Monday, April 28, 2008


I’ve never been much of a singer. At best, I mimic tunes that I have either internalized over the years or memorized because I simply liked the tunes. The choir director at the church I attend had more fingers on the piano than members and was always on the lookout for another voice. Sitting in the last row, I was simply bellowing my way through “Holy, Holy, Holy” when apparently my Welsh-riffed, un-modulated throaty mimicry transfigured into the stuff of cherubic choirs. From that day on, I would get weekly invitations to join the choir and I would invariably smile a polite declination. It was not that the sudden turn of attention had gotten to my head but rather a quirky angst. A choir was the last place I’d want to stand in when facing people. Part of my hesitance had to do with my limited repertoire (the choir sang a new song practically every week) and also my being musically illiterate. The symbols on the score still remind me of tadpoles that I chase across the octaves.

The invitations never flagged. At risk of becoming a pricey ‘star’, I decided to give it a shot. We met a half-hour before we were to actually sing. When the music sheet for that day was handed to me, I instinctively ‘O hell-ed’ on reading a title I had never seen before. Everyone else rehearsed the notes in their heads while I kicked myself for the discomfort zone I had signed up for. The director then got the accompaniment going, the choir harmonized while I improvised rather unsuccessfully. An extra sustain never fails to draw attention. To skip over self-evident details, I let it be known that part of my struggle was primarily because I did not read music. Even though the invitations have stopped since, I continue to enjoy contemplative moments with others in the pews or even the occasional bellow from the last row.

On a side note for those who grew up on the cult kung fu classics, The Forbidden Kingdom is a must watch. Jet Li and Jackie Chan provide action where the drunken master shines in the monkey’s shadow. Except for the opening and penultimate scenes that were densely CGI-d, expect to lose yourself in some of the most breathtaking locations in a movie. The plot is simple without any dense twists. No connecting of contrived dots. Crouching gave us kung fu with strings attached. Forbidden ups the ante by spiking Jackie’s innovation with Jet’s speed. It could get better only if you threw in a Michelle Yeoh or Chow Yun Fat.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More Between Lines

This is to continue conversation, post-reading, on the previous post.

Hillel had been consolidating his rhetorical position all along. The final thesis of the book is that the Chhinlung Israel theory is "107%" tenable but the details are a little more nuanced than meets the eye. The key to the thesis is a proto-Kuki mi lui which fellow Lusei readers will recognize as mi hlui or 'old people'. The mi lui were somehow linked to the Samarian populace ousted/exiled in 722 BCE by Shalamaneser. This was when Samaria was the northern kingdom in the line of Saul, David, Solomon and before the infamy Samaria came to be associated with in Judeo-Christian mindsets. The mi lui moved eastward as far as Mongolia and then turned southwest to finally settle down on the edges of Imphal, Manipur. Later migration of the Hmar from the southwest (Mizoram, Burma) led to the melding of traditions and practices but the semitic legacy had been preserved in the exclusive chants and practices of the thempu priests. The thempu tradition in turn informs the seemingly random claims of Jewish ancestry that one hears around the hills; Kuki-Chin groups have Manmasi as an ancestor figure which resonates with Manasseh, one of the northern kingdom tribes exiled by Shalamaneser.

Pivotal to the thesis is the work of Dr. Khuplam who documents the oral traditions and observed practices in The Wonderful Genealogical Tales of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo based on which, along with some subtle linguistic gymnastics, Hillel connects the Chhinlung Israel mipuite to the lost-tribe group. Dr. Khuplam's effort is commendable and yet Hillel seems to uncritically allow too little to over-determine too much. Negotiating the oral-written binaries of recording data and cognizant of truth regimes implied in such epistemic projections, the subject poses a vibrant potential for more research and with the added bonus of a decent preliminary work done in Across the Sabbath River. If one were to consider findings like those of the Genographic project, rather than Israel we should all be clamoring for visas to Ethiopia or one of the countries inhabited by the San people. That one choses however to stop at Israel poses larger psycho-social questions and how people signify some basic existential issues on larger projects such as 'origins'.

Oh yes, my cousin Zohminga showed up again toward the end, this time as a fill in translator in place of a George Lawma whose antics just didn't fly with Hillel. These Hillel-George Lawma parleys were a subplot worth a serious side-read. To taper off what seems like an overdone blog post, Across the Sabbath River should make for an informed reading if not an engaged one.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Between Lines

I recently picked up Hillel Halkin’s Across the Sabbath River, an account of his engagement with the 'lost tribes of Israel' phenomenon, partly because his position as outsider on the subject of the Chhinlung Israel mipuite and partly because of my own investment in the topic. The Chhinlung Israel mipuite in its most lay sense refers to the Israel lost-tribe claims of contiguous communities in Mizoram, Manipur and Myanmar. The read has been very educating as I was able to thread the constituent strands in a much more detailed manner than before. It has also been very engaging because of the mental commentaries I am able to conjure up as he builds his narrative. For instance, on page 169, he narrates a visit by Zohminga who, “worked for the ministry of tourism which meant he had a lot of free time. He spent part of it riding around Aizawl on a motorcycle with Israeli flags. He wished to know how he might acquire some Israeli army fatigues.” Hillel’s caricature of my cousin was eerily spot on and yet ambiguous because of the many subtexts that lend themselves to ambivalent inferences. The ethnographic details projected an objective innocence and yet underscored a subtle chutzpah that suggested implied binaries in their descriptive constructions. Hence, to take note of ‘free time’ or an inquiry regarding the procurement of army fatigues does not just figure as a value free predicate but rather seems to indicate a rhetorical position that Hillel progressively sets up for himself.

Hillel does not hide his own investment in the ‘hunt’ for the lost tribes. On the part of lost-tribe hunters, he finds an innocence in their obsession and futility. This attitude in turn seemed to inform what he perceives as a mimetic impulse in the Chhinlung Israel mipuite and also engenders an overflow of facetious additions that constantly color the otherwise keen observations he records. Two of them that caught my attention were, “In the back, a thin, pretty woman listened intently while rocking back and forth with a nursing baby. It was imbibing a taste for hermeneutics with its mother’s milk.” (168) and, “As we spoke, the house filled up with several generations of Pu Liankeuva’s family. The older offspring occupied the chairs and floor and the younger ones crowded outside the open window and stuck their heads through its bars. Even the children in Mizoram were keen to know their true identity. (164) Then again, without such colorful flags, one might just have bulleted the evidence and relegated the read to nothing more than the perfunctory.

Minor quibbles aside, the Chhinlung Israel mipuite issue finds an ably measured treatment in Across the Sabbath River and as I knock off each page, the engagement forces me to speculate that Hillel might execute a volte-face toward the end. Another part of me thinks he will not.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

On a Fool's Day

A local radio station momentarily pulled out their regular fare and replaced it with Mexican mariachi music for the next half an hour. Unsuspecting listeners who were more attuned to the classic rock package that the station is associated with were furious. Their calls to the station were hilarious ranging from near-racial tones on music choices amply splattered with bleeped out expletives to the more resigned 'where have you moved'. Besides the fun of the day in fooling around, it was rather interesting how such candid moments seemed to prise out some of the deeper but also quirkier insecurities that one takes on but sublimates so effortlessly. Needless to say, I had already dialed the radio station and then hung up.

William Dalrymple was in the area later in the evening and I had marked the event as a must-do. I have been following his work over the years but never got to see him in person. Like his prose, his presentation, an engaging one hour summary of his Last Mughal, was erudite, articulate, well-resourced, adjectives fail me...he was just brilliant. At the book signing, I mentioned having met a Bruce Wannell in Ladakh. Bruce and I were lodging at the same guest house and I had even chipped in my bit for a Ladakhi musica
l soiree he had organized. Over the course of our interaction, Bruce mentioned his work with Simon Digby on some 17th century Urdu manuscripts for a Dalrymple work. I brought out this byte with Dalrymple hoping to segue into a conversation but was taken aback by his rather brusque pshaw on that bit of translation work. Apparently, Bruce and Simon 'were not good influences on each other' and the translation work had to be done by someone else. Nonetheless, Bruce is acknowledged in Last Mughal and Simon remains an expert of 17th and 18th century urdu poetry. I got my copy of Last Mughal signed. Besides this unabashed exercise in name-dropping along with a picture to consign my paw-shaking with Dalrymple to posterity, I joked with my colleague, "When I grow up, I want to be a Dalrymple!" and got pshawed myself.

(Pic 1) Simon Digby, seated at left
(pic2) Bruce Wannell, seated at left