Retrieving Naga Identity through Myth and Magic Realism – A Critical Study of Easterine Kire’s When the River Sleeps
Easterine Kire, the novelist from Nagaland who won the Hindu Literary Prize 2015 for the novel When the River Sleeps, detests being labelled politically, as it limits her versatility as a writer. As a writer from the conflict zone of Northeast India, Kire is expected to garnish her writings with political conflicts and crisis which tend to augment her acceptability to the media and the publishing world; doing so would help the readers get habituated with the existing stereotypical knowledge about Nagaland. But beyond this stereotypical knowledge and representations, lies a Nagaland which can provide an alternative truth that is different from the established mode of perception. In an interview, Kire acknowledges that ‘Writing When the River Sleeps was like a verification of the beauty that exists behind the stereotypical image.’
In When the River Sleeps, Villie, the protagonist ventures out to find out the magical stone from the heart of the sleeping river and in the course of the journey, he comes across many mythical creatures like the weretigers, widow-women and the deceiving forest spirits. Though apparently, Villie’s journey seems to be a physical one but at the end it brings him closer to the knowledge of Naga spirituality, foregrounding which Kire has tried to recreate the Naga identity that survives on its myths and cultural knowledge.
Nagaland, which is now predominantly Christian had an animist origin which espoused equal respect for human and non-human entities. The myth of Naga origin underscores the interconnectivity between the spirit world and the human society. It is believed that before their dispersal to different parts of the world, the ancestors of the Nagas erected three stone monoliths in the village of Makhrai-Rabu which is presently located in Manipur. Those three monoliths represent the Tiger, the Man and the Spirit which stand for the flora and fauna, the human society and the spirit world, respectively. With the fall of one of the stone monoliths, destruction of the world is initiated, and the destruction gets complete with the fall of the last remaining monolith. Nature, Man and Spirit world are conjoined in Naga myth and consciousness, which foregrounds the animistic belief that every object in the universe is indwelt by spirit. In Naga culture which recognises zero distinction between animate and inanimate objects, naturescapes and everyday objects are attributed with a residing individual spirit. In When the River Sleeps, the river is shown to have its own consciousness; it resists the intrusion of Villie who comes to take away its heartstone. Villie gets shocked at the violence of the river. In the chapter, ‘The River is a Spirit!’, Kire narrates,
The river was almost human as it pushed him down and under, down and under, and the water rushed at him as though it would strangle him. (103)
Villie wins the duel when he superimposes the greatness of his own spirit on that of the river:
I claim the wealth of the river because mine is the greater spirit. To him who has the greater spirit belongs the stone! (103)
The Nagas believe that the supreme birth spirit, Kepenuopfu, blesses the spirit, which exerts the greater will power, with victory.
The novel begins with a surreal glimpse of Villie’s dream of quest, but soon it follows the realist mode of description with the introduction of the protagonist and his life as the official protector of tragopans, birds of rare genus. The animist way of life of the Angami Nagas, along with its myths and taboos, is gradually conjured up before the readers. As the novel catches speed, Kire begins to unravel the tropes of magic and fantasy; however, sometimes it becomes difficult to sieve out the magic from reality. Be it the shocking emergence of a white spirit tiger out of thin air or Villie’s supernatural power to fight back the joint blow of the red-eyed spirits, Kire deftly juggles with realism and magic throughout the novel. In Chapter Twenty-Five, the widow-women chase Villie and Kani after Villie successfully takes out the magical heart-stone from the river bed. Villie hears a shriek and looks upward to find ‘black figures descending towards them’. These widow-women are part of Naga folklore, but Kire presents them with a sprinkle of magic. She also brings in the myth of ‘tekhumiavi’ or weretigers which is based on the folk practice of Angami men transforming their spirits into tigers. It was believed that every man who was about to venture into the phase of weretigerhood, would begin to behave strangely; they would pounce on cattle or gnaw on raw meat when their tiger-spirits had had a kill. This mythic ritual, which was once a closely guarded art, is now extinct. Kire tries to revive such extinct myths in When the River Sleeps with the intention of recreating the Naga identity which has gone through layers of political and religious metamorphosis. Double colonisation and prevalence of Christianity led to the loss of culture and subsequent identity crisis. Kire believes that the lost identity can be retrieved only by going back to the roots - the myths and oral tradition of the Animist Nagas.
The Nagas were nuanced hunters who were always in tune with the vibes of nature. Their spirituality was different from that of any other uniformed religion; their reverence for the crop-yielding land made them follow the ritual of Genna-day, a no-work day which was strictly observed by villagers and those who violated it were penalised. The Nagas indulged in spirit-appeasement and offered gratitude to the creator deity, Kepenuopfu. But soon, with the advent of Christianity, they began to lose their traditional footing; Kepenuopfu got replaced by Christ. Villie’s journey represents the symbolic journey of the Nagas who have to delve deep within the reservoir of their cultural knowledge to find out their true identity – the identity which is individual and communal at the same time. To form that identity, Kire deliberately violates the conventions of realism and their regimes of truth. The boundary between the real and the fantastic is transgressed through the use of magic realism, which is thought to be a natural outcome of postcolonial writings which try to highlight a reality which is different from the Western empiricist point of view that is highly objective in nature. In the article ‘The Hermeneutics of Vagueness’ published in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Christopher Warnes points out,
The key defining quality of magical realism is that it represents both fantastic and real without allowing either greater claim to truth. (3)
The magic appears amidst the realism of normal life and this is what happens in Kire’s novel. The Zote episode, taken straight out of the local resources of fantasy, can be read as the author’s effort to break away from the Western realism or logos which tends to see the world through a purist mode of definition. Though Naga cultural knowledge is the source of this episode, but Kire had to invent certain things to hone her metaphorical magic wand.
In the chapter ‘New Wounds for Old Scars’, total mayhem breaks out in the village as Zote, a Kirhupfumia descends on the village like a black cloud,
Zote seemed to have grown in stature, and looked terrifying as she stretched out her arm and threw the globules of pestilence over the village. At the same time a swarm of rodents and lizard-like creatures sprang from her open bag, and scurried toward the village. (154)
Zote is a ‘Kirhupfumia’, a woman thought to have the power of maiming, blinding or killing people simply by pointing at them with their fingers. She has been ousted from her ancestral village, and so to take revenge she snatches away the heartstone from Villie and uses it for the destruction of the village. But soon she meets her tragic end when the ancestor spirits of the village appear to punish her,
The spirit-warriors seemed to have assembled from the charred remains, and formed a column. . . . The warriors kept marching toward her, ululating at intervals but never breaking their pace. (158)
Presence of animist deities and ancestor spirits brings this novel closer to the African magic realist novels; though in close proximity with other novels of this genre, this novel calls for a different defining mode.
In the last part of the novel, when Villie denies giving the heartstone to the evil stranger, who has murdered the migrant Nepali couple, he is stabbed again and again. But the brutal assault comes to a halt when a weretiger comes out of the forest and pounces upon the murderer. The tiger trope appears repeatedly in the novel; it seems that Kire is trying to harp on the ancient Naga myth of origin which believes that ‘the mother of the first spirit, the first tiger and the first man emerged from the earth together through a pangolin’s den’ (Sharon). The equally important presence of the spirit, the tiger and the mankind foregrounds the animist faith of the Nagas. Kire uses magic realism in an animist setting, and this makes the novel a bit different from the magic realist novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. Edward Said underscores the necessity to pay attention to the specificity and context in which the author opts for magic realism, discussions of magic realism in the Caribbean and African novel, say, may allude to or at best outline the contours of a “post-modern” or national field that unites these works, but we know that the works and their authors and readers are specific to, and articulated in, local circumstances ,and these circumstances are usefully kept separate when we analyze the contrasting conditions of reception in London or New York on the one hand, the peripheries on the other. (Said 1994: 374)
The use of magic realism by African authors like Ben Okri called for the use of a new term, ‘Animist realism’, which was preferred by Harry Garuba, a Nigerian scholar of literature. Animist realism is a literary style which incorporates traditional metaphysical belief system and blends with it the real and the supernatural. Ben Okri’s animist realist novels are based on cultural resource of mythic landscapes, supernatural beings and animist deities. In When the River Sleeps, Villie comes across the ‘Rarhuria’, the unclean forest which is inhabited by beguiling spirits. He is followed by one such spirit which is actually a beautiful face with no body attached to it. Another shapeless dark figure tries to superimpose himself on Villie. Kire doesn’t invent these supernatural landscapes and entities; she simply uses her cultural knowledge which is transmitted orally from one generation to another.
Animist culture relies on the spiritualisation of the material world, and according to Harry Garuba, animist materialism tends to involve the spiritualisation of the material world and the metaphorisation of this materiality through aesthetic representations is animist realism, rather than magic realism. However he thinks that magic realism is a part of animist realism which is simply a new version of magic realism in African literature. Animist realism, used by Garuba in 2003, highlights the traditional realism of animist culture along with its myths and folklores. It has the potential to not only challenge empiricism, but also to bring in the possibility of “continual re-enchantment” through prepossession of future:
Animist culture opens up a whole new world of poaching possibilities, prepossessing the future , as it were , by laying claim to what in the present is yet to be invented. (Garuba 2003: 271)
The word ‘prepossessing’ includes ‘re-possessing’ or reclaiming the future, and this is what Easterine Kire is trying to do through the novel When the River Sleeps. According to Garuba ‘an animistic understanding of the world applied to the practices of everyday life has often provided avenues of agency for the dispossessed in colonial and post-colonial Africa.’ (Garuba 2003: 285) In Kire’s novel, the old man’s wise words act as spiritual guide for Villie’s remaining journey:
Sometimes the struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers which you would be quite foolish to defy with gunpowder(189).
These words reflect a deep animist belief system which may seem too simplistic or ‘anti-modern’ to outsiders , but we should keep in mind that this animist belief is out there to retrieve the future and it needs an altogether different perspective to understand its poaching possibilities.
When the River Sleeps, like any other magic realist novel, ends ambiguously. Ate does not know about Villie’s whereabouts and the villagers have assumed that he is dead. Ate believes the heartstone that Villie left with her actually belongs to him as he was blessed with its spiritual wisdom. She brings the stone to the forest and hides it in the main room of Villie’s house in the forest. Ate dreams that she has done the right thing and in her next visit, she finds the stone is gone. Both Villie and the heartstone are gone, and the readers are left to assume and reassume the end which is left intentionally hazy. Ate and Asakho decide to make their toddler son a great hunter like Villie, who would protect the heart-stone from evil men in future. The readers can imagine little Vibou growing up in to a true Naga hunter-hero. The novel ends with the hope of ‘prepossessing the future’ which harnesses a recreated Naga identity that would nurture on Naga culture and tradition.
- Garuba, Harry. “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society”. Public Culture 15.2 (2003) : 261-85
- Guynup, Sharon. ‘Why Have Tigers Been Feared and Revered Throughout History’. National Geographic, 9 April 2014. Date of access – 5 Aug 2016
- Kire, Easterine. When the River Sleeps, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2014.
- Kire, Easterine. Interview by Dibyajyoti Sarma. Writing Nagaland – A Conversation with Easterine Kire. Raiot, 2016Web. 4 Aug. 2016
- Said. Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.
- Warnes, Christopher. “The Hermeneutics of Vagueness.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing. 41.1(2005) : 1-13.