[ Warning: A long story. Read only if you have the time, and passion. Goes best with leisure, a warm cup of coffee, and Dire Straits "brothers in arms" playing softly in the background. Edited by Pi Malsawmi Jacob. ]
Here is a tale of old, a tale of love and sacrifice, a tale that will transport you across the aeonian tranquility of Mizoram, a tale inspired by the peerless beauty of the splendiferous Mizo hills, and the hearts of those who put loyalty above all else.
Let me take you back to that magical moment, to the days of headhunters, and slaves, and exquisite virgin princesses. Days when chivalry could be found, not just in the hearts of the noblest warrior, but also deep within the soul of the humblest slave.
Our tale begins at a simple village, surrounded by lush green forests, consecrated superstitions, inviolable folklores, and a sparkling crystal clear brook flowing gently through the uncharted woods nearby. Everything was peaceful and calm. Nothing seemed to disturb the eternal serenity.
Until a quick sharp sound of bamboo twine snapping against a tree trunk in a distance echoed across the pristine valley breaking the perpetual silence for a brief moment. Morning swallows simultaneously ascended in the air like the magnificent rebirth of a Phoenix, fluttered around the picturesque green hills in unison a few times and then finally settled down at a different location on the same valley.
A soft continuous scream now filled the air. A cry for help. Loud enough to be heard by the villagers nearby but not clamorous enough to disturb the peaceful swallows for a second time.
The screams emitted from a young tribesman hanging upside down from a tree. One of his legs was tied to a twine. He had unfortunately walked into a trap probably laid by one of the mischievous village children. He screamed for a few more times, hoping that the villagers would come to set him free.
A small distance away at the village governed by Chief Zabanga, a young man knelt down on the ground with both hands tied behind his back and the sharp blade of the executioner’s sword aimed directly at his neck. He heard the screams. He chuckled inconspicuously. Liana was happy to hear the cries of a victim caught in one of his traps for one last time. He felt satisfied. Now he was finally ready to die. He smiled.
Liana was a third generation captive slave. His grandfather was captured when Chief Zoluta, the father of Chief Zabanga, raided his grandfather’s village a long time ago. Since then, his grandfather, his father, and now him, had been living their lives as slaves in this village. Unless somebody paid the Chief a ransom for Liana, either a wild buffalo or Rs.40/- in British-Indian currency, his fate was sealed forever as a slave.
Liana’s best friend was Muanga, another third generation slave. But the difference between Liana and Muanga was that, a long time ago Muanga’s grandfather came to Chief Zoluta and offered himself as a slave in return for food, lodging and protection. Hence Muanga was a voluntary slave. His ransom amount cost the same but the filthiest and most demeaning labors were assigned to Liana whereas Muanga’s work consisted mainly of collecting firewood and water for the Chief.
The other difference between the two was that Muanga was the more observant one, who spent a lot of time dreaming about things slaves usually didn’t. Liana was more of a simpleton.
Liana the captive slave and Muanga the voluntary slave found a special connection with each other ever since they were assigned their first task. Since then, they became inseparable. Sometimes Muanga would help Liana clean the village pigsties, and Liana would help Muanga cut down some trees.
They both loved to play pranks on the villagers, although the consequences were extremely serious had they ever been caught, because they occupied the lowest rung in the village social ladder. But that never deterred their passion and love for practical jokes.
They would set up harmless human traps in the forests which frequently ensnared the villagers. Sometimes when the gargantuan sea up above in the sky had swallowed up the night-sun, they would release a couple of wild dogs inside the Zawlbuk, the village dormitory where all the warriors slept. Nothing made them happier than watching a bunch of strong brave warriors screaming like women in the middle of the dark night.
But the greatest similarity between Liana the captive slave and Muanga the voluntary slave was that, they were both in love with Zikpuii, the daughter of Chief Zabanga. They had an immense crush on her, or so they thought.
It was taboo for them to even speak to the daughter of the village Chief. But every night they would dream about her and the next day they would argue with each other over who she loved more in their dreams.
One day, Liana went with Muanga to help him fetch water from the brook when they suddenly came across Zikpuii and a couple of village virgins bathing in the river. They grinned at each other, knowing they were not supposed to be anywhere near the river when the princess was taking her bath, and then they continued watching the women from a safe distance, well hidden behind the trees.
Suddenly they felt sharp painful blows on their back and were tossed by superhuman strength to the river.
“Hey! What are you slaves doing here, spying on the naked women???”
It was Chama, one of the village warriors. Along with him were two other warriors aiming their spears at them, ready to throw as soon as the command was given.
“Mercy please, have mercy!” Liana and Muanga both cried without getting up from the river, heads bowed with arms in the air.
Zikpuii who heard the initial commotion, covered herself quickly and joined the warriors who were about to strike at the slaves.
“Stop!” she commanded. “Chama, what is the meaning of this?”
“Princess, we caught these two spying on you while you were taking your bath. They should be put to death immediately!” Chama spoke with not even a hint of emotion in his tone.
“Death, death, death. Tsk tsk. Is that all you warriors ever think about?” uttered Zikpuii with a look of disdain in her eyes.
“I agree with the princess,” Liana stuttered meekly.
“Shut up slave!” the princess suddenly screamed.
Liana was amazed at how the princess could turn from a rainbow to a thunder storm on the spur of the moment.
“Now, slave,” she said pointing at Liana. Liana looked up. “What exactly did you see?” she asked coyly while sternly looking into his eyes.
Liana could feel his heart beating faster than the heart of a sacrificial goat whose throat was cut and left to die bleeding. On his right was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen with a perfect bosom carved with utmost care by the spirits themselves, and on his left were two spears about to plunge deep inside him. He prayed for the spears, so the he wouldn’t have to live through such a torture.
Chama the warrior immediately intervened, “Princess, I will remove this insect from the face of this land for you...”
“What’s the matter with you? So they just happened to be where nobody’s supposed to be. Why should they be killed for such silly actions? You are beginning to sound more and more like my father…” Zikpuii now focused her attention on the warrior who had the most well chiseled chest and abdomen in the entire village.
Muanga finally spoke, careful enough not to look up at the natural wonder, “Princess, please have mercy on us. It was foolish of us to wander where we shouldn’t have in the first place. We are just two simple slaves trying to fetch water for your father, the Chief.”
Zikpuii slowly smiled at Muanga and commanded, “Let them go.”
“Chama. I said let them go.”
She then looked at Chama and smiled for a brief second. Chama smiled back, and then gave the order to release them. Muanga, the observant one, definitely did not miss that brief exchange of looks between Zikpuii and Chama.
As Liana and Muanga started walking away from the group, relieved to be alive, a small doubt started creeping up Muanga’s head. He finally stopped, turned back and walked towards the warrior and the princess. Liana was shocked.
Muanga summoned all his courage and finally spoke in a nervous tone, “O great warrior…”
Chama turned around, “You’re still here?”
“I have just one question to ask. Will you please grant a slave to ask you a question?”
“Hmmm… go on.”
“O warrior, we made a terrible mistake today because I know we are not supposed to be anywhere near the river when the princess is taking her bath. But I have just one question to ask, O brave one…” Muanga knelt down, gulped down his dry saliva, took a deep breath, closed his eyes and then continued, “O warrior, what were YOU doing by the river?”
Liana couldn’t believe what his friend had just asked. He felt as if he was hit by lightning, twice. What the hell was Muanga doing???
Muanga too continued to close his eyes and trembled, hoping that his gamble would pay off. It did.
Instead of feeling the smooth surface of cold sharp steel slice across his neck, he heard the sound of sweet giggle coming from the princess. He slowly opened his eyes. Chama and Zikpuii were now looking at him. Both smiled. The two warriors nearby were also smiling.
“He’s smart, too smart to be a slave,” the princess exclaimed.
“Smart and brave too,” Chama added. “We’re going to need people like you. Meet me tonight near the pear tree. Now leave us and speak no more, for you might cross that line of bravery and wander into the kingdom of stupidity.”
Muanga got up, smiled at the princess and then left. Liana, still shocked and confused about what had just happened, blindly walked alongside Muanga. Neither spoke until they were well outside earshot.
“What the hell was that?” Liana pushed Muanga roughly. “You could have gotten us killed with your stupid stunt!”
“Relax brother,” Muanga smiled back.
“Relax? I was so relieved when they let us go the first time… and then you had to…”
“Listen. Didn’t you see what was actually going on?”
“What was what going on?”
“Chama and our princess. We were not supposed to be near the river, but neither were Chama and the other warriors. There is definitely something going on between the two. Didn’t you notice the way they were looking at each other?”
“I was too busy looking at two other things…”
“Idiot. Now you’re going to thank me later for what I just did. We are now a part of their secret relationship because even Chama, brave as he may be, is not qualified to marry our princess. We are going to use this to our advantage.”
“How so?” Liana was now all ears.
“Aren’t you sick and tired of being a slave all your life? I know I am. I definitely do not want to have children only to see them grow up as slaves again. Maybe there is a way out for us here, all thanks to the secret love affair between Chama and the princess.”
“But I love the princess…”
“Shut up. Idiot.”
That night, Liana and Muanga met the warrior Chama as planned near the pear tree under the cover of darkness. Chama explained to them in hushed tone that the princess was betrothed to the son of Chief Sangkhuma and she was to make her journey to their village to get married.
“We’ve got everything covered. I will be accompanying the princess along with my most trusted and loyal warriors. Then we will stage a fake attack from wild animals and then run away together, along with my men.”
“What’s that got to do with us?” Muanga inquired.
“Well my friends,” Chama placed his hands on their shoulders, “The two of you are going to play a very important role. You will be accompanying us as the princess’ personal slaves carrying all her belongings. And then you will return to this village to inform Chief Zabanga about our “fate”. Otherwise he will send a search party for us or even a raid party if he suspects something is wrong.”
“But we are just slaves. Any failure of this magnitude will certainly mean death for us because of our status.” Muanga’s shrewdness never stopped impressing Liana even after all these years.
“Yes, a definite death sentence if you are slaves,” continued Chama, “But only if you are slaves.” He then grinned. “Upon your return, a few of my trusted friends from our village will ensure that you are freed immediately. There will be two buffaloes waiting for you upon your return to buy you your freedom.”
Freedom. The very word was enough to lit up Muanga’s face and made him jump up with sheer joy.
“Calm down you fool,” commanded Chama. “Now listen. If you two ever decide not to return to the village without informing the Chief about what happened to us, my men will make sure your families face the most horrible death…”
“You can trust us, O great warrior,” Muanga assured.
The next few days went by slowly especially for Muanga. He dreamt every night about being free. He could literally taste freedom with his mouth. He pictured in his mind his future children who would be free. He imagined running with them across the hills, over the brooks, chasing wild birds and hunting wild animals, free to do anything he wished with his new found freedom.
Finally the day arrived. There was a grand feast in the village where the fattest pigs were slaughtered and served along with alcohol fermented from rice. Everybody rejoiced and danced.
As the Chief said his final goodbye to his daughter, the convoy of warriors and two slaves left the village, with the princess in the middle of the procession. Muanga, under the heavy load of clothes and cooking utensils, looked at the commander of the convoy. Chama looked alert and cold as usual, not giving away even a brief hint of what they were planning. Then he glanced at his friend Liana. He looked troubled, lost in his own thoughts.
“What’s the matter with you?” Muanga whispered.
Liana was startled by the sudden disruption of his thought. “Uhhh… nothing,” he replied. “I just had a bad dream last night…”
“Well… I dreamt that I died.”
Muanga laughed. “You’re probably tensed about what we’re going to do. Just relax, brother. All these will be over once we get back to our village.”
“It’s not that…” Liana continued. Muanga could now make out from the look on his face that something was really spooking him.
“When I dreamt that I died, I could see myself lying on the floor with blood flowing everywhere. It was as if I was floating in the air, looking at myself…”
“That happens sometimes…”
“And then a black crow appeared out of nowhere and said that I was the last slave to die.”
“Ok… now that is not something normal… and it does not make any sense.” Muanga stopped smiling.
“Do you think it means I am going to be a slave for the rest of my life? That I will be a slave until I die of old age, just like my father and grandfather? I really don’t mind being a slave for the rest of my life, you know…”
Muanga wished he wasn’t carrying the heavy load because he wanted to put his arms around his simple yet loyal friend to calm him down. “Brother, trust me. Nothing will happen to you. All these plans about freedom and deception have really got into your head. That is why you had such a strange dream. I promise everything will work out smoothly.”
Liana’s face lit up a bit. “I hope so…”
After walking for a long time, darkness slowly started swallowing up the distant horizon. Finally Chama gave the order to stop and immediately two of the warriors came to Liana and Muanga to carry their load.
Chama looked at the two slaves. “This is it. Now it is all in your hands.”
“You can rely on us, O great warrior,” Muanga replied.
As they parted company, Liana turned around and took one last look at the princess he had grown to love so much. Goodbye pretty lady, maybe we shall meet again in the afterlife, he wished. And then they disappeared in the darkness.
Muanga and Liana walked for some more time, until it was too dark to move anywhere. They decided to rest for the night on a tall fir tree. After they both climbed the tree and were properly rested on two of its branches, Muanga asked Liana what he was going to do once they buy their freedom.
“Propose to one of the village virgins,” Liana replied with a grin.
Tired from carrying the heavy load the whole day, sleep quickly overtook them. They slept deeply. Muanga dreamt about freedom again. Liana dreamt about the same crow. The next day, he decided not to tell Muanga about his strange dream.
They soon reached their village. Immediately they started running towards the Chieftain’s bungalow while screaming incoherently about blood and wild animals and raw flesh. The Chief came out along with his warriors and demanded an explanation. Muanga took over, describing to the Chief and all the villagers who had assembled around them, about how they were ambushed by a pack of hungry wild wolves.
The Chief lost his composure for a moment, and then brushing all emotions aside, looked sternly at Muanga and asked, “You, slave. Are you sure you saw all of them going down to those beasts?”
“Yes Oh mighty Chief. We were greatly outnumbered by the wolves…”
“And the two of you ran away immediately as soon as you saw what was going on?”
“Yes Oh mighty Chief…”
“Cowards! You didn’t even attempt to protect my daughter?” The Chief’s voice could now be heard all across the valley.
“Oh Chief, oh most merciful Chief. We are nothing but mere slaves. We have never learnt the art of combat, nor do we have bravery in our hearts…”
The Chief got up abruptly and walked back into his house. The village elders rushed in behind him. Liana and Muanga stood where they were, not daring to go anywhere. From the corner of his eyes, Muanga could see all the warriors slowly assembling around them, hands on their weapons. He also caught sight of his father, old and scrawny, yet with a distinct trail of tears down his cheeks.
Without moving his jaws, Liana bowed down and grumbled from the corner of his mouth, “Brother, I gotta go pee…”
“Shut up!” Muanga replied as inconspicuous as he could.
After a long time, the Chief finally came out again. Behind him, was his entourage of village elders.
“So why have you come back to this village?”
“We’ve got nowhere else to go, Oh mighty Chief.”
“Don’t you know the penalty for cowardice is death?”
“Only if one is a warrior, Oh Chief…” Muanga was now genuinely starting to tremble.
“Ah. A smart slave. How amusing,” the Chief muttered sarcastically. “But then, you are neither a warrior nor a member of this village. You are just a slave. A mere slave. Slaves should be put to death if they fail to protect their master, right?”
“Yes, Oh mighty Chief…” Muanga suddenly felt as if all hope was lost.
“Unless of course,” the Chief continued with a wicked smile, “There’s somebody from this village willing to pay for your ransom. But then again, who would buy a slave that deserts his owner?”
Muanga looked up at the Chief, relieved to find a life-line. He then slowly turned towards the crowd, until he saw a hand rising slowly from among them. He heaved a big sigh of relief.
“Oh Chief,” a voice from the crowd cried, “I would like to pay the ransom for the slave.”
Everybody turned around to look at the old man who had offered to pay the ransom. Muanga breathed deeply with a big smile upon his face, until something struck him. Thoughts suddenly came flashing through his head. Wait a minute, the old man said slave, not slaves. Why would he not mention he was paying the ransom for two slaves? His forehead began to perspire once again as he looked at the old man slowly approaching him.
The old man bent down and whispered into his ears, “I am so sorry young man. Chama left two buffaloes at my disposal but last night a pack of wolves came and killed one. I can only set one of you free…”
Muanga couldn’t move, couldn’t breath, couldn’t even hear Liana asking him what was wrong.
The old man then approached the Chief, “O Chief, I am here to set one of them free.”
With an irritated look upon his face, the Chief asked nonchalantly, “Which one?”
The old man turned around to look at them. Liana, who had always been the dumb one, now suddenly understood everything that was going on. The Chief would probably make them fight each other for freedom. Or make them choose between themselves. He knew Muanga would never allow him to die, and neither would he do the same to Muanga. He knew the Chief could put them both to death if they did not decide quickly. He knew he couldn’t let that happen.
Gathering all his strength, Liana suddenly dashed towards the Chief like a rabbit bolting away from its hunter. While everybody was shocked, he ran past the Chief and into his house. Three warriors managed to throw their spears at him but they all missed. Running like the wind, he made straight for the middle pillar inside the Chieftain’s house and put his arms around it with all his might, as if he would die if he ever let go of it.
Liana had just touched the middle post inside the Chieftain’s house, the legendary sutpui pillar. This meant that the Chief had to grant him his request as long as it was reasonable.
As the Chief and his warriors surrounded the pillar, Liana cried out with all his might while hugging the post.
“Oh Chief!” with tears in his eyes, Liana blurted out, “Forgive my intrusion, Oh Chief, but I am just a captive slave. My friend over there is a voluntary slave. Please grant him his freedom with the ransom offered. Let me be the one to die.”
The Chief, still shocked from what he had just witnessed, ordered without even batting an eyelid, “So be it.”
Muanga suddenly felt as if all his energy had just been drained. He looked at his friend Liana. He realized what had just happened and that he was no longer a slave. Yet there was no joy emerging from his heart. There was no point in being free if Liana was not going to be around anymore.
The execution ground was quickly set up. Liana was brought to the centre of the circle.
Muanga, held back by the old man, cried out, “Oh Chief, oh merciful Chief, is there no way you can pardon my friend?”
The Chief looked at Muanga. Muanga looked at him. Silence. There was now a feeble sign of pity in the Chief’s eyes. “I am sorry, there is nothing I can do. Unless of course somebody comes up to pay for his ransom. Otherwise traditions must be followed.”
“Brother,” Liana spoke with a surprisingly calm voice, “Don’t cry for me. I never belonged in your world anyway. You wanted your freedom and now you have it. I was happy being a slave all along. What I really wanted, is love. And since I cannot have that love in this lifetime, I will be waiting for her to come to me in the afterlife. I don’t care how long I’ll have to wait for her, but I will wait for as long as it takes. That’s all I ever wanted and that’s what I am going to get now.” He smiled.
The crowd fell silent. A deafening silence.
The Chief then looked at the executioner.
Liana slowly knelt down. His hands were tied behind his back. The executioner lifted his sharp sword.
A soft scream from a distance filled the air. Liana looked up and stared at Muanga. Muanga, still restrained by the old man, understood that look. Liana smiled and Muanga tried his best to smile back. Somewhere out in the woods, another innocent villager had just fallen a prey to one of their traps.
The village priest then came forward and started chanting the rituals to prepare Liana for the afterlife. He would forever be a slave, catering to the needs of other Chiefs who had left for the afterlife.
After sometime, the priest looked at the Chief. The Chief signaled the executioner. The sword came down swiftly. It was all over in a matter of seconds. Liana’s head and body were now separated. Muanga felt dizzy.
Suddenly there was another commotion in the crowd. Some of the villagers who had gone to free the poor soul who got entangled in the trap had brought him back to the village. He was an agile young man, a messenger, sent directly from the British Governor of Eastern Bengal.
While Muanga fell to the ground, staring at the lifeless body of his best friend, the attention of the rest of the villagers was on the messenger.
“Oh great Chief Zabanga,” the messenger proclaimed in a loud booming voice that seemed awkward for his young athletic build, “By order of his Majesty King George V, and colonel W.Z Scott, the political superintendent of Eastern Bengal, it is hereby declared that all slaves living under the British Empire are to be freed with immediate effect. The Imperial Government will now implement the proposal of Dr. Peter Fraser, reminding the people that any territory that comes under the British Flag will not tolerate the continuation of slavery in any form, regardless of whether it is an established custom or not.”
Amidst the loud cries of many slaves rejoicing and singing, Muanga held the headless body of his best friend in his arms and cried his heart out. If only the messenger was not caught in that trap, he would have arrived just in time to save Liana, he thought. And then he looked up towards the trees. Perched high above on one of its branches was a black crow.
* Story timeline, characters, facts and figures inspired by Pu Lal Dena’s book entitled "In search of Identity: Hmars of Northeast India".