I begin by specifying the area that comes under the purview of this article, which is, what may be termed as, literature transcribed from the oral. I go back to referencing from my own Khasi literature, therefore, and quote from one of my essays in which R.S. Lyngdoh the famous Khasi historian in his book Ka Histori ka Thoh ka Tar Bynta I & II (1979 &1983)(A History of Writing, Part I&II) talks about the oral beginnings of Khasi Literature. I quote thus:
Chapter One sets in motion the foundational discourse of Khasi thought as it begins its language making process in collusion with nature in the symbolic take from a “leaf”, from which draws breath – the unblemished word: “Kane ka jingmaïa jong ka rukom lum jingstad u Khasi ka long kaba da phylla shisha. Ha iwei-pa-iwei i syntiew, ne i dieng i siej, ne i phlang i kynbat, u Khasi u la pynkhamti ba kan long ki nongkynshew ïa ki jingstad barim bajah baroh.” (The mystiques of knowledge accumulation for the Khasi is truly incredible. In every flower, every tree, bush or bamboo leaf, grass or herb does the Khasi perceive an accumulated wealth of knowledge that is the storehouse of wisdom from time past). (Writer’s own translation)
Having established this, R.S.Lyngdoh moves on to the mystiques of hill and valley, river and mountain, tree and animal that relinquish themselves to the semiotics of the oral. (p 14). As he chalks out the history of Khasi written literature, he indicates the existence of this vast store of oral resource that existed prior to the written. And it is at this early point in Khasi literary history, at this juncture of the imagination as it were, that I would like all of us to pause for a while to understand the germ of the oral that forms the core of much of the written literature in many hill communities of Northeast India (I am differentiating them from communities like the Assamese and the Meiteis which already had a rich history of writing).
From Mizoram comes the story of Pi Hmuaki the “first known composer,” singer of songs, tragically buried alive by a chief and his village elders “for fear she would finish composing all the songs and leave nothing for posterity.” Seven days after she was buried alive, her singing accompanied by her gong could still be heard before it was finally “stilled.” (Misra 207). It is in the Mizo songs and chants and oral narratives that she lives on unhindered in spirit, vocal in voice. In Nagaland near the village of Chungliyimti comes the story of the six stones of Lungterok from which the clan lineage of the Aos may be traced. Temsula Ao’s stone-people “Were Born/Out of the womb/ Of the earth.” These are the stones that signify upon a reality compounded by nature and its natural ally, the human imagination with its uncanny sense of the “Savage and sage”(Book of Songs 109 & 111). Elsewhere in these communities, the narratives are birthed in figures and characters that form the symbolic parameters that unequivocally strap the present onto an unwritten past. In Meghalaya, the lore of the land rings out with the stories that permeate the interstices of a society that is now governed by technology yet paradoxically, charged by the proverbs and maxims that originated around the hearth in the aura of traditional fireplaces.
This aura though severely eroded continues to fire lives and emotions: many still are governed by its ethics. Take for example a tale that I have always used as a guiding post: the ‘Tale of the Lost Script.’ This tale is common to the Khasis, Garos, Nagas, and Mizos amongst other communities. There are variants to the tale in all these communities. The Nagas tell about the script that God handed over to them on an animal skin. When they hung it out to dry a dog came and ate it up. Thus was their script lost to them. The other communities have similar versions; except for the one told by the Khasi, about the messenger who inadvertently swallowed his script, as he struggled to cross a flooded river. He had put his into his mouth whilst trying to swim across a swollen river. The “wily” plains-man, however, had his securely knotted up within his ponytail, which is the reason why people from the plains have been able to retain the script that they received from God.
The contentious point as folk-history points out lies in the act of swallowing; which ironically, becomes an important factor: that of empowerment, other than disempowerment. Having ingested the script the Khasi messenger must seek to justify his own action. This, his descendants have quickly been able to do by pursuing a discourse that has emphatically privileged the spoken over the written. Bevan Swer the Khasi poet and thinker, speaks about this at length in his book Ka Matïong ki Khanatang (1968). He examines the oral lore as being potent with latent meanings for the now “literate,” meaning writing Khasi, who has benefited from Western education and learnt to transcribe words into script. The benefits of being conversant with the oral resource seemed to have fired the writings of people during the Khasi Renaissance. The oral finally seemed to have found home within a new medium. What had happened within the Khasi community was something that had also happened to all the other hill communities as they were brought face up with the fact of their so-called ignorance in light of the Western civilizer. All of them were in a hurry to get to the point where the writing communities had reached, which for the oral communities all over Northeast India meant the algebra of reading and writing.
Easterine Kire’s novel When the River Sleeps (2014) encapsulates the narrativising potential of the oral retrieved by memory and imagination. She goes back in time to recast a narrative from days gone by, about the quest for the “heart-stone” as told by village elder or matriarch. In permitting the narrative to enter a new medium, that of the written, she enables it to take on formations that on one hand traps it within the formulated structure of the flat pages of a book and on the other, retrieves it through memory and protects it from loss. Either way, the re-telling becomes an act of commission that will attempt to stay the omissions of memory; a conscious act of the imagination, an act of political will that reiterates that a river does sleep and a man can claim the forest as his wife. She is an important writer for not only does she recast the speaking universe within the confines of the written but also takes up the challenge to re-invoke dimensions of erased oralities that are intertwined with erased histories; joining the historiographical efforts made on the part of other indigenous and women writers today.
Reading some of the reviews on the When the River Sleeps, one is slightly taken aback by the polarising responses of readers from outside the region; some suggesting improvements to the book, some glossing over it, tossing off flattering observations and some actually likening it to a fairy tale. And fairy tale it will be if the mystiques of nature as represented in the book remains unperceived by the reader. This is the reason why I have called Easterine Kire’s novel seminal to our understanding of what constitutes the oral aspects of writings from Northeast India, for it sets the gauge for the kind of aesthetics that a writer from this region can and has come up with. By definition, it may be seen as a novel for it has all the ingredients of one, but if it is to be stamped by the legalities and legitimisations of literary criticism, then literary criticism must expand its boundaries of thought or revise categories and sub-categories to incorporate the oralities that are constantly being transcribed or alternatively resisting transcription so as to open up other avenues of exploration. To this observation I add another, that it is not only writers from Northeast India but indigenous writers from across the world that are grappling with their own specific oralities:
indigenous formulations that have never fallen under the purview of the written [interweaving] the physical world with the spirit world in a mode that western schools may categorise as magic-realism. But the question is: can they be labelled thus? – valid issues from Northeast India which clearly demands that the accepted parameters of traditional literary history (and literary theory as well) can no longer remain untested. (Margins p.139)
Keeping this in mind I refer to an essay, “Head-Hunting: Some Thoughts” taken from On Being a Naga Essays by Temsula Ao. (2014) She re-visits a cultural site that was declared forbidden by the powers that be. She enters it with the expectation of a retrieval that begins with an important take from the past, that the head is an inviolate part of one’s self. She cites the example of the Konyak tribe who collected the heads of their dead by “putting them into individual pots and burying them”. The practice of headhunting had social sanction and the “rightness or wrongness” did not enter the minds of the ones practising it until such interventions came that questioned the very foundations of their society. She reminds us that this was a practice that had more to do with “peace-time activities”, tribal honour and the generation of specific discourses and rituals that interpenetrated the lived life, making it distinguishable from other communities. The discourse surrounding head-hunting became an important attribute of a society that lauded its warriors for bringing heads back. Young women favoured these warriors over and above all the others, and in time sheaves of songs and sayings accumulated around this institution.
These interruptions and assumptions of history that Temsula Ao interrogates lift the veil that had hitherto shrouded it in criminality. And as she does this, she is also throwing up questions and queries pertaining to other narratives that refuse to allow themselves to be hardened within time-slots and bounded-spaces even though they have been overlaid by an overweening present that tries very hard to discard them as being unintelligible because they are unrecognisable. In doing so she elicits empathetic voices from others who are also intent upon finding a home-grown aesthetic that would inclusively filter stories and songs, art forms and rituals in a space free from the encumbrances of prescriptive literary proscriptions.
And so it is within the pensam-space of Mamang Dai categorically explained in The Legends of Pensam (2006) that these find fruition within a circle of people, alive and knowledgeable, living in what was then considered to be the “excluded” or “semi-excluded” hill tracts of what is now called Northeast India, but which have an entity separate and well-defined, coded in orality:
In our language, the language of the Adis, the word ‘pensam’ means ‘in-between’ …it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where anything can happen and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song. (to be continued)