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Review: Bitter Wormwood

A simple narrative that highlights the challenges and hardships within Naga society

books Updated: May 04, 2012 19:20 IST

Bitter Wormwood

Easterine Kire

Zubaan

Rs 295 pp 269

Former Nagaland tourism minister Vatsu Meru had once said tongue-in-cheek: “You know why death rules our state? Because Nagaland’s best known landmark is a cemetery!”

It is difficult to miss the Kohima War Cemetery if you are in Nagaland’s capital. It is harder to believe the terraced resting place of 1,420 soldiers was once a tennis court, ploughed by bullets and mortars in World War 2.

In that war of 1944, the Nagas assisted Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army and the Japanese. The British won that war and left India three years later but the Nagas continued to fight a different set of ‘colonists’ for sovereignty over their ancestral land. Somewhere down the line, they began fighting each other.

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) inked a ceasefire pact in July 1997. Peace with the Indian armed forces, however, hasn’t spared Nagaland the  violence in these 15 years.

Kohima is the backdrop of Easterine Kire’s Bitter Wormwood. It traces the life of Moselie from his birth in 1937 — two years after the Simon Commission accorded special status for the Naga areas — to being shot by thugs 70 years later. Moselie’s traditional and peaceful village life is rocked when his mother buys a radio for him. As the villagers learn new words such as partition and independence, Moselie and his friends get sucked into the Naga struggle for independence, a maelstrom of violence ripping Naga society apart.

The props Kire uses seem to suggest that Moselie belongs to the Angami tribe. But his could have been the story of any Naga caught in a seemingly never-ending conflict situation, who is born to be a warrior and tackle challenges head on. His grandmother underscores this Naga trait when comforting 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 society after he retires from the Naga National Council. The violent divisions within Naga society caused by political machinations also leave him distressed. He wishes the herb — bitter wormwood — that his people believed kept evil spirits away if tucked behind the ears, would help keep the evil of violence away from the Nagas.

Bitter Wormwood works as a good old-fashioned simple narrative, though sometimes it reads like newspaper clippings put into the mouths of the characters. It tries to bridge the psychological distance between the Nagas and ‘India’, compares the impact the conflict has had on Naga rebels and Indian soldiers, examines the birth of newer battles such as racism against non-Nagas within Nagaland and manages to balance hope with despair.