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tlawmngaina_hmar By L.Keivom, Inpui Columnist.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

-Lord Alfred Tennyson’s La Morte D’Arthur

Like piengtharna (born-again), tlawmngaina is a word most spoken as the guiding principle of our social life and behavior. An adult amongst us who does not know or practise at least some semblance of tlawmngaina is considered a pariah from some unknown dark planet. But while ‘piengtharna’, whether the fake, the acting, the-not-so fake, the real, the real-real-real is to a large extent definable, tlawmngaina, like light, is not easy to define. The absence of light to a great extent explains the character of light which is the opposite of darkness. But that hardly explains what light is and its different characteristics. Tlawmngaina also has many hues and shades. Being timeless, it manifests itself in different forms at different times but its essence, which is universal like truth, remains the same. Light remains light whatever color it takes. So is tlawmngaina.

In simple language, tlawmngaina is a social code of conduct which postulates every young and old to show voluntarily good and beneficial deeds in their dealings with individuals and the society without expecting anything in return. It is a selfless service towards others which every individual is expected to render in action in day to day living. It is not a religious concept as being tlawmngai is of no consequence in religious matter. It is not an enabling factor or a ticket for entry into ‘pielral’ (paradise). In fact, unlike Christianity, religion and morality has little or no relation in traditional beliefs. This is another topic worth studying in order to understand the subtle distinction between culture and religion in our traditional beliefs and in our new-found religion where there is a tendency to confuse traditional tlawmngaina with the Christian concept of hmangaina (agape).

Action-oriented concept

Our forefathers did not leave us behind the definition of tlawmngaina in words. As demanded by their respective given social context, they demonstrated what they considered as tlawmngaina in action, of which we have endless accounts. Tlawmngaina, like faith (piengtharna), is meaningless unless accompanied by action. A piengthar is to show his or her piengtharna by action. Otherwise, the claim of being born anew from heaven is rendered a sham. Who is the judge then? In piengtharna, it is assumed that God and not man is the judge. In tlawmngaina, it is the public recognition of a social deed manifested in a recognizable action. Therefore, there is a big room for pretension in the former and less room in the latter.

Jesus Christ likened piengtharna to a restless wind which one can feel, hear and notice its movement wherever and whenever it blows. Faith without work is dead, says his disciple James (2:17). He quoted Abraham’s life to prove his point, saying “faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works” (2:22). True tlawmngaina and piengtharna are both action-oriented. Sadly, we have many self-proclaimed piengthars stuffed with self-serving emotional winds but devoid of any recognizable and demonstrable act of selfless piety. It is a sad case of outward allegiance and inner betrayal, a life of pretension and self-deception. Does tlawmngaina also increasingly take the color of our twisted piengtharna? This very question, often asked, has become a worrisome question since long and it provokes a diametrically mixed answers.

A magic key to survival

Why did our ancestors attach tlawmngaina a predominant place in our society? How did the concept of tlawmngaina evolve? I believe tlawmngaina once held a magic key to our very survival. Our ancestors lived in hostile jungle infested with dangerous animals, poisonous snakes, blood-sucking insects and deadly disease of all kinds. Tribal wars and raids were also not unknown. They moved from one hill to another in small batches in search of food and shelter, changing their settlement every three years on an average. No one could survive alone in such hostile Hobbesian state of nature where “life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Leviathan ch.XIII). In order for the community to survive, they had no alternative but to support and help each other in every possible way. The idea of selfless service without expecting a return was perhaps born out of this precarious existence. Popular adages like “Dam leh tlang khatah, thi leh ruom khatah” (Live together, die together) and “Sem sem, dam dam, ei bil, thi thi” (If shared together, we survive, if shared alone, we perish) came out of this jungle furnace. We are perhaps surviving this far thanks to tlawmngaina spirit.

Tlawmngaina & Zawlbuk

Tlawmngaina has been associated with the institution of Zawlbuk (Bachelors’ Dormitory or Quarters) and some writers even claimed that zawlbuk was the cradle of tlawmngaina. This assertion is partly true and partly false. The first zawlbuk we knew came up at Selesih (c. 1740-50) where seven or eight Sailo chiefs jointly established a confederated city-state with 7000 households. The driving force that united them was survival from the impending onslaught of Pawi (Lai) warlords from the east. Each of the confederated village had a Bachelors’ Quarter (zawlbuk) where all the young men slept so that they could be quickly mustered in case of emergency or enemy’s raids. Zawlbuk gradually became a place where the young boys learnt the art of warfare and cultivated the virtues of tlawmngaina. In this way, zawlbuk played a big role in nurturing and inculcating the spirit of tlawmngaina in the mind of the young people.

However, it is not true to claim that zawlbuk was the cradle of tlawmngaina. History tells us that except in villages ruled by the Lusei chiefs and the thirteen villages in and around North Vanlaiphai ruled by the Fanai (Pawi) chiefs, no village of the Zo descent (Zo hnathlak) in and around Mizoram had zawlbuk. But tlawmngaina had been all through a guiding spirit in more than 60 per cent of our world (Zoram khawvel) where there was no zawlbuk at all. For example, except those living under Lusei chiefs, no Hmar descent, also known as Old Kukis, ever had zawlbuk. But they know what tlawmngaina is and practise it to the hilt in their day to day living. Therefore, to claim that zawlbuk and tlawmngaina are two sides of the coin is a misplaced logic applicable only to those in Mizoram who once lived under the rule of the Lusei and Fanai chiefs.

Tlawmngaina needs reinterpretation

Is tlawmngaina still relevant in the complexities of modern living? Has it been transported to the land of utopia? Has the increasing emphasis on individualism, liberalization, competition and globalization pushed tlawmngaina out of our world? Has wasteful and unproductive investment of time on tlawmngaina in the traditional sense been a stumbling block to progress in this age of competition?

These are few, out of many questions, we need to ask ourselves and find out the answers. Our world is no longer a blissful egalitarian village society (a pawng bik a phai bik um lo khawvel, behna tom intrawm diel dielna ram) where we share virtually everything together except perhaps our wives and children. Even now, our villages are still there but our blissful world of sharing whatever we have no longer exists. ‘Sem sem, dam dam, ei bil thi thi’ is now working in a reverse order. We have entered into a selfish world known as dog-eat-dog-society. We like to share with our neighbours if it is going to bring in profit. We gladly lend money if it brings atleast 3-5 per cent compound interest per month. We do not bother if our profit-making activities cause complete ruin to even our close relatives. A dog enjoys eating the flesh of another dog; it does not matter whether the meat is its own puppy’s or some other dog. To a thoughtless and selfish dog, meat is just meat.

Our politics are no longer for good governance. They have become dirty instruments for capturing power and position to grab as much wealth as possible while in power. Obedience, loyalty, honesty and even virginity is up for grabs for the highest bidder. Election politics is a death-trap for tlawmngaina. So too is church politics where one group enjoys to gobble up another group without shedding even their crocodile tears. Almost every wolfish church member in sheep’s clothing, while chanting hallelujah with a melodious but sinister voice, has set his or her eyes on the dangling baits (for example, child support, employment and all kinds of favors) the church leaders have mischievously placed before their prospective victims in the name of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

My departed friend Lalthanzau Pudaite, in his essay ‘A Mizo Philosophical Heritage: Tlawmngaihna or Selflessness Then and Now’ aptly commented the situation I have briefly described above and I can’t agree more. I quote: “Before the advent of Christianity, social life and social interaction were essentially transparent. In every Vêng or community of a part of the village, everyone knew who was upright or untrustworthy. There was no way a liar or a dishonest person could pass himself off as anything other than how he was known by the community. If, however, some one claims that he is a born-again Christian and is actively involved in Church work now-a-days, and if he is also approved by the Church leaders as such, he has to be regarded as a devout. While there is no doubt that many of such persons are genuine believers and truly devout, the fact remains that there is now scope for “pretenders” involving a mechanism of “approval” under the authority of the Church. We need not attempt to count the number of such “pretenders” today. And this is one aspect of our modern day culture which has a harmful effect on the practice of the concept of tlawmngaihna. N. E. Parry bluntly stated as early as in 1932, : No one can pretend that it is a good thing that tlawmngaihna, while still practiced by heathen Lusheis, should be conspicuous by its absence among Christian Lushei communities; the reverse should be the case.” (N. E. Parry, The Lakhers, 1932, pp.23.)

Is tlawmngaina still relevant to-day? This quest is the subject of my interest and the reason why I write this piece. Despite challenges from globalization, modernism, liberalism, individualism, gun and drug culture, corruption of all hues and shapes and the rapid changes that have taken place in recent years, the importance of tlawmngaina has not dwindled. In fact, it has become all the more important for the survival of our community from the invasion of external and internal forces and its effects on the society. What is important is the need to reinterpret tlawmngaina to make it relevant to the demands of the present age.

This will not be an easy exercise as civilizational gap in our society is as wide as from hoe (thuthlaw) culture to laptop culture. Many of the activities the former regarded as tlawmngaina have become redundant in the world of the latter. For example, wakes at the bereaved family’s house may still be relevant in the villages but not in the city or town where dead bodies are kept at the morgue and are taken out only at the time of burial. In the city, community gathering and singing all night long at the bereaved family’s house is not only a wasteful tlawmngaina but a nuisance to the neighbors. It robs off the precious study time of young people and reduces their chance of success in the competitive world which favors only the brave and hard-working hands. Closing business or office every time someone dies may sound good from traditional tlawmngaina point of view but is suicidal from business or career angle. A runner who stops running from time to time cannot keep pace with another runner who keeps on running. Success is a journey and failure starts right from the moment one stops journeying ahead.

One of the big villages within Churachandpur municipality is Rengkai which on an average experiences one death every two days and within Tuithraphai valley, more than one every day. Since attending a funeral is considered tlawmngaina, every one who heard the news will make it sure to attend the funeral. As such, hordes of people, particularly from the older generation are seen every day heading towards the house of the bereaved as vultures gather in hordes where there is carcass. Since our tlawmngaina is now mostly invested in relation to sickness or death in the family, it is high time that we review our unproductive practice and devise a solution.

In this age of hectic and merciless competition, we cannot afford to indulge in wasteful tlawmngaina if we have to compete others and win. The spirit of tlawmngaina should be applied rigorously to competition. Our youths should consider failure as a shameful defeat (tlawm thlak) and accept any challenge bravely and squarely in the winning spirit of tlawmngaina. Our generation took up this challenge in the true spirit of tlawmngaina and won many laurels with Pu Jamchong Nampui, the first IAS from Scheduled Tribes in India leading the way and cutting the Gordian knot.

Follow our footsteps. Knock down the barriers that hinder us from progress in the true spirit of tlawmngaina. No community or nation can survive without competitive spirit. And competitive spirit for a good cause is the essence of tlawmngaina and the secret gospel for survival. There is no other survival kit. Action-less and vain prayers with folded hands will not help.

(ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pu Keivom is a retired Indian foreign diplomat and well known writer. This article is dated October 29, 2010 Delhi)

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