Memories of Songs: Words Lost and Found
“You will be able to leave before Christmas if you take good care,” said the middle-aged nurse who competently wore a sleep-deprived countenance with her immaculate uniform.
It was a bitter morning in December, 2014. There was a tender crisp and an odd scent of hospital smell permeating the air. It had been a few weeks since I got hospitalised due to an illness I have been battling with for a lifetime. As a result of my incompetence at striking conversations with strangers, my stay at the hospital had always been silent musings and listening to songs on my phone. There was an old lady next to my bed who rarely got visits from her family except for occasional appearances of a man who I assumed was her husband. Similarly, rather than talking to others she would hum lengkhawmhla (traditional songs of Mizo Christian community) almost inaudibly as she stared outside the window near her bed enjoying her own company. Being aware of my conversation with the nurse, she said, “You are very lucky, young lady, you will be able to spend Christmas at home. It has been a long time since I enjoyed Christmas in good health. I anticipated attending zaikhawm (Mizo Christian communal worships) this year but my health is deteriorating day by day. I would probably be spending Christmas here.” She looked outside the window and said with a smile on her face, “How long has it been since you have given yourself time to enjoy this kind of delight?” Following her eyes, I looked outside to a clear blue sky etched on the horizon, complemented with miniature hills of Lunglei which had the bearing of being baptised and purged in a sea of clouds. An instant gush of childhood memories – early morning walks and cute sketches of landscapes – poured over me with a wave of fleeting nostalgia. She gestured me to sit on a bench near her bed and said in a mellow voice, “Every morning I stare outside this window fishing for long lost memories in those seas of clouds.”
Humming a familiar Christmas song often sung at communal worships, she sat silently on her bed. When I commented on her fondness for lengkhawmhla she replied with a laugh under her breath, “I have a strange attachment with lengkhawmzai,” and continued, “It was around 1919 when ‘Mizo LengkhawmZai’ (a singing tradition of the Mizo Christian community) gained widespread popularity. When the Christian missionaries stepped foot on our land in 1894 and preached Christianity, it brought along an inevitable repudiation of several aspects of our culture which were considered to be against Christian beliefs and we were made to adopt several customs which were utterly alien to us.” She cleared her throat as if to prepare herself for a long story and continued, “The missionaries studied our culture, practices and traditions which resulted to an acknowledgment of our fondness for singing and dancing deeply rooted in our culture. These became their indispensable agencies and the conversion of Mizos to Christianity was extensively stimulated by songs which were translated into Mizo in simple language rather than diction. Even the early Mizo Christians followed this mode of composition thereby establishing a belief that any other mode, be it our previous tradition, was negative and worldly. We, Mizos, were a community fond of singing and dancing to traditional songs accompanied by khuang (traditional musical instrument: drum). However, the missionaries restricted the use of khuang and the singing of the soft-tuned indigenous songs as they were intrinsically associated with our pre-Christian era. Although the work of the missionaries in the first and second revival was inarguably phenomenal, they failed to acknowledge the true sentiment of Mizos, hence introduced a Western-style of singing with tonic solfa which was alien to us. As a result, it was impossible to fully achieve spiritual and inner inspiration, dancing and singing were out of the question. Have you come across the phrase ‘Khuanglova chai ang’ (festival without drums)? This speaks for the fundamental connection our community has with khuang. Unfortunately enough, khuang were rejected and discarded by the missionaries as these were treated as a means of evil practices, a result of their association with places where people gather to drink liquor. Communal gatherings and worships were dry, lacklustre and alien to us for whom khuang had always been a vital force.” She looked at her wristwatch, closed her eyes and said, “I often wonder how unfortunate it was that we had to discard vibrant and vital aspects of our culture to adapt to a new one despite it being positive.”
She saw a nurse approaching to do a routine check on her and told me to wait for a while. In the meantime, I shifted my mind to the outside and noticed that the clouds were slowly fading into nothingness while that old lady’s memory was unravelling like knots which had been kept dormant in a safe locker somewhere in her mind. Something in me wanted to sit there and trudge along as she walked down her memory lane, like a childhood’s longing for my grandmother’s bedtime stories, so I sat and waited. As soon as the nurse left, we went up on the roof to sit in the sun since it was rather cold inside. When we reached there she took out an inhaler from her bag, inhaled and sat near a wall where they kept one bench and said, “It’s been such a long time since I came up here. I always need someone to help me walk up the stairs; therefore, I cannot go anymore.” She wore a complacent look; hence I did not want to disturb her. After a few minutes of our serene and nostalgic silence, she continued, “It was with the third revival around 1919 and 1920 that khuang was brought back into the church. My native village Nisapui was the first to do so. The repossession of khuang brought with it an amalgamation of our culture and Christianity – songs of praises were composed to suit our unique cultural taste, words like pialral or fam khua for paradise, lunglohtui, hawilo par, etc. known in our pre-Christian era were also used to give the songs a Mizo twist. I believe you have noticed how we form a circle and go anticlockwise when we dance at community worship. This is also an influence of our cultural dances like khuallam, chawnglaizawn, sarlamkai and solakia.”
Fetching an orange from her bag and offering it to me, she continued, “It was a cold winter in 1922. Celebrating Christmas, people used to gather at one house or the other for communal worships. Around that time a lady named Thangi also converted to Christianity after attending zaikhawm at her neighbour’s house and thereafter gained fame for her elegance at singing and dancing. Patea’s Christmas song “Mal min sawmturin” (To give us blessings) echoed through the streets and communal worships were alive and vibrant everywhere.” With the mention of this famous song, I was instantly reminded of my grandfather as it was his favourite song. She continued, “Legend has it that Phungpui (a mythical creature) used to attend LengkhawmZai, transforming itself into a seductive man or woman and used to dance so bewitchingly that it attracted everyone and caused a different atmosphere to the worships. It was from this that ‘virgin birth’, ‘bastard’ and ‘child of a spirit’ became known among us. In the early 1930s, the revival took an unfavourable turn, where ‘agape’ or ‘divine love’ was replaced by hints of ‘Eros’ and the divine was swallowed in a whirlpool of worldly desires. It was around that time Thangigot was impregnated by a man whose identity she refused to disclose. While even her conversion was against her family’s wishes, her pregnancy had her disowned and banished from the house. Everyone in the community treated her as an outcast saying that she was carrying a child of an evil spirit. Banned from communal worships, she would sit outside the house of worship and would sing and dance on her own. She gave birth to a girl child and named her Zairimawii (a melodious singer) and raised her on her own. She would sing lengkhawmhla to her child to put her to sleep, would dance around the house carrying her child on her back and inevitably enough, the child too developed a fondness for it. It was indeed every beholder’s belief that they had seen an angel to keep these two lonely outcasts company, and some believed it to be Thangi’s ritualistic performance offered to the evil spirit. The mother’s shame and humiliation withheld her from attending communal worships again all through her life. Hence she and her daughter would sing and dance at their house and this was the only consolation they could achieve in the midst of estrangement and alienation. They were each other’s shame, they were each other’s cross but each other was all they had and could ever ask for.”
She looked at her wristwatch and suggested going down as her husband had promised to visit that day. As we walked back to our ward I asked her if the lady named Thangi was her. She replied with a laugh, “No, my dear, my mother and I am the daughter, Zairimawii. So the most I could recollect of my mother’s bedtime stories have become our hospital morning story.” We both laughed and entered our ward where her husband was sitting on her bed staring outside the window probably searching for long lost memories too in those fading seas of clouds.
Picture Credit: R.Hruaia
Lalremtluangi, born and raised in the small hilly town, Lunglei, Mizoram, completed her Master’s Degree in English at North Eastern Hills University and has joined the PhD programme at the same university in February, 2020. With a few published work in different journals and magazines, she is undergoing a gradual process of mellowing her lifelong passion for literature.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.