It is difficult to miss Kohima War Cemetery if you are in the Nagaland capital. It is harder to believe the terraced resting place of 1,420 soldiers was a tennis court that was ploughed by bullets and mortars in South Asia’s only theatre of World War 2.
In that war of 1944, the Nagas assisted Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and the Japanese. They had a reason to: in the INA-Japanese force they saw hope in driving out the British and establish self-rule. The British won that war and left India three years later but the Nagas continued to fight another set of ‘colonists’ for sovereignty of their ancestral land. Somewhere down the line, they began fighting each other ironically in a throwback to a headhunting but ‘more honourable’ era.
There are more than 50 tribes in the ‘Naga domain’ spanning present-day Nagaland and parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Myanmar. Some 20 of them in Nagaland and Manipur bore the brunt of a five-decade insurrection until the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) – it was sired by fratricide and factionalism in the Underground – inked a ceasefire pact in July 1997. Peace with the Indian armed forces, however, hasn’t spared Nagaland the cycle of violence in these 15 years.
Pithily, Kohima is the backdrop of Easterine Kire’s ‘Bitter Wormwood’. It traces the life of Moselie from his birth 1937 – two years after Simon Commission accorded special status for the Naga areas – to being shot by thugs 70 years later. Moselie’s childhood, family, routines and rituals of traditional village life is suggestive of simplistic but peaceful existence. The fast-changing world beyond invades this serenity through a radio his mother buys for him. As the villagers learn new words such as partition and independence, Moselie and his friends are sucked into the Naga struggle for independence that gradually unfolds into a maelstrom of violence ripping the Naga society apart.
The props Kire uses point to Moselie belonging to the Angami tribe. But his could have been the story of any Naga caught in a seemingly never-ending conflict situation, born to be a warrior and take the challenges in life head on. None underscores this Naga trait better than his grandmother who comforts his mother after the death of his father: “If life is hard to you, you simply harden yourself so its griefs are easier to bear.”
Moselie bears the hardships that befall his family and the Nagas in general, but he is troubled by the degeneration in the society after he retires honourably from the Naga National Council. He is also hurt by the violent divisions within the Naga society caused by political machinations. And he wishes the herb – bitter wormwood – that his people traditionally believed kept evil spirits away if tucked behind the ears, would help keep the evil of violence away from the Nagas.
‘Bitter Wormwood’ sticks to the good old-fashioned simple narrative, more of a faction than fiction. In patches, it reads like newspaper clippings put into the mouths of the characters. But it balances the despair with hope, tries to bridge the psychological distance between the world of the Nagas and ‘India’, compares the impact the conflict has had on Naga rebels and Indian soldiers, and the birth of newer battles such as racism against non-Nagas in Nagaland and victimisation of Nagas outside their domain. But it ends on an optimistic note thanks to the changing mindset of a few that includes Moselie’s grandson and his Haryana-based friend.
(This review of Easterine Kire’s book Bitter Wormwood published by Zubaan appeared in Hindustan Times on 5 May 2012)