IN many vernacular languages sprouting from Sanskrit,adi means the first, the beginning. The stories of the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh encompassing myths, oral histories but echoing to the present as in Mamang Dai’s The Legends of Pensamexude the same kind of feeling, as if they have been flowing in seamlessly from time immemorial to this day.

Middle ground

The word pensam has a special meaning too, as the author explains: it means “in-between”; a middle ground; “but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows.” Here nothing is out of the world, anything can happen. For, life is but a little boat that traverses through a gentle stream as well as a river in spate, and man has to accept it. The Adis are one of the 26 major tribes (not counting numerous sub-clans) of Arunachal Pradesh, formerly known as NEFA, lying at the foothills of the Himalayas and sharing international borders with Bhutan, China and Myanmar. Being adherents of the animistic faith, the Adis believe in co-existence with the natural world and the spirit that is part of the forests, rivers and the vales. Thus their stories reflect a half-revealed and half-concealed world, sometimes to be felt by the subconscious rather than seen with ordinary eyes. Violence too lurks behind the serene hills, true to Nature with its two facets. Witness the story about the sudden and mysterious death of Kalen, the hunter, or in the way Kamur, a perfectly normal man, suddenly takes up a dao (machete) and hacks his baby-girl and lunges at his wife (Pinyar, the widow). Later overcome with remorse at what he had done he asks for forgiveness pleading that he had no memory of those “black moments”. Though the people condemn him, they also know that “it was a nebulous zone that divided the world of spirits and men” and that “real could well be an illusion”. The mythical stories of the tribe is linked to the present by the presence of a city-dweller, or a high profile journalist — a distraught mother of a child who suddenly stops speaking; she now travels to meet another woman like her in the far away hills (“The Silence of Adela and Kepi”) whose child also suffered from the same affliction `due to a spirit’ and in the process learns to accept it because `these things happen”.

Different feel

This device gives the book a different feel from a straight narrative of folk tales and the reader becomes both an observer — looking from a distance at a lifestyle that seems alien and quaint, but at the same time a participant mesmerised by the legends. It is an interesting way of presenting an ethnic group’s cultural ethos and beliefs, which would seem unreal to modern sensibilities. But then one suddenly realises that such oral traditions reflecting a people’s values and beliefs have been part of every community through the ages though they may have been submerged in the clatter of the machine-age. It is from this view too that a book like Dai’s is valuable because while it gives readers the glimpse of a tiny corner of a world largely unknown to the outside world, it also preserves in print nuggets of oral history. Mamang Dai is a poet too and her lyrical quality runs eloquently through her narration. “When Huxo first opened his eyes to the world, he saw green. A green wall of trees and bamboo, and a green waterfall that sprayed his cheek and washed the giant fern that seemed to be waving to him.” (“The boy who fell from the sky”). The beautiful cover design adds to the charm of the book



Interconnected  Short Stories 

Review by blogger Violetcrush

Legends of Pensam is a book of short stories which are interconnected so it doesn’t really give you a feel of reading separate stories. Every character and every story is intermingled.

The book is set in the territory of Adis in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, India. It is set in Pensam which is known as an in-between place. The book is an intricate web of stories, images and the history of the tribe.

In our language, the language of the Adis, the word ‘pensam’ means ‘in-between’. It suggests the middle, or middle ground, but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows. It is the small world where anything can happen and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song.

It’s a land of mountains, rivers, old legends, spirits, and resilience. The narrator takes us through this region and its stories. Born and brought up here the narrator knows many people and their past and present stories, some true, some legends.

There is a story about Hoxo who was believed to have fallen from the sky. One day his father brings him home and tells his wife and the villagers that the sky has gifted him this boy. In this land of spirits and mountains where anything can happen and everything can be lived, no body questions this.

There are stories of hardship, of men and women accepting their fate and making the best of it.

And I saw again how their days were passing; the fire burning brightly in the hearth, the dogs curled up close to the flames, the cot in the corner. Life moved on quite normally, except that like so many others in so many unseen recesses all over the world, they hid their pain, while the seasons turned.

Out of all the stories, there is one particular story which I loved. The story of Nenem. Nenem is the only daughter of a respected elder of a village. She makes the mistake of falling in love with an Englishman, David. Obviously it creates a scandal. But David cannot stay there for ever and Nenem cannot leave her mountains, rivers and her land and go with him. So they part ways.

At night the sky above the village was full of stars, and every night Nenem said to herself,’No one dies of love. I loved him, and now I am enough on my own.’

After some years Nenem resigns to her fate and gets married to Kao. She has one girl with him. Although she is a good wife to him, she is always distant and detached. As time passes she is finally content with what she has. A home, a husband and a daughter. After some years though when their village is flooded, they have to move to another place. That’s when she cannot take the pain and goes to the river one day only to be found dead.

But what I found most appealing is not the stories, but the language. Mamang Dai is so good with words that I sometimes read the passages twice just to re-experience the beauty of her words. Not a word is misplaced, nor a metaphor unnecessarily added. The description of the mountains, the rivers, and the rain is so beautiful that you feel transported to the place or you at least wish you were there.

In dreams, my people say, they see the rain mother sitting on the treetops, laughing in the mist. Her silver ornaments clink as she rides the wind, brandishing her sword.
Every time she twirls her skirt, the storm clouds edged with black rush up to cover her.

But these are my most favorite lines from the book.

The most beautiful thing is that we are all bunched up together on oceans and cities, and deserts and valleys, far apart from each other in so many ways, but we have words, and the right words open our minds and hearts and help us recognize one another.


“Being adherents of the animistic faith, the tribes here believe in co-existence with the natural world along with the presence of spirits in their forests and rivers.”Sandhya Iyer

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