Even in Kyōto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyōto
When Matsuo Basho (1644-1698), the famed Japanese poet and diarist, composed this haiku, he was probably musing about memory and nostalgia— on pain and suffering caused by attachment.Kire’s latest novel, Respectable Woman, a chronicle of the endless and excruciating transition that the Nagas find themselves trapped in, evokes an ache in you very similar to what the Cuckoo’s cry filled the poet’s heart with. It makes you long for Kohima even as you read the tale whilst in Kohima. You cannot help but yearn for the Kohima of old— its freshness, the simplicity of its inhabitants, the unblemished prospects of reaping benefits from the newly introduced western education and more essentially the opportunity to begin anew at the end of the war.
The novel, all the same, is not a romanticized tale of the good old days. It is more importantly a truthful account of pain and suffering that the inhabitants of Kohima and its surrounding areas underwent as a result of a war that was never theirs to fight or suffer for. The tale recounts with frankness the anguish and hurt experienced by a people who were not allowed the right to decide for themselves what is best for themselves, first by the British, then by the Indians and finally by themselves. It is also an honest narrative of in decisions and bad decisions, chances squandered and mistakes committed, by her people in the course of rebuilding their lives. She writes the novel in the hope that the present generation “will see to it that the legacy upon which their civilization has been built is not completely wiped out.”
Besides being a historical novel, Respectable Woman ought to be read as a biting social commentary. The tale, spanning four generations— the narrator, Kevinuo, giving an account of her grandparents, her parents, herself and of her adopted daughter Uvi, ends in the year 1996. Besides the war and other external sources, much of the sadness and the gloom that engulfs the novel stems from the many and early deaths that visit kevinuo and her family. The early deaths of husbands, brothers and sons perhaps serve not only to bring out pathos in the book but also helps the author to put into perspective certain trends in her society that must be put to question.
Respectable Woman does what social novels do best— scratch the itch that everybody think is necessary but is hesitant to, for fear of discovering blood on their nails. Kire finally brings to her worldwide readership the infamous Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act: the myopic vision behind the passing of the act, the inability to implement it, the horrifying side-effects of such a faulty act and the dire need to reconsider if this act must stay. She also introduces the subject of unemployment in the state. She very deftly does this through the character of the narrator’s brother, Vingutuo, who was given the liberty to pursue as a career the desire of his heart (This was in the 1980s!) and eventually experiences success and happiness in life. The author also broaches on the evils of physical abuse to women by their husbands, which is a very familiar issue even today. The helplessness of women in these circumstances is made clear in the irony of Beinuo’s life before and after her marriage. As a young girl, she was spirited and declares “I would beat him right back!” and continues without hesitation, “He has no right to beat me. I won’t let him!” But as she grew up and marries a wife-beating-man, she couldn’t leave him, not to talk about fighting back! She now fears condemnation, being labeled as a failed wife, and most of all feared for the lives of her children. This change in her stance keeps her in a unhappy marriage and eventually leads to her death at the end of her own husband. The novel is pregnant with lessons only if we are willing to learn from it.
Uvi should be aged around 28 years old today. You can’t help but wonder if she turned out to be a fine woman like her mother, Kevinuo. Is she happy? Or does she feel as orphaned as the Kewhimia villagers felt when the British left Kohima after the war? I would like to ask her. I wonder if she would find the silence of today’s parents and elders at the distress of the young, terribly exasperating. Uvi’s great grandparents, her grandparents and her parents all lived difficult lives— surviving on the edge, pretending and attempting to live lives as close to normal as was allowed. Has anything changed in Uvi’s times? Perhaps she would want another war, a purgative, a cleansing. Perhaps she would pine for another new beginning.
Finally, who is or is not a respectable woman? Is the senior girl from Kohima College who got expelled because of getting pregnant out of wedlock an example of a woman without respect? Is a respectable woman the silent one who remains forever subservient to her fathers, brothers and husband? Is she the woman who ‘wisely’ married early and did not enter spinsterhood? We’ll have to ask Kevinuo who is 58 now. Let us find out if she got married and became respectable!
Respectable Woman is published by Zubaan, and priced at rupees 495/- It is available for sale at Little Niceties, Kesa Market, Kohima, Patkai Books, Chumukedima, and online at Amazon.com.
North Eastern Hill University