Temsula Ao talks about her life, books and society

A recipient of ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’ in 2013 for her collection of short stories ‘Laburnum for My Head’, Dr Temsula Ao is undoubtedly “one of the country’s finest writers”. She has delineated the agonies and aspirations of her own people – the Nagas – with deep understanding and compassion in her fictional work. In her memoir, ‘Once Upon a Life’, she looks back over a period of almost seven decades: from ‘a fractured childhood’ to becoming the ‘remarkable writer that she is now’. She has also five books of poetry to her credit. A retired professor of English from the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Dr Temsula Ao was interviewed by Hemanta Barman and Gautam Kumar Bordoloi recently to learn about the unique experiences of her life and also her thoughts and ideas on various literary and social issues. 

Q. You retired from North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong in 2010 after putting in service for more than three decades. Are you trying to pursue writing more vigorously in the post-retirement phase of your life?

TA: I started writing a bit late in life; my first book of poems was published in 1988 only and I had to juggle my time with my primary job of teaching, looking after four children as a single parent and whatever time was left, was dedicated to sporadic spells of writing. So it is natural to expect that retirement gives one a lot of ‘free’ time. But I cannot say that I hoped to pursue writing more ‘vigorously’ after retirement because writing is not like other pursuits where you can accelerate your pace at will. Writing requires a different kind of energy which is both erratic and demanding at the same time. So I can say that I am merely following the tide of inspirations as and when they engage my imagination and more or less compel me to put my thoughts on paper!

Q. You are acknowledged today as ‘one of the country’s finest writers’, writing both prose and poetry in English. However, you began your writing career as a poet. Of all the literary genres, is poetry the most appealing to you?

TA: Yes, I write both prose — mostly fiction — and poetry in English but I do not know if I belong to that elite category of ‘the country’s finest writers’. I must confess that I would like to be considered a poet first and then only whatever else comes next. And I consider poetry to be the most challenging and satisfying genre of literature.

Q. You have published five books of poetry between 1988 to 2007. Significantly, the title of each book starts with the word ‘song’. What is the significance of this musicality?

TA: I hold the belief that poems are nothing but the inner songs that are born within a poet’s mind. The influence of my language—Ao, may have unconsciously prompted me to use the word ‘songs’ because the term used for oral poetry is ‘ken’ which means song. In our times too, if you look at the work of ‘song writers’ like Late Bhupen Hazarika, Gulzar and Jhaved Akhtar, to name a few, you will agree that their ‘songs’ are also poems.

Q. You were born in 1945 in the eastern-Assam town of Jorhat. Your memoir ‘Once Upon a Life’, reveals that you had a ‘fractured childhood’. How do you remember those childhood days spent at Borbheta Mission Compound in Jorhat?

TA: I tried to articulate some memories of that phase of my life in my Memoir; all that I can add here is that the difficult times have surely dominated the recollection which has been summed up in the phrase ‘fractured childhood’. Well, the term refers to the tragic circumstances that happened to our family while we were very small. My youngest brother was only starting to crawl when our parents died within nine months of each other. As a result, the two youngest children were taken to our village Changki where they were placed in the family of my father’s younger brother. The rest of us, my elder brothers, Khari and Tajen, myself and younger brother Along, were left at the Jorhat house to fend for ourselves under the guardianship of our eldest brother Khari who was temporarily employed in Jorhat Mission Hospital’s administrative wing as some kind of assistant. This arrangement, however, was not viable and my younger brother Along was eventually taken to our village to join the younger siblings. Through the kind intervention of the Hasselblads I was sent to study in Golaghat Girls’ Mission school where I stayed for 6 years. My brother Tajen got an appointment in the village primary school as an assistant teacher and when he got married and established his own household, he assumed the responsibility of all the siblings staying in uncle’s house. My brother Khari cleared his I.A exam and entered government service as a lower division clerk. But he was able to clear the State Civil Services exam and became a gazetted officer and was later conferred the I.A.S. He retired as a Commissioner/Secretary.

As for myself, the separation that occurred during these events left me with minimum contact with my siblings till after my marriage when I was brought to Nagaland as a married woman. I was married off even before my Matric results were out. It is because of these events that I used the term ‘Fractured Childhood’ in my Memoir to describe a very bewildering and difficult childhood and adolescence

Q. You were first enrolled as a student in the Jorhat Government Girls’ High School, you couldn’t study there for long though. Can you read and write in Assamese easily now?

TA: Yes, I can read, the printed word better, and at one time could write Assamese well because I studied in that medium till class VI at Golaghat Mission Girls’ High School and wrote two papers in Assamese in the Matric examination. I must also add that I can speak Assamese fluently and understand even now and mind you I am not referring to ‘Nagamese’!

Q. How do you recall your association with Dr O.W. Hasselblad and his wife Mrs. Norma Hasselblad, the missionary couple serving at Christian Hospital, Jorhat in your childhood? Have you met them later in life?

TA: I recall my association with the Hasselblads with awe and gratitude because they were instrumental in sending me to Golaghat to complete my High School. Yes, I did meet them later in 1985 when I went to the University of Minnesota on a Fulbright Fellowship and contacted them in California where they had settled in a Retirement Campus. They sponsored my tickets and I stayed with them for three days sharing our collective memories and exchanging family news about children and grandchildren. I truly cherish those days as if I was back in the happier times of my life.

Q. Tell us briefly about your experiences in the boarding school, Ridgeway Girls’ High School in Golaghat, Assam where you had to spend six important years of your life.

TA: I have tried to give some account of my life in the boarding school at Golaghat in my memoir and it will not be possible for me to recount my experiences here because some have already been published. At the same time re-ordering memories is a tricky business where one is likely to give several interpretations to the same experience after the lapse of so many years.

Q. Apart from Shillong where you worked for decades and set up ‘home’, Dimapur where you had decided to settle down—we believe a few other places—Jorhat and Golaghat where you spent your childhood and adolescent years; your ancestral village Changki and Mokokchung where you had to spend a number of struggling years after your marriage, must be the repositories of both sweet and sad memories. Do you get chances to visit these places now?

TA: Unfortunately I have not had too many opportunities to ‘visit’ Jorhat and Golaghat except passing through these towns on my way to some other destinations. I have kept my contact with Mokokchung to a certain extent as I have relatives living there. But with Changki the contact is of a different kind as I have my roots in that village and grew up with stories of my family’s role in the making of the village. As such my affinity with Changki is in the nature of a child returning to parents for re-affirm the sensibilities that have given me my intrinsic identity.

Q. In most of your stories from a ‘War Zone’ in the collection ‘These Hills Called Home’ you have so movingly depicted the agonies of the Naga society in the fifties and sixties of the last century, as caught between the stubborn militancy and the repressive Indian State forces. How do you foresee the future of Naga society in transition since the days of struggle for self-determination?

TA: It is a difficult question but I will try to answer it. But first of all I want to clarify one point about the stories in These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone. What I believe, I have done in the stories, is to portray the human suffering on account of the conflicts and therefore the conflicts themselves were used as a background only. The emphasis was not to identify’ winners or losers’ but to empathize with the ‘victims’ on both sides. The scenario has drastically changed after half a century of off and on attempts at finding a solution to the Naga problem. At this point of time it is difficult to say if the ‘transition’ is forward or backward.

Q. You received the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013 for your short story collection— ‘Laburnum for My Head’. The first story of the collection by the same name is a saga of the simple but strong-willed protagonist named Lentina. What Lentina stands for and is it based on a true character?

TA: As the title itself suggests, Laburnum for My Head is not actually about any protagonist but an idea and commentary on an evolving society’s treatment of death and all the attendant pomp and ostentation attached to it. The character Lentina is not based on any real person but was created because I believed that only a woman’s sensitivity would be the fit vehicle to advocate such a revolutionary concept in a patriarchal society.

Q. What has been the position of women both in the traditional and contemporary Naga social orders? Do they enjoy equal rights and opportunities as men?

TA: The answer to this question will never be a definite Yes or No because in many respects Naga women do enjoy certain freedoms not accorded to women in many other societies. I will start with equal opportunities for women in modern Naga society: do they have it? Yes. Education, choice of jobs and even choice of husbands. But rights? In matters of inheritance, the answer is Yes, a small percentage, where fathers have ‘gifted’ daughters married or otherwise from their own acquired wealth. But a big No as far as ancestral landed properties are concerned; only sons can inherit such properties.

Q. How important are the ethnographical studies in the context of various tribes and communities of the north-eastern India? What propelled you to chronicle ‘Ao Oral Order’?

TA: The first half of this question will challenge even a highly qualified ethnographer and therefore I will simply ignore it! I suppose you are referring to my book on Ao-Naga Oral Tradition. I’ve explained in the Introduction to that book how a small UGC project on collecting and translating Ao-Naga Folktales into English eventually grew into the book as published.

Q. What, according to you, are the effective steps to be taken to preserve and promote the diverse cultural heritage of the north-eastern region of the country?

TA: Many scholars have studied and written on cultures other than their own, mostly depending on the services of guides and translators. With due respect to their scholarship, I would still say that a native scholar would be a better chronicler as s/he would be attuned to the various nuances of her/his culture. Such work is being done in universities of the region and should be encouraged to cover as many ethnic groups of the region as possible.

Q. You got an opportunity to serve as the Director of North East Zone Cultural Centre, Dimapur from 1992 to 1997. What was your major contribution and overall experience during the period?

TA: Yes, I served as Director, North East Zone Cultural Centre, Dimapur from 1st September, 1992 to 31st August, 1997 for a period of five years on Deputation from NEHU. My stint as Director was a vast learning experience not only in official matters but about the region as well. I travelled to all the states in our purview and got acquainted with the multifarious ethnic lores, dance, drama and lifestyles. The head-quarter being at Dimapur, it was our duty to take all the states’ concerns into consideration and I believe that to a great extent we were able to remove doubts in the perception of the Member-States and strengthen our cultural ties through many exchange programmes held in all the states. We also took selected troupes to other states through the National Exchange Programmes (NEP). Every Republic Day, we took different cultural troupes on a rotation basis where the art and culture of NE was displayed over a long period in stalls erected for the purpose. Such excursions were excellent avenues for our people to interact with troupes from other states and form better understanding about each other. Our troupers also participated in the main Republic Day Parade on Raj Path. On several occasions, children’s groups from our centre also performed in the parade. Though these activities were more or less the ‘routine’ part of our schedule, there is one accomplishment which I am particularly proud of and that is the construction of a permanent building to preserve an antique marvel of wood sculpture at Shangyu village in Mon District of Nagaland. It is a wonderful wood carving executed on a single piece of wood. The Museum that we built to house this precious legacy of Naga art was inaugurated by the then Governor of Nagaland who was also the Chairman of NEZCC Governing Body, Mr. O.P Sharma on 25th April 1997. Every time I recollect the various hurdles to construct this Museum to house this world-renowned sculpture, I feel that I can count this as my contribution to preserve and showcase this marvel to our new generations.

Q. We often get to read about the contentious issue of boundary dispute between Nagaland and Assam and the resultant skirmishes in the border area. What measures need to be taken to promote goodwill and mutual trust among the common people of both the states?

TA: Boundaries are undoubtedly arbitrary, man-made barriers to appropriate the richness of the land resources and the contention is more often than not, mired in political motivations. At one time what we know today as Nagaland was only a District in the erstwhile province of greater Assam. The points of friction are many and some may seem even un-solvable. But do we then cease to live as neighbours? Mutual trust among the common people is, to my mind achievable. But what do we do with our politicians?

Q. From tormenting poverty to a life of fulfillment as an erudite professor and acknowledged writer—surmounting so many odds, your memoir ‘Once Upon a Life’ reads like a gripping fiction— tragic but at the same time highly inspiring. How do you like to reflect on the life’s journey so far?

TA: Writing Once Upon a Life has marked an important phase in my life’s journey. It is as if all the dark spaces in my soul have been swept out along with all the debris of our difficult childhood and I can now say that in this progress towards light, I have been nurtured and guided not only by the goodness in human hearts of my family and many benefactors but also by the Mercy of God. I have journeyed this far with my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren in reasonable worldly comfort, good health and happiness for which I thank Almighty God.

Hemanta Barman:

A veteran professional journalist, Hemanta Barman served till recently as the Editor of the ‘Dainik Janambhumi’, one of the oldest and leading Assamese dailies for almost two decades. Mr Barman is an acclaimed short story writer too.

Gautam K Bordoloi:

Gautam Kumar Bordoloi has almost thirty years of experience as a journalist, public relations practitioner and a book publishing editor. A former public relations officer of Assam Agricultural University and news editor of The Sentinel, Mr Bordoloi also served as a correspondent of The Asian Age. He writes both in English and Assamese. He can be reached at gkbordoloi11@gmail.com.