Easterine Kire is a well-known writer from Nagaland who writes in English. Most of her writings are about the Naga people and their society. She has lucratively captured not just the true essence of Naga life by exploring their oral history but also their problems and the trauma caused by the insurgency conflicts. The novel A Terrible Matriarchy (2007) revolves around the lives of Dieleino, Nino and Vibano representing three generations of Angami- Naga women of the same family. This is the evocative tale of a young girl growing up in a traditional society in India’s Northeast, which is in the midst of tremendous change.
Set in an Angami Christian community Kohima, Nagaland, Kire takes us to conventional pursuits of the traditional community through the eyes of a five-year-old who grows as the novel progresses. Dielieno, the youngest and the only girl child in her family is sent to live with her paternal grandmother at the age of five against her will. According to her grandmother girls don’t need education, time to play, or even a good piece of meat with their gravy, cannot enjoy any kind of privileges that life offers. With all these conventional reasoning her grandmother aspires to raise Lieno as a good Naga wife and mother. And for this Lieno grew up hating her grandmother with a vengeance. She stayed with her grandmother from the age of five till the age of twelve. Eventually, her grandmother’s redemption is displayed on her deathbed at the end of the novel and Lieno forgives her grandmother.
Greatly inspired by the author’s own life and mostly based on real people, the book portrays the patriarchal set-up of society, albeit amidst many changes. Kire’s book is remarkable in bringing out the lives of many women of three generations. The Angami society is essentially patriarchal and patrilineal and the same is visible in the society’s approach towards girl education, inheritance of property, marriages and divorces, and their way of life. Interestingly, however, the role of Angami women is imperative to the family and society as they are the main source of income. Women are mostly engaged in weaving, handicrafts, and agricultural activities, besides their household work. Even though Naga society is patriarchal, women enjoy considerable freedom and play important roles in the family and community. Kire, in her book, makes a deeper analysis of the real situation and presents quite a different picture from an ordinary understanding of how a patriarchal society operates.
Kire highlights the traditional view versus the modern one in her reflection on the Angami society’s approach towards education for girls. Lieno is shown to be growing up at a time when the importance of education for Angami girls was still being debated and not prioritized. Grandmother Vibano has very clear ideas about the fact that girls do not need education as it does not help them in any way to attain their most important goal, that of becoming a good Naga wife and mother. Lieno’s parents, however, have quite modern views and believe that Lieno should receive an education as much as her brothers had the right to. For Lieno, her entire life seemed to be centred on going to school and doing well in her studies. To not make her grandmother angry, she would wake up earlier than usual, and finish all her household work, so that she would be allowed to go to school. Once permitted to go to school, she puts her heart and soul into learning and achieving the most out of her education. She proves to be a good student, also a hardworking one and over time can gain the admiration of her teachers as well. Lieno is one of those few girls who completes her education and takes up a job as a teacher to support her family. Kire depicts the evolving Angami society amidst tremendous changes and that is mainly showcased by the modern ideas of parents who consider it important for their daughters to get an education and take an avid interest in the girls’ careers as well.
Division of rights between the gender is made evident in most parts of the novel. It appears like a story narrated by young Dielieno but the novel, for the most part, is about growing up as a woman in a patriarchal society as seen in Lieno’s life. The novel also talks about so many other aspects like the everyday Naga village life, grief and deaths in the family, the significance of sticking to traditional laws and customs, and ageing. Another aspect of the novel is the visitation of the good spirits and the bad spirits. Spirits of the dead visits their home one last time to say final goodbye or the wicked spirits who takes souls. Kire potently brings out traditional practices of the past making it a significant part of keeping her traditions alive.
A noteworthy aspect of Kire’s book is her delineation of the constant tug-of-war between tradition and modernity. In the evolving Angami society where modern ideas and thoughts are dawning in, it is interesting to see how a natural process such as menstruation is referred to as ‘the curse’. Young girls like Lieno feel terrified of such ‘grown-up matters’. Kire’s portrayal of how Lieno and her friend hesitate to approach shopkeepers to buy sanitary napkins conveys many ideas of society’s perspective of such situations. However, true to the genre of a Bildungsroman, Lieno too sheds her cocoon and is finally able to deal with such situations practically.
Easterine Kire writes about a place and a people that she knows well and is a part of and brings to the storytelling a lyrical beauty which can on occasion chill the reader with its realistic portrayals of the spirits of the dead that inhabit the quiet hills and valleys of Nagaland. She presents a situation where some women have the upper hand in their households and community and also can manipulate men into thinking that they are the decision makers whereas in reality the strings are subtly drawn by the women.