In the Blind Spot

In the Blind Spot

Easterine Kire’s book provides vivid portraiture of a people on the fringes of the frames of conventional historiography 

naga festival, Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland book review, express review, indian express news
An Angami Naga festival in progress Photo: Yves Picq/ Wikimedia Commons

Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland
Easterine Kire
Aleph Book Company
328 pages
Rs 699

Easterine Kire’s Walking the Roadless Road is fascinating for many reasons, despite a few jarring notes. The book profiles Nagaland’s 16 recognised tribes. However, this is not the usual detached portraiture from the vantage of objective observers, but rather, images of these tribes as they see themselves. It is, hence, difficult to put the work in any genre or academic discipline. It is not quite anthropology or history, although influences of earlier works in these disciplines are evident, and it is not altogether a study in folklores and customary practices either, though the book is most engaging in the section which leans towards this approach. It is, however, a story well told.

The first of four sections which makes up two-thirds of the book, tell of the charming indigenous world of the Nagas. Kire makes it clear that the scope of her work does not extend beyond the boundaries of Nagaland state. She thus profiles all of Nagaland’s 16 tribes, including the two not considered Naga: the Dimasa Cachari and the Kuki. This indigenous world seems unique and aloof. It is almost as if Kire is opening the door to another dimension in time, taking the reader on a guided tour of a magical world preserved in collective archetypal memories stored in folklores, songs, chants and rituals.

Adding to the richness of this portraitures is accounts of the inherent fears of the tribes, often manifesting as malevolent spirits they believe they share their homes and hearths with, and the strategies they evolve to evade them. Each tribe has its own set of spirits to get along with, and consequently its own set of rules for holding the peace with the netherworld. These spirits, most of them corresponding to natural phenomena, earn importance according to their potential to harm humans. Kire does not attempt to interpret the significance of these fears, but it is clear that they represent the ways these indigenous communities cope with dangers they do not comprehend — such as unnatural deaths, epidemics, pestilences, crop failures, wild animal attacks etc. From these responses, the reader also gets to see the sinews that hold the identity and character of each tribe together. Almost all the tribes have the bachelor’s seat or ‘Morung’, referred to by different names by each tribe. This is where young boys are bound by custom to spend their youth with peers, learning the ways of the village and cementing village solidarity.

naga festival, Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland book review, express review, indian express news
The first of four sections which makes up two-thirds of the book, tell of the charming indigenous world of the Nagas.

Though most villages were at war with each other in pre-modern times, and had little or no shared identity, within the village the tribes were exogamous and marriages within the clan were prohibited. It is not difficult to see how this would have bonded the village as a community, as different clans within it would have been related by marriage. Also interesting are the sets of taboos of each tribe the author lists. In them, the reader gets interesting glimpses into how formal laws begin to take shape amongst indigenous communities as their economy matures. While in most tribes, these were merely the things villagers were prohibited from doing, in some tribes they were more nuanced. Besides taboos, the Konyaks also had protocol regulations, such as who could remain seated in whose presence in the village council.

The book’s weakness concerns academic rigour. There is very little multiple or multi-disciplinary sourcing, even while making pivotal conclusions. For instance, all the tribes have their own collective memory of how and where they migrated from. Some claim a sea-faring antiquity, others reminisce of a cave-dwelling past, and yet others look eastwards to China and Mongolia as their original homeland. Different Naga tribes claiming different origins is understandable but sometimes, as in the case of the Angami, these differing memories of origins are within the same tribe. Perhaps big tribes like the Angami were melting pots of ethnicity, where different migrating groups amalgamated, explaining the differing memories. Kire makes no effort to reconcile these, but perhaps she only wants to flag them for future scholars.

This slack, however, gets more pronounced when the book leaves the mythical world and enters the historical era. One example would help illustrate. In the tradition of Northeast scholarship, Kire often relies on works by colonial administrators, in particular, JP Mills and JH Hutton, both ICS officers who had extended stints in the Naga Hills of British Assam. British colonial administrators do seem to have been unusually gifted with an anthropological instinct. Four of them, as Prof David Syiemlieh has written quite extensively, were quick to notice this otherworldly aloofness of the indigenous world there. As Indian independence drew close, they suggested that the contiguous mountainous region of Northeast India and Northwest Burma, should be clubbed together and treated as a separate country, neither India nor Burma.

The most prominent and elaborate suggestion came from Robert Reid, governor of Assam, in 1937. His 22-page treatise, A Note on the Future of the Present Excluded, Partially Excluded and Tribal Areas of Assam was used with permission and attribution by Reginald Coupland of Oxford University, in the last of three volumes of his 1943 compilation on problems of constitution-making in India. Later, clumsy scholarships represented Reid’s idea as the Coupland Plan. The plan was rejected for many reasons, most importantly because many other British administrators in Burma and India doubted its feasibility. Kire picks up and uses this erroneous explanation.

But the core of the book is Kire’s portrayal of the pre-modern Naga world. The other threads are mopping-up exercises to make the book somewhat rounded. This core, however. is wonderful, pointing out the glaring blind spot of conventional historiography in picturising these societies.

The writer is editor, Imphal Free Press.