#DesiBooksReview 2: The Gardens of Temsula Ao’s Mind

#DesiBooksReview Issue 2

The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories from Nagaland by Temsula Ao | Speaking Tiger, India | January 20, 2022

An untended garden with the quiet menace of the advancing wild. Its disarray and neglect with a creeper or two claiming ownership of the balustrade. A looming dark sky streaked with silhouettes of swaying trees making the perfect background. This illustration by Reshu Singh on the cover of Temsula Ao’s The Tombstone in My Garden beautifully captures the recurring motif in the stories within. In this slender collection from Ao, the garden often reflects the protagonist’s state of mind. It is overgrown with weeds and wild vegetation if the protagonist is going through a tough phase and, conversely, bursts into full bloom and thrives when the main character does. Nature too is an abiding presence. Most often it is a benign though mysterious force that can be understood if one pays attention to the language.

Ao is one of the most significant voices from the northeast of India. This is her third story collection and, as always, she gives us a whole world with a variety of themes: identity, parenthood, domestic violence, and our never-ending onslaught on our environment.

‘Platform’ is the story of Nandu, a porter who prospers and becomes popular among other porters and passengers through hard work and the goodness of his heart. The latter trait leads him to adopt a poor orphan boy whom he finds abandoned on the platform. Now, as the world gets increasingly polarized and he frequently hears the word “outsider” used derogatively, the safety of this son worries him. There is a dark secret about the boy that Nandu has successfully hidden from everyone all these years. And this terrible secret, Nandu is sure, will bring nothing but danger to them both. He tries to think of a solution but matters come to a head. With just the right effects, Ao captures Nandu’s terror and bewilderment at becoming a “foreigner” in a place where he has lived for decades. And we are left numb with the realization that even a simple and spontaneous act of kindness can lead to brutal tragedy.   

Parents come in varying shapes and sizes in Ao’s stories. In ‘Snow-Green’, the eponymous character, affectionately named so by her parent-like mistress, is an obstinate lily that will not bloom in protest. Her protest is against the wish of her mistress, who wants to exhibit her at a flower show. But Snow-Green is adamant. She doesn’t want to be gawked at by bumbling human beings. The lily’s protest is like that of children of parents who so often want to show off their offspring with a sense of ownership; to live vicariously through them, in ways that can only lead to conflicts and tragedies. But children, like stories, belong to themselves. To many, like the vain mistress in this story, this realization comes too late or at too great a cost.

Violence, both sexual and domestic, is at the core of ‘The Saga of a Cloth’. An old grandmother is saddened when her beloved orphan grandson is banished from the village for his misdoings. She knows that she will not be alive when he returns; if he does return at all. So she tells him a dark secret about his father’s birth and his grandfather’s violence. In her bare-as-bones prose, Ao’s unsparing realism takes us through the heartrending after-effects of domestic violence and the ripples it causes across the generations. And so the son, who is his mother’s protector from his father, turns predator when his wife comes along. Codes of behavior are learned from living examples. The author’s clear vision does not romanticize the mother either. The same mother who has suffered abuse from her husband turns a blind eye to her daughter-in-law’s suffering. She protects her son from the consequences of his actions. This kind of sacrifice, endurance, and silence is still a part of the social code for mothers everywhere and Ao shows how, like domestic violence, it is also learned and passed on.   

Forest creatures band together to defeat the two-legged devils called humans in a delightful story called ‘The Talking Tree’. The creatures put their plan into action and succeed in driving the humans away from what’s rightfully theirs—the forest. The narrative evokes the sense of long summer vacations filled with magical tales of crafty jackals, wise elephants, and gossipy mice. This fable-like story about how we take nature for granted, how we don’t see her capable of defending herself or hitting back, is more than a nod to animal cruelty or climate change. It reminds us, yet again, that there are forces bigger and beyond ourselves that must be respected.

The title story, the last in the collection, is somewhat of a disappointment. Ao writes about a matriarch’s intense dislike for her husband’s tombstone, which also symbolizes her hatred for him. But much of the story is about her parents—an Englishman and a Naga girl—and the power dynamics between them. Ao starts off with the matriarch’s perspective but, somewhere along the way, switches to her mother’s and then comes back to the matriarch. These jumps are jarring and the protagonist’s actions and emotions also make for some confusing characterization. For example, if the matriarch’s sons are in college as she tells us (“They are both doing well in their colleges now and as far as I know have not picked up any bad habits.”) and she was married when just out of university herself, she must be in her late forties or early fifties and not as old as she is described in the opening lines.    

Ao’s writing style is lean and spare and does what it should with an almost stoic detachment from the people it portrays. This is a simple no-nonsense language that goes about the business of telling us what happened; an efficient but unadorned vehicle that doesn’t draw attention to itself. This quality gives all the stories a folktale-like quality. An example from the story “Platform”:

“Could he give up the helpless child thus making him twice-abandoned? He thought about all this for some time, intently gazing at the boy’s face and found that he did not have the heart to knowingly subject this little helpless child to such a dark future. He resolved that he would protect him and give him a secure life. Nandu, at that stage in life, was full of self-confidence and believed, with a false bravado, that he could shield the boy not only from others but from his own true identity. But unfortunately, what he failed to realize at that moment was that he was proposing to chart the destiny for another human being with a misguided notion of altruism.” 

Through such uncluttered prose and with her ethnographer’s eye for detail, Ao shines a clear, steady light on longstanding, complex problems within our communities and societies. Most of her characters, though keenly aware of the injustices stacked upon them, can only suffer their misfortunes silently. Nandu from ‘Platform’ cannot deal with the horror perpetrated on his adopted son. The grandmother in ‘The Saga of a Cloth’ can only take symbolic revenge on her dead husband. Perhaps it is a testament to Ao’s storytelling skills that we are left considering the possibilities of what might have been if, like Snow-Green the obstinate lily, they had also protested.

Temsula Ao’s latest story collection is a tranquil read, best for a quiet evening when the others have gone out, the day’s work is done, and the sky is gradually darkening. The stories are like gooseberries soaking in an earthen jar of saline, alongside spicy kanthari chillies. Their effect grows with time and reflection.  

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