society Reviews

‘The Inheritance of Words: Writings from Arunachal Pradesh’ review: Fading voices

Arunachal Pradesh, in the farthest northeast corner of India, is a land inhabited by numerous tribes which, taken together, speak more than 90 languages. Many of these languages are being forgotten as younger generations are taught the lingua franca, Hindi, which opens up the rest of India to them. Each time a language dies, an entire culture dies with it. In case of Arunachal Pradesh, the erasure is all the more absolute since many of the tribal languages don’t have any written script. They have been passed down orally through stories, lullabies, songs, chants preserved in memory.

(Stay up to date on new book releases, reviews, and more with The Hindu On Books newsletter. Subscribe here.)

Memory keepers

As with many ancient tribes, women serve as the memory-keepers here too. It is therefore rather apt that the stories, essays and poems in this collection are all by Arunachal women, who, whether writing in English or in Hindi translated into English, speak of their inescapable inheritance — of words and loss.

The legacy is not always mourned; rather, it is assessed critically. If the old ways carried beautiful stories speaking of a visceral bond with nature, they also normalised patriarchy, violence against women, heedless killing of animals. In the poem, ‘My Ane’s Tribal Love Affair’, Ngurang Reena addresses her mother, who wouldn’t stop mourning her dead husband even after a lifetime of subjugation and betrayal: “At thirteen, ‘traded’ for a few mithun to my father.../ Blessed by the spirits of the forest, her forefathers, her ancient tradition”, and replaced by a second wife later.

The daughter must break away from this ‘tradition’ and taste freedom, even as she is conscious of “carrying my tribe on my back”. Part of the desired freedom is inscribed in the poem’s language — English — which has created alternate avenues of thinking for the speaker by giving her a ‘tongue’ other than her mother’s.

Frogs’ symphony

The tension between the given and the acquired informs all the pieces. In one breath they speak of silent mountain passes, fog-shrouded cold wintery nights, babble of brooks, frogs’ symphony, unquiet spirits, shamanic chants, prophetic woodpeckers on the one hand and uprooted forests, unwanted girl children, gender violence and rampant superstition on the other. For each of the writers is an insider and outsider, both. Inevitably, their writings speak of an urban sensibility, involving confusion about familial languages and customs.

For instance, in Doused Flames by Leki Thungon, the city-bred speaker is bewildered by the reference to zekmus — “cursed women who sleepwalk” — in her village. It might just be a bogeyman story meant to scare children but the speaker, and the reader, can’t help wondering if there’s more to it — are zekmus women who have defied men and paid the price by being beaten up and ostracised?

The Inheritance of Words is instructive because it helps de-romanticise our notion of tribal culture. Shorn of nostalgia, its value is brought into sharper focus. The pieces are sometimes tentative, as if the writer is unsure of her opinion, but they begin the process of questioning, so vital to any act of evaluation and preservation. The collection is also important in foregrounding the woman’s voice, which, as always, gives us a distinctive view of the past and the present.

The Inheritance of Words: Writings from Arunachal Pradesh; Edited by Mamang Dai, Zubaan, ₹350.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 13, 2021 12:31:25 AM |

Next Story