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A Letter From Mizoram

(February 3) Pûkpui, a village of some 2,200 inhabitants in southern Mizoram, lies several kilometers to the north of the state’s second largest city of Lunglei (population 190,000) and boasts a history that long predates the British colonial presence in the Mizo Hills. Courage and valour in battle are an integral part of it. In the mid-19th century, the chieftain of Pûkpui, Seipuia, commanded the loyalty of two famed warriors in Mizo history, one of whom, Chawngbâwla, is prominently interred on a hilltop of the village. And in the post-colonial era, Laldenga, the father of Mizo nationalism, was born in Pûkpui.

At the head of the Mizo National Front, Laldenga led an independence movement that took up arms in 1966 on behalf of Mizoram’s secession from India. In the bitter warfare that followed, Lunglei was the one major population center captured by the MNF. Although it was subsequently retaken by the Indian army, and Pukpui was razed to the ground before being rebuilt in 1973, the MNF rebellion was a partial success that led to the eventual granting of statehood to Mizoram within the Indian federal union.

Pûkpui derives its name from the great number of puk or caves in its hills. Many of these have been sealed over time, it being a traditional belief that demons afflict whoever ventures into them. A more probable explanation is that the lack of oxygen in the caves’ inner reaches causes hallucinations that have been assumed to be supernaturally induced. In former times, indeed, groups of Mizo men, their numbers depleting the oxygen level even further, would penetrate deep into such caves as a demonstration of their virility,

During a week that I recently spent with Pûkpui’s small B’nei Menashe community, I heard more than one story about the visions of the intrepid cave explorers of old. One of these was had by a foreigner, James Herbert Lorrain, an early Baptist missionary to the Mizo Hills known to Mizos as Pu Buanga. While in a cave in Leite, to the east of Pûkpui, he is said to have fallen asleep in a puk and dreamed that the people to whom he had come to bring Christianity were of Israelite descent but that he must keep this knowledge a secret lest it lead to their refusal to accept the Christian faith. Whether true or not, such a story helps explain the reluctance of the first British missionaries to speak publicly about the seeming traces of biblical traditions in the native religion they sought to uproot.

Yet another vision, dating to shortly before the missionaries’ arrival, was supposedly had by a local seer named Dârphâwka at Dârkhuang Tlâng or “Gong Mountain,” a dramatically shaped peak located in the vicinity of Pûkpui.

Darkhuang Tlang.

Having supposedly seen in it that “there will be a fair-skinned people who will come from across the sea,” Dârphâwka reportedly told the people of Pûkpui. “Pay heed to what they will have to say to you.” When the British came to the area with their troops and missionaries not long afterwards, this vision was widely taken to refer to them -- and in fact, when the earliest Baptist ministers began evangelizing in the Mizo Hills, it was in Pûkpui that they made their first converts to Christianity.

Ever since then, the Baptist Church has had a stronghold in the southern region of Mizoram, whereas the Presbyterians have been dominant in the north. One of the B’nei Menashe families that I met while in Pûkpui is still one-quarter Baptist. While its Jewish component, consisting of Merabi Khupchawng and her two daughters Tamar and Gabriella, have severed their association with Christianity, Merabi’s husband Lalthangliana has remained an Elder of the local Baptist congregation.

Born Lalbiakzami,Merabi took the biblical name of King David’s wife Merav (Mirab in the King James Bible) when she took up the practice of Judaism in 2018, adding to it the Mizo female gender suffix “i.” Convinced by their reading of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian “Old Testament,” of Judaism’s truth, even though they were told that it was a “dead religion,” she and her mother were the first in Pûkpui to adopt it. Although they were subsequently successful in getting five other village families to join them, Lalthangliana was not among the persuaded. At the outset, Merabi told me, she tried her utmost to make him change his mind, just he tried his best to get her to remain a Christian.

Merabi lighting Hanukkah candles with daughters.

But though neither wanted to live in a religiously mixed home, neither was able to prevail, and in the end, caring too much for each other and for their daughters to separate, they agreed to respect each other’s decision and stay together.

Somewhat ironically, given the fact that he has no sons, Lalthangliana’s main problem with Judaism, as far as I was able to gather in talking to him, was less its rejection of the divinity of Jesus than its insistence on male circumcision, which he takes to be a backsliding from the “spirituality” of the New Testament. And yet his Christian faith has also given him the belief that religious observance that derives from compulsion is of little value and that at the end of the day sincerity and authenticity are paramount in matters of faith. “We decided,” he told me, “that my wife and daughters would do their own thing religiously and I would do mine.”

This is unusual for Mizo society, in which a woman is expected to follow her husband’s wishes obediently, especially in matters that are considered to be situated in the public domain, of which religion affiliation is one. Even if they belong to different denominations of the same faith, it is thought to be a woman’s duty upon marriage to leave her denomination for her husband’s. a sentiment well-reflected in the old Mizo proverb, Hmeichhia leh chakai in sakhua an nei lo, “a woman and a crab have no religion of their own.”

This has been the attitude toward her, Merabi told me, of Pûkpui’s Baptists as a whole, who unlike her husband have never stopped trying to get her and her daughters to return to the Christian fold. The argument they have most resorted to, she says, one traditionally used in Mizoram to get non-Christian holdouts to submit, has to do with death and bereavement. Mizo culture has always attributed great importance to being properly buried and mourned, and in a close-knit village in which participation in mourning is a sign of communal solidarity, the absence of one’s neighbors at such a time is particularly painful. Merabi has often been asked by the Baptist Elders of Pûkpui to consider the grim prospect that, should she continue to cling to Judaism, no Christian clergyman will eulogize her or preside at her funeral. “I tell them,” she says with a calm determination, “that I don’t need a Christian clergyman. I have my fellow Jews for that. And if there aren’t enough of them in Pûkpui, I’m sure they’ll come from Aizawl [Mizoram’s capital in which most of its B’nei Menashe reside] to do the honors.”

She has steadfastly stood her ground. If anything, she says, the pressure on her has grown more intense as pandemic-induced fears of death and its spiritual reckoning have become greater in Pûkpui. Yet recently, despite Lalthangliana’s pleas that she not do so, she took the final step of formally requesting the removal of her and her daughters’ names from Pûkpui’s Baptist registry. To herself, her daughters, and her husband, as well as to her neighbors and relatives, this is her declaration that she will never consider turning back from her journey to Judaism.

Asaf Rentlei

(This is the first of a two-part series)



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