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Tales from troubled times

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Temsula Ao’s latest offering, a collection of eight stories, strikes a chord with their universality, even though seven of them are set within the Naga community. The simplicity of the language hides the complexity of emotions and themes she has written about, and the stories linger on long after the pages have been turned and the closed.

The “convoluted politics of the ravaged land” and the “people living in limbo” are movingly captured. The latter, innocents caught in the crossfire, clearly have her sympathy and Imdongla’s “‘What do you want from us?’”, directed at the captain of the Indian army in “A Simple Question”, speaks volumes of the fear and exasperation that has permeated their lives. Indeed, one could set this and other stories — “The Letter”, “Sonny” — in any other land where similar strife exists and they would not seem out of place.

Ao is critical of both the state and its opponents who have given up their ideals, the “mongrels in the jungle”. “Sonny” brings out the conflict and differences within the movement, exposing the selfish motives of many who support it. As in other conflict-ridden zones, women suffer the most but are strong, often without even being aware of their strength. Imdongla is a prime example, an “illiterate village woman” who is able to “unsettle [the captain’s] military confidence”. Her walking away with his matchbox seems a cheeky way to “freshly perturb” the already disturbed captain.

In fact, all the women are innately strong and wise — from the whimsical Lentina who gets her way in “Laburnum for My Head”, to the mother, daughter, granddaughter trio of Lipoktula, Medemla and Martha in “Three Women”, to the mother who assures her daughter, the protagonist in “Sonny” who has lost her lover to his precious cause of fighting for the motherland, “‘Whatever you do, I will always understand’”. In an ironic twist, when the great hunter Imchanok is haunted by the spirit of his kill, only his wife Tangchetla is able to comfort and help him exorcise his fear.

This reviewer was particularly moved by the fourth story, “The Letter”. Ao’s humanity is evident in this powerful tale that blurs the boundaries between a dead insurgent and an otherwise innocent villager responsible for his death. Both men are, at the core, struggling with the same issue — making ends meet. The shades of grey are most vivid in this story.

There is a sense of loss and melancholy that runs through the stories. Even the fantastical “The Boy Who Sold an Airfield” does not emerge unscathed. Lentina, too, does not want to lose the laburnum blossoms even after she is no more.

Ao falters with “Flight”. While one can appreciate the feelgood character of the last story in the collection, it does not fit in with the originality and freshness of the rest of the stories.

But this is only a minor irritant in a book that is easy to finish in an hour but which settles itself in a reader’s consciousness for a much longer period of time.


LABURNUM FOR MY HEAD: STORIES
Author: Temsula Ao
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 107
Price: Rs 150

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