“Stop them, stop them, somebody!” hollered the old woman as she came hurrying up the road. A group of noisy children were standing in an excited huddle around what was obviously a spectacle of no mean entertainment. At a child’s wary cry of “Rema’s grandma!” the group broke apart sharply, every child casting cautious eyes around as to which direction the old lady might be approaching. As the tight circle loosened, the source of their entertainment became plainly visible.
A girl of about 13 years of age was tugging on the hair of a boy, yanking it so hard that he stood bent low before her as she rained thumps on his back. With his face only inches away from the ground, the boy was valiantly flailing his arms around but since he couldn’t see much from his disadvantaged position, it wasn’t of much help. The old woman was upon them now and in a loudly scolding voice, pulled apart the two deadlocked combatants.
The boy straightened up, his hair standing in a shock in the upward and forward directions of the yanking it had received, his mouth set in a pugnacious scowl. With the air of a victorious military general returning home in great triumph, he glanced around in the silence that followed. His opponent too stood, feet still aggressively set apart, and for a moment there was complete silence. The first sound that broke the void was not of human voices but something quite different. A resounding smack sounded on the back of the boy’s head, followed by a loud thwack on his back. “Lalremthang, how many times do you need to be told not to get into a fight? You just cannot learn!” As she scolded, his grandmother raised a threatening fist again and the boy threw up his hands in puny self-defence. His grandmother still hit him anyway but the blow that fell was a considerably softer one.
It was early summer and the most pleasant time of the year. The biting cold of winter had passed and the rainy season was still three months away. It wouldn’t be too far wrong to say that the weather was close to, if not, idyllic. It was perfect for the young and unmarried, and for all parents as well because there wasn’t really anything yet to worry too much about. As for the children without a care in the world, these were truly precious times. At noon when the sun was at its highest, it grew almost hot, but Sialsuk being located high up in the mountains where there was always plenty of breeze, it was never oppressively hot.
As supper time approached, Rema appeared at the threshold of their house. That he was less than eager to enter was quite obvious as he stood unhappily eying the two cane walking sticks placed upright by the door. They told him clearly that his parents were home from their day’s work which explained his reluctance to go in.
As he thought back to his fight earlier that day, he carefully cast around in his mind a good explanation for his behaviour, swiftly thinking up and rejecting one story after another until he felt he had a suitable excuse to offer. He was naturally adept at this kind of thinking. He straightened the front of his shirt, thoughtfully eyed the sticks again and knew there was no way he would escape two knuckle raps on the head. But as long as his father didn’t cane him with the big stick he stored above the hearth, he didn’t mind so much. Convincing himself that he just had to take the two knocks his mother would most certainly give him, he finally went in.
His grandmother was sitting by the fireside, puffing on her tuibur¹, and spinning yarn with smooth, easy movements, while his mother was stacking firewood on the low roof of the hearth. The minute he stepped into the house, he came face to face with his father who was just coming out of the bathroom. From his expression, Rema could tell his grandmother had already reported everything. He noticed that his mother wasn’t eying him very amicably either.
In a slightly raised voice, his father demanded, “Lalremthang, have you been fighting with Rinawmi again?” Rema only answered, “Yes,” mentally going over the story he had concocted and feeling quite reassured by its believability. His father glowered down at him and continued in a distinctly unfriendly tone, “Why do you keep on picking fights? We’ve all told you often enough not to but you just cannot seem to stop. Perhaps I haven’t whipped you soundly enough.”
Toying with the knot of elastic around his waistband, Rema voluntered in his defence, “But she hit me first.” His father was looking at him with skepticism plain on his face. His mother, still busily stacking firewood on the hearth, broke in, “What nonsense! I don’t believe that for a minute. Why would she just hit you for no reason? You’re a bad boy, that’s what, a bad bad boy.” Without missing a beat, Rema said, “She tried to grab Lalzira’s marble, the one that’s his favourite, and when Lalzira wouldn’t give it to her, she hit him and when I said, “Why did you hit him?” she said, “I’m going to beat you up too,” and slapped me.” Trying to see whether his father believed his story or not, he stole a glance at him but his father had turned away in another direction. “From now on, if you get into another fight with your elders, I will really whip you so hard you’ll regret it sorely.” And with that, his father disappeared into the next room.
Rema breathed with relief that his father had not whipped him but he suddenly remembered something else. He looked down at his shirt and quickly went to open his trunk by the wall on the other side of the room but he was too late. In an angry voice, his mother called him back. “Are you trying to change your clothes again? And when you can’t even wash your own clothes. Just stay put in what you’re wearing now.” Saying that, she came down the room quickly. Trying to avoid his mother, Rema made a crooked beeline for the window but she instantly realized what he was upto. “Turn around here. Oh, for goodness sake!” and two slaps landed on Rema’s head. He played guiltily with the two buttons that remained on his shirt, the lower two having nothing but empty buttonholes.
As they had supper, Rema waited for another tongue-lashing but to his surprise, no one said anything more which left him quite discomfited. He hurriedly ate his meal and got up, and while he usually just threw his plate into the wash, this evening he laid down his plate with great care, quickly dipped his hands in the basin of water, brushed them half dry on his pants and was all set to go rushing outdoors like any other evening. The calm but decidedly cool voice of his father stopped him. “Rema, don’t go out tonight. Stay indoors quietly.” Rema looked back, glanced at his father and with a disgruntled look, went to the backyard.
As it grew dark, he gazed raptly out of the window. He could hear his friends calling out to each other and soon, the exaggeratedly loud cry of “Tiiiaaammm”² that reached his ears made him long so badly to run out and play that he could hardly sit still. He listened, completely engrossed in the sounds of his friends’ play, hearing a shrill war cry and an answering cry coming far away from their house, somewhere near Pi Mawii’s school, and understood what was going on. Liansanga’s gang and Chungnunga’s gang were playing at war and right now they would be cautiously stalking each other.
The urge to go out and play was so strong he felt he was going to die so he took off to bed. But he could not fall asleep. He looked at the clock on the wall which showed it was 10 minutes to 8 and still much too early to sleep even though he hadn’t slept for ages. He could no longer hear the sounds of his friends playing and guessed they had gone home but was puzzled as to why they had stopped so much earlier than other evenings. Then he remembered something and his mind buzzed with conflicting emotions. Of course, it was Wednesday night which meant Chitrahaar³ at 8 pm. He realized all his friends had left to watch TV. He began to sorely regret having got into a fight earlier that day because it had stopped him from playing with his friends and also having to miss Chitrahaar. Never again, he promised himself, would he ever get into a fight again on a Wednesday!
As the sun climbed higher and all the able-bodied left for work in the fields, the village fell still and silent. When lunch time approached, a somewhat disheveled Rema appeared at the threshold of their hut. He kicked aside the stick of firewood that stood supporting the door from intruders and walked in. He made straight for the pot of rice from which he lifted out a large chunk of boiled rice, and then clambered up the table to reach the high shelf where his mother kept a secret stash of kurtai4. Breaking off a huge chunk of it, he then contentedly walked out of the house again.
As he got back on to the main road, holding the big chunk of rice, he was soon pursued by a mother hen, eagerly hoping for falling crumbs. He itched to throw a stone smartly at it but with both hands occupied, could only manage a few futile kicks in its general direction. The fowl was undeterred. After a while, he reached his friend Lalzira’s house but just as he was about to enter, Lalzira came tearing out, holding a chunk of rice even bigger than Rema’s. In his hurry to get away, he almost knocked down Rema as his grandmother came running after him, brandishing a broom at her grandson and yelling, “Catch him, get that imp of a child and beat him up!”
Rema instantly grasped the situation and raced after Lalzira, although without any intention of catching him. Even as they had almost disappeared from sight, Lalzira’s grandmother could be heard screeching, “Don’t you come back, let’s see you try, don’t ever come back, go be a vagrant!” After a considerable distance, Rema asked, “What happened?” Lalzira gave him a quick glimpse of the fistful of sugar in his hand and burst out aggrievedly, “She said why do you always grab that without asking? But if I ask her nicely, she never lets me have any. Ooooh grandma, I bet I wouldn’t even cry if she died.” Rema understood completely.
But Lalzira’s woes did not occupy them long. They had hardly gone a tobacco spittle’s loss of flavour distance when they were at Thlihiau hill. With tightly curled fists, they began to solemnly and cautiously stalk each other. Eyeing the other as grimly and formidably as possible, they stood there, not directly facing each other but somewhat aslant, jaws clenched in fierce concentration. Then Rema gave a sharp cry and came launching himself at Lalzira, bombarding him with quick lithe kicks. Lalzira let out a similarly shrill yell and expertly dodging the kicks, landed one neatly on Rema’s backside.
They then retreated from each other again, carefully striking what each imagined to be as professional a stance as possible. The high mountain breeze flapped wide open their unbuttoned shirts but they were so engrossed in their play world, nothing in the world could have distracted them. Like a kung fu pro, Lalzira came bounding forward again with a shrill cry and delivered a kick at Rema who held his leg and kicked him back. After throwing each other to the ground several times, they both held fast to the other and began to tumble wildly all over the grass. When they sat up again, they were panting breathlessly, their gazes fixed on Tawih mountain louring in the far distance while the wind teased and played havoc with their hair.
After they had rested for a short while, they got up and collected the dung beetle tin can and little spade they had hidden in the bushes close by. They then made their way up to Hmunchung hill to dig for dung beetles. As they walked, Rema said, “Lalzir, do you think the bad guy last night could have defeated the hero in real life?” Excitedly, Lalzira replied, “Nah, I don’t think so at all. Bruce Lee is the bravest man in the whole world, isn’t he?” And the conversation continued somewhat in this way:
“Not really the bravest. In a film, the hero always wins all the fights.”
“Even so, I don’t think he could have beaten Bruce Lee. And he was a lot better than Chak Naris (Chuck Norris).”
“If all the grown men in Sialsuk fought Bruce Lee together, do you think they could beat him?”
“Of course not…but Pa Khuanga reckons he can beat him, I heard him say so yesterday. He said, “He doesn’t scare me one little bit.”
“Just because he’s not scared doesn’t mean he can beat Bruce Lee.”
“But even a grown bear didn’t scare Pa Khuanga, remember? And if all the grown men in Sialsuk were fighting with him…”
“Even then I don’t think they could beat him. They wouldn’t be able to get in a serious blow, or throw punches hard enough.”
“That’s right, if only they could fight together on the same side…they would be both be so brave.”
Talking animatedly in that vein, they finally reached Hmunchung hill. Rema led the way, spade in hand, and Lalzira followed with the tin can. They had not gone very far when they caught sight of a nicely swelling heap of animal dung and Rema immediately sat down and began digging into it with his spade. From the depth of the tunnel, he was certain it was a male. When he got to the epicenter of the beetle’s dung stash, he scrambled at it furiously until he could see the glint of a small black body. He began digging again with greater care and after a lot of poking around with his forefinger, succeeded in prising it out. His face, when he first caught sight of the beetle, however, was a sight to see. The adult male he had been so sure it was turned out to be only a useless Raltuithawl5 which annoyed him so much, he flung it to the ground, chopped it into two, and they carried on walking.
Soon they came across another heaped mound of dung pat and Rema again quickly dropped to his knees beside it. As he began spiritedly digging again, Lalzira, anxious to have a look, came creeping around in front. Rema snapped sharply, “Don’t come around the front…..if it turns into charcoal…” and Lalzira made a hasty retreat.
But as Rema continued to dig, he somehow lost track of the beetle’s burrow. He kept spading on, his finger inching around for the tunnel and eventually, his spade hit on a piece of coal. With a look of utmost displeasure, he glared at Lalzira who stood gazing back at him with an expression so abjectly wretched, it was hard to even think of berating him. In injured tones, Rema complained balefully, “I told you so, you came creeping round the front, and I was so sure it was an adult male.”
Despite it getting late in the day and time to cook rice for supper, they continued to dig and the can was now almost half filled. But since they still hadn’t found their ideal, a full grown adult male which could stand up to Sawma’s prize dung beetle, they kept digging. As they continued hopefully, Lalzira suddenly exclaimed, with the air of someone just struck by a great idea, “Hey, we forgot all about it but the dung pat we saw the other day must have swelled up good now.” “Oh yes, let’s go. Would anyone have got there ahead of us?” Rema wondered. Hurriedly they raced down the hill towards the village. Slightly beyond the village, at the foot of the hill was a fairly large area filled with nothing but bushes and grass. When the two boys got there, panting from their exertions, their eyes widened on hearing the sounds of other children. They continued to leap and bound down the hillside towards the direction of the sounds.
There they saw three little boys with a lactogen tin full of dung beetles. One was preparing an invasion of the little hill of dung that stood before them by patiently clearing the area around it. In an authoritative tone of voice, Rema boldly declared, “Te-a, that’s ours!” The boys all turned around to look at him in startled surprise and Te-a declared, “This is the poop we made the other day. We said we’d get it when it was ready.” Rema replied aggressively, “Don’t you lie, Te-a, that’s our poop. That’s Lalzira’s poop and mine was right over here.” Roughly pushing away Liankima who was standing quietly to one side, Rema looked around for his supposed poop but didn’t find any.
Te-a remained undaunted, repeating, “This is definitely our poop. Mapuia and I both defecated here. I’m not sure whose this is exactly but it’s definitely ours.” Rema walked right back over to the dung pile and exclaimed, “Here, I’m absolutely sure of it, this is Lalzira’s poop, I memorized the way it curved and curled. And this pointy end. It’s his alright, isn’t it, Lalzir?” And Lalzira agreed with great enthusiasm. There was nothing left to say for the less stout-hearted so Te-a and his friends left the scene, defeated.
A somewhat intriguing superstition widely held by children in those days was, “Dung beetles formed from human faeces make the fiercest fighters,” which explained why they would often go to the outskirts of the village and discharge there, going back later to collect the beetles that homed in and bred there. And that was exactly what had caused the little altercation between the two groups of boys. After Te-a and his team left, Rema energetically dug into the dung pat, and just as he had anticipated, found a fully grown adult male beetle with a pronounced horn. The joy of the two boys at that moment cannot be adequately described. Rema kept looking at the beetle he had found and could not help smiling broadly with the greatest satisfaction. He did not even have the heart to put it away in the tin along with the rest but clenched it proudly in his fist all the way home.
¹ A tobacco pipe used by Mizo women in the past
³ A popular Hindi movies program on mainstream TV in the early 80s
5 A large dung beetle, not known for its fighting ability and accordingly scorned by young boys
Darrokima is one of contemporary Mizo literature’s most promising young writers, having published 2 novels and a collection of essays and articles, which are primarily in the humour genre. He established himself in 2007 with the publication of Thih Sak Pawh Ka Ngam, a novel inspired by Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As he puts it, he felt challenged to write a book based on Mizo childhood experiences that he felt were equally, if not more so, humorous and boisterous. An Economics graduate, he decided to follow his inclination for literature and completed his MA in Mizo Literature. He is presently teaching at the secondary level of Mount Carmel School in Aizawl, while quietly working on his third novel.
This translated extract which forms Chapter I of Thih Sak Pawh Ka Ngam depicts a rural childhood and lifestyle that seems to have altogether disappeared in these rapidly changing times.