Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Untitled - Jacqueline Zote

His brother finds him curled up in a ball, body shaking and sobs withheld.
"What's wrong?" he asks him.
And he replies,
"Brother, I am damaged and I am tainted.
Those men from the other night...
They hurt my body in more ways than one.
The scars you see on my face are not the only ones."
He breaks down and tells his brother
Of the monsters who scarred his soul
One fateful September night.
They run to the cops with statements and tests.
An investigation begins,
But the cops aren't doing their best.
Instead they tell them, "Perhaps it's best
To withdraw the case.
An out-of-court settlement may save your face."
The news travels in whispers through secret grapevines.
The people who speak out are met with threats and ridicule,
Even the bravest supporters - silenced.
You see, that's what happens when a monster has influence.
He sits on a throne made of grandpa's money.
He sweet-talks the cops with tales of the renowned man.
And the cops - their hearts soften
Towards the monster with a silver spoon
Sticking out of his filthy mouth.
His family uses their power so the news doesn't spread.
But they could no longer silence the mourning mother's message,
Seeking justice for the son they tried to silence.
Yet like every case of sexual abuse and molestation,
Doubt falls on the victim - the one whose soul was torn by ruthless monsters.
"The accused has an uncle who's running for office.
I bet it's just a ruse to discredit the respectful man.
Why didn't they speak up two months earlier?"
But little do they know...
How hard they tried
And how quickly their voices disappeared,
Overshadowed by the monster's influence.
And his fellow men call him a coward,
"A man doesn't get molested," they say,
"A man should have the courage to speak up."
Their voices are bold and angry,
Seemingly filled with certainty
Of how they would deal with it if it happened to them.

You see, this is how it always is -
The victims get silenced and they get shamed.
They get questioned and they get mocked.
As if the soul-robbing incident wasn't enough to destroy them.
As if they didn't feel enough shame already.
As if speaking up only to be met with doubts wasn't bravery.
It doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman, a boy or a girl or whatever,
This is how it always is.

Jacqueline Zote's response to the horrifying local story of poor widow's son versus rich men's sons that broke on the evening of November the 19th, 2018, reminds me of the late Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev's definition of ballet. While on a visit to India in the mid 80s, in a thoughful interview with an Indian magazine, he was asked the question, "What is ballet?" His response: "When you feel very happy, you sing. If you can't sing, you write. If you can't write, you dance. And ballet is a sophistication of dance." Ms. Zote's response is that of the creative writer channeling her feelings and reactions into what she does best - writing. I thank her for allowing me to reproduce here this powerful reciprocation to a contentious topical issue.

Explaining her stand for writing of the incident in English, she states: "I am trying to speak up about a problem that isn't just isolated to our society. And I am trying to show others outside the community that the Mizos are courageous, that we do not stand for injustice and we give voice to the voiceless. We will not tolerate the horrifying crimes committed against the common man by egotistic oligarchs. Or am I wrong?"

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Nothing like us – Candle Vanrempuii

Your absence built my childhood. I remember it lending me a hand, stacking bricks to build a wall the thickness of your selfishness and the height of your irresponsibility in every direction you stabbed me. So I ended up with a 360 degree wall, pretty thick and pretty high. Other children my age were learning to make doors – properly painted ones because their parents taught them how important presentation is; properly secured with peepholes that allowed insiders to identify who they would allow to walk in and who they would not; properly measured with a doorway wide enough to make a two way street where one can walk in and, on the occasion of a fire breaking out which hopefully will not, walk out; properly locked with chains of gold that the insider can open or close at free will. Other children were making doors with their parents while I had built myself a mighty fort. My fort was pretty impressive to me until years after, I realised that I had neither the simple luxury to bask in the yellowness of the sun nor the shimmering light of the moon.

So I taught myself the art of whatever could be learned by a child in the absence of a father and I made objects to entertain. The product of a handicapped craftsmanship resulted in a volume of broken things, and a volume of variations of broken things: a collection of almosts. Things that were only a few steps short of completion but things that seemed so good at remaining that way – a little rough around the edges and a little incomplete. There were shards of the incomplete here and there and their trails everywhere. My home became a maze of objects that were ready to cut you in their incompletion if ever they find in you the slightest, tiniest intention of leaving. Leaving, yes, they were afraid of that and I must admit, they take after me in this respect.

Your absence is what built me a home and had me a childhood and I think I owe you a drink as a token of my gratitude. I know you’d love that but I doubt we ever will because I heard you left town to come back on a Saturday and now it’s Monday, it’s always Monday…Besides, I was 8 then, I’m 20 now.

A sincere thanks anyway.

In the past 12 years I’ve spent without, I must have acquainted every form of loneliness. Every day and every hour, nothing but loneliness. Gee, where are my manners? I meant to say no one but Loneliness. You’d be surprised how versatile Loneliness is if only you’d met the half of them. Some talk to you, some stroke you and some even caress you and you’d be proud to know that I’ve even had enough time and closure to pick a favourite. And my pick is the Loneliness that stays. I’m quite proud of myself and I like to believe that I have good taste because at least I picked the one that stays.  Unlike you. It lulls me to sleep and awakens me with a kiss, it feeds me breakfast, lunch and dinner, and soup on days I do not feel well, it handles me with love and care, it bathes me and clothes me and never fails to pray daily for me. It practically raised me. So it’s only fair that I favour this Loneliness over all the others – only natural, I must say.

It did a pretty decent job because it taught me the value of love. In all my years, I have never wanted nothing so much than to love and be loved. So I’d say I was raised right.

However, it took me 20 long, lonely years to realize that the first and possibly the only thing needful to welcome people to your home and let them into your life is a door. 20 long years of loneliness to teach me the value of love and after the lesson was thoroughly taught and so very thoroughly learnt, I realized that I have no door.

No freshly polished knob to turn, no doorbell to press ever so impatiently, no wood to knock, no bolts to unbolt, no peepholes to look through, no sound of creaking, no gush of wind from the act of a door being opened.

Nor a stranger to shake hands with or introduce; to shyly welcome or offer juice. No stranger to become a friend or perhaps a lover. No stranger with the wind of possibilities tied to his footsteps to ever walk through my door and into my life. No door, no stranger.

Just an endless, circular wall of concrete and exhausted possibilities.

Taking matters into my hands as always I’ve done before, I walk through the maze of shards and I’ve a number of cuts on my skin and tatters on my clothes. I complain not because that’s just the price I have to pay, a fair one too. I have to reach that wall and make myself a door because as much as being left hurts, I don’t think it hurts half as much as being lonely does. Leaving can never be as bad as having no one. At least when you have someone there is that ever so slight possibility of that someone wanting to stay and having someone who might leave is still better than having no one. The stakes are high, I’m well aware, the odds are against me, I don’t doubt, but I’ll take the bet, I’m a gambling woman anyway.

The blood trails are my map and the scars these cuts will leave are my stories and the bruises I have from banging against the wall in my thousand attempts to break it down are a baptism – a worldly mark of someone who has fought to love. Someone who has learnt, first hand that it is better to live in the hurt of the leaving of love than to live in the fear of being left and never be loved.

I stand behind this closed door, waiting and bruised and cut and bare. But believe you me, I was in a fight for something beautiful. Something that sounds, looks, tastes, smells and feels a lot like love.

And I hope the first person that knocks on my door is nothing like my father and nothing like me. I hope his home and his childhood are built on something better than absence.

                                                                         ~ ~ ~

I am rooted in you

I am rooted in you.

I stem from the ashes of who you were and what you believed.

I am a sprout of your faith.

And a bud of your prayers.

One day I will bloom with your name on my petals

And your legacy in my scent.

On that day this I will remember -

I am rooted in you.

That being said -

I hope your heaven has isles upon isles of cherry blossoms and sky the colour of a shy blush you were so particularly fond of.

I hope it smells like the perfume Apu bought you that you loved and treasured so much and I hope the air is filled with constant carolings with the likes of Pu Vankhama* and Pu Rokunga*.

I hope your heaven is filled with things that need fixing because you were so good at that.

I hope your heaven has people in desperate desire to be rooted and I hope they eventually find their way to you.

* Vankhama and Rokunga are both poets who belonged to the 50s' golden age of Mizo poetry.

Candle Vanrempuii is currently in her final year of English lit. at Pachhunga University College. She recently published her first collection of writings titled Evermore in collaboration with her friend Niji who contributed a beautiful set of evocative photographs. 

Candle was introduced to literature by her grandmother who loved Mizo poets Vankhama and Rokunga, as well as by her grandfather, the late Pu Dengchhuana, IAS. Her favourite author is Neil Gaiman and she is particularly fond of the genre, magical realism.  She says that her writings generally do not have any cultural, political or historical value (not unexpected from someone still so young) but that every piece is written because of something that deeply moves her.  In this context, mention must be made of her father, the late Maitawka, acclaimed guitarist and musician. In much of her writings, his is a very significant and poignant influence. Candle has also made quite a name for herself with her spoken poetry, having performed at a number of events in Aizawl to highly appreciative audiences.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Queer Life: A Journey Understood Through The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness - Ben Zongte

The cold air made the sparks seem even more intense.

My hand held as far from my body as my tiny arm would permit; I looked away, distraught and shivering. My father set ablaze the firecracker that he had forced me to hold.  My legs went weak in the deafening explosion that followed.

Growing up in Mizoram in the 1990s, this is a thing boys did; a feat of bravery as proof of an idealised masculinity. I did not like this, nor did I like the football and karate that was forced upon me by my enthusiastic father.

The family was gathered on the lawn to welcome Christmas with holiday firecrackers and my brothers, in a heedless holiday spirit, had taken hold of them, laughing as they exploded in their hands. My father chuckled at their antics with pride.

In the corner, tucked away behind my mother, I clutched the hem of her wrap-around, frightened because I knew that my father was going to ask me to do what my brothers had just done. But I was not my brothers. I talked and behaved like a girl because that is what came naturally to me. That is who I am. But my father was adamant that he would make me ‘manly’. Which is how I found myself shaking as the wick burned down on that cold December night.

I spent my early days in a boarding house at a Jesuit School in Lunglei, a small town in southern Mizoram. In the early ‘90s, the books written in Mizo that we had access to were mostly about religion and philosophy and held little interest for us. Our exposure to Mizo culture came through the myths and war stories that were told to us as kids. Besides textbooks, there were a few Mills & Boon that family members had procured outside the state and thick encyclopaedias, which had more pictures to look at than text to read.

The idea of finding a queer-themed book had never occurred to me, despite my unquenchable thirst for more to read. When a young warden secretly lent me Lucky, a book by Jackie Collins, I came across a queer character for the first time. When I encountered Dario, the protagonist’s gay brother, I was thrilled to see a bit of queerness, a bit of myself, in a novel. But I struggled to see myself in Dario’s life and the setting of the book wasn’t relatable for a small town tribal queer like me. The only connection I saw was the way in which Dario, like me, was caught between his own identity and his family’s expectation of what it means to be a man.

In a small state like Mizoram, forms of queer representation were almost non-existent in our literature. But, although Christianity predominates in the state – and in my family – our pre-Christian history shares South East Asia’s long tradition of inclusive gender expressions. This may be the reason that we continue to see a handful of personalities bold enough to express themselves publicly. One was a singer named Ngurthangvela. His voice, nasal and croaking, sounded as if he had undergone hormone replacement therapy. His hips swayed like a belly dancer as he sashayed across the stage. He wore the first pink shirt seen on a man in Mizoram and his leather pants were as tight as pantyhose.

The men detested Ngurthangvela and the women wanted to befriend him. Though he was often a subject of ridicule, he had the last laugh; those who came to mock him also bought tickets to his show. I admired his elegance and nonchalance in the face of a sometimes jeering crowd. This inspiration helped me to endure some of the most disparaging things I experienced throughout my childhood.

The consciousness of being queer and the struggles that came with legal recognition and the inequality faced by same sex couples were what got me interested in queer literature. My first exposure to it came from Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness.

In school, the novel’s intersex character, Aftab, who abandoned his male identity and embraced his femininity to later become Anjum, was subjected to schoolroom jeers of “He’s a She. He’s not a He or a She. He’s a He and a She. She-He, He-She, Hee! Hee! Hee!” The taunts brought me back to my Lunglei childhood, recalling the neighborhood aunts whispering among themselves as they looked at me: “Oh, that boy is so she-is!” (“Mizoised”). In The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness, as Aftab’s father forces her away from her days spent singing thumri and chaiti, instead regaling her with tales of battlefield valour, I think back to that firecracker slowly sizzling towards my fingers many Christmases ago.

Although Aftab and I managed to escape from the oppression our fathers subjected us to, our battles haven’t ended. Aftab might have moved away from home to become Anjum and live among other intersex women while I moved away from Mizoram, free to live on my own terms, there are certain things that will remain broken and unfixed.

“[God made hijras as] an experiment,” Anjum’s friend tells her. “He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us.” To Anjum, who has just found a hijra community, this notion is shocking. “How can you say that?” she asks, “You are all happy here! This is the Khwabgah!”

Anjum’s experience spoke to me. Dario came from a world in which I couldn’t see myself. Aftab/Anjum, while still far from Mizoram, spoke in a cultural language that felt far less foreign. And when Anjum spoke about happiness, I felt the familiar pang of being torn between the gender expectations of my culture and my own desire to be feminine, to become a mother.

My parents don’t read novels often. I wish that they did so that I could give this to them. If more parents across India were able to access stories like these, fewer children would be left shivering and frightened, the firecracker about to burst in their hand, wishing that they weren’t forced to live a gender that they don’t feel.

Ben Zongte writes more poetry than prose. This one prose piece however, originally written for and published on thecuriousreader.in, probably means more to him than the poems he so elegantly writes. This essay is definitely a historical first in Mizo writing in English, and perhaps even in Mizo writing as a whole, because young Ben here takes a huge leap of faith in discussing his sexuality in a part of the world that is still largely conservative Christian, a Bible belt thousands of miles away from the American. When I first read it, I had to hold my breath because I found it to be such a brave and courageous disclosure, almost to the point of being foolhardy even. But it is so honest, so genuine and open,  all I could think was "bravo, Ben!"  For his part, Ben says writing this gave him so much liberation and confidence. Well, as they say, no guts, no glory, Ben!

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

It - Tommy Chhangte

Like a swarm of locusts, it comes, consuming all in its path that's green and full of life, leaving everything to dust and condemned to nothingness. It leaves you displaced, like sands swept from the yellow shores by the cold river that brings them down to the ocean floor. It cuts your veins and steals your colours, like a rose plucked from its pedestal of thorns, only waiting to wither. 

It comes at dawn and takes away the unborn baby from the mother's womb. It comes at noon and envies the heart of the young boy, full of love and passion, and snatches the beloved away in a flash of a lightning, letting darkness creep slowly into his soul. It comes in the late afternoon, but no one hears its footsteps; and all who dare to listen are silenced by its malice. It comes in the dark of night and steals her past, and all the love she ever knew. It comes in silence, and comes only to take. It takes all it wants, and takes even more. And leaves in its place, promises in the dark.

But as you journey through life, something and someone makes you realize.... It came to you one Spring morning and shared a smile, a laugh, a drink. It came one scorching Summer day and carried you to a distant shade. It came one gloomy afternoon in Autumn, and gave a kiss you never will forget. It came to you in the coldest Winter evening and offered a blanket of warm skin. It comes to you when least expected, when least hopeful. It comes in silence, but comes to give. It comes to bring to you a light - to guide you through the night.

It gives and takes, and takes and gives. It takes too much and gives too many. It takes some more and takes too plenty, but gives you some then gives a bounty. It takes your joy and brings you sorrow, and takes your pain and brings you comfort. It is the giver, it is the taker and all it takes and all it gives, it does it so, just for you.

Tommy Remchhunga Chhangte recently graduated from Govt. Aizawl College and plans to continue his studies in English literature. We wish him every success and hope he continues to write.

Monday, April 16, 2018

These Hills - Somte Ralte

These hills, my home
This land, I call mine own:
Where merry streams chatter along
And puffy clouds bend down to kiss the hilltops.

These hills, my home
This land, I call my own:
Where once the free
Roamed and danced under the virgin sky;
Where once the brave
Laid their lives down for their friends;
Where once pretty maidens
lived out their daily toils with meekness.

These hills, my home
This land, I call mine own:
Where from its nightmares
It is recovering still;
Where unspoken words
Are eventually voiced out;
Where remembrance
Makes forgiving not the less easier.

These hills, my home
Where I was nursed and taught,
This land, I call mine own
Where I pledge my loyalty to:
These hills, my home
Though forever new, is unchanged;
This land, I call mine own
Sustained by the rejuvenating air:
And I know, somewhere along these hill ranges
Beats a heart just for me;
And someday, our lives will be complete
In these hills, that will be our eternal home.