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War and love in Kohima

Gargi Gupta  |  New Delhi 

It is not widely remembered in India today, but Kohima was the scene of an Allied victory in the World War II, a victory so decisive that it changed the contours of the war in Asia. The Japanese who had been advancing steadily into Asia after the success of their Burma campaign in 1941-42, and had got dangerously close to British-ruled India, were beaten back so convincingly, and so broken down by disease and hunger from the battle in the Naga Hills that they lost the initiative.

The “Battle of Kohima”, as it is now known, was a bloody affair. It lasted for three months, from April to June 1944, and left over 10,000 dead on both sides. The entire area, once a small, sleepy British outpost, was devastated, and the lives of its people turned upside down.

Easterine Kire’s Mari harks back to those turbulent war years. It’s a story of love in the time of war, in the well-trodden tradition of novels and films such as Farewell to Arms and Casablanca. The lovers here are Mari, short for Khrielievu Mari, the 17-year-old daughter of a treasury officer in the district commissioner’s office in Kohima, and Staff Sargeant Victor (Vic), a British soldier in the India army. The novel is in the first person, a semi-fictional autobiography written from the stories that Mari told Kire, her niece, about those momentous years of her life, and from a diary that she kept in those years.

It’s a simple, universal story, naively and delicately told, of a young girl, falling in love — the meeting, the pursuit, the courtship and consummation. Kire expends considerable prose in building up the idyllic pre-war setting — the extended family of seven who live in a two-storey house called Bamboo Villa, surrounded by terraced herb patches, fruit trees, a vegetable garden and flower beds; the town itself with its neat bungalows and streets a riot of colours from blooming daisies, rhododendron and pink bohemia and scarlet Flame of the Forest; the rhythms of a peaceful life punctuated with a holiday in the fields, or gathering herbs in the garden — the better to drive home its later desecration during the war.

The war intrudes on this pastoral life, first through the radio, which brings news of faraway events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbour; and then, closer home when fighter planes start flying overhead — creating immense excitement initially with villagers running out to see them —and later, when hordes of “starving, diseased” refugees start pouring in from the Burma border.

Kohima-based Kire, who has written several and collections of short stories and poems in English besides the first published Naga novel, and translated oral poems from Naga into English, builds up the mood of impending tragedy well.

The two plot tracks play out simultaneously. As the romance comes to a head, with the much younger Mari slowly overcoming her inhibitions towards her considerably older (Vic is over 30) suitor, and her family agrees to their marriage, the war too draws closer to Kohima, and takes over the lives of its residents. The family is parted — Mari’s father leaves for Shillong, and Mari’s young sisters are packed off to a nearby village, Chieswema. War, and the looming shadow of death, makes conventional codes of morality irrelevant and Vic moves into Mari’s home and bed, with the blessings of her family. But the lovers are soon parted when the Japanese overrun Kohima, sending Mari and her family fleeing to Chieswema and Vic to his post on Garrison Hill.

Mari, though, is no war hero, she is only a romantic protagonist. Most of the Naga tribes sided with the British in the war and there was an active local resistance movement, guiding the Allied forces through the hills, carrying messages and spying on the Japanese. But Mari takes no part in this. Over the next two months, she joins the hundreds of other displaced inhabitants of the Naga Hills in wandering through the hills and valleys, running from village to refugee camp to escape the advancing Japanese. It’s a perilous time, especially when Mari discovers she is pregnant, with bullets flying everywhere, the Japanese raping and pillaging their way through the countryside and food in such short supply that even the forests run out of herbs. Sometime around May, Mari finds out that Vic has been killed in the war. Grief stricken, she’s left to pick up the pieces — only 18 and expecting a child.

The rest of the book traces Mari’s life as she attempts to rebuild her life. She tries to find love again with another British soldier, Dickie, and even has a child, a daughter, by him. But this romance too leads nowhere. Dickie is transferred out of Kohima and Mari stays back, unwilling to leave her family. She then decides to complete her education, trains as a nurse and finds a job in Digboi. Here she meets Pat, a tea planter, falls in love and marries him, finding the security and peace that had been denied her by her earlier lovers. Kire skims over this last part of Mari’s life in three chapters, pausing only to record important events such as the deaths of Mari’s parents and the marriages of her daughter. It’s as if, for Mari, the war and the ravages of it were the only enduring memories — the rest was merely a post-script.

Easterine Kire
172 pages; Rs 250

First Published: Wed, March 16 2011. 00:53 IST