Stories have a way of reaching out and conveying like no other communication forms. Temsula Ao in These Hills Called Home poignantly tells the less apparent story of what its like in Nagaland.
I HAVE ALWAYS been fascinated by literature produced in the shadow of conflict — especially a prolonged conflict. This impulse prompted me to pick up for reading The Patiala Quartet, set in Punjab, 17 Tomato Tales from Kashmir, set in the Valley. I have just finished Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home, set in the villages and small towns of Nagaland. The Naga underground movement forms the book’s backdrop.
Both Neel Kamal Puri — talking about Patiala — and Temsula Ao — talking about pastoral life in Nagaland
— are women and in their books women are usually the leading characters. But while Puri dwells on victims of terrorism and insurgency, Ao is writing stories from a war zone, where the protagonist and the antagonist are all mixed up. Ao presents some memorable characters — Apenyo, the beautiful child prodigy singer raped by marauding soldiers as she sings at the village church dedication; Soaba, the mentally retarded child who is being brought up by the wife of a man, whom the underground considers a turncoat and the government a convenient hatchet man.
The story of the underground movement and those who get sucked into it is far less simplistic than we often see it to be reflected off our television screens. It isn’t a simple fairly tale of good versus bad or us versus them. In the short story, The Curfew Man, for instance, a hapless man, who was a star basketball player in his time, injures himself and having becoming ineligible for any other job, becomes a government informer. He does well for a while but then he is literally caught between the devil and the deep sea, not knowing where to go. One day his nemesis catches up with him as the underground take their revenge and incapacitate him completely leaving him useless to both those over ground and underground.
Though the book does not make a political statement, it does make a bold human rights statement. The army and the other security forces are shown for what they appear to be to the people — hardly any better than an occupation army — raping, pillaging, destroying and worse humiliating the people, their culture and traditions through mass punishments and fines and the notorious “grouping system” wherein villages were uprooted from their traditional location and bunched together like herds, so that the security forces could keep an easier eye on them.
More than half a century of bloodshed has marked the history of the Naga people who live in the troubled North-East India. Their struggle for an independent Nagaland and their continuing search for identity provide the backdrop for the stories that make up this unusual collection.
Describing how ordinary people cope with violence, how they negotiate power and force, how they seek and find safe spaces and enjoyment in the midst of terror, the author details a way of life under threat from the forces of modernization and war. Economical and unadorned, these stories bring alive the poignant and bewildering experiences of a people caught in a spiral of violence. In doing so, they speak movingly of home, country, nation, nationality, identity and direct the reader to the urgency of the issues that lie at their heart.