The first thing I saw when I landed at Mizoram’s whitewashed bird’s nest of an airport—a concrete block nestled between steep, bamboo-covered hills—was a cross. It stood erect and blazingly white in a shabbily landscaped plot of grass between the terminal and the airport’s lone runway. Bold red letters printed across the patibulum—which, mercifully, I couldn’t make out until I was off the thirty-seat propeller jet and walking across the tarmac—read thy kingdom come.
In Mizoram, it practically has. To the evangelical mind, this wrinkled wedge of land between Bangladesh and Myanmar, occupying about 8,100 square miles1 of landlocked longitudinal ridges, is nothing less than a miracle. Just a century ago, the people living in these rugged hills were a fractured assembly of pagan headhunters; today, Mizoram is one of three majority-Christian states in India, with 87 percent of its inhabitants, including the ethnic minorities living at its social and geographic peripheries, identifying as Christian. Here the idea of God as omnipresent is not conjecture: it’s fact. Every taxi has a rosary dangling from its rearview mirror. Local radio and TV channels play gospel music all day on Sundays, and have separate channels that play only church music all the time. People eat dinner by five thirty to attend church at seven. Every neighborhood in every major town has its own parish church and attendant choir, and every hilltop of every village is crowned by a crucifix.
Mizoram is one of the seven tribal hill states that together constitute what the rest of India knows simply as the Northeast, a region that dangles like an atrophied limb over the hunched back of Bangladesh, nudging Myanmar’s western flank. When young people from the Northeast leave home to work or study in cities like Bangalore and Delhi, they’re often met with racial epithets—chinki is the most common—and occasionally even with lethal violence. Back in February 2015, the Bharatiya Janata Party (the right-wing Hindu nationalist party of India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi), during its campaign to take over local governance in the capital of New Delhi, included in its Vision Document a call for “protection of the Northeastern migrants,” apparently indifferent to the fact that the Northeast has been part of India since the country’s independence, in 1947.
From 1966 to 1986, a rebel group called the Mizo National Front, now the legitimate ruling party in the state, fought a bitter and violent battle against the Indian government, pushing first for independence, and later for recognition as a semi-autonomous state within the Indian Union. Mizoram has been largely peaceful since the MNF achieved its aims, in 1986, but the wounds of rebellion never fully heal. Even today, the cultural divides between Mizoram and India proper remain immense. The food here is bland, prepared virtually without spices, and basically consists of boiled vegetables and boiled meats (mostly pork, but also beef, offal, and sometimes dog). Clothing comes by the barrel from Thailand and Korea, and the fashion sense is more K-pop than Bollywood. Music on people’s phones and radios is in English or Mizo or sometimes Korean, never Hindi. In any case, it’s mostly country or Christian rock in style: twangy, melisma-prone, tooth-achingly earnest.
And while some of mainland India at least pretends to abide by the secular ideal set down in the national constitution,2 in Mizoram, the church nakedly dominates every aspect of political, cultural, and social life. State elections are monitored by citizens’ groups overtly affiliated with, and guided by, the Mizoram Presbyterian Church Synod (usually abbreviated to the vaguely Orwellian sounding “the Synod”), the oldest of the state’s many churches. The Young Mizo Association, probably the most powerful activist group in the state (and the rival of the state government in terms of political influence), sets as its third and final constitutional aim “to cherish a good Christian life.” Membership for Mizo youth in the YMA is, for all intents and purposes, mandatory. Every kilometer marker on every road I saw is painted in the YMA’s muscular colors: black, white, and red.
The million or so people who call themselves Mizo might constitute a minuscule minority within India, but within their home state of 1.1 million people (the second smallest in the Indian Union), they’re a monolith. Mizoram is, literally, “the land of the Mizos,” and Mizo identity lies at the base of a cross.
By the time I arrived in Mizoram, at the end of February 2015, I’d already traveled pretty extensively in the deeply musical Northeast. I’d been in Shillong, the region’s educational hub and most cosmopolitan town, which hosts an annual Bob Marley Festival, and I’d been in Nagaland, northeast of Mizoram, on the border of Myanmar, where half the people I met played in rock bands. I’d been to profile the maharaja of Tripura, Mizoram’s neighbor to the west, whose primary claim to personal, if not political, legitimacy is his purportedly close friendship with Axl Rose, and to an indie-music festival in the Ziro Valley, an isolated cluster of villages in the mountainous state of Arunachal Pradesh, an eighteen-hour drive from the nearest airport. Up there, far from the traditionalism and cultural chauvinism of mainland India, you’re more likely to hear people wax nostalgic about the Eagles than about the golden age of Hindi cinema. And wherever I went in the region, I heard time and again that the best singers came from Mizoram, and that the music they sang was gospel.
Mizoram’s many churches have whole cadres of pastors, preachers, revivalists, and missionaries, but their power to spread the Good Word—the most essential part of modern Mizo culture—pales in comparison to that of gospel singers, who, in these God-fearing hills, are the closest thing you’ll find to bona fide stars. They’re young, wholesome, likable to a fault. They go by single names like Bethsy and Maggie, Andrew and Joseph. During the week, they work as dental surgeons, shopkeepers, or personal assistants in government offices. In the evenings, they sing at their local churches, and on many weekends they travel by bus or car along viciously pockmarked mountain roads to reach the tiny country villages where they perform. They have perfectly polished, perfectly lovely voices. They’re stars and ministers, teen idols and model Christians.
Since 2005, Robert Lalduhzuala has been among Mizoram’s most popular gospel singers. For most hours of most weekdays you’ll find him at the Millennium Centre, Mizoram’s only mall, sitting behind a fiberboard-and-glass cash desk at the small clothing store he runs with his siblings, doing his best to recline in what looks like an elementary-school classroom chair and smiling warmly for the customers who wander in and out. In the evenings he runs his neighborhood chapter of Youth for Christ, and on most weekends he sings the praises of Jesus Christ as one-third of a gospel boy band called Super Trio.
When Super Trio first joined forces, back in 2003, they weren’t a gospel band at all. They sang the only other pop genre in Mizoram: love songs. “It was almost a rock star’s life,” Robert told me on the afternoon that we met, my last in Mizoram. “When I went out, people gave me things, girls screamed and waved.” Robert’s boyish face still betrays the traces of this heartthrob, despite his gel-shellacked hair and an incipient paunch. As we talked, he recalled with a faint glimmer of nostalgia the posters he’d autographed, and pulled out his phone to show me a picture of the piles of letters he’d received from his fans. He told me about his arrival one evening in a town called Champhai, in eastern Mizoram, where he was ambushed in the market by a crowd of raving young girls: “They started to hug me and kiss me, so we had to call the police for an escort!”
But despite the glamor of that lifestyle (difficult to envision under the shop’s harsh fluorescents), it was hollow, incomplete, without Jesus. “When I sang love songs, I felt empty inside. Lonely,” Robert told me. Then, in 2005, all three members of the Trio experienced a spiritual transformation. “Traditionally, we are a Christian state,” Robert explained, “so people prayed for us, and after all those prayers we changed our lives and landed again on that right path, the path of Jesus Christ.” He flashed the beatific smile of a preacher. “When the spirit of Jesus lives in you, it’s very peaceful, warm, happy.”
Robert had not always aspired to be a singer. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a pastor, a servant for God,” he told me. But over the course of a decade spent singing, proclaiming the gospel on radio and television broadcasts to rapt young audiences across the state, he realized “there’s no difference between being a pastor and being a singer. Pastors preach—but I also preach: through music.” Then he added (almost, I thought, conspiratorially), “And I can spread the Word much more easily.”
Despite that powerful evangelical bent, very few people in Mizoram asked about my own religious background, assuming, for the most part, that a white guy, an American, writing on gospel music—and for a magazine called the Believer, no less—must of course be a Christian. Will Graham, grandson of Billy Graham, once preached here, one singer told me eagerly; I did my best to reciprocate his enthusiasm. On the few occasions that people did ask about my background, I told them I’m not really much of anything; that I’m half-Jewish, that my mom was raised Presbyterian but hadn’t gone to church in decades. That the Presbyterian churches I encountered as a kid growing up in suburban Baltimore were quiet places, reserved, where people stood politely when they were meant to and otherwise sat politely, feigning attentiveness. (I neglected to mention that I’m also a homosexual atheist with a taste for intoxicants, though it’s hard to know if anyone would have cared about that, either.) Several people seemed nonplussed, but no one seemed particularly inclined to convert me. God is Mizoram’s unifying reality and music the language through which that reality speaks. For an outsider like me to deny that reality was an eccentricity, not a threat.
But gospel, at least as I knew it from my American upbringing, had never been the music of a majority: it was a music of the oppressed. Before coming to Mizoram, I’d wondered what that music might sound like in such an unlikely place. A region plagued for years by political turmoil and violence; a region of tiny minority communities, each smaller than the next, fighting for their rights to land and representation; a region whose people are still treated as outsiders in a country they joined only reluctantly in the first place—would gospel music in a place like this have the same vaunting power, the same skyscraping beauty as its counterpart in the American South? Would this also be the music of a community insisting that its voice be heard? By the time I met Robert, I’d long since discovered that it was something far more banal—and, beneath its saccharine sheen, far more unsettling.
By the time I left Robert’s shop that afternoon, it was already nearly 5 p.m., and the neighboring shopkeepers had begun to pull metal screens down over their cluttered glass storefronts. The windowless hall outside, with its low ceilings and rows of identical storefronts and bleak, dim overhead lighting, looked like a catacomb. Turning to wave goodbye, I noticed, for the first time, the shop’s name—United Collection—printed in big white letters outlined in black on a bloodred background.
Before the arrival of Christianity, there were, strictly speaking, no Mizos.
When they first settled in these hills, eight centuries ago, the people now called Mizo (which translates roughly as “highlanders”) were actually a group of closely related tribes. There were Raltes and Paites, Lushai, Pawis, and Hmar. They had distinct but mutually intelligible tribal languages and cultures. They built sparsely populated ridgetop villages from the abundant bamboo growing on the hillsides, practiced a form of slash-and-burn subsistence cultivation called jhum that allowed them to remain mobile, and hunted for wild game in the jungles. They crossed the valleys to attack one another, stopping to raid the villages of weaker, valley-dwelling tribes en route. Even today, Mizo towns and cities are almost all built on the crests of hills, their houses of timber and plaster lined up along hillside roads, thrust skyward on spindly stilts, sometimes almost completely airborne, cantilevered over plunging slopes.
For their first six centuries in these hills, the Mizo tribes remained uncowed by state power. The hills were too rugged, the forests too dense, the tribes too fierce to conquer. But as British power metastasized, spreading from its urban mercantile centers through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, settlements and plantations started to appear at the edges of Mizo territory. For decades, starting in 1849, the Mizo tribes launched expert attacks on those plantations until, after the sensational abduction of a young British girl from the Alexandrapur Tea Estate, in 1871, the British military finally took notice. They invaded, bringing with them a treaty that would restrict the Mizos’ movements to their native hills.
Over the years, the Mizo chiefs grew increasingly dissatisfied with the terms of the treaty and, in the first half of the 1890s, launched a series of uprisings to evict the British from their land. Ultimately, though, the Mizos were defeated, and in 1895 the British annexed their territories. The previously unvanquishable Mizos would never again live outside the boundaries of a nation-state.
The first missionaries to settle in Mizoram, a pair of British Baptists named James Herbert Lorrain and Frederick W. Savidge, had arrived a year before the defeat, in 1894. By then, the Mizo hills were already more or less under British control, and the modern-day Mizo capital of Aizawl, previously an insignificant village, had been transformed into a colonial fort and mercantile center, populated by Indian and tribal communities from neighboring regions.
As members of an organization called the Arthington Aborigines Mission, which emphasized spreading the gospel as widely as possible by insisting that its missionaries stay no longer than a few years in any given place, Lorrain and Savidge knew that their time among the Mizos would be limited. Almost immediately they set to learning a local dialect, Duhlian, spoken by the Sailo chiefs. Once they’d become relatively proficient, they started translating hymns and passages of scripture, and after four years they had successfully produced Duhlian versions of several Welsh hymns and three books from the New Testament—Luke, John, and Acts. But when they left Mizoram, in 1897, Lorrain and Savidge had yet to see a single conversion. Their successor, a Welsh Presbyterian called David Evan Jones, who remained in Mizoram from 1897 to 1927, did. And his “weapon,” as one Mizo choir director put it to me, was hymns.
Music had been central to tribal culture in Mizoram even before the arrival of Christianity. The songs sung by the Mizo tribes were typically simple pentatonic melodies with neither a fixed meter nor harmony, accompanied by drums and flutes and a kind of bamboo xylophone. Song was at the center of the tribes’ ritual practice, a system of animist rites that focused on the propitiation and, often as not, appeasement of omnipresent spirits through offerings and animal sacrifices. The Mizos sang after successful hunts and raids. On evenings spent traveling between distant villages, young men would gather in communal cabins called zawlbuks, where they would smoke pipes, tell stories, and sing. Every ritual, every celebration, was built around song—and a locally made rice wine called zu.
By 1899, Jones had already founded a small Christian school and had been joined in Aizawl by a missionary and composer, Edwin Rowlands. Together, they took the gospel across Mizoram, teaching Rowlands’s songs and selling copies of the Duhlian hymnal for the price of a few eggs. Jones began his preaching in the zawlbuks, introducing the Duhlian versions of the Welsh hymns. Built on a Western diatonic scale and four-part harmony, those hymns must have been a kind of revelation, introducing entirely new colors to the Mizos’ sonic palette. As a later Welsh Missionary, J. Meirion Lloyd, wrote in his 1991 book, History of the Church in Mizoram: Harvest in the Hills, “It was the singing of hymns that caught attention and the reading and message would be sandwiched between them… For most, however, it was the hymns that were most interesting.”
The balcony off the main room of the Mystique School of Music in Aizawl looks out over a dense Tetris of concrete houses in ochre and robin’s egg blue and military green. Church spires, whitewashed and gleaming in the honeyed afternoon sun, dot the landscape. Aizawl, as one girl told me with a deprecatory chuckle, is “Mizo New York.”
The owner of the school is a musician and former choir conductor named Zothanmawia, but he prefers to go by Mawia (pronounced to rhyme with “Goya”). With his broad, planar face, heavy arms, and martial buzz cut, Mawia resembles an Andean warrior, a fierce countenance belied by his gentle manner and crooning voice. “When the missionaries came, they put all of our traditional music aside and introduced the Western music,” Mawia said. “Today we imitate a lot, particularly American CCM3—contemporary Christian music—all the arrangements and everything. Most of the songs are imitations. They’re well-tuned, well-arranged imitations. And because of all this imitation, frankly speaking, there is no depth in our music.”
The elimination of pagan tradition is, of course, central to any Christianization process, and there was no way to exorcise the old animist beliefs without also drowning out the music that had animated them. From the first, the Welsh missionaries in Mizoram—temperance-minded, like practically all evangelicals of their day—had insisted on complete abstinence from zu. They also introduced Western clothing, as missionaries did everywhere, preferable in its modesty to the traditional Mizo loincloths and sarongs.
In churches, the missionaries banned the use of the khuang, the resonant drum that had been the engine of the old Mizo songs, and though the ban was lifted in 1919, many of Mizoram’s biggest churches clung to it for decades, with the Mission Veng Church in Aizawl, headquarters of the Presbyterian Synod, maintaining the ban until 1979. The missionaries taught their new Christian hymns using tonic sol-fa notation, an English pedagogical system that allowed for the use only of notes within the basic major and minor tonic scales, leaving no space for the old pentatonic modes in which the tribal songs had been sung.
Starting around 1907, almost a decade after the first Mizo conversion, a style of music called puma zai, which combined tribal melodic structures with the formalized meters introduced by the missionaries, emerged, albeit briefly, as a means of resisting the foreign faith. In an essay on the Mizo church in the book Margins of Faith: Dalit and Tribal Christianity in India, Lakshmi Bhatia gives an example of a typical puma zai lyric: “Carrying book, imitating foreigners / Always proclaiming something.” But puma zai was short-lived. By the time of the second Mizo revival, in 1913—a phenomenal upsurge in conversions to Christianity, the result, in part, of medical aid extended by the church following a devastating famine—puma zai’s influence had effectively disintegrated. With the fourth (and final) Mizo revival, in 1935, nearly all of the remaining pagan Mizos converted.
Song was the most powerful vector for spreading the Christian faith, and as Christianity spread, so did the language in which its lessons were taught and its hymns sung. The dialect of Christianity, Duhlian (now simply called Mizo), came to supplant the smaller tribal languages that had preceded it as surely as Christianity had replaced the old animist faith. Christianity promised much more than salvation. It promised a new and expansive musical tradition; and through its schools and medicines and technologies it promised modernity and progress, and inclusion in the world that, after their final political domination by the British, the Mizo tribes had no choice but to join anyway.
“We are so young as a nation. We are so young in everything,” Mawia said ruefully on the day we met. The transformation of Mizo society from pagan to Christian, from fractured to unified, has since become the transformation of a more or less isolated tribal culture into a highly westernized one, closely tied to an immense Christian world. The Mizos may trace back their place in these hills nearly one thousand years, but the idea of Mizo identity was forged less than a century ago, in the crucible of a distinctly Western evangelical Christianity. The final product, strong as iron, consisted of just two irreducible attributes, faith and language, which found their purest expression together in music.
The most popular singer in Mizoram at this particular moment is Pensy, who, despite her twenty-nine years, looks and sounds and carries herself almost exactly like someone you might have gone to high school with, the kind of girl with the cross pendant around her neck who never had a mean word for anyone and who seemed to have no friends closer than Jesus. There’s the same baby-pink T-shirt, the same guileless smile, the same American-accented English peppered with the same ums and likes and you knows. Every time she says the word God, her voice leans hard against it, longing for the touch of the divine.
“Right from my childhood I listened to a lot of English songs—like Mariah Carey, Faith Hill, Shania Twain. We are so westernized,” she told me on the one evening I spent in her hometown of Lunglei, a seven-hour drive south from Aizawl past landslides and bamboo plantations and a single oil jack, sprouting huge and metallic from the flattened crown of a once-virgin hill. Pensy and I chatted in the lounge area of the local government rest house, while the friend who’d accompanied her spent a solid fifteen minutes snapping pictures of us as we talked, presumably for later use as publicity materials: “Pensy Meeting International Journalist.” In the next room, a Hindi movie blared on an ancient TV and a caretaker from mainland India lay passed out on the floor alongside an empty sofa, snoring heavily.
Pensy had her big break in 2003 at an intercollegiate competition here in Lunglei, Mizoram’s second-largest town, with a winning rendition of Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” She released albums in 2007 and 2009, and in 2011, after completing a masters in political science in Nagpur, a provincial city deep in India’s heartland, she moved to Cambodia at the behest of her uncle to help him run his mission there. “He used to call me every now and then, like, ‘You need to come to Cambodia. No one knows Jesus. All the people are Buddhist, so they don’t know about God, so you need to come down here!’” she told me, her voice bright and chiming with perennial surprise.
While in Cambodia, Pensy lived as a tent-maker missionary: “That means, like, we need to work our asses off by ourselves,” she said, giggling at her own profanity. “We don’t get any support.” She earned money by teaching at a local school in Phnom Penh and on weekends ran a ministry group for kids. And though she helped run a choir among the children in the ministry, Pensy missed the level of musicality that she’d grown up with. “Cambodians are not good singers,” she said. “Their voices are horrible, actually, compared to Mizos’. They’re not so into singing, so they wanted to listen to Bible stories more.” Pensy spent eighteen months in Cambodia before deciding to return home and to her first calling: music ministry.
When she got back to Lunglei, she picked up a part-time job as a disc jockey at her local radio station, playing segments with titles like “Down Memory Lane” (classics), “Country Melody” (American country pop), and “Hymns and Praises” (obvious). These days, Pensy spends most of her weekends traveling around Mizoram to perform at churches and church events. On the evening we met, I asked her why she’d decided to become a gospel singer. She told me, quite simply, quite succinctly, with an air of genuine humility, “I [always] really wanted to be a gospel singer. Music is the only thing that I can do for God.”
God is more or less the alpha and omega of all Pensy’s conversations. “I talk to God everywhere I go, right from the morning when I wake up,” she said. “Even if I jog, I talk to God. That means I have a very close relationship with God. So if he tells me what to do, I know in my heart.” When I asked if she’d ever performed among the non-Christian ethnic minorities scattered around the state, she seemed perplexed, as though the presence of non-Christians in Mizoram was too odd a concept to consider. “We all are Christian, but there are a lot of lost souls, like we call them,” she explained. “Everyone can participate in church ministry, but there are some people who don’t want to get in touch with the church.” In Cambodia, she saw her work as overtly missionary. In Mizoram, she calls it “outreach ministry.”
For gospel singers of Pensy’s popularity, every altar is a stage, every performance a chance to preach. Travel anywhere in Mizoram, and theirs are the voices you’ll hear on the music channels hosted by the local cable networks in Aizawl. Theirs are the songs kids and adults alike are downloading onto their phones—along with, of course, favorites by the likes of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. Theirs are the music videos people are watching on YouTube, the songs that choirs and soloists across the length and breadth of the state want to sing, and the faces kids recognize even in the smallest towns. When I asked a Presbyterian missionary in Mizoram’s far northeastern corner if children in the village where he worked knew songs by the current crop of Mizo gospel singers, he scoffed: “Of course.”
In Mizoram’s heavily youth-oriented culture—where the single biggest calendar event is the biennial Christian Youth Fellowship General Conference, which attracts as many as thirty-five thousand people—the careers of gospel singers are entirely circumscribed by age. Members of the most prestigious of Mizoram’s many traveling choirs, the Mizoram Synod Choir, are not selected through auditions but rather hand-picked from their neighborhood choirs by the Christian Youth Fellowship; most members will serve only two two-year terms in the choir before they are, in effect, retired from the game.
Famous soloists, for their part, typically have careers of about a decade, coinciding with the height of their youthful exuberance and vestal zeal. “I don’t really want to give up this singing, so that’s why I’m still single,” Pensy told me when I asked if she intended to get married. “Many of my friends, gospel singers, got married, and they used to say, ‘Even if I get married I’ll continue singing,’ but they don’t. Here in Mizo society, they can’t.” Gospel singers have instead to be exemplars of an ideal Mizo lifestyle: devoted to God and, as far as I could tell, presumptively virginal. They must be, to use Pensy’s words, “clean in every kind of way.”
“If you’re a gospel singer, you need to dress up decent, the way you talk, the way you walk—everything! You need to adjust yourself in every kind of way. People adore you,” Pensy said. “People follow what you say.”
Every forty-eight years, the bamboo that cloaks Mizoram’s hillsides bursts into bloom, a periodic flowering that sparks the mautam—the bamboo death. As the flowers die, they shed an immense bounty of seeds, providing an enormous windfall for black rats, which, shortly after, start to reproduce at alarming rates. A rat plague of biblical proportions descends on crops, wiping out jhum fields and rice paddies, causing widespread food shortage and death. It was in the wake of a mautam famine, in 1910, that the church, bringing with it music and food and medicine, reaped its first harvest of converts in what is now known as the First Mizo Awakening. The next mautam sparked a rebellion.
India had achieved independence nearly a decade earlier, in 1947, but the cluster of tribal states that now make up India’s Northeast remained an unwieldy amalgam of disparate communities. India’s independence was followed immediately by the partition of imperial India into majority-Hindu India and majority-Muslim Pakistan, resulting in a spate of retributive genocide that claimed as many as two million lives and resulted in the displacement of fourteen million people, the largest mass migration in human history. As part of the Indian Union, a newly democratic nation, Christian Mizos felt suddenly exposed to the seismic will of the Hindu majority, which, as they had seen along the fault lines of partition in Punjab and nearby Bengal, could be reactionary and brutal in the extreme.
One of the relatively few Mizo concepts to have survived the advent of Christianity is the idea of tlawmngaihna, which refers to a relinquishing of the self for the good of the community. It is a virtuous impulse toward collectivism that, at its best, breeds a serious engagement with community welfare—something sorely lacking in other parts of India—and at its worst precludes, or even attacks, cultural difference. When the Mizos acceded to the Indian Union, they did so warily, prepared to fight for their own kind should their interests be jeopardized. When the government failed to enact preventative measures to minimize the inevitable depredations of the 1958 mautam, the Mizos saw it as proof of the political center’s indifference to their people, and the rumblings of a freedom movement began to resonate in the hills. By 1961, a revolutionary group calling itself the Mizo National Front had taken shape around a newly crystallized Mizo identity: Mizoram was for Mizo-speaking Christians, and for them alone. Unity and uniformity became the rallying cry for the formation of a new geopolitical entity.
Following a coordinated and largely successful MNF attack on government and military outposts in March 1966, Mizoram became the first—and, to date, only—Indian territory to undergo aerial bombardment by the national armed forces. Shortly after, the military marched in and began forcibly relocating half the state’s population into so-called protected progressive villages, often burning to the ground the settlements and farmsteads they left behind. It instituted a curfew that crushed traditional agricultural practices. It reimplemented the notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958, allowing military personnel of any rank to enter any home they liked and arrest anyone they liked for any reason they liked. Violence continued for twenty years, with regular guerrilla ambushes on police and government convoys. Mizoram became a police state.
Throughout its duration, the rebellion carried with it a powerfully xenophobic strain. The MNF issued “Quit Mizoram” notices, focused on government and military personnel from mainland India but equally alienating for non-Mizo tribal minorities living at the periphery of the hills. Mizoram finally won its statehood in 1987 and, uniquely among India’s northeastern states, settled almost immediately into a period of extended peace. Mizos today are justly proud of what they’ve accomplished in their years of statehood. Mizoram has the second-highest literacy rate in India, the second-highest rate of urbanization, and one of the country’s fastest growing GDPs. Never mind that those high urbanization rates are principally a holdover from the regrouping villages, and that the impressive GDP numbers are, I was told, the result of a new land policy that distributed seeds and crops to farmers, resulting in a huge growth in crop production but no concomitant growth in a market for those crops. Peace and development (the latter having become the highest ideal of twenty-first-century India) are essential to the way Mizos perceive themselves and their society. And they credit those advancements to their unified culture, and particularly to the universality of their faith and language.
More than once during my time in Mizoram, I heard the word homogenous used as a synonym for egalitarian; there remains in Mizoram’s strong ethnic pride a distinct trace of the same xenophobia that drove the independence movement. As one former government servant, who asked to remain anonymous, put it, “Mizo people are not against non-Mizo people. We are the best people, I think—we can accommodate anyone. But when we have a suspicion that there is a definitive move to dilute the homogeneity of the people here… we have to take precautions.”
Assimilate, in other words, or get the hell out.
The Brus did not get the hell out. Where exactly they come from in the first place remains a point of contention. Many Mizos will tell you that until the 1940s, no Brus lived within the boundaries of what is now Mizoram, but rather across the border in the state of Tripura. Brus, for their part, will argue that in 1940 there was no Mizoram—there was not even a nation called India. They have always been a mobile community and their claims on land in Mizoram are as valid as anyone else’s.
Despite being the second-largest non-Mizo minority group in the state, the Brus have not had a single representative in government since Mizoram achieved statehood. Three other minority communities—the Buddhist Chakmas, whose place in Mizoram is even more contentious than the Brus’, and the Christian Mara and Lai, both considered Mizo clans—have guaranteed seats in the state government thanks to semi-independent (if also desperately impoverished) local governance areas called Autonomous District Councils. When the Brus began agitating for an ADC of their own, they sparked a wave of violence that belies Mizoram’s reputation for safety and stability.
The trouble began in 1997, when members of a militant group called the Bru National Liberation Front shot and killed a Mizo forest guard in the Dampa Tiger Reserve, near Mizoram’s northern border with Tripura. Mizo mobs descended on Bru villages, driving some fifty thousand Brus from their homes into the neighboring states of Tripura and Assam. The BNLF and the Mizo government signed a peace accord in 2005, and those militants who willingly laid down their arms were immediately repatriated. Five years later, in 2010, civilian repatriations began. To date, barely a fifth of the displaced Brus have returned to Mizoram; some thirty-five thousand people continue to languish in refugee camps in Tripura. Before the violence began, roughly half of the Brus had converted to Christianity, a process that began back in the 1950s. A Bru community leader in Mamit—the government headquarters for the district of the same name, where the majority of Mizoram’s Bru population is concentrated—told me that, of those who have returned, nearly 90 percent are now Christian.
In Chuhvel village, which has hosted a mixed Mizo-Bru community for at least forty years, I met a skinny, sun-worn man called Tulajoi. When the violence started, nearly twenty years back, Tulajoi fled with the rest of the village’s Bru population, but returned just a week later when Chuhvel’s Mizo leaders, in an admirable show of solidarity between communities, made clear to their Bru neighbors that they could feel safe there. Shortly after coming home, Tulajoi and his family converted. “Every other family also converted, so I decided to become Christian,” he explained, glancing up at the images of Christ and the Virgin Mary and the saints that he’d tacked to the woven bamboo wall. Unusually for Mizoram, he’d decided to become Catholic (the missionaries told him it was the oldest of the Christian churches; “I preferred that,” he said), but the difference is, for him, semantic. He understands little of doctrine, scripture, or dogma. He goes to church every Sunday. He sings. He participates. “If we become Christians, then we can coexist,” he told me. “We can get along.”
It’s not entirely clear to me how safe Tulajoi and other Brus in Chuhvel really feel today.4 “We don’t experience [violence] now,” he said, “but they still insult us, the young men do, when they drink.” We sat together on the pliant bamboo floor of his house, just a few steps away from the concrete Mizo church that stands like a sentinel on the main road. “I am uneducated, I’m illiterate—I don’t understand the gospel clearly. What I do understand clearly is that most people in this land are Christian. We don’t rule this land. I became Christian to cooperate,” he said as he cut raw betel nut into pieces, which he, like most Brus, chews ferociously throughout the day, dyeing his teeth with rust-red ink. “Later, people told me it was the only way to salvation. I don’t know if that’s true. But I know it’s the only way to coexist.” He slipped a fresh betel nut from its fibrous casing. “I converted out of hope.”
The next day, a Saturday afternoon, I visited a village called Damdiai, a narrow sine curve of bamboo huts built along a broad, packed-dirt mall about an hour’s drive north of Mamit. It looks more or less like any other Bru village, save for the fact that it’s set on a ridge rather than in a valley. The first sixty-four Bru families to resettle in Mizoram, all of whom had been affiliated with the BNLF, settled here.
For seven years, from 1998 to 2005, Surjya Moni Reang served as the BNLF’s president. He’d been in the village of Riflemara, just across Mizoram’s northern border, in Assam, when the violence broke out, in 1997—he’d moved there two years earlier to start an English-language private school—but abandoned his work immediately upon hearing what had happened back home. Shortly after arriving in the refugee camps in Tripura, he was conscripted into the insurgency. “I am just one member of my community. If the community needs me, I must serve it,” he told me.
Surjya Moni is a small man, dark and slender and—at least in English, his fourth language after Bru, Mizo, and Bengali—a quiet one, too. He’s not, in other words, the kind of man you can easily imagine ordering kidnappings and ambushes. We sat together in Damdiai’s community hall, surrounded by what appeared to be most of the village’s adult male population, who’d come to watch the interview. There’s not much entertainment to be had in a place like Damdiai.
The sun slid its narrow fingertips through gaps in the woven bamboo walls and, as the afternoon turned to evening, showed its brilliant face in the threshold. Surjya Moni, for his part, has not entered the Christian fold. “Many times the missionaries visited my house. They told me that Christianity is good,” he said, somewhat indignantly. “It may be a shortcut, but I don’t like it. I’ll go my own way.” As he spoke, he tried unconvincingly to muster his old revolutionary fervor. “Bullets contain power,” he said. “I am nothing, but if we take up arms, people may notice.” I asked if he regretted his role in the violence. “We need education. Without education, without economic power—if you take up arms, what do you gain?” he responded. The answer was oblique, but suggested to me something like regret. The Brus are no better off today than they were when the rebellion began. Violence had accomplished nothing. Education and progress are the next great hope.
Many of the Bru converts I met agreed that education was the only viable way forward; they also felt that Christianity was their best chance at attaining it. The day before I met Surjya Moni, I visited a village called Bawngva, a short drive downhill from Mamit, where I met a sixty-six-year-old man who went by the Mizo name Lalvungthanza. He described to me his own childhood conversion, which must have been one of the first among the Brus: “My parents said, ‘We have become old and we will die with our old faith. You’re a young boy. You must be part of the modern world.’” We sat together in front of Bawngva’s Baptist church with an especially pious young man named M. S. Valtea, who converted just two years back. He spoke with the tremulous fervor of the evangelist he’s become. Without Christianity, Valtea said, very stern, very serious, “we will have no transformation in our society.”
Like villagers in so much of India, inundated with images of a country racing toward the future, yet lacking the material trappings of the progress they’ve seen on TV and in advertisements, the Brus I met want education and jobs for their kids. They want villages with reliable electricity and running water. More than that, they want an end to their hardships. They want to live peacefully, as they did before. It had never been perfect, but it was, at least comparatively, secure. They recognize themselves as a small and powerless people. For most of them, holding on to the past isn’t a good enough reason to sacrifice the future.
And assimilation is the key to accessing that future. The process began two generations ago, when the first Brus started using Mizo names on their ration cards (the most commonly available form of state ID for India’s poor), started living alongside Mizos in mixed villages, and started learning the language of their dominant neighbors. Some Brus have moved to the bigger towns, far from their village homes, and assimilated entirely—have, in effect, become Mizos. Many others work as domestic help in Mizo homes, earning money to pay for their education.
In the villages, Mizo missionaries have continued the work begun by the British evangelicals more than a century ago, using Mizo hymns as a primary conduit for teaching the gospel. Before leaving Aizawl, I’d asked Mawia what I could expect to hear in a Bru church service. The Mizo hymnals, he told me, were the same everywhere. “The Mizo missionaries, what they’ve done is just like what the English missionaries did to us,” he said. “They put the cultural elements aside.”
By the time I reached Damdiai, after visiting half a dozen Bru villages, I’d encountered only one person who could tell me a Bru folktale: a long, convoluted story of repeated betrayals and dispossessions that ended with the decisive dissolution of Bru sovereignty over their own land. As any Mizo can tell you, there is no greater loss. In Damdiai, I asked Surjya Moni if anyone in the village could still sing the old Bru songs. He summoned a man called Dhononjoy, whose deeply creased face and resigned smile aged him well beyond his sixty years. As Surjya Moni passed around tin cups filled to the brim with rice wine, he became animated and charismatic for the first time that day. Then Dhononjoy began to sing: a piercingly melancholy ululation, half-improvised for the occasion and half-inherited from god knows when. He sang about a gathering of people, about the sadness of being constrained by circumstances. He sang about his inability to fulfill his dreams, his inability to accomplish anything, his inability even to die. “We may be one thousand people, but together we are less than one of another people,” he sang. “Why, God, have you put us on this earth and left us this way?”
As Dhononjoy finished his song, another music wafted in through the porous bamboo walls. It began with the hard metal twang of a church bell sounding on the opposite hillside, and then the dull, distant thud of a drum. Surjya Moni led me along dark, dusty paths to the church. In the front row of benches, a young man dressed in gray slacks and an eggplant-colored button-down sat slouched in front of a large drum, a hymnal open in his left hand as he coaxed a slow, funereal beat from the instrument in front of him. Congregants—most of them, I found out after the service, converts from the last four years—trickled in slowly as the man at the drum led them in song:
Nobody can know as I know the home of my father.
The rest of the world cannot see.
Nothing can take us away from my father’s love.
Even if the world is lost,
I have Jesus.
Even in this dark world,
I choose Jesus.
Nothing can give us happiness.
I’d spent the first two days of the biennial Mizoram Presbyterian Women’s Fellowship General Conference, held this year in Mamit, visiting Bru villages. Neither Robert nor Pensy nor any of the other popular soloists were in attendance, but something like eight different choirs from around the state had turned up, as had a crowd of some ten thousand women,5 traveling by bus and shared jeep and private car from the remotest villages in Mizoram’s most distant corners. For gospel singers, events like the women’s conference (essentially a large-scale meeting to discuss the year’s activities followed by a daylong prayer session) are Mizoram’s biggest musical events.
I awoke at 6 a.m. on the third day of the conference, a Sunday, to the first strains of music drifting from the blue-and-white-striped revival tent up the hill to the government rest house where I was putting up. By the time I decided to walk down—maybe around 9 a.m.—the sun was already blazing from the cloudless sky, and the air pouring through the open tent flaps smelled like a locker room, heavy with the stink of sweat and devotion.
I entered and sat, as discreetly as I could, on a low wooden bench—the heathen in the front row. Fluorescent tubes slanted up from the tent poles like the lights over a suburban parking lot. A line of cheap chandeliers straight out of a dim-sum hall shed a warmer yellow light on the center aisle and the rows of singing women lined up along it, some seated with their faces cupped in prayerful hands, others standing, eyes closed, arms thrown out as if awaiting an immense embrace. This was not my mother’s WASPish Presbyterianism.
On a raised dais at the back of the tent, a small but heavily amplified band, consisting of a drum kit, a guitar, and a keyboard, banged out honky-tonk hymns according to the grand-mal gyrations of a five-foot-tall, fifty-something conductor in a lacy black blouse and a puan (the local sarong). An immense knot of women processed in a slow circle before the dais, their disembodied arms, just visible over the tide of bodies, shooting up now and then from the center, a mosh pit sinking into a whirlpool. Thousands of voices were raised in song, modulating the relentlessly upbeat tune into a languorous pentatonic dirge, simultaneously plaintive and jubilant, the last remaining impulse of the old ways and the old music.
Behind the dais hung a fifty-foot-long banner, emblazoned with the name of the event and, at the bottom, a snippet of text in Mizo, drawn, the sign indicated, from Genesis 19:17. When I returned home a few days later, I pulled my Bible off the shelf and turned to the passage. It was drawn from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Escape for thy life! Look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain. Escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed!”
By the time the Synod Choir finally filed in, around 10 a.m., the singing and dancing had reached fever pitch. Women ran around the perimeter of the tent screaming, “Amen! Amen! Amen!” while the choir members sat demurely along benches near the dais, the guys somber, arms folded in their laps, the girls tapping their plain black pumps in time to the pounding drum. After an hour of sermonizing that successfully calmed the fervent horde, the Synod Choir processed out to the open space before the dais and stood in two neatly nested rows. Canned music piped through the banks of speakers positioned around the tent, and the two rows of singers—eleven young men in dark, boxy suits; eleven girls in nip-waisted yellow jackets and navy puans—started swaying in a decorous two-step, singing their impeccable imitation of a soulful cry to the Lord.
Almost immediately, women started stumbling blindly from their seats and heaving themselves onto the floor. Sharp ejaculations of “Hallelujah! Amen!” burst from the audience. Women spun in rapturous circles, flipped somersaults, flung themselves twitching onto the ground. The choir was unfazed. I’ve never been to an American mega-church, but I imagine it being something like this: faith as a contagion, a ritual of dissolution and exaltation. If my atheism is a kind of radical aloneness, then this faith is unity manifest, wholeness taken to its logical—or perhaps illogical—extreme.
There are still people here fighting to preserve what remains of Mizoram’s cultural diversity, journalists and academics and activists doing what they can to prevent the perhaps inevitable tragedy of yet another dissolution. But the vast majority of people I met seemed, at best, indifferent to the communities at the fringes. They had other, entirely legitimate concerns, principally the development and protection of the homeland they’ve worked so hard to build. Peace is nearly a reality; the kingdom has almost come. Pensy and Robert both described Mizoram as “traditionally Christian.” As gospel singers, they understand themselves not as agents of assimilation but as the bearers of that tradition, a tradition of community, self-sacrifice, and faith.
When the afternoon service had ended and the tent began to clear, I went back with the Synod Choir to the house where they’d camped out upon arrival, late the previous night. I spent the next couple of hours chatting with Dr. Zoa, the senior choir member and a popular soloist in his own right (he’s a dental surgeon by day, hence the title). I asked him, at one point, if he knew any old stories, any Mizo legends. I told him that no one I’d spoken to knew any; that, as far as I could tell, Mizoram had lost its memory.
There was one story, he said—a true one, he claimed, not a legend—from well before the time of the missionaries, sometime in the seventeenth century. There was a musician who was renowned for the beauty of her songs. She composed prolifically—so prolifically, in fact, that the community feared she might write all possible songs within her lifetime. What new songs, they wondered, would their children sing? They had to do something.
“So what did they do?” I asked.
Outside, the sky flashed pink, the sun slipped toward the horizon, the hills melted together, and the valleys disappeared in their long black shadows.
“They buried her alive.”
That’s about 600 square miles smaller than New Jersey.
Particularly with the rise of the current government, the religious majoritarianism of Indian politics has become increasingly transparent under the banner of Hindutva, or Hindu Nationalism.
I heard this acronym a lot, most of the time without explanation, as though I should of course have known what it was. I did not.
Leaving Chuhvel that day, I was told that the village’s name means something like “bone of contention.”
By way of comparison, New York’s Madison Square Garden seats about eighteen thousand people.