An Intimate Portrait Of Nagaland— Ahana Bhattacharjee

Dec 9, 2022 | Bookworm | 1 comment

A Review Of Temsula Ao ‘s Short Story Anthology These Hills Called Home
These Hills Called Home, Temsula Ao


The refrain running through the text is of resilience, human will, and fortitude in the face of great calamities (personal and communal). Although the author drives home the point about the series of stories being connected to the ‘war zone’ that was Nagaland of the 50s and 60s, it subsumes within its fold the many personal anecdotes, myths, and memories of a land in turmoil and of an indigenous community in flux. The oft-repeated historicity of the events surrounding the ‘insurgency’ in Nagaland and Manipur, which was galvanized by proto-Naga nationalism, aimed towards independence for the indigenous peoples of the Northeast, was a time of deep unrest and conflict in India. This period and its subsequent impact on the collective consciousness of the Nagamese is the focus of Ao’s short story anthology titled These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone. The stories being primarily authored in English make them a component of a rich legacy that is ‘Indian English literature’ with its inclusive syntax and regional metaphors, reflective of the ethnic identity of the author who locates herself in the liminal space of a layered existence connected all at once to her community, religious belief, and the pastiche of her education; a fact she wrestles with as an author and an indigenous woman. A brief outline of Temsula Ao’s life is necessary for a better reading of the text’s complexity and associations, imagined or real.

Temsula Ao

Temsula Ao

Temsula Ao, apart from being a writer was also a poet whose life was marred by loss, brought on by the death of her mother, when Ao was still young. Her narrative brings to life the legacy of storytellers and the collective myths prevalent among her people, the Ao Nagas,  which explains a person’s death as the soul leaving the body and turning into a bird or a butterfly; a stick or a stone, to become one with the earth. Ao was raised on these beliefs and nurtured by her grandmother, who sowed the seeds of mythmaking and storytelling quite early on. The memory of these stories, intensified by her personal loss, haunted Ao for years and informed her writing, helping her achieve literary brilliance when she won the Padma Shri in 2007, and later when she won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013 for Laburnum For My Head .

The introductory chapter of These Hills Called Home titled Lest We Forget is Ao reminiscing about her people and their struggle, overlapping and juxtaposing with the course of her personal journey. She begins her narrative by stating her motive behind the structuring of the stories, setting it for an open interpretation. To capture the profoundness of Ao’s text and for brevity’s sake, this reading will concern with the intention of the stories rather than a word-by-word analysis, to remain faithful to the author’s vision. 

The opening story titled The Jungle Major focuses on the onset of the Naga struggle for emancipation from a newly independent nation but humanizes the contours of the motive and the personal cost involved in a protracted war between unequal forces. The characters of Khatila and Punaba infuse the story with an intimacy unique to Ao’s storytelling. The quest to protect the ones we love encompasses the margins of possibility and can spill over our personal capacities as human beings. Defying all odds, Khatila’s provincial astuteness is successful in fending off the odious wrath of the Indian army, thus securing her home and the longevity of the movement. The Jungle Major is one of the few stories in the collection which do not end on a note of personal loss and disenchantment but rally hope on a note of human triumph over war and impending destruction.

The story Soaba, however, is quite stark in the depiction of brutality that inevitably occurs in a war zone. The second story in the anthology briefly depicts the resultant fatalities of cultural displacement due to the long-term impact of urban infiltration on indigenous communities and how human folly can cause irreparable psychological damage to communities bound by interdependence and trust. The characters of Imtimoa (Soaba), the dim-witted orphan, Imlichuba, the Boss, and Imtila, the wife of the boss, intricately intertwin in the backdrop of the Naga struggle for independence; Ao expertly weaves the complexities of the ground reality for many Nagamese and ordinary civilians who live at the fringes of the war and eke out a livelihood in the war zone. In an objective third-person narrative, Ao never passes judgment on those who chose uncertain and ignoble means of survival under dire consequences. Although she is a fervent believer in the cause of the ‘rebels’, she sympathizes with the ‘grey’ characters who occupy the twilight zone, in all their dubiousness; thus highlighting the insidious role played by the Indian bureaucracy in instrumentally controlling the diverse factions of Naga society with promises of comfort and capital. The life and death of Soaba, which means ‘an idiot’ in the Ao tongue, is a story of intermittent abuse of alcohol, a device wielded by the army and establishment for desensitization and dehumanization of an agrarian indigenous community to endorse a collective cultural amnesia of an ideal life.

Another poignant story from the collection is that of Apenyo and her mother Libeni, two women whose lives are tragically cut short as a result of war and its terrible inhumanity. Ao, in her characteristic style, forces the reader to empathize and build a connection with her characters, thus offering them humanity, seldom found in war stories. By identifying individuals merely as fatalities or a footnote, history and memory omit the personal tragedies of the human casualties of war. Ao, however, makes it her mission to lift the obscurity from the victims of these tragedies to convey the impact of their abrupt end to the reader. In The Last Song, ‘singing beauty’, Apenyo, only eighteen, and her hardworking embattled mother, Libeni, are framed against the backdrop of the unrest brewing in the hills and valleys of Nagaland, during the restive 50s and 60s, and the resultant oppression meted out to women as a fallout of the war activities later codified under AFSPA. The simple yet eventful lives of the innocent villagers are upended on mere suspicion of harboring ‘rebels’ of the underground Naga army and in the ensuing havoc, Apenyo and her mother are violated and put to death along with the other villagers, a story repeated and rehearsed years later by an old storyteller as part of the lore of the hills. The significance of the lone storyteller is a recurring motif that appears throughout Ao’s text and later works. 

The third story in the anthology, titled The Curfew Man, harks to the oppressive implementation of curfew on the Naga people, with diabolical implications on their livelihood and mental health, through the years of insurgency. The story is told with a steady focus on the underground informant network and its importance in relaying essential information regarding the workings of the Naga army, its many advisors, and sympathizers, to the Indian Intelligence Service. Recruitment of local people to carry on the devious work required the cooperation of people like Jemtila, a domestic help at the quarters of the Sub Divisional Officer, and her ex-army husband, Satemba, whose knee injury had left him with a small pension, to accept the extra income as an informant for the government. However, a night of intense personal scrutiny and a chance encounter with another like him forces him to reconsider his dubious position. The story expertly navigates the oppressive tactics the Indian government employed to coerce Naga people to turn against their own and the financial burdens that often drove unwilling Nagamese into the arms of the Indian establishment. 

The Night is an unconventional story compared to the others in this collection. The fifth in the volume, it demystifies the lived reality of the Naga people in the context of their society and customs outside the purview of the insurgency. Placing a woman and her sexuality as the central crux of the story, Ao narrates the difficult life of Imnala, a young woman, whose father, a gaonbura along with her mother, a woman of stern disposition, silently suffers alongside their daughter, the torrent of social stigma, for bearing two illegitimate children. Imanala’s personal afflictions and misfortune is narrated against the backdrop of a rural Nagamese society where tradition holds sway. Imnala’s lovers are an intricate part of the normative village milieu which offers them unperturbed entrance to her house and life, making their eventual abandonment even more dishonorable. The story successfully illumines the consequences of the sexual awakening of young women in a strictly Catholic society which follows the customs of the indigenous ancestors, thus making Ao’s readers aware of the limitations and traditional restrictions practiced by the Naga people late into the 60s and 70s. Ao ends the story on a hopeful note, however, when Imnala and her parents are spared further ostracization due to a chance set of events, which keeps the reader hooked till the end.

The sixth story, again, is removed from the unfolding violence of the war, instead focusing on the daily lives, rituals, traditions, and agrarian practices that bond the Nagamese people across generations. Being a chiefly rural community, the Nagamese engage in various cottage crafts such as pottery, weaving, etc. However, such knowledge is held sacred by the village elders and is a source of generational skill meant to stay within the kin. In The Pot Maker, Sentila and her mother Arnela embark on a conflicting journey of reclaiming a heritage alternately adored and despised by daughter and mother respectively. Pot making as a craft involves acute hardship to acquire and perfect, and in Sentila’s village, it is regarded as a hereditary skill that has to be preserved within the family. According to ancient customs, it cannot be taught by outsiders as it violates the sanctity of expertized knowledge. Ao delicately straddles the opposing forces of culture and the difficulties attached to a way of life and lets her characters discover their way around its pitfalls. When Sentila faces repeated obstruction from her mother into pursuing her ambition, it is the older matriarchs who take up the responsibility of guiding the child into her calling. However, the end is a little abrupt, leaving the reader perplexed with more questions than answers.

Plunging the readers with an immediacy into the throes of the insurgency, in the next story, Ao mediates on the lives of the underground Naga soldiers at the frontlines. The title Shadows is suggestive of the darkness that engulfed the mountains and forests of the Northeast, where the rebel soldiers hid to avoid detection, while also reflecting the heinous crimes committed under the garb of shadows within the ranks of the insurgent on mere suspicion or personal vendetta against their comrades. The lives of Imli, a new recruit, and the team leader, Hoito, overlap under disturbing circumstances with dangerous consequences for both. The reader is left with a gnawing sense of foreboding at the end of the story as Ao highlights how inhuman situations can bring out the worst in people who are in the same struggle together. The barbarity meted out to Imli comes back to haunt Hoito, who engineered his demise, and forces us to question the validity of and the nobility behind the premise of war as it shows us how little it takes to turn fellow soldiers against each other.

The eighth story in the collection titled An Old Man Remembers brings back an older theme of Ao’s which recalls how community elders, being the repository of community knowledge, has sustained the Nagamese people through the turmoil of the insurgency and its resultant wreckage. The purpose of Imtisashi’s life comes full circle when his friend Imli, the only witness to the turbulent years of his childhood and youth, passes away. The pain of reliving his violent years as an unwilling underground rebel with his friend keeps Sashi from revisiting the memories of war as its survivor. When faced with Imli’s passing, the burden of shared memories, and a burning question of his unassuming grandson, Sashi, recalling his old friend’s suggestion, becomes a storyteller, narrating the blood-filled days of his disturbed life along with recollections of savored moments of exhilaration experienced with his friend. Thus, Ao humanizes the bloodshed endured by the Naga youth by opening the conversation around generational trauma and how it can be shared with the later generations whose lives are far removed from that reality. Through the character of Imtisashi and his grandson, Ao creates a safe space where pain can be addressed from a place of caring and understanding instead of coercion.

Ao’s early life, a ‘fractured childhood’ dotted with memories of war, death, and loss blending with the haunting stories of her people, was her chief inspiration behind the structuring and evolution of her development as a writer and spokesperson for her community and women, in general. The reflection of her immediate circumstance was reflected in the tale, titled, The Journey, as it narrates the arduous journey of a brother and sister, Tinula and Temjenba; a mirroring of her time in Jorhat , Assam , where Ao did her primary schooling at the time of her parents passing. The narrative undulates like the waters of the turbulent river Disoi, as it follows the upward and downward journey of the brother and sister from their aunt’s house to their boarding school downstream. It carries traces of the life of the omniscient narrator who, along with her youngest siblings, was raised by members of the extended family. Like Tinula, Ao too was sent off to a boarding school; the story charting the passage with other members of her community, as they travel back and forth, on foot, on empty stomachs, to reach their various destinations. Narrated in the third-person singular, the difficulties of the long journey, lacking even the basic necessities, are reflective of the hardship of orphanhood and rural impoverishment in the life of the Nagamese. The bond between the brother and sister, however, is a testament to the spirit of resilience with moments of respite accorded by the goodwill of people who offer them occasional assistance. However, for Tinula, who mirrors Ao, the searing reminder of the long journey to the plains is the rancor she experienced from a person she considered a friend, whose words haunt her years after. The searing words of Winnie, her roommate, etched into her mind, would bring back the sour taste of discomposure and hurt, previously associated with times of hardship endured and journeys undertaken.

The concluding story of the anthology, titled, A New Chapter, embodies the farcical conditions plaguing the towns, villages, and lives of Nagamese after years of insurgency. Infiltrated by numerous groups of middlemen, contractors, suppliers, and other economies flourishing along the margins of the encampments and military barracks, Nagaland and its main town Mokokchang are overrun by notorious persons and their business establishments. Nungsang, his associates, Bhandari and Merelna, his cousin, go through the upheavals associated with these changes which upend their personal dynamics with recurring consequences. The narrative charts the rise of Nungsang, from a lowly contractor to a conniving politician, where the reader witnesses the tumultuous fortune and personality of Nungsang, with dark forebodings for those who work with him, and for Nagaland as it comes out of the dark shadows of war and widespread confusion and corruption. Through Ao’s lens, we realize that the future of Nagaland is now in the hands of people and politicians like Nungsang. The fate of Merelna is representative of the future that awaits the people of the Northeast, whose new chapter does not seem as hopeful as its new leaders would have us believe. Through all this, however, a persistent feeling haunts the readers, of how storytelling is a way for reconciliation to Ao, whose works carry the echoes of her personal pain and that of Nagaland, capturing both human redemption and sorrow amidst deprivation and strife.

 Also, read an insight by Parimal Bhattacharya , translated into English by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri, and published in The Antonym

The Drunken Amphora— Parimal Bhattacharya

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Ahana Bhattacharjee is an alumnus of the prestigious Comparative Literature department of Jadavpur University, with a degree in Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts. She aspires to be a scholar and wishes to pursue research in the field of Social Sciences. Being a writer, she has previously published in All About Ambedkar, an open-access journal, under the aegis of the Department of English, Presidency University. She currently resides in the suburbs of South Kolkata and is passionate about postmodernist cinema and reading cyberpunk literature. 


1 Comment

  1. Ankita Bose

    What an insightful piece of writing!


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