These Hills Called Home: Stories from a war zone

Sanjay (Xonzoi) Barbora

Prof. Ao modestly claims that “memory…picks and chooses what to preserve and what to discard” and that this is compounded when one is dealing with someone else’s memory of unadulterated pain and sorrow. From this conundrum of memory and pain, she finds ten stories that make a discerning reader turn pages with a sense of urgency, because – truth be told – they are fragments of a people’s history. It is easy therefore, to wildly search for an appropriate moment in literary history, when authors have reacted to political events in creating works of art (as can be gauged from the small preamble to this review that refers to Yeats’ classic). There is a point to this preface before getting on to the real business of the actual review, and that is to reiterate that this is no ordinary book for two reasons.

First: It is a timeless narrative of militarisation and resistance; of how individual universes are transformed in the interplay of history and politics. The stories, though timeless in their tenor, are from the first quarter of the Naga national struggle and record the changes and brutal transformations of a society, where traditional structures are torn apart in the encounter with modern arms and administration. 

Second: There is a gendered layering of the stories that turn the readers’ gaze from the obvious political struggle to other, less visible spheres. In every protracted struggle, the impact of conflict on women has several layers, not all of them emancipatory or politically progressive in nature. The stories in the book bring out the changes that Naga women have undergone in the past few decades in a refreshingly honest manner, devoid of rhetoric and grandstanding. 

There are ten stories in the book, all written in the manner of a story-teller narrating events from a troubled past to an audience tired after a day’s work but reluctant to be lulled off to sleep. The reluctance is further strengthened by the story-teller’s ability to keep people awake. From the first story about a rather rugged villager becoming a major in the underground army, to the last story about a young, rather uninspiring man becoming an entrepreneur thanks largely to the strange circumstances of the counter-insurgency milieu, the author quietly revisits recurring themes from modern Naga history. 

The themes could occur in any society that has seen long, insidious processes of militarisation. Under such situations traditional, agrarian societies based on elaborate kin networks are seen as an inherent threat by those seeking to modernise and discipline them in a project that pits stereotypical notions of civility and savagery against one another. The protagonists of the stories are people that the twentieth century wants to sweep under the carpet. They are young village women trying to come to terms with societal misgivings about extra-marital affairs, even as their beleaguered parents try to keep the peace by allowing the clans to publicly humiliate the victims (The Night).

They are young men denied their youth by war, whose memories in their dying days include the surreptitious and accidental glimpse of a naked woman returning with her colleagues from the field after a hurried shower and laying a trap where several security personnel are killed (An Old Man Remembers). They are young women with melodious voices, who sing like angels in a church and continue to sing as they are raped by the army (The Last Song). They are village idiots who do odd-jobs to live from one day into another and move through political events seemingly without concern and eventually leave behind a world where sanity appears cruel and meaningless (Saoba). They are urbane, educated young men, who become volunteers in a war and become victims of irrational mistrust in the process of forging a national struggle against the external oppressor and internal obscurantist (Shadows).  

The stories are deliberately devoid of a political rhetoric and milestones. This gives them a universal substance that is both liberating and (somewhat unfortunately) subject to self-censorship. The vague references to political positions and positioning of people as victims of circumstances beyond their comprehension are somewhat misleading. Try as one might, Naga history has political milestones that are inscribed in contemporary commentaries, to the extent that they have every need to be explained. The editors could have tampered with the text to address this, but (fortunately for the book and unfortunately for those scanning the trajectories of Naga political history) this has not happened. As a result, one is left with a nagging doubt that one half of the story is missing. That said however, one does not expect the author to explicitly address the issues that continue to trouble the Naga encounter with Indian militarism and republicanism. As a book that merely wishes to give memory a voice, this is a remarkable effort at understanding modern Indian politics and history from (a) a gendered perspective and (b) the perspective of people who would otherwise be forgotten in the interplay of high politics and tyrannical renditions of national/ regional history. For these two reasons alone, the author and the publishers ought to be congratulated for producing a book that would define literary efforts emanating from Naga territories and from Northeast India in time to come.

(Views expressed in the review are those of the author’s alone. The usual disclaimers apply)