In the course of her work, Easterine Kire has now become a trailblazer in her own right. Spirit Nights is an admirable continuation of her trademark style: capturing meaning without being caught in the tangles of language.

In the village of Shumang Laangnyu Sang, Tola lives with her grandson Namumolo, whom everyone lovingly calls Namu. His parents died in an enemy attack when he was only a few months old, and Tola is the only family he knows. Tola herself has battled many difficulties: first, infertility for several years, and then the death of her husband when their son was only a teenager.

As she brings up Namu, she is visited by spirits who communicate to her that something momentous is coming, and she must prepare the boy to rise to the occasion. Daughter of a seer, she knows she must believe, even when she does not understand.

Soon, the darkness privately prophesied to Tola does arrive, intense and seemingly unending. Accompanying this unnatural, all-engulfing darkness are fear and death, and life suddenly comes to a halt – not just in their village, but also in the neighbouring areas.

Something has gone wrong in the spirit world, Tola realises – the world whose blessings they solicit and spurning they fear, and ultimately one which they must live in conjunction with. Bringing an end to the night demands more than physically overpowering the enemy, and Tola, Namu and the small cast of characters begin to find their places in this new world.

Changing pulse

Despite its fast pace, Spirit Nights is not a story told in broad strokes. The characters, though set in the sketches that Kire draws out for them, develop over the course of the story. The moral calculus that guides them at times of decision-making – and the internal strife that drives them to action – comes to the fore only as the story progresses and a wider set of thoughts and actions starts completing the picture that is their character.

The village of Shumang Laangnyu Sang in Spirit Nights is the basic community unit, and the lives and livelihoods of its members are simple: they cultivate their small patches of land, the women cook, the men make tools. Kire does the story justice by neither romanticising this way of life nor vilifying it; instead, she treats it with the trained acceptance of someone who knows what it is to live inside of it.

This results in a rendering that is thinly descriptive of the setting, with its finger constantly on the changing pulse of its characters. The simplicity of the language used accords Spirit Nights a kind of lyricality; in Kire’s telling, it is easy to get a sense of the traditions of oral storytelling that have kept this story and the associated customs alive.

This restraint, however, that Kire exercises in using language as adornment also pays off in another aspect: the richness of meaning that the short, blunt sentences are often layered with becomes the primary object of focus on the page, their mysterious resonance following you through the story.

In her notes, Kire acknowledges the many people who recounted to her different versions of this story, each enmeshed with the history and mythology of their respective villages. Spirit Nights has all the necessary elements of a fable: a brave protagonist, a wise counsel, a once happy world beset by darkness, and an enemy that takes more than just skill to defeat.

This fable-like quality perhaps also explains why almost no character in the story is beyond redemption – the people are all fundamentally good, even if sometimes lead astray by their wants. More importantly, their redemption is never solely the fruit of their own labour; the repercussions of their wrongs are experienced communally, and their way back is also paved by the efforts of those they live together in the village unit with.

Grief and wisdom

In writing a tale that many villages revere and celebrate festivals based on, Kire also successfully moves away from the modern lens as the only, or correct, way of understanding our world. Spirit Nights is a story confident in its voice, and is a successful example of what it means to not mould a narrative to meet its intended audience halfway.

To the average urban reader, for example, a story of spirits and miracles might seem outlandish, especially when Kire makes no mention throughout of the time that it is set in. (A section on the different accounts of the dark time is available at the end of the book, but until I got there, I read Spirit Nights as a novel.)

Despite this ambiguity of time and place, Kire does not attempt to sell to the reader the logic of a living ecosystem that routinely interacts with the supernatural. Instead, she invites the reader’s faith in a story that is as much about the familiar themes of grief and kinship as much as it is about extraordinary courage and spiritual wisdom, where the higher powers or belief systems might be different, but the fundamental truths – such as the power of a grandmother’s love – remain the same.

Spirit Nights is a story of how the moral balance of community life is made up of delicate elements, and how easily it can get disturbed by seemingly meaningless thoughts and actions. It succeeds in infusing life into a mythological tale of light and darkness, and should be read for its masterful humanising of the didactic.

Spirit Nights

Spirit Nights, Easterine Kire, Simon & Schuster India.