Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 1, 2018

Nagaland, by Ben Doherty

There are not a lot of plus sides to the decline of paid journalism this century, but one aspect of it that’s definitely a bonus is that some of our best journalists are turning their hands to writing books.  I am not talking about the plethora of memoirs and political books rehashing events that we’ve only just lived through, nor I am interested in delusional attempts at doing detective work on unsolved crime. (“Oh, I’ve lost my job at #Insert”Tabloid”, I’ll solve that crime that experienced professional (Optional: #InsertAssumption”corrupt”) detectives have failed to solve”.)

No, I am referring to fiction which is derived from the complex situations that journalists report, offering much more to the story than we saw in brief snapshots on TV.  I am thinking of thoughtful books like Sonya Voumard’s reflections on the ethics of journalism in The Media and the Massacre; like Hinterland by Caroline Brothers which showed us vulnerable child refugees in Europe, and now this one, Nagaland by Ben Doherty.

Ben Doherty is an award-winning foreign correspondent who’s worked for the ABC, Channel 4 in Britain and the quality broadsheets* in Australia.  Doherty has won three Walkley Awards, and his work is recognised by Amnesty International, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations Association in Australia.  He is currently working as an immigration correspondent for The Guardian and his focus is migration, refugees and asylum seekers.  But that is not the focus of Nagaland…

Nagaland is a mountainous state in northeast India, one of three states predominantly Christian, and experiencing delayed economic development due to a long history of insurgency against domination by India.  Doherty’s novel explores the conflicts of modernity through the story of Augustine Shimray, a young man torn between tradition and the possibilities of change. Through two parallel narratives, Doherty tells the story of Augustine’s childhood and adolescence in Ukhrul, and of a doomed love with a girl from the village long hostile to his own.

Ukhrul boasts two churches against only one in Tiya across the river, but it is an emaciated village divided by religion into Upper Ukhrul and Lower, depending on which church villagers attended.  The ground is hard and unyielding and what little arable land there is, was over-worked and barely subsistent, let alone profitable.  Its most imposing structure among the faded grandeur of the churches is the garrison of the Assam Rifles, there to suppress any secessionist insurgency from the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland).  As Augustine finds out later to his cost, any association with anyone suspected of mutiny is perilous.

But Augustine’s most urgent problems are closer to home. He loves his father dearly as a man who tells wonderful stories from Naga’s mystical past, but Luke has brought back an addiction to morphine from his travels across a line on a map to Burma.  His mother Liko opens a shop to augment their income but things are difficult, and not made easier for Augustine by his failures at school.  As time goes by and the inevitable happens to an injecting drug user, Augustine’s mother begins to feel that city life offers them more, and they move to Dimaphur, the largest city in the region.  It is there that they discover that they are outsiders in what is theoretically their own country, and a dreadful trip to far away Delhi for medical treatment confirms that ‘plainland’ people reject the Naga as inferior.

One incident after another confirms the reality: for racial, religious and economic reasons the Naga do not belong in the economic miracle of a rising India, and Augustine’s conflicts are exacerbated by his realisation that there is a gulf between him and his younger brother Alex.  When he tells Alex that he saw his father in Kazeiram (the afterlife), Alex dismisses it as hallucination:

Augustine knew Alex had more questions, but there was nothing more to be said.  He knew his brother didn’t see the world the same way he did.  What was real for Augustine was myth for his brother. Alex had grown up in the same house surrounded by the same stories, the same history, but perhaps as the second son, and two years younger, he had not had the same paternal inculcation as his elder brother.  Perhaps it was because the stories were not his to carry on.  Alex couldn’t believe in Kazeiram until he had been there.  And he couldn’t go there unless he believed.  (p.262)

As for so many cultures caught up in the inexorable change of modernity, the Naga people are trapped.  For Augustine, the crisis comes when he falls in love with Akala, a girl from Tiya, a village traditionally hostile to the people of Ukhrul.  The taboo is so strong that they may not even speak across the river that separates them, and the traditions that Augustine values so much mean that any contact between them will invoke so-called honour killing.

The people of Tiya are Tangkul too.  They share the language and celebrate the same festivals.  Their dress is similar enough that only those from each village can tell each apart.  Most of the Tangkul tribes, in these days of Christian fraternity, are on good terms, further bonded by families that weave in and out of each village, putting down roots and sprouting new shoots across the valleys and the ridges and the rivers.  Clan names are common across the tribes; markers of the familial journey.  The old women in the villages know who has married whom and from where, and it’s they who dictate the unions of the next generation, keeping names and bloodlines alive.

But proximity breeds contempt.

There is bad blood between Tiya and Ukhrul.  In each generation men have died. (p.27)

There isn’t any real reason for the hostility, and its persistence has more to do with pride and refusal to change.  For Augustine and Akala, it seems fatal, their story weaving in and out of the main narrative, as they flee across the mountains, the war-cries of their hunters echoing in pursuit.   This narrative gives the novel a compelling tension and an emotional core that offsets the tendency to idealise the world of ancient fables and cultural certainties.

Just recently I was chatting with Somali Bookaholic about the concept of honour killings in Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Marquez, and we are in furious agreement that it is an ugly phenomenon.  Doherty in Nagaland references that notorious case of ‘Nirbhaya’** who was gang-raped on a bus by men whose concept of honour meant that they thought she should not be out at night.  Her devastated parents were proud of their daughter’s academic achievements and emerging career as a physiotherapist saw her as a symbol of new India, where women were valued as equal to men.  And although there was public outrage, and the Indian government was forced into belated action, this girl’s violation and murder is symbolic of archaic attitudes that persist in traditional societies.  What pleases me about Ben Doherty’s treatment of these issues of modernity in conflict with tradition, is that he offers a clear-eyed view of the problems of both, and he does not romanticise traditions which devalue girls and women.

Highly recommended.

*NB I do not include The Australian among the quality press for reasons most exquisitely explained by Robert Manne in his Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News’.

** Indian law does not allow the publication of a rape victim’s real name, and although her real name has been revealed by her parents, I will honour that discretion and use the name by which this young woman has become known.  It means ‘fearless’.

Author: Ben Doherty
Title: Nagaland
Publisher: Wild Dingo Press, 2018
ISBN: 9780648066378
Review copy courtesy of Wild Dingo Press

Available from Fishpond: Nagaland and direct from Wild Dingo Press


  1. A good review of an interesting story but I think I prefer Arundhati Roy and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness which too highlights the many underpriveleged peoples within India, not to mention the violence which is sanctioned there as in the Western world by governments which accommodate hate speech


    • I think you would really like this one. But yes, I have Ministry, and I will get to it soon!


  2. A friend of mine is from Nagaland – she probably knows about this, but will tell her. BTW, I can never have too much true crime – though so little is excellent. In Perth journalists have helped overturn a disturbing number of wrongful convictions – with the backing of newspapers, though.


  3. honour killings never existed among Nagas. It may well be the case with Indians


    • Hi Anthony, you may be right, I can only go on what’s in the book…


  4. […] Nagaland, by Ben Doherty […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: