Editor’s Comment. A riveting collection of stories providing a nuanced window into a complex society and people, beyond what the media and internet will or can tell you!
Countering the idea of imagined communities of a nation coined by Benedict Anderson, Rob Nixon, in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2013), proposes the idea of ‘unimagined communities’ of a nation, referring, perhaps to communities that subvert or challenge the developmental trajectory of a modern nation-state. In the Indian context, these ‘unimagined communities’ constitute the Adivasis whose customs, traditions, lands, and history are under threat because of the developmental rhetoric of modernity. Dr Jamuna Bini’s collection of Hindi stories, Ayachit Atithi aur Anya Kahaniyaan, published by Samaya Sakshya Prakashan in 2021, documents the lives and plights of one such Adivasi community, housed in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh in India.
In the story Nalai, a character is heard saying, “Badlaav aur Bagawat me farak hain” [There is a difference between revolution and rebellion]. No other line captures the fundamental tension that Bini’s stories in the collection attempt to navigate. Of the ten stories, five explicitly are woven around the Adivasi Wancho community in Arunachal Pradesh. The rest, while not dealing with the Wancho community per se, still explore the larger socio-political issues in the region including insurgency, army brutality, and the ever- shifting equations of tradition and modernity or, in this case, revolution and rebellion.
Bini’s voice is self-conscious and self-reflective, and the book is aware of the potential ignorance of its Hindi-speaking target audience. Most of the stories deal with characters whose primary language of communication is not Hindi. In that regard, the book, apart from all the aesthetic work that fiction inevitably does, also simultaneously undertakes the complex work of translation and cultural guidance. Bini moulds the tone and nature of the Hindi language by infusing Wancho words to provide a more authentic linguistic flavour.
The Preface, titled Apni Baat, can be read both as an individual statement of the ‘self’ and as a collective statement of an entire region. In the Preface, Bini provides a succinct and useful summary of Wancho customs, language, social hierarchies, and so on, to provide adequate context for the stories that follow. The preface also explicitly states the intention behind the book: to correct the misconceptions that the rest of India has about Arunachal Pradesh – a place whose people are mistakenly seen as having only two extremes. They are either seen as innocent and naïve or are seen as evil and barbarous. Moving away from such a simplistic reading of the people of Arunachal Pradesh, Bini exposes them in all their colours and shades. The primary reason for the misconception, Bini argues, is the absence of a history of the people, especially of the Adivasi community from the region. The titular story Ayachit Athithi (Unwanted Guests) takes a step in correcting the misconception by recuperating the history of the Wancho community’s contribution to the anticolonial struggle.
While most of the official historical records have reported the colonial accounts of the Anglo-Wancho War of 1875, Bini shifts the lens and tells the story of the war from the Wancho perspective. To Bini’s credit, the story moves beyond the simplistic oppressor- oppressed binary and provides a more complex picture of the internal conflicts within the Wancho community. The story begins with the death of the chief of Nyinu village and, following the traditional ongoing custom of disposing of its dead, the community has left his body on a bamboo pole to be eaten by vultures. This incident coincides with the arrival of the British soldiers in the village, who not only insult the Wancho custom but are also lecherously aggressive towards Wancho women whose traditional attire did not include covering their breasts. The Wancho community rightly takes offense and launches an attack on the British soldiers, eventually killing eighty of them and driving the rest away. In the story, one discerns that the narrative of Wancho bravery being fused with another narrative, that of how Nyinu village had garnered the reputation of being the biggest, most powerful and shrewd village. It was through cunning and treachery that the villagers of Nyinu cheated other villages over land disputes, to subsequently acquire more land. With this sub-narrative of the rise of the Nyinu village, which goes beyond the binaries of black and white, Bini disrupts any simplistic, idealized notion of the Wancho people by showing how their society was equally strife with conflicts.
This internal critical gaze also extends to other stories. Worth elaborating upon is the story called Nalai, which puts under scrutiny certain traditional Wancho customs. The eponymous character is grief ridden because following a Wancho custom has split her subjectivity into two — of a bereft lover and a longing wife. For a woman, the custom entails impregnating herself with someone’s seed but eventually marrying a different man and raising the child with him. Nalai follows the custom by impregnating herself with Gamtong but eventually marrying Amok. The latter is a man who, for most of his life, has lived away from the community for his education. Amok cannot contemplate or deal with the fact that his wife had given herself to another man right before their marriage. Gamtong distances himself from Nalai after the sexual encounter as he does not wish to disturb Nalai’s domestic life. Nalai, lastly, sways between the two men and hopes that Amok would come around. None of them can break off the marriage since that would lead to conflict and bloodshed between the villages of the two families.
The problem persists, and the refusal to provide a clear resolution at the end of the story is also indicative of the nature of the problem itself. The three characters suffer in silence and feel trapped within the nexus of customs, modernity, and their own shifting and confusing subject positions. The story poses a poignant question: Which customs are worth holding onto, and which customs should one let go of? While the traditional members of the Wancho community continue to find a sense of identity through these customs, the urban, educated and younger members of the community feel alienated by them. Whose sense of identity is worth holding onto, then? The story shows different people from the community, with different priorities and varied senses of self, thus challenging the homogenized image of the region and its people.
Some stories portray the situation of contemporary Arunachal Pradesh, revealing the plight of people living there in the present. A story called Life-Tax, for instance, shows how a small village named Pongchau in Arunachal Pradesh is oppressed both by the Indian Army as well as by the insurgent revolutionaries. The villagers, going about their daily business, are unnecessarily entangled in a complex web of nationalist politics, revolutionary idealism, and violence. No other story captures the oppressive, neocolonial tendencies of a modern nation-state as much as this story. A doctor receives a government transfer there, and everyone cautions him that the transfer is a form of punishment since the people there need to pay a ‘life-tax’ to the revolutionaries simply to stay alive while also constantly fearing the army. The doctor witnesses first-hand, the situation in Pongchau, and understands how the villagers are sandwiched between the competing ideologies of revolutionary idealism and brutal jingoism.
In some sense, the story also acts as an extension (or perhaps a sequel) to Ayachit Atithi in that the uninvited guest earlier were the British. Now, however, the uninvited guests are from one’s own country.The success of the story lies in the fact that despite touching upon a volatile political issue, it does not favour this or that ideology. Instead, the narrative sympathies, as well as focus of the story stays with the innocent villagers.
The impulse to educate Hindi readers about Arunachal Pradesh’s history, geography, and communities at times takes over the impulse to tell a story. As a result, some stories suffer from an abundance of details that provides useful contextual information but does not add to the story constructively. The second half of Life-Tax, as well as the final story in the collection, Vardi Wala Bhikhari [The Uniformed Beggar], are examples of such stories.
Such minor qualms aside, the book serves as a solid entry point to begin reading about Arunachal Pradesh and move beyond the tourism industry or media-influenced simplistic notions one may have about the region as well as its people.
Abhimanyu Acharya is a writer, scholar, and translator who works in English, Gujarati, and Hindi. His writings have appeared in Out of Print, Hakara, Gulmohar Quarterly, Reading Room, and others. He received the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2020 for his debut collection of stories in Gujarati and has been long-listed thrice for the TFA awards. His story ‘Chunni’ was included in ‘The Greatest Gujarati Stories Ever Told’, published by Aleph Books in 2022. He enjoys cooking, playing chess, and procrastinating generally on everything.