Chasing History Through Mizo Archives

–with guest blogger, Kyle

Today is ‘Missionary Day’ in Mizoram, a day to commemorate the Welsh, English, and American missionaries that brought Christianity to these hills.  But while today’s holiday holds a special place in the calendar, you could say that every day is missionary day in Mizoram. They’re bonafide superstars: stone memorials of their visits rise up along roadsides, schoolchildren’s sports teams are named in their honour, and their portraits hang above hospital rooms.  Even their hair clippings are preserved behind glass in museums.

So, on this locally, historically auspicious day, this blog hopes to answer the kind friends and family who have recently written to ask how my own historical research is going in Aizawl.

The Mizos are unique amongst India’s peoples because of the speed and extent of their Christianization. In 1901, nearly no one in the Mizo tribe was literate or Christian; in 1961, nearly everyone in the Mizo tribe was literate and Christian; and today, Mizos command India’s second most literate and second most Christian state.

Playing connect-the-dots with these kind of milestones, conventional history writing here in Mizoram usually turns the region’s past into one of triumphalist progress. Mizoram’s first British missionary! Mizoram’s first Mizo Christian! Mizoram’s first school! Mizoram’s first airport! Each are draped in bunting and trotted out for readers to applaud. It’s a pretty simple formula for history-writing: take some missionaries, plunk them at the centre of the story, and then identify the path of least resistance between a nineteenth-century Aizawl (where Christianity, writing, and Western medicine were unknown) and the city’s Upper Bazaar Road today (where a state archive towers over a Christian church and a street packed with biomedical zombie-pharmacies).

I’m on a different mission altogether. I want to find out what happens if we instead turn our gaze downwards to look at all the potholes in the path. Why, would you look at all those potholes. Look at all the accidents that happened and all the sparks that flew when two radically different cultures hit head-on in Mizoram! By changing our focus so, we let the story get a whole lot more messy…and interesting. And the best way to do this is to give those poor missionaries a well-deserved break, and to let the Mizos themselves onstage. Indeed, Mizos have been waiting in the wings of their own histories for far too long. How would Mizo history look if we told it looking over the shoulders of Mizos rather than of missionaries? What would it look like if we refused to take the rise of Christianity, writing, and Western medicine for granted?

In a sense, I’m trying to wander back down the old narratives of history-telling in Northeast India, armed with a flashlight and some Doxycycline, and led by an historical Mizo tour guide (wide-eyed himself at finally being invited into the story). In one hand, the flashlight is to suss out all the alternative pathways and historical dead ends that haven’t yet been explored. In the other hand, the Doxycycline represents a medical focus: a key theme over the last hundred years is health, since both the Mizos and the Christians had religious traditions and institutions that centred around healing, and made respective, often competing, claims about it. I’m hoping we reach some conclusions that will shake up not only the old narratives of Mizo history, but also established ways of history-writing in general.

In Mizoram, at present, I have three key research targets.

Key Target One is the State Archive of Mizoram. This is the state’s primary archive for all things political—a one-stop-shop for all the British Raj documents. If you interrupt their heated game of Bridge, the smiley archivists who work there will even bring these documents to you speedily.

Key Target Two is the Presbyterian Synod Archive. This is the main Presbyterian record centre—just a five minute walk from our place. Interestingly, most people who visit this archive do not know how old they are, and that’s actually why they visit. The Presbyterian Archive always has a good guess, working off scrupulously kept historical Baptism records. Patrons can thus leave with a freshly invented birthdate, stamped, sealed, and gifted them by the Presbyterian Church, and can then go on to apply to whatever bureaucracy it was that required a birthdate of them. (I am, unfortunately, all too aware of my own birthdate, as I turned thirty—thirty!—me!—this week: a day to be forever marked in infamy in Mizo history, for Lindy and I went for horrifying, all-body oil massages…but more about that in Lindy’s next blog). Right now I’m just in this archive for their early missionary publications, and for their giant bookshelf of Mizo history books. The archivists like me because I brought them Christmas cake from the famous Zote Bakery—proud makers of “baked disappointment” (or so say Lindy and I), but impossibly popular across the land. Ingratiated thusly, the archivists now always make sure I’m served the same tea and treats as Synod employees, three times a day.

Image(A Betty Crocker brownie star-cake on my birthday–the opposite of baked disappointment).

Key Target Three is in the south of Mizoram, the Baptist archive in Serkawn village. Lindy and I hope to travel there in February, and have plans to hike the nearby Blue Mountain—the tallest in all of Mizoram!

Image(The Baptist archive in south Mizoram)

So far, research in Mizoram has often felt like a slog up a never-ending Blue Mountain. The first four weeks here were a tough trek indeed, imperilled by great potholes filled with lice, Christmas songs, and intestine water—more or less in that order. The foreignness of Mizoram gripped us like a Mizo man gripping a styrofoam cup of Christmas intestine water: a death-hold that doesn’t let go. Only in the last two days have my archives and libraries truly flung open their doors after the holiday season. It’s actually been a breath of fresh air to get back to work in their dusty halls. With another conference presentation looming on the horizon, it couldn’t come too soon.

Many thanks to you all for your notes over Christmas and for my birthday, and for your most kind inquiries into how research is going. I really appreciate hearing from you. It’s so good to be back at it. For Lindy, too, the return to work has been truly rewarding, and these days I often feel that one of us is studying Mizo history while the other one works to change it for the better. But I’ll let her tell you all about it—and about our massages—next Paratha.

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3 thoughts on “Chasing History Through Mizo Archives

  1. Thank you and thank you again for this blog. We pray daily for you both and for your project. it must be exceedingly interesting mucking about in history. God bless you both.

  2. So wonderful that the documentation needed to receive an approximate birthday is available. Here in Canada “we” just closed 11 of our libraries on the historical data on environment and fisheries. In the future when someone tries to find the potholes in the path of how our environment got from one state to the next, they will find the only information available is that which was deemed to be the story in 2013. Only a few books, reports remain.

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