Friday, January 07, 2011

North-East Sojourn Part II: Among the Nagas

Lizzie and I talk several times a day. If we are not talking, we are texting each other. So early in the morning, when ma and I tugged our wools a little closer together and got down with slightly stiff bones at Mokokchung, it didn't really feel like I was seeing her after over a year. Hugs and many hellos later, we were in our room, a guest room at her granny's house, in the same compound, a British style very beautiful house filled to the brim with photographs, interesting knick-knacks and much history. Lizzie's grandfather Aliba Imti was the founder of the Naga nationalist movement and went on to become a Member of Parliament. Liz tells me that her grandparents' wedding was the first white veiled church wedding in Nagaland! The Imtis continue to be one of the most highly respected families in the state.

There is a flurry of languages that are spoken at her house. Lizzie and her family belong to the Ao tribe. There are several major tribes in the state, the Angamis, Sema, Chang, etc. Those tales of Nagas eating all kinds of meat, that would be the Angamis alone. Her family speaks Ao amongst themselves. Abi (that's Chang for grandmother) and her assistant of sorts, an affable lady who has been with her for several decades, speak Chang. The family speaks to the other two staff in Nagamese, a mix of Hindi, Assamese and local dialects. Then of course there is Hindi and English that they all slip into once a while!

One of the first things that spiked my interest to make this trip was the name of her house,'Fern Ridge'. It sounded rather exotic and so very English, like in the stories of Ruskin Bond, that ever since, I have kept threatening her that I am going to come there and write a book some day! To complete the pretty picture is her adorable dog Lakpo, meaning 'brave' in Chang (he is anything but!) and the most amazing view from the machan at Abi's house.

Mokokchung is a pretty little town that very much reminded me of Madikeri. There are steep roads, little shops and a sense of unhurried ease that I constantly crave for in the city. I instantly loved the place. Soon we were out exploring the town. The tower near the Tourist Lodge offers a fantastic view of the town. Teen girls there giggled and eyed Larry, Liz's younger brother. We acted the big sisters and exchanged knowing looks. The tower was where the cold hit us square in the face. It was to get worse as the days wore on.

Mokokchung Town

A little driving around opened up deep valleys and literally rolling green hills and I almost went into a tizzy at, but of course, the hills. Several villages surround Mokokchung. What struck me in a there versus here sort of comparison was that they still retain a lot of tradition and social norms compared to us down south. Most houses retain a lot of traditional architecture, with lots of bamboo, the machan or balconies built with and on bamboo stilts. Most kitchens continue to have ever burning fire places. And best of all, the practice of visiting people in each other's homes on Sundays and on holidays is still prevalent. I suddenly miss these visits that were a staple in my childhood.

Along the way, I get a lot of details from Lizzie. Kitchens, the ones with the fireplace, owing to the very cold winters, is a place for family gatherings. Even the one in Abi's house, though not built of bamboo, was huge with several muras, or bamboo/cane stools lying around, long benches and chairs for innumerable family to sit around in. Despite modern ways, every town or village still has a 'Morung' a huge community hall where the elders would meet or where events would be held. Then there are the log drums placed, usually, next to these centres. Carved out of a single huge log, these drums used to be used to relay messages between villages.

There are several wild flowers along the way. Ma and Liz point them out and admire them; I really can't do much except grunt, but both do not give up trying to get me interested in all things girly!

I catch hold of Uncle Philip, Liz's dad and grill him about several things that I have only vaguely heard about: head hunting, the caste system among the Nagas, the clans, food, the nationalist movement. He is an adorable man and answers me patiently. Standing around a small fire, it turns out to be a fascinating conversation. Though most of Nagaland is Christian, all the tribes retain their traditional names and several habits and old practices.

Mopungchuket village had several of these huge carved logs

Barns in Lungkum. These are used to store grains; almost every family owns one

The next few days, we shiver in the cold, eat loads (I do, ma has a slightly hard time with the food), shop a lot and see more hills and villages. Ma has trouble because there are no curds there, something she tells me she has had with every meal for the last 45 years. That fact is the butt of much amusement to some of my friends back home; they even text me about it, asking after her. Every Naga meal has to have a meat, boiled vegetables and a chutney. The family has a hard time feeding us vegetarians. We sustain on lots of dal. There is super yummy rajma, made with a different variety of bean that Abi generously gets for us from a distant village to take back home.

We visit Lungkum village where the spirits are said to be rather active. It is believed that you are not to spit or pluck anything from there, and that with the first visit you leave a part of your soul there. So some day now, I would need to go back to collect it! There is also the tale of the two lovers, Etiben and Jena who used to court there. We see very pretty children, prettier flowers, fantastic hills, a mad scientist with many patents to his name. Then we visit Liz's friend Sanen's farm, a short trek down a steep hill, go toMopungchuket village, come back cold and tired. At home, we see Uncle Philip's beautiful paintings and admire Aunty Carol and Abi's lovely gardens.

Some of Uncle Philip's paintings

Every night, Liz and I sit by the fire and talk. We see pictures, to fill in all those things that I missed in the years that I didn't know her. We talk some more. We had talked about sitting by the fire and having tea and really talking, for months before I got there. We do exactly that. In a deja vu to eating ice cream at 2AM in her Delhi apartment, we finish several bars of chocolate. We exchange jewellery and stories. We get closer and discover what it feels like to have a sister each.

A plan to go to Kohima and to the famed Dzhukou Valley is cancelled because of the weather. Liz is asked to go judge a Miss Naga Teen beauty contest and I go with her to the meet the girls the day before. Some are very pretty. In the end, the girl both Liz and I were secretly rooting for won, she later tells me.

The days fly by and it's back to Assam and thereafter to Meghalaya. It's just a long dull bus ride back. I am already missing having one of my best friends so close by. But we make new plans for January. It is time to have my antlers up and organize the rest of the trip...our bags are overflowing, but there is still Shillong....


Captain Nemo said...

Hmmm... Lovely travelogue. Quite tempting to make a similar trip.
I'd make a deal with the devil to advance the possibilities of me making such a trip. I wonder if he will be upset when he discovers a little part of it is remaining at Lungkum and he wont get the whole soul when he comes collecting? ;-)

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thanks Achyutha :)
It is a fantastic place to go to. Make that deal with the devil, it is going to be totally totally worth it. :) The NE is one of those undiscovered gems, quite the heaven.

Unknown said...

Lovely article - makes me feel i am actually walking around in Mokokchung- i spent one full December in Nagaland 3 years back, and have always yearned to go back. Your discription is so vivid that it brings back memories. Of all the places we were - Dimapur, Wokha, Kohima, Zunebhuto Mokokchung, etc, the drive to Mokokchung was the best. Keep writing!!

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thank you Biju! Mokokchung is a fantastic place.