Thursday, January 25, 2018

A 21st Century Mizo Woman's Take on the Life of Olden-Day Mizo Women through “Tumchhingi and Raldawna” - Jacqueline Zote

We all have certain childhood memories that are clearer than day. And these memories stick with us through the years. Sometimes, we can still recall them even when we can’t remember what happened just last week. Maybe it was that particularly sunny day you took a walk with your dad and he bought you ice-cream – it was vanilla in a cone. Or maybe it was that one evening you felt enveloped by sadness as you watched the sun disappear behind the mountains.

For me, it’s the memory of my mother telling bedtime stories to put me and my two younger siblings to sleep. We didn’t have story books that she could read to us. So she would sometimes make up stories or narrate some of the most popular folktales. The stories would play out in my mind as she told them and I could always picture the characters and their actions.

Many of these stories also gave me some insights into the life of our ancestors. Although we were taught several Mizo writings and stories in school, they couldn’t make up for the stories my mother told us and the way she described tiny details with enthusiasm. One of the stories that have stuck with me throughout the years is that of Tumchhingi and Raldawna, two lovers who got separated by an evil creature but later managed to find each other again.

Personal observations about Mizo love stories
The Mizos love the idea of love and we have plenty of folktales about lovers in ancestral Mizoram. What I’ve found interesting is that when naming these stories, we would often put the woman’s name first and then the man’s name. Although there’s no particular rule or study to explain why this is the case, it has always been the natural way we name these love stories.

So “Tumchhingi (the female) and Raldawna (the male)” sounds much more natural to use than “Raldawna and Tumchhingi”, although some people also use the latter expression from time to time for this particular story. Similarly, we have the stories of Tlingi (the female) and Ngama (the male). We also have Chawngmawii (the female) and Hrangchhuana (the male) and so on.

As you well know, this isn’t always the case in other stories from around the world – for instance, “Adam and Eve” is natural-sounding now because that’s how we’ve always said it. Similarly, there’s Hansel and Gretel (though not lovers but still a story about a boy and a girl), Jack and Jill, Cupid and Psyche, Anthony and Cleopatra, and of course Romeo and Juliet. Just try switching up the order of the names and it wouldn’t sound so familiar or natural anymore.

This is in no way an expert or in-depth study but a personal observation, which I’ve found interesting and establishes a distinction between Mizo love stories and stories from other parts of the world. And I feel it’s an example of where women stand in the Mizo society. I can’t say that Mizo women are on a pedestal and that women’s condition in the Mizo society is perfect. The only claim I can make, however, is that Mizo women are not entirely in the background and that’s a start.

Of course we have a long way to go and there are plenty of areas that need improvement. For example, the society as a whole expects women to be focused on childcare and carry out household chores while men are expected to be sole breadwinners. But that’s gradually changing with more and more Mizo women in the workforce.

The power of women in the Mizo society
Women across the world have been struggling and continue to struggle to attain equal rights and equal recognition as their male counterparts. And Mizo women too are part of that struggle. Like women in other societies, they make significant yet unaccounted-for contributions. This is one of the things I’ve learnt from the stories mother used to tell us.

Many of these stories would talk about how both men and women had to work the fields. And there were also certain tasks that were deemed the norm for a particular gender. The men had to go hunting and would sometimes go to war with rival clans. The women did everything else – cooking, cleaning, childcare, weaving, and taking care of the household in general.

Back in the olden days, the Mizo men were too devoted to these gender-assigned roles that they wouldn’t try to help their women out if it means straying from the norm. For example, there’s a popular saying that even if the man of the house was sitting just next to the fire and he notices that the soup was boiling over, he’d simply tell his busy wife about it and wouldn’t budge from his seat.

The stories also talked about how young maidens would have to entertain and socialize with their suitors despite having to work. We would often hear stories that involve women multi-tasking. In the evenings, they would sit with their suitors while busy with their weaving in addition to minding the fire on which pig fodder would be cooking.

Girls were taught how to weave from a young age and by the time they come of age, they had to weave the clothes for every family member. Back then there was no mass-produced clothing. Everything was handmade by the women of the family.

In other words, women have been serving as the backbone of the Mizo society for decades. From these stories, we can learn how they balanced everything with dignity and were such powerful beings that didn’t get as much recognition as they deserved.

Tumchhingi and Raldawna: The beginning
It’s important to know that the Mizo folktales weren’t solely focused on women and the work they did to support their families. More often than not, their contributions were only a minute fraction of the story. But if you pay close attention, you’ll be able to understand just to what extent the women contributed to the household.

Almost every Mizo folktale contains something about a girl or a woman performing an everyday task such as cooking, weaving, or clearing fields. And if you take a closer look at the story of Tumchhingi and Raldawna, you’ll be able to gain a better understanding of how womenfolk worked in historical Mizoram.

The reason I chose to tell the story of Tumchhingi and Raldawna is because I believe it portrays the power of a woman in a subtle manner. It shows the hard work and dedication of the female protagonist. And it also shows her avenging herself instead of relying on the male protagonist to fight for her.

The story goes that Raldawna and his mother were clearing a plot of land when he came across a nightshade bush speckled with ruby red berries. Raldawna, having never seen the berries before, was awe-struck by their beauty. The sight of the berries must have stirred something in him because he proceeded to ask his mother if there would be any woman whose beauty compares to those berries.

That’s when his mother told him about Tumchhingi, who lives in the village of Vanchung. The literal translation of Vanchung is “above the skies” so one must wonder whether Tumchhingi was an angelic being. This is a possibility because many Mizo folktales contain inter-species marriages, wherein humans marry supernatural beings such as sky women and weretigers.

Determined to find Tumchhingi and marry her, Raldawna set out on a journey to the village of Vanchung. After a while, he came by a house at the entrance of the village. There he saw a young maiden busy with her weaving but her face was obstructed by the cloth on her loom. So Raldawna decided to shoot at the loom using his slingshot in hopes of getting a better look at her face.

Upon hearing the sound, the maiden looked up from what she was doing and her face was now clearly visible. Raldawna then held up the nightshade berries against the maiden’s face to see if she could be Tumchhingi. To his disappointment, he found the berries to be far more beautiful than the maiden. So, he traversed on to find the woman of his dreams.

He came across another house with another maiden busy on her loom. Like before, Raldawna used his slingshot to shoot at the loom and get the maiden’s attention. She too turned out to be far less beautiful than the nightshade berries Raldawna had been carrying.

After a long search, he finally reached another house. This house too had a maiden who was weaving. Like the previous times, Raldawna again shot at the loom to attract the maiden. When she looked up, he was filled with relief because he knew for sure that this was Tumchhingi as the nightshade berries could barely compare to her beauty.

Tumchhingi and Raldawna: The elopement
Raldawna approached Tumchhingi and introduced himself. The two of them became fast friends and spent some time chatting with each other. Tumchhingi too felt an attraction towards Raldawna, who was a handsome and robust young man. And after hearing how he searched high and low for her, she instantly grew fond of him and admired his determination. 

There are some variations in how people tell the story of what happened after Raldawna and Tumchhingi became acquainted. Since Mizo folktales were passed down from generation to generation through word-of-mouth, there are often differences in certain details. Some tell the story with Raldawna asking Tumchhingi’s parents for her hand in marriage, after which they tied the knot and headed for Raldawna’s village.

But in most versions, Raldawna invites Tumchhingi to follow him home while her parents are out in the fields. The reason behind this invitation is because Raldawna feared that Tumchhingi’s parents may be against their marriage. After some hesitation, Tumchhingi finally obliged and quickly packed her things. The two lovers then headed for Raldawna’s village to get married.

The bronze comb of Tumchhingi
Tumchhingi and Raldawna had been traveling for some time and were already far away from Vanchung village when Tumchhingi realized that she had forgotten her bronze comb. But before she could head back to get it, Raldawna offered to go in her stead. He was afraid that her parents might have been back by now so if she went back, they might try to stop her from marrying him. This detail supports the version of the story in which the two lovers eloped instead of married with Tumchhingi’s parents’ permissions.

But the problem was that it wasn’t safe for Tumchhingi to stay all alone either. Luckily, they found a big banyan tree nearby. So Raldawna set up a wooden platform on its branches. He advised Tumchhingi to stay here without making a sound and then headed back to the village to fetch the bronze comb.

After a while, an ugly and horrendous creature named Phungpuinu passed by the area where Tumchhingi was waiting. Although there is no exact translation of what kind of creature a Phungpuinu is, she could pass off as an ogress. She’s often described as dirty and stinky creature with tangled messy hair and is always female. In my childhood, I often pictured her as a creature with soot-black skin and monstrous teeth.

The encounter between Tumchhingi and Phungpuinu
As the Phungpuinu reached the banyan tree, she happened to see Tumchhingi’s shadow on the ground and mistook it for her own. So she stopped there and admired her figure, dancing and singing about the ornaments adorning her shadow.

Meanwhile, Tumchhingi was silently observing her and was amused by the creature’s naivety. Finally, she couldn’t keep quiet any longer and laughed out loud. She shouted to the Phungpuinu, “Phungpuinu, that’s my shadow; not yours.”

The Phungpuinu looked up and saw Tumchhingi prettily perched on the platform that Raldawna had set up for her. “What are you doing up there?” the Phungpuinu asked. “I’m waiting for my Raldawna,” replied Tumchhingi. “How did you get up there?” asked the Phungpuinu. But Tumchhingi did not want to tell her the truth.

First she told the Phungpuinu that she climbed the tree with her body upside down. But when the Phungpuinu tried to follow this advice to climb the tree, she failed miserably and fell down in a heap on the ground. The creature asked Tumchhingi again how she climbed the tree, to which she responded that she climbed up sideways. So the Phungpuinu attempted to climb the tree sideways but couldn’t get anywhere.

Realizing that the young maiden had been lying to her, the Phungpuinu became frustrated and was seething with rage. Afraid to further anger her, Tumchhingi finally told her how to climb the tree. The next thing she knew, the horrendous creature was perched right next to her.

“Let’s look for lice in each other’s hair,” the Phungpuinu asked, “you start with mine.” Several stories have mentioned women combing each other’s hair while looking for lice. This seemed to be one of the activities olden-day Mizo women indulged in during their free time, which comes rarely.

Tumchhingi reluctantly combed her fingers through the creature’s dirty and messy hair, which was filled with huge lice the size of eggplants. After a while, it was the Phungpuinu’s turn to look for lice in Tumchhingi’s hair. She combed through the maiden’s fine hair and found that her scalp was clean and bright with no lice to be found. The sight made her salivate as she started craving for human flesh.

Phungpuinu’s evil plan
The hungry Phungpuinu began cooking up a plan as her craving grew stronger. She wanted to eat Tumchhingi without suffering Raldawna’s wrath. At last, she asked the maiden if she could try on her bangles just to see how well they suited her. Tumchhingi, not daring to refuse, gave her the bangles to try on.

Then the Phungpuinu asked, “Give me your necklace too. I want to see how they look on me.” Tumchhingi reluctantly handed over her necklace. But this wasn’t the end. The Phungpuinu continued asking for everything Tumchhingi was wearing – from her blouse to her puan. A puan is a sarong-like cloth worn by Mizo women as traditional attire.

In modern times, Mizo women mostly wear their puan on Sundays and on special occasions like weddings. But back then, puan was the everyday wear for Mizo women. They would have a couple of casual-wear puan and maybe one celebratory puan for festivals and other special events.

Eventually, the Phungpuinu was clad in everything Tumchhingi had been wearing. The latter now stood with bare flesh, which further tempted the creature. Without another thought, the Phungpuinu opened her mouth wide and gobbled up Tumchhingi whole. This gives another suggestion of the Phungpuinu’s physical features – either she has a massive mouth or she can expand her mouth as desired.

Raldawna honours his promise
The next part of the story sounds somewhat similar to a story that you’re all familiar with – Little Red Riding Hood. And it would be interesting to point out that some Mizo stories have similarities in terms of plotlines or certain elements with several other folktales from around the world. I find this interesting because many of these folktales originated at a time when the Mizos had little to no contact with people from outside their community.

When Raldawna returned to see Phungpuinu now clad in Tumchhingi’s clothing, he was crushed. Was this the beautiful maiden he had intended to marry? Giving her the benefit of the doubt, he asked, “O Tumchhing, how did your eyes get so big and stretched?” “It’s because I strained them so hard while watching out for your return,” answered the Phungpuinu.

Unconvinced, Raldawna proceeded to ask, “O Tumchhing, how did your fingers become so long and pointed?” “It’s because I kept pointing and pointing towards the direction from where you’ll return,” the Phungpuinu answered. Although still unconvinced and disappointed, Raldawna felt that it would be wrong to dishonor his promise if this woman was indeed Tumchhingi. So he half-heartedly took her home as his wife.

 The story of how the Phungpuinu dresses up as Tumchhingi and then ends up marrying Raldawna is also somehow similar to the story of “The Fern Girl” found in An Illustrated Treasury of Fairy and Folk Tales by James Riordan. The story is a translation from a Mongolian-Tartar folktale and has several versions.

This particular version talks about a fern nurtured by an old lady and then turning into a human baby. The baby grows up to become a beautiful maiden, who finds a husband from a prominent family. On her way to her husband’s house, the girl gets waylaid by the Devil’s daughter, who asks for her clothing and jewelry and strips her of her skin to dress up as the maiden.

The return of Tumchhingi
As most folklore and fairy tales, the story of Tumchhingi and Raldawna has a happy ending in most versions. So you can guess that this isn’t the end of Tumchhingi. You remember that the Phungpuinu ate her up. After digesting her, the creature defecated in the outskirts of the village. What the creature didn’t realize was that her fecal matter contained a single seed.

Within a few days, the seed grew into a lush calabash tree bearing a single fruit. Many people passed by the tree every day on their way to the fields and some even tried to pluck the fruit. But the fruit was too high up in the tree that none could succeed.

Raldawna, however, managed to pluck it on his first try. The fruit was perfectly-rounded and strikingly beautiful. Admiring its beauty, Raldawna decided to take the fruit home. He kept it near the hearth so it would dry and produce cultivatable seeds. Little did he know, Tumchhingi was living inside the calabash.

While Raldawna and the Phungpuinu were out in the fields, Tumchhingi would leave the fruit and turn into a human again. She would then prepare a scrumptious meal for them to eat once they got back home. The magical appearance of a full-course meal puzzled Raldawna, as even his neighbors denied having prepared the meal for them.

So one day, he decided to spy on whoever had been producing the meals. He left the house as always and pretended to set out for the fields with his wife. But once he reached the courtyard, he snuck back and waited outside the house for the mysterious cook to appear. The houses back then were made of bamboo so Raldawna could see into the house by looking through a gap between two bamboo panels.

Towards evening, he was greeted by a sight that took his breath away. Tumchhingi magically appeared from the calabash and started preparing the meals as always. When Raldawna regained his senses, he silently entered the house and grabbed her by the hands. But to his disappointment, Tumchhingi wasn’t as joyful as he was at their reunion.

“Please let me go, Raldawn. Let me go before your wife comes back and gobbles me up again,” she cried. But Raldawna held on tight, promising her that he wouldn’t let that happen again.

Tumchhingi gets her revenge
As Tumchhingi was struggling to break free from Raldawna’s embrace, the Phungpuinu returned. She stood outside and asked her husband to open the door. But Raldawna wouldn’t respond. The creature then peeked in through the gap in the walls and became livid when she saw Tumchhingi. She broke open the door hurling threats at the beautiful maiden whom her husband was embracing.

Before the Phungpuinu could do anything, Raldawna intervened and suggested that the two have a fair fight. He each armed them with a machete and a cloth for armor. What the Phungpuinu didn’t know, however, was that Raldawna had given her a blunt machete and a scrap of cloth. As he had her under hypnosis, she was under the impression that the machete was the sharpest and the cloth was the thickest.

Tumchhingi was armed with the sharpest machete in the house and shielded with the thickest blanket. The two of them began fighting and prancing about to avoid each other’s blows. The Phungpuinu managed to hit Tumchhingi first but was taken aback when she found that the machete did nothing to harm the maiden.

While the Phungpuinu froze in confusion, Tumchhingi jumped at the opportunity to strike the creature hard with her sharp machete. This blow cut off the Phungpuinu in half and instantly killed her.

So that’s the story of how Tumchhingi got her revenge on a horrible creature that had swallowed her whole. Although Raldawna played a role in the revenge and helped make it happen, she was the one who carried out the act and dealt the final blow that killed the Phungpuinu.

Final thoughts on the story of Tumchhingi and Raldawna
At first glance, the story of Tumchhingi and Raldawna is a story of two lovers. But if we take a closer look into it, we can find many elements that speak of the strength and hard work of Tumchhingi. It can be said that the protagonist of the story is Tumchhingi and the antagonist is the Phungpuinu, while Raldawna is more of a love interest.

The story highlights the love Tumchhingi had for Raldawna as she came back from the dead and magically appeared from a calabash to take care of him. And with his help, she took care of the creature that was responsible for her death.

So in a way, this is a story of a strong and faithful woman who avenged her own death, in the guise of a love story. Unlike traditional fairytales and folklore, where male protagonists save the fair maidens, the maiden fights her own battle with some help from her lover.

Jacqueline Zote developed a passion for writing at a young age and is currently working as a content writer. Simplicity forms the basis of her work. Many of her writings are aimed at promoting Mizo culture and folklore, as well as at women empowerment. She contributed a piece of fiction titled "The Other Side of the Looking Glass: a Retelling of Mizo Folklore" to the book "Centrepiece: New Writing and Art from Northeast India" which was recently published by Zubaan Books and is available at Amazon.

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