Nagaland is located in the north-east of India, with an eastern border to Burma, the name by which Myanmar is referred to throughout this book. The population of Nagaland is about two million people and consists of 16 tribes, each of which retains to this day its own traditional customs and language.
A few years ago a hand written diary from Nagaland arrived in Ben Doherty’s mailbox, “Its pages … overfilled, and seemingly without order, with drawings of birds and mountains and flowers … and scrawled verses of poetry.” The poems were written in Tangkhul, one of Nagaland’s many dialects. The final words were in English and read: “We live forever through our stories. Tell ours.” In writing Nagaland, Doherty has managed to do that splendidly.
The novel centers around Augustine Shimray and describes his early days as a member of a close-knit family in the small remote village of Ukhrul, where everyone knows everyone else and ancient traditions sit alongside Christianity and mobile phones. Ukhrul is Augustine’s home and his universe. He adores his father, Luke, who tells him wonderful stories and teaches him the ancient songs of his people. Luke explains to Augustine that some stories are about what happened a long time ago, some he can remember from when he was young, and some are stories that will happen one day. These legends, eloquently retold, are the highlights of this novel.
Sadly, Augustine’s father becomes addicted to heroin, contracts HIV and drifts away from his family. Augustine’s mother is an indefatigable worker who runs a small shop built into the front of their home. As Augustine grows up he helps in the shop and with the care of his younger brother and sister and goes reluctantly and infrequently to school.
But this is just the beginning. The reader follows Augustine from his early youth to his late twenties, from Ukhrul to Nagaland’s capital city, Kohima, and eventually to Delhi. In his wanderings he encounters unexpected kindness but also great dangers. In Delhi he is shocked by the racial discrimination he encounters. Although Delhi draws much of its population from all over India, the locals, known as the Delhiwallahs, often turn out to be arrogant and ruthless and unaccepting of north-easterners. So eventually Augustine returns home to an environment he understands, though not before many encounters which make exciting reading and give further glimpses of Indian culture.
Interspersed with the story of Augustine’s travels, and rendered in a different font, is the story of Augustine’s love affair with a young woman, Akala, who comes from a neighbouring village. While these two villages are separated only by a river, and both are close to the the same mountain, their young people may not intermarry because of a long-standing feud. So in order to be together, Akala and Augustine must flee on foot through difficult terrain, hopefully to reach the safety of Burma before their pursuing vengeful relatives from both sides of the river catch up with them.
Doherty writes that Nagaland is inspired by a true story. Certainly everything he tells his readers could have happened and much of it probably did. It was Mark Twain who wrote, “truth is stranger than fiction” but in this novel, truth and fiction are not strangers to each other at all.