Goodreads blurb: Set in the mid-nineteenth century, the action takes place in the Northeast—the region that spreads from Assam to Arunachal today. The East India Company is seeking to make inroads into the region and the local people—in particular the Abor and Mishmee tribes—fear their coming and are doing all they can to keep them out of their territories.
The author takes a recorded historical event—the mysterious disappearance of a French priest, Father Nicolas Krick in the 1850s and the execution of Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe for his murder—and woven a gripping, densely imagined work of fiction around it. And, even as the novel tells the story of an impossible journey and an elopement, it explores the themes of the lure of unknown worlds, the love people have for each other and their land and the forces of history.
Gimur, a girl from the Abor tribe, runs away with Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe, and they settle down on his land near the Tibetan border. Father Krick’s attempts to reach Tibet to set up a Jesuit mission are foiled repeatedly by the local people not because of any personal animus towards the priests or their work, but because they feel—rightly—that once the priests come, the British, with their guns and their garrisons will follow.
The story revolves around events in Gimur’s and Kajinsha’s villages and is also seen from the point of view of Father Krick, a gentle, intelligent man, devout but no bigot, whose determination to reach Tibet no matter what the cost, impacts tragically on all those who encounter him.
The book begins with Gimur and her fellow villagers in Mebo being wary of the rumors of the Britishers making inroads into their territories and in this troubled backdrop, she finds herself being drawn to Kajinsha from the Mishmee tribe. Breaking all conventional cultural norms of the time, she falls in love with him and elopes with him dreaming of a better future where she doesn’t feel constrained by all the rigidities of the traditions and customs that her Abor tribesmen have forced upon her all her life so far. Theirs is a passionate love which knows no boundaries and pretty soon they are happily married and settled down in Kajinsha’s village.
In the meantime, Father Krick, from faraway France lands on the shores of India with the sole intention of establishing a prefecture in Southern Tibet and spreading the message of the Lord there. Although he is quite aware that previous attempts to do so have been met with extreme hostilities and even violence on the part of the locals who would not even allow foreigners to set foot on their land, let alone establish a religion there, he is not dissuaded and is driven by this dream of his. To get to Tibet though, he has to pass through Abor and Mishmee territories and he sets off on this journey with nothing but hope and faith in the Lord to help him succeed.
Set in a time when tensions were at their highest between the various tribesmen among themselves, their distrust and hatred for the common enemy, the foreigner, the narrative of The Black Hill takes us readers through a wonderfully poignant tale of love, loss, faith and ultimately the human nature of endurance. Mamang Dai makes complete use of her knowledge of local traditions and customs to weave a wonderful tapestry of plot points which involve Gimur’s love story, her flight with Kajinsha, Krick’s first journey to Tibet through hostile territory, and the various tragedies that all three characters face in the course of their lives over the next two to three years.
Some parts of the narrative are especially haunting and will linger around in readers’ minds for a long time after the book has been read, and this to me, is why this book will hold a special place in my heart. The fact that the author chose to highlight the human aspects of the characters’ lives while momentous events unfurl around them is what makes this book eminently memorable. The author has resisted the temptation to make this a book about the colonial foreigners gradually making inroads into the hills and taking control and instead has chosen to set the stories of her protagonists in this melee, and it works wonderfully well in this book. The
Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for a honest and unbiased review.