Extreme Russia: Teen Model Factory

Reggie Yates’s Extreme Russia, produced by BBC, 2016

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Teen Model Factory of Russia is the third installment of a three-part documentary film series produced under the banner of BBC. It looks at the modeling industry of Russia with respect to model-making as a form of lucrative business and how that business functions on various levels. Although the documentary explores a number of different aspects surrounding the industry, what comes up as most interesting in this whole journey is the position of the models.

I have not watched the previous two episodes of this series, but the theme of Otherization is quite strong in this episode, or film. Reggie Yates’s narration, coupled with frequent images of vehicles and the train running along the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway drive home the idea of venturing into a foreign land of unknown mysteries and curious differences. As a whole, the series begins at a time when Vladimir Putin is well into his third term as the president and reflects the life of the youth in the country twenty-four years after the fall of Soviet Union. Yates goes around the different parts of the country and looks into the lives of the young girls aspiring to the next Natalia Vodianova.

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Natalia Vodianova in Dior Magazine by Peter Lindbergh

Vodianova, born to a poor family in the obscure city of Nizhny Novgorod, is the quintessential Russian rags-to-riches success story. At the age of 17, picked up by a model scout from her country, she signed a contract with a Parisian agency and soon rose to modelling super-stardom. Even today, at the wrong side of 30, she is one of the most well-known and sought-after faces in the European and American fashion industries. Ever since, international scouts have been pouring in from all over the world to scout for their preferred faces from a huge group of young girls. The search for the next Natalia Vodianova is on.

In the first few minutes of the film, Yates’s states that in UK girls under 16 are not permitted to walk the ramp, but there are no such restrictions in Russia, or countries in far East which regularly send in their agents to scout for new girls. Yates meets a couple of such scouts from Tokyo in the Trans-Siberian Railway. In their conversation it comes up that they try to get as many teen and preteen girls as they can, children of 13-14 years of age, as the demand for them back home is quite high. One female scout says, “Our clients like young girls”. This scene sets up the moral overtone of the film, with heavy allusions to language associated with sex trade, human trafficking, and pedophilia.

Yates’ journey includes interactions with the young girls who aspire to take up modeling as a career. He meets three such girls—Anya, Vika, and Katia—from different communities in Russia and looks into their daily life and the motive behind such an aspiration. Their stories and lives give a picture of the reasons behind the craze of choosing modeling in the country, especially as a means to move and build a career abroad. We see brief glimpses of the three girls’ backgrounds, and what comes up as a common context among them is the dire need to move out of Russia and the feeling that no other career is as viable or lucrative as this one. This could be a means to end all their financial troubles. The stakes of making it to the top are too high, but these girls seem to be quite ready for it. What comes as a shock though is their age. They are mostly as young as thirteen. Often they start their model training classes as young as four or five. Anya shows Yates around her house, points towards her paintings and says that she would love to be an artist. But she also mentions the lack of opportunity in the field of art as compared to the chance she would get while working as a model. Vika, on the other hand, survives on a diet of buckwheat thrice daily to lose two extra centimeters for the castings. Katia’s parents have to go through the stressful decision of whether their daughter, who is only 15, should go to China for a modeling contract at such a young age all by herself.

Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen are a common sight in the scouting rooms. The process includes standing almost naked in front of complete strangers, holding a board specifying one’s name, age, height, place of origin, and a short general intro. The approach of the agents and scouts towards the girls is so mechanical that at one point, the head of the agency compares the girls with Ferrari cars. He says, the girls in Russia who audition are mostly like cars without engines, it’s only when they start working that the agency puts engines in them.

In preparation, girls as young as five in Russia attend classes for modeling which teaches them how to walk, pose, and do own their makeup. The girls are raised under harsh conditions where modeling is often one of the very few potential careers where they can move out into the world and lead a comfortable life. But the dreams that fuel such enthusiasm is often betrayed by reality. Often what these girls fail to realize is that the sum of money they would be earning as a model is not what that they will have for themselves at the end of all transactions. In most cases these models are left with almost no money, and more often than not they live in debt. The film also throws light on another much more sinister alternative industry that thrives under the shelter of these modeling agencies. It is quite a common practice for the agents to set these girls with a  rich boyfriend. In worse cases, they end up as high profile escorts. Often failing to make ends meet, or sometimes just for the glamour of high society lifestyle, these girls do take up such a choice.

Teen Model Factory looks into the lives of young impressionable minds trying to find a better standard of living. The documentary tries to find out the percentage of girls who stand a chance in succeeding; while the fashion industry persists in selling its fairy tale – for fairy tales always finds its believers.

The search for the next Natalia is still on.

– Arpita Sinha

Cinders behind ‘Cinderella’: Melanin and Marriage

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A locked door can give one never-ending sleepless nights until the secret behind is revealed. The story of ‘Cinderella’ is one such locked door, concealing secrets. Let’s find them. Cinderella’s story is not unknown. It is one of those early fairytales that children get obsessed with. ‘Obsession’ might be a very strong word to describe the addiction to the stories but one cannot deny that the influence of these stories stays for a long time. As life gradually unfolds the ‘pretty’ truth about anxieties, pain, and humiliation (the issues some of the popular fairytales centre around), our perspective towards these stories start to change or rather evolve. The story of fair and kind Cinderella is no exception. Since the waves of Feminism hit the society, many critics have been working on the gender issues and gender politics that play their silent roles in the fairytales. Critic like Ruth B. Bottigheimer, in her book Grimm’s Bad Girls and Bold boys: The Moral and Social Vision of the Tales (1987), points out how the fairytales label a girl ‘bad’ and a boy ‘bold’ for accomplishing the one and the same deed. In her very recent essay, titled “Fertility Control and the Birth of the Modern European Fairy-Tale Heroine”, Bottigheimer points out the saddening truth about women’s loss of control on their own bodies in various fairytales. ‘Cinderella’, undoubtedly, is not free from such questions. But let’s bring the racial and marital issues under the spotlight for a while. Being a universally known story and having been made into several popular movies, Cinderella is not a white girl’s property anymore. She is now equally a brown girl’s fantasy as well as of a black girl’s. But the conception of Cinderella is stuck in the figure of a white skinny woman with blonde hair and pink cheeks. She is never brown or black neither in the illustrations nor in any of the movies or Broadway musicals. The only brown creatures that are shown in the Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ (1950) are the mice that are loyal friends to the damsel and are happy to serve her. ‘Cinderella’ has been told by many authors in many ways. Charles Perrault’s Cinderella; or, The Little Glass Slipper (1697) introduced a Fairy Godmother while Anne Sexton’s and Brothers Grimm’s version have no such human helping figure except a white bird that represents the blessings of her dead mother. The Fairy Godmother also appears in the Disney’s 1950 adaptation of the story, who helps Cinderella ‘transform’ from a dirty worn out woman to a beautiful, fair and attractive one. Her ragged clothes are changed into a beautiful gown that would allow her to enter the Royal ball at the palace. Not only that, the Fairy Godmother gives her beautiful glass slippers which are a symbol of purity and virginity of Cinderella. The Prince falls for her beauty as soon as he sees her, (and we never know if he ever appreciates her for intellect), the step-sisters who never leave any chances unused to humiliate her were struck so hard by her beauty that they cannot recognize her throughout the Ball (which is absurd). Thus a beautiful dress and fairness became the social ladder…a licence. One of the step-sisters, before going to the ball mock Cinderella by saying, “It would make the people laugh to see a Cinderwench at a ball.” Ironically, the same person praises the transformed Cinderella in front of the real Cinderella after returning from the ball, “The finest princess was there, the most beautiful that mortal eyes have ever seen. She showed us a thousand civilities, and gave us oranges and citrons.” Thus, beauty and impressive attire not only turned Cinderella eligible for the Ball…but also changed her entire identity. The obsession with fairness and makeovers are not faded even in the 21st century. Many tropical women and men are not proud of their natural tanned skin tone. This anxiety is fuelled by the advertisements of some cosmetics brands that portray a dark skinned man or woman as an unconfident one, unable to do achieve worth anything. These commercials always tend to establish Fairness and loveliness of a human being as the primary conditions of his or her chances to do better and greater deeds. They also seem to prove that it is one’s flawless beauty that works as a catalyst behind the real ability of the person. But life isn’t a fairytale where beauty would bring us royalty or success. It is rather a trap. And such cases are not uncommon where people step into such traps and go for a makeover only to feel confident and ‘superior’. But little do they know that all these external transformations are temporary just like the fairy Godmother’s magic. Cinderella’s story, like other fairytales, also ends with a happy note: marriage. It is interesting how the tale begins with a marriage and also ends with one. Marriage, as it turns out, is one of the dominating issues throughout the story. The widower father of Cinderella marries another woman with two daughters of his own daughter’s age. The three young women surely had a competition in the track of marriage and perhaps, that is why, Cinderella, too, wanted to go to the Ball and try her luck (but in the recent live-action adaptation from Disney, directed by none other than Kenneth Branagh, shows Cinderella’s former encounter with a disguised Prince and her desire to go to the ball was only to meet her friend, and not the Prince.). It wouldn’t be an offence to point out the fact that the step-sisters are portrayed awkwardly to keep Cinderella always a step ahead of them. Finally Cinderella fits perfect into the glass slipper among all maidens in the kingdom. But by which parameter did the society consider Cinderella to be a ‘Perfect’ one? According to the story, Cinderella never complained, she never fought back, and never joined in a conversation about sexuality; she always did what she was told to do and suffered silently. So then, are these the prime and foremost conditions of womanly perfection? This leads us to another question: did Cinderella realize that by fitting into the slipper she accepted the terms and conditions of her in-laws? This scene isn’t uncommon in our contemporary Indian society where the matrimonial sites and Patra-Patri columns have paved their way to the front pages of tabloids and newspapers. In such matrimonial columns there are instances where the bride or groom’s family mentions the ‘should have-s’ and ‘shouldn’t have-s’ of the match-to-be…almost objectifying a living entity. Another matter surfaces up: the issues regarding the unequal marriages. A sequel to Disney’s ‘Cinderella’ (1950), titled ‘Cinderella II: Dreams Come True’ (2002) shows Cinderella’s struggle to become a royal personage from a regular woman. The movie gives us several after-marriage stories of Cinderella where she faces problems with her royal in-laws and in some way or another she makes them happy. Although sometimes she manages things in her own way the purpose remains the same: be an unpaid maid and make everyone happy. Well, this can’t be a very unfamiliar scene with what are shown in the TV serials now-a-days, can it? A recent case in West Bengal, where a 24 years-old woman (Mita Das) was tortured and eventually murdered by her in-laws, again questioned the notion of ‘Happily-ever-after’ of a fairytale. Mita’s story isn’t a new one though. Thousand of Mita(s) die every day (be it suicide or murder) – just because they didn’t fit, they couldn’t perform well enough as a ‘perfect’ wife. So we see, while the fictional Cinderella(s) keep on managing to continue their stories, the real life Cinderella(s) face “The End”(s) so soon.

– Subarnarekha Pal

“A Novel of Collisions”: The Subversive Treatment of the History of Communal Violence in Shashi Tharoor’s Riot

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In his critical collection of essays on reading and writing, Bookless in Baghdad, Shashi Tharoor wrote of Riot: “The story of Riot was a story of various kinds of collisions . . . The themes that concern me in this novel [are] love and hate; cultural collision, in particular, in this case the Hindu/Muslim collision, the American/Indian collision, and within India the collision between the English-educated elites of India and people in the rural heartland; and as well, issues of the unknowability of history, the way in which identities are constructed through an imagining of history . . .” (36-37). Shashi Tharoor’s Riot is a unique treatment of the very sensitive issue of communal violence in India, in particular, the communal hatred that was sweeping across the country in the 1990s due to the emergence of the Babri Masjid/Ramjanmabhoomi controversy. Tharoor assembles his narrative through newspaper clippings, diary entries, interviews, transcripts, scrapbooks, even poems written by individual characters. The novel is based on an actual riot that took place in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh. Tharoor, however, fictionalizes the place of the riot which is Zaligarh in the novel. By treating history as fiction, Riot challenges the meta-narrative of historical ‘truth’, positing varied perspectives of history through its characters.

The novel revolves round the death of an American social worker, Priscilla Hart, during the communal violence generated in the wake of the Babri Masjid agitation. The story unfolds through the investigative reports of an American journalist, Randy Diggs, who accompanies Priscilla’s estranged parents to India. Diggs meets the local Hindu fundamentalist leader, Ram Charan Gupta, to investigate the political reasons behind the riot. Gupta supports the cause of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, passionately exclaiming: “In Ayodhya . . . the most famous temple is not really a temple any more. It is the Ram Janam Bhoomi, the birthplace of Lord Rama. A fit site for a grand temple . . . A mosque on Hindu’s holiest site! . .” (Riot 52). A totally opposing view is given to Diggs by Mohammad Sarwar, a Muslim scholar who teaches in the History department at Delhi University. Sarwar bitterly comments: “The Hindutva brigade is trying to invent a new past for the nation, fabricating historical wrongs, degrading evidence of Muslim malfeasance and misappropriation of national glory . . .” (Riot 67).

By giving us contrary views of two religious leaders, Tharoor subverts the unilateral approach to the problem of sectarian violence. In the novel we do not hear just one point of view; rather there are multiple, varied points of view, and instead of an ‘‘ideology’’, we encounter several ‘‘ideologies’’. In the course of his investigations, Diggs also meets Gurinder Singh, a local policeman who wants to uphold law and order at any cost. Gurinder has his own past to battle as he is the victim of the Sikh riots of 1984. Throughout the novel Tharoor questions the ownership of India’s history. All of the characters, from Ram Charan Gupta to Mohammad Sarwar to Gurinder Singh to the district administrator Lakshman, grapple with their identity of being ‘Indian’. What emerges is a desire for “majority”, a desire that takes the shape of communal violence. In the midst of the conflicting communities violently asserting their identity, chaos ensues and lawlessness prevails.

The multi-vocal narrative of the novel ensures that the reader encounters every community’s beliefs and perceptions; that there is no hegemony of narrative. The narrative mode of journalistic reporting is a brilliant stylistic medium, highlighting the intertwining of religion and politics. The novel gives a glimpse of how politicians hungry for power use religious sentiments as a means to gain political leverage, and fan the fire of colonially inherited divisions between Hindus and Muslims. What emerges through the grim voice of Lakshman is the disturbing reality of fissures in Indian society: chaotic violence and riots are commonplace occurrences, to the extent that Priscilla’s death garners a mere ‘snippet’ in a newspaper. Interspersed within the plot of the riot is the love story of Priscilla and Lakshman. We hear Priscilla’s voice through her letters to her friend Cindy and her diary entries.  We see the differences of opinion between Priscilla and Lakshman slowly emerge, a difference that underscores the opposing cultures of the East and the West. The cultural and social limitation on women in small town India has Priscilla puzzled. Her poem to Cindy hauntingly captures the sadness of the discriminatory practices against women:

     They go back to their little huts

     Roll out the chapattis for dinner

     Pour the children drink of sewer water

     Serve their men first, eat what is left . . .

                                                                                                 (Riot 18)

Conforming to its fluid narrative technique, the novel’s ending is ambiguously open ended. There are no answers as to who murdered Priscilla. Diggs publishes his report which states the difficulties of the investigation, and points out the arrest of suspected rioters, but asserts that there are no definite answers, and “for Priscilla’s parents, Rudyard and Katharine Hart, who travelled to Zaligarh to understand the reasons for their daughter’s death, the questions will never cease” (Riot 266). The ending of the novel does not attempt to resolve the questions it has raised, both in terms of plot (Priscilla’s murderer is not clearly identified) and in terms of the critical issues it raises (there are multiple views of various characters but no definite “truth” emerges regarding sectarian hatred and violence). Tharoor comes across as an explorer of Indian history and politics, questioning and challenging the prevalent discourse of the Babri Masjid/Ram Janam Bhoomi debate, and depicting multiple discourses. There is no singular “History” and certainly no “major” community. In the words of Tharoor himself Riot “. . . speaks of an India of multiple stories, multiple perspectives, multiple tellers, multiple truths. The structure of the novel served a substantive purpose, in pointing to different perceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘history’ and therefore of the Indian reality” (Bookless in Baghdad 38).

                         -Somrita Misra

References

Tharoor, Shashi. Riot. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.

—. Bookless in Baghdad. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

Rachel Getting Married

Directed by Jonathan Demme, 2008.

 

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Those watching the latest offering by director Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married (2008), cannot help but be reminded of the well-known and oft-quoted opening statement of Leo Tolstoy’s literary masterpiece, Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What is captured on film is a slice of real life as lived by the Buchman family while its members prepare for the wedding of Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), one of the daughters. Kym (Anne Hathaway), the other daughter, is released from her court-ordered drug rehabilitation programme for a few days so that she can attend her sister’s wedding. Their father, Paul (Bill Irwin), and their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), are divorced and have their significant others.

Right off the bat, the audience is made sensitive to the unstable and disturbed dynamic that informs the familial relationships. The sisters often trade subtle though barbed comments and compete for their father’s acknowledgement and attention, which seems more focussed on Kym, her whereabouts and well-being. As the film unravels, we are made privy to the tragedy underlying the family’s strained dynamic. Sixteen-year-old Kym had been responsible for the death of her younger brother Ethan who had been left in her care. While returning from the park, Kym, in a drug-induced stupor, had lost control of the car, driving over a bridge into a lake, where Ethan drowned. Though all of them have tried to move on with their lives, appearing to have acquired a modicum of normalcy, this progress is clearly fragile even now, and the ghost of Ethan, and Kym’s responsibility for his death are issues that keep intruding like the Freudian unconscious, threatening to dismantle the cover of regularity and routine that shrouds their lives in the present. Instances such as when Kym stands before Ethan’s old room, momentarily hesitating before nonchalantly enquiring when she would meet Rachel’s fiancé, or when Paul breaks down in the kitchen, in the midst of a friendly competition with his impending son-in-law, at the sight of Ethan’s dish, clearly suggest that a part of the Buchman family members are still rooted in the past. The divorce between Abby and Paul was also a consequence of the tragedy, and the relationship between Abby and her daughters is marked by strain and distance.

The narrative of the film, it appears, is constructed on a foundation of binaries. Demme very skilfully employs Rachel’s fiancé Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) and his family as a contrasting device that thrusts the skewed Buchanan family dynamic into constant limelight. The open and spontaneous love shared between Sidney’s family members, and the congenial, mirthful atmosphere created by the wedding festivities and preparations, serve to emphasize the tensions that colour the Buchman family ties. The perpetually simmering tension that suffuses their day-to-day conversations and behaviour, often flares up into fierce arguments and bitter, hostile confrontations, particularly between Kym and Rachel, with Paul struggling to keep his family together. One of the most profound scenes in the film is the verbal, and consequent physical altercation between Abby and Kym, when Kym pleads with her mother to accept partial responsibility for the death of Ethan, on account of Abby’s having been aware of Kym’s addiction. Overwhelming, almost violent in their intensity, these scenes would have left the audience high-strung in their wake, had it not been for the intervening moments of celebration and joviality that Demme intersperses the narrative with.

Rachel Getting Married has no formal musical score, but in keeping with the identity of some of the characters (Paul is a hot-shot in the music industry, while Sidney is a record producer), and the over-arching theme of marriage, Demme has live music playing throughout the film. The music reflects the play of dark and light that the events in the film portray, and quite often, the keen listener is able to detect the undertones of the sinister or the melancholy in a melody that is meant to celebrate love and new beginnings.

Each of the actors cast perform their job exceedingly well, including those cast in the role of supporting characters. Anne Hathaway shines as the vulnerable, needy, recovering drug addict, who is struggling to live with the guilt of the death of her brother. Her sunken eyes, thin frame, brashness, a certain twitchiness in her actions – all display her need for expiation, for reassurance and re-acceptance into the family fold, free from the taint of guilt. Rachel DeWitt delivers a top-notch performance as the sister who wants a day for herself, determined not to be outshone by the other sibling. Debra Winger and Bill Irwin are a treat to watch, the cold distant mother with little maternal warmth or concern balanced out by the hen-pecking father, agonising over the rifts in his family, and desperate to keep it together. Even Anna Deavere who plays Carol, Paul’s second wife, leaves her mark. Despite minimal dialogue, she encapsulates the character of the second wife succinctly, staying in the background, but a comforting supportive presence nonetheless.

The performances of the cast, combined with the unique cinematographic technique employed by Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, make the film an absorbing watch. At times, the shots are traditional, and at others, the film resembles a home-made video, situating the audience at the scene. Even as the characters move about their space, we follow them around, or look in through windows, familiarising ourselves, the perpetual observers, with the large cast of characters, despite no real knowledge of them. This technique lends an element of immediacy and authenticity to the film that keeps the audience absorbed in the characters and events. It also ensures that the characters are invested with a lifelikeness that makes them both identifiable and somewhat uncomfortable to watch. In the film, Anne Hathaway as Kym unhesitatingly spouts racist stereotypes even as her family prepares for a union with an African-American family, and we are compelled to acknowledge that the term “political correctness” does not really apply to our daily realities. The underlying binarised structure of the film’s narrative thus has another component – the apparent multiculturalism depicted in the film, questioned by its own irruptive instances of otherisation.

The film’s successful evocation of life-like emotions, characters and circumstances, and its wave-like pace makes it an exhausting watch, but a riveting one nonetheless for it captivates the audience’s full attention. It presses us to confront our fears, to face our grievances and insecurities, and leads us to the unsettling cognizance that it is, or may, quite possibly be the story of our lives being played out on celluloid.

-Apala Kundu

“Lest We Forget”: A Review of Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone

download-1So I told stories

As my racial responsibility

To instil in the young

The art of perpetuating

Existential history and essential tradition

To be passed on to the next generation.

Temsula Ao

“The Old Storyteller” (Songs from the Other Life)

The history of Nagaland is steeped in more than half a century of bloodshed, war, death and trauma. While the rest of the India celebrated independence, the Nagas sought their own freedom. What followed were decades of strife, guerilla warfare, displacement and dispossession, and a cycle of events that, in Ao’s own words, “re-structured or even ‘revolutionized’ the Naga psyche” (These Hills x). Temsula Ao’s collection of short stories, These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone (2006), set against the turbulent backdrop of such a cataclysmic upheaval, is written with the purpose of passing down “existential history and essential tradition” “on to the next generation” so as to “make sense of the impact left by the struggle” on Naga lives (Ao, These Hills xi).

Stories, for Ao, are the only means to hold on to one’s history, territory, ethnicity and identity. She writes in “The Old Storyteller”,

Grandfather constantly warned
That forgetting the stories
Would be catastrophic
We would lose our history,
Territory, and most certainly
Our intrinsic identity.     (Songs)

True to her words, the stories of These Hills are treasure boxes that houses slices of Naga life, away from the headlines of press. Easterine Iralu in her 2004 article, “The Conflict of Nagaland: Through A Poet’s Eyes”, comments, “Let media stop defining the NE by the conflicts going on there. Let media focus on ordinary people and their lives. Let exoticisation of the NE stop.” Ao’s stories are an attempt to bring to the world the lives of ordinary Naga people caught in a spiral of violence. Describing how common people cope with violence, how they negotiate power and force, how they face the destruction of death only to reconstruct life amidst the ruins, the author details a way of life under threat from the forces of modernisation and war. Ao uses the memories of the turbulent years to construct, through the day-to-day life-stories of ordinary people, a repository of cultural narratives that conserves within its core the collective identities of the Naga clan, some of which remained unaffected by the events while some transformed beyond recognition.

Ao’s titles are often deliberately misleading to make the tragedies more poignant. The protagonist of “Soaba” is not the eponymous character but the backdrop against which the death of Soaba takes place. The backdrop, not surprisingly, is a haunting reiteration of the traumatic events that the subcontinent had already witnessed in its struggle for independence. Within their own state the Nagas suddenly find themselves “internally exiled”- alienated and banished from their roots and land of origins, denied access to fields, and restricted in their routine activities. Needless to say, “the intense physical and mental torture” of such forced migration claimed many a lives” (Ao, These Hills 11). The political conflict also creates a new group of Naga people who becomes the “extra arms” of the Indian army, supplying them with confidential reports on the underground rebels and getting equipped in the process with vehicles, guns, free rations of rum and unlimited power over their own tribe, which eventually claims numerous lives like that of Soaba. Stories such as “The Curfew Man” and “A New Chapter” capture a similar unrecognisable identity transformation of some Naga people which preys into the moral fabric of the society making friendship and loyalty its casualties. “The Jungle Major”, “The Last Song” and “The Night”, on the other hand, are stories of resistance, against oppression and hegemony. Khatila, the wife of the “jungle major”, sheds the role of an ordinary housewife and becomes an active participant in the separatist movement when, using her presence of mind, she manages to save her rebel husband from the handcuffs of the army. In aiding the jungle-major escape disguised as an ugly servant, Khatila saves the entire village from being ravaged by the army. “The Night” is the story of Imnala who, twice impregnated and abandoned both times by the rebel forces, accepts her unwed motherhood with proud defiance in a society where a child without a father is considered non-existent. Probably the most evocative and gripping tale of resistance is the story of Apenyo, who continues to sing as the state military rapes her to death. Singing her “last song” in her native language despite being ordered to stop is Apenyo’s cultural resistance to the hegemonic forces. “The Last Song” is also hauntingly reminiscent of the barbaric Jallianwala Bagh massacre, with the power position occupied by the Indian armed forces who open fire on a peaceful assembly of villagers giving them no opportunity to escape. Ao also reveals how during times of crisis, the native Naga traditions and customs often becomes the loom around which the common people weave their identity. In a time torn by violence, Sentila of “The Pot Maker” is able to recognise her self only by succeeding in making pots, the ancestral skill of her family. Her initial inability in mastering the native skill throws her into an abyss of confusion where failing to make sense of her life, she desperately clings onto her culture to face her existential crisis.

I hear the land cry,

Over and over again

‘Let all the dead awaken

And teach the living

How not to die’ (Ao, These Hills vi)

The dead awakens in Ao’s stories through memories recollected across generations. As the grandfather of the story, “An Old Man Remembers”, recounts to his grandson the haunting memories of the unrest which caused him and his friend to kill five men and lose their youth, the readers realise why the older generations have a “racial responsibility” of narrating stories to the younger ones. It is because these stories enable them to face the truth – “Truth about the self, the land, and above all, the truth about history” (Ao, These Hills 112). Ao’s “stories from a war zone” are narratives of such truths. Narrating common lives impacted by the turbulent years of the Naga separatist movement, these stories preserve the history, the territory and the intrinsic identity of the community, “lest we forget” (Ao, These Hills ix).

~ Deblina Hazra

Ao, Temsulsa. These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2013.

~ “The Old Story Teller”. Songs from the Other Life. Pune: Grasswork Books, 2007.

Iralu, Easterine. “The Conflict of Nagaland: Through A Poet’s Eyes.” Web. 5 Dec, 2016. http://nagas.sytes.net/~kaka/articles/art006.html