Book Title: The Legends of Pensam
Author: Mamang Dai
Published by: Penguin India
Genre: Literary Fiction
We are not here without a purpose,’ the shaman explained. Our purpose is to fulfil our destiny. All life is light and shadow.’ Like any other place on earth, the territory of the Adis in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh is ‘Pensam’ “the in-between” place. Anything can happen here, and everything can be lived, and the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather’.
A mysterious boy who fell from the sky is accepted as a son of the village and grows up to become a respected elder. A young woman wounded in love is healed by a marriage of which she expected little. A mother battles fate and the law for a son she has not seen since she lost him as an infant. A remote hamlet gets a road, but the new world that comes with it threatens upheaval.
And as villages become small towns and towns, approximate cities, the brave and patient few guard the old ways, negotiating change with memory and remembrance. An intricate web of stories, images and the history of a tribe, The Legends of Pensam is a lyrical and moving tribute to the human spirit. With a poet’s sense for incident and language, Mamang Dai paints a memorable portrait of a land that is at once particular and universal.
About the author:
Mamang Dai is a poet and novelist writing in English, from Arunachal Pradesh. She received Sahitya Akademi Award in 2017 for her novel The Black Hill.
From the name of the book, I assumed (very wrongly) that The Legends of Pensam would be a collection of short stories set in a place called Pensam. To my pleasant surprise, Mamang Dai’s book turned to be a magical tapestry of short story like anecdotes and incidents strung together by common characters weaving tales of the unknown, of shamans, remote bountiful nature cut off from the outside world, community ties and how they cope with deaths and murders and violence and love.
The beauty of the book unfolds right from the author’s note that says:
‘In our language, the language of the Adis, the word ‘pensam’ means ‘in-between’. It suggests the middle, or middle ground, but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows. It is the small world where anything can happen here, and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song.’
The book starts with the story of Hoxo who many belief, has fallen from the sky and who is brought up by Lutor, chief of the Ida clan and his wife Losa. Other stories soon unfold and one finds that there are stories within stories, all magical than the first one. The stories goes back and forth between the present with the author relating the charms and hardships of life in a remote place stitched together by shared grief and memories and legends and then having characters in the very same stories relating stories that they had heard from older generations: about hunting expeditions, about forest and river spirits that calls out to humans to put a spell on them; about the times when the people in the remote area are face to face with members of the Allied Forces and the Japanese Army.
There is a great love story too: one where a young girl falls in love with a British officer creating an uproar in a community that wants nothing to do with outsiders and fears the unknown. The British officer has to leave once his assignment gets over but he knows that his love will not leave her world for him. There is a lot of grace and beauty in this story of love that stays with the reader.
Towards the end of the book, the excitement and doubt and uncertainty over a new big road linking the village to the outside world that is pegged at bringing progress and development to the region has died down and there are palpable changes with vehicles and TVs making their appearance. And yet, as someone says: “I want the old days back: the days when I was poor and unknown. It was the time my soul sang at its loudest and saddest…”
The Legend of Pensam is almost magical in its scope bringing both worlds of the old and the new, the lyrical and the realistic together in one seamless narrative.