A Literary Journey

I taught in Rajiv Gandhi University (formerly Arunachal University) from 1999 to 2009. Located on top of a picturesque hill in Doimukh, Arunachal Pradesh known as Rono Hills, the University provided me with a wonderful opportunity to interact with some outstanding faculties from various parts of the country. Many of these faculties later left the University and joined various prestigious institutes of the country. The vibrant academic atmosphere and the welcoming nature of affable students (many of whom were first generation learners) meant that very soon I felt perfectly at home in Arunachal. Gradually, thanks to the nature of the academic works I and my wife took up in Arunachal, we gained familiarity with the intellectual life of Itanagar. In those days my wife was writing her PhD thesis on Lummer Dai and Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi while I was translating an Assamese novel by Thongchi into English. Today when I look back at my years in Arunachal, some of the fondest remembrances are the ones of my interaction with these wonderful writers that Arunachal has produced. However, these associations have only grown stronger with time.


The thing that always appealed to me about the people of Arunachal was the fact that everyone seemed so very friendly and approachable – no hang-up and no quirk. Politicians and bureaucrats alike, the most of veteran of them, all seemed so accessible; their faces ever-radiant with smiles that touched you deep. This struck me as something unusual for in Assam I was pretty used to the sight of stiff upper lipped politicians and bureaucrats being constantly barricaded by security men.


Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi was serving as a Commissioner to the Government of Arunachal Pradesh when I met him for the first time. My first encounter with him left an indelible impression in the mind. I called him up to fix an appointment on a Sunday. His beautiful house, modelled on the Tibetan architectural style, located on top of a hill in Itanagar was at a distance of around thirty kilometers from the University campus. As I approached the gate of his house on my car with my wife and two year old son, I saw Mr. Thongchi rushing out of the house to open the gate and usher us in. I did not know how to react; there had not been many occasions in my life when I had an IAS officer standing at the gate of his house to welcome me. The word ‘humility’ does not do justice while talking about such acts. Yes, it was humility in one sense; but it was not the pretentious humility that one comes across so very frequently these days. It was just about keeping things simple; you are visiting my house for the first time so it should be perfectly okay for me to be waiting for you near the gate. However, quite often I am amazed at the way in which our vision is clogged by muddled thinking.


This reminded me of the rather funny experience of a colleague of mine after he joined Arunachal University. Close to the University there are beautiful forest hills. This colleague of mine was happily trudging along in the hills one day. Suddenly, he felt a creeping sensation in his legs. He sat down on a rock to take a look. He discovered that while walking around in the hills he had attracted the attention of a monstrous leech. Just then he saw a man dressed in the traditional attire of one of the Arunachalee tribes come rushing towards him with a huge knife in one hand. For a moment my colleague was sadly reminded of the impending ever-lasting separation from his wife and kids. My colleague had heard many stories about the way in which underdressed da-wielding natives could kill people at the slightest provocation. Maybe, for some reason he had provoked the man who was now rushing towards him. Meanwhile, the man skillfully used the knife to remove the leech. So much for clogged vision.


We talked to Mr. Thongchi for a long while and met his wife and eldest son. Our discussions mainly revolved around literature, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Mr. Thongchi’s reading room in the first floor presented a scenic view of the hills. There was a huge collection of books that I discovered in his shelves. Sadly, not many people in Arunachal are aware of the literary talent of this precious writer. I realized on our first meeting and on subsequent occasions that Mr. Thongchi always pined for intellectual company.


Once when Mr. Thongchi was addressing a public meeting on the occasion of a book fair, I saw him cry in sheer joy. He frankly expressed his delight at the realization of his long cherished dream of Itanagar hosting a relatively big book fair. In Thongchi I discovered a man who was passionate about books. Those familiar with the writings of Mr. Thongchi would realize that he has a tremendous sense of humor. In real life his deadpan humor can send people into peals of laughter. But beneath this easygoing self is a man who is extremely serious, thoughtful and deeply in love with his works, about each of which he is immensely possessive.


Thinking about the seriousness of writers regarding their works, Mrs. Nanni Dai, wife of Late Lummer Dai, once narrated to me an incident relating to her husband. Mr. Dai was then in the final stage of writing his novel Kanyar Mulya (Bride Price). His wife discovered him restlessly pacing around in the room, lost in his thoughts. When she enquired about the reason for his restlessness, he replied in exasperation, “Gumba is going to die! Gumba is going to die!” Gumba was his protagonist in Kanyar Mulya. Lost in his fictional world, Lummer Dai was thinking about a way to rescue his protagonist, fighting for life in her battle against the repressive norms of patriarchy. Playing along with her husband, Mrs. Nanni Dai suggested to her husband that Gumba could be given orange juice to help her regain strength. Pat came the writer’s reply, “This is summer time. Where do you get oranges in summer?” In reality it was winter then but the writer, so lost in the literary world that he had created, was living the season of his fictional world. Such is the involvement and passion of writers.


Lummer Dai was much more than a writer, a newspaper editor and an administrator. He was one of the leading activists of the state, playing a crucial role in the institutionalization of Donyi Poloism. Inside the compound of his house at Naharlagun stands a Donyi Polo temple. His wife has lovingly assumed responsibilities of the legacy left behind by him, including the charge of editor of the Echo of Arunachal. Lummer Dai’s constant companion Mrs. Dai today fondly recollects her encounters with such stalwarts of Assamese literature as Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya.


Mamang Dai, a distant relative of Lummer Dai, lives in Itanagar. Her father, the first Chief Secretary of the state, has an old-worldly charm that is endearing. Mamang Dai’s writings, steeped in Arunachal, reveal the haunting sonority of the Siang. Her writing is a celebration of the inherent sacredness of all forms of life. As an individual she is no different. Her pleasant demeanor augments her unaffected warmth. When I visited her house for the first time I discovered another aspect of her versatility – she happens to a remarkably gifted painter. She paints with the brush with as much dexterity as she does with words.


On my second visit to Mamang Dai’s house I accompanied the Jnanpith awardee Kannada writer and academician U.R. Ananthamurthy. We were invited for dinner; Mamang cooked the food herself. It was a treat to watch and listen to the two writers discuss literature. I distinctly remember that at one point the veteran Kannada writer said that the best possible combination for an Indian writer is an intimate understanding of Indian rural life to go with Western education.


When I teach my students about the contemporary ecological philosophy of Deep Ecologists, who talk about the folly of looking at the environment from the exclusive point of view of humans, I think about Mamang Dai’s poems and about the traditional society of Arunachal Pradesh. Indeed, long before the advent of deep ecology which we have now imported from the West, there were societies in our country whose members did realize the folly of looking at non-human life from the point of view of humans alone. They, as Mamang Dai tries to tell us through her poems, considered all forms of life to be sacred.


Debarshi Nath

Debarshi Nath

(An academic vagabond, Debarshi Nath taught English at Rajiv Gandhi University for close to ten years before moving to Tezpur University where he presently teaches Cultural Studies. Trying to live up to the image of the archetypal jack of all trades, Nath has tried his hand and mind at translation, psychoanalytic literary theory, gender studies and comparative literature. He is presently toying with the idea of shooting a documentary).