“It is the imperfect, the not-so-good fruits or leaves that are the best. When you pick the leaves for medicine, the ones eaten by the insects are better than the perfect ones ignored by the insects. Remember, the same goes for people. If they seem too good, know that they are dangerous.”
As Sangailiu picked the herbs for her mother-in-law, the wise words of her grandmother came back to her. It is the way of her people to simplify most things and concentrate only on what really matters. Other people from faraway places who do not know their ways take them to be simple people.
The herbal leaves seem to be tinged with melancholy. Sangailiu tried to see beauty in everything. But this season she had to really try hard. Her family is going through a complex and challenging reality. This is the true nature of life. When you think you can relax a bit, after the most difficult phase is over, another problem crops up. A short time of calm, like the calm before a storm, and then devastating news.
Muh-jung, the chief priest offered the sacrifices on behalf of the villagers in the Puk-pha ngai, the pre-harvest festival after all the field work was done. The elderly folks sang and chanted for a rich harvest for all the families. After that, the people got really busy, bringing home the paddy from their fields. Then they got to preparing for the harvest festival. This year is the third harvest after the debilitating famine the village had gone through. After the Rih-Chuk had been performed, the land had healed and the people and crops regenerated. The people are excited to be celebrating a good harvest again. The men brought out their musical instruments nkhuangh, drum; simiew, gong and siamtuai, cymbal to check and repair if needed. Although they were not going to use all these musical instruments at this particular festival, they were just happy the village was prospering again. Some played on the nrah, fiddle, alim, flute, in anticipation of the celebration.
Kadiganglung and his family too prepared for the upcoming harvest festival. The broken walls got mended, the steps to the house repaired, the area near the insuang–rah cleared up of all the wild weeds and the inrap, restocked. The adults had one and thousand things to do, but it was a different story for the children.
The smaller children ran about busy in their own ways preparing for the festival. Around these time, they too were given some slack. Some of the boys were making mud pelts for their nouripai, catapults. The little girls of the families got together at one of their cousins’ house to weave their miniature waist looms. Their great grandfather, was good in making the weaving tools for them. All the girls’ miniature tambian, nuk-bung, anu-riang, were all made by him. He was the hero for the little girls. He was one of the team members who made the Rih–Chuk possible. The village folks knew him to be an effective speaker and an initiator to bring positive changes to the village. But all these attributes of their great grandfather were not known to the little girls, at least till they grew up and learnt about him from the Liuchu teachers. For now, he was the go-to person when one of their nuk-bungs got misplaced, or got broken.
Their grandmother, Kadiganglung-pui, help them set up their pheijii, waist looms, whenever they came to her house. After Kadiganglung’s marriage, the three eldest sons’ families lived separately. The laibu-phakmei, formal separation of the hearth fire, was kept off till after the family’s last marriage, Kadiganglung’s, took place. Unlike some other families in the village, all her sons waited for the eldest to take a wife and then the next one and so on. Kadiganglung’s parents were happy to see their sons respect and follow tradition. It was a matter of pride and joy for the clan elders too.
On the day of the harvest festival, temporary cooking laibus, fireplaces, were made in the village gathering place by bringing stones that would not burst and crack like thunder when heated by the fire. Cooking pots from many families were brought. Several younger women came to help in the preparation of communal food for the feast, their children in tow. All of Sangailiu’s sisters-in-law too came with their younger children. They brought with them all kinds of vegetables and fruits, but most precious was the salt they brought. Salt was one of the most valuable commodities for the people in those regions. Salt was procured from far off villages.
The harvest festival went off very well for the village. Even after everyone had eaten as much as they wanted, so much food was left over. The cooks and supervisors packed small packets and were given out as gifts to families who had children and infirm living with them. Before the cooking had started, good pieces of meat were portioned and sent to families who had elders. As the evening wore on, food was presented to the guests. Some of the burnt rice and vegetable left over were divided among the woman who cooked and served.
Soon after the harvest festival was over, Sangailiu’s mother became sicker. She and her mother-in-law sat on the imphak, after their evening meal of ganmakhui garnished with bone marrow and taptaisu tam. The fire from the maimang was slowly dimming, only a soft glow remained. The cat’s eyes in the corner glowed like a bright star.
The village was silent except for the shrill and intermittent insect sounds outside. The widow neighbour’s creaking of the tariang, which was part of the night sound cut into the cricket noises. She was notorious for her late night spinning. Every woman in the kaibuk knew she works at night. Sangailiu, as she administered the medicine on her mother-in-law for her skin allergies, started to weep silently. Her grandmother had died before she could see her child and now her mother-in-law too was very sick.
Sensing her heavy heaving her mother-in-law said, “Let go of the past. The past is no longer here. What is past is past. Let it go. Start from here. I may also not live to see your son grow tall and strong, but I know you will be there. Supporting him in all that he will do for his people. His name will be known far and wide.”
Sangailiu’s mother-in-law had accepted her condition. The lump in her breast was growing rapidly, like a fruit that could not wait to become red and juicy. There are things that can’t be changed. That’s life. Changing seasons, birth, life, illness and death. These are significant changes. Sometimes change will be fast as the flowing river or waterfall or slow like an orchid bloom.
Sangailiu was doing her best to slow down the growth in her mother-in-law. One particular night, her mother-in-law was in a mood to talk. She continued with another perspective on life. “Bamboo is firmly rooted and its clump is big. When the wind blows, it bends. Grow like the bamboo. When storm comes, flow with the storm like the bamboo. It bends. It survives. We may be blowing about, but we survive. Surviving is important”.
Winter was leaving and spring was on its way again. Early spring bloomed again. As sangailiu worked on the spinning wheel, wounding the yarn on the sea heart, memories came flooding back of her conversation with her grandmother long time ago. She was a little girl back then. She remembered asking her grandmother, “Why do you like so much to sing that song?” Her grandmother was singing the song of the prophesied birth of a Liantuang in Makuiluangdi. Her grandmother had said that she loved singing that song, “Because a Liantuang will be able to deliver us from the enemies. You see, a man with supernatural strength is called a Liantuang. He is so strong, he’ll be able to fight and defeat hundreds of people by himself. The enemy villages will be afraid of us. And most importantly, the mothers will stop shedding tears for lost sons.” All throughout her pregnancy, Sangailiu had been dreaming of ripe pumpkins, red chilies, big boulders and most recently spears and shields.
Many months had passed, and Sangailiu’s mother was still alive to see her grandson born. Sangailiu’s pain was quickly forgotten as soon as the baby was put into her arms. It was a boy.
“It’s a boy!” cried the midwife delightedly. The grandfather hushed her, “Don’t announce it too loudly. Ram thai mak mei kum mah, as if you don’t know better.”
From outside, some members of the khangchiu called out “He’s for our Khangchiu”. Then they came in and gifted a rooster and went back to their Khangchiu. On hearing that the midwife was called for, they had come to claim the membership for their Khangchiu, in case it was a boy. Some members from the Liuchu too came, hoping that it’ll be a girl, but they went back disappointed.
“You know I’m exceedingly happy. This child is different,” informed the midwife, to no one in particular.
Then she performed the Buh Kaomei, rite, calling of the soul.
“Please come, Soul of long life, eternal Soul”.
Thus was ensured long life for the child.
Kadiganglung’s father and grandfather were filled with joy to see the excitement of the midwife, but they did not show any emotions on their faces. They did not want the spirits to hear them.
The grandfather took the placenta, wrapped it in a banana leaf, chanted the ritualistic rites over it and buried it in the corner of the room. Kadiganglung’s mother remembered how her husband had buried her youngest son’s placenta behind the field-hut and how she had called on the spirits to protect her child.
After wiping down the baby, the midwife exclaimed again, “This son of yours is a special one! I don’t know for sure, but he seems to have only one wrist bone. It was said in the olden times that only Liantuangs have one wrist bone and not two, like us ordinary people.”
Hearing that, Sangailiu and her mother-in-law looked at each other, their eyes locking with shared knowledge the others present there were unaware off. They already knew that this child was going to be special. They don’t know exactly yet, but all throughout the pregnancy, both of them had been having similar dreams about the coming child. It was not only the male elders who in their dreams met their ancestors, understood the omens and also reconnected with the departed family members.
Kadiganglung was in the outer room, pretending to be doing some work. Had he been the eldest son having a child for the first time, he would have been teased to embarrassment by the midwife and other women who came to help. Fortunately, he was left alone. This family have had many children before his son was born.
Menfolk usually do not interfere much in these birthing matters, but because of all the excitement surrounding this birth, Kadiganglung’s grandfather feebly asked to hold his great grandson for some time.
“My great grandson, if you are the prophesied Liantuang of the ancient days, like Hiluang of olden times, may you protect your people,
May you take many heads, may many women be charmed.
May you bring fame and pride to your nangpu-nangpou kik tah, your ancestors.
May you too hear the voice of the great spirit whose voice I hear in the winds.
May you have great strength, not to be greater than your brother, but to fight our enemy.
May your short life be long, filling it with feats of greatness but remember
‘If you wish somebody’s child dead, your child will die’, for it was said so.”
He chanted more wisdom teachings for some more time and then gave the baby back.
Sangailiu was tired and was jip-kum rak-kum, between wakefulness and sleep. She was ready to doze off to sleep after the hard labour, for the child was a big one, but she was jolted to wakefulness. She felt goose bumps all over her body. She had no idea at all that the old man remembered the story of the prophesied birth of a Liantuang. He never spoke of it. But then elderly people give information only at appropriate times and do not often engage in idle talk. Kadiganglung’s grandfather was the silent type. He was more of a thinker and doer, than a talker.
Kadiganglung’s mother heard about the prophesy of the birth of a Liantuang from her grandmother. And Sangailiu too heard about it from her grandmother. Though they belonged to different villages, their people, once upon a time in the distant past were one.
On the seventh day after Kadiganglung’s son was born, his grandfather named him Liantuang. From that day onwards, Kadiganglung was never called again by his name. He was addressed by all as Liantuang-pu. Sangailiu was addressed as Liantuang-pui.