If one were to research social life in Mizoram, or for that matter, the whole of Northeast India, one would find a treasure trove of ethnographic materials to sift through and to ponder upon. The nature of life in the hills is such that the rubric of society hinges not only on the individuals but more so on the collective — the group over the individual.
Since time immemorial, tribal culture and the nature of inhabitations have made for a collective lifestyle. The typology used by French sociologist David Émile Durkheim in his analysis of division of labour can be seen here clearly. The concept of solidarity — here, mechanical solidarity — is at play in a large scale. The clan mobilisation, the less division of labour and social relationship based more on kinship and territoriality rather than modern highly compartmentalised social relationship based on patronage and need based activities.
Social life in Mizoram is one of the most pervasive in the country. More homogenous culture and ethnicity, a lesser number of language and dialects helped create a culture and life that is more inward looking and with neighbourly feelings, even if only in appearance. Since the language is the same, the ethnicity more or less the same and religious orientation the same, the culture has become monolithic in many aspects.
The much-vaunted Mizo traditional ethos, the spirit of tlawmngaihna, can be seen as the bedrock around which Mizo social life revolves around. The selfless act of help and assistance to others, even without any expectation of reward for oneself, harks back to the days of yore which Mizo traditional life was simpler and less complicated. Since everyone needed the others, they all pitch in and most activities, including the agricultural and hunting activities, are to a large extent community affair. The nature of jhooming and the rudimentary agricultural activities and hunting and fishing all needed not one but many from the community. Thus, tlawmngaihna, an ethos that arose out of the philosophical and social nature of the community, gained hold and became an important guiding force of the Mizos.
Looking at present-day Mizoram, many of the elders lamented that the old ways are dying out and tlawmngaihna is on the decline. This may be true to certain extent. Many of the old ways are gone. Many traditional activities which used to be there are replaced by modern forms which do away with the need for many community affairs. Activities and achievements become more of an individual pursuit rather than the community. In such a scenario, it’s no wonder that there will be a dirge for the past and a look at the future with trepidation. However, is that the situation that existed today?
If one were to look around in Mizoram today, he/she will find remnants of the old ways and a rekindling of the spirit of tlawmngaihna not only in forms that it used to exist in traditional Mizo society but in many new avatars. One aspect of tlawmngaihna is not only helping for the others in time of need but also a way of life that thinks of the other, and put the others before the self. Let us look into small small stories.
If one recollect sometime ago, Mizoram was in the news for the famous Nghah Loh Dawr or shopkeeper-less stalls. These stalls existed mostly on the highways between Aizawl and other towns and hamlets in the state. The modus operandi of these stalls is that there will be a small makeshift structure with various local produce on the side of a road. The owner himself will be away in the jhoom or the jungle. The price of the items will be posted and the customers have to give the money on honour system.
However, many of these Nghah Loh Dawr owners said that they were never cheated and mostly the customers are very decent. This care for the others, a sense of honesty and an act of selflessness, still drives many. If you happened to be stranded on the highway due to one reason or the other, the next vehicle will stop by and inquire about your travails. If it’s a repairable thing, the driver himself will get down and help you repair your vehicle. In the rare event that the first driver does not stop, definitely the second or the third will get down and help you. Tlawmngaihna is still at work. Instead of the past where getting the needs of the val upa and other village elder was seen as tlawmngaihna, now, its form has morphed to a more general sense of goodwill and help towards the others.
Philanthropy is coming in a small but gradual manner in Mizoram. In the past, philanthropy again was seen as donation to the church, or some other organisation that will use it for the greater good of the community. Nowadays, philanthropy is geared towards a more direct way. Someone needs blood; the local YMA and other who know about it will go and donate blood. Someone is sick in the hospital and need money to tide over, someone will post it on WhatsApp or Facebook and soon a collection is on the way for the needy. There are some destitute people, certain friends or club will get together and start a collection. This philanthropy can be seen as an extension of tlawmngaihna, and they are.
Traffic control/behaviour is also another aspect of Mizo society where the spirit of help for the other comes into play. Pressing the horn is used only in case of emergency and only if there is dire need. Many will give way to the others when they are in a more precarious position. If one goes out of his way to give way to others, he will be rewarded with a short beep, acknowledgement of his selfless act towards the other drivers.
Many may see this piece as a rosy picture of Mizoram and ask about its ills and short-comings. Of course, these things are also there. Many are selfish and never help others. Many drivers are irritants to other drivers. Thieves also steal many things which are never recovered. Many needy families do not receive help on time. But in spite of all these, the majority of the people still believe that tlawmngaihna is still a viable and working ethos to help the society. The bedrock of Mizo society is built upon this. Even though certain bad pebbles are there, they are just a minority. This way we can see that tlawmngaihna is able to enter the 21st Century with head held high and may go on till Mizo community exists on Earth.
(Zara Bawitlung is a civil servant turned academician. He can be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed are personal)