In the book The Many That I Am, Filmmaker and writer Anungla Zoe Longkumer brings together for the first time, a remarkable set of stories, poems, first-person narratives and visuals that reflect the many facets of women’s writing in Nagaland. Despite the fact that the Naga tribes have no tradition of written literature, this book has been written in English. English was adopted as their language after the church and christianity came to Nagaland. Each piece in this book speaks of women’s many journeys to reclaim their pasts and understand their complex present.
The following is an excerpt from the chapter “When Doors Open”.
When Doors Open
A Personal Essay
My mother was born in 1950, the sixth of seven surviving siblings, six of whom were girls. My grandfather, who had passed away before I was born, had not been happy about this. With every girl born in his household, his status and honour lessened, or so it seems he had thought. He was the priest of our old religious system. A small part of me wishes to give him the benefit of the doubt: maybe he wanted to ensure that the priestly line stayed in his family, although this was not a rule, but the greater part of me reasons that he already had a firstborn son as the most ideal successor. The gender of babies born into the family should not have mattered, but it did. He was clearly a patriarch first and a priest only after that.
The meaning of my mother’s name, Loreni is ‘line of girls’ for she was the fifth daughter born in a row. As the third girl born in succession, my younger sister was wishfully when doors open named Lochumlo, which means ‘the last girl’. It is no surprise then that under pressure from the patriarchal system, the girls in the community grew up to prefer having sons rather than daughters.
Grandfather had forbidden his daughters from going to school. He told them that they belonged to ‘somebody else’ (for they would get married and leave the household), implying that it was wasteful to labour in somebody else’s garden! The other possibility was to attend the night school organized by the church on alternate days. Grandfather objected to that as well. He had been suspicious that receiving education in church would result in a change of faith in his daughters, and thus, the patriarchal instincts in him to keep the girls under his thumb intensified doubly. None of them was sent to school except for the one who, born prematurely, was physically unfit to do farm work. Much against her wishes, my mother too was forbidden from receiving a formal education. Her keenness to go to school was of no consequence and she had no option but to go to the fields every day. She was raised to obey the patriarch, and so she did, as did all her sisters. But, there was a female member in the family who dared to defy their father’s autocracy. She was my mother’s mother. I got to know my grandma Njüponi as a little girl. Because she was born a female, grandma was given her name meaning ‘one who is disliked’ or simply ’unwanted’, but I was very fond of her. She was caring and hardworking and smart, and a fervent believer in God. She converted to Christianity after grandfather died, and never missed going to church service even in her old age. Although she had nothing much to give, she was big-hearted and generous in spirit. She thought that if my mother wanted to go to school then she should.
Every evening, when most of the villagers were getting ready to retire, my grandma would carefully watch the door and quietly make all the arrangements so that my mother could sneak out of the house and attend night school at the church. Grandma’s defiance of grandfather’s rules, I believe, contributed much to her daughter’s empowerment. After a hard day’s work in the felds and fetching water, manually pounding rice and cooking, my mother would run over to the church and learn how to read and write and sing Christian hymns. There were nights when after grandfather found out about my mother attending night school he would shut the door. On such nights, she would sleep on the tsüngsa outside the house. The next morning, she faced a harsh scolding, a fearful thing from a domineering figure. She attended three years of school in total. When she was in the third year, she received the academic excellence award in the school. Her prize was a hand-woven bamboo basket. She deeply cherished this token of her achievement.
Unfortunately for her, this was the highest formal education she would receive. The night school was stopped for her; moreover by then she was a teenager. It was now time to ‘knit the village’ or yanpi as they say in our Lotha-Naga language. For a man though, it is meant as ‘taking a woman’ or ‘building a house’, oki tssoa.
My mother gave birth to nine children. Her first son was stillborn and she later buried another boy of seven. The second death broke her heart so grievously that I think it never fully mended. By the time she was thirty years old, my mother had already given birth to seven children. After losing two sons, she now had only the one son but alas, four daughters. This gender ratio was disappointing not only to when doors open my father but also my mother. Her motherhood, it seemed, was imperfect without more sons. After all, she, like most other women, mistakenly thought that the well-being of the patriarchal system and the continuity of her husband’s lineage rested entirely on her womb’s ability to produce males. She wrestled with God every day over the issue of granting her a son. However, yet another angelic looking girl was born to her.
Finally, at the age of forty-two, her wish was granted. She called him Pilamo, ‘give back’, for she thought that God had finally given back what he had taken away from her, a son. She now felt assured of receiving commendations from her village and tribe for birthing a perceived asset, a male, rather than a drawback, a female. As a young girl, I questioned my mother’s preference for sons over daughters but I never could confront her directly. She once told me why she felt that boys were more resourceful than girls: her older son, my brother, had managed to install a landline telephone in the house, an impossible thing then, and he could also drive a car. Although there were three daughters older than him, none of them could do either of those things. Her obsession for sons, it seemed, blinded her to the contributions of the daughters in sustaining the family.
Like most girls of her generation, who commonly viewed getting married as the ultimate goal, marriage came early to my mother and her sisters. But, her lower primary school education landed her a modest government job in Wokha town; quite an achievement for those days. She once confided in me that she was proudest of having economic freedom.
She augmented her salary by rearing cows, pigs, chicken, fish, and growing vegetables of all kinds. Apart from their value as sources of food, she also ‘saw’ her children’s fees in all of these creatures and plants. With the fruit of her labour, she was able to give tithe, support her children’s studies and run the kitchen. She never ever bought things for herself. All of her life was meant only for giving, it seems. Her children never got the chance of offering her the fruit of her kindness through hard work of their own for, sadly, my mother died at the young age of fifty-nine.
I now know that the door which my grandma closely watched all those late evenings in the village enabled my mother to write letters in our Lotha-Naga language to her children who were mostly away from home for education. When I was in college at Jorhat, she once wrote to thank me for the gifts I had bought them with my post-matric scholarship. She especially mentioned the maroon polo shirt which I had sent for my father saying that she had teased him about how women would fall for him when he wore it! Her tough exterior concealed a soft interior. She was also able to write down her knowledge of folk songs, tales, and proverbs when I had asked about them. My grandma’s bold action turned my mother into a successful homemaker and eventually into a woman of some stature in her community, proving that, for some women, all that it takes is an open door of opportunity.