Book review by Neha Kirpal. Photography by Ritu Goyal Harish
The Inheritance of Words: Writings from Arunachal Pradesh (Zubaan, 2021) is a first-of-its-kind book that brings together diverse writings of women from this northeastern Indian state. The essays, short fiction, poetry and art in the book cover several subjects such as identity, home and belonging, and have been contributed by various poets, writers, artists and illustrators belonging to Arunachal.
Poet and novelist, Mamang Dai, who has edited the book, is one of Arunachal’s best-known writers.
Arunachal Pradesh has 26 tribes and more than 100 sub-tribes with as many languages spoken. The Arunachal tribes may have lacked a script but they more than made up for it through their oral traditions – sayings, anecdotes and stories – that have been passed on from generation to generation.
While earlier, Assamese was the medium of instruction in schools, English and Hindi were introduced in 1972. Today, it is the only state in the northeastern region of India where Hindi has acquired the role of a lingua franca.
Much of the book’s content is dedicated to the gradual decline of various northeastern languages. In her essay, ‘Linguistic Transitions’, student researcher Yaniam Chukhu writes about a collective amnesia – “of the language, knowledge and worldview” of her ancestors, a thread to our sacred past.
In her essay, ‘Indigenous Tribal Languages of North East India’, former editor of the Indian Cultural Forum Toko Anu analyzes some of the factors that are leading to this while providing solutions and strategies for their revitalization.
The book aptly gives the state’s women a voice, by airing their many thoughts, feelings and emotions. In ‘The Interpreter of Dreams’, journalist Tongam Rina pays tribute to her grandmother, sharing her most intimate memories of her—her first feminist, teacher of life skills and lifelong comforter.
Pasighat-based neuro physiotherapist Samy Moyong writes in her poem ‘I AM’:
“I was a daughter, a sister, a friend, a partner, a wife, a
mother, a woman, a girl.
I AM – from where you were born.”
Tolum Chumchum’s poem ‘The Darkest 5 Days’ is about the excruciating period – or ‘that time of the month’ in every woman’s life:
“My stomach bloats
My head throbs
My limbs ache
The cry of my body
Like a cooking show going, on my belly;”
In contrast, is a poem called ‘Little Life’ by author Doirangsi Kri, about the magic of childbirth:
“You stepped into the world with a cry
I turned towards you with a passionate sigh
All the cramps and gripe I bury
Your arrival bears off every worry”.
In her poem ‘I Am a Tree’, assistant professor of Hindi in Government College, Geku, Ayinam Ering compares herself to a tree – strong, steady and resilient – unbeaten by the wind, rain, sun and changing seasons.
Her other poem ‘Offspring’ is about girl children being born to a family over and over again. The celebrations progressively reduce with each of the six girls who are born, and are replaced by an atmosphere of worry, regret and fear.
The state’s customs also prohibit women from tasting freedom and love, as is evident in a poem called ‘My Ane’s Tribal Love Affair’ by first-generation feminist, writer, researcher, educator and activist Ngurang Reena who belongs to a Nyishi Tribe community.
Ponung Ering Angu’s story ‘Among the Voices in the Dark’ touches on the customary practice of ‘bride price’ whereby young women are trapped in marriages transacted by families as well as tribal traditions that favour men over the rights of women.
Independent filmmaker Kerry Padu’s photo essay ‘I Am Property’, based on her 2019 film, questions age-old norms laid down by her tribal ancestors:
“I fear them because the forces are stronger than me.
I fear a tribe who will be angry with me if I defy them.
I fear alienation,
I fear being an outcast,
I fear losing my faith if I dare question.”
Independent researcher and aspiring writer Ronnie Nido in her story ‘The Tina Ceiling’ talks about feminism, a movement which believes that men and women are treated equally in every way. In the early 1990s, mass campaigns were held in the state for women’s empowerment and against child marriage, she informs.
In the essay, a young Yarup wants to become a Head Gaon Buri of her village. After gaining the position, she hopes to make several changes in the existing system, such as giving women the choice to break marriages that were fixed in their infancy, reducing the fine incurred on breaking child marriages and letting women speak in trials along with their husbands and fathers.
The book also includes an exclusive interview with Tine Mena, the first woman of the state and of North East India to have climbed Mount Everest on May 9, 2011, who talks at length among other things about growing up in the mountains, her incredible journey as well as the challenges she had to face in getting sponsors to finance her expedition.
Another recurring theme in the book is that of a changing contemporary society. In ‘The Spectre Dentist’, Millo Ankha moves to her home in Naharlagun after living away for many years. She soaks in her surroundings through walks and observations of the streets, people and nature around her. She also describes the time when the state’s chief minister and his government fell in a sudden political development, and President’s Rule was imposed on the state.
Itanagar-based doodle artist Rinchin Choden in her graphic essay ‘An Illusion of Continuance’ explores the fact that tradition is gradually dying at the hands of urbanisation and globalisation.
Poet and writer Subi Taba’s ‘The Spirit of the Forest’, set in an isolated town near the Pakke Tiger Reserve in western Arunachal, is a powerful story in which nature teaches a corrupt politician a lesson when he tries to burn down a protected forest.
Further,in ‘Those Idle Days’, Jamuna Bini reminisces about the simpler times of her childhood days, contrasting them with the present day, where people don’t live together in bamboo houses anymore, and have deserted their villages to seek greater opportunities in cities. Kri’s second poem in the collection, ‘Pseudo Life’, also focuses on our changing world.
In all, the book provides a rare peek into this beautiful remote northeastern state through the lens of its own inhabitants, highlighting its unique geography, history and culture – perspectives that many Indians themselves may not be familiar with. The prose in each of these essays and poems paints a rich and vibrant picture of a diverse land – complete with its customs, beliefs, myths, legends and superstitions.