Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam
Title: Escaping the Land
Author: Mamang Dai
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Escaping the Land (2021) by Mamang Dai is a gripping saga of turbulent times in Arunachal Pradesh from the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) days to the present times. Padmashri and Sahitya Akademi Awardee, Mamang Dai, is an anglophone poet and novelist from Arunachal Pradesh.
In Escaping the Land, Mamang Dai weaves the history, myth and politics of Arunachal Pradesh across time. Maying, the narrator returns to her homeland from Delhi to do a project on the land of her birth and its people. Dai uses Maying to recount the story, blending fiction and history from when the state was governed as the NEFA to becoming the twenty-fourth state of India as Arunachal Pradesh in 1987.
Maying meets Lutor, the ageing veteran politician and the son of a shaman, who is loved by the people and has had a long and successful career in politics since the formation of the state, to share “the story of a long ago when everything had been different and full of possibilities”. As she runs through the flow of time from the past to the present, Maying ruminates over Lutor’s idea of the “original obsession” that all of us are born with and the power of “dreams” and “instinct”. As the story begins, Maying picks up an old journal marked NEFA notebook and shuffles through the old piece of memorabilia to reflect, “The lives of people in every village and district had changed since the time this piece of fern had been so carefully pressed in between the thin pages of the book”.
Dai divides the book into five sections. The story opens with the view of a traditional house that stands on a hill with thick bamboo thickets and mountainous region. The author talks of the essence of dates and calendars in the lives of the people of a close-knit community in a remote part of the state, where tradition and family mattered. Time is an overarching theme in the novel. “Time had a method”, where everything happened in stages and history was written as it came. Dai’s novel recounts changes in time and history in the place and culture of the people of the state with emphasis on Pasighat, which was also her hometown.
Dai’s story interestingly accommodates an avalanche of landmark incidents in the history of the north-eastern state of India including battles against oppression starting from 1911, the Achingmori incident (1953), the India-China War (1962), the liberation of Bangladesh (1971) and its impact on the state, the passing of the infamous Bill for Control of Organised Crime Act (APOCO), and also, on migration and infiltration of outsiders. References to attending boarding school in Shillong, going to Delhi for higher education, or taking long hours of ferrying across the tumultuous tributaries of the Brahmaputra river that flow in the region for a sarkari job, Dai reflects through the fiction the sea of change experienced in the lives of men and women in terms of education and perceptions of security in moving in or out of their homes.
Experiences of the horrors and violence in the face of insurgency, militancy and atrocities in the times of war that the people faced are vividly incorporated in some sections of the story. In times of uncertainty in the story, dreams and reality collide in a delirious mix of magic and mystery. Dai fuses myth as a consolation to the harsh realities of history. A mystic rain man heralds that change and loss of solitude cannot be halted. Though it is often reiterated that “We are safe in the hills” speedy changes in time made Lutor and his close friends rethink the credibility of this remark. Dai explodes beautiful metaphors that are specific to the culture, cross-cultural references to the exchange of people and culture from outside India, other parts of India and of the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, and Manipur.
In the shifting times, money and greed have engulfed traits of love and loyalty for one’s land and people. Time moved to stages of no return from how it was in the mythical time of the ancient civilization of the Kojum-Koja of the land, to when politics seemed to overtake every move in the place. The story highlights the sentiments of the people in the midst of the politics of inclusion and exclusion in the periphery.
As candidate for the office of Chief Minister, Lutor promises of development, “caught between a feeling of great humiliation and a pitying love for his homeland” but lost to his corrupt and crooked political rival Tanik, who had more money and men. Varied interesting characters add flavour to the story. With the non-retreating timber trade, where greedy traders, politicians, local middlemen and forest mafia no longer care to uproot the whole of the virgin forest in the state, the ecology at stake is echoed in the corruption portrayed in the story. Lutor in a dire strait between the memory of a lost time acknowledges that times have changed but continued to believe and live in anticipation of a pan-Arunachal unity and hopeful idea of home.
Dai through Lutor’s nostalgia for a peaceful land and longing for a homeland devoid of greed and corruption, implicates that love can heal and restore the state to a humane land as it had been in the past. Time brought changes and the world infringed by investing more money into the state. While business boomed, Lutor, as the title suggest, looked outward to escape from the land not as one defeated but with a hope to explore newer possibilities so that he could return with a better tomorrow.
In the engrossing historical novel, Escaping the land (2021), Dai works on a huge canvas to lyrically voice a tale of time, geography and changes that leads to a cohesion with the larger world.
 The North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), originally known as the North-East Frontier Tracts (NEFT), was one of the political divisions during the Raj
 Kojum-Koja was supposed to be an ancient civilisation that established villages, part of the ancient tribal lore.
Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature.
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