Hills under siege

Hills under siege

Bitter
Wormwood

Easterine Kire
Zubaan


2011, pp 269
295







Easterine Kire’s Bitter Wormwood is a refreshing novel.

It is refreshing in many ways: the landscape it is set in — the Naga Hills — is not a familiar one except to those from the North-East of India; the language is simple and direct, yet manages to convey effectively all that it seeks to and that same honest approach is used when dealing with the grave issues of politics and society that the author addresses through this novel.

The story begins in Kohima town, when Mose, the central protagonist of the novel, witnesses a savage factional killing in the main market. A young armed man — presumably from one of the groups of the Underground — shoots another young man. The market place closes down in minutes and Mose makes his quick way home, through deserted streets, past shuttered houses.

All the while, he wishes he could have done something, could have intervened; he knew he had the heart, for Mose had been part of the same freedom struggle — had been in the original Underground — in his youth, but he also knew that his old man’s body would have let him down.

From this revelatory point, the story moves back to Mose’s childhood, to the late thirties. A felled tree had crushed Mose’s father, Luo-o, and he died leaving behind his young widow, Vilau, Mose and his old mother. These were not easy times for women, young and old, to be alone. It was hard enough eking out a living from the land, but soon the war, the Second World War, was upon them and the author’s vivid descriptions of this period reminds us how close that war had come to Nagaland — the Japanese had made their way right up to Kohima and only there were they stopped. Despite these tumultuous happenings, Mose’s mother and grandmother took comfort in the fact that Mose had grown into an exceptional child; he was hardworking, diligent and thus, did very well at school.

The future seemed bright, but as one danger receded, another appeared as the Naga struggle for independence from India intensified and the Indian army moved in, wreaking havoc in its wake. Through a series of unforseen and unfortunate events, Mose is compelled to join the Underground and although he comes back later, marries and becomes a householder, he always is, as he says, “a marked men.”

He does find happiness in domestic life, has a daughter who goes on to marry the son of Neituo, his childhood friend and once comrade in the Underground, but that happiness is always incomplete, marred by the terrible state of his land and people.

The Naga Underground has split into warring factions and the Indian army still chokes the land. Between these armed groups, the common man is caught in a hopeless situation. Mose’s story, entwined in the story of Nagaland, does not end well, but the author does hold out the promise of an ultimate reconciliation through the new generation of children, Naga and non-Naga.

This is a deeply political story that Kire has written; she has woven the important events, days, landmarks of the Naga struggle into every strand of Mose’s life. She documents clearly how alien and on the margins the Naga people feel; she does not disguise the fact that they feel little or no kinship with India. “But Neibou, you are not really Indian!” says Rakesh, friend of Mose’s grandson in Delhi.

The reasons for this sense of distance is also laid out clearly; that Nagaland had never really been part of India before the British, an argument other people of the region also have put forward. At the same time, she has made her disapproval of the pointless factional battling clear. In response to one such killing, Neituo says, “When you begin to kill each other, you no longer have a cause left, do you?”

While the novel is political and while some readers may differ with the author’s viewpoint there, this is, in the end, a very human novel: one that with great tenderness expresses the very human hopes, loves and dreams of a beleaguered people. One that brings to vivid life the green hills and misty valleys of an ancient people, a people with a great history. A history and a people worth knowing about and in putting forth their story, Kire has done her people, as well as her readers, a commendable service.

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