Sunday, February 24, 2008

Happy Valley - Vanneihtluanga

Translated by Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte

In a part of Aizawl that was nearly inaccessible by virtue of the sheer inconvenience of the roads leading to it, and yet, was paradoxically situated in the heart of the city, where the roads meandered like the intricate maze of a mole’s burrow, some people, on their way back from work headed for home. The road that led them home was a dead-end one, and there was no way to return from there except by the same torturous road.
Had the Creator not destined this particular locality to be in the very heart of Aizawl, no sane man would have chosen it as his dwelling place. Yet, since Aizawl city had already chosen these particular people to dwell there as her guests in that rocky ravine, the citizens of this place led a contented existence, bolstered by the knowledge that there were many who were not fortunate enough to have even a place like theirs to claim as their own in Aizawl. The place had no resemblance to what the likes of John Keats romantically described as a “vale”. There was no justification for naming it ‘Happy Valley.’ Most of the inhabitants had probably never set their sights on the haunting beauty of the place called Happy Valley in Shillong. Thus, one could surmise that they had not named the place because the denizens of this area were nostalgic of Shillong’s Happy Valley, and were reminded of the beautiful landscape of that place. The simple explanation was that they chose an English-sounding name, easily pronounceable, and which even the barely literate amongst them, who had learned their ABCs in adult schools, could write without fear or apprehension.


The people of this area did not have such lofty ambitions of making the place live up to its beautiful namesake in Shillong. I do not think they said, “Since we belong to Happy Valley, let us make it as beautiful as Shillong’s Happy Valley.” For them, it was simply a place to go home to after spending all day trying to squeeze their share of the fat from an already-lean Aizawl. There stood their ramshackle houses which afforded them shelter from wind and rain. Having few expectations, they spent their time there not particularly envious of anyone.
Who lived in Happy Valley? Few of them actually owned the houses they lived in. Aizawl was becoming more crowded everyday; prospective tenants multiplied, accompanied by a corresponding increase in the rates of house-rent, and no matter how unappealing a house or its location was, there was always someone to rent it at the right price. The few people who owned land in Happy Valley were aware of this, and as much as their financial and intellectual resources would allow them, they constructed simple dwellings, tenements that would perhaps fetch them between fifty and a hundred rupees per room.
Those who afforded such dwellings stayed there, more possessive of their homes than their landlords themselves. Thus, all kinds of people gathered there: peddlers and merchants who were not necessarily Paihte, malaria-ravaged people from the west, Maras1 from the extreme south, wandering Evangelists, Muster Roll Drivers, Muslims who paid no heed to Ramzan and Id, Sericulture office workers who had no inkling of what a cocoon was, babysitters who worked in other people’s homes, those who babysat these babysitters, their assorted family and friends, those whose only field of expertise was in auto repair, others who had always belonged to the Left ever since Mizoram entered the political arena; also, those whose sole reason for being sent to Aizawl by their parents seemed to be to appear for Matriculation exams, a big man whose drunken behaviour differed depending on whether he drank local liquor or the imported variety, a few who still vehemently declared that they would have no other ruler besides Kumpinu2, some who wanted to withdraw their names from the Church Registry because they were unhappy with the latest translation of the Bible and the new version of the Christian Hymnal, and those whose character could never be ascertained owing to the fact that their stays in Happy Valley were few and far-between, as sporadic as a comet’s visits.
“New tenants” and “moving out” were two key-phrases in Happy Valley. Every week, down the torturously step road leading to Happy Valley came a few new tenants carrying kerosene stoves stained with dal, and bedding that had sadly seen many better days strung together in an untidy heap; at the same time, those moving out laboured their way up the road equally burdened with kerosene stoves stained with the yellow gravy of behlawi bai3 and a locally-made double-stringed guitar, which, however, sported only four strings.
Whenever there were newcomers, Happy Valley bachelors asked two very crucial questions: one, was there a pretty girl in the new family? And, two, if there was any such beauty, did the family have any chairs to sit on? This was indeed a pertinent question in a place where many of the new arrivals were likely to inform all and sundry that furniture such as chairs had been “left behind in the village”, a piece of information that brought more gloom to the listeners than did Reagan’s Economic Sanction in South Africa. Thus, a lively discussion about any new people who had a pretty daughter always merited further discussion on whether they had seating facilities as well.
Cutting through Happy Valley was a public road on which rambled along vehicles of all sorts: huge, shiny, and indiscriminately noisy. While those living near the road were privileged to breathe in the faint promise of a glorious future, those living in the outer periphery below the dust of the main road were not unduly worried about the sounds they could hear from above, of people jostling with each other as if eager not to miss out on their share of riches, power and glory. They had a complacent and satisfied aura about them, since they saw the futility of attempting to even join the rat-race, and even if they could hear these sounds of materialistic struggles with their outer ears, they learned to shut their inner ears against them, and instead, forged a lifestyle and attitude that was in tandem with their income, a mixture of village life and city life which resulted in a unique lifestyle adapted to their means and needs.
When dusk fell, people who belonged to diverse professions, as if having made a pact to go home together at a certain time, met on that rocky road like beavers on their way home to their burrows, and disappeared into their homes for their evening meal. After that, electric lights – those powered by stolen lines indistinguishable from the legal ones – began to flicker and illuminate the rooms one by one. Some lights seemed brighter than necessary, while others were mellow and dim. Whether out of neglect or inconvenience, the locality, although it was situated well within the bounds of the city’s heartland, did not have even a single electric post. Hence electric lights had to be powered by an electric post high up above their locality. Those who could afford longer cables had electricity, and that was all. In the monsoon, because of the terrific length of these few lines, when the rain and wind spewed forth in fury, the electrical cables fizzed and sparked dangerously.
On what could dubiously be called a terrace, the roof of a badly-constructed concrete building, girls sat after washing the dirty dinner dishes. They squeezed together on a bench that had some legs missing, and every time somebody moved, the bench creaked in loud protest. Inevitably, a young man would come carrying his guitar, a most pathetic sample of such an instrument. He had tuned and adjusted the strings so tautly that the bow of the guitar was bent at an angle, making it difficult to coax a decent sound even out of the “D” key. Incredibly, the guitar’s owner could somehow persuade beautiful music to issue forth from this hopelessly battered instrument, which would have defeated even guitar maestros like Jimi Hendrix. When the tune was in danger of going flat, he would push the relevant string sharply upwards with his finger, and melody would return.
And then, how they would sing! How fortunate the composers never heard them sing their songs! An ex-army man, the only one among them who knew any English, would always join them, and tipsily taking the guitar, would proclaim that he sang nothing but English songs. Crossing his legs, taking the guitar and strumming a hringdup, hringdup4 beat, he proceeded to sing what could possibly be an original composition, judging from the extreme dissimilarity to the authentic version of the song he was singing:

I’d like to saddle round
But they won’t saddle round
A virgin tube must be a rolling stone!
Down every road there’s one more Satan
Aim on the rock
The Highway is my home.
The words, no doubt, might have been strange, but the spirit that gripped him as he sang was certainly exalted. As soon as his performance was over, in true Vanapa Hall5 fashion, his audience clapped and cheered, to which he magnanimously replied, “Thank you…with effect from tonight” in unadulterated English.
Now it was the turn of Mawitea, the lad who owned the guitar, to sing. In total contrast to his upbringing and lack of formal training, he expertly used his fingers to reproduce the opening chords of Europe’s “The Final Countdown”. His audience, expectant as they were of hearing a song by Europe by virtue of the introductory notes, were somewhat taken aback when he proceeded to follow the magnificent solo with a song by The Crusaders. Then he gave renditions of songs by The Invaders and Vanlalruati; when he had sung a verse each from three songs, the girls cried out, “Mawite, Mawite, ‘Zanlai Thlifim’” and in the blink of an eye, they were transported to the side of the great singer, Lallianmawia6. Whichever song he sang, he had the ability to replicate the exact pitch and style of the singer who had made a particular song famous, be it C.Lalrinmawia, Zirsangzela Hnamte, or C.Vansanga.
In their midst was a man who felt justified in calling himself one of the “owners” of Happy Valley. It was apparent that he considered himself a very big fish in a pond of small fishes. He was as pale as the unexposed side of a bitter gourd, and apart from the pale skin, red nose, the abundance of pimples on his face and the protuberance of his behind, there was not much to distinguish him. He was a strange man. Outside Happy Valley, he was just another man looking for favours from those higher up than him in the hierarchy. As soon as he entered Happy Valley, however, he became Lord of the Universe in his mind. When he truly became himself, he would hold forth on all topics based on what he had heard on the radio or read from old issues of Time Magazine, liberally sprinkled with lies that he dreamed up. He would then speculate and make authoritative conclusions based on the scant information he had gleaned thus. In front of the Happy Valley men and women who had gathered, he would talk of strange and amazing things. He talked excitedly of Reagan’s Star Wars Programme. At another time, he said, “Michael Jackson is going to the USSR, and there they will change his name. He will no longer be known as Michael Jackson, but Mikhael Jacksonov.” His audience was silent. They had no idea if Michael Jackson was a rat or a bird. The only other person who had heard of him, said, “I know who that is! A female soldier who screams a lot, and walks very stiffly. Reminds me of an arthritic trying to dance.” Another, said “Oh, I see” while chewing on tobacco leaves, and from there the conversation fizzled out. The ex-army man, wanting to contribute something to the topic, but at a loss for a suitable thing to say, said, “I once bought a black ticket at Zodin cinema too.”
When they talked of matters close to their hearts, however, they became so enthusiastic that they had to fight for a chance to speak. The topics varied from charcoal sold in the market, wholesale prices of firewood and mustard leaves, a coin found in a bag of fermented fish, present prices of Burmese cattle, the irregularity of supplies such as dried mangoes and cloth smuggled surreptitiously from across the border, how they had been miraculously healed seven times through Evangelist Lalchungnunga’s ministry, how they positively loathed men who wore earrings, how many tiny pebbles there were in this week’s ration-rice, and how, seeing that they were born only once, they were determined to request at least one song on All India Radio during their lifetime. Towards the end, a small boy who always hung around them would make an innocent comment such as “I don’t think the pebbles they add to the ration-rice make it any tastier” and they would all burst out laughing.
With the break of dawn, the crowing of cocks in the distance and the loud rumble of water-trucks out to supply water to the citizens of Aizawl woke up the people of Happy Valley. Since they were in the west, they had to peer towards the east, to the hills of Reiek in the distance to see if the sun was up or not. A woman called her neighbour, “Neighbour, what are your plans for the day?”
The neighbour appeared at her window, “I thought I would go to Civil8 today for a check up.”
“What is wrong with you?”
“Oh! Haven’t you heard about the new machine they have installed there, Endawskawp or something.”
“No”
“Everyone is all praises for it, they are all going there to consult it, and I thought I would go too.”
“And what ailment are you going to get yourself checked for?”
“I’m not sure. All I know is that the machine is good. Maybe I will let it check my insides.”
“Well, maybe I should go too; my eyesight is not so good these days.”
“Eh! Let’s go together then. I have been having this persistent pain in my ankle too. I went to get myself checked the other day, and I think just a single visit has relieved me of so much pain. It seems to work better than the X-ray.” Thus, they went to consult the endoscope machine, an instrument meant for examining the inside of the human body, believing that it was some sort of a medicine, and hoping to be cured of all their ailments.
In Happy Valley, it was impossible to survive without that amazing word, “borrow”. Since times were hard, it was not uncommon for a family not to have even small items like knives and scissors. If one had too many visitors, one simply borrowed chairs from neighbours, and sharing utensils was a common practice too. Nobody was aggrieved over these matters. Since what they did not have far outnumbered what they did have, borrowing became a way of life for them, and they did what they could to help a neighbour who, after all, lived just on the other side of the wall.
When we had lived for a considerable amount of time in this manner, video invaded happy Valley in a big way. As before, young men and women gathered after supper, but things had changed. Mawitea walked around with a scarf covering his face, only his eyes visible, while a samurai sword was perpetually strapped on his back. Happy Valley was no longer a safe place. That was not all. One fellow, a driver by profession, refused to wear clothes any longer after watching a Rambo movie. When he was not carrying a baby on his back, an old bicycle chain was draped around his shoulder, and even when he was carrying a baby, he did not refrain from tying a bandanna around his head or wearing hunter boots. He had a maniacal gleam in his eyes, as if he wanted to chew and spit on the world in general. The Mara boy, on the other hand, could not walk past a pole or tree or any object that one could circle, without singing, “Tarzan! My Tarzan!” first.
The erstwhile simple babysitters now looked like local versions of Cindy Crawford and Sridevi with their charcoal black eyelids. Whenever they came together, they clutched fashionably thin bags with pictures of Popeye under their arms. Once a neighbour from this group came and excitedly said, “Oi, they were selling some neil pawlissh7 at really cheap prices…” and proceeded to take out a bottle of stencil correcting fluid out of her bag. Such incidents were not cause for wonder or embarrassment in Happy Valley.
Handshakes now were offered at great peril to the owner of the hand, for the young boys were likely to throw you over, with a great shout of “Freestyle!” Any old bin or pieces of tar lying on the ground became instruments for practising kung fu.
~ ~ ~

Nights falls, and they all disappear to watch videos at a neighbour’s house. There is nobody left at the rooftop where they once congregated. It is eerily silent. The bamboo groves far below swish and rustle when the wind blows through them. Above, the waning moon, looking desolate, inhabits the night sky like a lone ship on a vast ocean. All the young men and women who sang so well, spoke so well, and related to each other like kindred spirits – where have they all gone? There is no other sound except the noise from a far-off television set, where music from MTV blares out the song, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Notes:
  1. Paites are a clan belonging to Mizoram. They have been traditionally portrayed as peddlars and small-time merchants.
  2. Kumpinu: The East India Company, here synonymous with the British Empire.
  3. Behlawi Bai: A Mizo dish made out of certain leaves called behlawi.
  4. Hringdup beat refers to the simplest form of the swing rhythm, a beat popular in many Mizo songs.
  5. A public hall in the centre of Aizawl city, where most important functions are held.
  6. The Crusaders and The Invaders were popular gospel bands in the 1980s, who followed Evangelists and complemented the sermons with their songs. Vanlalruati, Lallianmawia, C.Lalrinmawia, Zirsangzela Hnamte, and C.Vansanga are well-known singers in Mizoram, and the story is set at a time when they had reached the height of their popularity.
  7. Nail Polish.
  8. Civil Hospital

Vanneihtluanga is among the most outstanding Mizo contemporary writers. Written in the mid-80s, this piece comes from his autobiographical collection of short stories Keimah leh Keimah first published in 2000. He still lives in what's sometimes fondly called Happy Valley by its inhabitants in Chanmari, Aizawl, although now in a spacious multi-roomed house.

Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte works in the English dept at Mizoram University. Actively involved both in creative writing in English and translations from Mizo to English, her prose here has a lyricism that is beautifully poetic.

2 comments:

Storyteller said...

The poetic language of this translation is so reminiscent of Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. I wish I could reproduce Paton's description of the South African shantytowns now but my copy's gone missing. Here's an excerpt from the opening chapter I found online though..

"There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.

The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.

Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titihoya does not cry here any more.

The great red hills stand desolate, and the earth has torn away like flesh. The lightning flashes over them, the clouds pour down upon them, the dead streams come to life, full of the red blood of the earth. Down in the valleys women scratch the soil that is left, and the maize hardly reaches the height of a man. They are valleys of old men and old women, of mothers and children. The men are away, the young men and the girls are away. The soil cannot keep them any more."

That's so beautifully poetic and I hear echoes of it in this translation of this otherwise rather rambunctious story :)

ruolngulworld said...

Another exceptional writing from VNT and another very good translation. But, somehow, it felt to me as if something has been lost in translation this time. Maybe the theme or something in the story not lending itself to the English language, I dont know. Without meaning to be critical or anything, that was my first reaction on reading it. I did thoroughly enjoy it, however, and look forward to more VNT.
Thanks again, storyteller. Look forward to the next one.