Stories of strife

A.J. Philip

These Hills Called Home: Stories From A War Zone
by Temsula Ao Zubaan/
Penguin Pages 147. Rs 195.

These Hills Called Home: Stories From A War ZoneEIGHT years of ceasefire has made Nagaland a haven of peace in the Northeast. But this cannot obliterate memories of the harrowing times the state went through for much of the post-Independence period. While the rest of India celebrated Independence, the Nagas sought their own independence.

What ensued were decades of strife, guerrilla warfare, plundering and killing. A whole community of people stood exposed to the bayonets of violence. In the process, many were dispossessed of their land and belongings, countless young men were killed and women ravished. It is a tragedy that can never be forgotten by those who went through the agony.

This anthology of short stories "from a war zone" is eloquent proof that the violent phase in Naga life will remain etched in their collective memory. In ‘An Old Man Remembers,’ Sashi who remained reticent all his life about his days in the jungle when he fought against the Indian Army, breaks down when he is prodded by his grandson Moalemba to tell his story.

Sashi and his friend Imli had not lost their innocence when they chanced upon a damsel who walked stark naked in the middle of a line of women in the forest. "Her breasts bounced with every step and he could see a darkness around the pubic region". Such was the awe and shock the sight caused that they decided not to mention it even among themselves.

Their childhood ended abruptly just when they were preparing to play with catapults and pellets during the Christmas vacation. Their village became the target of an Army operation that drove Sashi and Imli to the forests. At the end of a long tenure as a "freedom fighter," Sashi is left with a painful, festering wound on his leg. It is circumstance, not a sense of brigandry, that forced them to take up arms against the state.

The narrative skills of Temsula Ao may not be all that considerable but her stories have that gripping quality that forces the reader to read them in one go. The stories mostly revolve around women who, in any case, have to bear the brunt of violence, whether at the hands of the insurgents or the security forces. ‘The Jungle Major’ is the story of a young, beautiful wife Punaba who exploits the physical "ugliness" of her husband to outwit the army and save him from its clutches.

‘Soaba’ is the story of a bumpkin who falls a victim to the megalomania of a local ‘boss’ who is drunk on power and who brings nubile girls home to spread word about his virility when he is actually impotent. The most poignant of all is the story of petite Apenyo, the lead singer in the church choir, who falls into the hands of an army officer when the church is raided. Neither rape nor death could take the song away from her lips.

Apenyo has already become a legend. Her story is the stuff that grandparents narrate to their grandchildren. ‘The Curfew Man’ is about Satemba, who is forced to spy for the state but is not yet ready to betray the cause. In ‘The Night’ when Imnala, the unwed mother, squares up to the village council where she is accused of stealing the love of a married man, she knows she has to fight her own battle. She no longer has to bear the stigma of mothering a "fatherless" child.

‘The Pot Maker’ is the story of Sentila, who wants to be a pot maker like her mother, who is dead against the idea. She would rather have Sentila learn weaving. In the end, Sentila’s perseverance pays and she becomes as accomplished a pot maker as her mother was. For all their self-sacrifice, the insurgents have such cruel men like Hoito who will do the worst to his cadres to satisfy his elephantine ego as in the story ‘Shadows’.

‘The Journey’ is about an adolescent girl who is insultingly told that her boyfriend, an entity she did not even understand, had ditched her. Insurgency has opened up new opportunities but they come with a price as pumpkin-grower Merenla realises in ‘The New Chapter’.

For anybody who wants to understand a bit about Naga life, away from the headlines in the Press, Temsula Ao’s collection is an ideal destination. Proof mistakes are the least a reader expects when the book has the imprint of two major publishing houses –Zubaan and Penguin.