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Naga writer Temsula Ao's gentle but subversive storytelling

Understanding the work of Sahitya Akademi award winning Naga writer Temsula Ao, who passed away on Sunday

Temsula Ao's stories were full of defiant, subversive acts by people who have their backs against the wall.
Temsula Ao's stories were full of defiant, subversive acts by people who have their backs against the wall. (@Mssv_official on Twitter)

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In the foreword to her 2005 short story collection These Hills Called Home, the Naga writer and academic Temsula Ao (who passed away on Sunday at a hospital in Dimapur, Nagaland) added a disclaimer, one which held the key to understanding her work. She emphasized that her fiction, while set against the backdrop of political upheaval (the early years of the Naga homeland movement, in the 1950s), was not beholden to “historical facts”, nor was it chiefly concerned with “condemnation, justice or justification”. “On the contrary,” she wrote, “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.”

Do not make the mistake of reading this as a middle-of-the-road sentiment, for Ao’s stories were anything but. They’re full of defiant, subversive acts by people who have their backs against the wall. In ‘The Last Song’, one of her most famous short stories, Apenyo, a young choir girl, and her mother are raped and murdered by a sadistic Army captain and his cohorts. When the captain starts to rape Apenyo, she breaks into song as a final act of resistance and doesn’t stop until her last breath. Years after the gruesome act, the captain (still haunted by Apenyo’s song) loses his sanity and has to be committed to an institution.

Similarly, in the 2009 collection Laburnum For My Head (which won Ao a Sahitya Akademi award), there’s a story called ‘A Simple Question’ where Imdongla, a quick-thinking young woman, humiliates an Army captain into releasing her husband, who was being illegally detained.

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These interventions apart, Ao’s fiction was marked by a keen eye for the natural world, an emphasis on the hyper-local and the debt she owed to oral storytelling traditions. ‘The Last Song’, for example, ends on a supernatural-adjacent note—an old woman is telling Apenyo’s story to a bunch of youngsters when suddenly, the wind appears to be carrying the faint traces of Apenyo’s song.

“Storyteller and audience strain to listen more attentively and suddenly a strange thing happens: as the wind whirls past the house, it increases in volume and for the briefest of moments seems to hover above the house. Then it resumes its whirling as though hurrying away to other regions beyond human habitation.”

Indeed, that first line (“storyteller and audience…”) describes the dominant narrative mode of more than one Ao story. From the 1980s onwards, Ao produced six volumes of poetry, the last being Songs Along the Way Home (2019). All of her poetry books had ‘Songs’ in the name because in the Ao language spoken by her people, the words for ‘poetry’ and ‘song’ was the same (‘ken’). In 1999, Ao published a scholarly ethnographic work called The Ao-Naga Oral Tradition.

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Her considerable output as a poet, short story writer and academic apart, Ao also wrote a fine memoir, the 2013 title Once Upon a Life: Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags

In it, we see the young Temsula recovering from the childhood trauma of losing her parents within nine months of each other. At one point, she improves her proficiency in English by reading the Time covers used by her classmates as wrapping paper. We see the development of a formidable intellect, even as her family marries her off fairly young. In a delightful scene we encounter Temsula as a 20-something housewife, burning a pressure cooker full of rice because she was too engrossed in a Perry Mason murder mystery.

In another significant scene, we see the clash between Naga and Christian values when her mother doesn’t approve of her elder brothers drinking rice beer at their grand-aunt’s house.

“My eldest brother used to say how much he enjoyed that heady brew. Incidentally, all Naga households in those days brewed their own rice beer which was consumed as part of the regular meals. Only after they converted to Christianity, they were made to abandon this practice because it was considered to be heathen. (…) For a long time, it seems mother did not know about my brothers drinking rice beer in grand-aunt’s house because just before going home, she would make them chew raw ginger to remove the smell from their mouths.”

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Ao’s writing was full of seemingly innocuous moments like this one, scenes that gently unfurled to assume greater significance later. Whether writing about the personal or the political, there was a lightness of touch and a genuine love for storytelling that shone through. May she rest in peace.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer. 

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