Conflict, especially prolonged ones which have caused unimaginable pains and sufferings to an entire community, cannot by any stretch of imagination be easy to resolve. An agreement to end physical hostilities, in this sense, would be far easier than the prospect of erasing all the bitter memories of betrayals and defeats, or the depthless griefs of irreparable losses of lives and dignity the community would have invariably had to endure. Even recent history will testify that the earlier kind of settlements have been by and large about economic packages and other material gives and takes. In the latter and less publicised reconciliations, the subject is memory, therefore beyond easy control of anybody, not even those who hold them.
It is in this light that the Naga problem becomes interesting. Quite obviously, the negotiations for a final peace accord with the Nagas is having to grapple with all of these issues. At the official level, though little or nothing has been made public yet, indications are, an accord is close at hands. It also seems this settlement will be two-tiered, one for Nagas of Nagaland and the other for Nagas in states other than Nagaland. Beyond the official accord, there are however other reconciliations to be accomplished, and these would have to be more about the Nagas coming to terms with their past, present and future. Nowhere is this dilemma more prominent than in recent trends in literature emanating from Nagas of Nagaland.
Indeed, there seems something peculiarly striking about the fiction and nonfiction works of Naga writers in the final round of the contest for the 2nd Gordon Graham Award for Naga Literature this year, organised by the Kohima Education Society, KES. This is an award set up from funds raised by British War Veterans who fought in the Battle of Kohima during World War II, as a token of appreciation of the help they received from ordinary Naga villagers during that crucial, intense though short faceoff with advancing Japanese troops. What becomes evident is, while Naga nonfiction writing is seemingly unable to break free from the now hardened mould of recalling and revisiting the Naga resistance movement, ending up in the process recycling and retelling the same story over and over again with little or no addition to the body of knowledge or insights already available, fiction writing from Nagaland is beginning to show signs of a new life germinating. The KES clarified there were not many entries in either categories, but this trend had become quite prominent from much earlier and the entries this time only reinforced the trend.
In the nonfiction category, there were only two finalists. One retells yet again the story of the Naga struggle quoting liberally from past similar works, taking those familiar with this story back on the now drearily long and much trodden path. The other ventures away from this tradition and enters the field of anthropology to record the indigenous traditions of each of the 16 tribes of the state. The first ultimately was adjudged winner, probably because of the popular impression that the second lacked the requisite tools and command of the discipline to tackle the subject. In the fiction category however, there were three novels that made the final round, and between them they covered a wide spectrum of the Naga world. But quite bewilderingly, all three shared one strange quality. In none of them is even a faint echo of the bloody conflict Nagaland has gone through in all of seven decades, contrasting quite loudly with the almost obsessive focus of a great section of nonfiction writings from the state.
One of these novels is set in a college campus. Well-conceived and told, the plot has Naga teens addicted to Korean videos, skipping classes, falling in and out of love etc., and the story spans just a college semester, so the silence is somewhat understandable. The second is about a poor village girl from an influential clan in an unhappy arranged marriage with an older but rich man from a lesser clan. The slow and brooding plot drags for nearly three decades, coinciding with the most troubled decades of the Naga conflict, therefore unnatural that the shadows of the conflict should not have touched the lives of the protagonists, even if indirectly such as by the inconvenience of curfews and strikes. It is as if the protagonists of the novel were in a totally different dimension of space and time in which the conflict that was tearing into everybody’s lives in Nagaland in the same period was invisible. The third is intense. It tells of two Naga women, a mother first and then her daughter later, in abusive marital relations, revealing in the process the deeply patriarchal Naga world. Dehumanised by almost daily savage physical abuses, their inability to see beyond their immediate worlds, therefore oblivious of the conflict outside, is also somewhat forgivable though still strange. Not surprisingly this story bagged the prize.
However, when the books in both the categories are read together, another psychological landscape emerges, reminiscent of the extremely problematic nature of memory, not only on the question of its much-debated reliability as historical evidence, but also of the nature of dilemma they induce on those who bear them, especially when it comes to memories of indignity and trauma. The delicate nuances of this dilemma could not have been better portrayed than by film maker, Alain Resnais, in the 1959 classic Hiroshima Mon Amour, where the director explores the idea of forgetting traumatic past as liberation, but also how this liberation is burdened by guilt of betrayal.
The seeming absolute disconnect between the worlds of Naga nonfiction and fiction imagination hence also tells of the turmoil Nagas have gone through in a different way. In Renais work, this tearing inner conflict is eloquently articulated by the French woman protagonist: “Like you, I wanted to have an inconsolable memory… / For my part, I struggled with all my might, every day, against the horror of no longer understanding at all the reason for remembering. / Like you, I forgot.”
This deafening silence on the violent recent history of the Nagas in fiction writings from Nagaland may indeed be an expression of a universal combat fatigue and an unconscious longing to forget and leave behind a past of trauma as a way of liberating the self. But as to whether this forgetting is merely a manifestation of the Freudian ego defence mechanism of repression, an unconscious strategy employed by the ego to keep disturbing thoughts from becoming conscious, or else a demonstration of a considered coming to terms with the past, is not certain. The prevalence of an almost compulsive preoccupation in Naga nonfiction to recall this past trauma does indicate the former is the case, for this may be a manifestation of the guilt of repressed memory. Quite obviously, the memory of a traumatic past is not easy to exorcise. The stories of those who have suffered and died for a common unfulfilled dream cannot be easily disowned by generations that follow. The separate trajectories of the two genres may therefore be indicative of the onerous challenge ahead of resolving the crisis of a painfully split Naga self.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author