Reading Time: 7 minutes

Easterine Kire is a well-known English writer from Nagaland. Most of her writings are about the Naga people and their society. She has lucratively captured the true essence of Naga life by exploring their oral history, 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 northeast India amid tremendous change.

A Terrible Matriarchy is a novel that pulls the reader back to the time when the story was set. The reader can feel him or herself living next door to Vibano- the matriarch in the novel, observing her grim personality as she dictates Bano and young Dielieno to do the household chores, the staggering drunks as they make their way out of the drinking houses from where boisterous laughs echoed, busybodies like Aunt Benuo spilling secrets of other families regardless that it was none of her business. The society that the author painted in the novel is a mirror reflection of the present reality.

The novel centres around a young girl called Dielieno, who grows into a lovely woman. Dielieno is the youngest child and only daughter of Visa and Nino. Dielieno, the youngest and the only girl child in her family, is sent to live with her paternal grandmother Vibano at the age of five against her will. She is outspoken and does not hesitate to speak her mind, constantly getting her into trouble when she is in Vibano’s presence. She later learns to stay quiet in certain situations to avoid trouble. She is a bright girl with dreams of educating herself and becoming an accomplished person; however, her dreams collide with her grandmother’s expectations of her. Her grandmother is conservative in her thoughts and in her lifestyle, too. According to Vibano, girls don’t need education, time to play, or even a good piece of meat with their gravy; they cannot enjoy life’s privileges. She also believes that it is wrong for girls to laugh too much or too loud as the only aim of girls should be to become efficient workers, get married, be good wives and bear children, sons in particular. 

Dielieno feels that her grandmother hates her for being a girl, as she is always addressed as “the girl” even though her grandmother named her Dielieno. Her grandmother also treats her brothers Leto, Vini, Pete and Bulie better by letting them sit on her lap and giving them extra servings of meat, which Dielieno refuses. She was also not allowed to be spoiled by receiving money, but her brothers could enjoy cash as gifts. Later, it is revealed that Vini is Vibano’s favourite grandchild as she constantly gives him vast amounts of money, leaves her house to Vini’s son Salhou and gives her field to Vini, although Leto is the eldest son. She even paid for Vini’s grand wedding because he married a girl of her choice, unlike Leto, who went against her wishes and married Dielieno’s best friend Vimenuo, the daughter of the dead drunk Zekuo. 

Vibano called Dielieno to live with her to teach her the qualities of a good woman and teach her to work accordingly. Dielieno struggled to cope with the pressure exerted on her by her grandmother, but she learned to live with her after facing a multitude of hardships during the early years of her stay with Vibano. Vibano denied her visiting her parents and brothers unless it was an urgent cause; she also rejected Dielieno to visit her best friend Vimenuo, claiming that she came from a bad family. Dielieno was also denied education by her grandmother, who argued that girls should not be educated, but she was eventually allowed. However, it only meant that she had to work harder. Dielieno was an excellent student and skipped a class ahead, leaving Vimenuo behind. Dielieno 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 novel’s end, and Dielieno forgives her grandmother.

Many types of characters are found in the story, including endless plot twists. There were a few characters that were pregnant before getting married, which was a massive taboo in society. Bano was the illegitimate daughter of grandfather Sizo, grandmother Vibano’s younger brother, although Bano called Vibano “mother”. Sizo had already married someone else and had three children with his wife. Bano’s biological mother is not talked about in the story. Pfunuo, Nino’s younger sister, also got pregnant, but she married her baby’s daddy. Dielieno’s young school teacher who ‘wore short skirts’ got impregnated by the drawing teacher, too. The two ladies who constantly gossip near the water spots are present in significant numbers in real life. The two ladies always engage in gossiping and teasing others. In Nagaland, they are called ‘colony aunties’ who never seem to mind their own business, and matters of other families always seem to be more attractive to them.

One of the many plot twists in the story is the untimely death of Pete, which drives Dielieno’s mother into a state of depression, which is worsened by the change in Vini’s personality. Vini had become addicted to alcohol, and he misbehaved constantly, which was the cause of the weakened condition of his mother. Dielieno had to leave her grandmother to move back home; the responsibility of her mother was on her shoulders, but she did not mind as long as she was back home. Vini died shortly after his marriage to Nisano and the birth of his son Salhou. Vibano’s death followed, and with her death, her whole dictatorship in her family. For many years, she had controlled almost every move made by her children and grandchildren; now that she was gone, things would not be the same for better or worse.

The story also has many supernatural elements. There were talks of hauntings that took place in Kohima; people were superstitious and could connect any regular event to a paranormal activity. The villagers saw many spirits in the unrest several times, some even victims of the ghostly encounters. The older people were okay with it, but the younger generation feared it deeply. Vibano saw her dead husband working in the garden; Zekuo’s spirit was also seen in the drinking house a few days after his death, and Pete’s spirit was also seen by his mother, Nino. But the most prominent and neatly described haunting in the text was of grandmother Vibano’s spirit. Vibano showed herself to Dielieno after her death; she was sitting on a chair when Dielieno saw her. Nisano, Bano and Dielieno heard her grandmother’s heavy footsteps in the corridor; they also listened to her exhaling air, making a “heish” sound. She lifted the bolt of the door and walked out of the house, but it was found to be locked upon inspection. Vibano’s house was rented for twelve months, during which four different families lived there. Vibano haunted the four families to the extent that all were driven away with fear. 

In a pastor’s dream, Vibano’s spirit said, “My house is not for strangers. It is for my family members. How can I be at rest when they have thrown out of my house those who cared for me and tried to make money out of it?” referring to her children who asked Bano to move to Neikuo’s house because they wanted to make money out of the house by renting it out even though she left the house to Vini and Nisano’s son Salhou. After Bano moved back, Vibano’s spirit did not return. The story ends with Vimenuo having another child, a son this time (they had a daughter the first time), Leto gets two promotions at work, and they buy a property and build a house. Bulie married Nisano and lived with his wife, stepson/nephew Salhou and Bano in his grandmother’s house. Dielieno was also married to Bulie’s friend.

The novel gives us an insight into what life was like in the 1960s –the struggles that the Nagas faced pre and post-independence, the introduction of electricity, the misconceptions of what education allegedly did to a girl, i.e., making her bold and not worthy of finding a suitor quickly, the attitude of servitude that a woman is expected to have towards her husband, the extreme superstitions and the looking down of families because of their “bad blood” or something ridiculous that their ancestors did, the obsession with women bearing male heirs not to lose property upon the death of their husbands and having someone to care for them. These are elements which continue to prevail in modern-day society, like the untimely deaths caused by alcoholism, neighbourhood gossip, superstitions, etc. What stands out the most is that reading this novel is like going through history at a personal depth, not just knowing the social, political, religious, and economic issues but also having a close peek into the people’s lives in the 1960s to 1970s. The story acts as a time machine that enables us to experience the kind of love and hatred that existed ages ago, which is no different from the one that exists now. Love and hatred as terms are narrow, but in action, they can be manifested in many ways.

A Terrible Matriarchy is a book that deserves more cognizance, for it has been brilliantly written and touches almost all the essential subjects for society to acknowledge, ranging from the evils of alcoholism to the oppression of women in the Naga society. 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 communities and can manipulate men into thinking that they are the decision-makers, whereas, in reality, the strings are subtly drawn by the women.

Previous articleTagmemics
Next articleThe Shadow Lines
Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.