When Blackbirds Fly Book Review - A Requiem to Childhood

It’s quite difficult to write a review of Hannah Lalhlanpuii’s debut novel When Blackbirds Fly because nothing one says can truly capture the elegiac beauty and the punch in the guts that this slim book packs. It’s a slow burn of a novel allowing the reader to soak in the story while challenging the reader at every step to acknowledge their lack of knowledge, their sense of privilege and assumptions routinely made about the region that forms the locus of the story.

The Story

Part of the Not Our War (NOW) series, Lalhlanpuii focuses on a particular period of history when the army of the Mizoram National Front (MNF) led by Laldenga came into the crosshairs of the Indian army in 1966. The narrative unfolds through the eyes and ears of Lalthanmawia’s son who, with his adolescent friends – Rini and Zuala, must try and make sense of the rapidly changing scenario. The boy’s friendship with Zuala as also his love for Rini (something that Zuala tries to make him confess to) is the heart of the story. One does wish though that, like the boys, she, too, was fleshed out a bit more. Rini remains more of a spokesperson of received wisdom from her mother. Even the boy sees her as someone with a ready explanation for everything. None of them, however, remains untouched by political happenings. While Rini and Zuala seem sorted about their stance, their friend is a reluctant participant in discussions around freedom. In his words, ‘My world is small, but I am free in it. I am independent and that’s all that matters.’  But within a matter of weeks, the siege reaches their doorsteps engulfing them all in its fiery wake.

The Storytelling

Lalhlanpuii’s contemplative masterpiece takes place mainly in the mind of the young boy who is known as Lalthanmawia’s son or just plain, 'Son'. The absence of a name for the main protagonist becomes haunting when the reader learns that he lost a parent at the age of two. It’s almost as if not naming him underlines that he’s still trying to find himself. At the same time, this device makes him a voice for all the other countless anonymous children in conflict zones.

The story is structured very well beginning quietly enough with talk of haunted hostels and pastimes of feeding squirrels and adolescent crushes. Like a camera lens changing from close-up to wide-angle, the boy and his friends, family and neighbour are introduced, which then expands to his school, the neighbourhood and thence the town. Despite the hints peppering the narrative of what is to come, the shattering events creep up softly, jolting the reader.

The real feat of Lalhlanpuii is how much she manages to say with sparse narrative while sparing nothing in the telling. When Blackbirds Fly is neither a bloodless, sanitised history nor a one-sided version. The author does not hold back from telling things as is such as the resentment of locals to having to provide cooked food for the MNF; their anguish at their dead being denied proper Mizo burials by Indian soldiers; children caught in the crossfire; and short-staffed hospitals swamped as the battle takes a deadly turn. She also covers a lot of ground - how tribals who had never stepped out of their villages were lured into British war efforts in France; perceptions of Nehru (read the book to learn the boy's cute shortform for him!), the Mautam famine; Laldenga and the non-violent protests by the Mautam Famine Front with its transition to Mizo National Front taking up arms; the issue of linguistic identity (Mizo as roots, English as aspiration, Hindi by force majeure) and class hierarchy (shopkeepers with paper money and owners of cement buildings); the role of the church and faith. But there is no elaborate detour into any of these nor is there any explanation for the ubiquitous presence of Assam in Mizoram (Assam-type houses, Assam Rifles, the government of Assam), for instance. The historical note at the end is also brief leaving things just so for the reader to do their own research, or to ruminate and chew upon just like the boy in the story on whom Lalhlanpuii maintains an unwavering focus.

Putting Aside Childish Things

Lalhlanpuii achingly brings out the imprint violence leaves on childhoods - children’s collectibles comprise used cartridges, adventures are visits to army camps, students are put to gendered chores in schools that have been shut and converted to food collection centres for the MNF, and the boy in the story ages before his time when he finds himself living his worst nightmare. His plight is rendered all the more poignant when it dawns on the reader that his grandfather is reliving it twice over. He, too, has a collectible – a scythe handle crafted from the leftover machine-gun bullets fired by the Japanese on his village of North Vanlaiphai in 1944 during World War II.

It is quite telling that the adults in the story, even when they do speak of their youthful love, recall it in the backdrop of some military exercise; be it the grandfather sticking by his love when his peers leave for the Lushai Labour Corps in France in 1917 during World War I to a woman in the hospital who recalls her friendship with the boy’s mother and meeting his father during the reception ceremony for soldiers returning from Singapore in 1948. Through these references along with the constant boast of ‘heritage’ or lack of it by characters, Lalhlanpuii  is gently making a point about how it is often left to oral histories and memories across generations to preserve the struggles of the people of the northeast. This is important in light of the fact that they often go missing in history, be it nation-building narratives or commemorations of India’s contribution to World War efforts. In fact, there is no tidy ending and it underlines that there are many unaccounted for in the history of Mizoram and some gaps may never be filled.

Why it Should be Read

The boy’s mindscape is laid out in fascinating phrases like 'impolite rays of the sun', and 'the air smells like my Mother’s knitted sweater'. There’s also a wonderful turn of phrase to describe downhill running. The original and unusual prose leaves a warm glow. The boy’s evolving understanding of the meanings of things like cold, silence and home are deftly teased out and the boy’s definition of house valuables and having to watch adults weep and his father tremble leave a lump in the throat. The analogies to hunting and fire; the Biblical allusions to a pastor leading his flock and the boy’s aspiration to travel in a jeep are used to stunning effect to bring the story arc to a chilling close. But the seriousness of the subject never weighs down the writing. The author’s wry and sometimes black humour pops up in unexpected places to delight and disturb the reader in equal measure.

Despite describing the emotional and psychological devastation wrecked on a child, Lalhlanpuii never uses the trite phrase 'loss of innocence'; rather she takes it head-on and shows how cruel children can also be by providing an uncomfortable glimpse of their perceptions of the differently-abled and the sick. But she does not rest there - she laudably goes beyond to show the differently-abled in a different light as well such as the one-armed neighbour Pu Thansiama’s strength and kindness. It is in these vignettes of neighbours and strangers that bring the world of a close-knit people and where they live (Mission Veng, Tuikhuahtlang, Kulikawn, Khatla Veng and Electric Veng, to name a few) come alive. The main characters are also wonderfully etched with just a few intimate details like the placement of a tea cup’s handle and why it matters says so much about the precision loving boy’s father, Lalthanmawia, or how the Grandfather being able to identify that it is gelatin being used as an explosive speaks to his exposure to earlier battles.

Rini in the book is enchanted at the idea of sitting in a classroom, learning about aborigines in Australia, 'millions of miles away'. This book opens a window to a region that we have often shut out though it’s part of our own country. The reader is exposed to new forms of address through prefixes like 'Pu' (Mr) and 'Pi' (Ms) and 'U' (older sister). The term ‘Son’ is used to address a young boy by those outside the family indicating that, in a close-knit community everyone is family. This is not just a hollow statement. When crisis strikes everyone shows concern for neighbours and strangers alike and none is intent on just saving their own children or caring for only their family members. It’s a lesson in humanity that is much needed in our times.

It’s also enjoyable to find a novel way of conversing between generations, which takes place sans mention of names or any polite suffix common among other cultures or even forms of address for father, grandfather, etc. There is direct communication where children are treated on par with adults who discuss the ongoing politics within their earshot and even inform them about violent incidents and the possibility of harm to their relatives. This open culture is refreshing to read about and also explains how the boy can express what may seem initially to be very adult perspectives. Children are also shown participating in non-violent protests and it should be an eye-opener for huffy folks who believe erroneously that this is a violation of human rights.

Lalhlanpuii also forces us to pause and reflect on whether as a character points out in the book, 'any reason is good enough' for a government to turn on its own people. Given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the book is a deadly reminder that blowing up water pipelines to cut off supplies and bombing human habitation to force submission are tactics of war as old and older than the Grandfather in the story. He speaks for us all when during the rebels’ ambush he laments, ‘Oh, what is the matter with our world now?’ What indeed.

The Artwork

Canato Jimo has created an evocative cover capturing the actual historical and life changing moment in the story. But it also shows the simplicity in Lalhlanpuii’s writing that an artist is able to exactly and so brilliantly encapsulate the story in a single frame. Kudos to both the artists, one who has spoken in visuals and the other for painting her story in word pictures so beautifully.

Information about the Book

When Blackbirds Fly is published by Duckbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The book is for children aged 10+ and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which promotes responsible management of the world's forests. So, go ahead and purchase a hard copy though it's also available as an e-book. Priced at INR 199, buy it from an indie bookstore. This reviewer got hers from Kahani Tree through an email order: info@kahanitree.com and they ship across India. You can also order it through WhatsApp. It is also available at other independent bookstores like Funky Rainbow.

Author Note

Hannah Lalhlanpuii has published poems and short stories locally in Mizoram, where she currently lives with her family in Aizawl. She also works as a freelance writer for English news outlets in Mizoram. Her area of interest lies in postcolonial studies, trauma writing and children’s literature. When Blackbirds Fly is her first published novel.

Illustrator Note

Canato Jimo hailing from Nagaland is the author-illustrator of Snip and collaborated with Ogin Nayam for Asamo, is that you? Both books were published by Pratham Books for whom Jimo works as an Art Director.

This book review has been written by Madhuri Kamat, author of Flying with GrandpaBringing Back GrandpaBurial of The Dead - Mystery in a Mohalla, and Yudi Yudi Dharmasya: Mahabharat - Through the Eyes of Kunti.


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