Situated in the lap of the Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh is a unifying abode of diverse ethnic communities following their own distinct tongues and cultures. There are 26 major tribes and hundreds of sub tribes with more than 90 languages being spoken. But amidst this plurality, there is one common feature among all the communities, that is that they are great storytellers.

Without any authorised script of their own, they preserved their stories of time in their memories and disseminated them through word of mouth. This is how they were passed down to subsequent generations. When they took the form of chants, the stories were narrated by shamans and rhapsodists in social gatherings and at occasions like birth, marriage and at death ceremonies. They were didactic in nature and were meant to teach collective beliefs.

When we talk about the literature of Arunachal Pradesh we mean both the oral and the written.

Oral literature is a manifestation of folklore and comprises sayings, anecdotes and stories of the origin myths as well as stories of animals and the universe, and of human beliefs and customs. Written literature includes works of fiction, poetry, drama, short stories, in creative interaction with oral literatures. There is an organic relationship between oral and written literature.

The twentieth century brought written literature to Arunachal Pradesh. The embrace of modern education stirred the artistic zeal in a few fertile minds and after 1947 we began to see the writings of authors such as Tagang Taki, Lummer Dai, YD Thongchi, Rinchin Norbu Moiba, Samuru Lunchang and Kensam Kenglam. They were the first generation of literary luminaries from Arunachal. Lummer Dai’s debut novel Pharor Xile Xile (1961) could perhaps be considered the first novel of Arunachal Pradesh, written by an Arunachali.

Given the absence of a script, writers of that period faced considerable difficulty in expressing themselves. In those days, Assamese was the medium of instruction in schools and many chose it as their language of writing. Crossing the linguistic bar, these first generation writers, with their versatile and unique stories, made an important contribution in the growth of literature in Arunachal Pradesh.

Their works were reflections of social reality. They often looked to folklore as a source for their writing. They derived unique inspiration from orature, myth, folk belief and customs, and this finds expression in their writings. Thongchi, in Sonam, explores the traditions and customs of Brokpa society. Dai celebrated the ethos of Adi folk life in his novels Paharor Xile Xile, Mon aru Mon, Prithivir Hanhi.

The year 1972 was a turning point for language in Arunachal Pradesh.

English and Hindi were introduced in schools. English became the medium of learning and Hindi became the lingua franca by gradually replacing Assamese. As a result, those writing in Assamese began to feel a disconnect with the reader and Assamese as a writing language began to disappear.

Meanwhile, the growth of education led to people becoming more curious about their history and identity. In 1978, the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act was passed and enacted for the protection and promotion of indigenous culture and faith. As a result, writing on anthropological issues made its appearance. Among the writers here are Tumpak Ete, Osong Ering, Bani Daggen, N. N. Osik, L Khimhur and many others.

Since the introduction of English and Hindi in Arunachal a new generation of writers has emerged. Jumsi Siram’s Aye-Aluk (1993) is the first novel in Hindi by an indigenous writer from the state. Yumlam Tana’s The Man and the Tiger (1999) and Mamang Dai’s The Legend of Pensam (2006) registered the entry of Arunachali writers in the literary canon of English and Hindi and also helped to take Arunachali writings beyond the borders of the state.

Mamang Dai re-created the pre-historic past of Arunachal Pradesh in The Legends of Pensam and Black Hills. Jumsi Siram in his novel Matmur Jamoh Gumnam Swantantri Senani re-invented the history of the murder of Captain Noel Williamson leading the Anglo-Abor War of 1911.

In the contemporary scenario, reeling under the effect of globalisation, all aspects of culture and tradition have seen dramatic changes, and a kind of cultural amnesia has resulted.

People have begun to question the established equilibrium and have started to abandon age-old customs and traditions. The effects of globalisation can also be seen in the shifts in the literary paradigm of Arunachal Pradesh. Oral literature has begun to disappear into a state of oblivion. This friction of globalisation and tradition is reflected in the themes of identity crisis, bucolic nostalgia and confrontation of social issues in contemporary writings.

Mamang Dai bewails in “This Summer”

...begging the forgiveness of butterflies,
and beauty that we destroyed
in our hunt for life.

Yumlam Tana addresses the issue of identity crisis thus:

The book of maps
says nothing about our lands and forest rights

In recent years a number of young, educated writers have taken their place on the literary scene. What differentiates them from the writers of the first generation is their willingness to experiment with new styles and genres. With their refreshing tales and unique temperament, they have established themselves in the global literary arena.

Tai Tagung in his drama, Lapiya, intentionally employed Arunachali Hindi. This has brought the attention of linguists to the Hindi spoken in Arunachal Pradesh. Gumlat Maio’s trilogy Once Upon a Time in College is a campus novel. Dai’s Stupid Cupid can be described as chick lit.

Shaping the destiny of ethnic literature in recent times, there is also another body of writing coming up in indigenous languages. Some important names here are Takop Zirdo, Tony Koyu and Yabin Zirdo. There are also a number of Hindi poets and writers such as Taro Sindik, Jamuna Bini and Joram Yalam who have made a significant contribution to the progress of Hindi literature in Arunachal Pradesh.

The work of all writers, whether from the earlier generation, or more recently, draws on and confirms the continuity of the strength of myth and folklore in creative writing in Arunachal. Mamang Dai’s anthology The Balm of Time, River Poems, Tana’s Man and the Tiger and Wind also Sings and LW Bapu’s Khanduma’s Curse are the explicit assertion of the amalgamation of traditional literature and creativity.

The emergence of creative literature in Arunachal Pradesh is a relatively recent phenomenon. With a handful of writers it made its debut in the middle of the 20th century. Within this short journey the many awards and honours won by Arunachali writers speak of their versatility.

The Inheritance of Words

“Bards from the Dawn-lit Mountains”, by Yater Nyokir, excerpted with permission from The Inheritance of Words: Writings from Arunachal Pradesh, edited by Mamang Dai, Zubaan.