Boiled baby bees for tea
Recovering Mizo medicine’s endangered archives – by Kyle Jackson
A big bowl of boiled baby bees was being pushed towards me. It was the generous honour afforded to dinner guests in a village home in Mizoram, the tribal state at the southernmost tip of India’s easternmost frontier. I wished that my hosts were less generous. I wished that the honour were less larvae-related. I cursed the British Library under my breath, and grabbed a grub.
I was in Mizoram, one of the ‘Seven Sister States’ of India’s northeast, sharing borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar. I travelled out as part of a four-member pilot project under the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), a global rescue mission for the world’s most endangered historical documents.
The scheme is administered by the British Library and funded by Arcadia. EAP researchers have in the past eight years fanned out across the globe. Team members travel to the remotest places, armed with little more than high-resolution digital cameras and strong stomachs, as I did in India.
Our own adventure began in Mizoram’s monsoon-soaked capital, Aizawl, perched on the cliffs of the mountains running north–south across the region. Near the city’s bustling centre, a state archive towers over a street of biomedical pharmacies. These institutions owe much to the work of late 19th-century Christian missionaries who introduced to Mizoram both a system of writing and new understandings of healing. As Warwick historian David Hardiman notes, missionary medicine “was not carried out for a purely medical purpose, but used as a beneficent means to spread Christianity”. Indeed, in Mizoram it was at the missionaries’ medical dispensaries that the names of Mizos wanting to become Christians were to be handed in. To come to Christ was to come to a dispensary.
Sparks often flew in unpredictable ways as two radically different cultures of healing collided. For instance, the missionaries’ pills were as likely to be squirrelled away under Mizo pillows as to be taken as directed. They were rapidly co-opted into a Mizo worldview in which charms secreted away could serve as a defence against the huai, the forest-beings that caused human sickness. Likewise, something as seemingly mundane as the missionaries’ introduction of windows to newly constructed buildings could provoke grave concern. The typical house in Mizoram had always been windowless, a basic security precaution against unwanted huai entering the dwelling. Belief thus dictated design. For the Mizo, windows were portals to sickness and suffering. Air and light were necessary casualties in the quest for health.
For historians, the advent of the written word in Mizoram provides a sudden and massive explosion of data for analysis. My own PhD thesis seeks to carefully re-examine such sources for clues to the responses of the Mizos, and to situate the history of this under-studied Indian borderland within the broader historiography of medicine in South Asia. But there is one major logistical issue to overcome first. The earliest written texts in Mizoram are today falling prey to humidity and neglect. History is lost as these sources are lost. This is why the EAP team journeyed across the rivers and jungles separating Mizoram’s rural villages. Mizoram’s winding roads are some of the worst on the planet. We arrived battered.
Sometimes the historical documents were already long gone. We found a corpus of old diaries shredded into rats’ nests in Saikao village, a 1928 book of hand-drawn maps pockmarked and perforated by little silverfish, and early translations of the Old Testament chewed through by a rat. The rodent no doubt especially enjoyed Jeremiah 15:16: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart…”
At other times, though, we struck paydirt: we found the first letter ever written by a Mizo, a chief writing to none other than Queen Victoria, proudly informing her of his patriotic lighting of bonfires all around his village on her birthday. We also found medical records detailing the activities of the earliest dispensary, the logbook of the first hospital, and the diary of a lone-ranger missionary who worked among the secluded Mara tribe.
Such documents capture the exceptionally rapid transition of a society uniquely and fundamentally transformed. Mizo historians are fond of reminding each other that in 1901 almost no Mizos were literate or Christian, but by 1961 almost all were; today, Mizos command the second most literate state in all of India.
My doctoral project’s public presentations in Mizoram met with enthusiasm that these digitised documents could revolutionise not only how Mizo history is understood, but also how the craft of history writing about and in Mizoram is pursued. The highly mobile and engaged research thus benefited individuals as well as the broader community. The images are now being deposited for easy access across Mizoram, as well as online through the British Library.
Across three months our little team preserved hundreds of historical records, our digital images totalling some five hundred gigabytes. As the only foreigner, I feel I fared pretty well culturally, too, politely eating all my boiled bees in just five mega bites.
Kyle Jackson is studying for his PhD at the University of Warwick. Please do get in contact with him if you have research links to the medical archives of northeast India (firstname.lastname@example.org).