[Book Extract] A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold

Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Gargi College, Delhi University. She has translated and compiled the first anthology of Lotha-Naga folktales entitled A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold. Describing the book as a “personal imperative”, Nzanmongi believes that producing more literature from North East India is the only way to dispel misconceptions about the diverse people and cultures belonging to that region.

The Man who Travelled to Echu Li

-Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton

Echu Li is a place, which is often spoken about by old folk but never seen. There are few stories of men discovering it and being unable to come back or go back to it. This is one such story.

It was the last leg of winter, post harvest, and it was time to scour new land to sow a new crop. There was a man who, like many others, was walking around the jungles at the edge of the village looking for a fertile new plot to till. This man was very picky with plots because he wanted to ensure a superlative harvest that would keep his family well fed. There were many stories of villagers going hungry and resorting to begging because of barren land, and so he was out to avoid that.

After walking for many days on end, in the distance he saw a very fertile land, which was lush with vegetation. He wondered at this strange sight. ‘It is not time for harvest and yet even in this dry season when we have already reaped and are enjoying the fruits of our labour this land is laden with fruits as if waiting to be harvested. It means that this is a very fertile land. This certainly is a very good plot of land. I must claim it before anyone else stumbles upon it,’ he thought.

As he reached that place he walked around seeing the scores of healthy vegetation on the plot of land. The trees were full of fruits. The creepers were also flowering and bearing fruit. Pumpkins, melons, yam, taro, chilli, brinjals, oranges, lemons, sugar cane were all in abundance and the excitement of discovering this place outdid the warning that comes when one encounters very strange sights in untrodden places. There was not a living soul to be found.

He kept his pharii down and walked around the entire place and so happy he was that he tasted almost all fruits and vegetables growing there. He thought he must take some fruits back to his family to show off his great find and to bring them to pluck the ready crop and start anew.

He filled his pharii to the brim. Then he put the strap of his pharii on his head and heaved it up, ready to retrace his way. As he was walking back, making his way towards the village, he realized he had walked enough to reach his destination but he actually hadn’t. He looked around; he was still in the same spot where he started the walk.

He said to himself, ‘Maybe unknown to me, I have been walking around in circles and traipsed back here without realizing this folly’. So he took off, keeping an eye out for the landmarks. Weird doesn’t begin to describe what happens next because after hours and hours of walking, there he was, back again at the same place! It seemed that he had walked for a long time yet the sun was the same and everything else around him too. He rubbed his eyes and pinched himself to make sure that he was not dreaming this up. Things were still the same.

Now he got scared. ‘Maybe it is to do with the fruits I picked from here?’ he surmised. So he made up his mind that he must leave all the good plucks from that place. He dropped his pharii and ran off as fast as he could in the direction he thought would lead back to the village. When you are scared many kilometers feel like a few feet. In no time, the man reached the village. By the time he got to the village, he was shaking in fear. As he narrated the story to the villagers, they all clucked and said, ‘It must be Echu Li that you chanced upon. Our forefathers have told us about this place but we have never seen it. It was always told to us that no living man is allowed to take back anything from that land because the living and the dead cannot partake of the same food’.

The entire village was curious to see this place because they had heard about it many times from their grandfathers but had never came upon it. So they decided that they would go there together the next day. Morning came and all the men folk set out to find that place that the man had discovered the previous day but to no avail. They walked on for miles and miles but found nothing. Echu Li is No Man’s Land and it cannot be revealed to the naked eye of living men. It is unexplainable and mysterious how that man could access the place. Only the dead can explain. Even today when you cross Englan range in Wokha district, you can see Echu Li, nestled far away on a mountain almost a chimera, far away where no man can ever reach.

1. Echu – Dead.
2. Li – Field.
3. Pharii – Bamboo basket.

Read about the book launch of A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold here.