Understanding the northeast in books
Editor’s note: We feature the brilliant recommendations of our partner, the Champaca Bookstore, in the Read section twice a month. FYI: Champaca is an independent women-run and founded bookstore and children's library in Bangalore.
As violence continues unabated in Manipur, following the news every day has become heartbreaking. At Champaca, when we feel helpless, we turn to what we do best — read. Reading provides us comfort, and at times like these, becomes our way of coming to grips with the world. The more we read, the more we know. This month we urge you to try the same — experience and understand India’s North-East better, through its stories.
Sky is My Father: by Easterine Kire. The first Naga novel written in English, ‘Sky is My Father’ brings to life Khonoma of the nineteenth century, a natural fortress nestled amidst the Naga mountains. Between 1832 and 1880, the Angami warriors of Khonoma were a beacon of Naga resistance against the British, carrying out raids and disrupting the forced recruitment of the Nagas as bonded labourers. This richly detailed historical novel begins with a meeting among the village men to discuss settling an old score with another village.
From this moment, we are introduced to different characters, customs of birth and death, an impending feast, and several details that paint the picture of a day in the village. Through the eyes of a young warrior named Levi, we follow nearly twenty years in the life of this village. Sky is My Father is a chronicle of how Naga people suffered from land and cultural dispossession during the time of colonialism and how the British colonial encroachment created the legendary Battle of Khonoma, fought between the British Government and the village of Khonoma.
Centrepiece: by Parismita Singh. Stereotypes about the northeastern region of India are aplenty. Though the eight states are ethnically diverse, politically complex and historically different from each other, they are often clubbed together as one homogeneous region in India. Centrepiece brings together twenty-one women from across the northeastern states of India to reflect on the personal nature and meanings of work through their own words and pictures.
Whether they are brewing beer, carrying cow dung on their heads, or selling food on the streets, these women confront, love, reject, and laugh at their men in myriad ways. Visually stunning, with full-colour images, Centrepiece illustrates how traditional tribal art and modern sensibilities can intersect to create a new visual language for these women to share untold stories.
Mizo Myths: by Cherri Lalnanziri Chhangte. Published by Blaft Publications, Mizo Myths is a book of fifteen mythological tales from the northeastern state of Mizoram. The anthology begins with the creation myth and a voyage to the Land of the Dead. Stories of supernatural love affairs are many — between a were-tigress and a human hunter, a man and a Phungpuinu (a goblin) and the King of the Lasi and a beautiful human woman-bride, Chawngtinleri.
We also meet an array of different characters like the Hmuichukchuriduninu, the bird-beaked child-eating witch of the forest; Rulpui, the demonic love child of a python and a farmer's daughter; and Sichangneii, a woman from the sky, whose wings are stolen from her by her husband in a Mizo parallel to the famous story of the selkie. This second edition from one of our favourite publishers, Mizo Myths is a delightfully unique tour of the state of Mizoram.
Wayel Kati: The Quest Of The Seven Guardians: by Linthoi Chanu. From the heart and hills of Manipur, comes this folklore-based fantasy of seven guardians chosen to retrieve the Wayel Kati— the scissor of justice. Led by Laiba, a nine-year-old boy, the guardians attempt their magical quest while dark creatures—from tales and ancient memories begin to invade the human realm. With their once peaceful world now under threat, the guardians struggle to find their true selves and achieve their one divine task. ‘Wayel Kati’ delves into the themes of nature worship and environment preservation and human inclination towards magic, myth and fantasy as a means to cope with reality.
Beads of Arunachal Pradesh: Emerging Cultural Context: by Sucheta S Chaudhuri. The tradition of beads has been embedded in the lives of the people of the North-East from time immemorial. Despite the onslaught of globalisation even in rural areas, the popularity of beads has not diminished. Beads are used as a bartering item and usually take the place of money to this day.
Accompanied by beautiful images, Beads of Arunachal Pradesh is a comprehensive tour of the economic, cultural and ritual significance of beads, their historical relation to migration and popular beliefs, classification mechanism, legends and ethnic specifications. Through oral history, it also explores gender questions and social dynamics, inter and intra-tribal relations, providing a macro picture of the history and culture of the North East.
When Blackbirds Fly: by Hanna Lalhlanpuii. The story revolves around a nameless teenage male protagonist during the twenty-year-long Mizo independence movement that sprang up in the aftermath of the Mautam famine in the late 1950s. The teen protagonist is uninterested in the wave of Mizo nationalism sweeping across the Lushai hills. The only thing that worries him when he goes to bed at night is his aching love for a girl. One day, his little cocoon crumbles right before his eyes when the Indian army drops bombs from black fighter jets that rumble across the sky like the red-winged blackbird that perches on his windowsill in the morning.
Set in the initial stages of the two-decade-long struggle for Mizoram's independence and against the backdrop of the 1966 bombing of Aizawl, this stunning debut novel is a universal story of how individual dreams and lives are shattered when larger conflicts arise. When Blackbirds Fly, a novel for young adults and a Parag Honour List 2023 pick, belongs to the literary genre of what is now called “terror lore.” These stories, songs, or lore, emerged from the ashes of the reign of terror the Mizo people were subjected to when India struggled to keep its ideas of nationhood secure. Walking in the Wild by Sejal Mehta. Published by Pratham Books and written by Sejal Mehta, this beautifully illustrated picture book for children begins with a tour with Zakhuma, a brave forest guard who lives in Mizoram. As Zakhuma takes us through his forests, we learn about the different animals and what it means to protect the jungle.
Identities and their Struggles in North East: Tribal and Adivasi Studies Perspectives from within: by Alex Akhup. Published by Adivaani, this academic read, Identities and their Struggles in the North East attempts to conceive an egalitarian space of dialogue towards knowledge production, derived from the lived experiences of diverse tribal communities inhabiting the northeast region of India. Taking their struggles and experiences as both a source of knowledge and as a unit of analysis, each of the chapters in the book attempts to articulate specific organic conditions. Adivaani, founded in 2012, is a publishing house based in Kolkata, and a platform for indigenous expression and assertion. It is an archiving, chronicling, publishing and disseminating outfit of, and by the 104 million indigenous peoples of India, the adivasis.
These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone: By Temsula Ao. Temsula Ao prefaces this collection of short stories by making her intent clear—‘These Hills Called Home’ is a work of memory. As opposed to mainstream ‘national’ history, where Nagaland is victoriously referred to as having become an Indian state on 1 December 1963, this collection of stories pertains to the Naga peoples’ shared collective memory of what was lost during the struggle for independence.
In the story ‘An Old Man Remembers’, Sashi’s grandson asks him about his past. Although he hesitates initially, eventually he resolved that one day soon he would tell his grandson how his generation had lost their youth to the dream of nationhood. The history of the Nagas has turned into folklore, passed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition of storytelling. Similarly, in ‘The Last Song’, an elderly woman speaks of a legend of Apenyo, who was raped by army personnel as she sang her last song, and how the sound of her singing stills continues to haunt the village.
These Hills Called Home speaks to the memory of loss — stories that were left untold or perhaps unheard. Ao’s stories depict how the armed response of the state to the self-determination movement led by the peoples of Nagaland gave way to centuries of masculinist war-mongering, relegating the status of the common folk to casualties. Temsula Ao’s characters are all inadvertently caught in a gruesome male-driven minefield they call home — either as an informant in need of money or as a wife of a man fighting the state forces. While some make it out alive due to the sheer presence of the mind, many of the women do not.
Life at Champaca
How has the monsoon been treating you? Despite the rain playing havoc, we were thrilled to welcome fresh blooming Champaca flowers at our store and harvest avocados from the tree next door. If you’re in Bangalore, we invite you to come to our lush, leafy store, attend the events and browse through our shelves with some cold ginger ale or a hot cup of coffee, as per the whims and fancies of the ever-changing Bangalore weather!