Easterine Kire is a poet, novelist, Jazzpoetry pioneer; a “one-woman cultural renaissance” (Vivek Menezes, Scroll). Her latest novel, Spirit Nights, delves deep into the spirituality of her indigenous community, primarily through an elder woman protagonist who experiences prophetic dreams and feels the spiritual world deeply.
What follows is a short essay Easterine wrote for us at Barbican on her personal experiences with spirituality.
My generation of Nagas accept that our territories are shared between human and spirit inhabitants. In our cultural life, all teaching revolves around respect. We live our lives showing respect for the human world and the animal world, as well as the spirit world. I have experienced encounters with spirits beginning from a young age. At age four and half, I had a small spirit friend. He was a boy. Even as an adult, I have had spiritual encounters in several places. Deep spiritual awareness comes quite naturally to most Nagas.
A key aspect of Naga spirituality is dreams. We believe we receive messages and warnings about impending tragedies in dreams. There are many types of dream-metaphors and the ‘owner of the dream’ interprets the metaphor accordingly. Here’s an example: if one dreams of a big tree falling, this is interpreted as a warning of the death of a parent or spouse. Thus, dreaming itself is a very important aspect of our spiritual experience. I can recall several warning-dreams that came true in my life. Not all dreams warn of tragedy. Dreams can also foretell success in an enterprise, success in a marriage proposal, a happy meeting of friends to take place. These are just some examples, and there is much more to say. Ultimately, dreams and dreaming are important windows into the spiritual world. This is why they play such a vital role in Spirit Nights.
My tribe identifies spirit beings by their appearance, locations they frequent and their benevolent or malevolent natures. Spirits have names according to the character they manifest. For example, a spirit called Rhuolo is quite malicious and can cause any person who encounters him to be struck dumb. Miawenuo is a long-haired spirit often sighted near new houses and is taken as a sign of wealth for the household.
The most feared spirits are the ill-tempered Kamvülhouphreimia, a group of new spirits. I was told of an incident when an elderly midwife was travelling through narrow paths to attend to a patient. A traveller met her on the way and warned her not to go ahead because the Kamvülhouphriemia had destroyed trees and young saplings in their way.
Elders teach youngsters to put a sprig of Bitter Wormwood behind their ears when they are going to the woods as it protects them against spirit attacks. Never whistle at night. Make cuts in the door with a machete if the spirits of the dead return. Such instruction is part of their education to provide them with protection against spirits. There are spirit abodes that villagers studiously avoid. One of these places is an underground water channel not too far from the village of Khonoma. Hunters never neglect to leave a portion of meat for the spirits of the river. If they overlook this courtesy, their meat portions are greatly diminished when they reach home. The explanation is that the spirits have taken their share.
The Nagas interpret sounds like bird-calls as spiritual warnings. For example, on a certain day of the festival of Naknyulum, if the call of a certain bird is heard, it is taken as an omen that people will die soon after. Reading omens is learned from years of being taught by elders in the villages. For instance, the way the new moon is ‘sitting’ is taken as an indicator of good or bad weather. If it has its legs in the air, it means inclement weather, for example. Dogs that wail for days together is an omen of death about to visit the owner of those dogs.
Spiritual rituals and their proper observance are very important to the Naga. Most Nagas are Christians today but we have a nativised Christianity which accommodates all the spirit beliefs that I have written about here.
Our main festival, Sekrenyi, is a festival of sanctification and preparation for the new year. Herein lies a good example of the importance of proper observance. Male participants get up early to perform a ritual of sanctification which starts with fetching water from the water source, then bathing at the communal water source and repeating a prayer to be cleansed of illnesses and bad luck in the coming year. After the ceremonial bath, the young men must even check that they are wearing their body-cloths in the right manner (with the tassels and embroidery facing the right way).
Though Spirit Nights is a work of fiction, it is rooted in the history and mythology of Nagaland. Easterine wields profound knowledge of spirits, dream visions and rituals to weave a compelling, human story. Spirit Nights is available to pre-order now.