In the Ao Naga tradition, no story-telling is complete without the singing of a ballad, a dirge or a hunting song. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the poetic element forms the core of any discourse or narration in Ao folklore”, says Temsula Ao in her book The Ao –Naga Oral Tradition (Baroda, 1999). True to this tradition, in These Hills Called Home, the author has combined in herself the poet and the story-teller, the one supplementing the other. Temsula began her writing career as a poet . Her four volumes of poetry — Songs That Tell ( Writers’ Workshop, 1988), Songs That Try to Say ( Writers’ Workshop, 1992), Songs of Many Moods ( Delhi, 1995), and Songs from Here and There (NEHU, 2003), contain songs that sing of bygone days, of nature, love, death and pain. There is a deep sense of pathos in all her early poetry, as though the poet is searching for a medium or a theme that would give a stable rock-like quality to her art . It seems she has found it at last and the joy of that discovery has miraculously transformed her poetry too.
Like the origin myth of the Ao Nagas which tells of the emergence of the tribe from six ancient rocks, Temsula’s recent poems and her prose-tales bear witness to her metamorphosis from a singer of nostalgic, plaintive songs reflective of the poet’s temporary loss of touch with her homeland, to a powerful writer who has decided to talk about her own people and represent a tradition that is fast disappearing in a modern world. Like the old story teller in one of her recent poems, Temsula too has realized, “I was born to tell stories” : I have lived and grown old With our stories in my blood And telling them With every breath I exhaled.
The present volume of short stories is the product of the author’s conscious decision to go back home and strive to revive a tradition which runs in her “life-blood”. It is a tradition that preserves the histories and identities of her ancestors in the Naga hills. But, when she begins the arduous symbolic journey up the hills (the real physical details of such a journey has been described in vivid details in the story ‘The Journey’), she finds that everything in the war-ravaged hills is changed utterly, in Yeatsian terms, and “a terrible beauty” has been born. In one of her new poems Temsula tells the whole story of the transformation of Naga identity after the colonial encounter in the beginning of the twentieth century. The invasion of the new order that came with the Book, compelled the people to reject their own histories and tradition as worthless. They taught us that our Rivers and Rocks Were no gods, and our songs Had no worth and our stories Nothing but the primitive prattle Of mindless savages– (“Blood of Other Days”)
But with the long-drawn battle for self-determination , a new era dawned in the hills when people began to resurrect the memories of the past in order to shape a new identity for themselves. The stories in These Hills Called Home are a unique record of this resurrection of a collective memory of a community. Despite its being the author’s first attempt at writing short stories, the reader is at once struck by the natural ease with which Temsula assumes the role of the ancient story-teller ( the O Tashi of the Aos ) and combines it with the art of the modern short-story writer. In story after story, the author portrays with extraordinary sensitivity the struggle of ordinary people to survive in a chaotic world. What grips the reader’s attention is the stark economy of words and a deceptive simplicity of expression that depict complex situations without missing the moral ambiguities involved. In the stories depicting the lives of the Naga underground soldiers (‘Shadows’, ‘An Old Man Remembers’), for example, there is no attempt to romanticize the situation . The perspective is not that of someone who is unable to see the moral dilemma, but rather, there is an effort to adopt a multiple perspective of the woman who sympathizes and the writer who can judge. In some of the stories, the folk and the realistic mode merge in a powerful way to bring home the tragedy and the pathos of one of the most violent phases of the Naga struggle when innocent villagers were subjected to brutal torture and punitive measures by the Indian army for their alleged complicity with the insurgent cause. The story of the young and beautiful Apenyo singing her last song before she is savagely raped and killed in a village Church-gathering, is retold by an old woman to a group of young people who have forgotten how to listen to the “voice of the earth and the wind” (‘The Last Song’). The story has a folk-tale conclusion: “Thus on a cold December night in a remote village, an old storyteller gathers the young of the land around the leaping flames of the hearth and squats on the bare earth among them to pass on the story of that Black Sunday when a young and beautiful singer sang her last song even as one more Naga village began weeping for her ravaged and ruined children.”
“Memory”, as Temsula Ao says, “is a tricky thing: it picks and chooses what to preserve and what to discard”. Therefore, it cannot record events chronologically like a historian , but can recreate impressions of events that have left their indelible marks on the people’s psyche. This is not the place to enter into the debate on the complex relationship between history and memory. But, it has been agreed upon by many scholars on the subject that when formal historiography has failed to address the painful events that tell the story of a people’s resistance against a dominant, omnipresent state, then collective memory plays a crucial role. The Naga struggle for self-determination which began soon after India’s independence from colonial rule, involved the aspirations of a whole generation of people living in the eastern periphery of India, to live together with dignity according to their own traditional ideas of the “Naga way of life”. But, in this , they encountered the opposition of the Indian Government which initially sought to crush the movement ruthlessly with the help of the army which was empowered with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. The stories in this anthology are about the transformation of the very “Naga way-of-life” for which the people had struggled, during the course of the long-drawn battle waged in the remotest corners of the hills. They tell us about the sudden overturning of the quiet lives of the villagers in the wake of the violent events of the fifties and the sixties of the last century. It was then that a new vocabulary came into existence in the Naga languages with the induction of alien words like “curfew”, “convoy”, “grouping”, “rebel” and “situation” —words which acquired “sinister dimensions” in the context of the struggle(‘Soaba’). Not only that, the traditional structures of the society were disturbed with the creation of a totally new class of people who inhabited the dangerous area “between trust and betrayal” (‘The Curfew Man’) —the army contractors , suppliers and informers , some of whom amassed a lot of wealth in shady deals which enabled them to afford lavish life-styles in the towns. But, there were others like Setemba, Soaba and Jemtila who became unwitting victims of the new system.
Not all the stories are about pain and suffering. There are tales that tell of the unsung heroism of common people who play their roles quietly in the struggle (‘The Jungle Major’), of old heroes who remember their painful past and try to justify their actions to their grandchildren, and there are the stories about how the people continued to live their lives creatively against all odds (‘The Pot Maker’, ‘The Journey’, ‘A New Chapter’).
From the secure middle-class existence where poets can afford to sing of daffodils, she has taken a leap into the very vortex of a people’s struggle.
Tilottama Misra is Professor of English, Dibrugarh University, Assam.