It was last year that I realized how much more I needed to read diversely within Indian literature. I wrote a blog post about the same, and it was while researching for this post that I came across Adivaani, a publisher that aims to create a database of writing that celebrates Adivasi culture. I started following them on Twitter, and that is how I found out that in April this year, they published A girl swallowed by a tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold by Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton. I am always fascinated by mythology and cultures, and I immediately knew I had to have this book.
One cannot really “review” this book, the way one would review others. It is as futile as trying to review The Illiad, The Odyssey, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, or The Jataka Tales. A culture and its products–the stories, music, food etc, are subject to scrutiny, but should never be subject to judgement. A culture cannot be criticized–it simply is a growing, changing, evolving system!
These stories are just that–a reflection of the thoughts and beliefs of the Lotha Naga tribe (or the Kyongs, as they call themselves). The thirty stories in this anthology are part of their cultural sub-conscious, reflecting the ideas that matter to them. In fact, I would go so far as to say, our collective, human sub-conscious, because so many of these stories have echoes in other stories elsewhere.
For example, my grandmother who was born and brought up in Kerala, in a socio-cultural milieu very distinct from the Lotha Nagas, used to tell me a folk story about a woman who was tricked into marrying a tiger, and how she escaped. In this anthology too, there is the story of The Tiger Bridegroom and the Human Bride. It is not the exact same story, but there are similarities, that make me wonder what prompted such different cultures to come up with similar stories.
Stories like The Legend of how Men became Monkeys, How Chilli was discovered, The Duel between Wind and Fire, and The Legend of Man and Wolf give us an idea of how we with our human senses and imaginations invent stories as a way to understand the world around us. Other stories, like Humchupvuli Eloe, The Pumpkin Bride and The Gourd Bride, talk about relationships and friendships. Others, like, The Emi and the Forty young Men from the Chumpo, or The Legend of the Sungalia Plant are parables that guide and inform us about good and bad. Stories like these abound in all cultures. There are some invisible threads in time and space that bind us all together.
This is in no way an attempt to appropriate the culture of the Kyongs. Where I celebrate our similarities, I also acknowledge and celebrate their uniqueness. In fact, it is the insight into their socio-cultural landscape that I appreciate the most. At the start of the book, the author gives an explanation of how the Lotha Naga society is structured, their customs and beliefs. I am glad for this section, because it truly helped me gain an understanding of their way of life. I also appreciate that the author has not shied away from using Lotha words–the glossary provided at the end of each story is explanation enough! By using the vocabulary of the people, she has ensured that translation has not watered down the ideas, and I applaud her for that.
The Introduction at the beginning also details the author’s journey while writing this book–the why and the how, and that story is a pleasure to read in itself!
In her Foreword to the book, author Easterine Kire says, “This is a book that should be used as a pathfinder for other books on oral narratives.Literature from the Northeast has been suppressed too long by mainstream publishing that requires writers from the region to write within a prescribed box and format.”
I wholeheartedly agree! In its bold assertion to be itself, the book accomplishes great things. I do hope you will take a peek into this wonderful world of folklore that the author has painstakingly put together.
Do you enjoy reading folklore/mythology? Have you read any literature from Northeast India? What about Adivasi literature from other parts of India? Let me know in the comments!
You can read an extract from A girl swallowed by a tree here:
Author Bio (from the book A girl swallowed by a tree): Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Gargi College, University of Delhi. She has diverse interests ranging from Oral History and History, Translation, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, Women’s Autobiographies, Indian Writings in English, Classical Literature and Western Music. She has written chapters for the texts of the Literature-Culture specialization of the MA(F) Program in Women’s and Gender Studies, IGNOU, 2013. She has also co-authored a book titled A Handbook for Academic Writing and Composition by Pinnacle Learning, 2014. She has presented and published papers on folklore and oral history in national and international conferences and journals.
About the Publisher: https://adivaani.org/about/
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