In her new novel, A Respectable Woman, Easterine Kire brings alive post-war Kohima in a coming of age story of two generations of Angami women who make decisions against convention and tribal customs.
The book extends the work of Kire’s previous novels, Sky is My Father: A Naga Village Remembered (2003), on the clash between the British and Nagas in the 19th century, and Mari (2011), set during the Japanese invasion of Kohima during World War II and the post-war years. In A Respectable Woman, Kire divides the narrative into two broad sections – told through the stories of Khonuo, who was 10 years old when the Japanese invaded Kohima and her daughter Kevinuo, who is the book’s narrator.
At first, the reader is taken through the memories of Azuo, as Khonuo is known to her family, recounted to her daughter in fragments nearly 44 years after the war, piecing together the aftermath of the destruction and the rebuilding of homes and lives. When the book reaches the birth of its narrator, the focus shifts to Kevinuo and her journey from childhood to adulthood in a changed Nagaland, amid growing modernity and youthful aspirations. The deaths, marriages and relationships in the family are all set against the backdrop of key moments in Nagaland’s history, giving a three-dimensional perspective to their personal lives.
After the war, Kire writes about Azuo and her sister being less than keen to go back to their studies once the schools reopen, much to their parents’ dismay. For them and many girls of their age who did not rejoin schools, the missionaries came up with a plan: “Not only would they learn to bake, they would also learn to converse in English and pray a short prayer. It was called the ‘one-minute-prayer’ and was designed to help the girls to speak English”. This simple anecdote illustrates the map to modernisation that white missionaries charted for many tribal communities in the North East – through a convent “English medium” education. So deeply ingrained is this notion that even today only a convent upbringing and a position in the administration can earn you the title of a “respectable woman” (or man).
It also provides an important nuance in understanding the complex relationship between British administrators and many of the Naga tribes. After Independence, the missionaries were ordered to leave by the Indian government in retaliation for protests over the forceful annexation of Naga areas. Of the last missionary family to leave India, Kire writes, “Reverend Supplee was a musician who had written songs on Kohima which were sung by different generations of Nagas in later years. Ruth Supplee, the missionary’s wife, was frequently sick and would spend days confined to her bed. Many people were sad to see them go.”
She evokes a similar sense of abandonment felt by many Nagas upon the final departure of the administrators: “The village people were saying, ‘Our parents are leaving us’. It was said with sadness and a sense of helplessness”
A world apart
When Kevinuo’s maternal uncle, Amo joins the British army at the age of 17, it is despite the clear reluctance of his parents about their only son fighting someone else’s war. Yet, enlisting to go fight the Japanese in Burma was seen as a noble act of valour that women wrote paeans about: “The songs are about young men who would not give up their love of the soldier’s life, undeterred by parental threats and unmoved by the soft words of their women friends”
When the same uncle wants to join the Naga Underground after the departure of the British, he is strictly forbidden by Kevinuo’s Atsa (grandmother) on account of his war injuries. However, Kire’s description of a rapidly darkening atmosphere in Kohima reveals the reason to hold her son back is the atrocities of the Indian Army. Curfews, civilian shootings, starvation, village groupings, particularly the harassment of the Naga Undergrounds’ family members offer enough reason, their love for the land and its people notwithstanding.
Kire also demonstrates with great insight how lives go on – from weddings to funerals – even in the middle of crisis. It is a testimony to human resilience, and at other times, resignation in the absence of better alternatives, to appreciate the little things that has been the story of several pockets of the North East at various points in history.
This cocooned world is well illustrated when a young Kevinuo has to be urged to finish the food on her plate with a reminder that there are children in India who don’t get any food. But “India is very far from us and that there were many children who needed food, not just one or two,” her Apuotsa (grandfather) says. For mainland Indians, only used to getting such pity from the West, this might seem strange, even offensive, coming from a backward town in the North East, ravaged by militancy. But self-sufficiency and a tight knit community are the hallmarks of a tribal society, where the average child doesn’t go hungry.
In the second half of the book, Kevinuo draws us closer to issues that are a routine part of present day reality. The early days of alcoholism, as depicted in the book, were of a far more benign nature – the designated neighbourhood drunk drowning his sorrows in the local rice brew. Kire masterfully writes about how the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act, 1989 came into place, weaving in the challenges that alcohol-related violence places on Kevinuo’s oldest friendship and an eventual life changing decision.
While this part of the book may seem similar, or at least familiar, to those who have read Kire’s A Terrible Matriarchy, the distinction lies in the voice and vantage point of the narrator – a single woman in her twenties in Nagaland during the eighties.
In the last few chapters, Kevinuo (along with her family) is seen challenging age-old customs, holding men solely responsible for domestic violence, acknowledging the failure of the Church and witnessing the rise of vigilantism. We also see her fulfil her role as a provider, daughter and elder sister out of a sense of duty and love, in equal measures. But it’s the presence of strong female figures in Kevinuo’s life, like her aunt, Azuo Zeu, who influence her to think independently.
After refusing two meaty marriage offers, especially aghast at how her best friend changed almost overnight after her nuptials, Kevinuo jokes with her mother, “Only a rich, old widower would come asking for my hand now”. Azuo, then, says something remarkable: “Well, we never know. He might be worth waiting for.”
With A Respectable Woman, one more chink has been made in English literature from the North East. Particularly all that I have read to understand insurgency movements by indigenous groups has been written mostly by male journalists and authors. Kire, with her rich body of work carrying into her latest novel, helps fill the vast lacunae of indigenous feminist writing on my, and any, bookshelf.
A Respectable Woman, Easterine Kire, Zubaan.