When the fighter jets first appear in the blue Aizawl sky, it reminds the teenager of the blackbirds that visit his windowsill every morning — sweet, like the life he leads in Mizoram of the 1960s.
But when the bombs drop from the skies, his hometown is reduced to rubble, and thus falls apart the “perfect world” he once knew: of friends and family, of school crushes and homework.
It is in this dark period of the Mizo insurgency, triggered by the 1966 aerial bombing of Aizawl by the Indian government that Hannah Lalhlanpuii’s When Blackbirds Fly (Duckbill, Penguin Random House; Rs 199) is set. Death, assault, and atrocities marked the next 20 years of armed conflict, but Lalhlanpuii captures the sentiment of this unnaturally sombre time not through the cause of the rebels, or the unforgiving, iron-fist response of the state. She tells the story through the musings of a 13-year-old.
For one, when boys around him are talking about joining the rebel Mizo National Front (MNF) to fight for their “independence” from India, Lalhlanpuii’s protagonist is unmoved. “I cannot understand what they are fighting for — the MNF rebels. I am perfectly one with the way things are; I cannot imagine war more freedom I need.” The teen reads up on literature on MNF, hoping that he would be drawn to the fight for his homeland, but he is quick to realise that he is happy in his own small world — “father walking around the house, listening to Rini [his crush] talk, sitting with grandfather by the window at night —my word is small but I am free in it.”
Lalhlanpuii, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Mizoram Christian College, says it is this dilemma she wanted to capture, a conversation that is glaringly missing from most accounts of the Mizo insurgency: the freedom not to take a side. “The accounts of the insurgency we have in Mizo literature — it is either the MNF narrative or the non-MNF narrative, there is nothing in between that talks about the experience of civilians, especially children,” she says.
The insurgency, one of the early armed movements of the Northeast, was the result of the Mizos feeling neglected at the hands of the Indian government — in 1959, the mautam, a cyclical bamboo famine hit the Lushai Hills hard. The Mizos got little aid from the Centre. In a culmination of the anger, on February 28, 1966, the local famine relief group, led by the bank clerk-turned-rebel Laldenga took up arms and launched Operation Jericho to capture Aizawl, declaring “independence” from India. For the first and only time in the history of Independent India, the government, led by Indira Gandhi, ordered air raids on its own territory. The violence raged on for two decades, before the MNF declared peace and joined electoral politics.
The idea first came to Lalhlanpuii in 2013. At university in Shillong, she was dismayed at the dearth of writings on, and from, Mizoram, especially the insurgency, in her Northeast Studies course — a stark contrast from her childhood, where she grew up hearing about the Rambuai (Mizo for troubled years of the insurgency), that claimed her grandfather’s life.
Lalhlanpuii set herself a task: she began interviewing those — mostly octogenarians — who were kids during the aerial strikes on Aizawl. “Back then, I was not sure why I was doing it or where the story was going, so I abandoned it after a while,” says the 30-year-old.
After “leaving it in her laptop” for a few years, Lalhlanpuii’s conscience pricked again — this time as a teacher in a school in Aizawl. “In one of my lessons, when I recounted to the students the bombing of Aizawl, they were shocked because they had no idea it had ever happened,” she says.
It is perhaps because of the success of the Mizo Accord of June 30, 1986, signed between the MNF and the Government of India — security experts often call it the “only insurgency in the world that ended with the stroke of a pen”. As other states in the Northeast still struggle with some form of militancy, peace is what Mizoram has long prided itself on. The days of Rambuai, fortunately, are long gone.
Still, Lalhlanpuii feels it is a story that needs to be told. “Our generation is not as affected by it, as say, our parents’ was but that doesn’t mean we should forget about it,” says Lalhlanpuii.
The notes were retrieved, and in 2019 she began writing in earnest. Old relatives and acquaintances were sought: a professor who was 12 during the bombings, and remembers thinking the planes were “blackbirds in the sky”; a grandmother, who still fears “any man with a moustache”, a physical feature she associates with the army men from the “mainland”; an uncle who watched his town burst into flames from a hilltop afar.
The process was far from easy, made even more challenging by the demographic her subjects belonged to. “I would sit with them for hours and hours…as patiently as I could…their memories do not serve them as well as they did before,” says Lalhlanpuii, “Some wanted to share their experiences, since they had no one to tell their stories to. Yet others resisted recounting the harsh memories.”
So touching were the stories that Lalhlanpuii had to “change the narrative” multiple times, she says. In the end, she decided to tell it through the eyes of a 13-year-old, and his friends, whose lives are turned upside-down, following the air raids.
In Blackbirds, even as her young characters grapple with the reality around them, they go through the motions of adolescence: they are curious (apparent in the “treasure hunts” for old cartridges from trenches where firings take place) as they are mature (“You don’t have to hold a gun to be a patriot,” says a character).
It is in these nuances that the book, part of Duckbill’s “Not Our War” series focusing on children growing up in times of conflict, comes through to the reader, offering a simple takeaway: that children can often carve their childhoods, even in the worst of times.