By Arzuman Ara and Jobeth Ann Warjri
It is a rare privilege to read Prof. Temsula Ao’s latest work of fiction, Aosenla’s Story. The privilege is rare because there is hardly, if any, literature that talks about gender identity in Northeast India, especially in relation to the Ao Nagas. The novel follows the life of the protagonist, Aosenla, who lives with her family in the village of Mokukchung. The narrative opens with a wedding invitation that Aosenla receives in what has become her house following her marriage to Bendangmeren (Bendang, for short), a male member of an illustrious family. The invitation triggers memories of events in Aosenla’s life that led up to her marriage to Bendang. The narrative progresses as Aosenla recalls her engagement to Bendang, the unwelcome birth of her daughters, her friendship with a family doctor (Kilang) and the unexpected arrival of Bendang’s illegitimate daughter. Through it all, Aosenla’s resolve will be tested: will she or won’t she come into her own and understand the world ―and her belonging to it ―in her own terms? It is significant, perhaps, that Prof. Ao should choose a wedding invitation to introduce us to the inner life of her protagonist. The wedding invitation is also a metaphorical invitation for the reader to share in the central theme of the novel ― marriage.
From the flurry of activity that dominates Aosenla’s betrothal to Bendang to the later expositions of domestic life, marriage is treated as a watershed moment in a girl’s life. It is also an atmosphere and an event that is politically charged. Aosenla is forced into marriage not so much for love as for the concern over her family’s social standing within the community, “The father…was growing more apprehensive; he knew how obstinate his daughter could be and if he did not send a formal word of acceptance to the boy’s family soon, the marriage would be off, and his family would be in disgrace… one never knew what a rich and influential family would do to safeguard their prestige…” (P. 14). Class, not to mention gendered, hierarchies dictate the terms of Aosenla’s marriage. As Aosenla navigates the fragile realm of her marriage, these hierarchies would impinge upon the nature of her identity. The oppressive nature of patriarchy and class hierarchy, for instance, is suggested in the opening lines of the novel where the house in which her mother-in-law lives seems to bear down on Aosenla, “Her gaze drifted towards the big house, the house that had symbolized authority and domination over her life ever since she had entered it as a daughter-in-law. She wondered how an inanimate object like a house could wield so much power.” (p. 1-2). The house by itself, of course, does not carry such meanings. Rather, these meanings are generated because the people associated with the house ― Bendang’s mother, his father and Bendang himself―perpetuate patriarchal hierarchies. Bendang’s mother, for instance, is bitter because she holds Aosenla accountable for not producing a male heir and Bendang himself violates Aosenla a few months into their marriage. Domestic spats, infidelity and marital rape conspire to rob Aosenla of her voice within the world that she inhabits. When Bendang opts for a guest room following a motor accident, Aosenla is relieved for the blessings that his choice affords her: “‘Her’ bedroom; it had literally become so ever since the nurse had been engaged…If, in the earlier days, her bedroom was a space of conflicting experiences for Aosenla, it now became a refuge; a sanctuary where she could be free of any intrusions or painful memories of enduring the pain of her husband’s drunken ardour or the memory of her own participation in torrid matings induced solely by her own fantasies of love for him.” (p. 100). Although the sanctuary that the bedroom provides is short-lived, Aosenla is able ―for a brief amount of time― to re-claim her place within a household dominated by a male presence. And, perhaps, it is because of patriarchal hierarchies that we find characters in the novel defining themselves and their motivations according to how they might appear to others.
Prof. Ao spends an inordinate amount of time revealing her characters’ intentions and motivations. Consider, for instance, Kilang’s ruminations upon agreeing to Aosenla’s entreaties to care for Bendang’s illegitimate child: “…what was Aosenla’s game? What was she planning for the baby? Why hadn’t she contacted him?” (p. 128). Or, Aosenla’s concern that the maid should not know about the discord between her and her husband, “But he [Bendang] did a curious thing: he left behind a birthday present for her with the maid. When the maid brought it to her after his departure, Aosenla was in two minds: should she accept it or should she ask the maid to give it back to the master when he came home? But she did not want the maid to be privy to any sign of discord between them…” (p. 78). In many other instances, life for Prof. Ao’s characters seem to revolve around appearances ―a constant figuring out of how one’s action would appear to others. Except for rare occasions when the characters― particularly Aosenla― act on impulse, the novel reads like a game of cat-and-mouse where none of the characters are free to behave in the way that they want. This sometimes makes for a tedious read; relieved, however, by style that is simple and lyrical.
The lyrical tone of the novel is set from the get-go. Describing the passage of the afternoon, Prof. Ao begins: “It was a typical summer afternoon, turning into another, predictable, oppressive evening. The atmosphere was still heavy with the accumulated heat of the day. The anticipated coolness of dusk was some indeterminate distance away.” (P.1). By associating the words “oppressive”, “heavy” and “heat” with her description of the time of day, Prof. Ao hints at the protagonist’s thoughts and prepares the reader for the unveiling of the “big house” which is a symbol of oppression and domination. The lyrical tone of the lines is maintained through a series of stress and de-stressed syllables: “It was a typical summer afternoon…” (P. 1). Elsewhere, Prof. Ao resorts to rhetoric to reveal what is running through a character’s mind. When Aosenla learns of Bendang’s illegitimate child, for instance, she wonders: “[W]hy was she thinking this way? Wasn’t she outraged at all? Didn’t she betrayed? Didn’t she want to confront Bendang with this truth?” (P. 118). Although Prof. Ao is revealing what is going through the character’s mind, these questions also run through the reader’s mind. By asking rhetorical questions, Prof. Ao is also asking the reader what s/he would do if s/he were placed in Aosenla’s position. Such techniques in handling her narrative make Prof. Ao a master craftsman where literary style is concerned.
Aosenla’s Story is a wonderful addition to the Prof. Ao canon. Apart from its delineation of Ao society, the novel should be read for its obvious ideological import. If literature is meant to reflect life then Prof. Ao drives home a strong point ― as long as patriarchy exists, no one is ever truly free.
Title: Aosenla’s Story
Author: Prof. Temsula Ao
Publisher: Zubaan, New Delhi, 2017
Price: Rs. 495/$19.00
The reviewers teach English in the EFL University, Shillong campus.