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Book Review: Malsawmi Jacob’s ‘Zorami: A Redemption Song’

By Bhumika R

Title: Zorami: A Redemption Song
Author: Malsawmi Jacob
Publisher: Primalogue Publishing Media Private Limited, 2015

Mizoram was mapped as part of India’s terrain in the postcolonial period and grouped as part of the Assam province. In the 1960s, when Mizoram witnessed a severe famine, a sense of neglect was felt by the Mizos due to a lack of sufficient help by the Indian government. The state’s apathy suggested a lack of concern and also implied that although Mizoram was part of the postcolonial Indian terrain, all that seemed to matter for the state was the physical space – not the people or their lives.

The neglect that Mizos felt during the period added to their discontentment over the imposition of Assamese language (Mizoram was then part of the Assam province and not an independent state) and gradually led to a demand for secession from India and an assertion of their identity as Mizos. The Mizo National Famine Front, founded to help Mizos during the famine, became Mizo National Front and took up the cause of its sovereignty.

As Joy K. Pachuau explains, “On 1 March 1966, the Mizo National Front (MNF), headed by Laldenga, declared the independence of Mizoram. (…) The MNF ‘Declaration of Independence” was the beginning of a two-decade-long struggle against the Indian government in which the emphasis was the ‘nationhood’ of the Mizos and their distinctiveness from India and Indians. Mizo grievances against the Indian State were propelled by the lack of adequate measures and aid to counter the ‘bamboo famine’ that struck the state from 1960. This lack of response was seen as the final straw to the Mizos’ marginality within the Indian state, arising, it was felt, from their difference, giving them no cause to consider remaining with India.

However, in the present day, Mizos have a negotiated acceptance of their identity in relation to India, says Pachuau.

Zorami, a Mizo novel in English by Malsawmi Jacob, narrates the traumatic period of the 1960s in Mizoram, which witnessed famine, apathy of the Indian government, assertion of nationalist consciousness by the Mizos, the use of military power by the Indian state in retaliation to Mizos’ assertion of their sovereignty, shifts in the nature of the Mizo Nationalist movement and the lives of those who witnessed these events. The novel re-tells stories of everyday lives of common people and their negotiations with history.

The temporal frame of the novel is between the 1940s to contemporary times or the present day. The title of the novel, also the name of the protagonist (Zorami), can be read as a metonym for the story/history of the Mizos. The process of healing for both Zorami and the Mizos in the novel is through songs. Songs, as scholars working on Mizo culture and history have analysed, played an important part in the Rambuai period, the period of trauma when the Mizos were under the surveillance of the Indian army. When every movement was being observed and could incur death or punishment at the hands of the Indian army, songs became a process through which people communicated and helped themselves heal from the scars inflicted by the brutalities of the Indian armed forces and their strategies of deploying spies from among the Mizos.

Interweaving the narrative with songs in this novel is an attempt in suggesting its significance in Mizo history. In the 1960s, Mizoram witnessed military operations that included air dropping of bombs on its citizens by the Indian government. This apart, Mizos were also subjected to regrouping, forced labour, and curfews, as scholars have pointed out.

There was also surveillance on the articulations of Mizos during the period and it was through songs that Mizos chose to express themselves, thereby articulating and subverting the authority of the State. As Renee Lulam, a scholar working on Mizo oral narratives, says, songs were a healing process for the traumatised psyche of the Mizos.

As Cherrie L Changte argues, ‘Songs, thus, played an important part in reflecting the state of mind of the people, notably the psychological and emotional impact of terror upon them. In the event, many of the songs that emerged at this time became transmitters of collectively shared feelings and sentiments, with the singers themselves taking on the role of ‘vectors’.’

Assertion of their national identity among the Mizos is a consequence, says Lalthakima, of the apathy displayed during the famine in the 1960s by the independent Indian government. The accumulated discontentment over apathy of the Assam government during the famine period and the attempt at imposing the Assamese language as the state language by the Assamese government worked as a catalyst for Mizoram in seeking secession from the Assam province and becoming an independent state, he points out.

As mentioned, the anger of the Mizos over the apathy of the Indian government during famine and a consequent shortage of food, imposition of Assamese language by the Assamese government since Mizoram was, at that time, part of the Assam province, were chief causes that helped give momentum to the Mizo Nationalist movement, led by the Mizo Nationalist Front (initially formed as Mizo National Famine Front). Zorami engages with an important event in Mizo history.

At different points in the novel, emotions and thoughts are articulated through songs. Two instances are mentioned below.

Zorami’s friend Kimi, whose father, a Mizo nationalist, is killed by the Indian army. As Kimi’s father’s body is brought and grief envelopes his family and friends, a group of people break into a song. “O, take a look beyond the hazy hills,/ Where they dwell on Zion mountain; / They live in peace, in harmony,/ They yearn not for this earthly land of men./  Never can we forget, we weep,/ For your homeland, O, Lord,/ They walk, they roam, in sweet accord,/ They sing to the gentle king./ And/ Away, troubles, I would view my homeland,/ My soul cannot feel at home on this earth;/ I would rest where turbulent rivers cease.”

The word homeland in the song does have a biblical reference to it. But it also subtly indicates Mizoram and the song is an attempt in healing with a touch of hope for the people witnessing pain, terror, and death.

An instance in the concluding part of the novel where Zorami’s thoughts about her husband Sanga and their relationship turn hopeful and positive, a song articulates what goes on in her mind. “The flowers appear on the earth;/ The time of singing has come, /And the voice of the turtledove/ Is heard in our land.” Zorami feels frozen from within after being sexually assaulted as a young girl by an Indian army officer. It haunts her memories, a good part of her life, and as she heals from the memory of the incident, she hears a song being sung by a group of youngsters on New Year. “Days and years keep rolling on,/ Times of joys and sorrows too/ Roll away, become the past,/ Will never return to you.”

It can be said that in this novel, songs articulate the unsaid and unspoken thoughts and emotions of literary characters in the text.

The novel does not resort to portraying a black and white picture of the characters. The shades of the character are painted as shades of humanity. For instance, Ralkapa, a former Mizo nationalist worker who has been working as an informer for the Indian army after being captured to save his life, is put forth as a story of torture and pain. The pain he begins to inflict on fellow Mizos is because he has been forced to be a part of their system by the Indian army. There is a cold cruelty in his act of reporting anyone at random. He is as much a victim as much as he victimises his fellow people. The narrative does not judge this character. His voice is part of the narrative suggesting a layered nature of history.

Zorampari, the protagonist, becomes a metonym for Mizoram and the different phases it undergoes and events it witnesses. The turmoil she faces as an individual and the healing process of Zorampari or Zorami, as she is known to the characters in the novel, reads also as the healing process of the wounded psyche of the Mizos, who witnessed this important phase in their history. In this regard, the concluding part of the novel which ends with a song articulating hope becomes important.

Bhumika R is a PhD scholar in North East India Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is working on literary genres and articulations of identities in contemporary Naga literature in English for her doctoral thesis. Her research interests include oral history, print culture in Northeast India, literatures from Northeast India, and literatures of the indigenous people in Karnataka.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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