The other day, I watched Axone (pronounced Akhuni), the very telling movie about the lives of the people from the North East who live in Delhi. (In this case, read it as the story of people who live in different parts of the mainland as India is known in the North East) In a significant scene, the characters are calling up their friends who are also from the North East and asking if they could come and cook the dish (Axone- fermented soybeans- staple dish known for its strong smell) in any of their homes. As you watch, the seemingly homogenous people- (because ‘we’ mainlanders think they all look the same) break into different languages ranging from Khasi, Naga to Arunachali. The film also brought back memories of a friend at a Central University in India talking about the people from the North East and their “very different” cuisine.
The North East has a rather under represented narrative in the collective unconscious of the rest of India. In fact, apart from Danny Denzongpa and the movie Dil Se, there has been precious little representing the North East apart from the miscellaneous people dressed in tribal attire for performing the ‘Unity in Diversity’ dances. And yes, the Insurgency. The much celebrated Accord with certain tribal councils of Nagaland is expected to bring a semblance of adherence to the larger National narrative. But the history of violence remains. The stories of broken families and losses remain. It is these injuries that need to be bridged. And these are the people one needs to listen to if one is truly interested in the pursuit of democratic values that go beyond geo-political aspirations. And there are more lands in the North East than we care to count or know.
It is thus contextualized that we feature Easterine Kire who wrote the first Naga novel in English. When I read her work A Naga Village Remembered that was reissued as The Sky is My Father, I was struck by the span of generations that she covered in that slim book. Their struggles with religions, attempts to harmonise the old and new and the burdens that are carried in the souls of the people were rendered in extremely poetic language. It is not an easy task to accomplish. Her subsequent works- A Terrible Matriarchy, Mari, Bitter Wormwood (shortlisted for the Hindu Prize 2013); When the River Sleeps – Hindu Book Prize Winner 2015, Son of the Thundercloud (winner of the Bal Sahitya Puraskar 2018 and the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award 2017), Don’t Run, My Love and A Respectable Woman (winner of the Printed Book of the Year by Publishing Next, 2019) – have built a strong case for picking the threads of history of the North East through its fiction.
Like us, other people were returning to their homes. We saw several women mourning loudly because they could not find their houses any more. Kohima village was like nothing we had seen before. (A Respectable Woman)
In a 2006 feature carried by the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), Kire writes, “I continue to pray and dream of peace for my people and reflect it in my poetry. At the same time, I am now able to admit and talk about the long-term damage to my people the years of protracted conflict have inflicted and I have slowly begun to address this in my new writings. While many of the writers in cities of refuge have experienced prison physically, my people and I have been living within an invisible prison for many years, denied freedom of expression, freedom to nationhood and most painfully, freedom to life itself. I am now thinking of new ways to help my people, especially the young, because this period away has from my homeland has to be utilized positively. …I feel that our only hope is in our young. Their futures should not be shadowed any longer by the conflict. I hope I can sufficiently contribute to enabling them to move away from the bitterness and vicious cycle of killings and transcend the present gun-culture of my society. They deserve a better life than what we have known.”
Once a part of the ICORN programme, she is currently living in northern Norway with her family.
There is, in her writing, violence, hope, love, reconciliation and above all, resilience, healing….and poetry. Lots of poetry. Her writings bring out the orality of her culture and she has also worked to compile much of these orally communicated stories and has published them through her publishing house. In her opinion, the rhythms of the natural world are apparent in these folktales where there are characters who are 400 or 380 years old. Such is the power of the narration that the listener does not question this. “The miraculous is so much a part of folklore”, she says in an interview.
Her poems bring out a different side of her, perhaps because, as she wrote to SamyuktaPoetry, she writes to “relax, to record some special moments, to have fun because poems can be playful, and mostly to calm down from the stress of living. Poetry is a non-commercial activity: its good for the soul. I find soul satisfaction in writing and reading poetry.”
Thematically, her poems deal with nature and life. The everydayness of living. I was quite taken by her Diamonds that she also performed at the Bangalore Literature Festival.
I don’t like diamonds
something hard about diamonds
I think of the men
who ripped out the stone
dark earth entrails
their hands grimy
with unnecessary soil.
Nature is quiet and reflective in her poems as evinced by Moonbeam.
Rounded flakes of moon
and landing like snow in the valley
While reading Kire’s poems, one has the feeling of time standing still. There is a sense of waiting that she conveys. A bird that crashes down a chimney, the memories that the body carries…all form her subjects.
Easterine Kire’s work has been translated into German, Croatian, Uzbek, Norwegian and Nepali. She was awarded the Governor’s Medal for Excellence in Naga literature in 2011 and the ‘Free Word’ prize by Catalan PEN, Barcelona in 2013.
The poems featured here have not published elsewhere and they are, as Kire said, “on life.” Long after you have read these poems, they will come back to you, with the wisdom that she conveys in just a few lines. The little notes at the end of the poems seem like her way of holding conversations with the readers. It is a beautiful and intimate relationship that she thus establishes. And interestingly, one of her poems here is on food. Not Axone. Just food. Which is what food must be. Ask the hungry.
When old ladies on the street
Greet you and put their faces close to yours
And want to tell you all about their grandchildren:
“My grandson, the one who plays the trumpet, you remember him, don’t you?
He is going to be playing at the Nordlys festival
And his sister who is always writing poems
Has finally got a job at the bank, thank goodness
And gets a nice pay check
So much better don’t you think,
than going out to all those dreadful cafes every evening and reading poems
And never getting any money for all that
Isn’t it wonderful when all your grandchildren have settled down
And gotten jobs and have their own apartments?
Ha det, bye, have a good day see you soon.”
Note: Ha det is a shortened form of Ha det bra in Norwegian, meaning have it good. Its used in the same way we say, Bye.
Dancing her sky dance
Of green chiffon
In circles of abandon.
Note: The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) can be seen from September when the nights become cold and dark. The best description I have been told of them are a comparison to chiffon saris fluttering in the skies.
The Most Important Thing
But you see love
Love is not
The most important thing
It is not about
Making another soul
Food is the most important thing
And if you go
And feed a dozen
And a handful
Of old people, old
You will find out
It is food, not love
That is the most important thing
And when we have done that
Given food to the hungry, and the ones
Who have none to feed them
Love will come by the feeding
Give them food
And by and by
Love will come.
Note: This poem is self-explanatory.
We sat on rocks
next to the sea
and bright docks
a harvest moon
Note: Some dogs bay at the moon when it comes out. I inverted that in the last line.
Happiness is just this:
Pulling a stone
Tied to a string
And trailing behind his father
On their way to the forest.
Note: Aizawl, in February 2017.