Book review

Easterine Kire’s new novel is about magic. No, about the supernatural. No, about something else

A deceptively simple fable leads readers through complex possibilities.

“‘You know so many things Azuo,’ Atuonuo said. ‘I wish I knew half the things you do.’

‘Well, I only know the things that the village has taught me from childhood, and I try to pass them on to you. Do you know that some people are called thehou nuo?’

‘What does that mean?’

‘Since the thehou is the communal house where men spend their nights, thehou nuo means child of the thehou. The boys who have been brought up in that tradition learn things about our culture. They use it to guide them through life, and when people see them behaving in a certain way, people refer to them as thehou nuo. A girl can also earn such a title when people see that she knows the ways of the village.’

‘Then I hope I will become one too. Will it stop me being scared of spirits and dark places?’ They both laughed.

‘The thehou cannot help you to stop fearing the unknown. But it can teach you to be brave. After every victory in battle we celebrate the courage of the warriors of our village. That doesn’t mean they fear nothing. They are humans too, and naturally they have their fears. But the thehou teaches them to set their fears aside when they go into battle. Their enemies are also equipped in the same way. That is why we call the victors the bravest of the brave. They are the ones who have learned to ignore their fears completely.’

‘Well if that is the case, I’ll never make a good warrior,’ Atuonuo stated. ‘I can’t help feeling scared of being out in the forest after dark like we were this evening. I don’t like it when we have to sleep in the field hut, but at least when we do, it helps that we always have a fire burning.’

‘I understand. Things are strange in the darkness. It is as though the dark becomes a world of its own. The animals of the forest come out on seeing that people are no longer around, and they can be quite menacing.’”

When I began reading Easterine Kire’s new novel, Don’t Run, My Love, after reading her last two novels, When The River Sleeps and Son Of The Thundercloud, I felt as if I were reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice after reading, perhaps, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There is a specific reason for this. In both the earlier novels, the lead characters are men. The journeys and adventures, an integral part of the magical world of the indigenous people of Nagaland in Kire’s novels, are undertaken by men.

For instance, Vilie in When The River Sleeps and Pelevotso in Son Of The Thundercloud are men who have set out on journeys, who have objects to seek and destinies to achieve. Rhalietuo, the titular son of the thundercloud, is a man. In both these novels, women, though important to the plot, seem somewhat secondary to the male characters to whom we are introduced first, and whose stories are the primary ones.

Don’t Run, My Love is somewhat different. The novel features a mother-daughter duo: Visenuo and her daughter, Atuonuo. Visenuo is a young widow who can remarry though she has not, and does not wish to. Visenuo’s only child, Atuonuo, is of an age considered suitable for marriageable. In fact, Atuonuo may actually have grown beyond that age, as many of her friends are already married and have had children.

“At eighteen, Atuonuo was almost as strong as her mother. She had reached the age of marriage. In fact, her grand-aunt thought she was in danger of being passed over, because girls younger than her were already married and had borne children. But Atuonuo would not entertain the thought of marrying yet.”

Just a love story that defies social norms?

The novel opens with a mother and daughter working in their field, harvesting paddy, “struggling with a particular heavy load of newly threshed paddy”. At this time, they meet a young man named Kevi, who is so good-looking that “[a]nyone who set eyes on him, man or woman, young or old, had to admit that he was a beautiful creature indeed”.

Naturally, Kevi falls in love with Atuonuo. He helps the two women carry their harvest home, leaves pieces of fleshy meat for them to eat, and, generally, is very kind to the two women.

This brings in the questions of propriety and reputation. In the society – a patriarchal one, certainly – Visenuo and Atuonuo live in, it is not considered proper for a young widow or a young, unmarried girl to mix so freely with a young man. Though a young woman in the community can refuse to be married – “A couple of young men had proposed, but [Atuonuo] had refused both of them. That was the custom amongst her people: young men proposed to girl after girl and married the one who said yes. So a girl had the right to refuse if she didn’t like a suitor” – a young, unmarried woman consorting with a young man raised several eyebrows.

“By the time [Visenuo, Atuonuo, and Kevi] finally arrived in Kija (the village where Visenuo and Atuonuo lived), it was evening. The mothers suckling their babies, and the old men with their horns of brew were watching as they entered the gate. Exchanging perfunctory greetings, Visenuo led the way to their house. A low murmur rippled through the crowd gathered at the dahou. Who was the stranger? Was he a relative of Visenuo’s? He didn’t look like one of their young men. Everyone was curious about the stranger helping the widow bring back her harvest, but no one had the answer to the question uppermost in their minds: Was this a suitor for Atuonuo?”

This alerts the relatives. “Two of Visenuo’s paternal [aunts] made it their business to visit [Visenuo and Atuonuo] and get acquainted with the stranger.” They tell Visenuo that they just “[want] to make sure that [Visenuo’s] reputation is safe” as “[a] man visiting a widow is a matter of great interest for the villagers, especially when [she has] an eligible daughter in the house” so the widow should “heed the rules of the community or risk being talked about by the members of the society”.

So far, the novel may seem like a commentary on social mores and the position of women in a community, one reason why I felt it was like an Austen novel. However, after Kevi and Atuonuo profess their love for one another and seem all set to marry – which I really wanted, as Kevi is a beautiful character – a sinister aspect of Kevi’s personality is discovered by Atuonuo and Visenuo. This forces the two women to escape Kevi, who obsessively pursues Atuonuo. And here the novel comes out of the Austen mould and presents a commentary on another aspect of a society – any society, in fact.

The twist in the plot changes the narrative

Don’t Run, My Love takes the form of a parable of our times and stresses on the concept of consent, using the story of a young woman (Atuonuo) refusing a man (Kevi) who, apparently, loves her and is madly pursuing her, and the ways in which that young woman and her mother fight his advances – advances that later turn into an attack.

Kire’s prose is simple and straightforward, which is the charm of her writing. There is a mention of a supernatural wood apple tree that the mother-daughter duo finds on its way to a place known as the Village of Seers. Kire’s description of this tree created a vivid image in my mind.

I was discussing Kire’s books with an author friend, who observed that Kire brings up important themes in a subtle way. She pointed out that When The River Sleeps, about a middle-aged man’s search for an elusive heart-stone in a river, could very well be the story of everyman’s midlife crisis. Don’t Run, My Love, too dresses an important behavioural and social issue in the garb of a story about magic and supernatural entities.

Don’t Run, My Love, Easterine Kire, Speaking Tiger.

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