By L. Keivom
The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude. – Thornton Wilder
It was May 13, 2013, a lucky day for some and a fateful day for another. My nephew and co-traveler in the realm of historical research Dr. Lal Dena rang me up from Imphal at 1658 hrs to break the news that Dr. Thanglora left for his eternal home a few minutes ago. I had been preparing for this news any moment since his admission in New Life Hospital, Aizawl on March 16 for pneumonia-related complications coupled with the inevitable curse of ageing. He was 93 running, more than a decade beyond Moses’ time-line. But when the end came, the shock was no less cruel despite my mental preparations. There is no cushion or cure to bear softly the crushing blow of death. Every human being knows its inevitability and finality.
Thanglora was my next neighbor, my headmaster and mentor. When he came to establish Pherzawl High School in 1951, I was only 12 years running, doing Class IV at the rickety Independent Church Middle School with only two teachers. He stayed next to our house at Muolveng, a medium thatched and bamboo-matted house after its owner Hnuna (Dovelpa) migrated to Rengkai Road in Churachandpur town. We were deliriously excited to have a BA next to our door. None was available in our vast area those days. His was the first BA face we ever set our eyes on. He looked gentle, unimposing, kind, intelligent and knowledgeable. There was a streak of radiance in his smile difficult to describe in words. It’s something like the smile of a new moon on a clear and soft eventide. They said he could tell the number of leaves a tree has just by touching its trunk. Wow!
Naturally, we were excited beyond words. He was the object of our veneration and our new hope for the transformation of our people and our area by the gentle touch of his magic wand. We ate and drank with great gusto every single word that came out of his gentle and gracious mouth as the marriage party in Cana did of the special wine divinely brewed by the honoured Guest. Thanglora was a good communicator, an excellent tale teller especially in a homely surrounding where simple village folks sat around the warmth of the hearth leisurely smoking their homemade bamboo pipes stuffed with locally produced potent substance, their Golden Virginia tobacco that produced nicotic fumes powerful enough to drive away stinging insects and house pests. The entranced folks inhaled every wordy aroma coming out his mouth.
Most of all, Thanglora was a born teacher who could make every subject intelligible and interesting. I joined his school in 1953 by skipping Class VI as our headmaster left to work at the high school. Students from Mizoram, Tripura, Cachar and North Cachar Hills and every nook and corner of South Manipur hills came to study in his school. Being a Zo nationalist and integrationist to the core and also the President of the Mizo Union in the area for some time, he encouraged and nurtured the growth of Zo nationalism through a fusion of Zo culture, especially in secular songs with students from Mizoram playing a major role. It was during this time that I picked up many songs in Lusei as it was then called as well as the dialect itself. Much later, I realized that my vision of a strong united Zo nation was born unconsciously during those formative years but it took many years to develop into a concrete shape. Zoram Khawvel serial is the product of that vision. Thanks to Thanglora and our visionary chief Pu Dolur who turned Pherzawl as a hub of education and Zo cultural integration in South Manipur.
In fact, Thanglora himself composed a few romantic songs which were very popular in Hmar area those days. The one I still remember was set to the tune of Pastor Khuma Biete’s hymn in Hmar, “Jerusalem khaw kawl Kalvari muolah.” This kind of song set in a borrowed tune is known as Kaihlek/Keilet (Lushai/Hmar). Religious fanatics regarded it as a parody of a sacred hymn and therefore to be avoided by the believers. A closer look at Zo kaihlek songs would however indicate that the use of hymn tunes by some song writers was chiefly prompted by their inability to compose a tune and not by any ulterior motive or calculation to profane the sanctity of a sacred hymn or song. Rather, it is simply borrowing the tune of a song, whether sacred or mundane, and set in other lyrics. In short, Kaihlek is composing a song employing the tune of another song. It has nothing to do with godliness or ungodliness. Many Christian hymns in the past were ‘kaihlek’ or rendition of secular songs. Nothing sacrilegious about it. Two of my songs (Sakhming Khawvel & Hmangai Nunrawng) and Darkamlo’s popular piece ‘O Di O Di lungrunpui’ are kaihleks from Hindi-film songs. If one takes as an offence, the problem lies with the level of understanding of the offender. The refrain of Thanglora’s love song mentioned above when translated runs like this:
“I long to see my love, my sweetheart, My blooming rhodo and my heart’s content, Born to beautify Hmar hills and vales.”
Let me stretch a little further on this topic to highlight the important role Thanglora played in this field. Since Christianity came to our area, there had been a persistent tendency to replace every cultural and religious practices and expressions with the practices of the new religion. The new converts had come to view almost every form of our cultural expressions as a pagan practice and therefore satanic. Our traditional songs were replaced by translated Christian hymns from the west with tunes far detached from ours. We became caged creatures taught to parrot only western hymns with alien tunes. Boys and girls could no longer express their feelings in songs and music. On social events and gatherings, we had to content with borrowed hymns howsoever irrelevant they might be for the occasions. For us trapped souls in the name of religion, our only freedom was monkeying the western culture to avoid clerical affront and their shuddering threats of eternal damnation.
It was at this juncture that the Young Lushai Association (YLA)’s clarification of December 6, 1947 came which defined what kind of songs that YLA (later changed into YMA) members could sing. The holistic YMA clarification allowed its members to sing ‘Hla Lenglawng’ on YMA and social occasions and this covered any song which was not a Sacred Song. However, songs that contained expressions which were offensive, immodest, indecent, obscene and vulgar should be avoided. The clarification also contained words of encouragement to those with poetic abilities to compose songs on nature, country, people, nation, social life, patriotism and nationalism which resulted in the spurt of secular songs with Rokunga leading the march. The landmark publication of his compilation, ‘Thalaite Hla Bu’ in 1952 was to a great extent the outcome of cultural movement generated by the YMA clarification mentioned above.
The explosion of ‘Hla Lenglawng’ coincided with the birth of independent India. A new political party called Mizo Union was also born with an agenda first to free the people from the clutches of their autocratic rulers. Many sarcastic and taunting hla lenglawngs denigrating the chiefs and their henchmen came out in numbers but the church could no longer resist singing these songs as many church leaders themselves belonged to the commoner’s side and got actively involved in the movement. Though some of the political hla lenglawngs definitely crossed the parameters of YMA clarification, they became songs of freedom from bondage and the church had to learn how to tolerate it for its own good and survival. The Gordian Knot was cut off with YMA playing the role of Alexander the Great.
Thanglora was the product of that generation, a generation at the crossroads, of old and new, of bondage and freedom, of fears and hopes, of the vanishing British Empire and the dawning of India’s freedom. The key role the elites played in the growth of ‘hla lenglawng’ at this crucial period cannot be overstated. Being the apple of public veneration, the elites enjoyed highest respect and therefore, their support and encouragement of hla hlenglawng greatly helped in stifling, if not removing, church opposition to it. Many of the Hmar ‘hla lenglawngs’ which are still popular even after six decades were the product of this generation with Pherzawl and its neighboring villages playing the leading role. It can therefore be said without demur that, apart from his pioneering role in education, Thanglora left an indelible imprint in the growth of secular Hmar literature even though he might not be aware of it. Perhaps, he was divinely ordained to play that role. He came in the nick of time, played his role effectively, turned Pherzawl and its High School as a launching pad for educational and cultural activities and then left for another place to continue his civilizing mission till his last breadth. For people with a clear mission, there is no holiday in their life’s journey. Life is too short and precious to while away.
The last time I met him was at his modest house in Edenthar Veng in Aizawl on April 22, 2012. I took David Buhril and my son David Keivom with me. I wondered why they called the place Edenthar Veng (New Eden Locality) as the locality and its surroundings to me bore no sign of Edenness. In my Diary of that day, I wrote, “I went to visit Dr. H.Thanglora at his residence in Edenthar Veng. He was sitting all alone in the verandah, looking vacantly. His wife was not there- on a visit to someone’s house. He was already 92 years young but his mental and hearing faculties including his eyes were still very good. I presented him my book IMPRESSIONS ON KEIVOM. His wife Nekawi (S.N.Hnemi-Thangthriengnu) was 86 running.” As I did in my previous visits, I inquired from him the status of his promised memoirs which I always asked every time I visited him and which he promised he would write when he found time to do so. I knew from experience that people who said the same never wrote or finished their memoirs as the time to do is always ‘now’ and not later. He was still busy chasing his dream- a dream of opening a good educational institution despite the very many high schools (7) and colleges (5) he had already either opened or served as principal. The more he associated himself with the spread of education, the greater his thirst for a better institution became. Therefore, he had little or no time for his own affairs.
It will take years to assess the full impact Thanglora’s sacrifice has on the society. In my capacity as an Indian diplomat, I had visited all the continents on this planet. A number of people of substance I came across in different parts of India and abroad were either former pupils of Thanglora or their children. Members of my family alone spread out from New Zealand to United States of America “on which the sun never sets” as Christopher North (1785-1854) said of the British Empire. We are always thankful to God and his handyman Thanglora who brought education to our doorstep. Had he not volunteered to open high school at Pherzawl, many of us and our descendants would still be struggling with thorns and bushes with dao and hoe in hand amidst blood sucking leeches, stinging sandflies and malaria-carrying mosquitoes under oppressive sun and rain. He was our redeemer and savior in life. Many officers of the top civil services in India, educationists and academicians, doctors, engineers, cabinet ministers, church ministers, missionaries, poets, writers, and social workers were his former pupils. Few or no educationists amongst us could produce so much as his and he fully deserved his name ‘Thanglora’ which means ‘standing out in fame.’
Rest in peace, my great teacher and beloved master.
(L. Keivom is a retired Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer. He is also a writer, historian and has also authored many books including the “Zoram Khawvel” series.)