When IE arts editor Alan Chong Lau asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a children’s book on an ethnic minority in India, I immediately said ‘yes’ because I was intrigued about the community from which the book originated.

Lengtonghoih, The Girl Who Wanted the Brightest Star by Mercy Vungthianmuang Guite is a folktale of the Paite people, an indigenous community from India’s northeastern state of Manipur.

The story is about a beautiful girl, Lengtonghoih, the only sister to seven brothers. When she tells her brothers that she, “want[ed] the brightest star in the sky,” the brothers set off on an adventure to bring it back to their beloved sister. Before they set off on their journey, they give Lengtonghoih strict instructions to not leave the house or let anyone in.

After many isolating days, Lengtonghoih decides to go to the stream nearby to wash her hair. A loose strand of her hair floats down the stream where it is picked up by a prince’s attendants. The prince, Kawl Mangpa, determines that the “owner of that hair, no doubt, must be very beautiful. I will take her for my wife.” He tricks Lengtonghoih into opening the door of her home, abducts her, and carries her off to his palace.

Are the brothers successful in saving their sister? Is Prince Mangpa punished for his cruel treatment of Lengtonghoih? How does she help her brothers when they come to rescue her? The story continues with some surprising twists to the tale.

The author, Mercy Vungthianmuang Guite is an assistant professor at the Centre of German Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and has translated several Paite folktales into English. The illustrations by Tanya Gupta are rendered in gentle watercolor washes reflecting the beauty of the land and its people. Gupta pays tribute to the cultural heritage of the Paite, seen in the traditional clothing and the accompanying embellishments of jewelry and decorative patterns.

Folktales from different parts of India have been translated into English, Hindi, and other regional Indian languages, and woven into the mainstream/national narrative. The northeastern Indian states have historically been grouped under a homogenous umbrella called “The Seven Sisters,” effectively flattening and erasing the nuanced cultural characteristics of many indigenous peoples.

While this region is stunning with the most gorgeous natural beauty, it is notoriously underrepresented, hovering on the periphery of India’s mainstream consciousness. So, it is especially important to acknowledge the shifting narrative and celebrate the plethora of stories from ethnic groups like the Paite that are reaching communities outside of their own.    

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