There are days when the world will swallow you, life’s enormity will hit you anew from every direction, leaving you groping for answers. Easterine Kire’s writings give you solace in such times, offering an antidote to life’s vagaries.
The poet and author from Kohima is back with her new novel, Spirit Nights. It sees Kire at almost her best, crafting a tale of human courage and the spirit world with the grace and succinctness which are her hallmark. The book belongs to a long tradition of folklore-based literature where the wisdom of the skies and earth as embedded in tribal chronicles is brought back to life in a language that sparkles with clarity and lilts with the cadence of distant lands.
In conversation from Norway, where Kire is now based, she talks to me about the novel’s many aspects, including its use of Naga folktales which have stood the test of time. “The amazing thing about the Naga folk-telling tradition is that it was used not only as entertainment for the young, but it also served to school them,” she says. “Many of the Naga tribes are now writing down their folktales and publishing them. This involves reinvention to a certain degree, but not to such an extent that the stories are unrecognisably altered. I would say that the written word gives them a new lease on life.”
Like much of Kire’s oeuvre, Spirit Nights belongs to the valleys, mountains and farmlands of her beloved Nagaland. At the heart of affairs lies Tola, a grandma for the ages. Born to a long line of seers, possessors of visions and age-old wisdoms, Tola brings fierceness and stillness to everyday life with its carousel of dramas.These qualities are put to the test when her village—Shumang Laangnyu Sang (River Rock village), belonging to the Chang Naga tribe—is faced with its greatest challenge.
In accordance with an ancient prophecy, a sudden darkness engulfs Shumang Laangnyu Sang and every other village in its vicinity. “Tiger has eaten the sun!” goes the old saying. Tola, who has seen this before in a vision, alone understands the enormity of what has occurred. In such an existential conflict, a person’s spiritual valour is her only armour. The natural world and the spiritual world need to be allied in this epic transcendent struggle, before light can once again emerge on earth.
Kire seems to share a special, filial bond with her heroine. “Ah Tola!” she exclaims. “She is inspired by a number of wise and incredibly strong women whom I knew, and feared, and admired in life. I used the memories of two of my aunts and a friend’s mother to mould Tola. The admirable thing about these women was how they could be quite stern at times—the younger me feared and respected them—and could also follow up their stern teachings with gestures that conveyed love and care. And they were full of native wisdom, able to decipher dreams and visions as well as read signals in the natural world.”
Kire is from the Angami tribe, which, she says is “distant geographically from the Chang tribe. We don’t speak the same language but have some cultural affinity, even though many cultural practices are different. I have a dear Chang friend who introduced me to his culture and was my go-to person when I wrote the book.”
The outcome of the novel’s central battle is never in question. It’s the getting-there that proves to be life-enriching. Tola, together with a foreordained liberator—her grandson Namu—and her granddaughter-in-law Thongdi, ploughs through the darkness. The question here isn’t one of mere survival. It is a philosophical battle of life that etches the road ahead, one where human fears and and selfishness are replaced by larger, purer things.
Spirit Nights corrals a compelling cast of characters in its telling—wise seers from neighbouring villages; headmen of different capabilities; relatives and acquaintances; children and parents lost to the vagaries of life. Vignettes of the past and the future dance into the present, each enhanced by Kire’s ability to paint a vivid portrait of the land and its people.
This is a land where log-drums hold as much importance as the seer or the headman, proclaiming everything from the onset of festivals to enemy attacks. This is a land where spirits are part of everyday existence, at times sowing fear, at times bringing light. This is a land where the wide-open mouth of a mythical tiger sometimes holds a human’s most cherished dreams. And this is a land where the rhythms of daily farm life—the sowing, the sheltering, the harvesting—seem to mimic the rhythms of life itself.
Kire says that Spirit Nights and its darkness were in no way a reaction to the global pandemic (she completed the first draft close to five years ago). But it cannot be denied that the novel holds crucial lessons for a world irrevocably altered. It asks us to act as one against the shared darkness around us; to discard fear in favour of faith and legitimate action.
True heart of living
Kire is hailed for reviving and representing her ethnic landscape in a way perhaps unattempted before. Cultural commentator and curator Vivek Menezes once said of Kire: “This one-woman cultural renaissance exemplifies the modern literary culture of Nagaland, while establishing herself in the front line of contemporary indigenous literature.” In Kire’s oeuvre, poetry, stories, novels and archiving share space with a rich melange of lyrics and music that she calls “jazzpoetry”. Spirit Nights belongs to this tradition too, with its lyrical prose and documentation of a way of life.
But Kire treats her contributions lightly, saying: “I don’t really see myself as a flagbearer for Naga culture. I mean, that would be quite conceited, wouldn’t it? I am a storyteller and am blessed that at the most unexpected places and times, I receive inspiration from hearing a story being told, or reading a strange account in an anthropological book, which becomes the seed that I plant and nurture.”
Norway-based for many years, Kire talks of home, of juggling time between family, friends, and book promotions whenever she returns. She speaks of nourishing her ties with family and community, which lie at the heart of Naga culture. She tells me about her love for Manipur’s Ukiyo bookstore, which recently hosted the Imphal launch of Spirit Nights. She fondly remembers a recent road trip with “Van Morrison playing in the background—those kinds of memories that stay with you.” Then she reveals she’s currently working on “a book about a family that escapes from Russia during the days of the Revolution in 1917.”
We’re nearly done with our conversation when the talk veers towards my hometown Poona (both of us prefer to call the city by its old name), where Kire had lived too. “My relationship with Poona is special,” she says. “It became my second home when I was doing my doctoral studies and my children went to school there. It calls to me and when I do visit, I find myself looking for traces of the Poona that I remember from two decades ago. In the old days, it used to resist becoming a boomtown by regularly observing siestas and shuttering shops on Sundays,” she says with a laugh. Nostalgia seems a good enough place to leave things be.
While reading Spirit Nights, I remember being compelled to take a long breath on reading the line, “That tenderness was at the true heart of living”. For me, this sentence sums up Kire and her legacy perfectly. It also underlies the unhurried beauty of Spirit Nights.
Siddharth Dasgupta is a poet, novelist and editor, Visual Narratives, at The Bombay Literary Magazine.