If I were to sum up Easterine Kire’s Son of the Thundercloud in a single sentence, I would say: it lacks build-up. Like the traditional novel, there is obviously a movement from point A to B and a story which needs to be told but the central event to which the novel seems to lead to is wrapped up in two small chapters. A two-page prologue structured like a bed-time story gives away the plot right at the beginning, the climax is spread over two pages in the 21st chapter and the anti-climax in one paragraph in the very next chapter. The remainder of the 150-page book introduces at least five central characters, tells a linear story spanning two generations and offers vignettes of Naga life and lore. This jostling for space between characters, plot and exposition is what breaks the build-up to the climax and it works perfectly well.
In short, the central plot of the story is this: Pelevotso or Pele leaves his village after the death of his family. On his journeys, he meets two ancient sisters- Kethonuo (truth) and Siedze (future), both around four-hundred-years old, who prophesize the coming of a ‘son of the thundercloud’ whose arrival is deemed apocalyptic. It doesn’t take too long for the first part of the prophecy to come true. A severe thunderstorm washes a village away but a single errant raindrop breaks away from the storm, lands on Mesanuo (the pure one), the third of the ancient sisters and impregnates her. All the three sisters regain their youth and the barren earth is rejuvenated. The son Rhalietuo born as a result of this miraculous conception is destined to kill a tiger which had earlier killed Mesanuo’s husband and sons. From this point, the novel turns into a coming-of-age story of a hero.
Since the regeneration and youth are central to the story, rain is a recurring motif. Rain can be life-affirming like in the instance mentioned above or a vengeful spirit that ‘slapped at their skin through clothing’. All the energies in Kire’s world are dualistic but what insulates the characters from being overwhelmed by dualisms are love and hope. Rhalietuo’s birth brings abundance and joy but before it, the ancient sisters survive on hope. ‘Hope, sir, we have been living on hope. Every morning when we wake up, we eat hope, and so we live to see another day.’
Kire’s mixing of legend, memory and life is what makes the novel so interesting. The son of the thundercloud myth is a story Pele first hears as a child. The immaculate conceptualization and the slaying of the tiger are incidents that have happened at least once and passed into legend. However, when they are repeated (‘Oh, it happened a very long time ago. And it will happen again’) he plays a very important role in helping events transpire. He is the harbinger of the storm that sets the sequence of events in motion. After Rhalietuo is born, he acts as his foster father and guides the child through the rites of passage. It is he who prepares him for the battle with the tiger. However, Pele’s bed-time story ends with the slaying of the tiger. He loses foresight and is not able to save Rhalietuo from a sad fate.
It helps that Pele, an ordinary person among characters drawn from myth, stands in for the author as observer. Kire uses him to infuse an otherwise allegorical story with deep humanism. Rhalietuo is not just a brave warrior chosen by destiny but a child who grows to manhood before both Pele’s and the reader’s eyes. Mesanuo is also not just the virginal mother but a woman who sows and harvests, provides for her son and for whom Pele might even have tender feelings. Much of the central portion of the book is devoted to detailing the relationship between mother and child- their shared activities, the stories they tell each other, the ways in which she shields her son from the world etc. This leads to an interesting exploration of the darker side of virginal motherhood and the messianic tradition. For instance, the villagers’ opinion of Mesanuo keep changing over time: they first shun her as the ‘tiger-widow’ for getting her husband and children killed by the tiger, then hail her as a goddess when Rhalietuo is born and slowly return to scepticism. Was the birth magical or was there a scandal associated with it? Should the prophecy be fulfilled or can there be worse repercussions? These questions which seem valid in the context of the book help ground the novel in the mundane. ‘It was a rude shock to wake up among real people again, people with their petty minds thinking the worst of others’, comments Pele when he returns to a human community after living with the ancient sisters.
It is difficult to pinpoint the time period in which the story is located. The world and the characters (re)created by Kire are particular to Naga life and lore but could easily conform to any age in human history. However, she drops subtle hints to suggest that the timeline of the novel is closer to us than to the age of legend. There are references to kerosene and tin roofing but in the grand scheme of things, these little details do not matter. Kire’s craft is mischievously deceptive and a real delight. At times the prose is so liquid and the plot so free that Son of the Thundercloud almost trespasses into a different novel (I am referring to the ‘death of the storytellers’ interlude). At other times, it almost jumps into magic realist ‘worldly’ politics. However, there’s always Pele (and by proxy, Kire) to remind us that his is a small world, his story a straightforward tale and within these confines the seeker might find wisdom and magic.
Written By: Shalim M Hussain