BOOK EXCERPT

Read the novel from Nagaland that's won The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction 2015

Easterine Kire’s 'When the River Sleeps' offers a 'beautiful narration of a loner’s battle against evil seduced by a mysterious dream', said the jury.

“The forest is my wife,” Vilie had forcefully stated to them time and time again. Yet, his aunts continued to nag him relentlessly on the subject of marriage. He had said it only once to his mother, but his tone so shook her that she would never raise the issue again. In a way she understood her son despite her own longing for grandchildren. His aunts, however, persisted long after his mother had given up. The idea of a man living his life out in the forest – away from the communal life of the village – was so alien to them.

The village was the only life they knew, and Vilie had stopped trying to explain why he preferred living on his own. It often made no sense to him either. He still went through months when nothing could touch him except that great loneliness that howled through his being like the wind baying up the valley, relentlessly beating at the wooden house and rudely blasting in through cracks in the walls. The sense of isolation was almost enough to make him abandon his life in the forest and return to the village.

In the second year, he felt so lonely he stopped all construction work on the shed. He still remembered the day he had been making a stone wall. He built it on the western side of the shed to shield it from the strong winds. It was then that the bleakness of the life he had chosen hit him. The feeling did not pass as it used to in the first months. It stayed like a persistent fever and settled into his bones.

Though it was still light, Vilie gathered up his tools, placed them on the shelf and walked away from his house. What was this choice he had made? Was this really what he wanted for the rest of his life? Thoughts came to him of the village and what people would be doing in the late afternoons. Those in the fields would still be working under the open skies, perhaps chanting work-songs in a “call- and-response” way so typical of his people, to add rhythm to their toilsome labour.

Life in the village would perk up as the old and the very young prepared to welcome back the singing field-goers. Vilie could picture them – the old women prodding at their hearths to get their fires burning for the evening meal. The melodious workers would be heard approaching from afar, homeward bound to warm evening meals and a well earned rest.

“It is those things that I miss,” he thought to himself.

Not so much the festivals and feastings and the community gatherings, but the ordinary things of village life: the children fetching water in their small water-pitchers; the neighbours calling out to each other; and the village animals being shooed from the paths before they soiled them.

“Who or what would stop me if I should walk back to that life? Nothing and no one! I’m not answerable to anyone. The Forest Department can easily find someone else to come out and camp here at intervals and keep track of the tragopans.”

The village council too had earlier coped without his help in looking after the gwi. He was not indispensable. But the question remained: what was stopping him from going back to the village? This question nagged him into the next day and prevented him from finishing the work on the stone wall.

“The forest is my wife.”

He had said this many times to his relatives back at the village. Now he had the sensation that he was being an unfaithful spouse. He began to think that leaving the forest would be the same as abandoning his wife. Though it was an unsettling thought in his soul, he found he had actually nurtured it for a long time.

The following morning as the twinges of the all too familiar feeling of loneliness crept in, his own words returned to him.

“The forest is my wife, and perhaps this is what marriage is like; with periods when a chasm of loneliness separates the partners leaving each one alone with their own thoughts, groping for answers,” he thought.

Strangely, these thoughts calmed him. He felt clearer in his head. He had strived so hard after something that was still elusive. Perhaps the answer lay not in striving but in being. In simply accepting that the loneliness would never be eliminated fully, but that one could deal with it by learning to treat it like a companion and no longer an adversary.

It had been many years now since he had thought of the girl he had loved, Seno. Some days he could not remember her face. It became a blur to him and he had stopped trying to put features to the blur. So it was not a hankering after her that brought on this loneliness. It was just a part of being human.

The previous night’s dream had momentarily brought back the same feeling of despairing emptiness. But he fought it hard, and this time it made him get up and collect the items that he would need for a long journey. He had an old canvas travel bag that one of the hunters had given him. The fabric was sturdy enough, so he flung it on his bed and began to fill it.

He sheathed his hunting knife and tucked it into the bag. The knife was followed by a roll of tobacco and tobacco leaves in a pouch. He then packed a small packet of salt, a pouch of tea, some rice and dried beef and venison. He fetched a box of bullets that was half-empty, and added a handful of pellets and buck shot as well as six slugs. He added the two slugs on the table for good measure.

Vilie sat down momentarily and scanned the dark interior to see what else might be handy on a long trip.

He noticed a long rope hanging by the side of the window. He reached for the rope, coiled it and threw it into the bag with the other things. He topped off the bag with a rough woollen blanket, then closed it and tied it up with a leather cord and set it aside. He would need a day or two to put the shed in order before he could set out. He would plan an obligatory detour to the Nepali wood-cutters who were his only neighbours. Their settlement was four hours walk from his shed. From time to time, the woodcutters brought him sugar and tea from their trips into town.

His sudden impulse to pack had a significant effect on him. As he finally lay to rest that evening, he felt as if an enormous weight had just rolled off his back. He felt light- headed imagining his departure. It occurred to him that perhaps something had changed. Perhaps now he would stop dreaming about the sleeping river. As his eyes closed, his thoughts dwelt for a time on the question of the sleeping river.

“Is it possible that only forest dwellers can understand such things exist in the places not frequented by man? Will the magic of the river work only for a believer? Would it work in spite of lack of faith?”

The next day he mended the hole in the wire fencing around the house. The fence was intended to keep pesky animals away from his food rations. He reinforced it with medium sized posts. It was in fact high enough to deter larger animals. Then he turned his attention to the porch, where some planks had rotted in places.

To prevent it collapsing, he pulled out planks from a pile of quarter- sawn pine boards he had purchased from the Nepalis. Vilie sawed them into four-by-four inch planks to match the existing ones. He then cut away and replaced the rotted planks. The work took most of the day, and it was dusk before he could prepare his evening meal. Nevertheless, it was gratifying to have finally finished work on the house that he had postponed all summer.

Excerpted with permission from When The River Sleeps, Easterine Kire, Zubaan Books.

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