When a society is torn by war, when the collective is under perpetual threat of being shot or caught in a crossfire or bombed, do individual stories matter? How far are individual stories removed from larger political events?
In the late 1990s, when I was seven, my mother held my twin brother’s and my hands as she ran with our small dog tight with a shawl on her back. In the background were the sounds of gunfire that popped like popcorn. Every few moments, a flare would light up the entire locality. It was the brightest thing I had ever seen in my life.
I had my heart in my throat, and tears on my cheeks. Rather than running, we were being dragged, while mother now and then repeated, “Run faster, run faster, son.” We were running to the house of our maternal uncle who lived a kilometer away in a concrete house. It was bulletproof, they said.
When we returned home in the morning, the Assam Rifles conducted a “combing operation” in our village. All the men were assembled on the village ground, and their identities were “verified”. They would stand until the scorching afternoon sun sat above their heads. That was a form of collective punishment for letting “militants” into our village. Combing Operation and AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958) had entered my earliest English vocabulary.
‘Stories of those whose loss were silenced and unheard of’
This Proustian “episode of the madeleine” stirred in my mind as I read Hannah Lalhanpuii’s debut novel When Blackbirds Fly , and also the second Mizo novel in English after Malsawmi Jacob’s Zorami: A Redemption Song published in 2015, which narrates the story of trauma of a rape victim during the “troubled” times of Mizo society. As a boy growing up in Imphal in the 1990s and early 2000s, I found the book resonating with the realities in which I attained boyhood.
The story revolves around a nameless teenage male protagonist when the twenty-year-long Mizo independence movement sprang up in the aftermath of the Mautam famine in the late 1950s. Set in the backdrop of one of the earliest armed independence movements in the northeast regions, the protagonist seems uninterested in the wave of Mizo nationalism sweeping across the Lushai hills.
When asked in a conversation about what truly inspired her to choose this story, Lalhanpuii replied, “I have chosen a very dark period in Mizo history because the bombing of Aizawl was very much a silenced incident. My mother’s family suffered a tragic loss during the insurgency, and I wanted to tell the story of the people, like my mother’s, whose loss were silenced and unheard of.” She added, “It is my responsibility to tell the stories of the people I talked to who had first-hand experience of the bombing of 1966.”
The book’s teenage protagonist and narrator represents an embodiment of the individual over the collective and chooses his own fashion of freedom. He says, “the world is perfect for me that way. My world is small, but I am free in it. I am independent and that’s all that matters.” And thus, he is indifferent to all other forms of larger collective independence, including the Mizo independence from India.
He is neither interested in politics nor in anything beyond his immediate daily life. As a child, when people lived through severe famine and starvation, his attention solely rested on the blue jeep the Mautam Famine Front volunteers drove around with rice bags for relief distribution. He did not realise that a bag of rice had more value than a jeep during those bleak moments.
For the protagonist, knowledge of the outside world imparted in his school makes no sense at all. He remains complacent to the world of his tiny town which takes pride in being the first camp for the Welsh Missionaries and where the first Mizo Presbyterian Church was set up.
He would love to rather spend time at the farm than at school. The blue jeep that the church pastor and the famine relief volunteers drive around is his second obsession. The first was his lover whom he loved to listen to talk about almost everything. It is her delicate long fingers that seem to possess magical healing power, the way she touches the ends of her braids when she is lost in her talk, and the delicate movement of her hands when she adjusts her skirt.
His town is his world, his home, where Rini is, where his father is, and where he gets to listen to the stories from his grandfather every day after dinner. The grandfather narrated him the story of the First Great War when in 1917, when 2000 Mizo young men were ordered to serve as soldiers in the Lushai Labour Corps with the promise that the soldier and his family would be exempted from land tax and coolie work.
Tribal young men left their land to travel to foreign land across seas for the first time to only find out that they were not soldiers but labourers who did tedious coolie work. On the day of his recruitment, the grandfather pretended he was deaf. He did not want to leave the woman he loved “just to fight for a country I had never heard of.” They all were going to France. When the soldiers retuned, all the men who did not leave were afflicted by a collective fear that Mizo women would all fall for these soldiers, that they would now be forgotten.
His lover, Rini, on the other hand, is an illustration of an entirely opposite character. She keeps a vigilant eye on the spectacle of politics unfolding in the Lushai hills. While the protagonist believes that Mizo independence would in no way enrich his already self-content world, Rini conversely believes it would offer the Mizo people a better world. An independent land of the Mizos would at first struggle to stand its own feet like India in the early years post-1947. Because this is “what every state had faced before.”
The protagonist’s thoughts are consumed by how he could impress his lover. Her interest in politics gives him a tinge of discomfort. His brand of politics is not to appear dumb before her when she talks about politics and the future the Mizo society is marching into. She has faith in the armed independence movement, that one day the Mizo people will “stand on our own feet” and live with freedom.
The protagonist is anxious that he still has not taken up arms and joined the Mizo National Front (MNF) volunteers. From a famine relief distribution organization, the Mautam Famine Front had now renamed itself Mizo National Front after turning itself into an armed political organization. His anxiousness arises not from his inability to volunteer the movement, but from the fact that he might appear a coward in front of his lover’s eyes. But all to his relief, she says, “You don’t always have to hold a gun to be a patriot.” And he takes a deep sigh.
A tale of innocence
The boy walks to school every day with his childhood friend he is madly in love with. Every walk to school and back home is where both the contrasting personalities and interests of both the characters are magnified and laid before the readers. Their only worries seem to be about the squirrels they feed under the canopy of a banyan tree.
It is in the conversations they have during these encounters that the readers are introduced to the cruel political realities unfolding amidst their innocence. The nameless protagonist, whose namelessness could signify that he could be anyone or all of us at the same time, grew up believing that his uncle next door who has just one arm is a child-snatcher who got his arm chopped off as punishment.
Brought up in a middle-class family by a widower father who was one of the first matriculate in his town and who teaches in one of the first schools in Mizoram, the only thing that worries him when he goes to bed at night is his teenage aching love for the girl. Though he has fallen for her, he is at the same time a little bit scared that the girl will find out that he loves her. It is the feeling that she might turn down his love that makes him apprehensive and restless.
His best friend, Zuala, has no such worries. He left formal education after middle school to help his parents on the family farm. Zuala’s only obsession is the number of cartridges they can collect from the trenches dug out by the Indian armies where frequent firing takes place. Battle sites are for both treasure sites. Every treasure hunt after a shootout is a mission for them. At a time when people start to leave the town to escape death, every gun battle site becomes a possibility of expanding their treasure collection.
Little did the protagonist realise that his comfort cocoon fortified by worldly self-satisfaction would one day crumble right before his eyes when the Indian army dropped bombs from black fighter jets that rumbled across the sky like the red-winged blackbird that perches on his windowsill in the morning. The swiftness and magnitude in which his world changed made it even more terrifying. India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi denied the bombing.
As a book that belongs to the genre of historical fiction, the plot of Lalhlanpuii’s story revolves around the time of the Mizo independence movement in the 1960s. Set against the backdrop of a tumultuous and wrathful political climate of “post-colonial” India, the book narrates the most horrific period in Mizo civilisational history that far surpassed the violence brought about by British rule.
The novel belongs to the literary genre of what has been called “terror lore.” These stories, songs, or lore, emerged from the ashes of the reign of terror the Mizo people were subjected to when India struggled to keep its cartographic imagination secure.
During this period of recent history, the Indian soldiers burned villages and towns including the capital city of Aizawl. For a shrewd functional administration, villages were emptied and burnt to ash so that no food-grain fell in the hands of the rebels. The people were “grouped” together in newly allocated settlements along an arterial highway under the surveillance of Indian soldiers so that the Indian state would have a perpetual watch over them and keep the villagers from sheltering MNF armed volunteers or joining the MNF.
These locations in which the residents were numbered and tagged were called Protected Progressive Villages, sometimes referred to by the people as “concentration camps,” minus the gas chambers. A day in these new settlements began and ended with a rollcall. Their misery came forth in khawkhawm hla, or “songs of villages groupings.” Villagers who lived in near starvation became informers of the Indian soldiers. With their faces wrapped with clothes to conceal their identity, they were taken from one village to another to point out the “rebels.” And those pointed out were disposed of by the Indian soldiers.
The MNF too retaliated by executing those who were believed to be informers. When it was earlier that people lived in perpetual fear of being “pointed out”, they now again had to go through the nightmare of being accused as informers.
This period gave rise to a series of a whole new body of creative outflow largely set apart by grief and sorrow. Hannah’s new book is a contribution to this vast repository of Mizo history and literature which noticeably is limited in scope and volume when compared with the literary culture of some of the North-Eastern states.
In weaving a story out of a history that one never comes across in Indian NCERT texts, Hannah contributes to the expanding Mizo Rambuai literature, the literature of “troubled land.” This book embodies the persisting struggle of suppressed voices to always persevere to one day be heard.
With this book whose entire action spans only a few days, Mizo literature has come far from where for the first time the Bible was translated in 1897 into the new Roman Mizo script by the English missionaries, JH Lorrain and FW Savidge, who came up with the script in 1894.
When Blackbirds Fly, Hannah Lalhlanpuii, Duckbill.