Temsula Ao’s “Laburnum” and “Hills” Stories

Two books by a Naga writer writing in English that I’m so grateful to have read is “Laburnum for my Head” (Penguin, 2009) and “These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone” (Zubaan & Penguin, 2006), both by Temsula Ao. I read them from cover to cover at one go and was sad when they ended. I wanted them to go on forever. I would read them through the morning and then nap in the afternoon, and awake dreaming about them. That was the kind of impact the books had – very evocative, very poignant, addressing the conscious and the subconscious stratums of the mind.
For someone such as I, born in the 70’s, what meaning or relevance did I find in stories set in the Nagaland of the 50’s and 60’s? I tell you, every possible relevance! As such Temsula Ao’s stories have not only psycho-social and politico-historical relevance, but also deep-searching philosophical relevance. It talks about the “human” condition, about you and I, about real people who lived in Nagaland, perhaps now fictionzed, but never out of context. In her stories, the “particular” is so “universal,” cutting across the boundaries of changing historical and political eras, and confronting the very core of human nature and human plight against the backdrop of compelling circumstances – all this accomplished very subtly and skillfully.
“Laburnum for my Head” has 8 short stories – each unique and full of surprises, some of irony, some of nostalgia, some of wit and amusement, but never of trivial or inconsequential things! As she wrote in the very beginning of the book: “Stories live in every heart; some get told, many remain unheard – stories about individual experiences made universal by imagination; stories that are jokes, sometimes prayers, and those that are not always a figment of the mind but are, at times, confessions. Because stories live in every heart, some get told, like the ones on these pages…”
I’m so glad that those stories (whether individual or communal confessions), got told. In her case, the impact of this “telling” is very far reaching. It has the capacity to reaffirm our starting point, out innate connection to our historico-cultural roots, no matter how far we may have branched out already. In the theme story, “Laburnum for my head,” the protagonist is totally surreal, able to transcend her husband’s death with ease but not her obsession with the laburnum flower. The very valid link in this story is the friendship of the old woman with her driver; its reminiscent of the one established in the heart-rending movie, “Driving Miss Daisy.” The author’s favorite story as I found out, and also mine, is “Sonny.” It talks about idealism, of chasing a powerful dream in the political drama of the land until disillusionment sets in. This I can figure out very well; after interacting with people in the army headquarters of the NSCN-IM camp, I see similar trends, widespread and worrisome! What happened “then” continues to happen “now.”
“Sonny” also talks about love between a man and a woman, no matter how tragic. Here we can well imagine the novel, “Wuthering Heights,” and begin to understand why the protagonists’ spirits were united only in death! At least this gives the readers some satisfaction, some respite, some resolution, beyond the tangible gloom. But in “Sonny” there is no reprieve, only potential for complexity that is best left untouched.
Temsula Ao’s book, “These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone,” is set almost entirely within the backdrop of a people’s struggle for sovereignty in the early days of the Naga movement. Many of the stories talk of village life, and a people’s confrontation with the ruthless annihilation mechanisms of the Indian army.
About finding suitable publishers for her works, Temsula Ao notes, “When people in the mainland picture the north east, it’s only about conflict. These stereo types are what publishers look for.” However, it would be totally presumptuous to say that Temsula Ao, in “These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone,” has entirely attempted to feed and further those established stereo types.
Far from that, the stories are honest and legitimate, and waiting to be told any how. They are devoid of any kind of adornment or pretension or exaggeration of any sort.  The 10 short stories in the book talk about men and women, young and old, harmed or causing harm, noble or corrupt, innocent or despicable, whether commonplace or extraordinary with very clear impartiality and balance. There is no blame or accusation of an “external” outsider in the stories. Rather, as a self-reflective undertaking, her two opening statements are: “For those who know what we have done to ourselves” and “I hear the land cry, over and over again, Let all the dead awaken and teach the living how not to die.”
Some of the stories on “conflict” somehow reminded me a little about the stories narrated by Kaka D. Iralu in his book, “Nagaland and India: The Blood and the Tears.” While Kaka D Iralu’s is more like a memoir, a personal, non fiction account of the political scenario during the early struggle for Naga Independence against the Indian Government, Temsula Ao’s is an account of that same historical reality in fictionised form, or more so, in creative non-fiction form (both are applicable). While Kaka D Iralu’s recounts incidences with full emotional force often thickly tinged with anger and frustration, Temsula Ao’s narrations are almost distant, one may even suspect, uninvolved. However, it is because of this “objectivity” that she is able to say what’s to be said; and in the process, is able to catch the reader’s attention, even evoke empathetic appreciation.
My top three favorite stories in this book are: “Soaba,” where an unhappy wife of a corrupt insurgent sees normalcy in a mentally deranged person’s life; “The Pot Maker,” a charming and mournful mother-daughter story; “An Old Man Remember,” this story will steal your heart, especially if you personally know anyone who might take the form of the protagonist. In all the stories, the paradoxical elements of sadness and delightfulness are often discreet yet gripping, understated yet persuasive. They leave the reader repentant, just as Temsula Ao wished that the living would learn how not to die but to live, through the lessons we learn from the past. Indeed, the reader is compelled to move a step higher in the ladder of spiritual evolution, and become a better human being by learning from the past.
I begin to feel grateful to my late father who made it mandatory for us children, to spend at least 2-3 weeks in the village with our grandparents. My siblings and I were in boarding schools, away from Nagaland, but we vacationed partly in Changki village during our 3-month winter break till about the time we reached high school. Temsula Ao’s book took me back many years - to the paddy fields, the fishing ponds, the forests, the granaries, the village folks, the “everything” associated with the unassuming and typical nuances of life in the village. It’s a bygone era, now living on only in memory.
Without much exaggeration or unfounded flattery, one can predict that both the books are on the way to becoming “classics,” that will have stood the acid test of time. It’s no wonder that more and more people are discovering the inherent richness in this Padmashree awardee’s literary works. Students continue to write dissertations on her works, just as swiftly as they are translated into regional/foreign languages and included in curriculums across universities.< br />The author Temsula Ao retired as Professor, Dept. of English and also former Dean, School of Humanities and Education, NEHU, Shillong. She now resides in Lingrijan, Dimapur, Nagaland.
(Written by: Susan Waten, HAWA, Dimapur)