Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
The Indian subcontinent has been ploughing its way into Asia for the last 40 million years and has delivered the highest mountain range on earth. The eastern extremity of this mighty arc of rock shelters the tiny Indian state of Nagaland. For perhaps a millennium, the Naga people have lived astride the mountainous border of Burma and India. No-one knows where they migrated from, but their heritage has more in common with South East Asian tribes than those of India.
Despite the “Nagaland” title, there is no attempt to outdo Wikipedia with detail about the state and its people. Rather, it is the personal journey of one man – Augustine Shimray – from his earliest memories until early adulthood. Billed as a novel, it deliberately blends fact with legend.
Family is the focus of the early part of the book and remains a theme to the last page – though often emerging in unexpected ways. Augustine and his younger brother and sister live a simple life where money can be scarce, but with a resourceful mother who always seems to make a living against the odds. Their father is a great storyteller and hunter – solid Naga qualities – but succumbs to addiction and his descent has a profound effect on all their lives.
As an adolescent and young adult, Augustine’s village upbringing is sharply contrasted to his life in two Nagaland cities and later, the remote and teeming conurbation that is Delhi. On the way, we see tantalising snippets of the landscapes and the cities, but Augustine’s world, in this book, is about relationships. There are many good times and many good people, but violence and verbal abuse are never far away from him – with serious conflict amongst the Naga and serious racism in the big city.
Running parallel to the main narrative of Augustine’s growth is a second story. A love story. Rendered in a different font which helps to frame its dreamlike quality, it is both a physical journey through time and space as well as a spiritual journey steeped in legend and love. Ben Doherty recently wrote in the Guardian that, “I came to accept Augustine’s stories as truth. I came to believe in their belief. And I came to know this: one worldview is not more valid than another; one community’s fables and legends are no more unreal than another’s.”
Both threads of the novel end at a point in time where new journeys are about to begin. The skill of the writing is that both stories are rendered as versions of truth. The intertwining of mythology and history is a deliberate conceit of the book. Not only do the characters relate some of the ancient Naga stories, but they act them out. In the end there is no distinction.
The Great Indian Hornbill that adorns the cover is a recurring symbol in the stories. It is large and colourful, prized for its feathers and steeped in spiritual meaning for the Naga people. Like them, this species inhabits only a tiny part of north western India and is more at home in the steamy mountain forests of south east Asia than the dry plains of the subcontinent.
To live in Nagaland is to live in a culture distinct from anywhere else in India, amongst a people who struggle to identify with India and have seen their hopes for independence repeatedly dashed. The Naga people dominate ethnically, but even in their home state, they are anything but dominant politically, economically and socially.
“…every Friday afternoon they studied Indian History. It was always called that – Indian History – a far-off place as well as a far-off time. …….But the ‘Indian’ heroes Augustine learned about at school, the ‘Father of the Nation’ Mahatma Gandhi, the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the ‘untouchable’ Dr Ambedkar, didn’t look like him, or anyone he knew.”
Augustine’s own people contain both his friends and his enemies. Even inside Nagaland, invisible borders guard cultural traditions and tribes can be fiercely protective. The Naga independence movement is at once uniting and divisive, with bloodshed the tragic result. But tribal traditions are deep-rooted and ultimately, of greater moment. As Augustine looks across to a neighbouring village where his soul-mate lives:
“From this distance the two places appear almost identical, to outsiders, perhaps two neighbourhoods of the same community, two halves of the same whole. If only it were so. The river separates his home from hers. It was the river that brought them together, the river that kept them apart.”
As we come to understand, these invisible borders are inviolable and transgressors are punished.
The theme of being an outsider within one’s own land as well as within the lands of others is pervasive. When Augustine determines to have a traditional face tattoo, even his less-worldly brother warns of the consequences in a city like Delhi:
“’People will stare. No one has tattoos on their face anymore. Even back home, it’s only the very old people, and they will be gone soon. People here stare at you already, and you hate that.’
‘That’s why I should do it. People stare at me already, so why don’t I just be who I am. I’m proud to be Naga. Why should I be ashamed?’”
Ben Doherty’s debut novel is a polished piece. He may have limited book writing experience, but writing about foreign lands is his forte. He has worked for several global news organisations and has been awarded for the quality of his pieces. His focus on migration and refugees has brought a practised eye to the issues faced by Augustine as an immigrant in his own country.
Augustine’s story is unique, but it has many universal elements – love of parents and family, racism against minorities, addiction, poverty, tribal conflicts, freedom, tribal tradition and a sense of belonging. Most of all, it is about resilience in the face of many setbacks.
What is special about this book is the melding of reality, spiritualism and mythology into a thought-provoking voyage to a faraway world.