Writing Nagaland – a conversation with Easterine Kire

Easterine Kire, who won the Hindu Literary Prize 2015 for her novel When the River Sleeps, beating stiff competition from heavyweights like Amitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri, among others, talks to Dibyajyoti Sarma about her ‘spiritual’ book, and about being a writer from Nagaland

When the River Sleeps 2When the River Sleeps begins with an adventure, turns into a love story before ending at an unexpected juncture. It contains a quest theme, yet the tone is quite different. Would you call the novel an allegory?

I like the way you have read the book and its different phases. It does begin as a physical quest for a stone that is rumoured to possess spiritual qualities.

But it really is a journey into the spirit world and how the hero learns to acquaint himself with his spirit self. As he does so, he continues to gain more and more spiritual knowledge and power to the extent that he can fight the spirits of premature death, and defeat them for Ate.

The love element between Vilie and Ate does not have a predictable end because they see each other as father and daughter. Vilie fulfils the need of a father in Ate’s life and to expect them to marry would defile a beautiful and pure relationship. There are many other loves throughout the book.

Certainly the book can be read allegorically. For those who have not grown up in the culture in which the book is grounded, allegory will help the book yield meaning. But I think, even without allegory, it is simple enough for readers to understand that this is a book whose theme is about the importance of the spiritual over the material.

Photograph by Per Wollen
Photograph by Per Wollen

You mentioned that the book is spiritual. One of the keys I found was the Biblical motto ‘Love thy neighbour’; another is our relationship with nature.

In Angami culture, the culture to which the protagonist belongs, survival of the tribe depends on conformity of its members. Vilie takes an non-conformist stance when he chooses to live in the forest, and not amongst his clan members, doing what everyone else does, marry, have progeny, male heirs to carry on his name even as he matures into an elder contributing his wisdom to the life of the village. There is nothing wrong with that life, but by choosing the route he has taken, Vilie gives himself much more opportunity to explore the spiritual universe.

I like the motto you have given, and indeed the book espouses respect for humans and non-humans. At the same time, for me, the book unravels the Angami Naga spiritual universe and the man’s place in it. It recognises that there are both benign and malevolent spirits, which Vilie encounters up close. While Ate is deceived about her identity and deserves our compassion, there are malevolent spirits like the widow-spirits who are very negative and are purely focused on destroying every semblance of goodness around them.

The spiritual is normally not so easily defined as this or that. The book opens up a complex universe where you find territorial spirits throughout the landscape whether it is in the forests or in the fields, all a recognisable part of Naga spiritual geography. The book is also about power, and learning to exercise spiritual authority. It is about feeding your courage, not your fear. It is a world where the good can triumph if they have the necessary wisdom.

The heart-stone, the were tiger, the unclean forest… how much of these are based on folk tales and how much of it are your invention?

Members of my generation are familiar with these elements, and many can recognise them from their own cultural knowledge. There used to be a culture of weretigers, which is disappearing or has disappeared with modernisation.

In the rural areas, some places are labelled unclean forest or simply unclean place. People who have passed by such places come home and fall sick because the spirits of those places are spirits of infirmity.

The heart-stone is actually called a charmed stone, but I preferred to call it heart-stone because of its closeness to the desires of the human heart. So I was writing out of the communal store of spiritual knowledge and it was very gratifying when readers recognised these elements. It was a very smooth process.

I knew the characteristics of the various characters Vilie would meet, such as the Kirhupfümia, because they are a big part of village lore. The widow-spirits are a cross between the new androgynous Naga spirits from the east and the very dangerous market spirits of Manipur. Using what I know of them, it was not difficult to fuse the two kinds of spirits and include them in the story.

I have had to invent some things in the scene with Zote, such as making her more powerful than normally possible.

A reviewer misinterpreted our spiritual activities as occultist. The truth is Nagas still have a heightened awareness of the spiritual.

You previous works are hard-hitting, political and realistic. How difficult was it to write a story where you refuse to explain the reality and explore a dream world? What I found interesting was that the story is not set in the past, but in today’s time. There is a dangerous world outside, which Vilie sort of ignores.

My previous books were a chronicle of the Angami Naga world. Therefore, they included all the ingredients that made up that world in order to present an accurate socio-cultural and historical picture. In my novel, A Terrible Matriarchy, the political unrest was inescapably there as part of the background. But it never was the focus of the book.

Even in Bitter Wormwood, the focus was on lives of people, and not the political turmoil. True, I have written poems about the conflict in my youth in a period when a group of us poets from the Northeast were writing protest poetry about the violence around us. Many of us have written essays about the sufferings of the Northeast people under harsh laws like the AFSPA. Coming from an area of great political conflict, we have been confronted with the expectation from us to write about the conflict/s.

After some years, it became clear that publishers were not interested in our work when it was not spiced with politics. Some years ago I realised that this was a deliberate effort to put Northeast writers into an easily definable box so that readers or festival audiences would be able to relate to their writing and know what to expect from them. Of course, it happens not just with us, it is a pattern that is prevalent all over the world, the need to put writers, actors, artists in neat boxes.

I do resist my writing being defined by the political label because it limits me, and it continues the media stereotype of Nagaland. Writing When the River Sleeps was like a verification of the beauty that exists behind the stereotypical image. It was not hard at all to write about this other reality which for me is more real than the so-called real world. The book is saying in its non-insistent way don’t neglect the spiritual because it’s the most important part of you. Yes, isn’t it nice that when Vilie makes this discovery, the outer physical world becomes unimportant, almost irrelevant?

This was the second time you were nominated for the Hindu Literary Prize. The first time was for Bitter Wormwood in 2012, which I thought was a great book and deserved more accolade than it received. Do you think, despite their lip services, outside readers are still uncomfortable to discuss the political reality of the Northeast, Nagaland?

Thank you for your kind words about Bitter Wormwood. In the book, I have tried to say that the people caught in the conflict were important, that their lives mattered. This is why the book centres around two families on either side and on the friendship that springs up in the third generation. The book has put forward the idea that a political problem can have a human solution.

One reader called it an idealistic proposal, but if we are not idealistic, what would our world be reduced to? If non-Naga readers are uncomfortable with some passages of the book, I would like to reassure them that the book is about a factual part of our history. It is not a book negatively designed to put down one side, it tells stuff that happened, and I hope non-Naga readers are going to be broad minded enough to go through the book for themselves and not accept a third party view (such as cursory reviewers) of the book.

These days, it’s impossible to avoid labels. If you must, how would you label yourself as a writer, a woman writer, a writer from Nagaland? Something else?

I realise the need for some, especially the media, to label people so that they are more easily recognisable and understandable. The downside to labelling is that people are much more than the labels we put on them. My works include poetry, novels, children’s books and essays. In addition to that I am a performer, editor, educator and a publisher. I guess, I don’t really fit any label that well.

With When the River Sleeps receiving mainstream recognition, more readers will try and read your earlier works. What do you think your readers should expect?

In the body of my work, new readers will find a chronological presentation of the main aspects of Angami Naga life from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. I have written novels and novellas that cover the major points of oral history in Naga society.

My sources were oral narrators, and I have also done library research of the areas that my books deal with.

New readers will meet characters that are probably like themselves and in like situations, or like their mothers’ generation, struggling to get educated so they can get a job; they will meet characters that fall in love, (both in and out of wartime) and lose their loved ones and learn to live life after loss. I call these ‘peoplestories’ because they are the stories of real people. These are the characters new readers will meet in all my works. They will also see glimpses of the spirit world which is so much a part of the life of my community.

Tell us about your new book, The Dancing Village.

The Dancing Village takes a component of visible Naga culture and explains it in a way a child would understand. It is a book that reveals the meaning of folk dancing. The Zeliang folk dance is the focus of the book, and it is about the multifaceted nature of the dance in Naga culture. The folk dance encapsulates a story in its gestures and movements. We have had audiences for the book dancing in several cities. I want people to visualise themselves as dancing books when they dance the book.

It has been a great pleasure to work with my artist Akuo Miachieo whose touch is so light and delicate that it brings out the other dimension of Naga life, the rhythm of the natural world which Nagas draw upon to create harmony in their music and dance.

Anything else you would like to add, about how the mainland India perceives Nagaland, how they politicise it?

I often wonder who makes the stereotypes that we use to define people groups, ethnic races and anyone else that we don’t understand. It’s such a judgmental activity. Stereotyping people is one of the biggest violations of their rights as a human. On the other hand, if we make time to go into people’s homes, their graciousness and humanity would shame us. I fervently wish that we could all practise open homes and open hearts and create bridges across perceived cultural and linguistic divides.

There are differences and yet, when people should see that as a problem,that becomes the problem. By changing our mindsets we would discover that differences only make life more colourful and more interesting.

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Dibyajyoti Sarma Written by:

Dibyajyoti Sarma is a journalist based in Delhi. His last book, Pages from an Unfinished Autobiography, came out in 2014.

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