After meeting a person from (what many of us privileged folk refer to as) mainland India, Zhabunuo remarks in “Sharing Stories”:
“I had liked it that he didn’t ask me about ‘the Northeast’ like many of my classmates did, neatly clubbing the entire diverse and multicultural region as one singular province. He also didn’t make any puerile comments about Nagas and dog meat or enquire whether Nagas still practised head-hunting... When I spoke of home, he didn’t ask ‘How do I get to Nagaland?’ for which I now had a ready stream of sarcastic replies, the final segment of the journey always ending with a bullock cart ride. I was surprised that he knew about the Naga political movement and even more pleasantly surprised when he didn’t use terms like ‘insurgency’ or ‘terrorist’.”
This section alone would have been enough for me to mark Avinuo Kire’s The Last Light of Glory Days as a must-read for India (nomenclature I use as deliberately as Kire does). But what makes Kire’s book so powerful is the deftness with which she has structured the three interconnected stories in Part One (from where the lines quoted above are excerpted).
Tranquillity versus turbulence
Spanning three generations of women in a family, yet with the narrative lens placed only on the grandmother and granddaughter, we see the history of Nagaland through their eyes. It would be easy for the characters to become shadows here, dwarfed by the weight of a period encompassing over 50 years. Instead, the characters shine through in their authenticity to the times they are a part of, personally and collectively; they are brilliantly crafted, a testament to Kire’s dexterity.
In the opening pages of her first story, she adeptly establishes the loyalty of the first generation (represented by Neimenuo) and their parents to British occupation, their hope and faith that the British would safeguard the Naga desire for sovereignty, hope which can never be rid off their equally deep seated dread that the British would betray them. The swiftness with which British colonisation is replaced by Indian occupation is mirrored in the pace of Kire’s writing here; the characters have to readjust to a new normal: life continuing amidst torture, grief, anger and death.
Indeed, Kire’s greatest success lies in her ability to consistently sustain a razor-sharp tension between the slow pace of the characters’ personal worlds (both informing and informed by the tranquillity of the hills and the natural environment their everydays are embedded in) and the relentlessness of the pace that is imposed on them through the horrors of “Nagamia kebvü cü teiki” or The Disturbance, the period between 1947 and the 1960s, and, then, beyond that till 1997 (although as Zhabunuo, representative of the third generation, implies, it’s quite impossible to establish a cut and dried end point to trauma that even if altered with time and governments, is still something they live with daily).
Kire centres her narrative on her characters and their relationships – Neimenuo with her brother, Mato, the man she falls in love with and later marries, Zhabu, who joins the Naga Home Guard, and how what happens to them shapes her and thus plays out in her relationship with her granddaughter, Zhabunuo, in whose case her relationships with first her sister and later her partner are spotlighted.
In doing so, she creates a fascinating crisscrossing of life stories bookended by two non-consecutive generations and the distinct socio-political climates that influence them very differently along with the influence of the familial and their natural environs which are, on the other hand, constant and unchanging. At the end of Part One, we are left wondering about how memory is transmitted from one generation to another, how it changes in transmission and the impact of embodied inter-generational trauma on what and how one remembers.
Love and mourning
Inevitably, Part One is a tough act to follow and Part Two, comprising seven standalone stories that turn the authorial focus to the interplay between Naga folklore, oral narratives and contemporary life in Nagaland, left me wanting a little more detail in a few of the stories. In Part One, I found the relative absence of the second generation (Neimenuo’s daughter, Abanuo) to be an interesting device. We see her briefly as a child, and, as an adult, we are indirect witnesses to a change in one of her political views.
In Part Two, however, I wish more space had been given to Atsa Tsüruo-ü (“Jakieno with the Dark Eyes”) and Neibou (“The Visitors”). Kire could have offered a deeper exploration of Neibou’s history with Khriesinuo’s parents, and her relationship with the Kamvüpfhi, which felt a shade cursory. I choose these examples specifically because of the role they play in linking Naga mythology to everyday life.
Additionally, Kire’s style of writing works best when it adapts to her characters – often economical, understated, but precise and elegant. In some of the stories in Part 2, comma placements become cumbersome and detract from the flow of her writing. “Longkhum” is an example where everything comes together once again: an achingly beautiful poetic story about love, loss and mourning with the ineffable magic of Naga myth and folktales elementally woven into its fabric.
When I read contemporary writing that stands out, I invariably imagine having long conversations with the author about the characters and their stories. Readers can start their own internal conversation with Kire after reading her work – that’s the most exquisite spell a book can cast.
The Last Light of Glory Days: Stories from Nagaland, Avinuo Kire, Speaking Tiger.