Before reviewing Ursula Graham Bower’s “Naga Path”, let me put a couple of things in context, so that I don’t seem to be unfairly partial towards this wonderful book.
The author’s daughter, Catriona, is a friend, and indeed we are in book club together in Delhi. So, yes, I knew a little from Catriona about her mother, but since the former is as well mannered as her mother seems to have been, there is no bragging whatsoever, so I only knew a little.
Then, in December, I went to Nagaland for the first time, to the Hornbill Festival with one of my oldest and dearest friends from Oxford, Jane, who had read the book as a teenager, and dreamed of going ever since. In fact, it was “Naga Path” that inspired Jane to go to Nagaland, and I went along for the ride, as it were.
I hadn’t quite joined the book-Jane-read-as-a-teenager and Catriona’s-mother dots, until the three of us all met in Kohima for the Festival.
I have just finished reading “Naga Path”, while holidaying in Assam, appropriately enough, and can quite understand how such a well-written, derring-do story would capture any teenager’s imagination. It captured mine, I can tell you.
Now for the facts.
Ursula Graham Bower arrived in India as a young woman, a pretty debutante who developed a passion and an unflinching love for the Naga people, in what was then Assam.
Ms Graham Bower lived for years in the late 1930s/early 1940s amongst the Zemi tribe, as an anthropologist but also as a mentor, and, for some, a reincarnation of one of their legendary heroines.
And thus the legend of the Naga Queen came into being. Ms Graham Bower seems never to have traded on the adulation and devotion of her beloved Zemi tribe, living with them in harmony, affection, occasional irritation, and much humour.
The author’s descriptive prose is little short of intoxicating, making the reader see the serried ranks of hills going on into the horizon, and smell the fire and dust and smoke. Her love for the land and the people is palpable in her writing, which is almost a love-song to the Nagas.
Ms Graham Bower’s writing makes you fall in love with the Zemis in the way she did. We meet a cast of characters whom she describes succinctly and affectionately, pointing out their foibles, their worries, their problems, with great humour and respect.
She never once patronises the Nagas, who were (for those who may not know it) head-hunters. Far from it, she is quick to point out the intelligence and wicked sense of humour of the Nagas.
One of the most delicious episodes in the book is the account of how her inseparable companion and mentor Namkia (“the old sinner”) gets himself space on the otherwise crowded train to Calcutta. Namkia stands there, resplendent in his red cloak, telling the initially packed compartment about how, during hard times, he and his wife had agonized over which of their children to kill and eat, finally deciding on the baby.
“it really was exceptionally good, most tender – boiled with chillies”
By the end of the story, Namkia is alone on the train bench, and he “spread out his bedding and slept in comfort, at full length, all the way to Calcutta: and every time a fresh entrant approached him with a hint to move over, the rest of the carriage said, as one : ”Look out ! Man-eater!” and Namkia turned slowly over and murmured :”Now the last time I tasted human flesh__________”
Ms Graham Bower’s story gets more and more fascinating, since at the outbreak of World War II she becomes part of V Division, gathering information on the Japanese movements on the far north-eastern flank of India. Although the story is fascinating, this is perhaps the least compelling part of the book, since there is an awful lot of technical detail, and far less of the colour and passion of the early days.
Throughout this section of the book, the author down-plays the risks involved in her wartime work, of the dangers and discomforts in which she and her Naga companions lived. Risk of capture, torture, death at the hands of the Japanese is not mentioned, and whatever discomforts she talks about is all done in an almost breezily cheerfully stoic style. No whingeing or complaining for Ms Graham Bower.
Rather, what comes across is the good humour and resilience of this young woman leading her Naga scouts through the countryside, intelligence gathering for the Allies, in difficult terrain, with minimal supplies, and in horrid weather.
Having just read Fergal Keane’s magnificent “Road of Bones” about the siege of Kohima, one can only begin to imagine the real risks the author ran, but which she almost glosses over.
The end of the book, which came far too quickly for my liking, introduces us to her husband, and describes their delightfully impromptu marriage, following what can only be called a super-whirlwind courtship and engagement. Ms Graham Bower’s Nagas approved of her choice, and the descriptions of the ceremony they hold for the newly wed couple, as befits the woman they consider their daughter, is as moving and romantic a piece of writing as you could wish to read.
A wonderful book, which other than a few archaic terms, is as much of a joy to read today, as it was for my then teenaged friend Jane.
The only sad part of this review is the fact that this wonderful book is out of print. But do track it down in a library or from a second-hand book-shop.
It will fire your imagination, I guarantee.