Mamang Dai the writer from Arunachal plumbs the depths of the so called unrecorded and, therefore, unknown. In another book The Black Hill (2014) she has done exhaustive research on the agency of the coloniser in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. At this level the book is all about tangible, linear history. The warp and weft of the book, however, is in the undergrowth of the forest, the playing field of her characters who weave into the narrative stories of obligations to clan and fealties to the spirit world. Kajinsha’s struggle with his own people, his inner turmoil and the combinations and permutations that emerge from communities on the throes of urgent changes, wraps his and Gimur’s love story within the intangibles of an oral community that, for one, places importance upon dreams and dreaming, as signifiers of other realities and truths more profound and powerful. Thus the intersection of the human and spirit world speaks about the acceptance of parallel worlds in communities that profess to access the spirit of the forest and the universe itself. Magically real perhaps, reminiscent of the novels of the Columbian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez who made famous his grandmother’s story-telling habit of subverting the rules of linearity, but the question is, is magical an appropriately complete enough word to hold the wealth of knowledge that has been sustained by an oral paradigm upon which the speaking imagination was whetted and sustained?
There are no easy answers to this, only attempts to follow or understand the serrated course of the oral, such as the flight of the released arrow or the lime-marked forehead indicating favour from the gods or the defiant howl of the sentinel-dog in the dark. And as writers have to depend upon memory, another question that follows is, can one hold the oral paradigm in place when it has already been so eroded? Orality within modern paradigms is a subject of much discussion and many induced sessions. But orality as forming the “resistant” (Syiem 22-34) bedrock of indigenous world-views is a cryptic issue. The wrestle with orality and for orality, is indeed an important dimension for writers from North-East India, who are groping, within the shadow areas of their own oralites, with imported tools that have no apparent connection with the oral mindscape of their ancestors. What has been thrown up, however, is a rich assortment of, so called uncategorised material that springs directly from those who are attempting to bridge the gap between the writing and the speaking, self-appointed oracles affiliated to the truth of the ancestor.
He is the ancestor who has provided the foundational logic for an oral paradigm that has freed the dynamic of time and space from sequential reality. Within the context of story-telling from North-East India then, there is no dearth of non-linear and non-sequential narratives that resist containment within the material boundaries of existence. Experiential reality within these narratives navigates a journey that has as its starting point the physical universe; the here and now. However, transformations and interventions from other worlds form part of the natural order of a world-view that is porous enough for collisions and juxtapositions to take place with these other worlds. The unbridled imagination at work is able to balance multiple realities and multiple worlds together. The sleeping river in When the River Sleeps is only part of one order, that of the spirit world. There are multiple time-cycles, multiple generations of humans and non-humans, and multiple tellings within the narrative. Vilie’s walk is through the natural cycle of human time. But in the course of experiences that enhance his perception he penetrates physical walls and enters dimensions other than his own. This constitutes the substance of stories in these parts. They may seem unintelligible and unfamiliar to the uninitiated but through generations in time, they have worked themselves seamlessly into the telling. The structured dimensions of reality and linear time are non-existent and non-functional entities. To the “educated” reader these stories subvert life as they would understand it. In actual fact they portray the very reality that has pervaded every nook and corner of life in the region. Perception of this reality lies in the inner eye of the beholder who has been taught to hone his/her sight to the intangibles beyond the self, greater than any individual self.
The overriding vision thus sets it apart as a story of many encounters; for Vilie the native, to be apprenticed further in the ways of the forest; for the reader from the region who identifies familiarly with innumerable encounters; for the perceptive reader from elsewhere, who encounters new levels of thought and reality and for the un-perceptive reader from everywhere whose encounter with the narrative is purely at the superficial and mechanistic level.
The dependence upon memory is very strong, but memory being what it is with its own redactions, also has a large role in shaping narratives and stories. What emerges from this scenario seem to be repetitive versions of the same stories much like an oral storehouse of narratives that tell the same story with a variety of renditions, twice, thrice or even four times over. Dramatists and poets from Meghalaya for instance, have scripted the story of U Sier Lapalang according to their own renditions. The suicide of Ka Likai is another story that has had different takes. The rationale of the oral exerts an influence stronger than time for there are presences and absences, resonances and dissonances within the written narratives that follow instructions from the oral. This does not in any way indicate a lack but rather holds the light up to an imagination that has derived its ethics and aesthetics from oral groundings. The ingrained habit of the telling and re-telling is a throwback to an imagination uninhibited by alien notions of selection and order. And if one were to compare the body of work from North-East India one would find a surprising number of thematic and structural parallels systemic to the imaginative framework of stories. When the River Sleeps has surprising links with the belief system of Kajinsha’s community in The Black Hill, which finds echoes in Nini Lungalang’s poems and short stories or even in the Mizo stories collected and edited by Margaret Zama in Contemporary Short Stories from Mizoram(2017).Further corroboration of these stories may be found in the lore of the Khasi and Jaiñtia communities. The landscape seems familiarly grounded upon the individual’s or community’s ability to negotiate existence through the intangibles of life in a concentration of energy and resource that perceives a universe that communicates only through the axiom of the spoken.
In her essay, “Writing Orality”, Temsula Ao explains the cardinal necessity of taking that one extra step to carry orality further on to the written medium, if it is to survive at all. Her poetry and other writings reconstruct the feats of warriors, the journey to the land of the dead or the story of the lost script amongst others. This has been a good alternative and a successful endeavour too for at all levels, the scripting and archiving and documentation has fast forwarded orality into a twenty-first century avatar. For indigenous writers from Australia and America, however, this is taking on complex dimensions involving the unevenness of the oral; whether its integrity can at all be retained within the physical frontier of the written. Where this will take writers from the region is an important question; but as of now, they are compulsively bent upon the act of “bearing witness” (Nongkynrih ix): scraping evidences from the past, breaking up the encrustations of fossilised time, following closely on the heels of an elder who is still in communion with the universe and generally capturing the un-captured in the written medium. The end result is this vast quantum of narratives and art-work, songs and chants, ballads and sayings that are cumulative representations of the indigenous imagination. These writers form the frontline of those who are seeking to bring in linkages from an interrupted past, interrupting themselves as it were to access ancient imaginings in a very conscious way. The outpouring of writings reflect well upon oral world-views of particular communities; but when all of them have put their tags upon this oral universe by attempting to connect to it, the resultant representation becomes graphic in its involvement with the spirit of the spoken word in all its broken but intimate manifestations.
I have chosen the book When the River Sleeps as being representative of this oral-aesthetic because the protagonist – to use an accepted western category – who is not really the protagonist because the forest is the actual protagonist, authenticates existence on a razor-edge of experiences that challenge his perception of what is appearance and what is reality. There are many climaxes in the book sustained by Vilie’s extraordinary capacity of foreseeing the immediate future which determines further missions. He dies in defence of the “heart-stone”, killed by evil in the form of the murderer who had also killed the Nepali couple at the beginning; who is in turn devoured by a “weretiger”. The narrative underplays the individual episode. Each episode, however, stands out as a veritable example of the many realities that Vilie encounters in the larger scheme. This is the reason why there are so many climaxes within the book as it follows the oral course of a story that comes from a world-view intimate with the intricacies of the land. By this I mean the overarching presence of other presences within it. Courage to face them can only be measured in terms of the confrontations that have been met. Seasonal time and cyclic time sets the chronometric measure for these stories coming from unknown villages from the region. Death is contained within a larger vision of life. Hence Vilie’s death, though tragic is part of the larger pattern that facilitates life for Ate who now has possession of the “heart-stone”. There are a surprising number of heroes and heroines who live together in a universe resonating with narratives comprising small nations with small narratives that connect to each other through their perception of similar connotative realities. This becomes difficult for the foreign born and city bred which is the reason why the old storyteller in Temsula Ao’s short story “Apenyo’s Song” in These Hills Called Home (2006) insists upon an initiation into the mystiques of the waiting and watching, and the listening:
Storyteller and audience strain to listen more attentively and suddenly a strange thing happens: as the wind whirls past the house, it increases in volume and for the briefest of moment seems to hover above the house. Then it resumes its whirling as though hurrying away to other regions beyond human habitation. The young people are stunned because they hear the new element in the volume and a certain uncanny lilt lingers on in the wake of its departure… ‘You heard it, didn’t you? Didn’t I tell you? It was Apenyo’s last song’… (32)
That night the tragic song rides the wind as it makes itself audible to all, more articulate than the teller herself who knows that she is a mere tool in the larger scheme of a speaking universe. The storyteller’s place is a hallowed one because of an unwarranted sense of mission. She is not any pedestrian performer but someone with the linguistic proficiency and perceptive power of the seer; a characterising feature of poetry from the region, lyrical, dramatic and profound as has been the lifeblood of generations of people embedded within the land.
The multiple worlds of Easterine Kire’s novel are not invented ones. They have come down from the earlier generations that have cut their teeth upon the edifices of orality. They bear the sense of an existence “that can’t be written off/ can’t be written over.”(Many Sides p32) for, orality will continue to have its say. The writer from the region who maintains affiliation to the oral, as opposed to the latter day writer who has found greener pastures in cityscapes, will need to grapple with the very identity of the oral as it still inheres within reality. Therefore, maintaining integrity to the oral as Easterine Kire has attempted to do must result in an aesthetics that signifies more than what is found within the printed pages of a book. This would in one way point to a kind of reader-response paradigm. The audience, in this case the reader, must be able to source out hidden signifiers from within the signified dynamic of the oral as represented within a written text. The onward flow of meaning can happen only in the intertwining of symbol and issue, landscape and inscape which are threaded together by a language that is nuanced by a deep sense of larger realities prevailing within the story. The end invariably lies in the beginning; in the acknowledged presence of a reader who maintains connection by sustained navigation through the narrative. Otherwise it will continue to remain only a fairy-tale.