Lure of the Naga hills

MAULEE SENAPATI writes about his experiences in the hills of Nagaland


“O SNATCH’D away in beauty’s bloom!

On thee shall press no ponderous tomb;

But on thy turf shall roses rear

Their leaves, the earliest of the year,

And the wild cypress wave in tender gloom”

How distant can an incident from one’s past be from one’s present; how distant can another monsoon in the same month of July prove from yet another July limping to an uneventful, wretched end? Last night I heard in my sleep the young mother wail again.


People say the long journey from Kohima, the capital of Nagaland unevenly dotting the bosom of the Patkais extending its arms in gleeful ease like a lover towards its neighbouring hill range Barail, lustrously blanketed by thick necks of woods where elongated bamboos swirls freely in wild symphony with the rhymes of cascading creeks as gentle and heavy showers intermittently lashes down the unforgiving cleaves of the gorges in tempestuous torrents, to Tuensang bordering Mynmar, as too long and arduous to travel. People travelling to eastern Nagaland usually prefer an alternative route connecting the verdant valley of Assam with the no less verdant hills of the proud Nagas cutting across the Ao terrain of Mokokchung. In that month of July, four summers back I for one wasn’t bothered by what people had to say and exasperatedly share. I had the ever familiar river Doyang for company and my film crew for comfort throughout the daylong journey, the river unwinding its way down mountainous slopes like a shining necklace coursing through gorges, caressed and veiled by the silent mist, enlivened by waterfalls gushing down boldly to luxuriantly bridge the vast azure above with an abundantly emerald earth throughout the memorable trail.


The Naga Hills are at once close yet distant from the country that continues to assert itself in manifold unforgiving ways through its failure to understand the tribesmen, their values, lifestyles, aspiration, their culture, songs and poems. Outsiders who visits these hills and lack in the understanding of tribal mores and consider the ethnic as exotic commits the same mistake of distancing themselves from what is ethnographically real. The presence of the armed forces and draconian laws to protect the men-in-uniform during operations across India’s North-eastern region signify that these forces are the perpetual guardians of the hills and valleys, guarding frontiers which these men consider as a region of eternal disturbance where savages live abiding unfamiliar customs, mores and ways. What does it really means to respect, to be generous to, or to love another culture? It seems that these are deep philosophical and psychological questions to which there are no easy answers. Add to this the difficulty of a culture articulating its relationship to its own past – especially in view of the fact that many of the cultures of India’s Northeast have lost, either through deliberate human manipulation and machination, or through the pulverized social changes that are taking place, any vital contact with their own past. The anxiety of a lost past is may be comparable – although it is dangerous to take such comparisons more seriously than one really should – to the anxiety about personal identity of a person who suffers a total or near-total amnesia. The anxiety is not just one of finding the right answer to the question, “Who am I?” but has profound moral and spiritual dimensions. Many self-confessed revivalist movements in the Northeast and the world the region feels alienated from are at once an expression of a similar anxiety and poignant attempts to recover a past that has been trampled.


By the time we reached Tuensang around six in the evening the sleepy town of few dwellers, countable shops and a single gas station was fast winding up its affairs in its preparation for yet another day that was yet to dawn. In the sleepy town of Tuensang its very few street lights hardly glow as smoke fills the air through rooftop while tired men return home from ancestral farmlands as their women winds up daily chores. As the mist veils the view of the town it hardly achieves in veiling the stiff patriarchy prevalent within the Naga realm where man remains central to all schemes-of-things. As evening sets, it isn’t unusual for the young men to strum their guitar and release singing mellifluous numbers and soul-stirring country songs even after so much of violence and mistrust perpetuated upon them by one’s own country and by their own people continue to hurt them. Here in the hills, life is still free from the compulsively constricted ways defined by cumulative material possessions standing out as the sole index of prosperity. For these tribesmen it’s the skills attained from their forefathers that connects them to their soil of teeming hope and aspiration; it’s their myriad songs celebrating cycle of life: birth, childhood, love, marriage and death, which they sing in singles and chorus during work and leisure embodying the temporal world with the spiritual. Together the temporal and the spiritual connect to cohesively compound into an unhindered way of being representing what life has to offer as a means of resilience despite conflicts and crisis that has swayed through the entire Naga land.


Once in Tuensang our guide informed that some of the stories we had planned to shoot the next day have sighed away. With little option to convince those whom we planned to interview the next morning for a film on women and arms conflict, I had to instantly decide to move into a village named Chessore set right at the cusp of Myanmar and a swift flowing creek across a slope where India’s landmass unassumingly ends. There are no soldiers here to guard these frontiers, the natives cross the creek at ease to move into nearby hamlets set in another country which are homes to same stock of people, kith and kins sharing similar customs, culture and history, speaking the same language.


I have seen how the peculiarly modern and painfully divisive phenomenon of international boundary can debar access to development and impose divide among same people sharing similar cultures and customs. Yet, set at the cusp of another world far removed from a burgeoning India the simple villagers of the border village of Chessore are hardly distanced by the divide as people continue to yearn and seek each other’s company cross international boundaries. The creek which the Naga villagers on both sides of these frontiers cross to connect flows down abiding the seasons, swiftly during monsoons, languidly in winter. It has flowed since long without complains. It’s the countries on either side of the creek which strives to stand forth as separate entities debarring what they share in common for the sake of modern governance.


Chessore is forty-five kilometres from the district headquarters of Tuensang bearing the same name. In post-independent India, Nagaland was a part of Assam province while Tuensang was kept excluded under the frontier areas administration. The people of Tuensang and eastern Nagaland, therefore, complain that by excluding Tuensang from governance under the administration of the then undivided Assam the colonial administration neglected the natives of these arduous mountains. The Independence of India hardly eased matters for the freedom loving tribesmen who started their renewed contest against the state for freedom. The Nagas claim that the colonialist power first deceived them through the Yandaboo Treaty and slyly left it upon the newly formed nation to settle the issue of Naga independence. The natives of eastern Nagaland hold the view, that their situation had been further worse in comparison to the rest of “their brothers in conflict from rest of Nagaland”. The utter neglect of these areas and absence of people-friendly governance across these hills breeding suspicion and mistrust towards non-tribal, discerningly referred to as Indians, is at ones visible across these outwardly remote places. Not much has changed over the years for the people here as Kohima physically and metaphorically remains distant from what ostensibly stands out as yet another Nagaland. As for us it took seven-and-half hours to cover the forty-five kilometres to Chessore, literally plodding through a road which was more or less non-existent. We were told that while returning back it would take an hour more to reach Tuensang town since we shall have to plod further uphill, meaning more push and pulling of the engine through thick layers of slush and landslide prone patches than what we had already experienced. As the engine plodded through sloppy sludgy tracks and we crossed fast flowing streams cutting through the muddy way, it seemed we were moving into an altogether another world beyond the nation’s comprehension; it also became clear to me why a movement had emerged representing eastern Nagaland demanding a separate state out of the existing system of governance.


Moments after reaching Chessore where the soil is remarkably red and small houses with characterless naked shiny corrugated iron roofs clumsily dot a stark landscape, my eyes caught sight of the sharpspire of the village church standing in stark silhouette, rising high as if with vengeance to pierce a sombre sky, overlooking in cardinal posture from atop a hillock the silent affairs of the village. Not much activity was noticed across the village as we drove in. The continuous drizzle made the soil slippery and in the absence of the men and womenfolk who were yet to return back from their cultivating fields which are usually situated at a distance from the villages the only life visible in the silent hamlet were that of old people and children engaged in a game of football at an opening some metres away from the church fence.


The contrasting feature of the Naga landscape, one enriched by the languidly flowing Doyang and lustrous hills, and the other towards its east which is rugged with scattered patches of corn and local soya lending the sole touch of greenery to the varying contours of the dark soil laden mountain is symbolic of the contrasting social reality of the tribesmen as also their varying fate. Chessore happens to be the native village of our guide, Allen. The young man hardly in early twenties spoke English with a distinct roll which made what he spoke trifle incomprehensible. Soon after reaching Chessore he rushed to see his mother leaving us near the church where we were to stay. As the rest of the small film crew moved around scouting the village, I preferred to remain where Allen had left us.


Allen didn’t show up for a long time. The wait for our sole guide prolonged into a tiresome test of patience. In between a few passers-by, presumably folks from the village returning from the fields, walked passed with their baskets, glancing at the dirt covered vehicle as I stood next to the tired engine sharing exchanges. Suddenly, Allen appeared. The young man, however, was in hurry, his body language very different from what I had observed of him across the entire day. He gestured at me to follow him as he tried to utter something which was unintelligible. As Allen hurriedly made his way through the slippery mud, I followed him to a nearby house right below where the vehicle was parked. Allen guided me into the house where I saw an utterly horrifying scene that was most unexpected. Right next to the fire place which is customarily the central part of traditional dwellings in the region, I saw the tender frame of a small child on the ground covered by a cloth, his head wrapped with a clean off-white loin with prominent blood stains. The surreal image at once left me motionless as I stared at the sweet and soft, fair face of the child lying next to the hearth with closed eyes and still limbs while blood continued to ooze out of the loin wrapped head. Villagers informed that a dredger, the only vehicle noticed in the village brought all the way from Jorhat in Assam, accidentally hit the child while he was playing with his friends at the wide clearing I saw some minutes back. Allen, the sole educated youth present in the village, wanted me to judge the child’s pulse and determine his condition. I suggested to Allen not to waste time and instead rush the child to Tuensang, for treatment. Allen was hesitant and so were the other villagers, they were uncertain of immediate treatment at Tuensang as we prepared to rush the child on our vehicle. They were unsure of receiving treatment at the town that could save the life of the child. The pathetic condition of the only route to the town added to their misery.As I raised the tender frame of the child of around six years of age on my lap and read the pulse, the rest of the villagers present inside the hut made way at my insistence for sunlight and air to enter inside. I counted one, two, three…till eight…the pulse beat stopped, the little one with his eyes already closed was snatched away by merciless death as his body remained still and warm on my lap.


The news of the incident was yet to reach the poor parents who were still working at their cultivation site far away from the village. As the wait for the parents prolonged and descending darkness brought an end to a dark afternoon culminating miserably into what would have otherwise been an end of another day for the village, my eyes remained frozen at the still body of the little one whose tender face with chubby cheeks shined under the flickering light of a fire burning at the hearth. Amidst the appalling gloom the tender face of the young one radiated a charm even in death which innocence alone can present. A few metres away from the hearth the elder brother, two years older than the one who had just passed away, stood with eyes transfixed at the dead body as he wept uncontrollably at the dark corner waiting for the parents’ arrival.


That entire night I couldn’t sleep, I preferred to seat at an edge of the hillock where the church stood, I preferred to be alone and not with my crew, in the company of the stillness of the night listening to a mother in pain wail. Deep in my heart I pined to be with the family. However, being a stranger I preferred not to intrude into the personal space of a family struggling to accept the harsh truth, how fleeting moments can change destinies and usher in the unexpected. In the vastness of space and immensity of time it is always fleeting moments which separates life from death, just as in a few fleeting moments the rumbling waves of the sea transform into resigning surf meekly making its way into the bosom of the blue water leaving back only a trail of its ephemeral presence on the sand. The stillness of that night whispered death as image of the dead child’s innocent face kept repeatedly flashing in my mind as I heard the mother moan and cry in pain. In the distant dark sky the moon meekly hanged like the balloon of a child. Within moments it disappeared behind floating clouds as silence engulfed the space. My last glimpse of the child before the funeral the next morning was from their doorway: the little one’s tender fame lying entwined to a weeping mother’s bosom oblivious of the tumult in her heart, sleeping eternally never ever to rise again.


Yesterday night while standing alone on the terrace of my urban apartment I once again saw the moon hanging in the sky like a balloon, in my sleep the incident from another July unfolded reminding me of the piercing pain that has left its scar in my mind three monsoon back. I wonder how it has been for one brother to have grown up by a few years without the other. I wonder whether the young parents could cope with the pangs of parting, whether life has remained same for them.  As time passed by news headlines demanding separate statehood for eastern Nagaland has become more frequent.