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Rendezvous with Padmashree Mamang Dai
Mamang Dai speaks to Merinews about her writings, poetry, inspirations and the issues faced by..

AN EMINENT poet, author, novelist, journalist and a civil servant, Mamang Dai became the first person from Arunachal Pradesh to be conferred with Padmashree (2011). Some of the works that define her literary contribution is the book “Arunachal Pradesh: The Hidden Land”, River Poems and the novel “Legends of Pensam”, Stupid Cupid. She is also one of the members of the film Censor Board as well as the member of Public Service Commission. She is a person of grace and dignity; with her eloquent expression she has captured the imaginations of the budding north-eastern India’s litterateur. She had once served the state as an IAS officer but she left the service soon to pursue her interest of journalism and literature. She speaks to Merinews CJ, Inam Sarah and talks about her writing and the issues faced by the state.


Merinews: How has been the journey to Padmashri? How did it start?


Mamang: Actually I don’t know how. If there is a journey that I am aware of sequence by sequence; it just got happening. Padmashri came as a big surprise to me. I was returning from the Jaipur Literature fest last winter, then driving back to Delhi I got this phone call. Someone from the Home Ministry had called and wanted to confirm whether I would accept the award. I was surprised and glad and I said yes. But I thought it was a joke that someone was playing on me. But after an hour or two, I got a call from Assamese reporters asking for a news bite on receiving the Padmashree award. Then I thought now it is true and not a joke. Then I got some sms’ from Arunachal. Then I thought before I say anything in media I had to inform my parents and brother. My family was not aware of anything and they found it very funny, they started giggling and said ‘what?’ I think it (Padmashree) was because of the number of books and trying to focus on Arunachal. My writing has always been on Arunachal, just to bring out a few words of our language into fiction writing or just showing how we live and even our lost history.


Merinews: What was your first work in writing?


Mamang: It was Arunachal Pradesh: The Hidden Land, which is in its second edition now. But that was kind of self-published and I really went into a lot of trouble I was running back and forth to Noida, for about three weeks showing them because they thought it was Andaman, so I had to tell them that it is Arunachal and it is different. I had the manuscript ready with the photograph so you might say I really laid out the text, photos and the whole book. That (book) was quite popular and now there is a new edition by penguin India which is much more put together and photos are better. But I think that first book still holds a special place for me because I put in so much effort. And then I was writing poetry, essays, and short stories for quite a while for the north-east writer’s forum.


Merinews: You are one of the very few women literary persons in Arunachal.  


Mamang: Yes, there are very few, even male writers, the famous literary figures of Arunachal are writing in Assamese, so very few people were writing in English or Hindi and Assamese. I think it is also difficult with our language because we don’t have our written script. So people are writing songs which are also like poetry but then we don’t have translations.


Merinews: How was the response when your first work was published? What was the response from your family and readers?        


Mamang: Readers were very encouraging. The poetry book was because it was coming out of Arunachal and all the metaphors, the images, these were things which were quite different from a lot of Indian writing in English. I think it generated a lot of interest in the region. And not only the metaphors, also the use of folk literature in fiction that was also a different angle. Legends of Pensam, the first novel are also being used in Mizoram University. The reaction in Pasighat, my hometown and where the novel is actually based, people were very excited. I also was surprised and I was very moved because they said we want a copy, we are the people of Pensam, they were all asking for it. In Delhi it was well reviewed. At home my brothers, sisters were encouraging. Parents were like writing is not a job, it is something one does just like that.


Merinews: Talking about your hometown, Pasighat, it seems to be in crisis right now with the economic blockade. What do you have to say on that? What is to be done as the scenario is worsening?


Mamang: Pasighat has always been in it. A lot of blame also goes to my actual home village within Pasighat, the Balek village. It is a kind of center of dissidents, politically, socially, everything. I think it is because of the phase of transition which has left behind a lot of people. A lot of the first officers came from that area. But a lot of the disgruntled element also remained behind on the other side of the bridge and they are not kind of ignorant, discontented. They are quite knowledgeable; they ask questions, they like to know about the world. So this coupled with discontentment gives rise to a lot of dissidence, which can be also channelled. If it is channelled properly with the right leader it’s not a bad thing to be a dissident. Regarding the case now, I always feel for Pasighat and for the whole of Arunachal in general, we need leadership. A lot depends on leadership. Because we don’t have other kind of major literary groups, theatre personalities, multi-national or iconic figures everything seems to come down to the local representative. Lot of villagers, rural Arunachal look up to the local representatives. They have a very major role to play in today’s Arunachal. But somehow I think maybe they don’t really play the role.


Merinews: What has been the government’s stand on this economic blockade?


Mamang: I don’t know about the Arunachal government. I haven’t heard them make any kind of policy statement as such. I know Assam government is negotiating.


Merinews: What do you have to say about the Hydel projects in the state?  What is the problem with such projects?


Mamang: I think the problem is so far the government has been very secretive about the hydel projects in Arunachal. We know that the government has signed at least 142 MOUs with the corporate sector. Most of the names except NHPC, NEEPCO and Reliance are not heard of but there are other projects in the very far flung areas that no one has heard about and no one knows what is going on but the total tally of MOUs seems to be rising and these all point to the fact that such things will never get off the ground. Even for the Siang bridge, Gammon India took 21-22 years to complete the construction. It had to be completed within 8 years.


Hydel projects are a major thing and our rivers are little bit different, the topography, the terrain, everything is different and everyone has talked about this. So why are we going in for so many all at once, the whole map of Arunachal is marked with these hydel projects. Most of this information is only coming through RTI, those who are filing to find out what are these projects, who is signing them, where are they.  From Arunachal itself the people are not aware. I think it’s only now in the case of lower Subansiri because it is almost a joint thing with Assam because of the border with Assam so there is more awareness. In other parts of Arunachal, there is nothing like that, even though projects are going on. In Siang side there has been little public agitation. People are just beginning to organize themselves. And we don’t need them, neither for our own energy requirement even if we export to the rest of the country we can try with one project and see how well it works.  See the Ranganadi Hydro-electric project is commissioned but still we are not getting enough electricity, the transmission lines to the different districts, it’s a very complicated business. If they can get one right it will serve the whole of Arunachal, for the next 100 years even. But it’s not working right, so until its working right it’s better to be a little judicious and see.


Merinews: And what about the border dispute with China?


Mamang: I think on the whole from my point of view and being from Arunachal Pradesh I don’t see that there should be a problem with China. I don’t think China will be really interested in taking Arunachal Pradesh or going to war with India over Arunachal Pradesh. It’s just a status quo.  


Merinews: You said you have no problem with China but what is it when Chinese authorities claim Arunachal as their territory?


Mamang: Yes, this is just a status quo, beating the drum every time there is a little bit of bargaining they want to do then this thing comes up. But actually having a war, India-China escalation of conflict and all, I think the less said about it in this case is sometimes better. Of course the Army intelligence has to be alert and should not hide things. Our people also have to know exactly what this MacMohan line is and where are we today vis-à-vis the Indian union all these things also should come into play because basically the key issue here is Tibet. Now you have the Tibetan government in exile here in India but India’s stand is not clear, it’s not saying neither here nor there. Every time there is something with China then they also compromise. So we have to look at that also. And Arunachal is not only Tawang and that area which China says should be under Tibet and because Tibet is now an autonomous region under China so this portion also should come in. Arunachal is also another big chunk of land where they actually never had any claim. So going through our historical data and also what happened during the Indo-China border war, these things should again be discussed and reviewed and talked about.


Merinews: Is there any committee working on this?


Mamang: No. Not yet.


Merinews: What about the border dispute with Nagaland?


Mamang: Again it is all about history and what happened before the land was demarcated as it is. So how much can we go back and claim or what should be done now should be discussed across the state borders.


Merinews: Are the governments talking on the dispute?


Mamang: You can’t say something just to serve the moment and please your electorate. The whole of north-east with all the trouble we have, we need to have this kind of forum or talk between governments.


Merinews: What is the status of press in Arunachal?


Mamang: Press has a very important role to play. We have so many different communities. We have major part of the population that do not read newspapers and here the radio becomes more important. Media have to be very careful when they report specially the political reporting. You have to be very careful that it’s not provocative in anyway. All the media ethics and guidelines should be followed. Because of the lack of other industries there is one big failure that media houses are all patronized by politicians. I am not saying that a politician can’t run a good newspaper, they can. But the thing is because there is no other source of income, advertisements, newspaper live on that and if that in any way if they say anything that might bring on the wrath of reading public then they withdraw or they don’t report at all, if there’s a protest from certain group then they kind of fade away. Maybe one will overcome that.


Merinews: Is media under pressure here?


Mamang: Media is always at risk everywhere. But in Arunachal, I think they have come under lot of threats. We have had newspapers offices attacked when I was in Itanagar press club. We had so many disturbances, they had put a ban on newspapers and we had to fight it out with the government and nobody really understood what the role of media is. So trying to get that message across that we are not spokespersons for political parties and we are trying to carry out job of investigation, fair reporting without prejudices, that has been an uphill task to explain to people.


Merinews: What has the government done on this?


Mamang: Government also was not understanding. None of the culprits has been arrested or even one or two person are picked up for manhandling and breaking of newspaper offices then they are immediately released on bail. Nothing exemplary to make the press feel secure. No exemplary action taken by the government.


You are always under threat and you can’t function and tell a story as you want to tell it. You have to always weigh the pros and cons and then the attacks also are random and sudden and then there will be no justice later and no punishment meted out so people don’t want to take any risk.


Merinews: Do you support and endorse Anna Hazare’s method?


Mamang: I don’t actually, when I watched TV and for all that was happening in Delhi, it made me feel very different from the rest of India. The movement was just like the role of the mob on the street and that I didn’t like. I did not like the way people like Madam Kiran Bedi conducted herself, just in that excitement and flow of the movement.


Merinews: Who according to you formed a better government?


Mamang: If they had the full run of their tenure I think Mr Mukut Mithi was a good Chief Minister, because he combined the characteristics of a bureaucrat, administrator and a politician with a vision, a vision for the state.


Merinews: Any memorable moment from your journalism days?


Mamang: I think of all the time. It was really nice being in the press fraternity. It is only after joining the public service commission I had to take back a bit and kind of disengage with the media fraternity and that is because of the nature of the job, the key thing is confidentiality. Otherwise it’s all been one really terrific exercise, also we’ve had so many political events, running here, running to the assembly and then to Raj Bhavan at the time when everyone went and camped at hotel Bomdila, trying to topple the Mithi government. Those were quite memorable days, we were all busy writing.


Merinews: What was your inspiration when you started writing?


Mamang: I had all my favourite writers and poets. I think most of all in my writing or in the last decade I just feel inspired by people I meet.


Merinews: Any particular person?


Mamang: No, villagers even strangers. I think human nature is basically kind of worthy of trust. Any little thing can set me off, it inspires me for the day or I feel nice, even road vendors they say something witty and that kind of thing I like.


Merinews: What are you writing these days?


Mamang: Yes, secretly I am busy writing all the time. I am working on a number of projects. I have a collection of poems which I am supposed to finish soon and then there is a book based on historical document but it’s a work of fiction.


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