To read Mamang Dai is to return to the poetic—whether in Stupid Cupid’s sweltering urban setting of Delhi ripe with illicit love affairs, or in the wild, intertwined stories of the Adi community in The Legends of Pensam. The Black Hill, set in the northeast regions of Assam and Arunachal, also brims with beauty. We know, from the outset, that it’s a story of two men—told by a woman to the narrator of the book. “If anyone were to ask me where I heard this story, how I found it, I would have no answer.” Instead, the narrator places it firmly within a less tangible, oral tradition, one of the many stories in the world that are lost, a version that has been ‘misplaced’, though pegged to several real events. This is, Dai makes clear, undocumented history. One that’s gloriously complex and layered, imaginatively capturing a moment in time—the coming of the miglun, or white men—that changed the region forever.
The Black Hill intricately braids the lives of three characters: a “priest who walked across these hills carrying a cross and a sextant” and who disappeared, a Mishmi tribal man, Kajinsha, who is blamed for his murder, and a woman, Gimur, who is bridge and plank between the two. Around them, Dai conjures a wealth of incidents and characters, drawn against wild, treacherous landscapes. Gimur and Kajinsha meet, accidentally, one night, as she sits and communes with the moon, and the attraction is immediately evident. When he slips away, Gimur is “strangely bereft”. Their elopement and love story is set against a growing turbulence—the miglun are eyed and followed with suspicion as they try and make inroads into new territory, old orders are challenged, dismantled, rearranged, and relations are tense and strained between the region’s many distinct and ancient tribes.
We first meet Father Nicolas Krick, a devout, non-violent Frenchman, “across a great ocean where the rise and falls of the waves was like time”, in Paris. He sets out on a journey from which he would never return because he “wanted meaning back. He wanted to abandon oratory and speak to an assembly in the language of the heart”. Father Krick is intent on travelling to the mysterious kingdom of Tibet, despite warnings that beyond the Assam plains was terra incognita, and anyone who went into those wild hills did so at their own risk. His decision to carry on regardless becomes the priest’s undoing, and also serves as the crucial pivot on which the novel hinges. For Tibet remains inaccessible through northern India, closed off by an anti-Christian movement in China, and so he must find alternate ways in through the east. Strangely, the novel remains mute—unlike say, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which chronicles a similar insidious colonial experience—on the politics of colonisation. We see the consequences of the imperial project, but Dai sidesteps and avoids an examination, critical or not, of the forces driving the enterprise.
For all that works in The Black Hill though, there is also a certain characteristic lightness of touch that’s missing from Dai’s narrative. Much time has been spent fleshing out historical detail of the time—Christian missions through the ages sent to Tibet, the various enmities and pacts between tribes—and somewhere the novel begins to read, unfortunately, as a textbook, weighed down, unable to allow the story to break through and carry the reader on its own strength.
Despite the unusually laboured writing, though, here and there glimmer flashes of sheer poetry: “As (Kajinsha) stared at it the river changed shape. Now it was like the trunk of a giant silver tree, spreading its shining arms and limbs across the body of the earth. It had crashed into the earth from the mountains, and now it wanted to hold the earth in a vast embrace.” Or later, when Kajinsha has been executed, we find Gimur sitting on a rock, “And I am the earth and Kajinsha is the sky and we have looked at each other and will look at each other like this for a million years”. It is for lines like these that The Black Hill is worth cherishing. And for the unsaid, the unsung, the undocumented, the voices that have been silenced: “Tell them about us, Kajinsha had said to her that night in jail. Tell them we were good. Tell them we also had some things to say. But we cannot read and write. So we tell stories.”