Book Excerpt: From Malsawmi Jacob’s novel, ZORAMI: A redemption song
Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.
By Malsawmi Jacob
The novel, ZORAMI: A redemption song, narrates the story of the people of Mizoram in the backdrop of the insurgency movement that started in the mid-1960s. It portrays the sociological and psychological impact of the violent conflict on the Mizo people.
The Prologue shows the situation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when peace talks between the Government of India and the Mizo National Front (MNF) were going on. Chapter 29 deals with the personal and psychological collateral damage of the fight, through the experiences of the main protagonists.
A blue-grey haze covered Aizawl town and the hills around. The morning sun shone through dully, like an orange ball enfolded in gauzy cloth. The smell of smoke hung in the air.
Charred-black hillsides lay naked under the April sun, waiting for rain. As was the normal annual practice, the forests had been slashed and burned for cultivation.
Sunday morning church-bells pealed. In different tones and rhythms. Some chimed a musical ‘Tong-tee Tong-tee’, some clanged a hurried call like school bells, while others boomed a dignified bass. They rang out from all directions.
People of all ages hurried towards their churches, going up or down steps on the hillside, depending on the location of their houses. Men in suits and ties, women in tops and colourful puan. Older women with hair tied in a bun or cut short and curled. Younger women in high-heeled shoes, long hair let loose. Little girls in pretty dresses, little boys in shirts and pants.
A few well-to-do were dropped at the church gates by cars; most walked the distance from their homes. None had to walk very far as each locality had its own church. “Chibai!” men and women greeted one another as they met. They walked along in twos and threes, chatting.
“The rains are late this year.”
“Our reservoir is empty. With the government supply not at all regular, water is a big worry.”
“Cultivation can’t be done without rain.”
“They’ve all finished lo hal. It’s high time for the spring showers. At this rate we could face another famine…”
Others discussed the political situation.
“The peace process is not moving forward. After the new government came to power at the Centre, it has slowed down and then stopped altogether.”
“True. We are all longing and waiting for peace and yet…”
“If only the leaders would bring some solution! We are all tired of the unrest and the army operations.”
A young couple was heading towards Mission Veng church among the others. The man, in a medium-grey suit and matching tie, walked a step or two ahead of his wife with long, easy strides. He exchanged pleasantries with some people in a cheerful voice. The woman, moving along silently behind him, was struggling to keep step with her husband. Her high-heeled shoes made the walk down the slope rather difficult. Her petite figure was clad in a brown puan with geometrical designs, and a lime-yellow top. She had straight, fine black hair, blunt-cut at chin level and parted in the middle.
An elderly woman turned, offered a hand to the young wife and said, “O, Sanga, here, let me shake hands with the new bride. How should we call you? ‘Zorami’, or ‘Pari’?”
“Most people call me Zorami,” the young woman said, smiling, as they shook hands.
“So we’ll also call you Zorami. We could not come to the wedding because my husband was down with fever.”
“That’s too bad. How is he now?” Sanga asked.
“His fever is gone, but he’s at home. He doesn’t yet feel well enough to come to church.”
“I hope he gets well soon.”
“He should be fine in another day or two. So, you’ve got yourself a pretty wife after a long wait!”
“It takes patience to get the best things in life!” he said with a smile.
“You’re right,” the woman smiled back.
Inside the church, the singing started with drumbeats. Those who were standing outside, conversing, moved in. They passed the open porch and entered through either of the two doors. Inside, the wooden pews were arranged in three sections – two of them close to two walls, lined with windows, and one in the middle, all facing away from the entrance. Two aisles divided the sections. At the far end, opposite to the entrance, was a raised platform, on which the pulpit stood. On a chair right in the middle of the raised platform, in front of the pulpit, sat the chairman, facing the pews. There was a small lectern to his left. On the right and the left sides of the pulpit, on separate small tables, stood big brass bowls of skilfully arranged Easter lilies.
The worshippers poured in, rapidly filling the pews. The singing went on until the wall-clock struck ten. At the same moment, the second bell rang out. The chairman stood up and announced, “We now call on our tantu Pi Rimawii to open the meeting with Bible reading and prayer.”
A middle-aged woman came forward. She stood behind the lectern to the left of the chairman, placed her Bible on it and began reading in a clear voice: “The Gospel according to Luke, chapter thirteen, verses ten to thirteen.
“One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.”
Zorami kept very still as she listened. She was sitting in a pew at the back-most row. She and Sanga had been married in this same church four days ago. “I, Zorampari, take you, Lalliansanga…” she had vowed. They had both sworn to have and to hold each other until death should part them.
This was the first Sunday they had come to church together as a wedded couple. They sat apart on different benches. He went to sit with his friends some rows ahead, while she slipped into one end of the last row. Next to her sat a young couple with a baby. The woman held the sleeping infant, wrapped in a floral blanket, on her lap. The fragrance of baby-oil and baby-powder drifted towards Zorami. The father seemed unable to keep his eyes off his sleeping child.
“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are healed of your sickness.’“
The reading continued.
Chapter 29: A burned-out stub
“Dinpui, Dinpui, min lo nghak rawh! Min kalsan suh! Wait for me. Don’t leave me!” Sanga mumbles.
A startled Zorami puts down the book she has been reading and gazes at her sleeping husband.
She sits up and shakes him awake. “U Sang, what is it? Who are you calling?”
He sits up and rubs his eyes. She puts a hand on his shoulder and asks, “What is troubling you?”
“A sad dream.”
“Who is Dinpuii?”
After a long silence he tells her.
Dinpuii is the girl he loved. He can’t forget her, though he has tried.
Zorami feels like she’s hurling down into a black abyss.
And then she feels nothing. No anger, no grief, no emotion at all. Only a heavy deadness. “No wonder there’s no spark of romance in our life together. He’s only a burned out stub, poor guy!” she thinks.
At last, in a flat, lifeless voice she manages to ask, “Where is she now?”
Dinpuii and Sanga were in the same class in college. They both took up Honours in Political Science in first year BA. Dinpuii was the best student in the class and the favourite of all the teachers. She was passionate about the subject, passionate about studies. She was brilliant and talented, the college champion in debate. And she was beautiful.
Unlike most pretty girls, she was quite unconscious of her good looks. Tall, slender and straight, with big expressive eyes, hair tied in a simple pony tail, she wore a blue and white checked shirt with a plain dark-blue puan when Sanga saw her for the first time. From his seat in a corner, he noticed her entering the classroom through the door at the front. Her large, lively eyes quickly glanced round the room and settled on his face for a moment. She sat down on the second row with two other girls. After the class started, he heard her pleasant contralto voice answering the teacher’s questions. By the end of the period, he was utterly and desperately in love.
They became good friends in a few days. Sanga was surprised at her rather un-girlish interests. Her favourite topics for discussions were matters relating to the socio-economic and political condition of Mizoram. She liked hockey and sometimes joined the boys at the games, though girls normally did not touch the hockey-stick those days. She played the guitar fairly well; better than he did at any rate. And she immensely enjoyed debating.
During off periods, they would go for walks around the college campus. And talk. Her animated face would glow as she talked of her dreams for Mizoram. Schools in every village. Colleges in all the regions. Hospitals within easy reach of all. Factories to produce all essentials like cloth, paper and other things. Her dreams seemed endless. She would conclude with, “All these will be possible when we become independent.”
Sanga disagreed with her on the point of independence. “Independence is like a fruit in heaven. It’s not possible to get it in our present situation. We became part of India when the country became free from the British, and now India will never agree to let us separate,” he would say. They often argued on the subject.
One day after classes, Dinpuii walked back to the rented house she shared with a friend. When she reached the front door and was about to open it, a man’s voice called her name and she looked back. The man, hobbling up with crutches, caught up with her and spoke loudly. “Dinpui, don’t you recognise me? Remember we both gave our names to join MNF on the same evening?” he said.
“Awi, it’s Ralkapa!” she exclaimed.
As she said this, she saw two men in army uniform, not very far behind. They would have heard the conversation, whether they understood all they said or not. In any case, they would have realized that she and Ralkapa knew each other. She understood what that meant. Ralkapa’s horrid deeds were well known. She had to escape, and fast. There was no time to inform anyone, not even Sanga.
The army men did not move forward to arrest her. Perhaps they were planning to do it later. As soon as Ralkapa went away, she fled to the house of a friend. She hid there until this friend located some MNF soldiers who helped her escape to their underground shelter. Her letter, narrating all these, was hand-delivered to Sanga by a stranger some weeks after Dinpuii’s disappearance.
Soon, stories of a girl called Lalpuii among the MNF filtered out. She was the only female in what the cadres named Blue Valley Camp. There were no proper medical facilities there, but they said Lalpuii tended wounded Mizo soldiers with loving care. They nicknamed her Florence Nightingale.
The Indian Army discovered Blue Valley Camp and raided it. Some were killed, some were captured alive. Others disappeared. Those who escaped regrouped later, but Lalpuii was not among them.
About a month after the raid, a badly mutilated corpse of a woman was found near an army encampment in the same area. Though no one actually identified the body, it was generally believed to be that of Dinpuii.
Sanga could not eat or sleep properly for weeks and months. And then exhaustion took over, and he gradually resumed life. But he lived with a gaping hole in his heart.
“Why did you marry me then?” Zorami asked at length, still numb with pain.
“There was no point in going on that way. I was hoping that being married would help me forget her a little. I’m so sorry to hurt you like this.”
“Why did you pick me? From your description I’m just her opposite in looks, nature and everything. Why didn’t you go for someone more like her?”
“That’s impossible. I’ve never seen anyone even remotely like her in any way. Besides, I grew to like you once my uncle pointed you out, and there was truly no one else I was willing to marry.”
After Dinpuii’s disappearance, and especially after the corpse was found, Sanga had lost all interest in life. He felt he was only a living body without a soul. He wished he could give up that life too. But he had his mother to consider. He mechanically went about his routine. He attended classes, wrote the exams when the time came, and finally graduated and got a job in the State Bank. Once he settled at his post, his family wanted him to get married. His uncle kept suggesting some girl or other, but Sanga remained uninterested.
Finally, when he was nearing thirty three, his uncle talked about Zorami. Her family had come back to Aizawl after she finished her post-graduation in English, and she had started working in a college. He agreed to consider her. When he got to know her, he thought he loved her and that’s why he had proposed. But he could not bring himself to forget his first love as he had hoped.
Zorami left the bed and went off to the sitting room. She knew attempting to sleep would be futile.
Sanga stayed on in bed, closed his eyes and tried to sleep again. But his heart was burning. Dinpuii had appeared in his dream, smiled at him and walked away. He ran after her but he couldn’t catch up, she was too fast. That was why he had cried out. “Dinpui, how can I forget you? You are the most beautiful person I’ve seen, beautiful in mind and heart,” he whispered to his pillow.
Zorami sat on the sofa, drawing up her feet, head on her knees.
“One can’t compete with the dead,” she thought.
She recalled lines from Yeats’ poem:
Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
“Woman lost is much more precious,” she told herself.
“Two broken lives brought together. Can they ever become whole?” she wondered.
Broken? She was lacerated, ripped apart. A fiend in human body did it in revolting lust. When the thirteen year old did not come back from the tuikhur where she had gone to fetch water, her worried mother took a couple of neighbours with her and went in search of her daughter. They found her unconscious, her dress torn and soaked with urine and blood, in the bushes. In the hospital, after she regained consciousness, a nurse stitched her up. Without anaesthesia. How she screamed! The needle pierced her again and again. Stinging pain upon pain.
And the dirt, the dirt! How she wanted to wash herself clean, to be immersed in a flowing river! But there was no such river within reach. All she could get was a few mugs of water for a bath. She loathed her defiled body like a rotten carcass. In sleep, she dreamt of a brook running down a hill. She ran to it, hoping for a dip in its clear, clean water. But when she reached there, she saw only muddy, filthy water.
Within a day, the buoyant, rather boisterous young girl had turned into a weepy, terrified wreck. When she was sent back to school after being discharged from the hospital, she went without fuss, without spirit. She walked with head bent, looking at the ground. She avoided everyone and kept to herself, hardly talking even to Kimi. She struggled to keep up with the lessons though earlier she used to be considered the best student in the class. As soon as school was over, she walked straight back home and stayed inside for the rest of the day.
As dusk fell, she was seized with terror and broke out in cold sweat. She sat by the fireplace, her head buried in her knees, and trembled violently. Her mother tried to soothe her, but only succeeded in making her cry uncontrollably.
As time passed, the wounds on her body healed, leaving scars. But her wounded psyche festered.
Two broken lives.
The novel is available in India on Amazon and will be available to the international readers soon.
[The excerpt has been published with permission from Morph Books, a new imprint of Primalogue Publishers.]
Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on Short Stories, themed around ‘Night’, edited by author, Sumana Roy.
One Response to “Book Excerpt: From Malsawmi Jacob’s novel, ZORAMI: A redemption song”
This is a heartbreaking read, Malsawmi. I am looking forward to reading the novel. I might have to wait until I am back to India, as it’s not yet available here in the US. (Mosarrap)