Book review by Indrashish Banerjee
Title: The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories From Nagaland
Author: Temsula Ao
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
The problem with any place that’s politically disturbed is that the rest of the aspects of the place – its culture, society, myths, beliefs – are obscured to outsiders. The place comes to be seen only through the prism of the disturbances and not savoured for its characteristics, its turmoils casting an impregnable shadow on its people, myths, its flora and fauna. Slowly even literature gets so obsessed with its ‘issues’ that it becomes difficult to find anything to read on the place which doesn’t talk about them or delves deeper.
Temsula Ao’s The Tombstone in My Garden cuts through that roughage and takes its readers to the soul of Nagaland – to its villages, tribal myths, social practices that have been woven into five short stories that light a torch into every aspect of society in Nagaland. Without the pretence of being a social observer or commentator, the narratives unfold with the unobtrusiveness of a storyteller who doesn’t highlight social practices judgementally but as ordinary things — unworthy of special attention. The perniciousness can be felt only after they arrive at their narrative outcomes.
A very significant voice from Nagaland and contemporary Indian literature, Temsula Ao, has won several prestigious awards including the Padma Shri in 2007 and the Nagaland Governors’ Award for Distinction in Literature in 2009. Her Laburnum for My Head, a collection of short stories, won her the Sahitya Academy Award in 2013.
The opening story, ‘The Platform’, takes us into the world of Nandu, a Bihari migrant to Nagaland who earns his living working as a coolie in Dimapur railway station. Promoted to become a senior among other porters for his hard work and his knowledge of various languages, including Nagamese, one day Nandu picks up an abandoned Muslim boy from the platform. He, slowly, develops paternal feelings for the waif despite a constant tension between the two due to their religious differences.
But life in a railway station is hardly far from the lives who make a living from vices. As the boy grows up, he falls into the company of Shankar, a pimp. One day a fight breaks out between the boy and Shankar over a prostitute – and it ends in the boy’s carefully guarded religious identity getting exposed. The next day Nandu sees a crowd in the platform. He goes to find out what it’s about – and finds the boy dead.
‘Snow-Green’, the third story in the collection, is thematically an open-ended story – where enthusiasts of many stripes will find something for them. The fate of the self-centred mistress will warm the cockles of the environmentalist’s heart. When Snow-Green’s trauma starts, the climate enthusiast will feel vindicated about his convictions about human treatment of nature being responsible for our current climate-induced miseries. The turn of the events at the end is impressive.
In the ‘Saga of a Cloth’, when a brawl becomes the last straw, leading the village Council to expel Imlijongshi from the village, you will feel a bit vindicated: Imlijongshi, the self-destructive fool has finally got what he deserved. However, when the story makes a complete U-turn after that, you will feel you should have held back your judgement.
“In a small voice almost breaking with grief and perhaps regrets too, Otsu addressed the departing figure, ‘Jongshi, wait, I have something important to tell you which you must know; do not leave me to die alone with this secret’.”
This passage brimming with suspense is almost a start to another story retreating three generations, to a different time and space, when Otsu was a young girl dating Imdong and being stalked by Lolen unaware of what the future held in store. By the time the narrative descends three generations and returns to Imlijongshi, your feelings about the boy, his fate, his grandmother and the whole business of life — will be much more introspective, much more nuanced, much less stereotypical.
‘The Tombstone in my Garden’, the title story of the collection, has some similarities with ‘The Saga of Cloth’. Both are long stories spanning generations; both have a woman at the centre suffering because of marriages to men they hadn’t intended to marry. But there the similarities end. Whereas ‘The Saga of Cloth’ has a rural, rustic setting, ‘The Tombstone in my Garden’ has an urban setting. Whereas Otsu is rooted in Naga traditions, Lily Anne is just the opposite, an Anglo Indian who deals with jibes about her dual cultural identity her whole life. But that is just one aspect of ‘The Tombstone in my Garden’.
A first-person narrative, the story starts on a suspenseful note, an old lady explaining her relationship with a tombstone, the graveyard of her husband, in her garden. Using the tombstone as a starting point, she slowly meanders into her story. The reader is kept guessing till her narrative is complete. The story has a feminist touch.
The stories in The Tombstone in My Garden may be short but they are very unlike short stories. They don’t rely on snappy twists in the tale to keep them going. Instead the plots move at an unhurried speed, one subplot making way for another seamlessly and gracefully. For instance, the impact of Lolen’s contempt for Otsu’s life riles not so much while reading of the deeds, their immediacy and narrative pace preoccupying the reader, but impacts when Otsu’s entire later life seems mangled by Lolen’s intemperate actions. Similarly, the reader is miffed not so much by the supercilious indifference of the mistress to the Snow-Green, a flowering plant of rare beauty but how a shallow human need of the mistress — her desire to win the first prize in the annual flower show — towers over the most existential concerns of the flowering plant.
You may argue this is the nature of all narratives – to take you to extraordinary outcomes through seemingly ordinary occurrences – but where Tombstone In My Garden differs is that it acquaints with the ‘ordinary’ things about a place where we have come to believe the ordinary is always in short supply.
At the end, almost all the stories have clearly demarcated epilogues narrating the later fates of the characters. This helps remove the conclusions from the immediacy of the preceding story leaving the reader ruminating with the advantage of hindsight and a melancholic feeling, like an aftertaste of a novel.
As time goes short stories are moving away from their parental identity – the novel. They are getting shorter all the time and are being seen as tools for instant gratification. The current song and dance over flash fiction is an example. Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories makes the reverse journey, taking the short story back to its parental origin – the novel.
Indrasish Banerjee has been writing and publishing his works for quite some time. He has published in Indian dailies like Hindustan Times and Pioneer, and Café Dissensus, a literary magazine. Indrasish is also a book reviewer with Readsy Discovery. Indrasish stays and works in Bangalore, India.
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