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‘I believe we can decide how much change will be allowed’

By July 2, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu – SUNDAY MAGAZINE



‘The old keepers of the stories are dying out,’ says Easterine Kire, whose latest book, Walking the Roadless Road, is a comprehensive history of the tribes of Nagaland


Easterine Kire grew up in Kohima, Nagaland, in a big, warm house with a view on Mission Compound and a garden filled with roses, azaleas, geraniums and forget-me-nots. A good listener, she was interested in the tales of her large family and the world outside. Kire turned to writing as conflict engulfed the State.

Nagaland’s rich oral literature needs to be written down and she has been doing that since 1982 when her book of poetry, Kelhoukevira , was published in English. In her novels, A Naga Village Remembered , A Terrible Matriarchy , Bitter Wormwood , When the River Sleeps(which won The Hindu Prize for Fiction, 2015), to name just four, she has drawn from the historical, social, geographical, political and cultural strands of the State.

Her latest book, Walking the Roadless Road, is about the tribes of Nagaland. Kire, an Angami Naga, says the elders, repositories of all tales, are dying and she wanted to record their voices before it gets too late. The house she lived in was washed away in a devastating landslide.

Kire is in Norway now, but has Nagaland on her mind, and explains over email why she must tell stories from her homeland. Excerpts:

Let’s start with the title — why do you call it the ‘roadless road’?

I borrowed it from the much-loved and venerated Naga elder, Niketu Iralu. He said, “Nagas are walking the roadless road” referring to the very delicate path of peace that Naga citizens are endeavouring to carve out so that generations of young Nagas may have a peaceful, meaningful future.

In your fiction you have drawn material from some of the tribes (Angami, Zeliang etc). What made you want to write a book of non-fiction on all Naga tribes?

Written Naga literature is still very young. For many years we have relied on our rich oral literature. But Naga society began to change from the 1980s. The age-old tradition of the age-group houses where stories were passed down orally has fewer members now as many have migrated to the towns to get Western education, and jobs. The old keepers of the stories are dying out. The present time is such a crucial moment when we can document the collective wisdom, village narratives and history of the tribes. This was one reason why I wrote this work of non-fiction. I have been doing it constantly in my fictional work, but universities and such need this kind of boxed-in, authenticated information which attends to formalities like indexing, referencing etc.

Do you think Nagas are misunderstood and stereotyped?

It’s not possible to expect an ‘outsider’ (I use this term to refer to people who were not born or brought up there, not visited it or researched accurately) to represent Naga history accurately because they will, unfortunately, come into the region with an understanding of the situation from what they have heard, read, or been told. On top of that, the media stereotype of the Northeast has done so much damage that the true cultural life of the Nagas and their rights have been overlooked.

Any non-Naga person who sincerely desires to understand the people and the region should come with an open mind and spend time there, live in the villages, meet the people, give oneself enough time to befriend them, and prepare to be enriched by the experience. We are hospitable people. Guests are honoured members of the family. Largely by such encounters can many of the stereotypes be corrected.

What has been the influence of Christianity on the tribes?

The positive side of Christian conversion was that it stopped head-hunting and feuding among the tribes because the missionaries preached the ideology of forgiving your enemies.

I see Christianity evolving in Nagaland. While the older churches are quite traditional and conservative, the younger churches want to grapple with modern issues that directly affect them. Educated Nagas are able to offer constructive criticism of the areas where the traditional churches become entrenched. Interestingly, Christianity in Nagaland became quite nativised.

How do you think the Battle of Khonoma influenced the history of the Nagas? The fact that from being battle-hardy Khonoma has now become a guardian of the environment, how important is this?

It’s a delightful story, isn’t it? The little village of 500 warriors standing up to the might of the British empire because the imperial forces were imposing taxes and unpaid labour. They had no idea what they were up against. It established pride in the Naga people who were at that time being colonised and occupied by the British colonists.

The role reversal for Khonoma from being a warrior village to a peaceful protector of the environment might look like a sea change. But the truth is, if you read the history of Khonoma closely, it has always functioned as a protectorate. Smaller villages came under their protection against their age-old enemy villages. The villages under Khonoma’s protection paid some revenue to Khonoma. In its seemingly new avatar as guardian of the endangered Blyth’s tragopan and of the mountain territories, it is still fulfilling its traditional role as protector, even though the premises might be slightly altered. It is still fulfilling a relevant role: I think that is vital for village survival.

Where do Nagas stand now? With a solution to the Naga crisis awaited, what is the way forward?

I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. It would be most fruitful to direct this question to the people who have dedicated themselves to working for peace in Nagaland, such as the leaders in the Forum for Naga Reconciliation, as well as other public bodies working for peace.

Do you mourn the loss of traditional culture?

As I grow older, I see the inevitability of change. I believe we can decide how much change will be allowed. Some things should not be replaced, however. For example, we customarily accept that children are to take care of aged parents.

This is a beautiful custom that should not be lost, but we could improve it by providing additional care professionally, and creating public spaces where the elderly can meet their contemporaries for an hour or two and be entertained by musicians etc. Educational institutions would also benefit so much if they employed the living books of history, elderly storytellers.

The present time is such a crucial moment when we can document the collective wisdom, village narratives and history of the tribes. This was one reason why I wrote this work of non-fiction

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