A book review of A girl swallowed by a tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold
Asst. Professor, SBSC, University of Delhi
Author: Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton
Publisher: Adivaani, Kolkata, India
Month/Year of publication: April, 2017
One of the first impressions about the book A girl swallowed by a tree by Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton is the title. Though I’ve come across two retellings of the same story, this narrative appeal differently to the reader because narrator-facilitator powerfully uses her imagination while retelling the story. And that, I think, is one of the strengths of book. Often we come across folktales being told in short and simple manner, and they too work magic that way. But a more elaborate narratology also adds another level of information which is essential because folklore is a primary derivative of history in the oral society. However, I shall not digress further into that discourse as Jasmine has given an excellent introduction to the book on the same. I leave that for critical academic engagement and discussions.
The thirty folktales make an interesting collection! The range of themes the narrator-facilitator has chosen tells a lot about the wide significance of these tales. The origin stories form an important component in folktales as they, in a way, explains the cosmology of the people. Thus, from the story of “The Story of the Sun and the Moon” to “The Duel between Wind and Fire” to “How Chilli was discovered” to “The Legend of how Men became Monkeys” we are enlightened of the different narratives which work its way in the establishment of a worldview. From the stories of “Arilao”, “Ranphan, the Brave”, “Rapvuthung and the Tsungrhamvu”, and “The Tiyilong Legends” we see heroes and legends of the people that continues to find resonance even today because they form an important phase in the people’s memory. In “Humchupvuli Eloe”, “The Emi and the Forty Young Men”, “Sherüthü Friends”, “The Sterile Wife”, etc. we see the dynamics of human relations and lessons on how a cordial relation or a deviation from it can have their own consequences on the individuals and the society, at large. The interface between the worlds of human and the supernatural is well exemplified in “The Man who travelled to Echu Li”, “The Strange Marriage between a Woman and a Momon”, “The Tale of the Fortunate Sister”, “The Tiger Bridegroom and the Human Bride”, etc. Also, the few animal stories like “The Crab’s Sideways-Tilted Walk”, “The Erstwhile Friendship between the Sepvu and the Otum”, etc. and trickster stories like “Apvuho and Mesa: Four Mini-Tales”, “Apvuho and the Emi”, etc. are not just fun reading but helps us to draw anecdotes on life.
In retelling these stories, Jasmine is also helping her own people, the Lothas, or Kyongs as they call themselves, unearth treasures which have long been neglected or overlooked. She even underlined that the need to revive and restore the “invaluable treasured legacy” of storytelling which is slowly “dying” due to non-performance is at the core of her zeal to undertake the translation project. I think this zeal should be cultivated by other Naga scholars too. Oral tradition, by virtue of being dependent on memorialization and passing it down from generation to generation, is heavily reliant on the older members of the society who have knowledge of the stories and songs. To that extend, Jasmine went on to say, “Our old storytellers are our tradition-carriers, who with their deaths are incinerating the living libraries of a community.” Hence, what this generation needs is the passion to undertake field works to record, archive and translate these stories with the effort to pass on the legacy of storytelling.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere and now mention again that one of the drawbacks for young Nagas not being able to derive an importance in their own culture and tradition is because the modern education system does not have an aspect of our own oral tradition. A huge difference could have been made had some of our own stories made headway into the curriculum early on. How wonderful it would have been if our own folktales were read alongside Aesops Fables, Jataka Tales and other fascinating tales! I’m sure a lot of my attitude would have changed to the stories I’ve heard as a young boy from my grandmother. We could hear the same stories over and over again in the evenings sitting around the fireplace. We knew the stories, but we could still listen with the same awe of listening to it for the first time. But then, school happened. Somehow, we never read about those stories anymore. Though the holidays would give us chance to listen to the storyteller, somehow other things drew us away from sitting around the fireplace and listen to stories.
I don’t mean to rue over things undone. Nevertheless, we can still make up for the loss if we introduce these stories into the school curriculum for the generations to come. By now, we already have ample selections to choose from, besides Jasmine’s book. This generation only needs the will to do. The wonderful thing about folktales is that it leaves space for improvisation. In most cases, as I mentioned above, we’ve seen a plain narration of the tales. But in this book, A girl swallowed by a tree, we see a bit more than that. There is creativity employed to expand the imagination while retelling. Many of our stories have powerful storyline and intriguing sub-plots, and they can be developed into fictions or other genres. What we lack is the belief in its possibility. I am a believer in that. Are you? People are going places in search of stories, and we have right in front of us! Think about it.
One of the things that many Nagas will also find while reading this book is a sense of familiarity with many of the stories. Interestingly enough, we have many shared stories. Or variants of them. This, I think, tells a lot about our own commonness. Often, different communities within the Naga fold are left to battle out things as though we have nothing to do with each other. Perhaps, we have even gone to the extent of saying ‘that is our story’, ‘this is our song’, etc. But, rather than joining the chorus of ‘owning’ stories we should celebrate in the ‘sharedness’. Our stories and songs can be a pointer to our commonness. Let them bind us together. Enjoy reading this collection of marvellous stories!