Pegged as a folk fantasy novel interweaving fantasy fiction with Naga spirit stories and folklore, Avinuo Kire’s latest novel Where the Cobbled Path Leads is a cleverly crafted work.
For, apart from the fantasy and folk elements, Where the Cobbled Path Leads is also about the close-knit kinship in Naga society, the way people live in shared intimacy and being attuned as one with nature.
The narrative includes all things familiar to readers of literary fiction by most authors from Nagaland: the oral story of spirits dwelling in animals and humans, passing references to military occupation by the Japanese forces during the Second World War and its after-effects in present-day Nagaland, the shift from indigenous practices to Christianity and the politics behind the Naga freedom movement.
This means that any attempt to put the book into a neat box under the fantasy fiction genre is a futile exercise and would amount to short-selling the many hues that Avinuo’s writing brings to life.
Right from the first chapter and its opening paragraphs, there is a calm in its most evocative tone describing the laidback but colourful life in a Naga village. The calm is almost deceptive, as readers will find out in due course. The fantasy element makes for an Alice In Wonderland feel early on complete with the main protagonist, eight-year-old Vime, discovering a gnarled tree and its many thick roots leading to a brook. But that is all that is: there is no rabbit hole that she falls into. The adventures that ensue in bits and parts are a parallel and allegorical nod to her desperate search for meaning, for a semblance of peace, following the despair and disquiet she feels after the death of her mother.
Vime’s fascination and interest in the strange new other world that only she is able to get into is a mirror of her struggles to move on, a kind of wishful escape. In the physical world, her father and elder sister seem to have reconciled themselves to bringing another woman to take her mother’s place at home and in their lives. And all that Vime feels under the weight of the memories of her mother, over and above her grief and loneliness, is a deep sense of betrayal.
The author uses Vime’s otherworldly experiences to bring in elements of Naga folk and myths, while the everyday life is set in contemporary times under the shadow of militarization with even young children clued into the trauma of everyday conflict and turmoil. Fans of the Netflix series Stranger Things will definitely love the way Vime straddles the two realms co-existing on parallel tracks.
There is a vibrant imagery in the author’s use of words, the expressions used by the protagonists, and in the description of the old-world traditional ways of life. When the contemporary themes of armed conflict in Naga society make their appearance in the narrative, one cannot help but see how much the socio-cultural fabric of a close-knit society has been torn apart and the absurd irony of how peace is fought for with guns and bullets.
The author’s infusion of life lessons and wisdom through folk tales and belief systems through the words of family elders to younger people is a reflection of the traditional, but she juxtaposes them with the entrenched patriarchal notions about what men and women can do. In doing this, Avinuo steers clear of judging the old ways vis-a-vis the new. Instead, she firmly turns her attention to the positive takeaways from both.
Avinuo Kire weaves a tight, compelling narrative, moving back and forth across Vime’s moods, easing her into a slow and gradual realization of how bereavement is never about a comparative of who is grieving more. Vime finds that the peace she feels in her secret world is all too fleeting, that the tantalizing moments she gets to be near her mother there are a means to keep her shackled under the weight of what was. She begins to see that the grief and longing over the loss of her mother are not just hers alone, but that they have clouded her ability to see how others are grieving in their own ways.
Avinuo brings in a political undercurrent that she weaves into the larger story, very much well hidden in plain sight for those unfamiliar with the geopolitics of the region- Vime seeing vivid images of the blue flag with a rainbow and stars, a nod to the demand of the Nagas for a flag. Another telling note is when Vime has a vision of a statue commemorating a Naga fighter, a loaded nuance questioning who is a hero to whom and why.Where the Cobbled Path Leads is a rich addition to the expanding world of writings from Nagaland and it should be exciting to see how Avinuo and other writers from the state will expand the literary landscape further.