A Childhood Memoir
By Paul Hangsing
The year is 1974, and that wintry December evening wasn’t much of a cause for upbeat.
Faintly visible at a distance was the murky canvas of my destination, Noklak. What roll up eventually from where I beheld; it seemed nothing more than few clusters of grey and bright spotted hutments, caged in by chain of desolate hills stretching far out into the horizon.
Uh! ‘A plausible foretaste of things to come, I said to myself’, and carried on with our journey.
As our motorcade rumbled through the dusty street of Noklak – the fading winter sun dropped sluggish over the horizon, as if wearied from a long reception.
I was terribly fatigued after an arduous drive across 250 kilometers of patchy road from Baghty in Wokha district of Nagaland, a state in Northeast India.
Our convoy comprised of an 1968 make Willies Jeep, a trailer latched on to it, and a “Nissan”- One Tonner, that carried our bare necessities for the next two years of my father’s posting in Noklak. Noklak is a sub-divisional headquarters of the Khiamniungan Nagas, in Tuensang district of Nagaland.
It was here that I spent the most exhilarating phase of my childhood; the land where the dead and the living, dwell in perfect harmony- a spectacle, that was reminiscent of my favorite bedtime storybook “The Ghost who walks.”
For a lad of 10, lot more naive than the rest, I was less charitable to the so called town. Even with my eyes peeled, I could barely notice faintly lit houses, few and far between.
Ah! I reckoned, ‘This surely could not be Noklak town, after all’?
But to my utter dismay, the road abruptly came to a dead end. Within seconds there emerged from the fortress-like wooden gate, a man about 5 and half feet tall. His robust constitution, betrayed his mannerism.
A Hempu Naga by birth, Koi, was nervously looking forward to our arrival. As we walked into the premises of our new home – the sprawling house, the manicured lawns, the regular Badminton court, a large kitchen garden at the backyard, beside, a modest three-room Guest House adjacent to the lawn, amazed me to no end.
Far amazing to me, than the bungalow, of course, was Koi – hilarious and childish- he consciously, tried to live out every moment of his dream. Koi took over as caretaker of the bungalow soon after sneaking into India from his native village, Hempu, situated on the other side of the international border in Myanmar – then called Burma. For all purposes, other than his birth and descent, he claimed himself to be Indian.
The younger, of two brothers in the family, Koi had a colorful personality. The first impression I had of him couldn’t have been more profound. His year-long spell at a local nursery school, much to my mother’s chagrin, only served to compound his misery.
At 25, although the spirit willed, the hand failed to empathize with bewildering signals from an abandoned cranium. A year into the nursery class, his A, B, and C couldn’t rise above monkey business: mostly jumping upwards, downwards, sideways and as always, the wrong side up.
The sequence of the letters was another epic battle, far dreadful than the head hunting duel. Koi finally gave up in exasperation.
The morning, following the day of our arrival, with Koi as my guide, I scouted out for a better view of the town. Koi should have been more delighted to take me to the village, where he often goes to meet his elder brother.
Honestly, I had little idea of how exciting it would have been to walk right back into the realms of timelessness, maybe a hundred years thence.
Neither did I have a clue about what the morungs (community halls) and gongs (hollow tree barks used for making loud sounds) were like.
As we staggered along the road, headed for the local market, all at once, the sight of Noklak village loomed over the horizon. Perched like a bow over the crest of a hill, the village seemed to symbolize the spirit of heroes’ bygone – defiant, timeless and smug, keeping its flocks together, on both side of the divide.
The only time I scrambled my way up to the summit of Noklak hill, which is the village proper, was when I played my little part as guide par excellent to a lady anthropologist from Switzerland, whose name I scarcely remember. The lady, in her mid-thirties, never tired of shooting at whatever appeared bizarre, in her European scheme of things. Men, women in tattoos, unclad children of various ages, skulls of the hunted- both man and animals, morungs, gongs, dwelling houses lined in symmetrical order among others, formed her prized shots.
Noklak had mammoth collection of human skulls in creepy corners all over the place. Huddled in rows inside tree trunks and in the morungs, skulls of varied sizes, adorned the place. They were a prized possession of every village.
On one particular monsoon day, a large tree standing beside the entrance to the school was ripped apart by gushing wind and rain. Lo! And behold! twenty skulls huddled inside the tree trunk made their majestic exit and lay scattered all over the place. A grotesque beauty indeed! One insipid skull nonchalantly made its way into our class room while the other pompously stood at the doorway to the Principal’s chamber.
Head hunting was an honorable way out of any impasse between neighboring villages or tribes, then. It was the final arbiter of dispute and a determinant of power and recognition, as warrior.
In the meantime, my brother and I had been admitted to a local Government High School, the only school worth the name in the entire Noklak sub-division.
My first day in the new school triggered in me a phobic resentment; for one, a relative disgust at the dilapidated school building and the dusty classroom – where hordes of cows had their regular night shifts. There were few students who had the luxury of wearing shoe like contraptions to the school. Of course, as days passed I became one with the rest.
The cause for my disgust was listless, a fact compounded by a human propensity for comparison. To my mind, my alma mater – the Donbosco School, Wokha, always stood at the highest pedestal of excellence in education, and all other institutions paled in comparison.
My old school could boast of the best there is to a school; the best infrastructure, the best teachers, the best playground, the best musical instruments, the best students and why not – the results, which we bettered year after year in the board examination. Above all, I personally had the best Principal in the person of Father Devasia, whom I loved dearly. A man, whose wit and intellect defined wisdom. His humility and uncompromising honesty, to me, was an embodiment of the principles of life for his students to live by.
However, as days passed on to months the romanticism I jealously defended of my alma mater gradually faded and my new environment appeared less weird and more exciting!
I have fond memory of my teachers in Noklak high school that had grown accustomed to the corporal techniques of teaching – a little crude perhaps, but may have been effective in hitting the message home. I have no complains about them as I myself did receive some of those instant compliments – a fine art that raps the living daylight out of you.
Though living on the flipside of modernism, there were never a dull moment in the months and year that passed since my family arrived in Noklak. My father had been busy trailing the perilous tracks that meandered across sixteen odd villages under his administrative control. There were serious security issues and the porous international border that stood along the summit of the hill facing Noklak compounded the problem.
For a remote town of sorts, Noklak soon turned into a Very VVIP destination and our home the center of activity. I still proudly recall shaking hands with the illustrious Governor of North East India, Shri. Lalan Prasad Singh who handed to me a 50-rupee bill – I had problem spending it for over a month.
My parents had their own modest circle of friends; the local church Pastor, the Major of Assam Rifles, the Assistant Commandant of Nagaland Armed Police, the Medical Officer, the Block Development Officer and rarely, the Central Intelligence Officer.
Be that as it may, my life revolved more around my peer group comprising six motley boys; two of them my class mates at school. Besides these boys, Blacky had been my constant companion. A cross breeds between a German shepherd and a Golden Retriever; Blacky was a friend, a family and a faithful escort wherever I went. Mild and loving as always, Blacky could also be ferocious and fearless when commanded. Blacky died of a Cobra bite while escorting me to check on my bird traps laid, a day earlier, in the wild neighborhood.
It was here that I first saw a bow and an arrow and felt it with my own hands. The Khiamnungans are a master craftsman. The bow crafted by them are masterpiece; a collector’s delight, worthy of being showcased inside teak paneled shelves’ of a typical English countryside home.
The bow and arrow technology though crude in essence, the end product betrayed a touch of improvisation. The bow comprised of a string entwined from wild reeds. A wooden bow; both strong and supple. A robust shaft made of hard wood on which to suspend the bow. The strings are than fastened on to both ends of the bow. An ivory carved trigger fitted on the butt end of the shaft which when pressed releases the trapped strings that in turn strikes at the arrows held at the other end of the shaft.
It was Koi who taught me the art of shooting an arrow. I had with me two bows and five to ten arrows at any point of time. The first time I shot a Bulbul with my bow, I couldn’t conceal my pride that I preserved my first hunt for days on end, until ants ate up the poor thing.
My initial reticence of playing alongside half-clad kids soon disappeared. It was a carefree life under the bosom of nature. Wild grasses rolled up with rags into looped shaped contraption gave us our football and endless matches, both under the rain and the sun.
Indeed, neither the contraption nor the weather mattered; it was the manifestation of the spirit of freedom that we all enjoyed and in equal measure.
A nondescript existence by civilized yardstick, yet life seemed to carry on indifferent to the opulence and resultant complexities of modernity. In the egalitarian society of Khiamniungans, greed and selfishness is an anathema. Each according to his ability and, to each according to his need was both a value system and a way of life. A chicken sold for Rupees 5 cannot be bought for anything less or more. Of course, a crispy note was always heartily welcomed. Human desire for more than what suffice his daily need is at the root of all misery or so they profoundly believed.
Life, to Khiamniungans, was all about upholding stoutly held tribal values of fairness, honesty, simplicity and integrity of character, pride and honor of manhood and that of the community. The village folks would scorn at the contrasting lifestyle in the emerging township at the ‘Noklak town’ (not a proper town by any standard) as sinful. Hence, they strived to maintain a higher level of spiritual existence. The older folks repudiated Christianity precisely for the fear that it would encourage the culture that they so abhor.
Like all good things that finally come to an end, my fleeting association with the enchanting world of Khiamniungans had its day of reckoning. It was the early summer of 1976, when my father received his transfer order.
Within days, we were on a new trail of adventure to a place unknown. But deep inside of me was an expectation of yet another rendezvous of discovery, perhaps as enchanting or even more.
My initiation into the mystic world of the Khiamniungans made me a firm believer that in God’s own country Nagaland, there can never be a dull moment, only a supernatural experience, if only one let go of oneself.
The writer is a freelancer and Regional Provident Fund Commissioner, Govvernment of India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.