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Poignant stories from a war zone

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These Hills Called Home
Stories From a War Zone
By Temsula Ao
Publishers: Zubaan and Penguin Books
Price: Rs 195

Rasheeda Bhagat

A visit to Nagaland in 1997 has left a very strong mark on my consciousness. It was the first time one encountered first hand the kind of alienation that exists in pockets of India other than Kashmir. What was most devastating was the plight of ordinary people caught between the excesses of the security forces and the police on one hand and the underground rebels on the other. It is this trauma and devastation that is vividly brought out by Temsula Ao in her powerful collection of short stories titled

These Hills Called Home Stories From A War Zone

, published by Zubaan and Penguin Books.

Half a century of existence in a turmoil-filled zone takes its toll on ordinary people, and as is common in conflict zones, women bear the maximum brunt as the men in power either in the establishment or the rebel network mark their territory and play power games. One of the most powerful stories in the collection is

The Last Song

, which is about Apenyo's penchant for music from infancy. Even as a little girl she "hummed or made up silly songs to sing by herself."

Her father dies when she is an infant; her mother Libeni decides not to remarry and raises the girl all by herself. While at first Libeni is irritated by the child's unusual passion for music, she soon realises that she has inherited her father's talent. When Apenyo grows up into a beautiful young woman who gets the lead position in the village church choir, Libeni's joy knows "no bounds. She was happy that all those years of loneliness and hardship were well rewarded by God through her beautiful and talented daughter."

The rest of the gut-wrenching story is about the special occasion in the village pertaining to the dedication of the new church when an army unit attacks the village to "teach" the villagers a lesson for paying taxes to the underground rebels. As Apenyo continues to sing through the gunfire, the Captain notices the beautiful woman, yanks her by her hair and pulls her to the old church building where both she, and Libeni who tries to save her, are gangraped by the soldiers. Throughout her ordeal Apenyo continues to sing.

For years afterwards, we are told, on certain nights a "peculiar wind blows through the village" and the old storyteller chides a group of youngsters that they "have forgotten how to listen to the voice of the earth and the wind". When they concentrate, the youngsters, who have only heard stories about the atrocities that took place in their village on one Sunday long before they were born, can hear "Apenyo's last song".

Soaba

is the story of the `idiot boy' who ends up in the house of `Boss', one of the "self-seeking entrepreneurs" recruited by the government ostensibly for civil defence duties but really to spy on the underground rebels and pass on vital information that resulted in attacks on them. The author tells us how this was a time when young people were caught at the crossroads of Naga history. The wave of dissidence and open rebellion was heady wine for many of them and they abandoned family, school careers and even permanent jobs to join the band of nationalists to liberate the homeland from forces, which they believed, were inimical to their aspirations for freedom.

Boss is hired to spy on such people, and his group is given vehicles, guns and "free rations of rum". As the man gets drunk on his own power, his wife Imtila gets disenchanted with him and diverts a little of her caring on Soaba till the story takes a bizarre turn.

The vulnerability of young Naga women in an uncertain and turbulent era when they respond passionately to the affection shown by men, resulting in unwed motherhood is highlighted in

The Night

; the happiness and relief of Jemtila when the second and only good knee of her husband, who works as an informer for the establishment, is injured because the disability would fetch him freedom from his "sinister bondage", is skilfully etched in

The Curfew Man

. Sentila's struggle to make "a perfect pot" is narrated simply, though poignantly, in

The Pot Maker

.

The effortless ease with which Ao sketches the Naga landscape and village life from the exterior, and the empathy with which she evokes the struggle, trauma, pain and violence that goes on within the hearts and minds of her characters, is noteworthy. A Professor of English at the North Eastern Hill University, Shillong, she is an expert on oral tradition, folk songs, myths and cultural practices of the Ao Nagas. Ao's writing is not only sensitive and evocative but also powerful. Her stark descriptions such as the scene where Apenyo is being raped by the Captain turns your stomach while driving home the vulnerability of the Naga people.

In a moving Foreword titled `Lest we forget' the author says that not being the kind of person who would brush aside the pain of another human being, "in these stories I have endeavoured to revisit the lives of those people whose pain has so far gone unmentioned and unacknowledged." She says her stories do not state "historical facts", nor are they "condemnation, justice or justification of the events which raged through the land like a wildfxire half a century ago. On the contrary, what the stories are trying to say is that in such conflicts, there are no winners, only victims and the results can be measured only in human terms."

Isn't this true of all conflicts, be it in Kashmir or Sri Lanka, Afghanistan or Iraq?

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 13, 2006)
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