There is a scene in the middle of Easterine Kire’s rather quiet, stark and poetic novel When the River Sleeps, when the novel’s wandering protagonist Vilie meets the sisters Zote and Ate. They are the Kirhupfumia, women believed to have poisonous powers, and hence, greatly feared. They were banished from their ancestral village, and now Zote wants vengeance.
What follows next is a powerful sequence of events, which would rival any fantasy fiction worth its name. Zote steals Vilie’s heart-stone and then drags a trunk in the middle of the night to her ancestral village. There, as morning breaks, she unleashes her wrath, with pestilence and fire.
This is high-fantasy stuff, something out of an Ursula Le Guin novel. Any other writer would spend pages after pages describing the scenes, because of the dramatic potential, but not Kire. She describes them in a few descriptive pages and moves on.
You are surprised. You have read nothing like this in Indian English fiction, let alone in fiction coming from the Northeast. As if Kire wanted to write an anti-Northeast novel. Look at her prose; it’s reticent to the point of being laconic. She says as much as it is essential to the story she wants to narrate. Contrast her with other writers from the Northeast who have gained mainstream recognition – Anjum Hasan and Janice Pariat, for example. Both have mastered, as a friend once explained to me, the art of purple prose. Pick up a review of Lunatic in my Head, or Seahorse, the first thing you would notice how the reviewer is complementing on the ‘lyrical prose’, as if it were a conscious decision on the part of these authors to write poetically, to hide the complexities of their narrations, to reach out to a mainstream audience.
Then When the River Sleeps wins the 2015 Hindu Literary Prize and you are genuinely surprised. You are elated, of course and feel vindicated. It’s a great book, and it’s a first mainstream non-governmental award for a Northeast novel (Okay, second if you include a short story collection. Pariat’s Boats on Land won the Crossword Book Award in 2013. That book is a different story. It received a Vintage hardcover treatment and was projected as literary fiction, with Northeast pushed to the background.) Celebrations done, you begin to question the implications of the award. Would this award change how the mainstream publishing community, mostly based in Delhi, looks at writings coming from the Northeast?
This is an important question, and it has so many different threads that it is almost impossible to unravel. First, some writers would reject the label ‘Northeast’ outright (It’s a geo-political term after all; the word cannot begin to define the diversity of this political land mass.). Second, there would be arguments on linguistic identities and the quality of English as a language, which rejects the narrow confines of ethnic identity. For example, when we discuss Pariat’s Seahorse or Hasan’s The Cosmopolitans, we don’t need to bring Northeast to the equation. In fact, those writers being from Northeast have nothing to do with their output. Or, is there?
Let’s tackle this issue. Barring Assamese (and Bengali in Tripura and certain other pockets), for all indigenous communities, English is the ‘writing language’. Thus, this English is not the same English an author from the mainland uses. Most mainland Indian communities have their own languages and literature traditions. An author belonging to these communities has a tradition to fall back on, whether or not the author wants to identify with it (Refer to TS Eliot’s ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’). For most Northeast authors it is a direct leap from the oral tradition to English. It is an important distinction, which must be remembered and celebrated; especially so today when the power that be is trying to project the picture of a homogenised, Sanskritised India. (There are more complexities. Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi is a writer from Arunachal Pradesh who writes in Assamese. The Bodo community has its own literature, but it uses the Roman script. The same way, a large chunk of Manipuri writing uses Bengali alphabets.)
This is why When the River Sleeps is so important. Kire’s English and her narrative choices hark back to the oral tradition, thus rejecting the western model of the Great Indian Novel, which hinges on the use of language (look at the back cover of any Amit Chaudhuri book, the first thing you’d notice someone commenting on his sparkling prose), and sprawling themes (Amitav Ghosh’s three-part Ibis Trilogy). This is why we must celebrate the victory of this quiet, almost non-novel over Ghosh and Chaudhuri. The other books in contention for the award were Pariat’s Seahorse, Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, and Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style.
When the River Sleeps tells the story of Vilie, an Angami man in Nagaland, who is obsessed with the sleeping river and the magical stone it contains beneath its waters. Vilie sets out on an epic journey in the quest for the stone, encountering men and spirits, in an unforgiving landscape where every day is a survival. Unlike the western quest stories, where the hero must prove his worth to acquire the Holy Grail, here Vilie acquires his prize and now must prove himself worthy to keep it. How he achieves it is a lesson for all of us.
Kire’s goal here is not to narrate an adventure story, but to chart out a man’s journey from ignorance to experience. There are references to Gods and spirits, but they are the local Gods of the Naga people, especially of the tribe the protagonist belongs to – Angami. Yet, these references are inconsequential. What matters instead is the inexplicable natural world that hovers at the edge of human existence, where wisdom extracts its cost.
The goal of a great novel is to uplift itself from its immediate reality and become universal. It’s an enormous task and you cannot achieve it by ignoring the immediate reality. Take, for example, the eternal favourite, One Hundred Years of Solitude. We are enamoured with Macondo because Gabriel Garcia Marquez places it within a definite space and time. Another great example is JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Kire does something similar with her forest. The novel is set in Nagaland. Yet, it is not the Nagaland we know from the headlines, or from the pictures of the Hornbill Festival. Her Nagaland is primeval, distinctly local, and universal at the same time. Some readers may complain that she missed a great opportunity to explain the reality of the state to her readers. She has done it in her other novels. Here too, she doesn’t ignore the immediate reality, only it’s not her focus. The only subplot of the novel involves the killing of a migrant Nepali family.
Kire tells the story like a fable, only the essential, without embellishments, very much like the existence of the novel’s mythical hero. This explains why Kire resists the urge to exploit the sequence mentioned above. There are many fantastic elements – weretiger, river sprits who roam as beautiful women to ensnare men, magic, a stone that can bestow unimaginable powers – but Kire relates these incidents in a matter of fact tone. Critics would call it magic realism, but this is more akin to a grandmother’s story, where she conjures up the fantastic without explanation and we implicitly trust the telling.
Would this magnificent achievement, and the award change how publishers look at English writing coming from the Northeast? The easy answer is no. The difficult answer is to find an explanation why.