The narrator in Mamang Dai’s latest novel says for the book - ‘these are the words of a woman telling me a story’; where, how, she doesn’t know. As if in an empty hut ‘a closed book is opening’ to bring back from the past this ‘silent and endless’ story. Immediately after, the narrator pronounces this tale a part of the ‘many lost stories in the world’. Thus begins the Prologue to ‘The Black Hill’, where two things have happened. The narrator (inseparable from the author) has distanced herself from the conception of the story but in doing so immediately made it a part of the ‘versions that were misplaced yesterday or a thousand years ago’, that is, given it a universally relevant status of undocumented “history”.
‘The Black Hill’ is the story of Gimur, a girl from the Abor tribe who runs away with Kajinsha of the Mishmee tribe. Their tale of love is painted with the mid-nineteenth century Northeast India as the background - a time when foreign winds had brought the East India Company into the region, and along with it inter-tribe unrest and superstitious xenophobia within the native dwellers. It had also brought in missionaries, one of them being Father Nicolas Krick, a Jesuit priest who wanted to carry his mission to Tibet. ‘The Black Hill’ is a richly imagined story descriptively created around two recorded historical events - this French priest’s mysterious disappearance and the execution of Kajinsha for his murder. The ‘miglun’ – the white men – remain a constant presence, peripheral but very much there, for the story is set between 1847 and 1855.
What forms the backbone to the book is, in the words of the narrator –
‘what I believe: that after everything is laid to rest, all that matters is love; and that memory gives
life, and life never ends.’
The book gives shape to the love between a man and a woman, expresses a priest’s love for his divine calling and portrays a community’s love for land, territory and for the identity drawn from its ownership. In thick jungles and barren landscapes these different loves intertwine, through events first and finally and most beautifully in essence too.
Gimur and Kajinsha
While the Abor tribe struggles to fend off strangers, Gimur is ‘the lone arrow flying over the hill’ as she elopes with Kajinsha of the Mishmee tribe. Soon enough, the inter-tribe politics fuelled by suspicion for the ‘white devils’ ensnare the warrior Kajinsha’s life of love in the lone hut. ‘How have I failed you? Why have you failed me?’ remain unspoken personal questions between the couple, heard but gone unanswered. For, among all the unrest and conspiracy, where is the time? Gimur muses if ‘it was only a dream the Gods had spun out for their sport?’ but swears to ‘spin it further … and let the gods be damned!’ Her love for Kajinsha draws blood. She finally sees Kajinsha caged in jail, his ‘eyes … burning darkly, looking at her with love. That look!’ the final look of affirmation that their love has out-lived their lives, untainted by the ‘evil, unhappy wind’. In the last scene, sitting on a hill all she is left with is memory –
‘The gods have played a game. They tossed something down – a piece of soul, maybe … and their toy broke into two. One piece was found by Kajinsha and the other – I swallowed it! Now they cannot find a way to undo what has happened…’
The most well-fleshed and thought-provoking character is that of ‘padri’ Krick, who is seeking a ‘faith that is unshakeable’ and for which he needed ‘to live another life’. In his quest ‘to love and to serve’ Krick develops a single-minded determination to reach Tibet, ‘the land of savage mountaineers’. The book maps Krick’s actual physical journey through tribal villages, nettled with the most precarious circumstances. The book also portrays his personal growth in the midst of ‘the beauty of creation unfolding before him’. His philosophical musings lend the book so much poetic beauty, as the reader sees ‘the nature of faith’ itself personified in this seeker. In the end, by surviving this land and its diseases as one of them, Krick comes to understand the faith of the ‘savages’ who surround him, indeed metamorphosing into their ‘foreigner shaman’ –
‘Everywhere people clung to their beliefs, and why not … it was a person’s claim to being someone on earth. It added up to a life. He knew it well now and he felt closer to the nature of the sacred.
Every moment was complete and important.’
At the doorstep of death, what he sees is a surreal marriage of the belief he carried to Assam and the one he gathered along his journey in it. A very beautiful description of dying and death.
The love of Land
In deft strokes of Realism, we are shown how various tribes live and love, heal and celebrate - steeped in superstition, ridden with taboos, bound by rituals and governed by nature’s whims for bare survival. As if lending them credence, ‘The Black Hill’ shows many visions and omens coming true in the book; at once fascinating but hard to believe, too. Recurrent signs that ‘a bad time is coming’ are impressed upon the reader, with the physical presence and imagined intentions of the miglun fuelling this environment of ‘war and violence’. All because of Land.
Land meant survival – a territory to call your own, to grow your food in, and thus survive. Gimur muses …
‘the root of conflict … men spoke of land as a possession… every piece of land was claimed … men fought and killed each other. Blood flowed. Brothers became enemies… what is land? Why is it so precious? … it is where you were born! … and how important was that?’
Land is also identity, passed down generations. For Kajinsha ‘their land could not be divided up, for they had lived in these lands for centuries, while empires had come and gone’. While his father said ‘if a man owns land he owns rest’, that was once upon a time. Now, the times have changed Kajinsha’s perspective and his aim - If there is land, you need to stake your claim to it. ‘We read the land. The land is our book.’ It is religion, nothing less!
And land is also the root of suspicion for the outsider, and towards one’s own. Gimur thinks for Krick – ‘I think we should not talk to them. The moment we speak our breath leaves us and the strangers can take our hearts away with their words’. The white men are taking their people ‘away from us’, and taking control of their lives away from their own hands, through their own land. And so they would fight; shed blood, in the end towards which the book spirals.
But then, what about the love that got the colonizer here?
For all its intricateness of poetic language, skilful narration of a thick plot and successful drawing in of the reader into its world, the narrator of ‘The Black Hill’ comes across as strangely devoid of an opinion on colonization. More so, because it is set in a context and contains events that cannot be viewed in separation from the larger political events unfolding at that time. The book may not necessarily need an opinion, but what it also lacks in is a real, well-rounded depiction of the colonizers, or even their intent behind occupying prime towns. There are references to mountains of Mica shining like gold and big rocks of granite lazily lying around; there are references to beliefs that white men were coming ‘deeper and deeper’ rumoured to bring ‘death and captivity’; being called ‘the rulers’. But the questions ‘What did they want?’ and ‘what hungers drove them?’ remain prominently unrepresented. After decades of being colonized, we do know the answers, but why is the book so silent about them?
Thrice in the book, the narrator mentions ‘records’ (government records/history), yet the story seems intentionally created as a unique impression of colonization. All we see are the side-effects that the mere presence of miglun have on the native minds – minds provoked by their own ideas of invasion and cunning, greed and exploitation, and hatred towards those of the community who wanted to embrace change even if ‘it would bring a better life’.
Maybe Mamang wanted to wrap all humanity in a common thread of vices and virtues; like making the persons of Krick, Gimur and Kajinsha merge into one entity. Perhaps, Mamang’s intention was to show the cracks through which such strong winds of change found home. I do not know. I cannot stop thinking that this alternate “history” seems to be catering to a colonized mind. And, coming from one too.
So very interesting, isn’t it? My mind right now? ‘A map of bewildering images’!
‘The Black Hill’ touches you with its poetic beauty, it terrifies you with its realism and it even triggers a re-opening of a debate on colonization. From descriptions appealing to those appalling, the author’s pen creates a darkly fascinating world in the novel. Our half-knowledge about people of our own country will make us see this as ‘exotic’! But we know it is 1847, and hence a context not just far removed from the present but also from popular discourse – political as well as literary.
The book is written in such beautiful language that many passages will look up in askance to be read again, and again. It is a ‘story of love’. It is also a story about ‘treachery of men, and the dark thoughts that grew out of solitude in this cruel and bewitching landscape’. The three thematic Fs of Frontier, Foreigner and Faith find significant space in the book. Many readers may be reminded of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ but an equal number will see how this book falls short of a clear voice on colonization. Nevertheless, much like Achebe’s book, ‘The Black Hill’ shows us the importance of the oral, of telling stories; stories from times gone by but which transcend time, and need to be told. I remember this -
‘Tell them about us, Kajinsha had said to her that night in jail. Tell them we were good. Tell them we also had some things to say. But we cannot read and write. So we tell stories.’
A book which could be a part of an English Literature course. Look how it makes one study itself!
'The Black Hill' is an Aleph publication, 2014
[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.]