Oral tradition is a part and parcel of the lives of Naga tribes, passing down knowledge, history, custom and culture, origin stories, and a belief system. In a society with no script, oral narration serves as a tool to keep alive collective memory and its sustenance. The opening up of this society, mostly without its consent and not by its choice, disrupted the flow and passage of oral narration, as unknown experiences, horrors and changes crept in. Amidst the search for peace and justice, memory plays a powerful tool in situating and reclaiming the past in the hierarchical world shaped by power dynamics.
Veio Pou’s novel Waiting for the Dust to Settle is a noble attempt at drawing on the experience of Operation Bluebird, militarisation, ethnic tension and racism to inform the readers of the brutal past and the consistent treatment of Naga tribes as unequal beings. A theme drawing heavily on real life experiences of indigenous tribal communities is not seeking validation and acceptance – it is speaking to conscience and humanity to draw attention to unfulfilled justice, accounts of horror and trauma, and recurring treatment as unequal beings. This is at the heart of this book, which works as catharsis.
Of Operation Bluebird
The reconstruction of the past with memory and experience is a facet of oral tradition, an extension of which is counted as fiction to an extent. It is here that the storytelling of indigenous communities subtly transcends the boundary between fiction and non-fiction. This is not to suggest that indigenous narratives must form a basis for a fresh look at what fiction is – rather, it is to convey the idea that the life and world of indigenous tribes speak for themselves. And although Pou’s novel makes the claim of being fiction, it does not conspicuously isolate oral tradition and the power of memory.
The book follows the life of Rakovei, starting from his school days in the town of Senapati, to Delhi. His journey is punctuated with events that played out in Manipur. The shadow of colonialism and Christianity is spelt out in the backdrop of the story by referring to changes, cultural orientation, and oral traditions.
The highlight of the book, of course, is Operation Bluebird, which was carried out in about thirty villages in and around Oinam Hill village in the Senapati district of Manipur in response to an attack on an Assam Rifles post by Naga rebels, leading to casualties and confiscation of arms. People of these villages bore the brunt of this mission, with several counts of human rights abuse, molestation, and various forms of torture, as reported by the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights and Amnesty International.
The horror of these ordeals affected generations of affected villagers with mental stress, PTSD, and other psychological disturbance. Justice for the victims of Operation Bluebird is yet to be delivered.
Search for justice
Operation Bluebird plays out in the book when Rakovei spends his summer vacation at his grandmother’s house in Phyamaichi village. The unfolding of the events as recorded here can be disturbing for generations in Oinam and adjoining villages, as they are written vividly by bringing alive accounts of horror and suffering.
Rakovei, who, like any other youngster of his generation in Manipur grows up watching army convoys and patrolling, is fascinated by the sight. A plastic gun finds takers among children as a toy, but this fascination is shortlived after Rakovei witnesses Operation Bluebird. The tumultuous period of Naga nationalism and NSCN also plays out in the backdrop of the story.
As Rakovei grows up and moves to Imphal for further studies, the Kuki-Naga conflict of the 1990s breaks out, with both sides suffering in varying degrees. The ethnic conflict disturbs and distresses him, and he senses the air of animosity around him. Years later, when he moves to the University of Delhi for higher studies, he makes friends with a Kuki, named Lalboi – which goes against the current of the hostile relationship between Kukis and Nagas in Manipur.
In Delhi, their everyday life is marred by racism, a reminder that their struggle for dignity and a decent life is far from over even after leaving their homes. This also serves as a reflection that racism pursues them everywhere, not only in Delhi but also in Manipur, for instance through the existence of AFSPA.
The question of Naga nationalism is brought forth prominently. Rakovei often ponders on it and on its influence on his life. His discussion with another character, Joyson, on the subject is an extension of present controversy over a political solution for Nagas. The brief reference to the Naga-Meitei equation in the book is important too.
Waiting for the Dust to Settle is an assemblage of events and experiences from the lands of the Naga tribes covering over a century. It highlights the transformation of Naga tribes while waiting for their fundamental problems to solved.
The book may be formally categorised as fiction, but it is in fact an attempt to intervene and engage with readers of fiction through stories drawn from reality and not the imagination. The message is clear: the Naga tribes are still carrying the weight of colonialism and racism, which has reduced their existence to unequal beings. The fate of the search for justice for Operation Bluebird is a grim reminder of unfair treatment and its echoes in the Nagas’ interface with the outside world.
Waiting for the Dust to Settle, Veio Pou, Speaking Tiger.