War and the Silencing of Naga Narratives : Easterine Kire

 "The folktale lost its setting during the war years. The peace that is essential to the continuation of oral narratives was also lost. Folk narratives were further silenced in the premature deaths of their carriers.”

Easterine Kire
Of the many narratives silenced by war, the oral narratives of the Nagas suffered a long period of being silenced. Folktales require certain settings in order to be told. The Naga war with India after military operations began in 1956 destroyed these settings besides disrupting the ritual of folk narratives. The setting of the folktale is the hearth and its ancestral home is the village-world. Oral narratives belong to eras of relative peace in the village community where the ceremony of the folktale takes place: After the evening meal, children gather round the hearth of a grandparent who narrates stories to them. It requires mutual participation. The children need to listen attentively and the grandparent-narrator will tell the stories with the air of an entertainer, frequently using stock phrases or ideophones in the course of the dramatised narration.  

In the 1950s and 1960s many Naga families were displaced by the freedom struggle. People in the villages were the worst affected. They abandoned their homes to hide in rough shelters in the forests. They moved in small groups for fear of detection. Two or three families sheltered together and the number of children in some groups was higher than the number of adults. Hiding in rough camps in the forests and frequently moving camp, these families survived on the meagre food rations they carried with them. They took from the forests what food it offered. Since the forests were infiltrated by the Indian army, these refugee families held very little conversation amongst themselves. The children were discouraged from playing or talking loudly. The grandmother's hearth in the village-world was destroyed, the villages burnt and their inhabitants tortured and killed or forced into evacuation. The folktale lost its setting. Its narrative was silenced throughout the period of displacement during the Indo-Naga war. The peace that is essential to the continuation of oral narratives was lost. The war years also killed many oral narrators and folk narratives were further silenced in the premature deaths of their carriers.  

In the 1970s, the Art and Culture department of Nagaland made a collection of Naga folktales from the four districts of Kohima, Mokokchung, Tuensang and Wokha. The crudely illustrated and coarsely told 109 stories in the collection are nevertheless an admirable first effort at folktale collection. Stories that would have died along with their narrators have been preserved by this effort. In 2008, Roots: A Collection of Zeliang Folktales, was published by Kangzangding Thou. In 2009, the Art and Culture department authorised the publication of another volume of Naga folktales. Sadly it was rewritten by a non-Naga and lacked the authenticity or cultural knowledge that only an insider can bring to such an ingrained art form.  

Barkweaver publications began its first volume of Naga Folktales Retold in 2009. The publishing house aims to retrieve Naga folktales in several volumes along with illustrations by young Naga artists. Volume Two will be published in 2012. The project encourages young children to spend time with their grandparents, collecting folktales and peoplestories. Barkweaver hopes that the children will not only collect stories but imbibe the rich teachings of culture that is passed on in folk narration. 
One form of oral narrative silenced by the war was the many and varied peoplestories. These are not mythical tales but the accounts of ordinary people and their lives. Yet people need to tell their stories and they deserve the opportunity to share their stories. A second Barkweaver project is a series of peoplestories, the first of which is being published this winter. Among the Nagas, peoplestories popularly deal with spirit encounters. But Barkweaver is also interested in stories that people want to tell of themselves, their childhoods, the memories of their lives and events that had a big impact on them.  

Barkweaver recognises the narratives of children and women as silenced narratives. These were never voiced and were suppressed under the meta-narrative of war which is a narrative of men. In my novel,A Terrible Matriarchy, the little girl-narrator begins her account candidly: 

My grandmother never liked me. I knew this when I was about four and a half. I was sitting in her kitchen with my brother Bulie, older to me by two years, when she served us food. Hot rice and chicken broth.

”What meat do you want?” she simpered sweetly as she ladled out gravy and meat.
I quickly piped up, ”I want the leg, Grandmother, give me the leg.
”I wasn't asking you silly girl,” she said, as she swiftly put the chicken leg into my brother's plate, ”That portion is always for boys. Girls must eat the other portions” .

The author's book, Naga Folktales Retold
In this novel the silence of the girl child is finally broken. Likewise, in its forthcoming volume of peoplestories, Forest Song, Barkweaver focuses on stories that have not been voiced before.
Folktales and peoplestories are part of collective memory and recording them in print is important because of their literary relevance especially in terms of a national literature. Folktales provide readers common reference points. At the same time, peoplestories are significant because they have psychological value. Sharing is healing. For the elderly, sharing their stories and discovering they are being listened to gives meaning to their lives. Peoplestories make the statement that ordinary people and their lives and destinies have value. This is something the machinery of war completely disregards.  

Another kind of imposed silence that the Naga people have suffered is the silencing of their voices in the academic world. The Nagas have been written about in colonial anthropological accounts by British political officers like R.G. Woodthorpe, J.H. Hutton, J.P. Mills, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, Ursula Graham Bower and W.G. Archer. The voices of these colonisers, though informative, were not free of racism and exoticising of cultures they did not fully understand. The result was that some cultural practices which yielded meaning in the pre-Christian era were dismissed as barbaric. Only since the 1970s did Naga scholars begin to write about Naga customs, culture and village polity providing insider narratives for the first time. These alone can be considered authentic. 

Barkweaver wants to continue encouraging such indsider narratives by focusing on Naga folktales. By doing this it will try to address the silences imposed by the voices that claimed authority. Folk narratives after all, still have their relevance in today's fast moving world. This fact was brought home to me at a September conference in Frankfurt-Oder where I performed stories from Naga Folktales Retold. My storytelling was complemented by a French dancer who danced to the rhythm of the stories and an Italian singer who spontaneously burst into a Berber song at the end of a telling. The singer also joined in the refrain of the folksong that accompanied the tale of The Fig-tree and the Zeliang Man. Culture lives on if its practitioners can reinvent it.  

Folktales are common property. The best use of common property is to share it in appropriate ways. The setting has changed as there are few hearths around which the listeners can gather. But the listening circle has widened and perhaps it is time to take our oral narratives to an international audience. The time feels ready for it.

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