On Nathan Brown’s ‘The Missionary’s Call’ and Other Hymns

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I have just finished preparing the manuscript of a new edition of In a Far Country (1911), Harriette Bronson Gunn’s biography of her father, Miles Bronson. Some consider this kind of work academic drudgery but I liked it. I particularly liked doing the annotations. I did similar work on an early Indian English novel some years ago. Then I was working in the very well-stocked library of a leading university. Hence I had all the books I could possibly want at my disposal. My current setting is rather different. But the internet is a great leveller. I did have misgivings about using Wikipedia but allowed myself to be reassured by a review in the TLS which described the Wikipedia entry on the ancient Indo-Greek kingdom as the ‘most reliable overview of Indo-Greek history’ currently available. YouTube was of great help as well, giving me access to musical sources and information I would not have had otherwise.

In the Introduction to the book (out, hopefully, in December), I point out that In a Far Country belongs to a now forgotten tradition of evangelical and missionary writing that flourished in the nineteenth century. Protestants in America (and in Britain) created their own print culture by writing and publishing sermons, tracts, memoirs, biographies, and hymns. So I should not have been surprised by the book’s allusions to a number of hymns.  Many years ago, when I first read Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, I was struck by the novel’s continual allusions to ghazals. Ghazals were integral to old Delhi Muslim life; even beggars seem to have recited them. However, from a literary point of view, the hymn, unlike the ghazal, is regarded as a lowly form. This is because hymns are perceived to be conventional, both in sentiment and form, rather than creative. Poetry, the argument goes, must be imaginative.Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poems are religious but innovative and so qualify as poems.

Perhaps there is also a feeling that the religious piety expressed in hymns is hypocritical. After all, the hymn composer John Newton, who wrote ‘Amazing Grace, so greatly loved by Americans including, ironically, by African-Americans, was a slave trader. He became a born-again Christian in 1748. Newton captained a succession of slave ships till 1754, when serious illness forced his retirement from seafaring. He became a pastor in 1764 but expressed condemnation of the slave trade only in 1788. Despite this context, it is difficult not to be moved by the emotional power of this hymn. Religious leaders like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, have known the importance of hymns in religion and worship. Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother, is said to have written over 6000 hymns; they were often edited by John. ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’ has been called the finest hymn in English.

Hymns can be disrespectful in the cultural and other assumptions they make. One of the hymns referred to In a Far Country is ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,’ written in 1819 by Reginald Heber, who later became become Bishop of Calcutta.  Gandhi found the line ‘every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’ offensive. Speaking at the Calcutta YMCA in 1925, he said, ‘My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary … [Man] is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I are, possibly more so.’

Nathan Brown (1807-86), the first Baptist missionary in Assam, wrote a well-regarded hymn, ‘The Missionary’s Call.’ In The Whole World Kin (1890), his biography written by Elizabeth W. Brown, we read that it was originally a poem, written spontaneously when Brown was nineteen years old, following the inspirational commencement speech made by the President of Williams College, Edward Dorr Griffin (1770-1837). It was sent to the Missionary Magazine and Brown made ‘its acceptance or rejection …a token from providence whether to offer himself for the foreign field or not.’ Though it was not accepted, Brown’s zeal to be a missionary did not diminish. In 1830, Brown published it in The Vermont Telegraph, a religious paper of which he was the editor. The complete poem is published in The Whole World Kin. The shorter, hymn version, set to music (by Edward Howe, Jr.), is printed as an appendix. There is this (slightly) variant version on the internet:

The Missionary’s Call

    My soul is not at rest.

There comes a strange and secret whisper to my spirit

like a dream of night that tells me I am on enchanted ground.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    Why live I here?

The vows of God are on me and I may not stop to play with shadows

or pluck earthly flowers till I my weary pilgrimage have done.

             The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    And I will go!

I may no longer doubt to give up my friends and idle hopes

and every tie that binds my heart to thee my country!

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

      Henceforth it matters not

If storm or sunshine be my earthly lot, bitter or sweet my cup; I only pray,

‘God make me holy, and my spirit nerve for the stern hour of strife.’

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

        And when I come to stretch me for the last,

in unattended agony beneath the cocoa’s shade

it will be sweet that I have toiled for other worlds than this.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

In 1806, five Williams College students had held the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting which gave rise to the American foreign missionary movement. There was intense interest in foreign missions in New England. The Whole World Kin tells us that The Vermont Telegraph carried the latest news from Burma to the villages and farm-houses of Vermont. Burma was the largest foreign field of the American Baptists missionaries, established by the first and foremost missionary couple Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and his wife Ann Judson (1789-1826), and there were calls to send out more missionaries to the field. My internet research turned up an essay ‘God and Man in Baptist Hymnals 1784-1844’ by David Singer. Singer argues that hymns popularized and brought to the average church-goer the sophisticated religious concepts that were otherwise the preserve of the theological and intellectual elite. Hymns also reflect doctrinal changes. He traces the change from ‘a strict Calvinism to Arminianism’ in the hymns produced during his period of study, and notes the rise of the number of missionary hymns in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Nathan Brown’s hymn is obviously a part of this upsurge of hymn writing.

In Bronson’s biography, Harriette relates an incident illustrating the tribal love of music. A group of missionaries reached a locality where no white man had yet penetrated. ‘They were confronted by a bristling array of spears, each tipped by deadly poison, and pointed straight toward them.’ One of the missionaries began to play ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ on his violin. The ‘wild hill men’ were entranced and lowered their spears. ‘And thus,’ writes Harriette, ‘through power of Christian song and melody, the gospel obtained a lodgment in this hitherto inaccessible part of the mountains.’ Several internet sources (here is one) identify the missionary as EP Scott who worked among the Karbis. You can see the evolution of this discourse of the tribal love of music in accounts of the tradition of church music in the Northeast and the success of the Shillong Chamber Choir.

Wikipedia, that modern fount of all knowledge, tells us that as of September 2016 the Bible has been has been wholly and partly translated into 554 and 2,932 languages respectively. It is unlikely we will ever have a reliable figure for all the hymns composed. Sites like hymnary.org and cyberhymnal.org exist and are useful. But these data bases are confined to Western hymns. Accounting for all the hymns translated into indigenous languages as well as composed in them is not impossible but it would be a challenging task requiring the labours of a global team of experts and informants. William Ward (the Assam Baptist missionary, not to be confused with his famous Serampore namesake) is just one of the several hymnists who composed hymns in Assamese. Ward revised the Assamese hymn book called Khristio Dharmageet for a new edition. According to Guwahati Baptist Church pastor Aziz-ul-Haq, Ward added scores of original and translated hymns. In the fourth edition of the book, published in 1890, sixty three hymns were Ward’s.

‘I get one of these hymns in mind,’ wrote Ward in a 1873 letter to Bronson,  ‘and it goes on grinding when I lie awake, or when I wake in the morning, or at odd intervals of other work.’ Ward’s description of hymn composition is not different from the accounts we have of poets describing the creative process of poetic composition. Hymns have been called the ‘poor man’s poetry.’ Perhaps they help articulate feelings and experiences that the average church-goer might not have been able to express on his or her own. I was moved by the story of Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), the English poet and hymn writer, who was an invalid for the last fifty years of her life. She wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am’ in 1835, and called it her spiritual autobiography. (It was adopted by the famous evangelist Billy Graham as his theme song.) I would not like to disrespect the feelings hymns evoke or dishonour the sincerity behind some justly famous hymns.

Annotating In a Far Country (and reading up on evangelical and missionary print culture) has made me freshly aware of the importance of religion in literature. A list of all the writers influenced by Christianity would have to include Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Frost, and Auden (to mention only poets). That is a roll call of the greatest writers in British and American literature. I have always delighted in telling my students about under-theorized or overlooked genres like the essay or the letter (also known as ‘epistle’ back in the day when email did not exist). For me, hymns are a new discovery. Sadly, I do not have the time or the expertise or the resources to pursue this interest. But for a day or two I was a happy child playing on the beach of a vast sea, the roaring waves in the distance bringing me a dim awareness of the unplumbed depths beneath.

Two stamps and a little Naga and Mizo History

Last month the government shut down its telegraph service. The government’s postal service of course continues to be used by millions of our compatriots who still communicate through non-electronic forms. The Department of Posts however no longer has the importance it once did in the day-to-day lives of many Indians like me who now not only use email, social media, and mobile phones but also private, courier services. In fact, I can’t even recall the last time I licked a stamp.

Curiosity and a bit of nostalgia led me to the philately section of India Post’s website. I learnt that over three thousand stamps have been issued by the postal department since Independence. These stamps attempt to chronicle and celebrate the achievements of modern India. The range is epic, and the artwork often brilliant. The stamps of course tell the story of India in a particular way. The perspectives they present can be contested. I can’t resist commenting on two stamps (out of the thousands) that I saw.

Nehru as Naga leader.

Nehru as Naga leader.
(Image source: indiapost.gov.in)

The first is this stamp issued in 1967.  It shows Nehru as tribal chieftain, leading a group of Nagas. The stamp reminded me of Nehru’s disastrous visit to Kohima in 1951. The Naga insurgency was the first serious challenge to the idea of India. Nehru’s vision was multicultural and his concern for the welfare of tribals was genuine, if paternalistic. But the call by the Naga National Council (NNC) for separation made Nehru less sympathetic. During his visit to Kohima, a public meeting was scheduled to welcome him. NNC leaders, who were determined to attain independence from India, wanted to give him a petition reiterating their demand. However, the local authorities refused to let more than three persons meet Nehru.  They also wanted the petition to be submitted after the public meeting. When Nehru arrived at the venue (along with a guest, the Burmese prime minister U Nu), the Nagas left en masse, smacking their bottoms. This is the account Nirmal Nibedon gives in Nagaland: The Night of the Guerrillas. According to Ramchandra Guha in India After Gandhi, the Nagas bared their bottoms. There was a crackdown after this. NNC leaders went underground, and Nehru never visited the Naga Hills again.

The stamp gives no hint of Nehru’s actual relationship with the Nagas and vice versa. It shows Nehru dressed in his usual attire but wearing a Naga head-dress and carrying a spear. The Nagas appear in full tribal regalia. At first they look like stereotypical war-like Nagas but their demeanour is docile rather than hostile as they tamely follow Nehru, the prime minister of a new nation.

Commemorating the Mizo accord.

Commemorating the Mizo accord. (Image source: indiapost.gov.in)

Today, half a century later, ‘the Naga problem’ still awaits a solution that is acceptable to both sides. In contrast, the Mizo Accord was signed in 1986 and is generally acknowledged to have been successful. A stamp issued in 1999 commemorates the accord.  If the first stamp made me smile, this one gave me a small jolt. The stamp focuses on a handshake between two persons, one presumably a representative of the Indian state and the other of the Mizo National Front (MNF). In the background are a communications tower – and a passenger plane. By including these symbols of development, the artist was probably trying to convey the message that the Mizos had joined the national mainstream and had come closer to India and the world. Some time back I saw a news conference on TV in which P C Chidambaram, the then  Home  Minister, explained patiently to a journalist, who had asked if the government was considering using helicopter gunships against the Naxalites, that you do not machine gun or bomb your own people. But in 1966 the IAF did both: jet fighters strafed  MNF targets and carried out air raids on Aizawl and surrounding villages. That is why I found the aircraft jarring, even though I know it is a domestic airliner and not a fighter plane.

I never took up stamp collecting in my school days. This had something to do with the fact that our teachers urged us to do so. Stamps taught you history, they said, making it sound less of a pleasurable hobby and more of an academic exercise. That stamps  do indeed teach you history but in deeply ideological ways was something I came to understand much later.

Verrier Elwin: Scholar-Administrator of the Northeast

The Northeast has had a tradition of scholar-administrators. Verrier Elwin (1902–1964), the anthropologist who was Nehru’s adviser on the North-East Frontier Agency  (or NEFA as present-day Arunachal Pradesh was called), was perhaps the most brilliant, unusual and controversial of them all.  Elwin, whose forty-ninth death anniversary on February 22 passed unnoticed, described himself as a ‘Philanthropologist’ and as ‘a missionary of “Mr Nehru’s gospel” for the tribes.’ A professional rival called him ‘an anthropological dictator.’

Nice cover: OUP India edition of Elwin's memoir

Nice cover: OUP India edition of Elwin’s memoir

Few Englishman have empathized with poor Indians to the extent that Elwin did. After completing his education at Oxford, Elwin (whose father had served as Bishop of Sierra Leone) travelled to India as a missionary of the Christa Seva Sangh. Elwin later cited ‘an enthusiasm for the non-violent idealism of Mahatma Gandhi’ and ‘the internationalist culture of Tagore’ as among the reasons why he came to India in November 1927. In January 1928 Elwin visited Sabarmati Ashram and came under Gandhi’s spell. He took to spinning, delivered sermons influenced by Gandhian ideals, and wrote a booklet called Christ and Satyagraha. In 1932 Elwin, at Gandhi’s request, secretly travelled to the North-West Frontier to assess the political situation there following the British government’s crackdown on Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his followers. Elwin also supervised the English translation of Gandhi’s autobiography. If meeting Gandhi changed his life, an even greater change occurred when Elwin began to live and work among the Gonds. Elwin left the Church in November 1935 to devote himself to the study of tribals and work for their preservation from the outside world.  In his memoir, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin (1964), Elwin describes the weakening of his links with Gandhi in the 1940s.

For Gandhi my affection never wavered, but I allowed the differences between us to keep me away from him. I suffered a great disillusion when I discovered that the khadi programme was not suitable for our tribes. I have always been a strong supporter of handloom weaving, but spinning, for very poor people and in places where cotton did not grow, seemed to me artificial and uneconomic.

             Gandhi’s emphatic views on Prohibition (which I considered damaging to the tribes), his philosophy of sex-relations, especially as exaggerated by some of his followers and what seemed to me a certain distortion of values – the excessive emphasis on diet, for example, further separated me from him.

Elwin found Nehru’s multicultural vision more in line with his own. As he wrote in The Tribal World: ‘India’s is a rich and varied tapestry, as Mr. Nehru has said, and the tribes had to be encouraged to maintain their own personality, their own culture and their own language.’ He admitted that in earlier years he had ‘thought in terms of preserving tribal culture.’ But culture, he had come to realize, was not something static. ‘Culture obviously must be a living, moving thing always subject to change, and Mr. Nehru’s formula of developing the tribal people along the lines of their tradition and genius seemed to put what was needed in a nutshell.’ The problem was to integrate the tribal people into the new nation-state. In most parts of India, the tribal people ‘needed protection, development and social justice. But in a few places the problems were more complex.’ In NEFA, in the Saora hills and among the Murias tribal life was happy and vigorous. ‘It still meant something. It was not a question of reviving anything: it was more a problem of introducing change without being destructive of the best values of the old life.’ It was to manage or regulate this change that Nehru made Elwin Tribal Adviser.

Elwin’s love for the tribal people of India was certainly paternal. He was afraid that modernity and change would destroy them and their way of life. That change could come or be demanded from within tribal community is not something very apparent in Elwin’s writings. There is a passage in The Tribal World where he realizes that change is inevitable and that his own presence among them is part of the change.

My memories of life in Bastar and Orissa are… inconsolable. I shall never see, no one will ever see, the Maria ghotul as I saw it, or the Saoras as I saw them. It may be that I myself helped by my very presence to destroy what I so much admired. But all over tribal India the old freedom is disappearing and with it something of the old happiness. Change is inevitable and I have no doubt that the great schemes of village welfare have brought some profit to some of the people already and in time will bring new life to them all. How far this will in the long run result in their happiness is a problem that vexes all those who think seriously on the subject.

Elwin was a rebel almost all his life. Apart from his rejection of Christianity and refusal to be a disciple of Gandhi, there was his unconventional lifestyle and celebratory attitude to sex: he married a Gond girl, Kosi (the marriage ended in divorce), and a Pradhan girl, Lila. When he became an adviser to the government he became a part of the establishment. But a mischievous streak is evident in the following description of a tribal chief’s visit to the Governor, Jairamdas Daulatram, in Shillong:

One day…a Tagin Chief from the wild north of Subansiri was brought over to Shillong. He was a ferocious-looking person, bristling with weapons, with a very long pipe sticking out of his mouth. The Governor asked me, with an interpreter, to come and hear what he had to say. The Tagin marched into Raj Bhavan and to my admiration (for I myself always put out my cigar when I met the governor) kept his pipe firmly in place. After about half an hour’s interrogation the Tagin showed signs of restiveness; the clouds of noxious smoke from the pipe grew blacker and his hand began to move, to our great alarm, towards his long razor-sharp sword. When at last the Governor reached the critical point and asked for his views on the nature of the Supreme Being, the Tagin replied, ‘I don’t know anything about that; what I want is a drop of beer.’

Elwin was a prolific writer and published over thirty books in about twenty years. He could write as many as five reviews in a day.  In Savaging the Civilized (1999), Elwin’s biographer Ramchandra Guha mentions that Elwin was so obsessed with writing that Kosi ‘thought she had married a typewriter.’ (Guha mentions a bibliography prepared by   Takeshi Fuji, a Japanese scholar, which lists nearly four hundred articles written by Elwin.) To Elwin writing was the way in which he could help his beloved tribals. ‘Writing was for him,’ says Guha, ‘a more natural medium than giving injections or running schools.’ Some of the books he wrote are: The Baiga (1939), The Agaria, (1942), and The Muria and their Ghotul (1947). Incidentally, in addition to his anthropological books, Elwin wrote five novels; two of them (Phulmat of the Hills and A Cloud that’s Dragonish) were published by John Murray.

Leaves from the Jungle (1936) has this description of the Gond magician, Panda Baba: ‘He knows far more about the Creation than the Book of Genesis or even than Charles Darwin. Beside him, Mr H G Wells is a mere amateur. The world was made differently and in a much more interesting manner.’ But though Elwin says this you feel he is being playful. In the same book he describes the Baigas as ‘perhaps not too intelligent’, adding in parenthesis that ‘at Oxford they would probably get Thirds in History.’ When he meets a very intelligent Baiga named Hothu, he wonders if he would get a Second in Mathematics. Elwin loved tribals but he also seems to have thought them child-like – a rather patronizing attitude. This may be partly the problem with anthropology as a discipline but Elwin believed otherwise. Guha explains that to Elwin ‘the craft of anthropology aided cultural understanding and provided a scientific basis to policies aimed at the poor and vulnerable.’ His official reports were meticulously written and reflect his great knowledge of tribal life. He was of course aware of the criticism directed against him and his tribal policies. He defended himself by pointing out that the Inner Line restrictions were established 85 years before his book A Philosophy for NEFA (1957).

Elwin wrote that he was ‘incurably optimistic about India’ and that it was ‘a thrilling experience to be part of a nation that is trying, against enormous odds, to reshape itself.’ What were Elwin’s feelings when the Chinese invaded NEFA in 1962? ‘My blood pressure went up twenty-five points after the fall of Tawang, came down during the lull and then went up again thirty points after the collapse of Bomdi La. This was not due to fear or anxiety, for I always had complete confidence about the final outcome of the struggle, but to real sorrow. I felt as if parts of me were being torn away….’ The part I have put in italics may be indicative of Elwin’s difficulties as a new citizen of India. (According Guha, Elwin was the first Englishman to take up Indian citizenship.) The violence and resistance of the tribes in the Northeast to the policies of the Indian state are glossed over in his memoir. Shortly after Elwin’s appointment as adviser, the Tagins attacked and killed some Assam Rifles personnel. But Tribal World is a seamless narrative, so seamless in fact that you barely notice when Elwin casually writes that ‘[M]ilitary operations had to be mounted against the turbulent tribesmen, but they were soon over, and the people settled down fairly quickly.’ Though the Naga rebellion was the first challenge to the idea of India, there is hardly anything in Tribal World about this serious problem. Elwin was being consistent. His mission was to help preserve tribals – to that end, he was ready to work with the state.

Elwin died of overwork. His ashes (he had expressed a desire to be cremated) were immersed in the Siang river by his eldest son. In Savaging, Guha states that in the twentieth century it was Verrier Elwin ‘more than anyone else, who has shown us that the dialogue of cultures need not always be a dialogue of the deaf.’ This may be too large a claim. It is difficult not to be ambivalent about a man who not only wanted a strict watch on the expansion of shops in NEFA but also made up a list of what could and could not be sold there. But if Arunachal Pradesh is an oasis of peace in the otherwise turbulent Northeast, it is certainly because of the policies that Elwin, more than anyone else, epitomized. The issues of development he struggled with, and made others conscious of, have not been resolved: on the contrary, they have acquired greater urgency in the context of the current conflict in Arunachal Pradesh over the building of large dams.  Elwin should not be forgotten so soon.

 

World War I and the Shillong Connection

Modern wars tend to be global. The Napoleonic Wars involved an unprecedented number of European countries. World War I extended far beyond the boundaries of Europe. India, as a colony of Britain, was drawn into the war. More than a million of our soldiers ended up serving in war fronts in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Nearly fifty thousand Indian soldiers were killed and many more thousands were wounded or maimed. World War II was fought on our doorsteps. The heroic battles at Kohima and Imphal succeeded in halting the Japanese push into India and led to their withdrawal from Southeast Asia. The war memorial at Kohima has an epitaph that is as true as it is  moving:

When You Go Home

Tell Them Of Us And Say

For Your Tomorrow

We Gave Our Today

But World War II has no place in our collective consciousness, not even here in the northeastern states. In Forgotten Armies (2004), Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper write that ‘the story of India at war from 1939 to 1945 has been pushed to the margins by the telling and retelling of the story of independence and partition of British India into the republics of India and Pakistan.’ And so we only dimly remember, if at all, the ‘forgotten armies’: the Indian soldiers who fought, died or were taken prisoners; the porters, guides, labourers, the nurses and doctors, who participated, or were forced to participate, in the war effort; and the Indian refugees from Burma who died in the high passes of (what was then) Assam and Manipur.

I didn’t fully realize that my hometown, Shillong, had a connection to World War I until very recently. I knew of course that Motphran near the crowded bazaar called Iewduh (formerly known as Burra Bazaar) was a war memorial. The area where it is located is a tangle of cars and pedestrians and it’s easy to share the general indifference to  the memorial, which when I last saw it  was in a state of neglect. It may have been restored (I haven’t been to Shillong for a year), though I doubt it.  There used to be a taxi stand there (I don’t know if it’s been shifted), and when I and my friends said ‘Motphran’ we meant the taxi stand rather than the memorial.

Motphran means ‘Stone of France’ in Khasi. The memorial was erected by the British after the end of World War I in honour of the 67 porters of the 26th Khasi Labour Corps who were killed in France.  Carved on the memorial is this quotation from Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.  Wilfred Owen contemptuously called this line, which means ‘it is sweet and dignified to die for the homeland’, ‘the old Lie.’ In Motpran, it is doubly ironic.

Jim Corbett, that old imperialist, was given a wartime commission as captain and ordered to raise a labour corps; he took five thousand men from Kumaon to France. What I didn’t know was that the British sourced men for their wars from the Khasi and Garo Hills as well. An old newspaper report on Motphran mentions that the British would seek the help of Khasi chieftains whenever they needed men to be recruited as soldiers and that many Khasi men fought for the British Empire. (The 26th Khasi Labour Corps also served in World War II.)  In Tura, a cenotaph, erected by the British after World War I, honours the 58 men of the 69th Garo Labour Corps who died in France. The Garos were made to work as porters and to dig trenches. The Khasis must have done the same. In their memoirs, British colonial officials who lived and worked in Assam often praise hill men for being hardy and useful porters (in contrast to the supposedly lazy and weak plainsmen).

What were the thoughts and feelings of the Khasi men who, nearly a hundred years ago, were sent off to a distant land to help in a war that must have meant little to them? In ‘Ah! Motphran of the 26th Labour Corps’ by Wandell Passah, a poem that badly needs the blue pencil, they are described as ‘brave men very willing to go.’ Somehow I don’t think so. Twelve European libraries, including the British Library, are working together to complete a major online project called Remembering the First World War to mark the centenary of the war in 2014. Among the material that will go online will be the letters that were written by the 130,000 Indian soldiers who served on the western front. These letters, which are in the British Library archives, should provide glimpses (the letters were subject to military censorship) of how the Indian soldiers saw Britain, France, and the war. I assume that the Khasi porters were not literate. If this is correct, then it is unlikely that we will ever know what Bah Lyngka, Bah Kyrwai Synteng, Bah Nakshir, Bah Pkan Marngor, Bah Sholishon, Bah Ren Sing, Bah Don Marbaniang, Bah Kyrdit, Bah Jir Wallang, Bah Pahoh Thabah, Bah Muluk Nongrum, Bah Mohon Khyriem, Bah Likshon War, Bah Hummu Marwein, Bah Kdep Khongsir and the others actually thought or felt.

Wandell Passah mentions a great uncle, Bah Noling Passah, who was killed in action at Baghdad. From the reference he makes to Al’kut in Iraq, it seems he means the  Siege of Kut-al-Amara which took place in 1916 and in which thousands of British and Indian soldiers perished. I was reminded of A K Ramanujan’s poem, ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’:

once in nineteen-forty-three

from as far as the Sahara,

 

half-gnawed by desert foxes,

and lately from somewhere

in the north, a nephew with stripes

 

on his shoulder was called

an incident in the border

and was brought back in plane

 

and train and military truck

even before the telegrams reached

on a perfectly good

 

chatty afternoon. 

Modern wars have the power to intrude into the lives of ordinary people and families far away. To think of those Khasi and Garo porters dying half way across the world is both sad and disturbing.

Why I refuse to call myself a Northeasterner

The term ‘Northeasterner’  is being increasingly used by the national media to refer to people born in Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. It doesn’t seem to matter that the diversity of people and cultures in the region is remarkable even by Indian standards. The contingent fact of our being born in a city, town or village northeast of a certain, supposedly central location has become our essence.

I was born into an Assamese family in Shillong and grew up there in what now seems like blissful self-centredness. After school I was sent to Delhi for my college education. As a fresher I was subjected to the usual ragging but students from states like Manipur and Nagaland were not. They were ‘chinks’ – and there was an unwritten rule about not ragging foreigners.  Any envy I may have felt quickly  disappeared when I realized not looking ‘chinki’ meant immunity from the kind of experience a tribal friend of mine had late one night returning to his hostel from a movie. A drunk cop in Maurice Nagar stopped him and demanded to know who he was. When he mentioned his home state, the cop called him a ‘rebel’ and kicked him. This incident came to mind during the recent exodus of ‘northeasterners’ from Bangalore and other cities. How people see you can be dangerous, especially if their perceptions are ignorant and stupid. Think of Tenzin Dhargiyial, the poor Tibetan college student in Mysore who was stabbed by two persons in retaliation for the Kokrajhar riots. His attackers thought he was from the Northeast.

Like most Assamese students in Delhi University, I supported the Assam movement when it began (later some of us were to have serious misgivings about the direction it took). When the movement grew it made headlines but we felt it was being wrongly reported in the national press. So we decided to meet politicians and newspaper editors (there weren’t too many Assamese students in Delhi in the early eighties). But the lack of any real knowledge that policy and opinion makers in the national capital showed about Assam (and the Northeast) shocked, angered and finally dismayed us. Last year I was asked to receive a distinguished retired diplomat at Guwahati airport. He was the head of an influential think tank in Delhi and was travelling to Tezpur University, where I work, to deliver a lecture on the Indian Government’s ‘Look East’ policy – of which he was a strong advocate. It was his first trip to the Northeast, he told me. I wasn’t surprised for I had long ago met that strange creature called ‘the Northeast expert.’

In Delhi I acquired a sense of solidarity with the other students from the Northeast. But on January 21, 1972 Meghalaya had come into existence and I had become the citizen of a new state – a second-class citizen, as it would turn out – without going anywhere. (It was my introduction to the power of cartography.) The Assamese community in Shillong consisted mostly of Assam government employees and their families. When the capital of Assam shifted to Dispur, the Assamese left Shillong almost en masse. (It would be some years before I appreciated fully the courage my parents showed to stay on in a place most of their friends were leaving.) My boyish life had continued as though nothing really had happened. But while I was studying in Delhi, things were changing in Shillong.  When I came home during the holidays, there were localities it was no longer safe for a ‘dhkar’ (or an ‘outsider’) like me to go to.

In the US recently, I became ‘South Asian.’ (Had I looked ‘chinki’, I would have been ‘Southeast Asian’. ‘Southeast Asia’ came into existence during Second World War, when for administrative and military reasons the term was used to refer to an area stretching from the borders of Bengal to Singapore.)  It didn’t bother me much. But I baulk at the idea of calling myself a ‘Northeasterner.’ It is one thing when strangers among whom you were going to be only a short time don’t  understand you. It is quite another to facilitate other Indians’ misunderstanding about yourself. As the recent exodus showed, a large number of ‘Northeasterners’ now live in the metros. But it hasn’t led to a greater knowledge of the so-called Northeast. The ‘Seven Sisters’ continue to be thought of as one, thereby erasing all differences. The electronic media in particular perpetrates stock images of the region as a remote frontier inhabited by colourful but primitive tribes, a hotbed of insurgency, etc. The consistency with which this happens shows that a Foucauldian discourse is at work.  And like all such discourses, the discourse of the Northeast is self-confirming: ‘proof’ is provided each time a TV channel, for instance, reports a bomb blast in the region.

Of course if the term ‘Northeast’ didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. It serves as a kind of shorthand to call attention to certain commonalities: the political marginalization, the underdevelopment, and the social and cultural attitudes towards the region. But its sheer inadequacy becomes clear when we consider what a vast and varied area (linguistically, ethnically, culturally, and politically) it covers. Calling myself a ‘Northeasterner’  – an outsider’s term – would mean being untrue to myself and to my history. I know my experiences, some of which I have outlined above, are in no way definitive. But that precisely is my point.

Some years ago Delhi Police brought out a booklet, Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi, to help students from the northeastern states cope with life in the capital. Its intended readers however were outraged because the booklet dispensed such advice as ‘Revealing dress to be avoided’ and ‘Bamboo shoot, Akhuni [fermented soya bean] and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood (sic).’ But when charges of racial and social profiling were hurled at the Delhi police, it was revealed that the IPS officer responsible for the booklet was from Arunachal Pradesh.

This is what happens when we look at the Northeast through an outsider’s eyes.

 

An African Boy in the Nowgong Orphan School

The main entrance of the Franklin Trask Library. A major reorganization of the Library is currently on. So a side entrance on the ground floor is in use.

These days I wake up at six o’clock in the morning so that I can leave my Cambridge apartment before eight. Walking quickly I reach the Harvard Square subway station in about ten minutes. It is rush hour; the trains are  packed. I am on a sabbatical and can, if I wish, wait. But like the passengers commuting to work, I get into the first train that comes. An hour later I reach the little station at Newton Centre. Another ten minute walk, this time uphill, brings me to my destination, the Andover Newton Theological School. The Franklin Trask Library is being reorganized; it opens to the public at one o’clock for a couple of hours.  But I knock on a ground floor entrance and Diana Yount, Co-Director of the Library,  or one of her assistants, opens the door for me. After all, I am a foreign scholar who has travelled all the way from India to consult their archival material on Miles Bronson and the other missionaries who served in Assam in the nineteenth century.

Much of my excitement has to do with the fact that my research project on early printing in Assam is finally beginning to acquire shape. We know very little about our local collaborators. This puts them in distinguished if ghostly company: there is not much information, for example, about the metallurgist, Panchanan Karmakar, who composed the font for Nathaniel Brassey Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778), the first book to be printed in Bengali. From the archival material I have consulted, I have gleaned some information on Batiram Das, the compositor and foreman at the American Baptist Mission Press at Sibsagar and Nidhi Levi Farwell, who apart from his role as writer, assisted in printing the Orunodoi and other publications.

But a part of my interest and excitement has to do the side stories I discover daily. By side story I mean an instance like the following excerpt from a letter written by Rev. C.D. King to headquarters on January 2, 1885.

As one of the most insignificant of the incidents which go to prove that a missionary needs a wife, and needs her with him, I may mention the fact that I have been writing this report between intervals of what promises at present to prove a very unsuccessful attempt at making bread. Two months ago the military bakery was closed. There is no bread to be bought in Kohima. Tomorrow is our communion Sunday, that is, if I succeed in getting any bread made. I hope you will accord due weight to the argument contained in this sad recital, and will be moved to send my wife back to me with the least possible delay.

This, strictly speaking, is not really relevant to my research project and does not further it in any conceivable or practical way. I really ought to smile and pass on. But perhaps because I am more of a fiction person than book historian, I find myself lingering a little too long on this letter, imagining in detail Rev. King’s predicament in his lonely Mission compound in Kohima. How many months was it before his wife joined him? And did he learn to bake bread tolerably well by that time?

A somewhat guilty pleasure, then. So it was good to meet Barbara Anne Radtke whose very competent dissertation, ‘“What are we among so many?”: A theological investigation of Miles Bronson and the Nowgong Orphan Institution debate’, Diana gave me to read. Barbara works as an Instructional Designer (Continuing Education) in Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. She has never been to Assam but talks about Miles Bronson as though he died yesterday.  She talks of Ruth, Harriet and Sophie (Bronson’s wife and daughters respectively) as though they are her family. This familiarity, Barbara told me when I asked her, is the result of her involvement with side stories when she was helping Diana arrange the Miles Bronson Family Papers. (Incidentally, Barbara’s dissertation work was done under the Rev. George Peck’s supervision. Rev. Peck was President of Andover Newton and died in 1990. He came to Andover Newton in 1966; before that, he was head of the Eastern Theological College at Jorhat.)

The most interesting side story I have so far discovered is one about the African boy who studied at the American Baptist Mission’s Orphan School at Nagaon. Maheswar Neog made a passing reference to this boy in his 1985 monograph on Nidhi Levi  but the story is not generally known even in the Christian community in Nagaon.  Here is the relevant portion from Rev. Stoddard’s letter of  January 21, 1850 (Baptist Missionary Magazine, Vol. 59, pp. 176-77):

The orphan school continues about the same.  A poor African lad, whom br. Barker brought from Calcutta last spring, has been with us eight or nine months and was baptized on the first Sabbath of the new year. He gives the clearest evidence of a change of heart. Why he has been directed from his own heathen land to this far off heathen land is not yet evident to the eye of man. His love, zeal, piety and uprightness of character were a great astonishment to our Assamese disciples. As a man they looked upon him as vastly inferior to themselves, but as a Christian they all acknowledged that he was something superior, and seemed astonished, that such a poor wild jungle boy, as they called him, could entertain such exalted views of Jesus Christ and of the way of salvation. When he first came among us our house was visited daily for many days, by hundreds of the Assamese who came to see the “wild man”. They could not believe that he belonged to a large nation, but considered him as some curious animal found in the jungles. They even counted his fingers and toes to see if he possessed all the properties of a man, and were anxious to know if I could understand his words, – for he spoke English a little.

He is now studying English, and is very anxious to be a preacher of the gospel. As near as I can get hold of his history it is as follows: He was a slave to a hard master in his own country. About two or three years ago he made his escape and fell in with some missionaries where he heard the first words about Jesus. From what I could ascertain, one of those men of God was Rev. Mr. Saker. But the lad had been with him only a short time when he was seized and taken back to slavery. He did not remain long in this condition, but escaped to Fernando Po, where he boarded a Dutch ship for Calcutta. As soon as he arrived there, which was in the fall of 1848, he left the ship and went in search of Christians. He soon fell in with some of our Baptist brethren who befriended him and sent him to school. But as the temptations of that heathen city are great and there was no suitable school for him, they sent him to Assam last spring by br. Barker. How long he will remain with us I cannot tell, but think if he could be sent direct to the charge of some missionary family in his own country, it would be the best thing for him and the cause. He is about sixteen years old, and perfectly honest and trustworthy, – which cannot be said of all the Assamese.

An American friend to whom I described the letter politely said something about wonder, innocence and curiosity.  But the racist attitude of the Assamese who came flocking to see the boy is unmistakable. Stoddard’s final comment on the Assamese is racist too. But for once moral indignation is not an option.

What part of Africa did the boy come from? How long did he live in Nagaon? (The Nowgong Orphan School was closed down some years later.) What were his thoughts and feelings? At  this distance only fiction – another word for side story – can provide the answers.

This is the entrance I knock on to enter the Franklin Trask Library. Side doors and side stories – they kind of go together.

A Graphic novel about the Northeast

From Parismita Singh’s work in progress, a graphic novel set in the Kokrajhar area. (Image source: mochaarthouse.com)

Quite a few books by writers belonging to (or having connections with) the Northeast have been published recently. Some of the writing may be mediocre but original, even brilliant, work has emerged. Parismita Singh’s graphic novel The Hotel at the End of the World (2009) belongs to the latter category.

Teachers and parents sometimes scold children for reading comics because they think it leads to dullness. Luckily for me, neither at school nor at home was I forbidden to read them. So I grew up on a healthy diet: Phantom (which used to appear in the Assam Tribune), Archie (my first introduction to American life), Superman, Spiderman, Commando Comics, Amar Chitra Katha, Mad, Asterix and Tin Tin. My parents rarely read them. But on one occasion their enthusiasm exceeded mine. This was when Phantom and Diana got married.

I grew up and so did comics. While I became an adult, comic books became ‘graphic novels’. I have read a few. I found Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2004) every bit as impressive as I had been led to believe they were. Others, like Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta (2008), I thought overrated.

But I am no expert on comics. Most of what I know (or think I know) comes from Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics. The book’s subtitle is apt – The Invisible Art. Understanding Comics makes you aware of the sophistication that lies behind this familiar but sadly undervalued genre. Brilliantly using the comic book format, McCloud discusses critical and theoretical issues, and offers a definition of what constitutes a comic: ‘Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer’. He makes the fascinating point that cartoons work because, having only a vague or sketchy impression of our faces when we talk to others, we project ourselves into them. The ‘gutter’ – the space between two panels – facilitates closure. Comics make sophisticated use of time. A panel may seem to represent a moment but could in fact compress several. Comics thus place an ‘interpretive burden’ on the reader just as high art is supposed to do. McCloud also discusses how Japanese manga art has developed differently from American comics. European comic art is different too (better use of colour material whereas American comics tend to be basic for reasons of cost).

Parismita Singh was born in 1980 in Biswanath Chariali, Assam. She went to Mayo School for Girls, Ajmer and St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Her drawing talent emerged at Stephen’s where she produced cartoons for the college year book. Her graphic art has appeared in Tehelka and the Sarai reader Turbulence and her story ‘Pema Tsering tells a Story’ in The Little Magazine. The Hotel at the End of the World is her first graphic novel. I wish the Widener had a copy but since it doesn’t I am relying on memory in writing what follows.

The location is clearly the Northeast, though no place is specifically named. Parismita’s Northeast is rainier, sadder and more remote (the title is significant) than the one I know. The text is hybrid as are the names of the characters: Pema, Kona, Kuja etc. Northeast writing is often political even when not overtly so. The floating island that breaks off because it does not wish to be embroiled in the war that has come to its doorstep can of course be read as a political allegory. There is a particularly impressive story of a Japanese soldier fighting in the jungles (the Second World War was fought in Nagaland and Manipur, a fact we seem to have forgotten). Parismita draws on oral story telling traditions; the stories have the uncanny wisdom and haunting quality of folk tales. The art work is in black and white as in the Commando comics (one of the characters in the book is shown reading a Commando comic) rather than the more arty work preferred by Amruta Patil, the creator of the Kari graphic novel. (Patil’s artwork in Kari is a mix of marker, crayon, watercolour, collage, and ballpoint pen. She also quotes famous paintings). There are similarities with the work of Sarnath Banerjee (Corridor, The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, and The Harappa Files) – though Banerjee also uses other media like photographs. The influence of Buddhist thangka art is evident in the geometric patterns and flaming forms used in some sections of the narrative.

There are very few graphic novelists in India, the genre itself being a nascent one.  So it is good to learn that Parismita is working on a second graphic novel, this time for young adults, set in the Kokrajhar area. As a way of celebrating Parismita’s art, I have reproduced above a panel from her work in progress.

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UPDATE (18/7/12):  Alas, I posted the wrong image. Here is a link to Parismita Singh’s new work http://www.pyrtajournal.com/#!__spring-march-2012/sketches