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A bitter tale of violence

Book title: Bitter Wormwood

Author: Easterine Kire

Publisher: Zubaan

Pages: 269

Price: Rs 295

Easterine Kire has a simple solution to keep the evil spirit of violence at bay — a bitter wormwood leaf tucked behind the ear, albeit not literally. Her latest offering by the same name ends with a solution that could be the beginning of a new chapter of peace in violence-scarred Nagaland.

Bitter wormwood is a herb generally used by Nagas to heal cuts, wounds and insect bites. The Nagas, who hugely depend on forest produce to cure various illnesses and diseases, believe that if the odd shaped leaf is tucked behind the ears, no evil spirit can harm a person, especially when they embark on a journey into the deep and unknown recesses of a forest. Kire brings to her readers the story of a people caught in unknown dangers of insurgency. And this very uncertainty of life helped the bitter wormwood leaf take on a talismanic importance.

If “bad spirits” used to roam the forests of Nagaland in olden days, now it’s the evil spirit of violence that has dominated the social and political space of Naga society for more than six decades.

Bitter Wormwood highlights the impact of the Naga freedom struggle from Indian dominance — which is mostly riddled with largescale violence — on common Naga men and women.

In the novel, Kire, one of the most prominent literary voices of the Northeast, has dealt with Naga struggle and its various ups and downs over the years through the life of the protagonist, Moselie.

There is no doubt that Bitter Wormwood is a hardcore political book, covering almost all the important political episodes of Nagaland. All these events are said through the life of Moselie — first as a teenager, who joins the Naga freedom struggle as a foot soldier, and then as an old, wise and retired underground cadre who witnessed wanton destruction and loss of lives of his people in the hands of the Indian army. Moselie’s sufferings don’t just end here. What hurts him most is the gradual degradation of Naga society, where factional killings have become the order of the day.

The book, as the writer clearly states, is not meant to be a history textbook. Kire writes, “This book is not about the leaders and heroes of the Naga struggle. It is about the ordinary people whose lives were completely overturned by the freedom struggle.”

Somewhere, narrating the story of Moselie, Kire brings to light what the entire Naga population went through in the process of achieving their freedom, which is yet to be realised.

Though a work of fiction, Kire, who is credited with writing some of the best English novels from the Northeast, including her hard-hitting A Terrible Matriarchy (Zubaan 2007), Bitter Wormwood continuously stresses on real and raw facts.

Perhaps it is her obsession with concentrating on too many facts that the flow of the novel breaks at times. In some places, the book reads like a collage of newspaper reports. A bit of more subtle imagination while incorporating facts could have taken the book to a much greater level. Nevertheless, the book raises many pertinent issues, including racial discrimination faced by people of the region when they migrate to the “mainland” in search of better education and job opportunities.

The lucid and simple narrative makes the book an easy read. More such stories based on the lives of the people of the Northeast can well play the role of cultural ambassador to educate and inform the rest of India about this far-flung geographical entity of the country.