Don't Run, My Love
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Books (10 Nov 2017)
Pp 121 | ? 270
A thrilling tale rooted in the heart of Naga folk tradition
Easterine Kire, born in 1959 to an Angami Naga family in Nagaland, India, is today well known for being the voice of Naga writing in the English language. By choosing to write in English, Kire has introduced Naga literature, a rich oral repository, to the non- Naga reader who was so long unaware its richness and complexities, and her works have familiarized national and international readers with Naga life and traditions. Kire’s first book of poetry was published in 1982. Titled "Kelhoukevira", this was the first book of Naga poetry to be published in English. It was followed by the novels "A Naga Village Remembered" (2003), "A Terrible Matriarchy" (2007), "Mari" (2010) and "Bitter Wormwood" (2011). Kire who has translated about two hundred oral poems from her native language, has also written children's books, articles and essays. Her latest book, and the subject of this review, Don’t Run, My Love, a short novel, is a departure from her previous literary ventures in as much as it takes us to the realm of Naga folklore in a way that none of her previous works did. While the subject of A Naga Village Remembered was a battle between the British forces and a Naga hamlet, A Terrible Matriarchy was a domestic drama that highlighted the effect of the political on the personal. Mari, based on a true story, dealt with the Japanese invasion of Nagaland in 1944 while Bitter Wormwood, focused on the human cost of the politics that led to human rights infringement in Nagaland.
Unlike the previous works of Kire, Don’t Run, My Love is a tale that takes us to the heart of the Naga folk tradition of the weretiger, in which some men believe that they become dual souled with the tiger. Such men are said to receive supernatural powers and they can predict the future or heal diseases. In this interesting story we meet the weretiger, Kevi, who is as much a perpetrator as a victim himself. When the story opens, Kevi is introduced as a handsome “creature” who comes upon the mother-daughter duo of Visenuo and her 18-year-old daughter Atuonuo as they are struggling to harvest paddy from their field and offers to lend a helping hand. Though at first reluctant, the latter eventually take Kevi’s help to save the harvest from an approaching storm. Soon, Kevi integrates himself into their lives quite easily, and seems to be wooing Atuonuo.
Don’t Run, My Love offers a comprehensive picture of the socio-economic aspects of community life in rural Nagaland. Village customs related to the harvest festival and the intergenerational passing of the traditions are deftly portrayed. As Atuonuo and Kevi find themselves attracted to each other, we are introduced to the partly mysterious and menacing figure of the woodsman Keyo who claims to have known Kevi’s parents and brings up the subject of his father’s death thus: “…when he died and they were washing his body, they found a wound in his back that had been caused by a spear. But he had not been anywhere in the weeks before his death.” Here we get a hint of something being amiss but we are not told clearly what it is exactly. The plot of the novel springs a surprise when a hailstorm that forces Atuonuo to spend the night at Kevi’s hut reveals to her that he is not a mere human lover but a were-tiger. Almost paralysed with fear, Atuonuo manages to flee along with her mother to the Village of Seers for guidance. Here they learn that their help is not to be found in the Village of Seers but outside their own village, following which they leave the Village of Sears to go back to their own village. What happens hereafter must not be revealed for that would give away the story.
Easterine Kire has done a commendable job in spinning an engrossing tale that wonderfully conglomerates the human and non-human worlds. The magic and mysticism of folklores is something that should appeal to the readers. In many ways this book seems to be fulfilling a kind of complementary role in Kire’s oeuvre. While she portrayed various aspects of Naga life in her previous works, this story, rooted in Naga folk belief exposes us to a significant view of Naga village life. To achieve this kind of a mystic storytelling is not a simple task. One requires considerable mastery over the language to be able to fashion out such poetic mysticism.
The novel carries the wonderful message that one must learn to face one’s fears and not run from them. Thus Atuonuo does not find shelter in the Village of Seers but must come out of it to confront her fate. There are very strong resonances of the very well-known fairy tale Red Riding Hood and that would be regarded as a strength or weakness of this novel according to the reader’s personal equation with the fairy tale. For many readers it would certainly ring a nostalgic bell. Another strong resonance is that of the Vampire novels, especially Twilight. Vampire literature is rooted in the 'vampire craze' of the 1720s and 1730s. The short German poem The Vampire (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelder, was one of the first literary expressions of the Vampire theme: a respectable and pious maiden rejects the love of a man who then threatens to visit her at night, drink her blood and finally prove to her the superiority of his teaching over his mother's Christianity. Fictional vampires through the eighteenth to the twenty-first century are often attractive, elegant and romantic figures. In his romanticism, Kire’s weretiger Kevi is remarkably similar to the vampires of fiction. He is in a sense a pitiable creature who suffers as much as he causes suffering.
While on one level, Don’t Run, My Love may be read and enjoyed as a simple folktale, it may also be read as an allegory of human relationships as love is fraught with danger. Also it may be an allegory for life itself where it is almost impossible to segregate good and evil into neat compartments. At various points in life we may have to make choices and those choices may often lead to sacrifices; sacrifice of choices, sacrifice of love. Feminist readings of the novel may have issues with the portrayal of Atuonuo as a woman who depends on an external agency, the woodman, for help. Although Atuonuo goes through self-actualization, her liberation comes not from within but from outside.
Indian Writing in English is an amorphous body of literature that has gained tremendous popularity in the last few decades. What is interesting and significant is that this body has over the years come to include a plethora of voices which are diverse and which represent the multitude that is India. Voices such as those of Kire are important because they disrupt any attempt to homogenize the idea of what is India and what it means to be Indian. Don’t Run My Love must be read for its view of Naga life from within and for its sheer entertainment value as a thrilling romantic story.
Issue 78 (Mar-Apr 2018)