Knowledge-keeper of Nagaland

Remembering the poet, fiction-writer, and ethnographer Temsula Ao (1945-2022).

Published : Oct 30, 2022 11:43 IST

Temsula Ao.

Temsula Ao. | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

Somehow, I do not remember the first time I met Temsula Ao in person. But I do recall my first Temsula Ao book, her early collection of short stories, These Hills Called Home: Stories from a Warzone. The searing stories haunted me for days and weeks after, and I carried them with me to my dreams. Her prose was much like her—elegant, bold, and precise. For me, a literature student from Nagaland, Temsula Ao was a living legend—a pioneering voice in the fast-evolving and emerging genre of Naga writing in English. Over time, I read her other literary works, which include short stories, a novel, the most sublime poetry, a heartrending memoir, an important ethnographic work on the Ao Naga oral tradition, a book of literary criticism, and several other publications.

Cover of Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories, ‘Laburnum For My Head’, for which she won the Sahitya Akademi Award.

Cover of Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories, ‘Laburnum For My Head’, for which she won the Sahitya Akademi Award. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Temsula Ao was Ma’am Temsula to me; her death on October 9 was a personal loss because to me she was a mentor, guide, beloved writer, and much more. Her death was a loss to the nation as well since she was an important literary figure with many awards and honours to her name. For her contribution to literature, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007, the Governor’s Gold Medal from the government of Meghalaya in 2009, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013, and the Kusumagraj National Literature Award in 2015. Besides being a wife and mother, she was a poet, writer, scholar, ethnographer, professor, and dean at North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong until her retirement in 2010. She served as director of the North East Zone Cultural Centre, Nagaland, between 1992 and 1997, on deputation from NEHU. Finally, she was appointed chairperson of the Nagaland State Commission for Women (NSCW) in 2012 and served two terms, until 2019.

It must have been during her final public stint as chairperson of NSCW that I first met her. I had briefly interned at the State Resource Centre for Women, Nagaland, and various programmes on gender and women were often held in convergence with the NSCW. I was a closet writer then and in awe of Ao.

Dancing alone

Ma’am Temsula was always approachable, soft-spoken, and cut a dignified figure in her mekhelas and signature cropped silver hair. But for a long time, I could not gather the courage to tell her that I wrote. Then, in a magical moment, my self-imposed reservations faded and she just became more real and relatable. I cannot ever forget that occasion.

Cover of Once Upon a Life: Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags.

Cover of Once Upon a Life: Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Some officials had arrived for a week-long programme, at the end of which a special dinner and cultural show were organised. That evening, at a popular hotel where the function was being held, I found Ma’am Temsula dancing alone, swaying gracefully to the music. There is something special about a woman who can dance in happy lonesomeness, and I watched in admiration. However, she could not dance alone for long. Soon we all trickled on to the makeshift dance floor, and it became a memorable evening.

My favourite book by Ma’am Temsula must be her memoir, Once Upon a Life: Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags (2013). I read it years after its release, inside a cosy cafe at Kolkata airport and it made me cry. While reaching for fresh tissue, I saw a man looking at me, brows furrowed in concern. I smiled and nodded tearfully, trying to convey wordlessly that I was all right, not having a breakdown, only reading Temsula Ao. It is a memoir like no other. She does not speak as a writer or a public figure but “as an ordinary woman who faced insurmountable odds from early childhood and who through sheer grit and self-belief, overcame those vicissitudes of life” (from the preface). I felt closer to her after reading it, and my respect grew tenfold. At that time, I thought to myself, if I ever get a chance, the right moment, I will ask her, “Would you do everything the same way again if life gave you that opportunity?” Sadly, the right moment never came. Maybe it is just as well.

Candid, unhesitating

I remember showing Ma’am Temsula my first book contract back in 2013. We had the same publisher and I needed her advice. She was a mentor to anyone who needed one. Over tea and sunlight streaming through open windows, we talked literature and life in her immaculate office. Although my senior, she spoke to me like an equal—candid, unhesitating. She could be irreverent and unapologetically forthright about her likes and dislikes.

“Ma’am Temsula was always approachable, soft-spoken and cut a dignified figure in her mekhelas and signature cropped silvery hair.”

Ma’am Temsula was a special guest along with Easterine Kire at my first book launch in 2015. That afternoon, I was excited and anxious and I decided to call and remind her about the programme, before the starting time, just in case. She responded with her characteristic dry wit: “Uff Avinuo, I haven’t gone senile, I’m almost there!”

Cover of Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories, ‘The Tombstone in My Garden’

Cover of Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories, ‘The Tombstone in My Garden’ | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Earlier this year, when my book, Where the Cobbled Path Leads, was getting ready for publication, I longed for an endorsement from Ma’am Temsula. It was then, when I got in touch, that I got to know about her failing health. Ever gracious, Ma’am Temsula still read the manuscript and wrote something precious for my book.

As I write this piece, random memories—snippets of conversations, a trip to the museum, warm greetings and embraces at literary festivals, comics she wanted to read, a discussion of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in her office, little and seemingly insignificant moments—come to mind. I realise how much of an impact she has had on me although I knew her very little after all. I cannot imagine how much she will be missed by those who were truly close to her.

My last conversation with Ma’am Temsula was in July 2022. She and her daughter Anungla had called to congratulate me on my book’s release. Ma’am Temsula lived in Dimapur while I was in Kohima: I told her that I planned to visit her in winter. It was not to be. Dear Ma’am Temsula passed away on October 9, when autumn was just beginning to touch the hills. She has a beautiful ode to the month, whose final stanza reads:

And when the time

Is ripe for me,

I wish to depart

With October in my heart

Temsula Ao leaves behind a deep void in our literary world. In telling her stories, she told our stories too. She is the guardian of a people’s history, a knowledge-keeper, a trove of stories. There will never be another Temsula Ao. I am so grateful to have known this remarkable woman.

Avinuo Kire is a writer and teacher from Kohima. She has authored two short story collections, an anthology of oral narratives, and a novel.

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