Dan Lheimei Chaang by Meiphunlung Thaimei

Dan Lheimei Chaang. Meiphunlung Thaimei. 1987.

Meiphunlung Thaimei’s Dan Lheimei Chaang (or in more standardized Rongmei Dan Reimei Chaang ) published in 1987 is a political drama set in the tumultuous years spanning from the 1950s to the mid ‘70s. It tells the story of the Zeliangrong people’s introduction to the first wave of Naga Nationalist Movement. It assumes the voice of the lesser known participants; the forgotten and the nameless foot soldiers who sacrificed their lives in a political movement that would later take divergent courses in the next half a century.

Produced by a local organization called the Ragailong Cultural Songs and Dramatic Union, Dan Lheimei Chaang was first staged at Imphal’s  G.M Hall on 15th October, 1983. All the casts were amateur actors from Ragailong Rongmei village in the present Imphal East district of Manipur. By the time the play appeared in printed form, it had already been performed five times at different Rongmei speaking locations in Nagaland and Manipur.

Written in Bengali script, this Rongmei play was published just before the annual Conference of All Zeliangrong Students’ Union, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland held in 1987 at Ragailong Village, Imphal.  While the playwright states, in the introduction, that the book was published to enrich Rongmei Literature, the underlying assertion of a distinctive Zeliangrong character within the larger Naga political identity is evident. It resonates with the sentiments shared among the Zeliangrong intelligentsia that championed the renewed zeal for Zeliangrong movement after Shillong Accord of 1975, which left out majority of Nagas living outside the newly formed Nagaland State.

Daan Lheimei Chaang is a story of two brothers symbolizing two generations of Zeliangrong people in regards to Naga Movement. Set in an existent village called Puiluan in Tamenglong district of Manipur, the fictitious characters represent the first generation victims of atrocities in the hands of the Indian Army.  A mere suspicion that a few Naga National Council (NNC) cadres have taken shelter in the village led to the first violent intrusion of the Indian Army into the Zeliangrong village. The unfortunate incident of combing operation disrupts the idyllic village life hitherto untouched by the armed movement. Dikam the elder brother joins the NNC initially as retaliation to the atrocities against his people, refusing to be enslaved by external force, and to avenge the killing of his innocent brother by the Indian Army. In the play Dikam embodies martial heroism, masculinity, and cultural ethos and worldview of the traditional Zeliangrong society. In his war cry against the brute force of the Indian Army, he declares after listing his illustrious lineage:

Let our blood flow like a river,

Let our bones fence around our land (Dikam, Scene II)

Dikam eventually imbibes the revolutionary ideology after he leaves behind his beloved Thaunbi in the village and joins the NNC. Even as he laments the plight of his people in the hands of the ‘invaders’, he begins to understand his limitation of being an uneducated foot soldier. He decides to educate his brother Namjai, and sends the young boy in a convent school in Jawai, Meghalaya.

To the land where there is no darkness at night,

Where there’s no mud when the rain comes. (Dikan scene III)

Young Namjai is handed over to an Imphal dweller Kaguilan, the representative of the hill people in the Legislative Assembly of the newly formed Manipur state. Anem, the only child (not to mention a daughter), of the liberal MLA is portrayed as a contrast to the serious Namjai who had seen tragedy and hard life in the hills. However, in the later part of the play her role as a free spirited young woman serves an alter-ego to Thuanbi, the love interest of Dikam, who epitomizes femininity in the traditional world of Puiluan. Apart from Anem’s outspoken expressions of her love for Namjai, the scene in which she welcomes Namjai home during a summer break from school,  with a playful fusion of different traditions from across the world, takes the play to a modern purview. Her presence lightens the air of heavy emotional scenes dominated by the melancholic Dikam.

Moreover, a comic relief from the otherwise somber political melodrama is added when Namjai encounters students from different parts of the region. Much of the humour is drawn from the strict regimental life in boarding school away from the turmoil at home. Namjai represents the new generation educated Zeliangrong of the 1970s, who had the opportunity to have exposure to the outside world through education, unlike the previous generation of his much older brother Dikam.

The well-defined structure with altogether nine scenes in the play can be thematically divided into two parallel parts. While the first half describes the idyllic life in a hill village which gets disturbed by external force; the second half depicts the social engagements in the urban space. The world of Dikam in the pre-revolution Puiluan village is romanticised with poetry, coy courtship and prestine rustic life.

The opening scene of the play is of luangkumei, a practice of trekking a hill located near the village by young single men and women. In such an occasion, wooing for marriage or courtship is encouraged under the supervision of an elder of the village. The playwright uses immaculate folk song to set the tone of the old world, as the young men and women parade across the stage in colourful traditional attires complete with women carrying wicker cone-shaped baskets and men following after them with daos in their hands. The party is served drinks poured out of a gourd bottle on to cups made of banana leaves. Flirtations between the protagonists Dikam and Thuanbi is carried out in chaste, courteous and mostly metaphorical language. This scene is repeated in a modern setting when Namjai and Anem are in an outdoor picnic with a group of friends just outside Imphal. The group is bilingual; their Rongmei mingled with English words and sometimes sentences. The younger generation entertain themselves with talks of Osho ashram, samba dance, and by taking pictures; the folk song replaced by tune set in modern Hindustan music.

Dikam and Thuanbi, before they separate as the former leaves to join the underground group, engage in a soulful parting conversation where Dikam convinces Thuanbi of his high calling of serving the land and its people. Likewise, at the picnic, in one private moment, Namjai convinces Anem the importance of being rooted and committed to a place of one’s belonging.

The first half concludes with a lengthy monologue by Dikam exhorting Namjai before he leaves for boarding school as a young boy. In the second half, Dikam injured from the Indian Army bullet reunites with Namjai in the final scene. Like the previous scene, Dikam gives a sensational monologue where he tells Namjai that he has to make smooth the rough path that his uneducated revolutionary brother has prepared. Empowered with education, Namjai could take the movement to a higher level till its full fruition. After an assurance from Namjai, Dikam dies of his injuries in his brother’s arms.

The Title of the play is taken from this climactic monologue of Dikam. Dan Lheimei Chaang can be loosely translated as The First Cut for a Path. It is an illustration derived from the way forest trails are made with basic tools. When a track is made, the first stage is to clear the shrubs and trees, followed by the second or third stages of leveling and straightening the path. Dikam’s initiation into the revolution is signified as the first stage towards a road towards liberation from oppressive outsiders. As he culminates his work, he hands over the responsibility to his brother. It is perhaps a subtly hinted that Namjai will not serve the cause in the similar way as his brother with the power of his education.

The immense sacrifice and contribution of the foot soldier in the NNC movement is believed to have been wasted when their families and descendants are left out from reaping the fruit of the revolution when it concluded.  In the contemporary narrative of Naga movement, the stories of the foot soldiers of the first wave are often not told, especially of those who do not belong to the dominant sub tribes. Dan Lheimei Chaang is the playwright’s attempt to give a voice to people like Dikam, with a hope that Zeliangrong people will not engage politically in the way they had in the previous generation, rather, will involve with new wisdom that modern education empowers.

Dan Lheimei Chaang is Meiphunlung Thaimei’s only political play. His other works include a novel, Kaman Makmei Mikdui(1983),  a play Gairemnang(1989), and an epic Gairemnang(2006) among numerous short stories, poems and  non-fiction. He was awarded State Kala Akademi for his contribution towards Rongmei Literature in 2014.