Bitter Wormwood

Book Review

New Delhi: Zubaan, 2011, p.269, Rs295

The Northeast of India is unique for many reasons.  There is more cultural and ethnic variety in the region than in the rest of the country.  The tribal cultures which maintained a kind of pristine (and primitive) purity made a quantum leap and embraced the western culture.  Most of the states went through excruciating encounters with insurgency of different degrees. 

Easterine Kire’s latest novel, Bitter Wormwood, is the story of Nagaland from 1937 to the present.  It’s a simple plot that unfolds along the linear time: from the birth of the protagonist, Mose, to his death.  Mose’s life is intertwined with the turbulent history of Nagaland.  Mose goes underground in his youth as a warrior fighting for the independence of Nagaland from India.  Eventually he gives up the freedom struggle (which is called ‘insurgency’ by the mainland India) to lead a normal family life.  He becomes a father and then a grandfather while Nagaland goes through its historical vicissitudes.  The freedom struggle turns into violent attacks on innocent people.  The tribal people belonging to the different clans are now at the mercy of both the Indian armed forced and the insurgents.  Factions develop among the insurgents and they attack one another. 

The author succeeds in telling a moving story in the simplest way possible.  There is no embellished language, no colourful symbols and images, no complex techniques… the plot as well as the style is as simple as the primitive tribal life.  The reader will love the characters and their simplicity. 

The novel succeeds in throwing ample light on the life of the people of Nagaland.  It holds the potential to make a reader from the mainland India look at Northeast from a different perspective. 

The difference  between the two perspectives – that of the tribal people of the Northeast and the mainland India’s – is made clear again and again towards the end of the novel.  The author tends to preach a bit in the last pages of the novel.  The theme of forgiveness is elaborated in the last part almost to the extent of being preachy.  There is also a hint that it is Christianity that marks the difference between the old culture of the tribal people and the new one.  “That (revenge) is the old culture, my child,” tells Mose’s wife to her grandson, Neibou, who graduated himself from the Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi.  “We cannot live like that anymore.  It will destroy us.  Before our people came to Jisu (Jesus), we did that.  But now, we are to take our burdens to Jisu and leave it with him.” [p.241]

The author goes a little out of the way to unite a character (Rakesh) from the mainland with Neibou.  While Rakesh is convincing enough, his grandfather, Himmat, remains a mouthpiece of the author.  Himmat is a character contrived for the sake of emphasising the need for understanding and harmony between the two cultures.  That’s quite an insignificant drawback, however.

The novel is extremely readable and enjoyable.  Anyone who is interested in the Northeast, but does not know much, must read it.

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6 Responses to Bitter Wormwood

  1. bennyec says:

    How can one geta a copy of it .Will be nice to have one.

  2. aakanksharulz says:

    A very balanced review. It seems an interesting book as most people have usually stereotypical views on the North East.
    Keep writing. 🙂

    • matheikal says:

      Yeah, quite many people have very wrong notions about the Northeast. A report in today’s Hindu quotes a survey that 52% of the people surveyed had negative attitudes or ideas about the people of the Northeast.

      • aakanksharulz says:

        Oh that is indeed sad! The place seems to have a beautiful culture and an equally pristine nature (or is this also a stereotype?). For me, north east has always been a place of mystery and wildlife and hospitable ppl. Although the area is often marred by insurgency.

  3. InfiniteSpace says:

    Good book and unusually preachy at times like you said. Lot of religious undertones but it is normal considering the average naga is a biblenut, atleast that’s what i’ve seen.

    IMO, independence of nagaland is long due. The naga people deserve their own country. Giving them indian labels has just messed them up more. Identity crisis is a common theme in the north-east.

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