A Naga Odyssey: My Long Way Home
Visier Meyasetsu Sanyü, with Richard Broome
316 pages Rs 499
(Written by Sanjay Barbora)
At a time when the country is going through a transformative journey that many struggle to understand, reading books ought to be a prescribed activity for those who are asking questions and looking for answers. One that should make it to that book list is Visier Meyasetsu Sanyü’s and Richard Broome’s book, A Naga Odyssey: My Long Way Home. The book can be read as a biography, as well as a sobering reflection of the political trajectories of our modern times.
Memory is both a fragile and firm thing: it is able to leave out some things and embellish others. But it is always the most important component of any storyteller’s tools. Sanyü and his historian-collaborator, Broome, do well to add personal memory to the Naga national narrative, detailing the various ways in which individual stories intersect in the long years of conflict and militarisation of Naga territories. A Naga Odyssey begins with a memory of a festival that would be the first of several rites of passage for Sanyü. His violent displacement from a caring home in a traditional village stands in marked contrast with the time spent in the forests in the attempt to avoid incarceration by the Indian army. From the first chapter itself, one senses a very uncanny but poignant story that needs patience and reflection from the reader, as was demanded of the author in the writing of his journeys.
The book traces Sanyü’s onward passage from the Naga Hills, to a disciplinarian school in Odisha, where he confronted prejudice and violence with the belligerence that only a wronged young teenager could muster. From there, his voyage as an adult in search of existential answers takes him to a boarding school in Shillong, to Darjeeling, Vietnam, Canada and Europe, before he returns to take up a lectureship in Kohima, Nagaland. Throughout his journey, Sanyü raises questions that always dogged him about his land and its people, and, he seeks to find common cause with those he meets along the way.
His life, replete with losses, trials and questions enters a new phase upon his return to Northeast India. However, marriage and family does not lead to the anchoring of Sanyü’s story. Rather, it opens newer frontiers of travel, with more questions about how human beings make sense of the turmoil and transformations in our lives. Throughout the personalised accounts of his experiences, Sanyü positions the story of the Naga political struggle as a canvas upon which his life finds expression. The fratricidal killings of the 1990s that led to splits within the nationalist movement influences his decision to move to Melbourne, Australia. Here, he is thrust into an entirely new experience: of an immigrant looking to find connections and succour in a country that is still emerging from its settler-colonial history of violence and racism.
Naga Odyssey has an element of Herodotus’s The Histories in it. Sanyü’s journeys are not simply personal travelogues. They are folk records of the major historical events of our time. Stories about the persecuted and marginalised, as Sanyü narrates, are often derided for being simplistic, emotive, melancholic — but these are traits that make us human in the first place. This book, then, is a documentation of a life that has had to deal with tectonic social and political changes on a scale that is not quite as grand. If there is a theme that stands out in Sanyü’s peripatetic biography, it is of reconciliation at every stage of his life.
Incidentally, the Forum for Naga Reconciliation is commemorating its tenth year of the Covenant of Reconciliation; where various Naga political groups and civil society have agreed to abjure violence in their dealings with one another. Sanyü has rededicated his life to healing in a small garden in Medziphema. As he finds himself in the middle of a process that looks for a gentler, less adversarial way to live, I recall a captivating moment in the book that holds hope for the future: A young Sanyü, brutally evicted from his village and violently removed along with other Naga students from an army boarding school in Odisha, waits somewhat defiantly for Rajmohan Gandhi to visit his home in Khonoma. Upon encountering the memorial stones of the villagers killed by the Indian army, Gandhi stops to apologise for the acts of the army (page 105-6). This apology changes Sanyü’s view of Indians. As the subcontinent moves towards an amnesiac future, it is this ability to apologise that will help heal one of the most populated places in the world.
(The writer teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati campus)