Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Gold Necklace - Thanseia

Translated by Margaret L. Pachuau


Towards the latter half of the Second World War, my father and I embarked on a journey, all on inter village footpath to Zotlang in the northern part of Mizoram to visit my ailing aunt. We set out from Aizawl and after four days we reached Hliappui, and from there we set off for Pawlrang. Zotlang was still a two hour journey from there. We broke journey at Pawlrang, where we stayed with our relatives.We shared an easy camaraderie, for whenever they came to Aizawl, they halted at our house and so we were good friends.

They were an adult lot, who were quite well to do and actively involved in the Church as well. As their house was adjacent to the chief’s house, they shared close boundaries too. It was a big house and in typical Mizo fashion, there were prominent displays of the skulls, of the game that Pahanga, the head of family had shot. He was about fifty-six years of age, while his daughter Zami and I were about the same age. She was a petite young lady, with a glowing, albeit not very fair complexion and endowed with a slender figure. I had often taken her to the movies whenever she visited Aizawl and so we were well acquainted with each other.

After an early dinner her mother suggested,

“Mami, why don’t you take Ramtea somewhere? Otherwise he may not take you to the movies next time you go to Aizawl. Perhaps you could explore the famed “bak puk”. You could call Remthangi on the way too.”

Secretly I had hoped that she would make such a suggestion. So I stuffed a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches down my sweater, while Zami donned a Naga shawl over her cardigan, and we got ready to go, but just before we left she advised “Rama, though a torch is of not much use in the “bak puk”
¹ just take one for the sake of it,” and so I carried a torch. The famed “bak puk” was located at the northernmost tip of the village. As expected, great multitudes of bats hung about, clamouring for space and all around the stench was vile and putrid. The interior of the cave was very uneven, and this made us falter in our steps. Zami grabbed my elbow and clung to me, and as I tottered, my hands brushed against her breasts and made me tremble, and it gave me a tingling sensation in the process. Gradually, the darkness and the stench grew unbearable, and we fled outside, and as we did so, bats flew about us in wild abandon.
We stood by the edge of the cave, inhaling the fresh air. Gazing round I could detect a small lake famed in a way, as Bak lui² some distance away. Ensconced on its banks were beautiful strips of undulating virgin forests and meadows. Two or three old hamlets and barracks made of bamboo and straw stood there in tranquility, bereft of occupants. Dusk fell gradually and the area was exceedingly quiet, save for the croaking of the toads and the chirping of the birds.

“Zami, what are those? It does give a sentimental feel…are they uninhabited?”

“It was a camp occupied by the 1st Assam Rifles (AR) battalion, till around May. But… you see…it is haunted… rumour has it that strange sights have been detected there.”

I laughed “Let’s go there awhile… the meadow looks very serene and tranquil”. Saying this, I took hold of her arm and as she did not protest we soon reached the meadow.

My heart was gay and pounding with excitement for the atmosphere was pure and quiet, the m
oon shone luminously in the sky and all was still. A dreamlike stupor shielded the area. Four barracks and two mess halls stood in the distance, while the interiors were still in sound condition, the doors and the windows were in sordid state and the bunk beds let out a musty odour. Mice darted about our feet as we approached, and Zami waited outside while I explored the oldest and the largest of the barracks. She sat atop a solitary log, in front of the barracks. I went and sat very close to her and mustering courage as a young hesitant boy, I placed my hand upon her shoulder gently and said.

“This area is a pleasant one, have you ever gathered firewood from here?”

“No, not really, we usually go towards Hliappui road,” saying this she softly brushed my hand away in a way that made me quite happy.

“What shall I do now?” I pondered.
In the distance I could discern the approaching figure of a man in olive green and well worn boots… the uniform of the Assam Rifles soldiers… Looking work worn and quite unkempt he came downhill. We were a bit abashed and we moved apart and though we were not scared, we were slightly apprehensive and my hair stood on end. Zami grabbed hold of my hand tightly.

And in that interminable twilight zone he said in heavy Nepali accented Mizo.

“Here… I have to send something … do you know Sherman Tilla[1] in Aizawl? Give this to my friend there... I shall be very grateful…”

Saying this he placed a gold necklace in my hand, weighing about two tolas. Trembling I accepted it, and he turned back without another word.

“Hey Sir, What is your name? Who is the woman in Sherman Tilla³ ?” I cried.

He glanced back. “My name is Naik Havaldar Gurung Thapa.. my friend’s wife stays at Sherman Tilla… war is not good... my friend died in the Chin Hills battle.. please give it to her” Saying this he walked inside swiftly.

I placed the gold necklace inside my jacket pocket. Zami was a bit scared and she tightened her hold upon me.

"What’s the matter? There is nothing to fear…” I placated her.

But perhaps even I was afraid for I couldn’t wait to reach home. Zami was a few steps ahead of me when I suddenly stumbled over a stone, nearly falling down in the process. Astonished I shone the area over with a torch and to my utter consternation I discovered that it resembled a tombstone. Gazing carefully I could decipher a few inscriptions on it…


Naik Havaldar Gurung Thapa,
1st A.R Killed in action Chin Hills Operation
1.3.1945
“Life is so cheap in the battle Field” 1st A.R.

A shiver ran down my spine as we headed for home. Odd was it not? It was that very soldier’s tombstone. In a daze, I followed Zami and both of us hurried ahead, not even stopping to admire the beauty of “bak puk” or the “bak lui”.

After three weeks we were back to Aizawl.

“What shall I do with this golden necklace… should I keep it for myself or should I seek out the woman at Sherman Tilla?” I pondered.

Eventually one evening along with my friend, a student of class ten at the Government High School I headed for Sherman Tilla. It was an inconspicuous area, that was resplendent with hills and meadows. It however was the right ambience for the Gurkhali ladies who dwelt there. Narrow inroads as well as crops planted in wild abandon created the impression of a forest. As I said before, it was obscure yet very pleasant. We wandered about in vain. But after a considerable while we came into contact with a woman who stayed in a far-flung place towards the mandir. Attired as she was in the typical Nepali fashion, she presented an attractive sight, adorned with earrings necklaces and colorful skirts. She was much older than us, and as she laughed we could see flashes of her gold capped tooth. Ah! had she been younger she would have enticed us even further!

As we sat in the verandah, she narrated a tale that was both interesting and sentimental and straight out of the Hindi movies. I was struck by the profundity of it all!How glorious the 1st AR battalion had been! How precious their sacrifice! How selfless their devotion!

Still enraptured, we went in search of Gurung Thapa’s wife, who, we were told stayed at Dawrpui Vengthlang. All this while the gold necklace was still firmly in my pocket. Gurung Thapa’s friend, the one who had entrusted him with the gold necklace, was a Mizo. He had died in action during the Chin Hills battle. Gurung Thapa had risked his life to give his dying friend a decent burial and his friend had entrusted the gold necklace to him.

“Friend.. here… give this to my wife.. purchased from Imphal… give it to her...” he pleaded with his last breath. Gurung Thapa laid his friend to rest in the old Japanese trenches. It was a secluded area and the giant trees bore the imprints of bullets, amidst the rhododendron that bloomed in plenty. As for Thapa no one knew how he died, and strangely enough only the tombstone at Pawlrang conveyed the fact that he had died in action.

I caressed the gold necklace in my pocket, a grim remainder of the workings of fate. The woman in question was very difficult to locate, and we blindly groped our way through.

As we reached Dawrpui Vengthlang, its original in habitants offered some help.

“Perhaps it’s that lady in that rented house over there. She is a lonely widow with two children. Of course, we hardly see her nowadays”.

Another woman offered “Just a while back I saw a woman along with her two sons, carrying her “em”
4 behind her. She said she was going to stay with her brother at Zokhawsang and was headed towards the Dawrpui graveyard. Perhaps it was her.

Zokhawsang was only four miles from Aizawl. As we caught up with each other there, nostalgia and sentiment enshrouded us. The lady unfolded a touchingly haunting tale laced with nostalgia, sorrow, bizarre and frightening emotions... and inexplicable indeed was the fact that her husband’s soul still occasionally visited her.

I took the gold necklace from my pocket and handed it to her amidst my tears…



~~~



1 bak puk: bat’s cave
² Bak lui: Bat’s stream
³ Sherman Tilla: a small suburb meant for Nepali ex-servicemen

4
em: traditional Mizo woven basket.

Thanseia was the first District Education Officer in Mizoram. He later retired as Joint Director of Education in Mizoram.
Margaret L.Pachuau translates from Mizo to English.A doctorate in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi,she teaches at the Department of English,Mizoram University.
The Gold Necklace was published as Rangkachak Thi in the original Mizo. It won first prize in a short story competition in 1983. This English translation was first published in New Frontiers, a journal of the North East Writers’ Forum, December 2002.Picture: Kohima War Cemetery

2 comments:

Malsawmi said...

Hats off to Margaret Pachuau for her great works of translating Mizo literature into English!

Malsawmi Jacob

Storyteller said...

Thank you so much for making yourself visible, Mrs Jacob :) Yes, Margaret's doing something quite outstanding for the Mizo people, bless her and you too.