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In the skin of a tiger

In the skin of a tiger

A Naga poet keeps her culture alive even without a recognised homeland Easterine Iralu had her first encounter with the spirit world of the Naga people at a young age. One evening in north-east India, after she and her cousins had finished playing, she noticed a little boy still hiding under the table. Before she had time to let him know the game was over, the boy was gone.

‘He had this mischievous look on his face and he looked as though he wanted me to keep his secret,’ she says. ‘And then a few more minutes later—I don’t know if he disappeared or not—but it struck me that he was not any one of the children I knew.’
It may have been a lucky escape for Iralu. Many Naga stories, passed around the village and between generations, tell of people lured away by the sweet calls of forest spirits. Some return, unable to speak of their experience. Others never come back, but they are not considered dead. They have left their human form behind.

‘It’s not just magical realism, it is there,’ Iralu says. ‘As recently as 1998, the lady who used to come and clean our office went missing for a week. She’d been spirited away. The whole village came out to look for her, after a week they found her somewhere in the forest and brought her back.

‘She was home for two days and then she went missing again. And then they got her back for good. She was quite disturbed by the whole thing so she couldn’t clearly say what had happened, she just said some people called her.’

Iralu says she has a foot in both worlds. Her sense of the other-worldliness still present in Naga culture sits comfortably with the Christianity brought by the missionaries who followed the first British punitive raids into the Naga Hills in the 1830s.

A poet, writer and translator of traditional verse from her Angami tribe, Iralu also teaches in the English department at Nagaland University. She is in Sydney to attend a conference on reconciliation and healing before heading south on a three-week tour of Australia. It is all good material for the diary she is keeping of her travels. Her meetings with the locals and impressions of the land prompt some on-the-spot lyricism. ‘Nothing pantheistic,’ she jokes.

There are three million Nagas, and as many as 50 tribes, living in Burma and India. The state of Nagaland in north-east India is home to many, including Iralu and her family, while others are spread through neighbouring states. On the eve of the British departure from India in 1947, the Nagas made their own unilateral declaration of independence.

It was ignored, despite an earlier assurance from Gandhi that there would be no forced union. Many, perhaps most, Nagas remain unreconciled to their inclusion in India. They dream of Nagalim—a homeland for the Nagas, centred on Nagaland and incorporating the Naga-inhabitated areas of neighbouring states in both India and Burma. The idea was met with increasing Indian force in the 1950s. It has resulted in a heavy presence of Indian jawans (soldiers) throughout Nagaland ever since. A ceasefire between the central government and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), brokered in 1997, still holds.

In an historic move, Naga independence leaders met with Indian ministers in Delhi in January this year. It was the first time in three decades that NSCN leaders had set foot on Indian soil without fear of arrest. But after three months of hope, the talks have hit a snag. The NSCN are determined that discussion of Nagalim and sovereignty remain on the agenda and be canvassed sooner rather than later. Delhi has responded by introducing the prospect of ‘disarming and disbanding’ the underground armed movement before the talks proceed. It raises the spectre of the ceasefire collapsing and a return to civil war.

Iralu’s poem, ‘After reading Wounded Knee’, reflects on how a history of resistance to British, then Indian, colonialism has been overtaken by internecine war between the independence factions.

Betrayed, we have learnt to betray my brothers are riding out to seek my brothers’ lives and I stand here alone waiting, in the shadows afraid, of life, not death. Bury my heart too at Wounded Knee.

It earns an encore at a reading in Melbourne.

In conversation, we don’t dwell on the bloody history of Naga nationalism. Instead, Iralu begins telling stories and talks about her struggle to ‘decolonise the Naga mind’. She takes the phrase from one of her favourite African writers, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose work she has introduced to her literature students at Nagaland University. African texts, as well Australian Aboriginal authors, are not the only surprises for her students.

‘Just as you would make time to read a favourite book, I push them to make time to go and sit by the fireplace and listen to the stories and write for me in the form of an assignment,’ she says. ‘It’s to emphasise that the stories have value, both value in themselves as well as cultural value.

‘Then they realise without me saying a lot that stories are going to die if they don’t do something and it inspires them to do research on the old stories. It’s a way of making the stories live again.’

Iralu herself has spent many hours sitting listening to the tales of her grandmother, a midwife who travelled extensively among the Naga villages. Some of them are the inspiration for stories in her recent book, The Windhover Collection, its title a reference to the work of 19th-century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

In ‘Spirit Feast’ a midwife takes a short-cut late at night, going to the next village to help with a delivery. On the way she is offered refreshment at an unfamiliar village, where the people are taller, stronger and more beautiful than ordinary folk. The next day she is told no such village exists and she can no longer find the path so clearly marked the previous night. The hospitable spirits of this tale are matched elsewhere in Iralu’s collection by menacing unseen presences that stalk unwary villagers in the forest.

Such narratives read as cautionary tales. Others convey moral lessons, says Iralu. And in two hair-raising stories she deals with lycanthropy. While European folk tales of lycanthropy typically focus on the transformation of humans into werewolves, these stories recount the special relationship the Naga have with tigers. Even today, says Iralu, people twin their spirit to the spirit of a particular tiger in the forest.

‘We have weretigers. It is a furtive sort of thing. They won’t come out in the open but people know who are the weretigers.’

Nagas living in Melbourne add their own stories of lycanthropy: villagers who sicken and die when their tiger is killed in the hunt; a villager who is followed through the forest by a prowling presence, then is told on arrival of being protected by a relative’s familiar. Iralu says tales of lycanthropy vary among the Naga tribes. They are explained by an origin story that puts man, spirit and tiger as brothers, children of the same mother. The tiger breaks taboo by eating human flesh and leaves the family home.

She sees herself as a reinvented storyteller, turning to the printed word to preserve tribal stories. In meetings with Indigenous Australians Iralu is impressed by the ways they have used technology ‘to keep culture alive’.

Naga stories and the identity they carry have suffered under a colonial education system that has devalued indigenous culture. And as the young leave the villages and fields for the towns and schools, they are also losing touch with the stories Iralu goes out of her way to collect.

‘Culture gives you a way to survive,’ she says. Unemployment, drug abuse and an increasing suicide rate are the alarming features of the new world for many Nagas. ‘Why cannot we have a foot in both worlds?’ she says. It’s possible to have access to education and technology, and to indigenous knowledge, ‘because that gives you life’.

Apologising for being rude, Iralu expresses some disappointment with much of the Australian landscape she has seen: ‘too pretty, too organised. I did not come to Australia to see England.’ But crossing the South Australian border en route to meet an Aboriginal group at Coorong, as the gum trees become silhouettes in the fading light, she experiences the primeval landscape she had yearned to see. ‘This must be how it was in the beginning,’ she writes in her travelogue. ‘Australia mothering the planet, birthing mountains and seas, rocks and trees and animals and the greatness of spirit that would be needed to make the Ngarrindjerri people.’

An Australian visitor to Nagaland might be disappointed if their expectations tend to the exotic. The vistas of town life are the same the world over.

‘But it is more than that and I can only say it comes alive in the stories because we have the landscape still and I’m grateful for that,’ says Iralu.

Easterine Iralu, as storyteller and tour guide, could lead us to a village where two stones used to scream ‘in the not too distant past’, or show us other taboo stones that will change the weather if touched.

‘I can still take people to a particular river which has a female guardian spirit, and they will experience the other-worldliness of it because she is still there.’ 

Nick Lenaghan is a Melbourne journalist.



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