The protracted Naga problem has been a much debated topic in the political sphere, yet very little has found its way into the literary realm. It is only in recent times that a new interest has developed in the projection of the Naga issue in fiction. Mention may be made here of Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya’s novel Love in the Time of Insurgency (Katha, 2005, translated by the author from his Asamese version Iyaruingam published in1960), Temsula Ao’s short story collection These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone (2006) and A Terrible Matriarchy (2006), a novel by Easterine Kire (formerly Iralu) besides others. There was a quite notable anticipation when Bitter Wormwood was released not so much because it was meant to cover the much talked about Naga struggle for independence, but on how Easterine might project the whole conflict.
The novel opens with a present-day scene of rampant shooting, referring to factional killing that has marred the contemporary Naga society, far adrift from the freedom struggle to which the first generation belonged. Tracing the life and experiences of a person called Mose (short for Moselie) from his birth in 1937 to his death in 2007, Bitter Wormwood gives us a glimpse of what it meant to live through one of the longest conflicts of modern history. Retired from active involvement in the movement Mose had taken the back seat to live a low profile life until a wanton killing of a young man just before his eyes in the small town of Kohima brings back memories of the past.
At a young age of five Mose experienced the first brutality of war when the Japanese invaded their village. Though he vaguely remembered his family running for cover from the invader’s takeover of their village, ‘(h)e had one vivid memory of seeing a war plane crash with a deafening sound into some rocks at Zubza’ (p. 24). Later, he and his buddy Neitou would be part of another war that would change their lives forever. Though not of their making, young people like Mose and Neitou find themselves growing up in one of the most disturbing periods in Naga history. With the British granting Independence to India, the Nagas found themselves at loggerheads with the newly founded nation. For India the Naga Hills was only a colonial legacy but the Nagas asserted their independence and saw the Indian army coming into their land as an occupying force.
Unheedful of their desire to be ‘independent’ and the increasing numbers of Indian soldiers in their land forced the ‘freedom’ loving Nagas to go underground. Half compelled and half for the cause of their people young boys like Mose and Neitou left school to join the Naga movement for sovereignty. Compelled because the operation by the Indian armed forces was not sparing any man, especially the young, from being tortured falsely alleging them to be Underground and villages being raided time and again to suppress the movement. The fervent spirit of the Naga movement, however, hit a roadblock with the creation of Nagaland as a state under India. It ‘came as a shock to all in the Underground. It was not welcome news. Something had gone terribly wrong’ (p. 103).
That ‘something’ which went terribly wrong has refused to be righted till today. The creation of a state only compounded the problem for both India and the Nagas. The Naga issue continues to be the thorn in India’s nation building project. Will there be a way out of this loggerhead? Perhaps ‘yes’, as the novel suggest, if both the parties are willing to arrive at a compromise. Easterine Kire has not only given her readers a glimpse of what may have been the situation back in the 1950s and 60s, but she also offers an opportunity to understand what could have been avoided or grasped. She skillfully weaves the theme of unrest in Naga society and the desire to recover from the traumas by suggesting a human need to heal and forgive. Forgiveness can lead the way forward in the relationship between India and Nagas.
From the turbulent period of the 1950s and 60s the novel is fast forwarded to the 21st century Easterine to substantiate her point. Mose’s grandson Neibou is now headed to Delhi for studies. And yet, the hostile environment and the prejudices for people from the North East in the metropolitan city of Delhi almost puts an end to Neibou’s continuing in college, but for the unexpected appearance of friend named Rakesh. A chance meeting and the discovery of Rakesh’s grandfather, a retired army officer, who was posted to Nagaland in the 60s heightened Neibou’s curiosity. As the friendship grew Neibou also gets an insider view of the Indian soldiers on their ‘punishment posting’ to Nagaland during the troubled days.
The two young friends on their college campus and their planned visits to each other’s homes fit well with the plot. Inasmuch as those small steps help build the ties between their families, the novel also suggests that there is need to look to the future with mutual understanding than just hark back on past misdeeds. The realization that dawns on the two friends, thus, points to the title of the novel too. Bitter wormwood, the traditional herb believed by Nagas to keep bad spirits away and also used medicinally, therefore becomes a strong metaphor. The novel hints at the possibility of healing the wounds of the past. Inasmuch as the grandfather’s generation struggled to be at ease with India, the generations that followed faces greater challenges of being accepted into the imagination of India as a country with diverse cultures and groups. Perhaps, the novel can also be a pointer to the larger Indian population to understand the people of the North East and its multiple problems. Often, the rest of the country sits back at a safe distance and comments on the happenings in the North East, but that does nothing to help build relationships. Perhaps, mutual understanding and honest effort to connect, like the two friends in the novel, would do a good deal in respecting each other’s culture and past.
Today, the contemporary Naga society is yet to recover from the afflictions caused by external forces and from within. But the divisions that have erupted along the road are posing bigger threats to the building up of the region. With no peace in the land the future is still bleak, like the gloomy cloud that hovers threatening to disturb the festive loving Nagas as seen on the cover page of the novel. Easterine’s book is a must read for both Nagas and non-Nagas alike. It is a book that does not just captivate the readers to read it in a sitting but also provokes to delve into the issues that it picks up. For instance, after his peace-loving grandfather Mose is shot dead in cold blood it was the hard reality that the culprits may never be punished that shakes Neibou to the core; he knew ‘(h)is grandfather was not the first to die in a shooting accident. Nor would he be the last’ (p. 233). That is the grim reality that stares at Naga society today; the factional killings in the name of ‘nationalism’ have left everyone weary of their future.
With an author’s introduction and appendices of some historical documents the novel makes an unusual fiction. And despite the serious topic of the Naga conflict demanding much attention, Easterine does not fail to throw light on the other sides of Naga life too. While the novel looks like a re-telling of the whole episode of the Naga movement with the story spanning across three generations, it gives the reader a chance to go back in time through the lens of the author and understand the culture and the humble country life of the Nagas. The novel transposes us to a time when life was simple and easy. Though tension was building high the people try to enjoy new developments like the evening session of listening to the radio or celebrating a birth in the family. Perhaps, being from the oral tradition of storytelling helps Easterine generate the desired proximity with the past!
In the forefront of Naga writers writing in English Easterine Kire has been an encouragement for young and upcoming writers. Easterine Kire’s first novel A Naga Village Remembered (2003) is based on the Nagas’ encounter with the British colonial power. Now based in Tromso, Norway, she often says in interviews that being away from Nagaland helps her see the situation at home ‘objectively’. Perhaps, that can be an exercise for all of us!
K.B. Veio Pou teaches English Literature at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi. He has co-edited Nagas Today: Indigenous Discourse (2010).