The protagonist of The Man Who Lost His Spirit, one of ten hauntingly brief stories in Easterine Kire’s spare, exquisite new collection The Rain-Maiden and the Bear-Man (Seagull Books), blunders in leaving his spirit behind in a tall tree in the forest. His companions attempt retrieval, but he was not the same and “began to change in subtle ways” so that his wife “grew cold with fear. Who was this stranger who had usurped her husband’s body?”
The victim – he is named Pesuohie – realised that there was only one solution, and headed right back to the tree, leaving his family sobbing and bewildered. But now he was armed with ancient wisdom from the village seer, so “this time he would not be defenceless, or without knowledge”. Biding his time in the way he had been advised, he kidnapped his own true spirit, then cajoled and threatened it back towards the safety of home.
“People watched from behind their doors, awed by the strange ritual,” Kire writes. “A man who had left his spirit behind in the forest would be helped by his clansmen to get his own spirit back. But who had ever heard of a man trying to bring his own spirit back?”
It is an apt query, with implications far beyond this one narrative, because so much of this author’s remarkable oeuvre keeps pivoting to the themes of existential retrieval and purposeful restitution. In fact, all through the last two decades, in an extraordinary fury of poems, short stories, histories, novels, and a separate profusion of words and music she calls jazzpoetry, this quietly irrepressible one-woman cultural renaissance has pioneered, nurtured, led and exemplified the modern literary culture of Nagaland, while also establishing herself in the front line of contemporary indigenous literature.
Just like Pesuohie’s exploit, we have never seen anything like it before.
“Every story has the right to be heard.— From 'Barcelona Dreamtime' (2007)
Some stories are more desperate than others
because they are trying to shout
‘What we have is not what we want.’
Imagine the predicament of a people
who are trying to say
what they have is not what they want
and as they struggle to tell their story.”
Dr Easterine Kire was born in 1959 in Kohima, went to college in Shillong, and earned her PhD in English literature from Savitribai Phule Pune University (then University of Poona) in 2002.
In 1982, she published Kelhoukevira, the very first book of poems in English by a writer from Nagaland. The 2003 A Naga Village Remembered (republished in 2018 as Sky is My Father) was another landmark: the first novel from Nagaland.
In 2013, her Bitter Wormwood was shortlisted for the Hindu Prize, which she won two years later for When the River Sleeps. Yet another recent novel, Son of the Thundercloud won both the Bal Sahitya Puraskar of the Sahitya Academy and the 2017 Tata Literature Live Book of the Year award.
This litany of celebrated books still manages to leave out two of my own favourites. The unforgettable 2010 Mari fictionalises the World War II experiences of Kire’s aunt Khrielieviü Mari O’Leary, in the agonising years during which blood-churned Kohima staged arguably the most pivotal battle in military history, as the Allies fended off an inexorable Japanese advance.
In another vein altogether, Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland (2019) is an entrancingly discursive cultural, social and political history of the peoples within the borders of what is now the Indian state of Nagaland.
These kind of fine distinctions – “peoples within the borders” – are necessitated by the exceedingly complicated, contested history of what are now known as the Naga Hills, rising in stunningly beautiful arrays from the Brahmaputra Valley all the way to the border with Myanmar.
While constantly skirmishing with the Meiteis of Manipur, as well as the Burmese, the inhabitants of these ruggedly inaccessible territories remained effectively independent in their hilltop village redoubts right until the end of the 19th century, when the British Raj’s ruthless military rampage crushed all remaining resistance to incorporate them into its Assam administration.
“To this day it remains unclear where the different Naga groups came from and in what way they are related to each other,” Kire reminds us in Walking the Roadless Road. “All we do know is that the Nagas come from the same stock of people as the Kachins, and those who have made their homes on the Indian side of the divide came to be called Naga while those on the Burmese side were known as Kachins [but] the name ‘Naga’ was not a name by which the Naga people described themselves.”
Colonialism changed everything. The crucial game-changer occurred in France, when 2,000 men from across the Naga Hills served in the World War I labour corps. In those years, far away from home, an unprecedented national consciousness was born from the hillmen’s recognition of fundamental differences between them and other British Indian troops. When they returned, the veterans established the pan-tribal Naga Club in Kohima and Mokokchung in 1918, to formally work towards unity.
Within a scant decade, it’s evident that modern Naga identity had already assumed something like its current, highly potent formulation. By 1929, when the Raj appointed the Simon Commission to advocate reforms (the move was supported by Ambedkar and Periyar, but vehemently opposed by Congress and the Muslim League) and included all of Assam in its ambit, the Naga Club was ready to issue its famously stirring repudiation that became the foundational document of Naga nationalism.
“We never asked any reforms and we do not wish for any reforms. Before the British Govt. conquered our country in 1879-1880, we were living in a state of intermittent warfare with the Assamese of the Assam valley to the North and West of our country and Manipuries in the South. They never conquered us, nor were we ever subjected to their rule.
On the under other hand, we were always a terror to these people…Our language is quite different from those of the plains and we have no social affinities with Hindus or Muslims. We are looked down upon by one of our ‘Beef’ and the other for our ‘Pork’ and both for our want in education which is not due to any fault of ours…If the British Government however, wants to throw us away, we pray that we should not be thrust to the mercy of the people who could never subjugate us, but to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in the ancient times…”
Ever since that epiphanic thunderclap of a memorandum, writes Shonreiphy Longvah in her contribution to the invaluable Nagas in the 21st Century edited by Jelle JP Wouters and Michael Heneise, “there has been no turning back in Nagas’ asserting their aspiration for independence, though the bearer of the torch has over time changed from one political organisation to the other”.
The wholescale adoption of evangelical Christianity in Nagaland – it is by far the most Baptist state in the world, and over 98% of Nagas describe themselves as Christians – has accelerated the feelings of difference. Longvah says conversion “opened vistas to modernity through modern education and through which ideas of the modern nation-state came to be more firmly established in the minds of the educated Nagas. It helped them realise that historically, culturally, politically, socially, and religiously the Nagas were different from the rest of the Indian population.”
“we laughed before we knew war— From 'Barcelona Dreamtime' (2007)
we told happy stories before we began to be killed
we would give anything to tell happy stories again
to be able to stand up and say,
we once had war and bloodletting
but now we have peace in our land
now we are making new stories
stories that sing with happiness”
In 2005, Easterine Kire accepted an invitation to the mountain-girdled city of Tromsø above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway. Via email from the home she has maintained there ever since, she told me, “Norway gave me the gift of objectivity by providing geographical distance from the political realities of home. The ability to view things and circumstances from a distance helped me understand many things better, and I like to believe I became less quagmired in my former reality.”
In Tromsø, Kire said, she saw the dedicated manner in which the Norwegians had chronicled their history via their literature and academic writings. “It inspired me to work in a similar manner on Naga literature, chronicling unwritten history of the period after the British left our hills,” she said. “Even before coming to Norway, I had always felt it important to write a Naga-centric literature, because we had been written about for a long time by outsiders, but never had much opportunity to write ourselves. I guess you could say I applied myself to that task.”
That’s rather collosal understatement, because what Kire has produced in the intervening decade-and-a-half boggles the mind: at least 20 books in genres ranging from poetry to children’s stories and several music albums. The Man Who Lost His Spirit is only her first release of 2021. The sequel to When the River Sleeps is also on the verge of coming out, along with another new novel entitled Spirit Nights (it has a UK publisher) and yet another project – this time a multi-disciplinary collaboration – called SONGRY.
“The thing is I get bored doing just one thing for days on end,” said Kire, “If I am writing non-fiction, I so need a break every once in a while. I need to sit by the harbour and write poetry so my brain doesn’t get cross-wired from all the dates and things. So, I alternate between poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction and memoir writing.” However, “fiction will always be my first love, I think.”
Kire’s writings on Europe have never crossed my desk – one book of children’s stories, Løven i kjøleskapet (The lion in the refrigerator) was actually written in Norwegian. But everything else I have encountered in several years of increasingly ardent reading has been enlivened by intense social-historical-cultural atmospherics that are best described as “Naganess”.
Sometimes they have left me on edge. One uncanny experience came when re-reading my battered copy of A Naga Village Remembered above the manicured terrace fields of Khonoma, where the story is set. I literally felt the landscape come alive with Kire’s characters, and then dreamed about them all night afterwards.
In his contribution to Nagas in the 21st Century, the American anthropologist Michael Heneise (who is coincidentally also currently based in Norway, with his Naga wife and their sons) writes perceptively about “dream-mediated knowledge” that “shows important continuities into the present of pre-Christian knowledge”.
He makes the case that from what was effectively the Stone Age, right into the hyperconnected 21st century global village, the Nagas have undergone one of the most dramatic transformations in world history in just over 100 years. But some things haven’t changed very much at all.
That is also one of the most important conclusions to be derived from Kire’s writings, particularly stories like those in The Man Who Lost His Spirit. They outline how the Nagas navigate fearlessly between ostensibly contradictory worlds: tribal traditions and contemporary rationalism, patriarchal customs and female emancipation, age-old animism and televangelical Christianity.
“I have had enough of spirit encounters to not harbour doubts about the other world,” Kire said. “That is a reality many Nagas embrace in quite a natural way.”
She added: “For me, Christianity did not remove the spirit world and spirit beliefs of my people. It only affirmed the reality of that world. Of course, we do uphold the legacy of the American missionaries. But the Naga heart knows little conflict where simultaneously practising one’s culture and being a Christian is concerned.”
In River and Earth, an intriguing contemporary story in The Man Who Lost His Spirit, Kire goes one step further to draw an explicit connection between Igbo cultural beliefs (they are a West African ethnic group) and those of the Tenyimiya peoples of Nagaland (which includes her own Angami tribe). Back in 2000, she had published a study linking the two, and ever since then an unfettered indigeneity has animated much of her fiction.
“It is what I am, and so it comes out effortlessly,” said Kire, when I asked about this transcultural assertiveness “I don’t think I need to make a conscious effort to address indigeneity. But bonding with other indigenous peoples is the most wonderful experience. This is the blessing of being ‘indi’. If you just write what is in your heart, dil se direct, its genuineness and authenticity finds a home in other indigenous hearts. I feel deep kinship with the First Peoples of Canada, with the indigenous Australians, the Sami people of Northern Norway and many African nationalities.”
In 2007, Kire was invited to the PEN Catalá conference on freedom of expression in the Catalonian capital of Barcelona, for which she wrote an epic poem that manages to voice the essence of Naga sentiments, as well as all the other indigenous, occupied, suppressed and unfairly silenced peoples of the world.
Some sections are excerpted above, but here’s Barcelona Dreamtime’s lovely conclusion.
“I believe that stories are powerful
they have the power to transform lives
the magic to work peace
and then, it is so important that they be told
in any way, even in ways that we have not thought of before
as pictures, as gestures, as dance, as song
in any way they can be told
reinvented, breathing life in new forms
so that they can touch lives and
work their transforming magic.
That is something we can do.
Help us speak then in new voices,
telling our stories as freedom rainbows,
reincarnating ourselves into
brave new selves in a tired world.
To tired ears, new sounds
stories with the power, not of the powerful,
but the strength of the weak, the unheard, the unseen.
A morning conch,
clear bright sound over a sleeping world.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.