Silent Lips and Murmuring Hearts

[ Dr Doyir Ete Taipodia ]

The saying “Literature is the mirror to society” is true to a great extent. It conveys literature’s ability to reflect human society, culture, and history in all its different aspects. Poetry, novels, and dramas breathe life into historical narratives and present human stories in diverse and engaging forms. Therefore, apart from providing entertainment and knowledge, such narratives, especially novels that are historical fiction, stand out for their portrayal of history.

TS Eliot, the famous British poet, critic and dramatist, once noted that Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most individuals could from the entire British Museum. Literature serves as a valuable source of history by providing insights into past events, people and cultures.

Shakespeare’s historical dramas, influenced by Greek philosophers like Plutarch and Ovid, show how literature can capture and interpret historical narratives in a compelling and enduring way. Stories with historical elements are like windows that offer insight into the past, revealing individuals’ thoughts, feelings, experiences, and aspirations from a particular time. By analysing the characters, settings, and themes in such stories, we can grasp the norms, values and struggles of that era. Moreover, such stories also often include social criticism highlighting the challenges of that time. By analysing these texts, we can better understand the historical context and the perspectives of individuals living in that era.

Pioneering Arunachali writers like Padma Shri awardee Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi have adeptly depicted glimpses of history through their fiction. Thongchi is a towering literary figure who has immensely contributed to the body of literary works from Arunachal Pradesh. He began writing in Assamese and has since become a well-known and highly regarded writer, receiving numerous awards and accolades. His storytelling prowess is both powerful and captivating. He has not only propelled our state’s literary scene on a national level; he is also one of its prominent literary voices. Today, he is undoubtedly a well-known figure in his home state;yet there remains the need and urgency to introduce to the younger generation his literary writings, which is one of the objectives of this article.

Novels such as Sonam  (1981), Lingjik (1982), Mouna Ounth Mukhar Hriday (2001), and Sava Kota Manuh(2004) are just a few examples of his extensive body of work that has garnered widespread acclaim and been translated into multiple languages. It is therefore crucial to highlight the impact his writings have had, not only on literature as a whole but particularly on writers from Arunachal who constantly seek his guidance and inspiration. In addition to his writings, Thongchi has played a crucial role in fostering new and upcoming writers by providing them with a platform. He is the founding president of the Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society (APLS), which, under his guidance, makes significant strides each year in the literary landscape of Arunachal.

Thongchi’s novel Mouna Ounth Mukhor Hriday is his third published novel. The novel also received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 2005. It was written in Assamese, and the English translation of this novel, titled Silent Lips and Murmuring Hearts, by Debarshi Prasad Nath was published in 2010.

Upon close examination, the novel reads like a firsthand account of the personal experiences of the author, wherein he weaves together vivid details and emotions of the characters and their lives. The novel is set in the early days of NEFA, around the 1950s-1960s, a few years after Independence, when the Indian government began its project of linking NEFA with the rest of the nation. The novel is a love story set against the backdrop of the NEFA’s changing social landscape while also exploring the encounter between the Sherdukpen and the Nyishi tribes, how they saw each other, the doubts and fears about one another and also outsiders. Today, many of these experiences seem unimaginable; child marriage is rare, intermarriage is common, and the landscape has undergone remarkable transformations. The current generation will struggle to conceive of many of the depicted situations in the novel.

The story revolves around a road project, one of the many developmental initiatives of the Indian government in the region, reflecting historical efforts to connect remote areas with the mainland. Verrier Elwin in Philosophy of NEFA (1957) notes the government’s active construction of roads throughout NEFA to bridge the interior regions with the rest of the country. In the novel, the Nyishi and Sherdukpen tribes are brought together to work on a road to link Tawang, the sub-divisional headquarters of West Kameng district, with Bomdila. Their initial encounter occurs along a stretch of road called Eagle Nest. Initially, the members of the two tribes are openly hostile and confused towards each other. They were also angry because the government had mandated tribal men and women to work onconstruction since migrant labourers were not available. The writer highlights the sacrifice and hard work of these tribal men and women during the early days of NEFA.

Through the interactions of characters such as TakarNatung, Yama Natung, Rinchin Dorjee, and TseringJangmu, the novel vividly portrays the perceptions, prejudices, and cultural barriers between the Nyishi and the Sherdukpen tribes. Yama, the female protagonist, is amazed by the existence of various races of people. Tadak views the Sherdukpens as the lowest and the Nyishis as the highest among the races. Conversely, the Sherdukpens also see the Nyishis as violent and primitive. However, as they gradually work together, they develop friendship, trust, and camaraderie. They open up to each other and share knowledge about their culture, practices and food habits. Thus, the novel showcases how the different tribes overcome conflicts and cultural differences when interacting with one another. The author’s historical perspective shines through such depictions of events, and characters that reflect the mindset, views, prejudices, beliefs, practices, hopes and aspirations that were characteristic of that period. Such elements give us an insight into that period and allow us to examine it and help us to understand the changes that have occurred in our state over time.

In the novel, the road is a constant motif. The road symbolises the economic aspirations as well as challenges faced by the characters in the story. Such struggles and their overcoming are significant achievements that have shaped the modern history of our state. The novel depicts the tribal people’s transition from trade and barter to a mercantile system and how it brought changes to their material lives. For example, for the first time, tribal workers were paid in cash, introducing them to a new conceptof ‘tongka’.

The personal stories, particularly the love story amidst these changes, beautifully capture the essence of the human experience. The two main characters, Rinchin and Yama, fall in love despite language barriers. They transcend linguistic and cultural differences to communicate through their hearts and eyes as the title of the novel suggests.

Realistic elements enhance the authenticity of these portrayals. For example, the novel does not have a happy ending for the two lovers. Yama’s family had already paid her bride price, and the idea of intermarriage between their tribes was unthinkable. Rinchin and Yama were forced to face the hard realities of societal expectations. Such realistic elements give an insight into that era when intermarriages were disapproved of, and practices such as child marriage and bride price were prevalent. However, the novel showcases a path for the tribes to progress through the friendship and camaraderie between the Sherdukpen and the Nyishi tribes. The characters Rinchin and Tadak embody a progressive mindset and a vision for their community, offering hope for a brighter future. Thus, the novel offers many such insights from the past. By examining these examples in a contemporary context, we can observe the changes and transformations that have taken place over the years, as well as the strides society has made.

Literature and society are closely interconnected; literature serves as a valuable tool for examining and revealing a particular period while showcasing key characteristics of that era. Across various genres and forms, literature not only offers aesthetic pleasure but also provides insights into people’s hopes, dreams, aspirations, and realities. For example, the novel envisages a shared pan-Arunachali identity through common ethnic affiliations and attributes while emphasising local perspectives in a global context. In conclusion, it is fair to say that literature mirrorsrecognisable realities and lived experiences, and serves as a platform for social critique. While the characters may be fictional, their attitudes backgrounds, hopes, fears, love, dreams, and friendships are all inspired by the materials of real-life experiences and emotions. (Tribalbookworm is a space dedicated to discussing literary texts by writers from Arunachal Pradesh or about the region. The writer is Assistant Professor, English Department, RGU, and a member of the APLS.)