A Mini-Interview With Easterine Kire
Last year, in August, I had the chance to have a chat with one of our featured authors, Easterine Kire, over email. At the time the pandemic was raging in India, so naturally we began with that. Easterine is the author of When the River Sleeps, a remarkable novel steeped in the culture and environs of Nagaland, which we review in this issue. She talks to us about the inspiration for the book, and the tension between modernity and cultural traditions rooted in Nature. – Vandana Singh
Vandana Singh (VS): How are you and yours doing? How are your communities?
Easterine Kire (EK): My family members are all well. No one was infected and we are so grateful for that. Of course each member is feeling the difficulty of life in isolation, shortage of essential commodities and the restrictions on travel, but hopefully this will be sorted out in the near future. It’s important to stay hopeful. There are too many negatives voicing their fears.
The Naga community has been coping well, I feel. Things could have been worse, but the government has taken measures and for the most, people are cooperating.
VS: Are there aspects of your cultural upbringing that are helping you cope with this crisis?
EK: Discipline and obedience are some of the great values taught in Naga cultures. As far as I know, the rural areas, the villages are doing much better at containing the spread of the virus. People are much more disciplined in the villages and they put the good of the community before selfish actions. So there have been very good reports from the Naga villages.
VS: Has the Covid 19 crisis brought you new ways (or old ways) to think about Nature? About climate justice?
EK: A lot of friends have commented that the air cleared in Delhi and blue skies could be seen. I rejoice that Nature can rejuvenate itself in this amazing way, if humans stop doing all the dangerous things they have been doing to the planet. Sadly, it looks like climate justice is something that will come about only when change is forced on communities, in the way the virus has forced the ‘normal life’ of huge consumerism to come to a standstill.
VS: How did you come to write your novel When the River Sleeps? In what way do you think your writing may change in response to this crisis?
EK: I have hunter friends who tell me wonderful stories. The seed of ‘When the River Sleeps’ was sown in my heart many years before I wrote it down. My hunter friends were deeply attracted to the spirit world and their forays into the deep forests afforded them more understanding of that other world, and helped them access it. Like them, I too believe in the place that the spiritual occupies in our lives and the importance of realising this. Writing the book helped me to explore the Naga spiritual universe as well as make discoveries that material wealth is so poor in comparison to the wealth of spiritual understanding.
I don’t expect my writing to change all that much in response to the present crisis. I cling to the things that are eternal and that means that pandemics and things of a transitory nature will pass into history and be eventually forgotten, but clinging to the eternal things helps you distinguish what is important and what is worthwhile and what is not. I don’t want to make a big deal of the crisis. I don’t even want to write poems about it. There is nothing poetic about it. I also do not want my readers to be looking for connections to the virus in my next book, because it does not have any connection to the pandemic. Life is bigger than the pandemic.
VS: You mention the closeness of your hunter friends to the spirit world. It seems that Naga culture, perhaps many indigenous cultures, see the human-animal-spirit world as a continuum. To what extent is modernity changing this? The dilemma of choosing a deeper and more meaningful (and more ecologically sustainable) life versus the comforts that modernity offers may be stronger among people who have actually had the experience of the former. How do you, as a writer from Nagaland, negotiate this tension between modernity and cultural values?
EK: Vandana, as to your first question, there is an easy and sad answer. The environment that fostered the beliefs in the spirit world is being destroyed via deforestation, coal mining, major fishing, and anything done on a bigger scale than before. The forests that were the birthplaces of spirit stories are being denuded of trees and roads being built through them. I am told that spirits migrate when men come and cut down trees and inhabit the forest areas. So yes, it is modernity and cultural teachings in conflict with each other. It is possible to set limits to how much deforestation can be done, and this can be done by a government that has the people’s welfare at heart, not just their own personal gains. I don’t like politicians, as you can see.
VS: I love how you mention your clinging to what’s eternal, in the context of the pandemic. While there is evidence that biodiversity loss makes pandemics more likely (so this one may not be the last, unfortunately) I wonder whether the anchor of the eternal is what’s missing in modern civilization. Can you elaborate on what the eternal means to you?
EK: Pascal is often quoted as saying: There is a God-shaped vacuum in man.’ I think modern lives ignore this need which cannot be filled by any other thing. It creates emptiness when we are cut off from our spiritual roots. Cutting down forests to make way for civilisation, or modernisation or whatever they call it, is no longer the answer. I believe the planet is in protest about man’s failure to spiritually connect. It protests the reduction of the mysterious, and the mystical to superstition. Man essentially needs the spiritual so he can live out his destiny. Ignoring it can only bring his ruin.
VS: Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
EK: I’m finishing work on a book I really love, It’s about a village where suddenly darkness descends and stays for many weeks and they have to find a solution out of it, and the solution is of course a spiritual solution, and the protagonist is a powerful 93-year-old female seer!
VS: Thank you, Easterine! We can’t wait to read your new book!