While the act of historicisation is often limited to glorifying nationalist aspirations and movements, Temsula Ao in These Hills Called Home attempts to trace a feminist history of the Naga people as they negotiate with their broken identities and endangered cultural ethos at the backdrop of the self-determination movement in the late fifties.
These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone (2005)
Author: Temsula Ao
Publisher: Zubaan (2013)
The Memory of Loss
Temsula Ao prefaces the collection of stories by making her intent clear: These Hills Called Home is a work of memory. As opposed to mainland ‘national’ history, where Nagaland is victoriously referenced to as having become an Indian state on 1 December, 1963, this collection of stories pertains to the Naga peoples’ shared collective memory of what was lost. Ao is aware of the conflict of sifting through the memories of a violent past, as is exemplified in her story An Old Man Remembers. Sashi hesitates as his grandson asks him about his past:
As opposed to mainland ‘national’ history, where Nagaland is victoriously referenced to as having become an Indian state on 1 December, 1963, this collection of stories pertains to the Naga peoples’ shared collective memory of what was lost. Ao is aware of the conflict of sifting through the memories of a violent past, as is exemplified in her story An Old Man Remembers.
“But he resolved that one day soon he would tell his grandson how his generation had lost their youth to the dream of nationhood…”
The history of the Nagas has turned into folklore, passed down from generation to generation through the oral tradition of storytelling. Similarly, in The Last Song, an elderly woman speaks of a legend of Apenyo, who was raped by army personnel as she sung her last song, and how the singing sound stills continues to haunt the village. These Hills Called Home speaks to the memory of loss, stories that were left untold or perhaps unheard.
Nationalism And Sanctioned Violence
Temsula Ao centers her stories in These Hills Called Home on characters that reveal the gendered undertones of nationalism and the violence it sanctions. Ao’s stories depict how the armed response of the state forces to the self-determination movement led by the peoples of Nagaland gave way for centuries of masculinist war-mongering relegating the status of the common folk to casualties and spoils. Temsula Ao’s characters are all inadvertently caught in a gruesome male-driven minefield they call home: either as an informant in need of money or as a wife of a man fighting the state forces. While some make it out alive due to sheer presence of mind, some do not.
These Hills Called Home exposes the rationalisation of the army presence as the ‘male-protector’ of a ‘feminised’ land. The collection of stories is rife with mentions of army-rebel ‘situations’ to depict the inflated tactics of the army to fabricate terror and justify their presence as guards against the other-ed ‘rebels’. The stories form an organic whole of the terror that grasped the entire populace of a region: a child’s fascination for vehicles costs him his life at the hands of an officer drunk with power and an old man laments a childhood lost to violence.
The feverish nation-building effort shattered the cultural ethos and aspirations of the Naga peoples. Merenla in The New Chapter symbolises the uncertainty and dejection that the promise of nationalism held for the marginalised.
These Hills Called Home exposes the rationalisation of the army presence as the ‘male-protector’ of a ‘feminised’ land.
A Fractured Identity
Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home is a poignant study in the hyphenated nation-state identity of the Naga peoples, a monolithic marker that undermines their diversity. Moreover, since their cultural identities are intricately rooted in their lands, the forced relocation of tribal communities by state forces and non-native migration perpetuated by urbanisation in the region, threatened their ways of life. The stories express the anxieties of the common folk as they struggle to negotiate with the shifting demographics and the resultant changes in the power dynamics between different tribes:
“It was the most humiliating insult that was inflicted on the Naga psyche by forcibly uprooting them from the soil of their origin…and confining them in an alien environment.”
The fractures in the cultural identities also led to a transformation in the political landscape of the Naga region. However, as Temsula Ao explores, the ‘new’ polity is an offshoot of the traditional Naga polity, driven on the principle of the exclusion of women from political representation. Temsula Ao writes in her essay Benevolent Subordination, “…they (men) are reluctant to ‘revolutionize’ the grassroots organizations for fear of going against time-honoured traditions.” This reluctance is exemplified in The Night as Imnala prepares to face the village court on charges of illegitimate sexual relations with a married man. Similarly, The Pot Maker provides a peek into how the traditional Naga society dictates Sentila’s dream as a pot maker, blurring the lines between dreams and dictated roles in a “benevolent subordination.”
Subverting the Mainland Narrative
Temsula Ao’s treatment of nature in These Hills Called Home renounces the aestheticisation of the Naga region, often used by the state to conceal their strong-armed presence, and paints a picture that is true to the life and ways of the Naga peoples. Tinula’s arduous journey in The Journey through the rough terrain of Naga Hills to reach her school in the Assam plains is an example of the same. Ao busts the oft exoticised and sensationalised manufactured portrait of Nagaland as a ‘conflicted area’ to present a humanising collection of stories. Temsula Ao’s marvel lies in adopting a narrative style representative of the peoples of Nagaland and as an ethnographer, carefully tracing the fault lines of a land marred by centuries of bloodshed and violence.
- Temsula Ao, These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone, Zubaan (2013 edition)
- Preeti Gill (ed.), The Peripheral Centre: Voices from the North East, Zubaan (2013 edition)