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Monday, February 18, 2008

Inside the Heart of Darkness-VII

(Tracing the Unfinished Journey)

(There have been too many inevitable interventions that stalled my writings–Inside the heart of Darkness. Besides the travelling, there were various other issues that demand an early space to give them relevance in the face of short and swift public memory. I am continuing the unfinished series again by revisiting, catching up and of course patching up with the unforgettable footprints.)

11 October 2007: The sunset immediately brought in the night’s darkness that stood darker and heavier with the silent hills and mountain. The Indian Army who were camped besides Tuivai River were preparing dinner. Smells of fried yellow dal and potato filled the air. I met a homesick soldier from Kerala. I told him the brown automatic rifle did not suit his homesick heart. He told me he would be going home for Diwali, leaving behind the gun. Everyone should be home in this brief brittle journey that we do not choose. But miles still stretched before us.

We started the journey again after crossing Tuivai river. A new journey on a new pick–up truck. A prayer was said by one ICI elder from Saikot who came to received us. He later confessed that he is also a member of the “passion fruit missionaries”. The “missionaries” are a band of the self-help group, TUMTUS, who are visioning for economic empowerment by growing passion fruit in parts of Churachandpur, Cachar, NC Hills, Jiribam and Mizoram. Not even after a minute that we set off, our jeep almost skidded off from the slippery National Highway 150 that it negotiates. One of the front wheels was already in the air. And beneath, the yellow river runs growling. We (L. Keivom, Pastor Lalrochung, the ICI elder and me) vacated the truck and went ahead on foot. We smell the leaves and the soil. That was coming home. We covered a good many kilometers when the truck catches us up again. I preferred the walk, but the distance would never be covered even if we walk the whole night. The ride turned out to be interesting again as we try to find our way on that National Highway that was filled with mud pool, deep and stagnant water and running stream. We passed through Sipuikawn. The electricity deprived village was weakly alive with jumping yellow flames from the kitchen’s hearth. Some created shadows in their homes by using lamps made of syrup bottles filled with kerosene and a big flat thread. There was no visible evidence of science, technology or modernity. Nature and everything traditional still regulates their lives. Besides, rats gnawed them down. The journey was like returning to the past.

Hungry and weary we reached Lungthulien village. We were told that the village folks have been waiting for us with ready dinner. To my surprise we found the village folks gathered in the middle of the village with a high flying banner that read; “Welcome Pi Lalremsiem”. The Village Authority (VA) prepared a formal welcome program to greet us. I was surprised, as I was not expecting that at all in that middle of the night where the village sits in the corner far from the middle. The entire village must have congregated for the sermon and the song that was without the bread and the fishes. Children swarmed the hillside, besides the road. Some yellow running noses were shining under the petromax lamp. The village choir that was composed of youths of different churches were neatly seated on the bench, which was arranged in the middle of the road. The road was clogged for a rare time. But they knew that no vehicle would pass through. There was a long empty bench that we occupied. The conductor’s table was clothed with the multicoloured Thangsuopuon. A black Ahuja microphone fixed on a rusted stand stood in front of the table. The conductor, a tall, lanky and thin man with protruding cheekbones, was full of energy as he took charge. We were garlanded and greeted with a bow and folded hands by the girls. A welcome with a very Indian salaam. The welcome was fine, but I did not like the garlanding act. For no reason at all, it was too blind an act. Too monotonous. Too unnecessary. It must have been expensive for them too as they parted with two Thangsuopuon shawls. The garland was made in the colours of the celebrated shawl. I don’t know if there was any strings attached, but I love more than two things that happened to us that night. I appreciate the collective spirit of the villagers who turned out in good numbers, despite the absence of bread and fishes. I love the song of the village choir. The life packed song did not fail to move the spirit within. The song was about a prayer for His forgiveness and blessing. The song not only stirred many women to dance, but also moved many silent listeners. I also love the dinner- rice and mutton- that was prepared to welcome one of Mizoram celebrities who accompanied us. He was the singer, Joseph Zaihmingthanga.

The dinner will be long remembered. Never that the food was bad or too good. But it was almost difficult to eat as one of the rape victims whom I met in February 2006 in the same village was serving us. She was part of the group of rape victims that we took to Aizawl for medical check up, one month after they were raped. It was the end of the world for those girls, who thought they were all getting pregnant. Their menstrual cycle was disturbed. They have no appetite. Many of them were vomiting. Many of them were still bleeding. The pain, shame, depression, anxieties, and helplessness could be seen from their faces. Their words were shockingly louder. Their tears were endless in that dry village. Tears could have flow if God was not with them. Besides, she was the first of the victims that we met, as our investigation started from the end of the village where the family was occupying the RPC pastor quarter. Our eyes were bigger then eggs when we met again that night. We both try to deliver sweet smile. But it was wry and dry.

mouth only cracked like drought ridden ground. Words were scare. I was left to wonder if the rats that invaded their rice fields have also eaten up all the words. We were almost left with numb silence. But I managed to ask her if she was doing well. She told me that it has been a difficult life. A different struggle. I asked myself if I was right enquiring about her well being. While my regret was embraced with uneasy silence, her words were a soothing balm. “By God’s grace I am carrying on, I hope I would”, she told me. Like a Pastor, who, on his routine visit to his churches, I told her that we have His grace, which will help us through. I told myself His grace is sufficient. There were so many things that I wanted to tell her that night. But I did not. I wanted to tell her to be healed forever. I wanted to tell her to forget everything that is burdening her. I also wanted to tell her that this will also pass like everything else.

I remember silence loomed heavy that night, but there was an intense struggle to find words. I was quite hesitant to ask again, but I enquired about her friends. “Some of them are in the village, some moved out to escape, and one recently got married”, she told me.

It was a relief to know that they are moving on. They should. They deserve it. Why should the devil have all the good music?

After dinner we started the last lap of the journey for the day as we headed for Senvon. Our jeep was filled not only with more passengers, but also with shouts of “halleluia” “amen” and “sisisisisi….” We were told it was the band of prayers who have been fasting and ceaselessly praying. As I try not to concentrate on the shrieking noises and voices, I looked out as far as the jeep headlight could clear. In the middle of that muddy, moonless night, rats frequently crossed the road we were traveling. I thought to myself that they must have resorted to patrol the deserted road after destroying the jhum fields. Signs of menace invaded the freshly plough-like road that leads to the “Holy land” of the Hmars, Senvon. Our destination is the seat of the Gospel for the Hmar people. The seed of the light was sown in the year 1910. The Light brought us back to Senvon. But the night was covered with thick black darkness when we reached Senvon. Immediately we were blessed with many empty beds that were laying bare, waiting for us. We choose two beds in one room. I and Pu Hrangthangvung slept together. But we were straighter than the bed. Keivom slept alone. We washed ourselves clean before we hit the bed covered with clean white sheets. The night was too quiet. It almost bites us. As if to save us, Keivom cheered us with the precious imported “holy water” and broke the silence. The spirit warms us in that cold night just as he said. After that all I knew, as I was told the next morning, was the snore of the three worn out mortals knowing they are home.

(Delhi, January 17, 2008)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Year of the Rat: Chinese and Us

If the so-called “mainstream” Indians mistook us for Chinese, we, Zohnathlak, have many things shared, particularly this year- 2008, with the economic giant, which the country will never catch up. I am not negating India’s economic progress. It is high time. But I doubt if the boom is “shining” or not. If one does a reality check, comparing India and China, the political gurus and their campaigners in Hindustan were successful than the booming theories they propagate as the country will just be running fast behind the Dragon’s tail to catch up every possible thing. The make-believe shine that is confined in few urban compartments would take time to decentralize if it has to. Otherwise if the present pace does not deconstruct itself, the “shine” would dim in the stagnant constituencies, which has been breathing by squeezing the “tribal” and “adivasis” land and resources in the name of “national interest.” The boomers in towering structures are ignorant about the squeezing game and the drain that has been happening since the British days. Only the guards have changed. The rest continues unabated. Well, it is not about the economy or progress that I wanted to stress here. Rather it is about the rat, us and the Chinese.

For the Chinese, 2008 is ‘Year of the Rat’, starting from February 7, 2008 till January 25, 2009. The year of the Rat is the first in the cycle of 12 Animal signs and recurs after every twelfth year. The Rat kicks off the 12 year cycle and this year is believed to be a luck filled year. The Chinese see the Rat as aggressive, charming and well endowed with leadership skills. Besides wearing the colourful red dresses that is believed to be a lucky colour, the year of Rat also associates many superstitions and customs.

While it is feasting time for the Chinese in the year of the Rat, it is doom time for the distressed villagers who are also confronting the year of the Rat in the epicenter of the gregarious bamboo flowering in Mizoram and parts of Manipur’s Churachandpur district. The phenomenon that occurred after every forty eight years has multiplied the rat’s population that feed on the seeds of the bamboo flower. The rat population explodes after eating the starch and protein rich bamboo flower seeds. The rats then destroyed crops causing food crisis and famines. The natural phenomenon of bamboo flowering has been recorded to have happened in 1862, 1881, 1911-12 and 1959 too. All of them resulted in severe famine. According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests 159 the Report, the 1959 famine claimed between 10,000 and 15,000 lives in Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Barak valley of Assam.

The resultant distressed farmers in Manipur and Mizoram are a toast for politicians and authorities who are gaining mileage out of their plights. On February 2, 2008, distressed villagers in Tipaimukh’s Senvon, in Manipur’s Churachandpur, formed a forum, Public Demand, with the attempt to impress upon the authorities at all level about their unabated condition that is getting worse with each passing day. I won’t be surprise if the forum merely added more president and secretary to the multiplying mute tribe who are otherwise trying to raise their voices. The efforts have been a desperate one. It is like trying to make the pebbles speak. Their negotiations of the endless neglect, discrimination, exploitation and marginalization in the cut off constituencies did not have any language. It did not have any voice. Not that they did not want to. But because they could not. If they are journalistic orphans, they are also surrogate sons and daughters of the colonial rusted steel frames and elected representatives. Situations have reportedly turned gravely for the forgotten people. Victims of entitlement failure. What else are they? Well, I think they are one of the most presented people. But the big question still is, have they ever been represented? I don’t think they were ever represented. Never fairly. Never justly. The history of their political economy is marred by untold and unreported experiences of sufferings that fluctuate between food insecurity, food shortages, poverty, famines and hunger. Unfortunately, these situations have become too stabilised that it has almost been inevitable to their lives. The harsh times have been considered as “normal” situations. The agrarian crisis, which is deteriorated by the much politicised flowering of bamboo, has pushed them again to depend on wild roots and fruits for their food. Today, many of the families were driven back to the food gathering stage in the absence of any proactive intervention from the government. There have been little efforts from various church organizations, which came in the form of prayers and few kilo of rice to the starving bowels. I have also been told ceaselessly about the narrow denominational biasness and preferences, which the churches handed out along with the grain of rice. Unnecessary bonuses were delivered that need no reading between the lines. The messages are clear without the lines in between. While the misery resulted out of natural calamity, it has also been man made. But the villagers were told by the pulpit lords that it was because of their sins. But their signs are without its science. Without its reason and logic. That’s the missing link.

Despite the celebration and gloom that is attached with the Rat year for the two countries, it is important to focus on the constituencies that confront the year of the Rat without any celebrations. While the need for public action is immediate, it is high time the authorities move towards drawing up “famine codes” to address the decades of agrarian failure and the crisis associated with it. No less Important, in numerous instances, public action has succeeded in averting famines in cases of a serious shortfall in the food supply. However, in the case of Tipaimukh, public action could only be visible with the efforts made by the various church organisations. However, the intervention made by the different Christian denominations goes against the realities of hunger and deprivation, which the unrepresented people are confronting today.

If one looked at the pre-independence as well as the post independence India, it has experienced major national food crisis in the wake of natural disasters. A major historical landmark in the history of public policy towards famine relief took place in the 1880s with the drawing up of the famine codes, which consisted of instructions for identifying emergencies and measures. Despite that, the severe Bengal famine of 1943 was not even officially declared to be a famine. After the independence, the government lauded its “successful” approach towards hunger and famine. However, the signs of distress are showing in other forms and expression that is new. In the wake of hunger and famines that associates the bamboo flower; the Mizos resorted to arms movement in the 60s demanding for sovereignty. Farmers’ suicide in South India was another shocking expression. In the year 2007, in the “most peaceful” corner in Mizoram, the distressed farmers took to the streets demanding for their several constitutional rights that are attached to their hungry bowels and silenced voices.

The dimming and stagnating constituencies in the forgotten corners of India are in dire need of constructive measures. For the thousands of self-reliant farmers who are surviving on their own-produced food and who are without any income, the natural disaster that weighs down their vulnerable conditions is an intolerable fag end. In this year of the Rat when doom flowers, the concerned authorities ought to resort to availing alternative measures: providing wage employment of public works, which later would become the mainstay of famine relief, unconditional provision of food for those unable to work, food storage and price stabilization. For the various hyper-active church organizations, its action, if it could not be Samaritan, should ape Pilate and wash itself before their sins multiply. If emergency measures are not drawn immediately, the unfolding catastrophe will never speak for itself, and it would be too late if the wait is to see them speak with loss lives. It would be an unforgiving shame if the authorities go blind and numb in the face of the rat and bamboo flower when India is “shining” and “booming.” Them, who are doomed by the flowers and gnawed by the rats, believed they are lesser being. The Chinese cannot just go celebrating in the same year of the Rat.

(Delhi, February 10, 2008)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

One Winter, Two Weddings and the Big Miss

I broke my old year promise to one wedding. I was supposed to see through every moment of my friend, Mercy Darthanmawi’s wedding through my camera eyepiece that took place on January 12, 2008. But on the day I was in Aizawl attending a very crucial meeting and discussion. I was burdened with unforgiving guilt for not making it to my friend’s wedding. It was silly, but I was making too many unimaginable and unattainable wish: I was wishing the wedding took place all over again for the second time when I reached Delhi. But like a wish it ended as much a wish is to be. That’s the last point of consolation for me. But the blanket of consolation was too thin that it could never cover me. I found myself like Adam in the Garden of Eden after the apple eating act. Not that I was in shame. But I could not console myself with the biggest wish. It did not bring me any closer to the missed reality that is unrecallable. What strikes me, then, was another shawl of consolation that rings in my ears. It was Queen’s song, Bohemian Rhapsody. Some of the lines negotiate with the situation I was confronting. Mercury’s voice got louder with the lines; “Nothing really matters, easy come easy go, if I am not back by this time tomorrow carry on, carry on…” That was the self with me negotiating the guilt. I said to myself, I have the song, but will that explain?

Then again, my eldest sister, Kimboi Buhril walked down the aisle and said “I do” on January 30, 2008 at Rengkai ICI Church. The first in the family to walk the Church aisle. The sorry thing was that I wasn’t there again. I did not promise her. But I was expected without any condition. The absence was not, again, deliberate. It was rather a circumstantial inevitability and I was asked to turn down. Otherwise, I’ve booked my tickets to fly home for the day and for cherishing every moment at home. But again, my plans was like a Babel ruin.

I started to slowly dismantle my resolutions. It was like unpacking a big box of acquainted books. It was already a layered mountain. The only option out was to console myself and accept things the way they are. Otherwise, I was dreaming of smelling home flowers. Leaves. And soil. I revisit them, but from a distance. I saw them passing by. One by one. I was dreaming of sitting in that long and wide porch where mom’s flower pots sit endlessly as the colourful bloom seduced the bees. I would then sip homemade tea and the best homemade wine they saved for me. I was also hoping to wake up early, at least more than once, before the sun rise and sit in the same porch to watch the morning glory rise from Saidan hills and mountain. I am sure I would be closer to Him seeing His creation rise and bow amidst nature’s lap, than wandering along with the billion pagans. My desire to see the legless cloud floating on the foot of the hills and mountain was also shattered. For those who haven’t seen them, they resemble the ghost who walks. I remember they used to form a thick and heavy blanket to stand against the piercing sunlight, as if in a big battle. Clouds are full of humility. They did not lose. Never. They always reappear the next day. But I always find them stepping aside and making way for the sunlight to shine through. I, then, remember the wishes that I made many times; of my desire to learn their language to help me understand their songs and romance. A language to learn their lives and movement. A language to whisper and speak to them. I love to learn their peace. Their songs. Their wisdom. And their bliss. I also missed mom’s ambrosia, which she told me she would make out of the fattest long necked duck that would also breathe its last when I come home.

I missed the chances of photographing portraits of people who are in their afternoon and evening years. Their wrinkles weave glory road when many die without getting to wear them. I see completeness and fulfillment in wrinkled smiles and laughter. I also missed walking to Thingchom, where dew sparkles atop grass and leaves. I learnt a lot from them. They celebrate with the fullest meaning of their brief existence without showing any signs of dread. No signs of fear. And no signs of regret. Life is not about the length and breadth of it. Rather, it is living the meaning that counts. I would have photographed the wife of Thingchom’s chief feeding her colourful chicken when the evening sunlight rest in the village. In that thinly populated village she seems to know all her chicken by their face, which was more than one hundred. I love Thingchom for that intimacy, which is homely. Everyone knows whose cow or dog is wild and high with the seasonal blood thrust. That is one place I can be home anytime. Thingchom produced a good amount of jaggery, which is sweeter than any earthly kiss.

To make up for the missing, I made endless telephone call. They also did the same on their part. I called, once, when my sister was in the middle of the aisle. My sister on the aisle was a big miss that I will never see again. How I wish I was there. I retreated to the days and years when we grew up together. Like brothers in arms. Technology could never make up for the heart longings. It would never as long as it was one winter and the two weddings that I missed.

(Delhi, January 02, 2008)