Stories are an intrinsic part of who we are. They define us; they have been with us since times immemorial. The book, Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai tries to recreate something similar through its story- a timeless, universal tale of human togetherness and struggle. Contrary to the title, the novel is not just a collection of folktales or legends. Rather the legends about common people and their deeds that have been passed down from one generation to the next and therefore have become folklore/legends in themselves. The stories of common people are portrayed and interwoven with folktales which make it seem as if the folktales are living and breathing through the lives of the people.
The unnamed female narrator has gone back to her hometown in Arunachal Pradesh and is a participant in these stories rather than the storyteller. She also invites her friend, Mona and Jules to visit her village and to meet the people there.
The Legends of Pensam is divided into four parts: Diary of the World, Songs of the Rhapsodist, Daughters of the Village, and Matter of Time.
The first part presents an introduction to this world of forests, folklore, and its people. It sets the stage for the characters: the narrator visiting her village and staying there, her inviting Mona, Hoxo and his family.
The second part invites the reader to be part of a dance drama that tells the tale of the white man colonizing these forests and about a violent turn of events. The dance drama is staged for a festival, but also for Mona and Jules. As a reader, you too gaze at one aspect of the culture and are one with the story. The rhapsodist also regales the reader and perhaps even Mona and Jules with other such stories – one where the wind howls and dust swirling confused the rhapsodist; one where he narrates how the Migu and Sirum clans were united by bonds of blood and kinship.
The third part is my favourite as it shifts the perspective from a storyteller/rhapsodist to women and their lives; how their stories percolate generations as well. For example, Hoxo’s wife is Losi. Losi’s mother, Nenem, was rumoured to have had an affair with a British Officer, David, who was posted in her village, Pigo town. All that Losi knows about that relationship comes from stories and from a photograph she has of David and Nenem. This incident shows us family history as being a part of their collective history/understanding of place and time. The narrator also speaks in this part of her own relationship with the village, of her mother’s death, and how the village called out to her to visit and settle there once again.
The final part mixes a tenuous sense of timeless with the ever increasing modern sensibilities that are now inseparable to life in the towns and villages of Arunachal. One example the book uses is film-making and music and how both are used for preserving one’s culture. It captures the notions of inevitable change yet also how things remain unchanged.
That is the hallmark of this novel: it conveys both these paradoxical elements – of relentless change and of the immutable lingering on. The novel does not lament change but marvels at it. It marvels at the persistence of human dreams and desires of joy and happiness, that co-exist under the vastness of the limitless blue sky.
Perhaps, this is why we are always living in “Pensam” which among the Adi tribe of Arunachal means “in-between.” We are always in between a world that is fast changing and a world that is frozen in time.