Monday, July 18, 2016

When the River Sleeps

Our Alchemist, more spiritually potent

Book: When the River Sleeps
Author: Easterine Kire
Publisher: Zubaan
Pages: 245
Price: 295

There is a scene in the middle of Easterine Kire’s rather quiet, stark and poetic novel When the River Sleeps, when the wandering protagonist, Vilie, meets the sisters Zote and Ate. They are the Kirhupfümia, women believed to have black magic. They were banished from their ancestral village in a remote part of Nagaland, and now, Zote wants vengeance.

What follows next is a powerful sequence of events. Zote steals Vilie’s heart-stone and then drags a trunk in the middle of the night to her ancestral village. There, as morning breaks, she unleashes her wrath, with pestilence and fire.

This is high-fantasy stuff, something out of an Ursula Le Guin novel. Any other writer would spend pages after pages describing the scenes, but not Kire. She describes them in a few descriptive pages and moves on. At first, you are disappointed; then you begin to understand what Kire has achieved.

Kire’s goal here is not to narrate an adventure story, but to chart a man’s journey from ignorance to experience. The novelist calls this a spiritual journey. There are references to gods and spirits of the Naga people. Yet, these references are inconsequential. What matters instead is the inexplicable natural world that hovers at the edge of human existence, where wisdom extracts its cost.

Thus, it is fitting that Kire tells the story like a fable, only the essential, without embellishments. This explains why Kire resists the urge to exploit the sequence mentioned above. The tone here is immediate and direct, persistently prosaic. There are many fantastic elements – weretiger, river sprits who roam as beautiful women to ensnare men, black magic, a stone that can bestow unimaginable powers – but Kire relates these incidents in a matter of fact tone. Critics would call it magic realism, but this is more akin to a grandmother’s storytelling, where she conjures up the fantastic without explanation and you implicitly trust the telling.

This is the story of Vilie, who is obsessed with the sleeping river and the magical stone it contains beneath its waters. He sets out on an epic journey, encountering men and spirits, in an unforgiving landscape where every day is a survival. Unlike the western quest stories, where the hero must prove his worth to acquire the Holy Grail, here, Vilie acquires his prize and now must prove himself worthy to keep it. How he achieves it is a lesson for all of us.

The best part of the novel is that it defies easy categorisation. It is set in Nagaland, yet it is not a typical story of the hill state, which is available to the mainstream mostly in terms of the news of insurgency. The publisher is Zubaan, yet the book is not a feminist text in the strictest sense.

The best way I can describe When the River Sleeps is to compare it with Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. When The Alchemist first came out, it was an adventure story for the video-game generation, where readers could identify with its shepherd hero. When the River Sleeps achieves something similar, but on a more elevated plane. This book will not change your life, but it may give you a perspective how to go about changing it yourself.

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