Tola beats the tiger: Easterine Kire on her new novel ‘Spirit Nights’
In his latest offer, Spiritual NightsEasterine Kire transports us both to the Nagaland of legends and traditions and to the real Nagaland populated by strong women and wise sages.
There are days when the world will swallow you up, the enormity of life will hit you from all sides, leaving you groping for answers. Easterine Kire’s writings comfort you in such times, offering an antidote to life’s ups and downs.
The poet and author of Kohima is back with her new novel, Spiritual Nights. He sees Kire almost at his best, crafting a story of human courage and the spirit world with the grace and conciseness that are his trademark. The book belongs to a long tradition of folklore-based literature where the wisdom of heaven and earth as embedded in tribal chronicles is brought to life in a language that sparkles with clarity and rhythm with the cadence of distant lands. .
Cover of “Spirit Nights”
In conversation from Norway, where Kire is now based, she tells me about the many aspects of the novel, including her use of Naga folk tales that have stood the test of time. “The amazing thing about the Naga folk tradition is that it was not only used as entertainment for young people, but also to educate them,” she says. “Many Naga tribes now write down their folk tales and publish them. It involves reinvention to some degree, but not to the point that the stories are altered in unrecognizable ways. I would say that writing brings them back to life.
Like much of Kire’s work, Spiritual Nights belongs to the valleys, mountains and farmlands of his beloved Nagaland. At the heart of business is Tola, a grandmother for the ages. Born into a long line of seers, possessors of secular visions and wisdoms, Tola brings ferocity and stillness to everyday life with her carousel of drama. These qualities are put to the test when his village – Shumang Laangnyu Sang (River Rock Village), belonging to the Chang Naga tribe, faces its greatest challenge.
According to an ancient prophecy, sudden darkness engulfed Shurang Laangnyu Sang and all the other nearby villages. “The tiger ate the sun!” goes the old saying. Tola, who has already seen this in a vision, only understands the enormity of what happened. In such an existential conflict, a person’s spiritual value is his only armor. The natural world and the spiritual world must 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 I knew, feared and admired in life. I used the memories of two of my aunts and a friend’s mother to model Tola. he admirable thing about these women was that they could be quite stern at times – the younger self feared and respected them – and they could also follow their stern teachings with gestures that conveyed sternness. 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.
“Like much of Kire’s oeuvre, Spirit Nights belongs to the mountains and farmlands of his beloved Nagaland”
Kire is from the Angami tribe, which she says is “geographically distant from the Chang tribe. We don’t speak the same language but have cultural affinities, even though many cultural practices are different. I have a dear friend Chang who introduced me to his culture and who was my go-to person when I wrote the book.
The outcome of the novel’s central battle is never in question. This is the path that turns out to be rewarding. Tola, accompanied by a predestined liberator – her grandson Namu – and her granddaughter Thongdi, travels through the darkness. The question here is not one of mere survival. It is a philosophical battle of life that charts the way forward, a battle where human fears and selfishness are replaced by greater and purer things.
By Easterine Kire
Simon & Schuster India
Spiritual Nights corrals a compelling cast of characters in its narrative – wise seers from nearby villages; leaders of different capacities; relatives and acquaintances; children and parents lost in the face of the vagaries of life. Vignettes from the past and future dance in the present, each enhanced by Kire’s ability to paint a vivid portrait of the earth and its people.
This is a land where the log drums matter as much as the seer or the chief, proclaiming everything from the start of the feasts to enemy attacks. It is a land where spirits are part of everyday existence, sometimes sowing fear, sometimes bringing light. This is a land where the wide-open mouth of a mythical tiger sometimes harbors a human’s dearest dreams. And it’s a land where the rhythms of daily agricultural life – sowing, sheltering, harvesting – seem to mimic the rhythms of life itself.
Kire says that Spiritual Nights and her blackness was in no way a reaction to the global pandemic (she completed the first draft nearly five years ago). But there’s no denying that the novel holds crucial lessons for an irrevocably altered world. He asks us to act as one against the shared darkness that surrounds us; discarding fear in favor of faith and rightful action.
true heart of life
Kire is hailed for reviving and representing her ethnic landscape in a way perhaps never before seen. Cultural commentator and curator Vivek Menezes once said of Kire, “This one-woman cultural revival exemplifies Nagaland’s modern literary culture, while establishing itself at the forefront of contemporary indigenous literature. In Kire’s work, poetry, stories, novels and archives share space with a rich mix of words and music she calls “jazzpoetry”. Spiritual Nights also belongs to this tradition, with its lyrical prose and documentation of a way of life.
Cultural commentator and curator Vivek Menezes (pictured) once said of Kire: ‘This one-woman cultural revival exemplifies Nagaland’s modern literary culture, while establishing itself at the forefront of contemporary indigenous literature .
But Kire treats his contributions lightly, saying, “I don’t really see myself as a champion of Naga culture. I mean, that would be pretty vain, wouldn’t it? I am a storyteller and I am lucky that in the most unexpected places and times, I receive inspiration from hearing a story told or reading a strange tale in an anthropological book, which becomes the seed that I plant and fed.
Based in Norway for many years, Kire talks about home, juggling family, friends and book promotions every time she returns. She talks about nurturing her bonds with family and community, which are central to Naga culture. She tells me about her love for Ukiyo Bookstore in Manipur, which recently hosted the Imphal launch of Spiritual Nights. She fondly recalls a recent road trip with “Van Morrison playing in the background – those kind of memories that stay with you.” Then she reveals that she is currently working on “a book about a family that escaped from Russia during the days of the Revolution in 1917”.
We’ve almost finished our conversation when the conversation turns to my hometown Poona (we both prefer to call the town by its old name), where Kire had also lived. “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 visit I find myself looking for traces of the Poona I remember two decades ago. It used to resist becoming a boom town by regularly observing siestas and closing shops on Sundays,” she laughs. Nostalgia seems like a pretty good place to leave things as they are.
While reading Spiritual Nights, I remember being forced to take a deep breath reading the line, “That tenderness was at the very heart of life.” For me, this phrase sums up Kire and his legacy perfectly. It also underpins the quiet beauty of Spiritual Nights.
Siddharth Dasgupta is a poet, novelist and editor, Visual Narratives, at The Bombay Literary Magazine.