Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton’s book, A Girl Swallowed By A Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold, is a collection of thirty folk tales from the Lotha tribe (or indigenous community) of Nagaland. In her introduction to the book, Patton writes: “Nagaland is one place in North East India where orality is still very relevant as well as significant. Like their counterparts among the African and Native Americans, Nagas also made sense of the vast universe around them through storytelling, as a way of keeping their culture and ipseity alive…Nagaland is among the most heterogeneous [states] in the North East, housing more than sixteen tribes…Every tribe has its unique collection of stories, concurring at many points, yet somehow different in complex ways as becomes evident with each retelling.”

Though the sub-title of this book is “Lotha Naga Tales Retold”, Patton has called this book a “translation project” because, in the process of re-telling them yet one more time, she has translated the stories from Lotha to English. Patton, who is from the Lotha community herself and is an academic at the University of Delhi, was “jolted out of [her] mundane Mondays” by “chance epiphanies” that reminded her that the “invaluable treasured legacy [of storytelling] was dying”.

Since the Lotha “do not have a written history” and the “ignorance and disinterest” of the young generation and the “fast depleting oral culture” worried her, Patton translated these stories in order to preserve them. However, this might not be the first effort to document Lotha folk tales. A comment on a Facebook post informed me that 78 Lotha folk tales were compiled in English by an author named Francis Kikon whose collection, Moonlight Tales and Fables of the Kyong Nagas (the Lotha call themselves Kyong), was published locally in Nagaland in the year 2013.

Social norms with patriarchy

The stories in Patton’s collection are simple and can be read by both adults as well as younger readers. The themes vary. Some stories are for entertainment, while others have lessons and morals.

The focus of the stories is on the social life in a Lotha village and the relationship of humans with forests, trees, and animals. The title of the collection has been derived from the story, “The Tale of the Fortunate Sister”, in which two orphan sisters go to a forest and one of them climbs a tree to pluck flowers from it. The tree, angry that a human “had trespassed its space without seeking its permission”, starts swallowing the girl.

“Arilao”, the first story in the collection, reminded me to an extent of Easterine Kire’s novel, Son of the Thundercloud. (Kire has written the foreword to this book.) In Kire’s novel, the Son of the Thundercloud is a brave and virtuous young man who is killed treacherously by his envious friend. Here, Arilao, the protagonist, is a charismatic young man who is killed by the other young men of his village who were envious of his looks and hunting ability.

How words travel from one language to the other can also be seen in this story. There is a word, “baanti”, meaning a bowl, used for Arilao’s haircut. “[Arilao] had short hair, cut just above his ear in what was known as the baanti cut.” Baanti is not a Lotha word but is supposed to have come into the Lotha vocabulary from the Assamese. Or take the word Ayo. Arilao tells his mother, “Ayo, I am going out for fishing with the young men of the village.” Ayo here means mother, and ayo is also the word for mother in my mother tongue, Santhali. This made me wonder about the roots of the languages.

The stories also highlight the patriarchy in the Lotha society. The author mentions the concept of “genna”, which is a public feast hosted by one man for an entire village: a Lotha man’s worth is often measured by the number of feasts he has thrown. Patriarchy casts its shadow, too, on how stepmothers are viewed. In stories like “Rhonthunglo” and “The Legend of how Men became Monkeys”, stepmothers are shown to be unkind and intolerant of children from their husbands’ previous wives.

The people are the stories

Like “Arilao”, most other stories in this collection are named after their lead characters. For instance, there’s “Humchupvuli Eloe”, meaning the married woman of a house, which is the story of a married woman who desires the husband of another woman, or “Ranphan, the Brave”, the story of a young man named Ranphan who fights a tiger who had killed his wife. It is understood that these names were given by Patton herself as, in oral storytelling, folk tales do not usually have titles.

I remember a meme depicting the fact that when fish are caught in a village of indigenous people, they are distributed equally amongst the villagers. In “Longtsarhoni and the Snake Man”, the story of a shape-shifting male snake forcing a human woman named Longtsarhoni to marry him, we see how young boys and girls from a Lotha village go into the forest to gather firewood and then it in the community woodshed.

These stories that Patton has gathered are a window to a culture that perhaps has not been written about often, about (and from) which we can learn a great. They are to be treasured and, as Kire writes in the foreword, “This is a book that should be used like a pathfinder for other books on oral narratives.”

A Girl Swallowed By A Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold, Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton, Adivaani.