Literary Review

Folk tale from Nagaland

When the River Sleeps; Easterine Kire, Zubaan Books, Rs. 295  

A book often has the best effect when it condenses macroscopic themes or issues into simple and mundane microcosms. Take the Mahabharata, which basically boils down a cosmic moral — the malleability of right conduct — into a fratricidal battle where the heroes win but are taken to hell anyway for having resorted to dishonest means. Or the Harry Potter series, a cautionary tale for those who may prize power over love, driven home by an orphan’s victory over another — one an admired friend, the other a feared megalomaniac. Neither of these is a story told in a simple, innocent way. But Easterine Kire’s novelette When the River Sleeps is.



Mihir Balantrapu Mihir Balantrapu


Not that the book, published by Zubaan in 2014, is an epic. It is several pages too short for that. But it contains wisdom, in its truest and most unpretentious sense, that is germane to today’s world, even though it masquerades as a simple folk tale. Kire, who is the first Naga writer in English, has dipped her quill amply into the rich Naga folk traditions. She has a number of children’s books published in collaboration with Barkweaver. But this is no children’s book; there are some disturbing, even blood-curdling, scenes in it.

When you pick it up, you half-expect it to be a socio-political commentary on the exoticisation of the Naga people and their land. But When the River Sleeps is full of witchcraft, heart stones, seers and forest spirits. Kire’s narration sets as much store by the supernatural as do her characters, and the book makes far more effective use of the supernatural element than many books that peddle magic realism. This is a world where the boundaries between magic and reality fall away, make friends and agree to live as one.

On one level, you get the distinct sense that this book was Kire’s way of looking for an escape from inexorable urbanisation. And finding it in the natural expanses of the luxuriant Naga hills. Vilie, the protagonist of the story, is a reclusive hunter in his late 40s living in the wild as a guardian of the forest he is “wedded” to. Both through Vilie's thoughts and the tone and words of the narrator, we get a sense of how the organic tranquillity of nature has no worse threat than man. In and of itself, nature is pure, even in all its capricious mercilessness (if our courts administered justice as swiftly and surely as the spirits of Naga folklore, the Nagaland conflict may not even have existed).

On another level, the story projects Kire’s desire to change the perception of Nagaland as a strife-torn hotbed of violence. She succeeds in casting an innocent but firm spotlight on the beauty that the place really exudes, with its idyllic villages, stretches of mountains and forests, and its strong connection with the occult.

Vilie, quite an endearingly unambitious chap, is on a quest. A quest for a ‘heart-stone’. This stone gives the owner immense power and only those with the greatest mettle can pluck one out of a distant, sleeping river.

If you peel away this unassuming outer skin, you find that the story is ripe with allusions. Back in the village where humans reside, “Vilie had seen the plants stubbornly pushing their way out through the rocks and struggling to stay alive, looking skeletal and undernourished”; but in the woods near the sacred sleeping river, the “ferns effortlessly grew tall and lush, spreading themselves out”.

The fluid intermingling of superstition, rationality and compassion is a hallmark of the book, manifest in Vilie’s personality and perhaps, Kire seems to suggest, in the Naga people. Vilie can be at his pragmatic best when navigating the hilly terrain of the Naga forests; superstitious when warding off an attack from a were-tiger with invocations of ancestral spirits; and heart-warmingly compassionate when he baulks from maiming an assailant even when she is making off with his treasure.

Kire has an easy conversational style that manages to put across momentous concepts in a curiously underwhelming yet poignant manner. Take the very idea of catching a sleeping river and extracting an all-empowering stone from its depths. On the face of it, this sort of thing is the bread and butter of every children’s fable. But deconstruct it a bit: The river is the human mind (constantly restive and distracted by the objective world). When it sleeps (attains the meditative ‘zen’ state of equanimity) it becomes possible for a seeker to gain access to a heart-stone (profound knowledge from one’s core). As soon as the heart-stone is within grasp, the river puts up an almighty fight (that is possibly the person wrestling with the doubts and tectonics of the paradigm shift in awareness being churned by his newfound knowledge). If the seeker is able to withstand the onslaught and assert his supremacy over the river, he becomes the owner of the heart-stone. Comprehensive inner transformation completed.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 1:56:20 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/mihir-balantrapu-reviews-easterine-kires-novel-when-the-river-sleeps/article10129332.ece

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