Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee
Northeast sees a revival of the storytelling techniques again with writers like Easterine Kire, a girl of Kohima who grew up with her storytelling grandparents got Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2018 for Son of the Thundercloud and The Hindu Prize for Fiction 2015 for When the River Sleeps.
Son of the Thundercloud is an allegorical novel set in a mystical land. A lone sojourner ‘Pele’ leaves his village because of a terrible famine that sweeps across the land. His journey takes him to a village called “Villagers of weavers” believed to be safe heaven.
Though the story unfolds through the eyes of Pele, there are many other characters who also serve as the author’s mouthpiece. The dominant ones are the three divine sisters, Kethonuo, Siedze and Mesanuo, and the protagonist Rhalie. The novel is a story within a story. It has a calm soothing tone which makes it a relaxing read. It is rich with metaphors.
Her major works include A Naga Village Remembered, When the River Sleeps, Son of Thundercloud, and her latest A Respectable Woman and the last one was awarded Printed Book of the Year in 2019.
Her greatness consists in the use of the oral tradition of Nagaland which is found in the villages, history, lore and anecdotes. At the fireside gatherings, the elders tell stories to the youngsters and these stories relate to the past of Nagaland and they are didactic in the sense they provide guidance to the young generation. ‘Years of listening to stories grow knowledge within your spirit’ – said Kire and her writings reflect this truth.
Easterine Kire published her first book of poetry in 1982 titled “Kelhoukevira“. This was also the first book of Naga poetry published in English. Her novel “A Naga Village Remembered” published in 2003 was the first novel by a Naga writer in English.
Her second novel was “A Terrible Matriarchy” (2007) followed by “Mari” (2010), “Bitter Wormwood” (2011) and “Don’t Run, My Love” (2017). Her latest book “Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland” was published in 2019. She has also written children’s books, articles and essays. Her first children’s book in English was published in 2011. Kire has also translated 200 oral poems from her native language.
In poetry, we get this native literature at its best. The translation of the oral poetry to colloquial Tenyidie and then the translation of the poem to the target language, as early as the 1940’s Tenyidie writers have been writing novels, plays, novellas and nonfiction. But their works have not been translated even the works of an outstanding writers like Dr. Shurhozelie or Neisevituo Sorhie.
In one interview Easterine Kire opined that people outside the region of the Northeast make the mistake of presuming that their literature is homogenous and that they write all on the same thesis of political unrest. There is a great deal of non-fiction writing produced by Charles Chasie, Arkotong Longkumer, Along Longkumer and Abraham Lotha to name few.
They wrote on Naga political crises. But the fiction writers were concerned with life and society and they highlight social problems that need reformation. Young writers like Anuo Mepfuo, Avinuo Kire, Emisenla Jamir and Theyie Keditsu bravely give the voice to the complications of being born female. Life is vibrant, challenging and multi-faceted in Nagaland and this is depicted by Eastern Kire in her novels, poetry and short stories.
Kire never forgot the social realities. The story of Khonoma which is an incredible place with an incredible history and the life of its people evoked intensely familiar emotions within her as she gives priority to protect the land and culture of these people.
Kire always respected the tradition of Nagaland, the habit of listening to the elders about their culture and history. Another aspect is Christianity and the thinking of the elders is marked significantly by Christian symbols as the Tenyimia Christians accepted Christ’s sacrifice made all other sacrifices unnecessary.
Kire covered the narratives related to the historical battle periods and gave a socio-cultural picture of the community. Sometimes as in the fictionalization of the story of Levi who is an archetype of the Khonoma warrior she defends the traditional teachings. In doing this Kire never ignored the domestic life of Levi and Piano who were as happy as could be expected.
Kire took care of the storytelling culture that dominated Naga life before print literature. Kire grew up with her grandparents in their house by choice. The central point of the house was the kitchen with the hearth and wood fire. And every evening after dinner she used to listen to her grandparents telling stories. Though she had Enid Blyton’s books, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Anderson’s Fairy Tales, the stories of grandparents attracted her more.
Her mother was an excellent storyteller and insisted on detail. This had a great bearing on her writing. She sometimes mingles the tribal technique. The only Naga tribe that incorporates music and dance in their storytelling is the Zeliang tribe and the gestures of dances are an integral part of the narrative.
Even in discourses in media, it is folktales or conflict tales or war tales that get utmost importance when we speak of Naga literature. People love to see a superhero story based on Nagaland. But Kire dislikes such narratives. She refrains from any melodrama in her fiction.
Easterine Kire currently lives in northern Norway which has an affinity with her Northeast flora and fauna. The majority of her writings are based on the lived realities of the people in Nagaland in Northeast India.
Her motivation to write is summed up in this statement by her in an interview, “I felt we needed to create written Naga literature. We have so many oral narratives but with oral dying out, it’s all going to be lost.” Kire is very sound in her academic accomplishment. She did her Masters from NEHU and Ph.D. from the Savitri Bai Phule University of Poona.
A versatile writer who was equally popular for her poetry, novels and short stories she also wrote for children probably recalling her own childhood days.
Kire depends on her mood for writing fiction and she thinks writing is good for soul. She advises, “Don’t write poetry for the money, because there isn’t any money in it. Write poetry to feed your soul. You need that luxury.” Her book When the River Sleeps is a book that bridges the spirit world and the human world.
Northeast is more often than not absent from any discourse of Indian literature. But with a writer like Easterine Kire we get poignant insight into the human life behind the political headlines from one of India’s beautiful and misunderstood regions.
A Terrible Matriarchy” was selected to be translated into UN languages. Furthermore, the books “A Terrible Matriarchy”, “Mari”, “Forest Song”, “Naga Folktales Retold” and “A Naga Village Remembered” have been translated into German and all of these gave her writings a global character.
Dr Ratan Bhattacharjee, a senior academician and poet, can be reached at: email@example.com