The Chin, who live in the hills that border Bangladesh and India, like to say that Burmese literature was born from peace, while Chin literature was born from war.
The first known Burmese text is the 12th Century Myazedi stone in Bagan, which lists the deeds and donations of a prince in memory of the love he held for his father and mother.
While the first scripts in the Chin dialects, Siyin, Lai Hakha and others, were created by officers in the invading British army at the turn of the 20th Century.
The Siyin Chin community have memorialised one of these officers in a dedication that is easily missed by travellers.
Take the road out of Kalaymyo and into the Chin Hills. Depending on how fast the line car driver is, in about three hours, you will come to a fork in the road. To the West is Fort White and Teddim Town, to the south the road continues on to Hakha. At this fork is a small village. Stilted wooden houses cling to the tight hill’s edge that overlooks a succession of darker and fainter mountain knuckles.
The village is similar to many that line the Kalaymyo/Hakha road. Except this one has a curious plaque. Even from a line-car it stands out. A three foot high basalt headstone, painted in blue with white inscriptions and rested on a small mound.
It looks like one of the many memorial stones that lie on the edge of the road looking out to the valleys below and for many years that is what I thought it was. These stones are a pre-literate indigenous Chin custom, erected in memory of one who has passed away and are sited on travel routes so people will stop and read and remember them. When I eventually stopped to read the stone it read:
‘Siyin Christian Community.
Manual of the Siyin dialect spoken in the northern Chin Hills by Captain F.M.Rundall, 1st Battalion, 4th Gurkha rifles. Rangon (sic).
Printed by Superintendent Government Printing, Burma 1891.
Sizang Lainezaw Khum (120) Tepteena.
The 4th Siyin Dialect Celebration (1891 – 2011).
November 17 to 20, 2011, Siyin Yiva. Dec 30 2011.’
Though it doesn’t state that Captain Rundell completed the script in its entirety at this village it is not impossible that, on the long journey from Fort White to the Sagaing Plains below in the 19th Century, he would have rested in the village and during the nights worked on the Siyin script. Members of the Siyin community would go on to dominate the contemporary literary culture of the Chin people, at least in the post war era. All would have been taught how to write in the new Siyin script. The village now is just a place to stop, wash your car of the dust from the road and buy some dried ‘mithun’. The memorial stone is a reminder that even the most unremarkable of places can be sites of literary significance.
To find out more about life with writers and poets from the nation’s censored borderlands why not buy my award-shortlisted politico-literary travel book ‘The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar‘ (Penguin/Viking, 2016)
Address: Kalaymyo to Hakha Road, Northern Chin State, Myanmar