Excerpt from the introduction of ‘A girl swallowed by a tree’

    by Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton

    WHY TELL STORIES?

    The seeds for this translation project were sown from chance epiphanies that jolted me out of mundane mondays reminding me that this invaluable treasured legacy is dying. We do not have a written history to call our own and so this collection is an effort at re-creating a version of one. ‘For the history of this corner of the earth is yet to be written’.25 I remember particularly a conversation between some cousins and me from Lakhuti (my ancestral village), where I was asking them about folk tales and songs and being struck with horror when they answered in an indifferent negative. The ignorance and disinterest worried me; the young generation’s nonchalance on the one hand, and on the other the fast depleting oral culture, struck a chord in me, and since then the concern never left.

    I believe that folktales mirror stories of the margins and therefore needs to be included in the living-thinking spaces of the people. ‘Most of our oral literature faces the threat of being lost to oblivion because it neither enjoys institutionalized support nor it is preserved by inter-generational transfer anymore’26. Our stories are ebbing away and if whatever is left of them is not translated and documented, we will lose our identity. A people whose history begins in the twenty-first century because they have lost their stories prior would be a lost people. As an academician, I could not bear this tragic demise of the past. So I started on the journey of recovering what is left of my identity, in a sense a sojourn towards a more heightened political sensibility of preservation. As Tillotima Misra has articulated, ‘Collecting and printing the oral and the written literature of one’s own community also became a part of the nationalistic agenda of identity assertion’27. Somewhere in this project—perhaps it was the reason behind it from the start— I seek to recover what is lost of my people and me.

    It was no less than a mammoth feat to find and record these stories since these days there are none or scarce storytellers. I am inclined to remember an old African proverb popularised by Amadou Hampate Ba in his 1960 talk at UNESCO, ‘In Africa when an old man dies, it’s a library burning.’ Our old storytellers are our tradition-carriers, who with their deaths are incinerating the living libraries of a community. As a humble consolation, I did find out that in some villages, the important designation of storyteller used to be given to chosen men, either to confirmed bachelors or to married men who have no offspring, as the task of the tale bearer is considered time-consuming and solemn in nature. There was a time when people believed that to be a storyteller was to invite peril from men as well as unseen forces and spirits. Gone are those times, and sadly too, many of the stories, have already slipped into oblivion. Also, as expected, many of the stories have acquired variations from village to village. Most of the stories in this volume have been translated after hearing and comparing multiple versions to come to as accurate a representation as possible. There were many layers of editing, as I had to change certain descriptions after researching and confirming details of the different versions. Interestingly, most of these stories have no fixed titles, except for names like Arilao and Apvuho, which are unchangeable, typified identities. Many names have faded away but feats and incidents remain.

    These folktales are the very fabric of early Lotha Naga life till the entry of the American missionaries with the new faith and changed lifestyle and the British colonial forces with their ‘refined’ ways and mannerisms. They made a huge positive impact on the Lotha Naga society, but in the end, what they left behind was a set of people who were trapped between worlds, skeptical of their indigenous identity that distinguished them from others. But some things remain unchanged. There still are diviners and soothsayers in some villages who continue with their legacy of being mediums between the human and the spirit worlds. The aphorisms live too; and so does the belief of mischievous gnomes who would whisk away naughty children with them, but drop them the instant a maternal uncle calls out the child’s name, remarking ‘Omoi Kyua, Omoi Kyua;’28 and it is still taboo to say one’s parents’ name, ‘Opvu Opo mying phyoana zuro na emen nte lupyiv’.29 Faint whispers about spirits from earth, sky, water, many chimeras of half man, half animals, or man transforming into an animal, or Ramon30 that were as tall as trees and would grow taller and taller if you keep gazing at them (unless you look down at their feet which stops their growth) are still heard. And as my Atyo31 would assure me when I would ask about the improbability of these things, ‘Eramo reni jo heto tsota yithacho’32.

    Atyo has a favorite story of her own about an encounter with a tiger. When she was a young orphan girl of eight or nine years old, a tiger crossed her path as she was on her way to a relative’s house around 7 pm in the village of Shaki, Wokha district. ‘The Tiger’s eyes looked like live burning coals in the night. Others dropped their burning torches of log whereas I stood there transfixed. He looked at me and just walked away’. And this was a supposed man-eating tiger! Till today Atyo, who is now almost 80 years old, recounts with vividness and preciseness this incident that happened to her many years ago. I have asked her to tell me this story over and over again and each time, it is with the same exactness that she tells me. Not one detail would change. Perhaps there is sense in what Galileo Galilei once said, ‘All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them’33. Folktales allow us to discover old worlds, to have a dialogue with the various truths beyond history and the empirically possible.

    This volume of folktales, I hope, allows the reader to visualize the socio-cultural life of the people it tells and their environmental landscape; also that it will go some distance for future generations to trace their ancestry and understand their roots. This endeavour is an attempt to read people’s stories/history from the inside-out, thereby offering a counter model to the concept of history as standardization of date-based empirical research. Nothing is truer than the fact that stories do matter. Every story is important. It is important for these stories to be known. As Chimamanda Adichie, one of my favourite Nigerian writers would say, ‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity’34.

    ABOUT THIS COLLECTION OF FOLKTALES

    Folktales are a narrative form that educate people about their roots and their duties toward society, serving as moral tales without their preachy overture whilst stirring and encouraging people to aspire towards an ideal. ‘Warriorship, headhunting, metal works, wood carving, pot making, chieftainship, construction of house and granary, felling of trees, making agricultural implements, wrestling, war dance, inter village relationship negotiation, decision making, village administration, payment of marriage price, construction of graves, hunting, fishing, bamboo weaving, these were the manly crafts and activities. Traditional shawls and sarong and bag weaving were womanly crafts, as well as spinning, sowing vegetables, washing, brewing of rice beer, feeding of children, livestock, etc.’35. All these activities trained young people for Naga life. There was a sense of community and belongingness as everyone was accountable and connected to their tasks, culture and roots. Violating traditions resulted in bad fortune, like in the story of ‘The Strange Marriage of a Woman and a Momon’ where the girl’s family does not keep the Lonhyaka tradition. Lotha Naga folktales have a propensity towards driving home the importance of following traditions and conforming to the social pattern.

    Like other folktales in many oral traditions, Lotha Nagas also have stories of origins, cosmic harmony between nature and humans, celebration of beauty and valor, eternal conflict between evil and good, celebration of community, presence of the supernatural, importance of family. Stories like, ‘The Story of the Sun and the Moon’, ‘The Duel between Wind and Fire’, ‘The Legend of how Men became Monkeys’, attempt to answer many myths of origin. In some of the stories in this volume, one will find elements of Alternate or Alternative Reality. They include ‘Humchupvuli Eloe’, ‘Shoshamo and the Longkumvu’, ‘The Story of Sukyingo and Ngazo’, ‘The Man who travelled to Echu Li’, etc. The lines between reality and fantasy are all blurred. Straddling various worlds and understandings is what make these stories imaginatively engaging and heuristically meaningful. One can safely assume that these supernatural stories and origin-stories were a conscious mode on the part of the tellers to explain the universe and the world as they understood them or wondered about. Plural Gods and spirits, anthromorphic gods, demi gods, oligarchs; Virtues and vices of Kleos, Kalos, Eros, Ekdikesis, Hubris, Menin, Arete; all elements that defined classical literary traditions can be found in these folk stories. The system of society in these stories bears uncanny resemblance to Homer’s Greeks in the Minoan Ages. One can find epithets similar to Achilles’ in ‘Arilao’, Medea’s Menin and Ekdikesis in Arilao’s mother Nongkhungru and other widow characters, Helen being relived in Rhonthunglo, Gaeia and Uranus in ‘The Story of the Sun and Moon’. There’s not much mention of a unified single entity as god but unnumbered supernatural machinery. ‘The Tale of Tchupvuo and a Man’, ‘Rapvuthung and the Tsungrhamvu’, ‘Shoshamo and the Longkumvu’, all these give an insight into the anthropomorphism of the divinities and minor supernatural deities/spirits. Then there’s the story of ‘The Man who travelled to Echu Li’, which takes the reader to a mythic kindred world of the dead, where none can tread. Metaphysical myths and mysteries, carrier of cultures and peoples, these tales have them all.

    These Lotha folktales also exhibit the limited role of women in stories; in the text but out of frame. The inherent patriarchal ideologies are ubiquitous and so firmly rooted in the social machinery of society, from the customary laws to the simple folktales and songs, that there is little assertion of the woman’s voice in public forum. But it will be fair to note that if we find most women living and catering to stereotypical roles, there are also those that challenge existing norms by not being passive recipients. Sadly their identities are straitjacketed as ‘angel in the house’ or ‘monster’ as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar of ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’36 would say. Thus they are circumscribed at two polarities. On one hand, she is the consummate homemaker, the extent of her rule being the home and the field. She is not taken for ‘serious’ business like hunting, community fishing, etc., which are only for ‘men’. She would cause nsena37, which would jinx a man’s special undertakings. ‘Men are also forbidden to put on garments used by women and women are forbidden to wear men’s garments … Persons going for headhunting expeditions to serve sexual restrictions and remain chaste for certain days. This prohibition is extended even in case of hunting fame or fishing expeditions…’38. Then on the other hand, there are women who don’t fall into that mold and emerge as anti-heroes. They are revengeful women who make themselves ‘seen’ and ‘heard’. There are ample examples of ‘wicked stepmothers’, ‘jealous/vengeful women’, ‘foolish women’, etc., as we can see in the stories, ‘The Pumpkin Bride and the Gourd Bride’, ‘The Sterile Wife’, ‘The Tiger Bridegroom and the Human Bride’, ‘Rhonthunglo’, ‘The Legend of how Men became Monkeys’, ‘The Emi and the Forty Young Men from the Chumpo’, etc. Then in some stories, myth formations are invoked, for example, ‘The Akao and the Jerhan’, ‘The Legend of Man and Wolf’, ‘The Erstwhile Friendship between the Sepvu and the Otum’, ‘The Crab’s Sideways-Tilted Walk’, ‘The Legend of the Sungalia Plant’, etc. These stories while celebrating liberty and freedom of animals, bring alive the sights and sounds of the wild at a very human level mimetic to the emotional conflicts and temptations that humans undergo. Man and animal reflect each other; they belong together. There is a quaint and compelling attraction to this world of men and their unspoken mutual harmony with nature.

    These tales that were known to the folk were no less than an inquiry into everyday life lived in intimacy with other human beings and with nature; they formed part of the oral curriculum of learning for life. In the absence of formal education, through oral narrations, they identified a very laudable way of educating themselves and their future generations. They made the most of what was accessible to them. These stories were not just simple tales, but the making of many Lotha Naga histories and their philosophical inquiry into life and its intricacies. They represent a totality of the tradition and values that the Lotha Nagas have held in high regard for hundreds of generations. These folktales have so many aspects of beliefs, myths, conduct, life lessons that people have even called it a sort of Bible for the Nagas. ‘Oral tradition is the Prime Bible because it serves as the source for tribal history, religious beliefs, social ethos, and mores and cultural milieus’39.

    Folktales are told by memory and because it is oral, thinking progresses in a ‘mnemonic pattern’ but not through textual representation. These stories become markers of the tribe and their legacy. ‘What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives only with one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future’40.One might argue that memory plays an ambiguous role because of its selective recollection, and of course every mode of recollection or recording has its own limitations. Written history as well, for instance, the sufficiency of its sources is debatable, and the dependability of its selective memory is not without question. History comes from an exclusive place of retelling. So involving in the debate of how authentic is authentic with regard to oral narrative traditions probably would defeat the very purpose of the attempt, and we would never reach a sense of truth. One need not buy entirely into Michel Foucault’s paradigm of the production of knowledge under regimes of power to recognize the dominance of written history over oral traditions in our world today, but failure on the part of a people to remember the stories of old that were constitutive of their past would defeat the very purpose of history—written or unwritten.

    Notes

    1. J. P. Mills (1922), p. 39.
    2.http://sahitya-akademi.gov.in/sahitya-akademi/aboutus/cotlit.jsp. Accessed on 10. 02. 16.
    3. Tillotima Mishra (2011), p. xv.
    4. Omoi means Maternal Uncle. Kyua means Scared. It translates to ‘Respect/fear your maternal Uncle’.
    5. ‘If you ever take your parents’ name, rats will bite through your lips’.
    6. It’s a portmanteau of two Lotha words ‘ora’ and ‘omon’ constituting the word ramon. Ora is Forest. Omon is Spirit or monster.
    7. Grandmother. In this case my maternal grandmother.
    8. During olden days, these were regular occurrences.
    9. Galileo Galilei (1953), Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican (New York: Modern Library).
    10. www.ted.com/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story,October 7 2009. Accessed on 10th January 2016.
    11. Joseph S. Thong and Phanenmo Kath (2011), Glimpses of Naga Legacy and Culture (Kerala: Society for Naga Students Welfare), p. 100–103.
    12. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1980), The Madwoman in the Attic; The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven Press: Yale University Press).
    13. A term which means a cultural taboo associated with a women as a harbinger of bad luck so any close encounter with a woman is avoided before any great feat as it is believed that it takes away a man’s luck. 14. Joseph S. Thong and Phanenmo Kath (2011), p. 132–135.
    15. Ibid., p. 188.
    16. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89357808 Accessed on 12.02.16.

    Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Gargi College, Delhi University. She has translated and compiled the first anthology of Lotha-Naga folktales entitled A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold

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