Metaphor in Easterine Kire’s Bitter Wormwood : Dr. AJ Sebastian sdb
Bitter Wormwood is a novel that spans from the tumultuous period of the 1950s and 60s to the present day. Easterine sets the fictional narrative in perspective as she states:
… it is a book about the ordinary people whose lives were completely overturned by the freedom struggle. So I could say that it was the stories of the people and their untold suffering that inspired me to write this book. First, the community has the shared experience of fear and then that is followed by silence. In the case of the Indian occupation of the Naga Hills, the people experienced genocide, starvation, burning of villages, fields and granaries and torture. Their culture was devalued and their religious centres such as churches were desecrated. Caste was used as an oppressive instrument because the Indian soldiers came from a caste society whereas Nagas were casteless. In subsequent years, occupation led to the problem of surviving Nagas experiencing the psychological effects of self-hatred, alcoholism, depression, and self abuse and domestic abuse. Another psychological effect of the constant oppressive policies is victimhood on a very high level. I’d like people to know the truth, unadulterated and ugly though it may be at times. Not my version of the truth but an objective truth that people in their heart of hearts will have to agree with as true, even if it paints an unattractive picture of the conflict and of the people who became its prisoners (http://www.icorn.org).
In February 2013, when Easterine Kire’s Bitter Wormwood, was shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize, she disclosed to Swati Daftuar about metaphor surrounding Bitter Wormwood which is about real people and their lives.
I interviewed several people and used their experiences and insights. I wanted to write a non-stereotypical book about Naga political history, and the story of the two grandsons of the two soldiers meeting up and striking up a deep friendship is not untrue. It’s also a book that questions political ideologies, and their solutions and offers a human solution instead. Bitter Wormwood was not an easy book to write. I did not want it to be about taking sides. I threw away the first manuscript and started afresh concentrating on the characters and their lives. I am so glad I did that because the characters became real to me in the new manuscript. I wept with them and rejoiced when they discovered truths that helped them live their lives in the best way possible. The two friends, Mose and Neituo, with their Angami humour are typical of the men of my tribe. Mose is based on the life of my uncle who was a soldier in the Naga Army. Harivallabh Joshi [who was posted to the Naga Hills in the early 1960s] gave me his account of serving there, and he appears in the book as Himmat, the noble old Indian soldier. The Vandanshan family graciously allowed me to use their tragic family story. As a Naga writer, it has been cathartic to write about the Naga political conflict. It is something that sits deep within most Nagas of my generation and to be able to catharsise it in fiction has been a great personal liberation (http://www.thehindu.com).
The story revolves around the life and experiences of Mose (1937 to 2007) whose life spans the entire history of Naga struggle for self determination. He had lived through the days of insurgency in Nagaland, in the midst of factional fighting, where he witnessed brutal assassination of a Naga youth.
It was over quickly. The young man who was shot lay dead in a spreading pool of blood. Shops quickly downed their shutters…. After some minutes, there were just a few people left in the crowded market. Mose stayed rooted to the spot, but when everything became quiet, he crept over to look at the body. One of the shots had gone wild. Luckily it was embedded in the wall of a hotel. No one else had been harmed. There had been times when bystanders had been injured, even killed by stray shots in these shootings (Kire 7).
Poet Nini Lungalang has written some powerful poems on social themes. She makes an ordinary event into a very effective socio-philosophical reflection. She analyses the situation of crime and lawlessness in the region. In “Dust” like a romantic poet, she takes note of a daily occurrence during the dry spell in winter. Water is replaced by ‘crevices filling with dust.’ From nature’s fury, the poet turns our attention to escalation of violence. From acute water scarcity, the poet moves on to analyse the situation of crime and lawlessness in society. Like the land that is barren, the life of the people have become barren and meaningless with gruesome murders. Reflecting on the two situations: one natural and the other man-made; one is urged to recollect what Wordsworth wrote ‘Have I not reason to lament / What man has made of man?’ She juxtaposes phrases to show symbolically the two worlds: ‘Tin buckets clash’ /Two thick thuds; ‘I mustn’t spill a precious drop’ / His blood laid the dust.’
I saw a young man gunned down
As I shopped in the market place.
Two thick thuds, and then he fell,
His blood laid the dust
In a scarlet little shower,
Scarlet little flowers. (Nongkynrih 225)
As she stumbles home through arid fields the poet weeps for the sin of Cain which continues with fratricide in her society. She contrasts nature and man in conflict and symbolically speaks of ‘the dust’ of sin and hatred rendering life barren. Nini is perplexed by the mystery of evil and her sense of ‘anxiety is not a category of necessity but it is not a category of freedom either: it is entangled where freedom is not free in itself but entangled – and entangled not by necessity, but by itself.’ (Chamberlain 178).
I know your fear, your guilt, your pain –
I too have now a brother slain,
I too am sealed with the scarlet stain!
My ink has crusted in my pen,
And in my heart – the dust. ((Nongkynrih 225)
It is this anguish that drives Easterine take the readers through troubled Naga history of freedom struggle and subsequent fratricidal killing. For Mose, the incident brought back memories of his own life when he left school with his friend Neitou. As a child, Mose had experienced the bitterness of war, when the Japanese occupied his village, perpetrating violence.
When British left India, Nagas were absorbed into the Indian Union, though they were promised by Mahatma Gandhi that no force would be exerted on them to be part of India. But his assassination scattered the Naga dream to be a free Nation. Subsequent Indian military operation in the Naga territory to subjugate the rebels, forced many young people like Mose and Neitou, to join the Naga movement for sovereignty. Attrocities committed by the security forces is recounted by Easterine in her debut collection Kelhoukevira which begins with “Genesis” where the ideal warrior Keviselie speaks of the utopian past until conflict and war brought death and destruction to his land. It takes the reader to the conflicts and killings in Nagaland.
Keviselie speaks of a time
When her hills were untamed
Her soil young and virgin
And her warriors, worthy
The earth had felt good
And full and rich and kind to his touch.
Her daughters were seven,
With the mountain air in their breaths…
And their songs filled all the earth.
Till one called Plague, a sojourner
Grudged them their plenty
and, wielding her terrible scythe
reaped premature harvests of fields and men
laying waste her young, her song, her hills (Iralu 1).
The central poem in the collection is “Kelhoukevira which means ‘Where Life is good’. The poet bemoans death and destruction in the utopian land.
They brought in their dead by night
Their proud warriors, their mighty warriors
The brave beloved of the gods,
To rest under troubled skies
And battle-scarred lands…
The golden fields, they lay unreaped and sere
As blood freely flowed
And mingled with the rains
And stained the virgin soil…
Their hearts too grieved to heed the harvest
Maidens ceased song and mourned the brave ones… (22-3).
Such poems, expressing Naga ethos in the backdrop of insurgency, brings the fictional narrative clearer to readers. As a young boy, Mose, joined the underground movement and saw through very dark times in the Naga history for several decades, until he retired to live a life of quiet and seclusion. He had seen enough of bloodshed due to oppression from the security forces as well as factional clashes.
The novel takes a new turn when the author introduces the metaphor of ‘bitter wormwood’ to bring in reconciliation through the grandchildren of the two soldiers, Mose and Himmat. Mose joined the underground to fight for Naga freedom, while Himmat came to Nagaland on punishment posting in the security forces. The duo, who are meant to be bitter enemies, get reconciled through their grandchildren Neibou and Rakesh. Neibou began a new life at Delhi as he joined Shri Ram College of Commerce. He felt out of place as there were none from Nagaland in his class. Matters became worse with ragging and insults he experienced.
After class, Neibou was suddenly cornered by a senior who called him pahariya, a hill dweller. he had said it in an unmistakably offensive manner, almost spat it out. Neibou smarted at the insult and swore never to mistreat a junior when it was his turn…. He ignored the remark. When Neibou did not respond, the senior boy made a lewd gesture and said something about girls from the Northeast….. Badchalan. Easy women. Neibou exploded. He rushed at the senior and smashed his fist into the boy’s face (Kire 181-82).
The incident was brought to settlement after the wardens intervened. The following day while waiting in queue to buy tea, he found a boy stare at him. The guy approached Neibou with a stretched out hand in friendship. That was the beginning of an intimate relationship between Neibou and Rakesh, whose grandfather cherished his stay as a soldier in Nagaland in the 1960s. Neibou was excited to hear that and showed his interest in the friendship. “My grandfather has the greatest respect for your people. You should hear him talk He always says the years he spent in Nagaland were the best years of his life” (184).
By and by the two became good friends, though they looked an odd pair with Rakesh with his angular face and long legs; Neibou short of stature and muscular. When they got some holidays, they planned to visit Rakesh’s grandfather. Easterine focuses the reader’s attention on the reaction of the two friends, knowing about each other’s grandparents who happened to be enemies by virtue of their roles as soldiers, yet human beings with common emotions.
Neibou had not immediately told Rakesh about his grandfather. It was sometime before he stated that their two grandfathers had possibly fought against each other in the 60s. The idea fascinated Rakesh…. He didn’t want to admit that he feared prejudice and stereotypical thinking if Rakesh found out his grandfather had played an active role in the Naga resistance. “But that is silly. It’s not as though they are still fighting.” Rakesh laughed and continued. “In any case, I have told you my grandfather has nothing but admiration for your people” (187).
Both of them knew that the meeting between the grandfathers wouldn’t be that enthusiastic. Neibou recollected some of the gruesome things his grandfather had told him of. “Stories of people who had died of military torture. He wasn’t sure his grandfather would want to meet an old Indian soldier” (188). They had, both, lived their lives differently. Neibou’s grandfather fought for freedom, while the other fought for preserving the integrity of his nation. Neibou recalled how hard his grandfather’s life in the army was while his grandmother was known as ‘rifle girl’. They didn’t live a romantic life in the jungles, often starving to fight for freedom. Recollecting the events forty years later, their heroic life, sounded more like a movie.
The two friends agreed to meet their grandparents sometime during holidays. When Neibou met Rakesh’s mother, Dipti, she invited him to visit them. Dipti worked in a publishing house in Haryana. When holi was round the corner, Rakesh told Neibou that his grandparents would be visiting Haryana from their native Bhopal. Rakesh invited his friend to spend the weekend with his family. Grandparents Himmat and his wife Nirmala were delighted to meet Neibou and longed to get news of Nagaland. Neibou found the old man very gentle and friendly, unlike what he had expected, a stern bully. Fetching a map of Nagaland, Himmat kept asking where his parents and grandparents lived. Since it was an old military map, Neibou found it difficult to show Seikhazou, where his family lived.
The grandfather kept telling them, how his posting to Nagaland in 1961 was considered a ‘punishment posting’ by his friends. In those days such transfers were made to Jammu-Kashmir and Nagaland, as fierce battle raged in both regions. “In Jammu-Kashmir, India had been battling Pakistani claims on Kashmiri territory, while in Naga Hills, we were told the Nagas wanted to secede from the new nation of India. The additional information we were given was that they were primitive warmongers, with a fearsome tradition of headhunting” (195). Himmat was Commandant of the armed 24th SAF battalion in dacoit-infested Madhya Pradesh, and was ready for a transfer. He didn’t consider it a punishment posting to Naga Hills, though his troops in the battalion dreaded it as army casualties were high. The battalion came to Jakhama, to a very well fortified army headquarters. He was accommodated with other officers in small huts made of bamboos. That night there was an explosion and fire spread all around. The attack was suspected to be by the Undergrounds which had taken the life of his colleague who was charred to death. Later, the enquiry brought to light that the accidental fire was caused by some careless jawan who had thrown a cigarette stub into the oil drum area.
The troops were not allowed to make any contact with the local population. But, Himmat was interested in the Nagas and their culture. He took the opportunity to make queries to the cook who was a Naga. One day several of his men were ambushed and killed by the Undergrounds. He happened to escape, since at the last moment he dropped the idea of going with the party. After the tragedy, he was determined to take revenge on those killers. “In my days there, I have known many soldiers who have been driven mad by seeing their mates killed beside them. They did terrible things to civilians in turn. War is a dreadful thing beta, it blinds you to the horror of what you are doing” (199). He disclosed how Underground soldiers were tortured while interrogations to get information. There was such hatred brewing between the two sides, that the military couldn’t travel except in convoys as they were easy targets. It was difficult to identify the guerillas from civilians since they wore civilian dress. “We felt alienated because we entered Nagaland with the understanding that the Nagas were fellow Indians but the truth was that the Nagas looked completely different and obviously hated our presence there (199-200).
The grandfather kept telling, how, as soldiers, their duty was to protect the interest of the nation and stop anything counter to it, especially to prevent secession by the Nagas from the Indian Union. In that situation of mistrust between the two groups, they could do nothing constructive. He was full of praises for the Nagas and their cultural heritage. “Their culture, their songs, dances, community life and high sense of dignity and self respect. What I liked most was their sense of equality” (201).
Neibou eagerly invited him to visit his grandfather in Nagaland. Himmat was eager to make the visit and establish friendship with a sworn enemy saying:
It would be a great honour to meet a former warrior…. Even though he was once my enemy, I bear him no ill-will. We were pawns in a bigger game, that’s all. All those men killed. Fathers and sons and husbands. And for what? If the Nagas want their own country, let them have it, that is what I say now. It’s none of our business. At least, not to lose so many lives over (201).
Recalling the bitter past of clash between the Undergrounds and the Security Forces, Himmat had decided to do something constructive in his retirement. He had planned to spend the rest of his life in Nagaland, setting up a school for the young to make them do something meaningful in their lives.
Easterine shifts the story to Kohima where Neibou’s grandfather Mose sits in the porch of his house discussing political situation with his friend Neituo. He recounts how he witnessed a young man was gunned down in the marketplace.
I was standing close by, a bit shocked but not terrified…. In a way, I feel responsible since we were once among the first group who started to fight for independence. Now, it is so far from what it originally was. Yes, we have two wars now. The one with the Indian government and the other is the one among our own people. When we are so divided, we don’t have much hope for the future… It looks very bleak, doesn’t it? I wonder if we will annihilate ourselves completely with all the killing (211).
They discussed further on such factional killings though ceasefire has been declared and peace talks with the government of India was going on. But there was need for peace talks between the factions first. The fight with the Indian forces for freedom since 1947 has been diverted into factional feuds from 1975. Infighting among the Nagas led to killing of fellow Nagas. Many were lured away with money. Factional rivalry has generated fear of each other. Those in the Indian army who fought in Nagaland have been victims of extreme angst. On both sides, all that people long for is perpetual peace and a secure land of their own.
As the grandfather was about to retire into his room, there appeared his grandson with Rakesh, who had come to Nagaland to meet him. Rakesh became very familiar with Neibou’s folks and tried speaking some words in Tenyidie language, causing laughter as he mispronounced everything. But Neibou’s grandmother was very appreciative of his efforts. Mose, on his part, attempted to speak in highly accentuated Hindi. The duo could somehow communicate with each other with some words and gestures. Rakesh and Neibou went around the villages for a week which was a learning experience for Rakesh with the Nagas. Neibou’s grandparents grew fond of Rakesh too. As they rode back to Delhi, they were lost in their thoughts of days spent in each other’s company while in Kohima.
All of it had brought them closer. It was strange. He had never expected to become such good friends. with an Indian boy. The suspicion that most Nagas felt towards Indians had intensified when he was being ragged at college….Rakesh had given him, in a way, the determination he needed to stick to his goal (220).
On his part, Rakesh had merely known some names of places from his grandfather, which meant nothing to him. But, now, things have changed, as he understood better. Nagaland was so different from the rest of India. While in Mose’s home, he had felt warmth and hospitality which he had missed in Delhi. He came to learn that though people smiled and laughed with him, they were steeped in grief.
…there was always some terrible tragedy behind their smiles. Some member of the family killed in the war years with India or even now, young male relatives shot in factional encounters. It was as though all families carried unhealed wounds from the conflict in some way or other. There was a present sense of fear that permeated normal life and everything would come to a standstill at the sound of a single gunshot (221).
An incident took place a month later when Mose was working in his backyard. Jitu, a migrant Bihari boy, who ran a small pan shop in the corner, came calling grandfather for help. As Mose went with him to the shop, he found two Nagas there and the shopkeeper beaten and fallen on the ground. The two men kept shouting, demanding money from him. Mose shouted telling them to be off. The men unhesitatingly turned and shot him point blank. he lay dead with bullets in his throat and chest. The Bihari boy, helplessly held grandfather’s head in his lap, crying for assistance. Everyone was shocked at the heinous crime committed against an old man who was a Naga freedom fighter.
As Neibou returned home for the funeral of his beloved grandfather, his mind was filled with cold anger. He thought of the sorry plight of the Nagas and how the cycle of vengeance killing continued to be perpetrated by the factions. The faction of the killers claimed that it was not a premeditated murder. The leaders wanted to meet the family and offer some compensation, but none responded to the gesture. On his part, Neibou sent them a strong message:
He described the caring and dedicated man his grandfather had been, how he had devoted his best years to the Naga cause, and in old age, he endeavoured to teach the values of their culture to his grandchildren. He ended with the appeal to the factional leaders to teach their members about the worth of each human life and how irreplaceable it was when taken away (226).
The young Bihari boy was so heartbroken, he visited the grave everyday and cried his heart out, blaming himself for the death of his Baba. Though his relatives wanted to send him back to Bihar, he refused to go leaving behind grandmother. He kept coming daily morning to visit the graveside expressing his deep felt grief. He stayed back in Kohima to do his penance for the death of the grandfather and bringing food for the grandmother.
Returning to Delhi, Neibou explained to Rakesh and his family, how the accidental death happened and how the factions explained off the incident. In the course of their discussion Rakesh suggested that nothing except a life changing spiritual experience, like a conversion, can change such killers. Neibou explained that though they are all Christians, they practiced a distorted Christianity.
You know, we do call ourselves a Christian state, but many people don’t realize that Christianity is a lifestyle and not just a religion…. The Christianity we have today has been perverted, because people don’t live Christ-like lives. They think that as long as they are church-going, they are okay. The factions have even used the slogan, ‘Nagaland for Christ’ and killed drug addicts and drug pushers, as if that is what God would have wanted (234-5).
Neibou didn’t want to give into despair, instead, wanted to debrutalise those who are trapped in the conflict. He thought of some practical training to assist them to rebuild their lives, getting the violence out of them. It calls for a challenging attitude to let the past be past to begin afresh. The discussion led to the idea of deconstructing history. Rakesh wondered if it is possible for Nagas to let go of the past as they are a warrior race. Dipti, his mother, argues that in some cases history kills solutions. Hence, it is essential to let go and focus on the present rather than bickering with the past as there is no future in it. Neibou was quite enamoured of the idea and uttered his opinion:
I completely agree. We have to learn to let the past remain where it is. The trouble with the Nagas is that we have allowed the conflict to define us for too long. It has overtaken our lives so much that we have been colonized by it and it demands on us. But we do not have to let it continue to define us and limit us…We are still allowing ourselves to be bound by cultural dictates and the culture of the conflict itself (236).
Neibou went on to speak of the attitude and values his grandfather taught him to love and not hate. He was determined to live by his grandfather’s teachings for a better morrow.
After their examinations, Rakesh joined Neibou to visit Kohima again, to console the family after the death of the grandfather. When grandmother took them both to the graveside, they were surprised to find it well decorated. She told them how, Jitu, the Bihari boy cleanses the graveside every Thursday. Neibou began to tell her how his attitude towards the killers of his grandfather had changed. Though as per cultural tradition, he is to take revenge on the assassins, he desisted due to love that his grandfather had instilled in him. His grandmother opined the same spirit uttering:
That is the old culture, my child. We cannot live like that anymore It will destroy us. Before our people came to Jisu, we did that. But now, we are to take our burdens to Jisus and leave it with him. Some men take it upon themselves to minister judgement. When they do that, nothing good can come of it. Leave it with Jesu, I say. Mark my words, child, I have seen it in my own lifetime. Several times (241).
As the two friends stood by the grave, they discussed the matter over. Neibou found it extremely difficult to forgive and forget, though he recalled what the pastor spoke of the need for forgiveness at grandfather’s funeral. Though one is able to forget the anger and the hurt, how could he ignore the way his grandfather died. Finally, he made his stand clear when he uttered, “I have forgiven… not so much the men… but the act itself. I always need to stop and remind myself of that so I don’t get eaten up by the bitterness. I’s be of no use to anyone if I let this destroy me” (242). His act of forgiveness he felt ought to be a continuous process than a one time act.
As they moved out from the grave side, Neibou bent over to pluck a leaf of wormwood and explained the significance of bitter wormwood to his friend. “It’s a herb we use for cuts and insect bites When I was young, grandfather would pluck that and put it behind my ear on our way to the forest. ‘That will keep the bad spirits away from you, the leaf will make sure they don’t get at you,’ he would say (243).
As per many cultural traditions Wormwood has various magical uses such as: It is burned to gain protection from wandering spirits. Its scent is said to increase psychic powers. Burned with incenses on Samhain to aid evocation, divination, and prophecy. Strengthens incenses for exorcism and protection. Use in spells for: Binding; Psychic Awareness; Evocation; Love; Clairvoyance. Enables the dead to be released from this plane so they may find peace (http://www.thesacredmist.com).
When Rakesh expressed surprise at the magical spell of the plant, Neibou suggested that it could be used once again as a magical spell to dispel darkness. Neibou tucked the leaf behind his ear and walked into the lighted doorway with a smile on his face. The fictionist concludes the novel on a note of hope of forgiveness and reconciliation, making the bitter wormwood casting away every shadow of fear looming large in the lives of the protagonists. The metaphor has greater significance in the context of the decades of conflict which has not yet found a lasting solution. Fortunately, talks have resumed between the parties concerned with the Government of India, in the recent past, bringing hope for a region that has suffered the longest conflict in modern times.
Various organisations like the Naga Hoho and the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) have worked towards reconciliation among the warring factions. Even the tribal councils belonging to the different tribes in the state including the Ao Senden, the Sumi Hoho have tried to establish unity among the NSCN-IM and NSCN-K, albeit without much success. Citizens have organised peace rallies asking the warring Naga factions to stop violence. In June 2008, a reconciliation meeting of the Naga factions, mass-based Naga organisations and tribal Hohos was organised by the Naga Reconciliation Forum, headed by Baptist clergyman Wati Aier, Baptist World Alliance and a UK-based Quaker group, at Chiang Mai in Thailand. But, the NSCN-K rejected the offer made by the rival NSCN-IM for a dialogue outside the country and the move failed. Extending the existing ceasefire with both the outfits remains central to the government’s conflict management policy in Nagaland. Representatives of the NSCN-IM and the government continue to meet periodically to carry forward the negotiations. By far, however, little success has been achieved to break the deadlock over the outfit’s demand of integrating the ‘Naga-inhabited’ areas of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh with Nagaland. A few more round of talks have taken place since then in Delhi, but there were no concrete outcome of the talks. The civil society organizations in Nagaland such as the Forum for Naga Reconciliation, the Naga Hoho and many other women’s and students’ organizations have played an important role in laying the groundwork for the emergence of lasting peace in the region (http://cdpsindia.org).
In the midst of seeking solution to the decade old Naga issue, the fictional narration of Easterine bringing the two friends Neibou and Rakesh, to bridge the division and heal wounds of the past through forgiveness and reconciliation is a welcome initiative. The novelist has thoughtfully given a metaphorical title to her work to move beyond human reckoning by healing through reconciliation.
The fictionist does not wish to end the novel on a note of hatred as she opines, “ I think differently now: I am solution oriented instead of problem oriented. I am at the same time moving beyond the narrow confines of being defined by other people and being defined by the conflict because there is much more to me and my people than just another political conflict” (http://www.thehindu.com).
Chamberlain, Jane and Rier, Jonathan, ed. The Kierkegaard Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.
Iralu, Easterine. Kelhoukevira.Calcutta : J.B.Lama, 1982.
Kire, Easterine. Bitter Wormwood. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2011.
Nongkynrih, Kynpham, Singh and Ngangom, Robin, S, ed. Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast. Shillong: NEHU Publications, 2003.