Nagaland author Ben Doherty discusses the balance between truth-telling and mysticism during Bendigo Writers Festival

Ben Doherty speaks at the Bendigo Writers Festival about Nagaland: a story he never intended to tell, but a story that sourced him out and forced his hand. Picture: DARREN HOWE
Ben Doherty speaks at the Bendigo Writers Festival about Nagaland: a story he never intended to tell, but a story that sourced him out and forced his hand. Picture: DARREN HOWE

EVEN in 2018, with satellites and the internet giving humans the ability to discover anywhere in the world, there are still places, cultures, beliefs and people that remain a mystery to many.

In his latest work, Ben Doherty - a Guardian Australia reporter and former Bendigo Advertiser journalist - took a trip to a place few would have heard of: Nagaland.

The state in India sits alongside the Burmese border in a region that surrounds Bangladesh, a complex part of the world with a rich history steeped in mysticism.

During an interview as part of the Bendigo Writers Festival, Doherty spoke of his journey to Nagaland and his experiences with Augustine Shimray, the subject of his book and the author of a journal that landed in Doherty’s mailbox.

Nagaland has two million people and 16 tribes, each continuing their own traditions. But they have been infiltrated in recent centuries by Christian missionaries, the English language, television and technology.

The complex challenges of the 20th and 21st centuries have shaped Augustine’s life, but he sees it through a lens of spirituality and his belief in kazaiman, the final resting place.

Doherty said reading and interpreting the journal of Augustine brought tough questions about experience and belief.

“There’s this great truth in the stories we tell each other. For Augustine these weren’t myths, these were legends. These informed who he was,” he said.

“Whether I believe in kazairam or not is irrelevant, this is Augustine’s truth, and this Augustine’s story that I am telling.

“To understand Augustine, and to understand his perspective of the world, you have to accept those truths.”

At first, Doherty never intended to write a book about Nagaland following his initial travels to the region.

But when Augustine’s journal arrived in his mailbox, it became an obligation. Augustine carried the journal with him every day, but sent it to Doherty in Australia after a personal crisis that placed his story at risk.

It took eight words in the journal to convince Doherty: ‘We live forever for our stories. Tell ours’.

“From that moment, writing didn’t become a choice, but an obligation,” he said.

“At times along the journey, I thought ‘this is all getting too difficult, I can’t get this story out, I can’t make this work’. And then the story would kind of insist upon itself and knock at the front of my head saying ‘you haven’t told me yet, you haven’t told me yet’.

“And so I kept trying.”

What resulted was a book that chronicles the stories passed down to Augustine, his father’s struggles with heroin, Augustine’s journey to Delhi and the discrimination he faces, and the people and landscape of Nagaland.

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