Categories
Review

The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories From Nagaland

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. 

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Poetry

What If I Uproot You

By Beni Sumer Yanthan

What if I uproot you?

If I uproot you from my heart,
I would have spare breath to
squander among the babel of crows
that swaddles this wayward house. 
I would have space to house abandoned
love songs that have been sleeping
in the mouths of robins.
I could take in the dead-silence
that arrives at the end of
a long day with a hard kiss, 
I would have room to shelter 
uncompanionable poems like this one
that prickle with vulgar melancholia,
I could describe every regret with digestible
verbs without having to blame
it on my foibles…
     I could break tradition – 
     speak my mind, get worked up,
     pick the choicest meat from the table  
     and hold it up as a homage to forgotten deities
     all in the presence of outraged men,
     without breathing in your scent -
     I could do all this and not allow
     anger to walk into our world but - 

Of what use is a republic,
even if it’s a republic of one,
if there is nothing inside of
       us.

Beni S Yanthan (Yanbeni) is a tribal, feminist poet and academic from Nagaland, India. She belongs to the Lotha tribe. She teaches English and Cultural Studies in Nagaland University, Kohima. 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

A Story from Manipur

Book review by Rakhi Dalal

Title: Waiting for the Dust to Settle

Author: Veio Pou

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2020

In his debut novel, Veio Pou weaves fiction to chronicle the forgotten history of Naga people, a past whose dust, even after three long decades, is yet to settle. Waiting for the Dust to Settle is set against the backdrop of Indo-Naga conflict in Northeastern India.

The story of this novel follows the life of a ten-year-old Rokovei from Senapati district in Manipur from late 1980s onward. He lives a peaceful life with his parents. Fascinated by the convoy of army trucks passing daily in front of his home, he secretly wishes to become an army officer. Once, while visiting his native village of Phyamaichi, he witnesses atrocities committed by the soldiers on the villagers. His disenchantment with the army comes to the fore when he becomes aware of his people’s sufferings as a consequence of confrontation between Naga undergrounds and the Indian Army. At the center of this novel is the Operation Bluebird, carried out in the state in 1987.

In September 1958, the Government of India enacted Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the North-Eastern states to quell Naga resistance. In July 1987, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attacked an Assam Rifles post at Oinam village, in Manipur’s Senapati district. The Naga undergrounds of NSCN looted large arms and ammunition from the post. The Assam Rifles launched a counter-insurgency operation code-named “Operation Bluebird” to recover the looted arms and ammunition. This intense search operation, which was carried for three months in nearly thirty villages, was a torturous period for the residents of those villages. The Rifles committed large-scale human rights violation, including forcing two pregnant women to give birth to their babies in full view of the soldiers.

By spinning the narrative around the operation, the author attempts to give voice to the otherwise erased account of a people’s history from the consciousness of a country. The final erasure came when in 2019 the Manipur High Court disposed case against the Assam Rifles, filed by Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), after twenty eight years citing dislocation of entire record of the case. Nandita Haksar, who was the lawyer who filed the case on behalf of NPMHR, wrote in an essay that the entire record consisted of twelve volumes of evidence and ran into thousands of pages.

Through account of Rokovei and his family’s life after Operation Bluebird, Veio Pou brings to notice the physical as well as mental sufferings endured by the victims of army brutality.  Disillusionment of natives with respect to Naga undergrounds and their cause, the splitting of NSCN and rivalry between Naga factions, increased awareness among natives for better education, the issue of racism that people from North East face in Mainland India, are the themes dealt prominently within this novel.

Rokovei, while studying in Imphal, witnesses the hostility between Kuki and Naga factions after their conflict in the 1990s. When he moves to University of Delhi few years later, he comes in contact with Lalboi – a Kuki, but does make friends with him because he is the only other boy from the state in his class. After coming to Delhi, he realises the difference of living in a place where no ASFPA is enacted, an experience which should have come as a breather but is marred by racism which he confronts and leaves him astounded. The prejudice that he faces makes him wonder about his identity. Rokovei wishes to find answers. His conversations with his cousin Joyson, with whom he lives in Delhi, gives him a clearer perspective on the history, issues and realities of his people and state. 

Finally, keeping in mind better prospects for the future, he settles down in Delhi. It is the year 2008, five years after the leaders of NSCN visited Delhi to meet PM Vajpayee and yet a solution to the political question his people face is nowhere near. Rokovei ponders over the relevance of Naga resistance which had once started with the dream of a sovereign state but was subsequently made weaker by the split in the party. He reflects upon the corollaries of a struggle which had left the natives disappointed because at stake was a peaceful existence that has long been denied them. For him the dust hasn’t settled yet and his hopes are tinged with despair. 

The history of a place is essentially the history of its people. To recapitulate it, especially when it is complex and painful to remember, must be an arduous task for the people who have witnessed harrowing times and have lived every subsequent day of their lives watching the repercussions unfold. To pen a fictional account of such history therefore requires conviction and also courage to endure the trauma all over again.

This book is not only an attempt at chronicling the events which led to the political question that kept haunting the lives of the Naga people but is also an effort to bring their predicament to the attention of people who have little idea about their sufferings and about the gravity of denial of justice to them.

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Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.