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Promising Novel on Oinam Trauma, But Dreary Narrative Makes it a PowerPoint Presentation

Book Title: The Waiting for the Dust to Settle

Author: Veio Pou

Published by: Speaking Tiger

Genre: Fiction

Book summary:

Ten-year-old Rakovei watches the army convoy rushing daily past his house in Senapati town and dreams of the day when he too will be a soldier. It is only when tragedy strikes his family that he comes to see the truth behind the glamour of military uniforms.

Set in Manipur during the 1980s and 90s, this novel follows the shared destinies of Rakovei and his family and community. Life is peaceful in the Naga villages around Senapati, until the spring of 1987,when cadres of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) attack the Assam Rifles outpost at Oinam Hill, and brutal retaliation follows—codenamed Operation Bluebird.

Village after village is occupied and young Rakovei, visiting his native village of Phyamaichi witnesses the horror—ordinary men and women tortured and executed; homes and shops ransacked and burnt down. Deep disillusionment sets in as Rakovei begins to understand how his people suffer, caught in the war between the Indian Army and the Naga underground.

The only chance of even basic security seems to lie far away, in the ‘mainland’, but it comes with the dark shadows of prejudice and racism. Waiting for the Dust to Settle provides a poignant, often searing, glimpse into the realities of life for ordinary Nagas in the turbulent final decades of the twentieth century, even as it chronicles with great sensitivity the resilience of these men and women caught between hope and despair.

About the author:

Veio Pou teaches in the Department of English, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi. He reads moderately, writes occasionally, and lives in New Delhi with his wife and two daughters. Waiting for the Dust to Settle is his first novel.

My Review:

Waiting for the Dust to Settle definitely has an interesting premise: an own voice telling a not often heard story of how the Indian Army ravaged through villages wreaking havoc on the lives of simple people in a remote corner of Manipur in the late 80s. It begins in a period when the NSCN, a major armed group of the Nagas yet to split at the time was actively fighting against India and its army, and captures the plight of a people caught between two mighty forces.

The readers are taken to a world of living under the push and pull of terror and trying to make sense of it all through the everyday life of 10 year old Rakovei as he finds things unfolding around him, absorbing the tumult around him and what it means to live in fear. But this is not a narrative as seen solely through the eyes of a child for the book follows Rakovei in an adult world too. Rakovei’s grandmother makes a strong presence in the narrative bringing an old charm about her and stories of early times that are rooted in Naga history, culture and beliefs. Her stories of the Japanese forces during the Second World War has an interesting aside: that a few of the soldiers decided not to go back, opting to stay as locals.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from the weight of the historical backdrop: more than getting into the characters and their thoughts, there is an almost academic approach to the book that keeps away the reader from feeling the sense of despair or the small dreams that glimmer off and on. There is more of historical information, facts and context and less of the characters and their stories so much so that at times, I felt as if I was reading a feature story in a magazine with exhaustive backgrounds explaining why the story was the way it was and where it was going and with only a few quotes dropping here and there.

There is much background on the Naga movement starting from the NNC to the rise of civil society groups, the in fighting, the corruption amongst cadres and a nudge to experiences of racist attitudes once the main character of Rakovei reaches Delhi leaving little room for the literary elements of a novel to take shape and catch the attention of readers. It is almost like the author was grappling with writing down cold facts on one hand and fleshing out fictional characters caught in that turbulent time on to the present protracted state of the ongoing peace talks.

The writing succeeds in one area: that of highlighting what happened at Oinam village in the late 80s but tis comes at the cost of literary element in the book. This is not to say that fiction cannot be set against the backdrop of actual historical events. There are many books that do that with compelling plot lines and characters that stay with you. This debut book held a faint promise of offering a new voice from Manipur but quite doesn’t deliver.

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