Sunday, September 21, 2008

Aspects of Mizo Literature - Dr.R.Thangvunga

This paper was presented under the title ‘Mizo literature in relation to other literature’ at the Poets’ Meet cum seminar on Mizo literature in Aizawl between the 3rd – 7th October, 2001. I am indebted to Dr. R. Thangvunga for generously allowing me to publish his essay online.

It may be assumed without fear of much controversy that the literature of the Mizos sprang up independently of the myriad native literature flourishing in this culturally rich nation, an assumption justified by the fact that Mizos are of Tibeto-Burman stock having little or no socio-cultural affinity with either the Aryan or Davidian races or the Austrics who form the bulk of the Indian populace. The long migration of the Mizo people from the T’ao valley in China to their present habitat had matured their cultural and religious life sufficiently for distinction from their neighbours. The long years of isolation from other more civilized people had a preservative effect. The pristine simplicity and naïve innocence of the people is in sharp contrast with the sophisticated and complex attitudes of the more progressive people around them from whose poisonous contact Providence seems to have kept them for a special purpose. This age of innocence is the early period of Mizo literature, a vast oral tradition and valuable heritage which a miracle of gospel event has captured in indelible pages of literary history. It is impossible, in the narrow confine of this introductory essay, to open up the panorama of the virgin songs of a people who are, perhaps, after Wordsworth’s own heart. It is a tempting thought that the earlier pre-Christianized literature possesses more human spirit than the Christianized literature which offered a sheepish hope of an underserved heaven in exchange for the more heroic idea of an earned Pialral (incidentally corresponding to the heroes’ Valhalla or Elysium of similar warlike people elsewhere).

If we assume the soul of all literature to be the whole-blooded expression of man’s heroic response to an environment hostile to his dreams and ideals, one may bravely
assert a pagan literature as superior to a literature of higher inspiration; for heroism remains the highest standard of human worth, and literature “the thought of thinking souls.” G.Wilson Knight observed: “A strong faith tends to render tragedy impossible.” The truth of this statement seems to be only too apparent. This humanistic position, owing allegiance to the empirical or Aristotelian precept, justified itself against the intractable and pontifical ideology of the medieval Church as a pristine force of enlightenment working through th powerful pen of a Milton or a penitent Donne. Christianity and its attendant Faith in the the heroic expiatory sacrifice of Christ had been a popular literary subject of the Renaissance, as exemplified by Spenser’s The Fairie Queene. The spiritual struggles of a believer have never been minimized as an easy pilgrimage and Bunyan’s Pilgrim was not found among the Canterbury pilgrims.

It therefore is essentially inadequate to assume that “a strong faith” is incapable of cathartic experience; for the road to faith is never easy, and many shun it. Religious literature is replete with spiritual conflicts of epic grandeur that the adventures of flesh and bones can never match. It is true, physical pain is usually subordinated when the spirit is elevated in the transcendental experience of a more enduring truth for which the sacrifice is being made. But it is true also that the inner struggle to accept physical pain for a principle, the price of the choice has not been a pleasure either. It is on these twin streams of critical viewpoint that the following lines attempt to highlight a few samples of Mizo literature for your evaluation on a more universal platform. To facilitate such an exercise, we have to rely heavily on available versions of the canon and critical works on the same in English. The following works are indispensable:

1. Tribal Folktales of Assam (Hills) by S.N. Barkakati, containing 69 pieces of Mizo folktales.
2. Folklore I – Folktales of Mizoram by Dr Laltluangliana Khiangte, 1997.
3. Anthology of Mizo Literature by Dr Laltluangliana Khiangte, 2001.
4. Mizo Literature by Dr R.L. Thanmawia, 1998.
5. The Lusei Kuki Clans by Lt. Col. J. Shakespeare, 1988.

A comparative study of Mizo literature with those of others, so desirable and imperative, is beyond the scope of this paper and of my abilities. Any accidental light emerging from random analysis of literary samples below which may reveal certain affinities with the literature of other peoples, kindred spirits showing the elements of common human nature, will more than afford the satisfaction looked for in having accepted this task of making intelligible our native voice.

THE PEOPLE: It is not the place here to decide on a creditable history of the Mizos from available research. Subsequent researches seem to have no better recourse than the pioneer British administrators but available oral folklore and tradition as their source materials. Reference pointing to Mizos in their generic name ‘Kuki’ was made as early as 1512 A.D. by Col. Lewin in his ‘Progressive Colloquial Exercises’ showing that it referred to the dwellers of the so-called Lushai Hills irrespective of clan names.

Mizos lived in a community of 50 – 300 houses with a hereditary chieftain who rules by counsel of advisers called “Upa”(s). Livelihood being dependent on agriculture and hunting for meat, shifting from hill to hill every decade or so, security and development were not known by the Mizos. Surprise raids being the method of war, every young man, even married ones, was on constant alert, and slept in the ‘Zawlbuk’, a kind of club for communal discipline.

Like most tribal communities, Mizos synchronized their agricultural calendar with a number of festivals and religious observances which punctuated their hard life with entertainment, relieving the burden of their hard labour and martial apprehensions. Otherwise, their life was physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting, a vicious cycle of existence under the shadow of superstitious and moral fears from beast, man and evil spirits.

Contrary to conventional practice of dubbing the religious life of the Mizos as Animistic¹, a comprehensive examination of their religious activities leads me to regard them as being primarily deistic². For they believed in a God of goodwill who is responsible for the creation and preservation of all things, one who is not perturbed by the events of the human world, apart from his having ordained the temporal and spiritual systems which all creation may observe willy-nilly. The moral precepts and taboos bearing on human actions were imputed not so much to God as to a system not unlike the Greek idea of Nemesis, and possessing as impeccable and implacable memory and purpose as the latter. The main rituals of the community were directed to this God. Sacrifices made to appease various evil spirits who caused illness would not constitute a religion because it was not a form of worship, but a kind of anathema or exorcism – items of religious practice.

THE LANGUAGE: The language or languages spoken by the Mizos belong to the Tibeto-Assam branch of the Tibeto-Burman family. The major clans speak different dialects but having strong and direct links to one another. In time the Duhlian dialect of the politically dominant Lusei clan became the lingua franca of the majority of communities under the umbrella of the Mizo nationality. This dialect received a further boost when Christian missionaries arrived in 1894, namely, Rev. F.W. Savidge and Rev. J.H. Lorrain, who reduced the language into writing, using a simple and effective phonetic Hunterian system of Roman script. An earlier attempt to use the Devanagiri script had been made but met with poor results. Though, as Pu Buanga himself confessed, there is something to be desired for a fuller and more developed system of writing, their endeavour has remained totally successful to this day. The language has a phonetic nature like many other Indian languages which, in a script other than the missionaries had rendered it to, would have an array of phonetic characters beyond the ability of the then Mizos to master, with the effect that the present status would never have been attained.

THE LITERATURE: What has come to be admitted as Mizo literature, the older portion of which was in the oral tradition, is a medly of deiifernt dialects unintelligible to modern students. Profuse notes on vocabulary and cultural history cannot be dispensed with. Classification is another problem. Different approaches are possible: chronological, generic, thematic, stylistic or functional. The older, pre-Christian literature is more diverse in nature than the literature after conversion to Christianity. In common with other tribal communities of the country, the very life of society was throbbing with the rhythm of folk literature. The telling of legends and stories, enthusiastic singing of fresh (un-weather-beaten) songs celebrating the latest victory and exploits, riddles and moral fables, reverberating with the sound of guns, and the merry, merry festival days of singing and dancing days and nights, were the central focus of their social life. No joy, no sorrows, no victory, no success in hunting was not but a communal affair. It was all for one, one for all kind of existence the modern world has almost forgotten. Even if Mizo literature does not make itself known for a new and fresh philosophy for man, no one can deny its place at the center of the people’s life for generations as repertory of their inner lives recorded in endless streams of songs. What nation is there who has not a poet for every individual or public occasion? The Mizos are second to none in their love for a song to sing their thoughts!

Folk literature offers tempting historical and anthropological research. Mizo folk literature is no exception: perhaps more tempting in the need for a historical certainty of roots. Beyond that there are legends and myths echoing down the ages pointing to a common knowledge of cataclysmic events like creation, universal flood, universal darkness and cold, dispersion of races and languages, as well as giants and angels, superhumans, giant snakes and birds, dragons, ghosts and hobgoblins, magic and witchcraft, etc. Here are samples of such folklore:

1. The myth of Chhinlung, a cave or stone wall, whence people issued (imputed to be of Mizo origin).
2. The myth of Thim zing, a great darkness enveloping the world, when people were transformed into animals.
3. The myths of Pialral (Elysium), Mitthi khua (Hades), Lunglohtui & Rih Lake (Styx), Pawla (Acheron), all corresponding to belief in after-life.
4. The legend of Palova ( No father) adventuring in quest of his unknown father.
5. The legend of Ngaiteii and her father’s spirit causing a flood to claim her.
6. The legend of Mualzavata, superman.
7. The legend of Chhura with its comic cornucopia.
8. The legend of seven brothers, the youngest Tlumtea, paying court to the lady of the sky. (An allegory of the ideal character for a young man)
9. The legend of Lalruanga the magician.
10. The legend of Chawngchilhi and the Serpent.
11. The story of Liandova and Tuaisiala, orphans triumphant by virtue.
12. The romances of Chala and Thangi, of Duhmanga and Dardini, of Raldawna and Tumchhingi, masterpieces of plot and realism.

Apart from this narrative heritage, it seems appropriate to treat the poetic heritage of the early times as a continuous stream of literary activity.

POETRY: The main characteristic of Mizo poetry is the couplet and triplet stanza forms, with the tune being a kind of formal distinction. Another poet (who is not a singer-poet) may add to the existing poem any number of stanzas. The earliest extant poems correspond to nursery rhymes, a number of them actually used by children at play, chanting them with accompanying actions in play. e.g.
Pang aw inzial inzial, pangpui aw inzial
(Children joining hands would roll into a bundle, and at the line…)
Pang aw inphelh inphelh, pangpui aw inphelh inphelh
(they would unroll again).

Another is accompanied by the music of a number of bamboo tubes of different length being blown upon, each giving the correct pitch. The bamboo may be substituted by small gongs.
Chhimbu leh peng peng intu
A lu lam kawng lu lam kawng.

Liando te unau unau,
Dar ze nge in tum in tum?

It is a common feature of primitive society to possess war-cries and hunting-cries. Mizos had several such cries in the form of proud declarations of victory over a conquered foe whose head was a proud trophy. Such is Bawh hla:
Kei chu e, ka sentet an sa leh doral ka pianpui e,
Ka do e, rimnampa e, thlangchem e, aikim min ti u law.
(Born was I with game and foe,
I kill whom I fought, the smelly one, ‘kill all’ I am.)

And after a successful hunt, Hlado is declared:
Mi an e hrang chi awm e, saah hrang chi awm na ngei a,
Tiau dung e, ka zui changing, kawlkei e, than hawl ka vak liau e.
(Of men heroes there be, of beats wild ones there be,
Along Tiau, on the trail of the tiger, fame follows me)

Tribal communities are rich in festival song and dances. Some such songs are nicely accompanied by appropriate actions or mimes. The Assamese and Garo dances exhibit such virtuosity. Others show the agricultural life-cycle of the community in action. Mizos appear to have had their cultural life abbreviated from attaining artistic elegance of such nature, or that their occupation was too rough and insecure to indulge in the more peaceful art of eurythmics. The most popular dance was Chai performed on really big occasions by young men and women locking arms and shoulders in a big circle, swaying and shifting, singing the song of the day, eg Lalvunga zai:
Lalvunga’n ka lian a ti Farzawl a luah,
A luah sual e changsial sawmthum an la e.
(Lalvunga proudly occupied Farzawl,
A grave mistake, thirty mithuns taken away.)

Songs of victory are heavily tinged with sarcasm and lampoons. Even the plight of a prince became a song:
Ka sen in e, ngunkual ka bun e,
Zoah siahthing Manga’n ka bun e.
(When I was a babe, a brass bangle I wore,
A redwood becomes Manga’s stock.)

There was absolutely no limit to the number of themes for there was a song for everything. Here is a song on the swings:
We made a swing here and everywhere,
Brave is he who slashed it down.
I spied below the plum tree,
The handsome prince Phunchawnga.

We may have seen now that the couplet form was very popular. A triplet became popular with star-crossed romance, the maid usually singing her heart out:
Pining for you the sweet birds’ song I reply,
E’en the soundless night
Refuse my eyelids rest. (Darlenglehi)

A bereaved mother pines for her dead:
Death comes along every hill,
Stopp’d by our ill-fated home,
Dragged my sweet one by the arm. (Darpawngi)

Once a poet/poetess had instituted a new form, it was hailed on every hill, the chiefs enthusiasthically patronizing it. Any number of stanzas on any theme could be superadded.Perhaps the most important factor for the popularity of poets and their songs was that they were sung vocally, and it was a social obligation to keep up with the Joneses of another village.

A late development that became very popular was adaptation of sacred tunes for secular songs. A number of Christian hymnals had been translated, and native worship and praise with local tunes had been ushered in by waves of spiritual revivals. Education and broader outlooks tended to encourage a carefree life. Earlier the still unconverted enjoyed parodying Christian hymns with sarcastic mockery of the converts’ abstinence.Typical themes of literature like love, death, time, and other life exigencies appear in Mizo poetry but in a very brief, unsustained manner. The finality of the triplet seems to exert a strong pause on the thought pattern of a poem so that even a single stanza often contains the wholness of a poem. As such, despite their oral character, the problem of fragments is hardly felt.

Christianity lifted Mizo poetry to a new height of thought and style. The missionaries who came to evangelize the Mizos happened to be good linguists, and their pioneering works on the language and literature helped to put these on a sound footing. Missionaries and their aides began with the translations of English hymnals, and the new converts lost no time in taking the cue. A succession of spiritual revivals produced great religious poets of such powerful visions that would make Milton envious. The vivid and powerful imagery of their poems greatly boosted the faith of believers with beatific visions of the Promised land and the River of Life in the Golden City.

Life on earth was no paradise for the early Mizos. Toil and fear, social inequality under autocratic chiefs, high mortality, taboos and omens took their toll on their minds, weakening them spiritually. It is not to be wondered if the bias of Mizo spiritual songs leans towards the beatific vision, and made little of mortal life. A new convert came to a village apparently for a routine visit, but to witness purposely. Knowing him, the chief denied entry. He could not go through the tiger-infested way back home. While waiting wistfully for the sun to set and darkness to allow him to steal into the village for food and safety, this song came to him:
Ni tla ngai lo Zion khawpui,
Ngaiin ka rum, ka tap chhun nitinin,
Puan ropui sinin an leng tlansate,
Ka tan hmun a awm ve, chu ramah chuan. [Rev. Lianruma]
(Zion city, no setting sun,
With sighs and tears all day long I pine,
In royal robes the redeemed they walk,
A place there is for me in that bright land)

The weight of the poem falls on the acute realization of his plight and suffering, the good fight he was putting up on his way to that final place where he was sure of a welcome. But not all believers are faithful
An nghilh rei lua thing krawsa I tuarna,
An thinlung sual thim rawn chhun eng leh la,
Kian tir ang che, an lawman lei pangpar,
I hruai theihna tur. [Siamliana]
(Too long have they forgotten thy death on the cross,
Illumine their hearts full of sin,
Remove their joys the world’s flowers,
That thou can lead them on.

With such maturity of spiritual concern, Mizo poetry has come of age.

Higher education and readings in great literature fostered a new dream. A new stream of poetry flowed from the minds of educated young men who felt a new calling, altruistic enthusiastists who desired to build their new Jerusalem in these pleasant hills of Mizoram. Their poetry oozes the love of their native hills, rejoicing in the peace and harmony of its nature. Euphoria of discovering a new patriotism is the key of Rokunga’s songs:
Kan zo tlang ram nuam hi chhawrpial run i iang e,
Hal lo ten lungrual a kan lenna,
(Our pleasant hills are like a mansion in the sky,
Where in peace and harmony we live.)

A significant characteristic of this new poetry is the conspicuous reduction of the usual “poetic diction” which, not very unlike the Wordsworthian controversy, has come to be used as a matter of rule, making it somewhat unwieldy. Perhaps in the songs of Rokunga is Wordsworth’s ideal most fulfilled. For there the medium is almost transparent, and invisible, and the poet can speak directly to the heart.

Comparatively, there is something to be desired in Mizo poetry. Superficiality, easily excused as simplicity and spontaneity, is the most obvious. Long isolation had developed an almost impermeable defensive crust in the mentality of the Mizos, rendering them unsophisticated in life and thought. Even the most poignant expression of a wounded heart, such as

Ka chun leh zua suihlung in mawl lua e,
Kan sumtualah Thangdang thlunglu hawihte’n in tar le! [Laltheri zai]
(How unfeeling can you be, parents mine,
To dress our courtyard with the head of my Thangdang!)

spends itself in the too too obviousness of the situation. But in contrast,

Rauthla lengin kan run khuai ang a vel,
Chhunrawl ring lo, ka nu, sawmfang a belin hlui rawh [Laltherei zai]
(A spirit like a bee circles our house
A starved soul, mother, give it the pot of rice)

gives the feeling soul something to feed on. [It was common belief that spirits of the dead, before departing for Mitthi khua, frequent the house in the form of the carpenter bee or a butterfly.] Such allusions are not exceptional as the literature has a rich culture and history to draw upon.

DRAMA: Drama in Mizoram, as in England, began in religious entertainment. Till today, the use of drama is limited to charity shows with social or moral lessons. In this age of home media, there is no expecting people to go to a theatre. However we have a few plays on the lives of historical figues, prominently Pasaltha Khuangchera, Lalnu Ropuiliani and Darlalpuii by Dr. Laltluangliana Khiangte. Mizo colloquial speech, to be realistic, is not the best medium for the quick, witty dialogue of standard drama, especially as used by the characters in these plays. Still the language serves well for the goal of the story and the plots are well managed.

FICTION: Mizos then and now are inverterate lovers of stories, perhaps to the extent detrimental to a profitable life. Handwritten copies of translated novels were often read in groups by young people. World War II facilitated local composition on love themes. The few novels bearing on life in society, however, bear testimony to the writers’ understanding of life and their narrative skills. Of these, the novels of Lalzuithanga Thlahrang and Phira leh Ngurthanpari deserve mention, the former for its skillful plot, and the latter for sustained interest despite its loose plot. One is wistful, however, for a novel sharp enough to slice through layers of frozen moral pretensions and guarded reticence, for a character to explode the unconscious.

Books consulted:

1. Mizo Hun Hlui Hlate, B. Thangliana, Aizawl, 1998.
2. Mizo Kristian Hla thar Bu, Synod Publication, Aizawl, 13th ed., 1988.
3. Mizo Poetry, R.L.Thanmawia, Aizawl, 1988.
4. History of Mizo in Burma, B. Thangliana, Aizawl, 1978.
5. The Lushei Kuki Clans, J. Shakespear, Aizawl, reprint, 1988.
6. Tribal Folktales of Assam, S.N. Barkakati, Guwahati, 1970.
7. Comparative Indian Literature, Vol. I, (Ed.) K.M. George, Macmillan, 1984.


¹ Animism: a belief that within every object dwells an individual spirit capable of governing its existence. Natural objects and phonema are regarded as possessing life, conscience and spirit (soul).

² A system of natural religion which recognizes one God but not a divinely revealed religion.


Dr.R.Thangvunga works in the Mizo dept. of Mizoram University. He had earlier been a Reader in the English dept. of Govt. Aizawl College for several years.

10 comments:

mesjay said...

A really interesting paper. Please do tap Dr.R.Thangvunga for more.

Dad Jay said...

At last something from Vungtea. Is he still in hibernation?

Storyteller said...

dad jay, I don't know about hibernation but he's not very net-savvy yet.

mesjay, I actually found this in a paper publication and when I asked Pu V if he had a soft copy he said it was from his pre-computor period so I had to type out all of it. Very time consuming as you can imagine but I felt it would be of such help for our young researchers.

mesjay said...

Storyteller, you really are a gem to type out all this stuff for the community's education, serious. It's tough, but do keep going.

Storyteller said...

Thanks mesjay, will do. However I find it very discouraging that while I know for certain there are some people who find these posts very helpful, they don't have the good manners or decency to acknowledge their appreciation here.

feddabonn said...

"A succession of spiritual revivals produced great religious poets of such powerful visions that would make Milton envious. The vivid and powerful imagery of their poems greatly boosted the faith of believers with beatific visions of the Promised land and the River of Life in the Golden City."

with due respect to dr. thangvunga and his work, i fail to see any particularly 'vivid' imagery in the hymns quoted in the text, at least not in the translation. if there are shades of meaning in the original mizo i have missed, i stand corrected.

very interesting essay, though, especially the bits that 1) list the myths, and 2) talk of early mizo poetry.

mesjay said...

There are times people hold back feedback for a reason. I believe this is not the case here. That is, they hold it back for no reason. Let's keep slogging nevertheless.

mesjay said...

feddabon, i agree that the songs quoted here are not the best examples, and a good deal is lost in the translations. for better samples, i could think of "Thal awiin lelte pa'n lenbuang a nghak", "An va hlu em thil nung tinreng" and "Han thlir teh u romei zam karah khian." Just mentioning those makes me so lungleng!

fredericknoronha said...

Am a journalist in Goa, and could someone kindly help me to get the email contacts of newspapers in Mizoram (any language)? Many thanks! FN


--
FN * http://fredericknoronha.wordpress.com http://twitter.com/fn
M +91-9822122436 P +91-832-2409490
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Sent from Pune, MH, India
"You should not confuse your career with your life." - Dave Barry

baruk said...

@fredrick: http://www.pibaizawl.nic.in/dailynews.htm

has a list of mizo and english papers, with contact information.