Thursday, December 8, 2022

Reading, Remembering Temsula Ao (1945-2022)

Somehow I don’t remember the first time I met Temsula Ao in person. But I vividly recall reading my first Temsula Ao book, her early collection of short stories These Hills Called Home: Stories from a Warzone. The searing stories haunted me for days and weeks after and I carried them with me to my dreams. Her prose was much like her- elegant, bold and precise. For a literature (Naga) student like me, Temsula Ao was a living legend- a pioneering voice in the fast evolving and emerging genre of Naga Writings in English. In time, I read her other stunning literary works which span short stories, a novel, the most sublime poetry, a heartrending Memoir, an important ethnographic work on the Ao Naga oral tradition, a book on Literary Criticism, and several other publications.
Ma’am Temsula was many things in her lifetime. For her contribution to literature, she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007, the Governor’s Gold Medal in 2009, Sahitya Akademi Award 2013 and Kusumagraj National Literature Award in 2015. She was a Wife and Mother, a Poet, Writer, Scholar and Ethnographer, a Professor and Dean at NEHU till her retirement in 2010. She served as Director of the North East Zone Cultural Centre, Nagaland, between 1992 and 1997, on deputation from NEHU. Finally, she was appointed Chairperson of the Nagaland State Commission for Women (NSCW) in 2012 and served two terms, till 2019.
Looking back, it must have been during her final public stint as Chairperson (NSCW) that I first encountered her. I had briefly interned at the State Resource Centre for Women, Nagaland, and various programs on gender and women were often held in convergence with the NSCW. I was a closet writer then and completely in awe of her. I did not dare tell her that I wrote. She was always approachable, soft spoken and cut such a dignified figure in her mekhelas and signature silvery white hair, always cut short and smart. I remember that very moment when my self imposed reservations faded and she just became more real and relatable. Some officials had arrived for a week long intensive program and a special dinner and cultural show was organized on the eve of their departure. That evening, at a popular hotel, there was music and then there was Ma’am Temsula dancing, alone, gracefully swaying to the music. There’s something quite special about a woman who can dance in happy lonesome. But that wasn’t for long. One by one, we all trickled into the makeshift dance-floor and it became a most memorable evening.
I remember showing Ma’am Temsula my first book contract back in 2013. We shared the same publisher and I needed her advice. She was a mentor to anyone who needed one. Over tea and brilliant sunlight streaming through open windows, we talked literature and life in her immaculate office. Although vastly senior, she spoke to me like an equal- candid and unhesitating. I so admired her irreverence and how unapologetically forthright she was about what she liked and what she did not. Temsula Ao was a Special Guest along with Easterine Kire, another literary giant, at my first book launch in 2015. That afternoon, I was excited and anxious and about a quarter to the program time, I decided to call her over the phone to remind her, just in case. She responded with her characteristic dry wit, ‘Uff Avinuo, I haven’t gone senile, I’m almost there!’
This is a difficult choice but my favorite Temsula Ao book must her memoir Once Upon a Life: Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags. I read it years after its release, inside a cozy cafe at Calcutta airport, unabashedly wiping tears as I read. While reaching for a fresh tissue, I saw a man looking at me, brows furrowed in curious concern. I smiled and nodded tearfully, trying to wordlessly convey that I’m alright, I’m not having a breakdown, I’m only reading Temsula Ao. The book had me completely absorbed and what would have been a long layover felt like no time at all. It wasn’t the memoir of a writer or a public personality but in her words from the book’s preface, the story of her life, ‘…as an ordinary woman who faced insurmountable odds from early childhood and who through sheer grit and self-belief, overcame those vicissitudes of life’. And it is exactly what she says it is. I felt closer to Ma’am Temsula after reading her memoir and my respect grew tenfold. At that time, I thought to myself, if I ever get the chance, the right moment, I will ask her, ‘Would you do everything the same way again?’ and a couple of other (perhaps) impertinent questions. Sadly though, I never got what I felt would be that right moment in time. And maybe it’s just as well.
The years quickly fell into each other and it’s suddenly 2022. I had badly wanted an endorsement from Ma’am Temsula for my latest book. I requested her during the early part of the year and was saddened to learn that her health was failing. But she was still gracious enough to agree and with assistance from her lovely daughter Anungla, she could read my manuscript and write something precious for my book, for which I will always remain grateful.
As I write this piece, random memories, snippets of conversation- a trip to the museum, warm greetings and embraces at literary festivals, a comic book she wanted to read, discussing Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ in her office, little seemingly insignificant moments come to mind. I realize how much of an impact she has made on I, who actually knew her so little. I cannot imagine the void she has left on the lives of those who were truly close to her. My last conversation with Ma’am Temsula was over the phone in July of this year. She and her daughter Anungla had called to congratulate me on my book’s release. She lived in Dimapur while I was in Kohima and I told her that I plan to visit her over the winter. The call ended with a soft, ‘God bless you’ from her. Sadly, this was not to be. Dear Ma’am Temsula passed on 9th October 2022, in the bloom of autumn. I later learned what October meant to her through a poem she wrote- a poignant ode to October, and the final stanza which reads, …
And when the time
Is ripe for me,
I wish to depart
With October in my heart (Temsula Ao)
Temsula Ao leaves behind a rich and enduring legacy through her writings. Her contribution to the nation, and particularly to Naga society is immense. As I write this, I remember her once remark, somewhat wistfully, that she started writing too late in life because of her early circumstances. I marvel how wonderfully and easefully she has made up for lost time despite the ‘late’ start, what she has been able to achieve despite all odds and with the little advantages that she began her early life with. I imagine God telling her, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.’ (Matthew 25:21).
Temsula Ao leaves behind a permanent void in our literary world. In telling her stories, Temsula Ao tells us our stories too. She is the Guardian of a people’s History, a Knowledge Holder, a Keeper of Stories. There will never be another Temsula Ao. And I am so grateful to have known this remarkable woman.
By Avinuo Kire

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