Mizo literature, originally written in Mizo ṭawng, the principal language of the Mizo people, has both written and oral traditions. It has undergone a considerable change in the 20th century. The language was developed mainly from the Lushai language, with significant influence from Pawi language, Paite language and Hmar language, especially at the literary level. Despite the late onset of the English education, Mizos have normally used the english alphabets to write in Mizo language.
It is, but very often that we see any Mizo writer narrating the history of Mizoram in a language other than Mizo. However, breaking this norm, Malsawmi Jacob in 2015 released her first ever novel called ‘Zorami’ and hence became the only Mizo writer till date to have written a novel in English. TNT-The Northeast Today brings you an exclusive interview with Malsawmi Jacob and her views on the horrors of Mizo insurgency that still haunts Mizoram today.
TNT- Please tell us more about yourself, your background, education and interests?
MJ: I grew up a rolling stone. My father was in the Army so we moved from place to place very often. I’m the eldest of four siblings, three sisters and one brother. My parents were from Nisapui, a small village in Mizoram. From the last year of school up to MA English, I studied in Shillong, Meghalaya, and did a Postgraduate teaching course in Hyderabad. That’s all the formal education I had. I have been quite passionately interested in literature, specially poetry and fiction, right from childhood.
TNT- How did Zorami come into force? What drove you into becoming the 1st Mizo writer to write an English novel?
MJ: I began writing when in high school and kept on into adulthood. It started with poems, then prose, then short stories. Zorami, which came out in 2015,is my first novel.What drove me to write it was a combination of factors. The Mizo insurgency that broke out in 1966, and the counter-insurgency operations by the Indian Army, with its blood-curdling horrors, are something the Mizo people cannot forget. A ‘peace accord’ was signed in 1986 and political peace returned. But those who had suffered during the period were still hurting inside. For dealing with the inner conflicts, the fiction format feels more suitable than non-fiction. Hence the novel. As for the language, English was a natural choice as I had been writing in it more than in my mother-tongue.
TNT- Please tell us more about Zorami
MJ: Zorami tells the story of a woman named Zorami, who had been sexually assaulted when she was a teenager by an Indian army man during Mizo insurgency. Her psyche is damaged by the trauma and she cannot recover even in late adulthood, until an unexpected turn occurs. She represents the Mizo people and her story is their story as they go through insurgency and army atrocities. The book also throws light on Mizo history, culture and folklore. The story is told in a non-linear manner to represent the chaotic condition that Mizoram went through.
TNT- What took so long for someone from Mizoram to write a first English novel?
MJ: We are a very young nation as a people group. We have been literate only about 120 years in our own language. English education came even later. So our writing in English is fairly recent; and serious literary work such as the novel is still a different cup of tea. I would like to mention that two teenage girls,Suzanne Sangi and Sarah Aineh, had produced Young Adult Fiction books before my novel came out: one in 2013 and the other in 2014.
TNT- Why the name ‘Zorami’? Any special reason?
MJ: Zorami is the name of the protagonist. The book is named after her. Besides, we usually call Mizoram just ‘Zoram’ and ‘I’ is the suffix after a female name. I hope the connections are clear.
TNT- There is a notion that Mizos are very inclusive people? What is your take on this?
MJ: The Mizo community is made up of different tribes with their own dialects. At some point of time, the dialect of the Lusei group came to be adopted as the common language. We have no caste system; and by temperament, we are a social, friendly people in my opinion. But societal and political defensiveness is also working its own agenda, sometimes bringing unpleasantness in our relationship with people from outside Mizoram.
TNT- What do you think could be the reason behind less representation of women in Mizoram politics?
MJ: Since I do not know the reason, I can only make guesses. Perhaps Mizo women in general are less interested in politics than men. Or it may be due to the strongly patriarchal nature of our society, which is not conducive for women to get into politics. But we have had at least one fiery woman who started her own party, one woman Minister and some MLAs.
TNT- What is your take on the plight of women in Northeast India and in mainland India?
MJ: Women are discriminated against and not given their due rights in our country. This is a fact both in the Northeast and in ‘mainland’ India. It’s high time the society treated them with dignity and assured their safety as well.
TNT- Does this book reflect your personal experiences at any point?
MJ: Zoramiis not an autobiographical novel, as several readers have supposed. But a writer normally writes from what s/he has seen, heard, felt, thought or imagined, and in a sense becomes part of the characters.
TNT- What do you envision for Mizoram in particular and Northeast India in general?
MJ: Peace, justice and harmony are what I long for, for Mizoram and the whole of Northeast India. The Mizo society used to be egalitarian, but it’s now in the process of getting divided into classes based on economic status. This is alarming. And the ongoing conflicts in several states of the region are so damaging for the people.
TNT- What next after Zorami?
MJ: I’m working on a collection of poems.
TNT- Your message to emerging writers and litterateurs?
MJ: Write from your heart, aiming for truth and beauty.
–Interviewed by Shweta Raj Kanwar for TNT-The Northeast Today news