Easterine Kire | Speaking Tiger | Pages175 | Rs. 350 | Soft cover
By GANESH SAILI
Among the many insidious memories of the British Raj, the one that perhaps walks away with the cake in the nineteenth century was the notorious practice of ‘begar’ – coerced or forced labour involving tough and hard work with road building and porterage. Conscripting hundreds of peasants at a time, the Raj opened up new roads without any payment to them. They were expected to take care of their own food and shelter. At times, it worked, but most of the time it did not. It was while trying to find free labour, the not-so- honourable John Company found itself face to face with the invincible warriors of a Naga village called Khonoma – a name that would in the years to come strike terror into the hearts of the flashy Redcoats. They had met more than their match. In far off Kohima, Political Agent Damant sat flips through the files which said: ’22 raids between 1850-1865, 232 British subjects killed, wounded or taken prisoner!’ He had had enough of negotiating and was convinced that it was time to take on the Nagas head on by mounting an expedition to crush this impregnable village. And on Author the success of that single mission would rest the future of the British Empire. If it achieved nothing else, it would serve the dual purpose of sending a stern message as a warning to the neighbouring villages not to never again ‘think’ about an uprising. In the first Naga novel, winner of the Hindu Prize, Easterine Kire’s takes the reader to the grim battles between Britain and the Nagas that began in 1832 to end in 1880. Small wonder then, the Angami warriors of Khonoma became the torchbearers of Naga resistance against the East India Company. With impunity, they carried out raids that completely disrupted the forced recruitment of the Nagas in begar or bonded labour. In the good old days, life in the far-flung Naga hills had everyone was connected to the land, only this time around they were looking after it by fighting back. Khonoma is a natural fortress nestled amidst the high hills at an average altitude of seven thousand feet, where life in the far-flung Naga hills had been ordered by the seasons and the ceaseless labour of both women and men alike in the fields; by social taboos, rituals and festivals. Young boys attained adulthood fed on stories of valiant battles with rival villages, tigers, spirits and the British. Everyone had a deep connection with the land, and took pride in fighting and toiling for it. After the death of an officer in 1879, the British laid siege upon the tiny village. But despite being outnumbered and ill-equipped, Khonoma held out against them for four long months, which formally ended in the signing a peace treaty on 27 March, 1880. The book weaves together years of meticulous research with oral narratives that tells the story of a proud and remarkable community reckoning with radical change. You witness the arrival of the first white medicine man carrying the Book, the Bell and the Candle – Dr. Sidney Rivenburg. The doctor has already made a few converts in Kohima. But here he finds for all their health needs, the Angami would turn to Bone Setters, Herbalists and Chicken sacrificers. To help them better, he returns to America, attends two years of medical college and is back in 1894 equipped to serve these people. Rivenburg’s school is unconventional: he prepares in the Roman script, primers in Angami, along with Mathematics and the Sciences. The author traces the first baptism to 1897, which was followed by ostracism of all those who had accepted the New Faith. But a new age tsunami is set to wash over the brave Naga warriors and nothing would ever be the same again. The reader will find the glossary at the very end of the novel most helpful. It serves as a primer, to initiate the uninitiated, and remains an invaluable aid on this journey into the magical world of the Nagas.