Laburnum for My Head is a Simply Written Book that Cuts At You
Trigger warning: sexual abuse, death, war, killing of animals, violence
I picked up several short story collections for my journey to Assam in November, for the #wordsofnortheast readathon. I hadn’t read too many short stories lately, and I thought they would be easier to read than novels about insurgency and death. (I’m not ready yet; to read heavy, tragic stories all the time. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.)
I don’t think I was wrong, exactly. I’m sure the heavier books following families through a war-like insurgency would have shattered me.
But Laburnum for My Head was no less poignant.
From a witty story about a kid who made some quick money by selling a government-owned airfield to a bunch of gullible villagers to simple tales of the life of Naga locals during the peak of the insurgency, the book runs the gamut.
What really struck me most about it is that it wasn’t beautifully written; not in the conventional sense of literary beauty. It wasn’t a complex web of tales, it wasn’t written in lyrical prose or big, complicated words…it wasn’t even particularly memorable in its style.
But it left an impression. Each simple, honest word in the heavier stories pierced my heart and made me see things I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Like the side of the “bystanders” in the insurgency – the Naga villagers, stuck between the Indian government and the rebels, both of whom found it easy to sling blame at those poor, simple people whose only wish was to be left in peace.
Some of the stories were a little vague, but for the most part, they had closure. None of that ambiguous ending nonsense! I loved that. I hate ambiguous endings!
I’m in awe of Temsula Ao. Rather than showing the bigger, broader picture of the political landscape of Nagaland, she has zoomed into the lives of seemingly insignificant players: a witty child; the ex of a rebel leader, the villagers stuck between the government and the insurgents…
With simple, cutting prose, she makes us care about random people we would have never given a second thought to in this era of sensational politics and twitter slugfests.
If you can’t tell yet, I loved the book. And I’d recommend it to anyone who can handle the triggers…
Laburnum for My Head:
An old lady doggedly pursues her most ardent wish – to have a laburnum tree planted on her grave, a beautiful life growing at her burial place rather than a lifeless headstone.
Death of a Hunter:
A tale spanning the most memorable hunts of an expert hunter.
The Boy Who Sold an Airfield:
A young servant boy wittily sells an airfield to the gullible people in the nearby village.
The people of a village, fed up of constant and violent pressure from insurgents on one side and the government on the other, decide to take justice into their own hands.
A poignant tale of how one woman’s terrible secret impacts the lives of her daughter and her granddaughter. (TW: sexual abuse)
A Simple Question:
(My favourite) An illiterate village woman asks a soldier a simple question so profound that he lets her imprisoned husband go free.
A girl reflects on her relationship with a man who left her to fight for his political ideals.
A caterpillar, trapped in a box by a small boy who takes a liking to it, finally finds its wings.
About the Author
Dr Temsula Ao, a poet, short story writer and ethnographer, was born in 1945 in Jorhat, Assam. She lost her parents when she was very young and describes, in her memoir, “Once Upon a Life”, that she led a fractured childhood. Her youngest siblings were placed in the care of her father’s younger brother, while she and her elder brother were left under the guardianship of her eldest brother.
Soon, she was sent to study in the Golaghat Girls’ Mission school, where she stayed for six years. She later shifted to the Ridgeway Girls’ High School in Golaghat, Assam, where she completed her matriculation. She shifted to Nagaland after her marriage, which occurred before her Matric results were out, and completed her BA at Fazl Ali College in Nagaland, followed by an MA in English from Gauhati University, Assam.
She later also did a Post Graduate Diploma in English teaching and then a PhD. She served as an English professor at the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong, and also did a five-year stint as the Director of the North East Zone Cultural Centre in Dimapur.
She has written five poetry books, two short story collections (and received the Sahitya Akademi Award for “Laburnum for My Head”) and a memoir. She also received the Padma Shri Award in 2007 and the Governor’s Gold Medal in 2009 from the Meghalaya government.
Her works have been translated into Assamese, Bengali, Hindi, German and French.