Author: Easterine Kire
Reviewer: KB Veio Pou (Asst. Professor, SBSC, University of Delhi)
The opening line of the new novel by Easterine Kire, A Respectable Woman, resonates with the popular passage of Ecclesiastes chapter 3 where the wise king Solomon articulates that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. In verse 7 of the passage we read of “a time to be silent and a time to speak.”The narrator and protagonist of the novel, Kevinuo, says, “It took my mother, Khunuo, exactly forty-five years before she could bring herself to talk about the war.” The statement indicates a period of silence on the subject. And interestingly, silence is not about forgetting but a process of letting matter, the trauma or tragedy in this case, sink in until one can be strong again to talk about it. Most cultures, in a sense, share this truth.
A Respectable Woman (ARW henceforth) is woven around the story of a mother telling her experiences of growing up at a defining moment of Kohima and people who lived through the Second World War. Divided into three parts, the novel chronicles the memories of the mother and traces the family relations in Part One. Part Two begins with the birth of the protagonist-narrator and her growing up “to witness different happenings, some of them good, some much worse…” Part Three is largely a continuation of the narratives from the previous one but focused on personal battles the protagonist had to confront mainly with the tragic death of her closest friend, Beinuo, due to abuse by her husband and taking custody of the orphaned girl. While the plot of the novel is centred on the stories of Kevi and her mother, it is interwoven with the memories of the grandmother and other elders of the community about certain aspects of the past, and in this case the times around the war.
Memory of the period is important because it was a time of tremendous changes, not just for people living in and around Kohima, the centre of the action, but also for the Nagas as a whole as there was a paradigm shift in the political and social dynamics. So significant is the war in the novel that there is repeated use of the phrase “before the war” to demarcate a historical timeline. Just like different seasons mark the timeline of the year, “the war” became an important historical reference point for the Nagas. Though the war was not of their making, the Nagas were caught in the war and were forced into bear the brunt of it. In the recent times there has been few works by Nagas narrating their accounts of the war. Notable ones include The Battle of Kohima (2007) by Mekhrie Khate, Aphriilie Iralu, et al. (Eds.), The Road to Kohima: The Naga Experience of the 2nd World War (2017) by Charles Chasie and Harry Fecitt, and Easterine Kire’s bestselling semi-fictional novel titled Mari (2010). These narratives help us assess the impact of the war on the Nagas. The brutality of the battle of Kohima led the military historian Robert Lyman to remark that the war fought in the Naga Hills was “[t]he most desperate and bloody struggle in the entire war in the south Asian land mass” (Japan’s Last Bid for Victory: The Invasion of India 1944 (2011), p. 215). The centrality of the war is also depicted in the novel wherein Amo, the narrator’s maternal uncle, became a war hero after he survived the Japanese bullets, but couldn’t live long for the same reason.
ARW holds an important place in this regard as it documents a lot of what has been side-lined in the current discourses of the Nagas. In an interesting way, the book even becomes a historical source of Kohima’s past because it mentions of when and who set up the first book shop, the first pharmacy, and the famed Kohima Bakery, among others. Also, by mentioning many of the first among Nagas in various fields, Easterine Kire makes a conscious attempt to credit those who contributed to the building of the society, especially in the formative period. As one reads the novel, one gets a feeling that Kohima becomes a character in the novel with all its liveliness, be it bearing the brunt of the war destructions or the makeover it got after it or the restructuring of the township in the 50s and 60s. Certainly, there is a sense nostalgia in the author’s tone as she recounts a lot of what was a part of her growing up years in Kohima. Written in the first person narrative, the autobiographical mode of writing gives a perfect blend of facts and fiction. Though Kevi may not be Easterine in to-to, the reader can nevertheless draw the semblance in various aspects. But in the fine hand of the master-artiste-novelist, the line is nevertheless drawn clearly.
There are also other issues of the society that the author tries to address through the novel. Alcoholism, which had become a byword of the largely frustrated young Nagas, remains an issue which both the church and the state have not contained till today. While critiquing the state for treating alcoholism as a mere crime of the few misfits, the novel also unveils the fact that there is a huge contribution of the “political environment” and the harsh governmental actions on the public which contributed to the social problem. Added to the whole challenging situation is the lackadaisical approach of the church as well as the society. What should bother the reader is the silence of larger society in the issue of alcoholism and its related issue of domestic violence. The twin belong to some of those devils that the Nagas still count ignorable but has eaten into the marrows of the society. The narrator’s shock at learning about his best friend’s marital woes at a much later stage is something to be grasped.
ARW is a book that gives a critical insight into some of the challenges confronting the Naga society today. And in the hand of a commendable writer and ‘insider’ like Easterine Kire the stories she construct powerfully captivates the readers with her own style of narration which is deeply rooted to the storytelling tradition of the Nagas. Even in this novel, her effort to reconstruct the memory of the past is in true spirit of the Naga oral culture wherein there is a conscious passing down of stories of the people to the younger generation. Though the mother finds telling some of her life stories hurting at times she felt the importance of tellingabout the familybecause those are the legacies that should be passed on. Every generation’s experience is unique and telling them can be a learning experience for the next generation. As a foremost writer among Nagas there are so much that the younger generation of storytellers can find inspiration in Easterine Kire. Besides the national and international recognitions, the award just endowed on her, The Gordon Graham Prize for Naga Literature, is truly a recognition of her contribution to literary wealth of the Nagas.