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Book Review: Temsula Ao’s ‘On Being a Naga: Essays’

By Priti Mandal

On Being a Naga: Essays is a collection of essays on Nagas and their way of life by Temsula Ao, an Ao-Naga woman writer. The essays contemplate on “the dichotomies in Naga life and lore” (Introduction xiii), which leads to rethink and re-evaluate the Naga worldview and values. It also attempts to look beyond the violence and conflict with which the land is synonymous and to unfurl the distinctive socio-political-cultural identity of the Nagas which has been shattering due to the effects of colonization, modernity and globalization. Tilottoma Misra in the ‘Foreword’ of this book states: “Temsula Ao’s present collection of essays shows a deep concern for the cultural loss suffered by her people during the colonial period and after, and the urgent need to search for the historical roots which define the ‘Naga identity’, not as perceived by ‘others’ but as viewed from inside the society” (xv). So, in this book, Ao tries “to change the perspective of the ‘outsiders’ by giving the insider’s view that the Naga identity is not defined by the perception of the foreign rulers…but by the village culture which still upholds an ancient system of governance that has served the tribes well through centuries…”(xv). This book, according to Ao, is also an effort to “make sense of our own existence as Nagas” (Introduction xi) and in a way the sense of Naga women. The book is also crucial in the understanding of tribal women writing which not only re-evaluates women’s position in the tribal society but also nurtures the issue of women writing as a tribal woman.

The essays can be divided into three segments. The first segment deals with the village culture of the Naga, specifically Ao-Naga people which unfurls “the multiple facets of their identity” (Foreward xvi) and captures the distinctive socio-political-cultural nuances of the Naga society. The second segment shows woman’s position in the patriarchal Naga society. The last segment shows “the process through which the Oral tradition of a people can attain the status of ‘literature’ once it is converted to the written form” (Introduction xiii).

The essay “On Being a Naga” deals with the question of Naga identity – what does it mean to be a Naga? It portrays how the Naga people are considered to be ‘different’ in the eyes of others, the outsiders. In countering the stereotypical images of the Naga people, Ao brings forth the distinctive and enriching culture and traditional life which unfurls the dynamics of their identity. Their dependence on nature, reverence for natural elements, rich repertories of folksongs, ballads, legends, myths, tales and riddles, tribal arts and crafts are the distinct markers of the Naga identity. In addressing the impact of British administration and new religion upon the social fabric of the Nagas, it shows the commonness in terms of ‘living’ and ‘thinking’ along with differences among the different tribes of the Nagas.

“Head-hunting: Some Thoughts” deals with the practice of head-hunting in the Naga society. In dealing with this practice, Ao brings forth the social, religious, heroic, economic, and marital aspects related to this practice. The heroic and romantic tradition also evolved around this practice as the notion of marriage depends on heroism surrounding this practice. But with the advent of British administration, this practice along with the entire system comes into conflict with the western view of criminality and justice.

“Tribal Cultural Identity with Reference to the Ao Tribe of Nagaland” focuses on the evolution of the tribal cultural identity over the years. It traces the gradual ‘de-culturization’ of the Ao-Naga tribe which began in the late 19th century with the advent of the British administration and continues up to the intervention of Indian governance in the Naga way of life. It shows that the advent of the Christian missionaries and the British administration challenged the foundation of the people’s notion of themselves and generated a sense of inferiority in the tribal minds. The folk songs which contain the history of migration, settlement, important occasions and all other aspects of the tribal social life are replaced by hymn-singing of the new religion which creates a fracture in the “integral part of their being.” The Ao-Naga society which is based on the concept of ‘collective survival’ is replaced with the Christian view of ‘individual salvation.’

“Human Resource Management: In Ao Society” portrays the management of human resources within the Ao-Naga society where the individuals are assigned specific roles according to their age which would guarantee not only the safety and security for the people but also good governance for all. On one hand, it provides an account of the structure of the village polity; on the other hand, it shows how the notion of individual identity is integrated with the greater identity of the specific clan and village as well.

“Ao-Naga Myths in Perspective” gives a brief account of the nature of myths and their relevance in tribal societies. It also contemplates on the change in the nature and significance of the myths due to the changed contexts in time-space continuum and the introduction of alien concept about the nature of life and death. In referring to the several theories regarding myth, it discusses the Ao-Naga origin myth, myths about gods and the creation myth to capture the ‘true spirit of tribal life.’ In dealing with the changes brought about by time and place, it shows how the myths like the lore of Lijaba, the creator or god of the universe, is only preserved in the narrative lore where its religious significance has been only transformed to cultural and ethnic one.

The essay “Benevolent Subordination: Social Status of Naga Women” deals with the women’s position in the Naga society. It shows Naga women’s subordination in all the spheres of life – education, religion, politics, and economics. It addresses the issue that though in the new democratic set-up women are inducted into the male domain, women are still devoid of entering into the actual power structure of the patriarchal society. Naga society exists on the male strength and male prerogatives where man is considered to be the ‘protector’ of women and society as well. This status of man asserts the male superiority in the male-female dichotomy and also gives him opportunity to be a decision-maker both in the private and public worlds. In case of education through book learning, it is the male child who gets the first opportunity to go to school and to continue his education. It is not merit but gender which determines the opportunity for education. In the religious sphere, though new religion is accepted in the Naga society, the pattern remains same. The pastor and the members of the ‘Deacon Boards’ are male. Though a separate day is set aside as women’s worship day, they have to follow the decision of the ‘Deacon Boards.’ In the political sphere, the Naga polity which is the base of the governance of the Naga society evolved on the “principle of exclusion of women from all seats of governance” (47). Women’s exclusion from this structure was legitimised through the superior physical prowess of the man. As the society needs to be protected from the different type of attacks, women’s participation in the village polity was beyond social thinking. In the economic sphere also, women are restrained from property rights. Being a patriarchal society, all landed property belongs to the male.

During the several changes in the Naga society due to the British administration and the intervention of the Indian governance in the Naga tribal society, the ‘benevolent subordination’ of the Naga women in the old tradition is now turned into a ‘new avatar’ of women’s subordination. Though changes are taking place in women’s position to an extent, it is a way of seemingly granting equality to women without affecting the male supremacy in the male-female dichotomy. In the religious sphere of the contemporary Naga society, though there are several women groups in all the Baptist churches, their leader is not given the title pastor. The leader can be called an ‘Associate Pastor’ which signifies women’s subordination in a new form. Women can now hold property as her own, albeit through many debates, something which was unthinkable in the traditional framework. Though the economic scenario for the Naga women has changed with many working women holding modest asset, the economic power still remains in the hands of male as the big names in the market are only male. In referring to a seminar on the role and participation of women, Ao shows that though women participate in the institutions like Village Development Board, they don’t hold any role in the actual decision-making process. Women are inducted into these boards only to fulfil certain external activities; it does not indicate any change in the attitude towards women. Ao aptly describes this new form of subordination: “ Naga women, no matter how well educated or highly placed in the society, suffer from the remnants of the psychological ‘trauma’ of subordination, which in their grandmothers’ times might have seemed perfectly logical but which now appears to be a paradox within the ‘modern, educated’ self” (51). So, in the contemporary context of the Naga society, the ‘benevolent subordination’ of women only leads to the creation of a paradox within the society. It does not lead to the actual empowerment of Naga women. Thus, Ao suggests that the change via legislation can be effective through the change in “the woman’s belief in her own self” (52) and through the women’s consciousness of their own rights as Naga citizen and the change in the social consciousness.

“Gender and Power: Women-Centred Narratives from Ao-Naga Folklore” in dealing with the certain mythical narratives of the Ao-Naga society shows a subtle reversal of role of women and subversion of the existing male dominance. The myth of Longkongla shows women’s ownership of many barns full of grain and many domestic animals. Akangla’s myth narrates women’s participation in the male domain through her presence of a strategic mind. The myth of Yajangla shows her magical transformation into a ferocious tigress through which she “re-enters in the realm of nature from the realm of nurture where she played the role of a submissive wife and mother” (81). She overpowers her husband and subverts the male power structure subsequently. It is seen more as a manifestation of the hidden power of the woman than a ‘dehumanizing’ factor. The myth of an unknown woman representing every woman shows how women use sexual manipulation as a survival strategy and alter the existing power structure.

“Articulate and Inarticulate Exclusion” deals with two types of exclusion. In explaining the articulate exclusion which is based on some kind of rationalization it shows how “the power structure operates without any internal hindrances” (93). It presents the status of Naga women who are an excluded group of an already excluded ethnic group, hence doubly excluded. It deals with the kind of discrimination practised against women in the Naga spheres of power, academia, professional areas and politics. In the Naga society, women’s exclusion is considered to be a “fact of community life” over the ages as represented in a myth of Ao-Naga origin, where it is believed that three men and three women emerged from six stones where women merely hold subservient roles for exogamous marriage. All other lores regarding migration, settlement of village are male-oriented where women’s exclusion is rationalised.

The essays like “Folk Literature of Nagaland” and “New Literature from the North-East” deal with the process through which the folklores of Naga tribe attain the form of literature. It also shows how the folklores provide a rich source of literature for the Naga writers and contribute to the creation of ‘New Literature’. As literacy in the Naga society came in the last decade of the 19th century, every aspects of Naga life is retained in the oral traditions only. This oral tradition contains myths of origin, legends, superstitious belief, dreams and interpretations, proverbs and idiomatic expressions of the different Naga tribes. In referring to Kalevala which is known today as the Finnish National epic, it discusses how the poems of ‘little tradition’ of ordinary folk transforms into a national literature of ‘great tradition’ of education and civilization. The writers from the North-East are also blending the past with the present and in this way the myths are re-interpreted and new significance is added to old practices. The cultural heritage of the North-East and the new insights from oral traditions contribute to create the ‘new literature’ of the North-East.

All the essays contemplate on the village culture of a tribal society which sets their identity and also holds the root of the society. In portraying the fabric of tribal village culture, it analyses the double exclusion of tribal women in this social structure. The essays also show how this enriched culture becomes a source of writing for a Naga woman through which she creates a space not to give voice to the suppressed but to initiate a process of writing which becomes a way to develop a woman’s self-consciousness as a Naga citizen and as a tribal woman writer simultaneously. The book gives a portrait of the different aspects of the Naga society. It brings forth distinctive socio-political-cultural fabric of Naga society, Naga people’s rootedness into the folklores, myths and natural essence which not only unfurl a distinctive identity of the Naga tribe but also pave the path for the indigenous tradition to be included in the literary canon by the side of the literatures of the ‘civilized’ nations.

Priti Mandal is an M.Phil Scholar of English at Visva-Bharati University, working on the Ao-Naga tribe of Nagaland in the writings of Temsula Ao, a well-known Ao-Naga woman writer.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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