How easy It would have been to convey my feelings to you had your Bangni tongue been the same as my Bhutiya. I have so much inside here (touching his chest), but I cannot speak in this language of the plains men. God has given our people the same eyes, lips, hands, but different tongues...” (p 117).

The ‘Ideal’ Reader

The anguish in Rinsin’s words is the anguish also of a writer who is in search of an adequate medium to communicate with his own people. Yeshe Dorje Thongchi or Lummer Dai’s writings are today facing the problem of finding the ideal reader. Will their books be read by their own people whom they love and with whom they would have liked to communicate best, or by the Asamiya-speaking people who would be unable to accept the books as a part of their own literature, or by the ideal reader of today who crosses all national and international boundaries? This is the question that has been faced by the popular Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. In a recent interview, he has stated that since his novels are today read by readers the world over in 40 different languages, so he has in mind an ideal reader who belongs to an international com

munity of “literary readers”. He says, Writers write for their ideal readers, for their loved ones, for themselves or for no one. All this is true. But, it is also true that today’s literary writers also write for those who read them. For this we might infer that today’s literary writers are gradually writing less for their own national majorities (who do not read them) than for the small minority of literary readers in the world who do.43

The Arunachali writers writing in Asamiya, like many other writers from small nationalities whose readership is also limited, will have to depend more and more on capable translators and publishers who can enable them to reach out to the “small minority of literary readers” who still read good books.




1 Stephen J Greenblatt, ‘Learning to Curse: Aspects of Linguistic Colonialism in the Sixteenth Century’ in Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture, Routledge,1992, p 32.

2 Yeshe Dorje Thongchi (1952) belongs to the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Educated at the Bomdila H E School, he graduated with honours in Assamese literature from the Cotton College, Guwahati. He holds a postgraduate degree in Assamese literature from the Guwahati University. At present a senior IAS officer in Arunachal Pradesh, he is the author of several novels and short stories in Asamiya and is a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award for his novel Mouna Ounth Mukhar Hriday.

3 Lummer Dai (1941-2002) was born in Passighat in the Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. After completing his school education at Pasighat, he graduated from the Cotton College, Guwahati and served as an officer in the Arunachal Pradesh government. He has authored several novels in Asamiya.

4 Mamang Dai, a former civil servant, was born in Pasighat in the East Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. She is a journalist, a poet and a fiction writer.

5 Mamang Dai, The Legends of Pensam, Penguin, 2006, p 50. 6 Meenakshi Mukherjee, The Twice Born Fiction:Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English, New Delhi.

7 Edward Said in his Culture and Imperialism, London,1994, p 270, uses this argument to describe the relationship between the educated native bourgeoisie of the colonies and the languages of the white men which they have acquired and made their own.

8 Verrier Elwin, A Philosophy for NEFA (1957), Shillong, 1964, pp 1-2.

9 T T Cooper refers to the attack on the British garrison at Sadiya by the Khamtis resulting in the death of of lieutenant colonel White. He also gives an account of the careful policy of conciliation followed by the British in that area after the incident: “Some of the tribes such as the Abors, Dufflahs, Nagas and others had levied tribute from the people of the plains from time immemorial, and were accustomed to receive it as a right. When the Indian government interfered with their privileges in this respect, the hill tribes resorted to these predatory visits...And a knowledge of this fact induced the government to enter into an arrangement with the different tribes, by which each should receive a yearly present of cloth, beads, etc, as an equivalent for the former tribute…this policy was found to succeed most admirably, and predatory incursions of late years have been few and far between”. The Mishmee Hills: An Account of the Journey Made in an Attempt to Penetrate Tibet from Assam to Open New Routes for Commerce (1873), reprinted in New Delhi, 1995, p 131.

10 See Cooper, op cit, Chapter 1.

11 Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘Foreword to the Second Edition’ of Verrier Elwin’s A Philosophy for NEFA, Shillong, 1959.

12 The autobiography of one such teacher, Annada Prasad Borthakur, provides valuable insight into the changes in the educational scenario in NEFA which took place between the 1940s and the 1980s of the last century and the groundwork done by the Assamese teachers and educationists for the spread of primary and secondary education in the hills (see Annada Prasad Borthakur, Chan Poharat Arunachal, Moranhat, 2004).

13 Linguists have offered different definitions of “pidgins” and “creole” languages. Though many believe that creoles developed out of pidgins in some parts of the world, others hold that each has an independent existence. Pidgin languages are simple modes of communication without complex grammatical rules, between two groups of people who speak different languages but who need to communicate with each other for trade and other reasons. Pidgins do not attain the status of the mother tongue and it is usually learnt as a second language by the people who use them. According to some linguists, pidgins are generally created out of three different languages of which one is the superstrate or the dominant tongue. Creoles also are mixed languages; but they are used as vernaculars by the speakers. Creole languages, like the race denoted by the term, have strong colonial connotations because they are usually developed in the European colonies where the speech of the native speakers of the European language (usually the indentured workers) would be heavily influenced by the language of the local people.

14 L M Khubchandani, ‘Tribal Identity in Plurilingual Milieu’ in M Miri (ed), Continuity and Change in Tribal Society, IIAS, 1993, p 539.

15 See B G Verghese, India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, Delhi, 1996, Chapter 11.

16 R S Rangila, ‘Pressure of Change on Language and Ecology in Indian Tribal Society’ in Mrinal Miri (ed), Continuity and Change, op cit, p 514.

17 One of these was signed by “the tribal students of NEFA” and the other by the tribal people of Lohit Frontier Division (see Parag Chaliha (ed), The Outlook on NEFA, Assam Sahitya Sabha, Jorhat, 1958).

18 V Elwin, A Philosophy for NEFA, op cit, p 4.

19 V Elwin, A Philosophy for NEFA, op cit, p 47.

20 Madhu Purnima Kishwar, ‘Diagnosing and Remedying Backwardness: English Education Defines the New Brahmins and the New Dalits in India’, Manushi, No 154, May-June 2006.

21 T A Shishak, ‘North-East Tribals and the Language Issue’ in R Sachdeva (ed), Language Education in Nagaland, New Delhi, 2001, p 29.

22 ‘A View from the Top: A Dialogue with Shri Imkong, Ex-Minister of School Education, Government of Nagaland’ in R Sachdev (ed), Language Education in Nagaland, op cit, p 13.

23 Yeshe Dorje Thongchi, ‘Lummer Kakaideu’ (Elder Brother Lummer) in Ajir Asom, Rangali Bihu Special Issue, Guwahati, 2003 (translation mine).

24 Mary Louis Pratt, ‘Scratches on the Face of the Earth’, Critical Enquiry, Autumn, 1985, p 49.

25 Rajanikanta Bordoloi, Miri Jiyori, Guwahati, 1993 reprint, p 49.

26 Jeremy Hawthorn, ‘Theories of the Gaze’ in Patricia Waugh (ed), Literary Theory and Criticism, OUP, 2006.

27 Yeshe Dorje Thongchi, Mouna Ounth Mukhar Hriday (Silent Lips, Resonant Heart), Guwahati, 2001, p 10 (translation mine).

28 Robert Redfield, ‘The Folk Society’ in American Journal of Sociology, 52(4), 1947, pp 293-308

29 Lummer Dai, Preface to Prithibir Hanhi (The Smile of the Earth), Tinsukia, 1963 (translation mine).

30 Rajanikanta Bordoloi, Miri Jiyori, Guwahati, 1993, reprint, p 68 (translation mine).

31 See for example, T T Cooper’s description of the Abors in The Mishmee Hills (1873), reprinted Guwahati, 1995, p 127: “…two of the dirty savages put their arms in mine, while the others followed, still laughing like fiends, and in this order of procession we marched into the porch of the house. Here the fellows squatted themselves on their hams and lighted their pipes, of which each man carried one of Chinese make, purchased during their visits to the Tibetan outposts beyond the Abor hills” (emphasis mine).

32 Prithibir Hanhi, op cit, p 181 (translation mine).

33 Lummer Dai, Koinar Mulya (Bride Price), Tinsukia, 1982, p 15 (translation mine).

34 Koinar Mulya, op cit, p 135.

35 The first human being, according to Adi belief.

36 Prithibir Hanhi, op cit, p 71 (translation mine).

37 All the stories are from the collection Papor Pukhuri, Guwahati, 2000.

38 Y D Thongchi, ‘Smoke Signal’ in Papor Pukhuri, op cit.

39 Ibid.

40 Y D Thongchi, ‘Elagi Tasspat’ in Papor Pukhuri, op cit.

41 Y D Thongchi, Mouna Ounth Mukhar Hriday, op cit, p 62 (translation mine).

42 Mouna Ounth, p 13.

43 Orhan Pamuk, ‘Name the Reader: Cultural Disquiet and the Inevitable Question’, The Telegraph, Guwahati, August 13, 2006.

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