The Black Hill by Mamang Dai – Book Review
Mamang Dai is the most celebrated writer from the state of Arunachal Pradesh. I have visited Arunachal Pradesh once. In my opinion, it is the most beautiful place I have ever visited – nowhere else have I seen such thick forests. I got to interact with local people of Tenga Valley. Had food at their place and listened to their stories. Stories – which were very intriguing and left me with lots of curiosity. My wish to go back to this lovely state is still a wish. Through the story of The Black Hill, Mamang Dai takes me through the Arunachal Pradesh of mid 19th CE. And acquaints me with the tribes, their lives and the changes that tried to come in their way.
In the story set in mid 19th CE, a little before the 1857 mutiny in North India, Mamang Dai introduces two tribes primarily – Abor and Mishmee. Who, live in different parts of the Upper Assam – the area above the Brahmaputra and below Tibet. Tibet was always a forbidden land. A land that many wanted to reach and convert. It is the story of a French priest who had a mission to go and set up a church in Tibet. And from Assam, he had to find a route through the hills by himself.
At another level, it is a love story between a couple who come from two different tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Through their story, Mamang Dai takes us through the landscapes of their villages. Of the relationships that exist between a tribe and between tribes. She introduces us to the faith they follow, the dreams they see, the omens they interpret and the superstitions that dictate their lives.
At another layer, she talks about the fear that the arrival of British brings to the rather isolated lives of the hill tribes. Essentially, she brings out how the tribes come together to fight an outsider, a foreigner. They are aware of the British dominance in Assam and Brahmaputra valley. And they are very sure that they do not want the Migluns, as they call the British in their territory. Also how they guard their routes that lead to Tibet. How they come together despite all the tensions that exist within them makes an interesting reading. It gave me an insight into what would have been the first reaction to foreign dominance? And the fears it would have brought along.
Missionary Zeal – I understood the meaning of this phrase after reading this story. The priest undergoes all kinds of troubles. He lives amongst people who do not welcome him. Braves mountains he does not know. Befriends the people, who later cheat him. Makes several rounds between various routes but never gives up the mission. His ambition in life is to set up a church in Tibet – a mission assigned to him and he is willing to do anything to achieve that. He reports back everything he observes and finds in the hills to his church in France.
He discovers that people accept him when he heals them with modern medicine. So he asks for more medical supplies and takes that route to establishing himself. In the end. he loses his life in an inter-tribal warfare. But he still leaves a lot for the next priests who would follow him. An author’s note at the end of the book indicates that the story is based on a true incident – stitched together with available evidence and records.
I met Mamang Dai at Goa Arts & Literary Festival where this book The Black Hill was launched. I had a small video interview with her about the book – sharing that with you.
Read it, if like me, the lovely state of Arunachal Pradesh intrigues you too.