I never considered coming to Mokokchung but a retired teacher in Kohima claimed that it is the cleanest district town in Nagaland. Nagaland is not all Kohima. I should see other towns as well to get some sense of the state and the Nagas. After a couple of days in Kohima, I am disarmed. I have no apprehensions about going into remoter parts of the state. People here are soft-spoken, hospitable and friendly.
There is only one state run bus to Mokokchung that leaves at half six in the morning. I share the ride with a decent crowd. One of the men is wearing shirt, jacket, trousers and unpolished leather shoes. He is also wearing an old tennis cap but he wears it like a tribal crown. It does not fit his head perfectly. None of these modern clothes define him. What really defines him is a black and red shawl with a black and white border woven with geometric motifs, animal and tribal symbols. I think he is an Angami but this sort of a shawl is worn by other tribes as well. His entire cultural identity and ancestory lies in this single shawl that he wraps around his body. The beautiful border is thrown over his shoulders and hangs with waving folds that end in twisted tassels. Symbolically, he and his forefathers are credited to have performed Feasts of Merit. Only such an act gives him the right to wear it. With modernization and rapid cultural changes happening in this region, I wonder if this shawl has lost its symbolism and is today just a fashionable apparel.
‘Show me your ID?’ demads a man at Wokha where the bus has stopped for a break. The man has just stepped out of a local store. He is not wearing any uniform and does not bother to introduce himself. It is better to cooperate than pick an unnecessary argument. I show him my PAN card. Clearly he has not seen such a card before and turns it back and front. He looks at me as if to check if the blurred picture on the card is really me. He studies the card for many minutes in thoughtful silence. I am beginning to doubt if he is even literate.
I buy a packet of Britannia’s multi-grain high fibre digestive biscuits, something I have learnt to enjoy the last few months. The rain is falling softly. The day is dull and Wokha town seems duller. Passengers slowly come back to the bus. In time, my PAN card is returned. He poses a few questions about my purpose. I satisfy his curiosity with short responses in a casual unassuming tone. The driver sounds the horn, I get in and we are on our way to Mokokchung.
An old man sitting next to me offers me a fried snack. It is thin and crispy, in the shape of a doughnut, only much bigger. It’s puffed out and hollow inside like a puri. It is just as oily. I ask him if it is vegetarian but he does not understand Hindi and English. I nibble into this piece of local snack. It tastes odd but not bad. It may be vegetarian but I am convinced that the oil in which it was fried is not. I thank the old man for the treat and decline to have more. On his part, he is enjoying an enture packet of this Nagamese snack. Soon I doze off in the swaying motion of the bus.
‘Tiger! Tiger!’ someone shouts. I am wide awake in a flash.
‘What! Where?’ I jump from my seat and look outside. There is heavy rustle in the bushes left of the road. Something disappears into the undergrowth. The bus screeches to a halt, the engine is switched off and all is silent.
‘Tyre, tyre,’ says the old man in response to my question.
‘Oh! Tyre!’ I say with disappointment. Apparently one of the back tyres has decided to have a way of its own and has veered downhill into the forest. It hasn’t gone far. Soon all the men are at work hauling the recalcitrant tyre back to the main road. It shall go to Mokokchung after all and take us all with it.
Three hundred meters from the NST bus stand at Mokokchung is the government run Tourist Lodge. It is an uphill climb past a snooker club, some bamboo clumps and a couple of apricot trees. Where the road curves, the hillside below it has collapsed under a recent landslide. It nothing is done, this road too may disappear in a few more monsoons.
I arrive at the Tourist Lodge to a good welcome. The place is clean, the staff are in clean neat uniforms and more importantly courteous. The single rooms are taken up but there are beds available in the dormitory. This suits me very well for my budget. After two nights of rough stay in Kohima, a nice bath is in immediate order. I have lunch and head out to see the hills around.
Mokokchung is indeed as clean as promised. The place does not feel crowded or congested. Its high location on these hills and an unhurried pace of life make it a delightful holiday destination. There are no great ruins, fancy theme parks or ancient temples – just the green hills all around and typical village scenes to enjoy. In fact, the reason I like Mokokchung is for its sufficient green cover whereby I see more of the hills than the town. It is what Shillong, Shimla, Gangtok or Kohima would have looked many decades ago.
My walk takes me past delightful village churches. There is little art in them but the architecture is uniquely local and modern. In many cases asbestos sheets make up the roofs and towers while cane work make up the ceiling on the inside. Towers with bells or gongs stand to announce the hours of prayer. Nice little garden beds bloom with fresh flowers. The place may be blessed with a cool climate but the gardeners have to do their part and they have done it well.
The town has a problem with water but it is good to see rain water harvesting being done is most houses. While modern buildings stand in plenty, older ones of cane, wood and bamboo continue to stand. Similar sheds are built as pig stys or shelters to store firewood.
Back in the hotel I read a collection of speeches of Neiphiu Rio, delivered in 2007 while being the Chief Minister of Nagaland. I learn a lot about Naga people and the issues facing them. He hopes that the Central Government’s Look East Policy will benefit the Naga people. Constant efforts are necessary to improve the state’s road network. Of the railways, there is nothing in the state. There are no technical institutes in the state for professional education. He critizes the lengthy and outdated process that foreigners have to undergo to visit the state. The annual Hornbill Festival from the 1st to 7th December has become nationally renowned and he hopes the festival will become self-sustaining without further government aid. Construction of Tourist Lodges like the one where I am staying are underway in more places, including one at Longleng. That’s good news to me. Perhaps I will stay there when I am at Longleng tomorrow.
I consider ordering some Nagamese cuisine for dinner but choice is limited. Most items are non-vegetarian. There is however one item that sounds exotic:
Rosup (Assorted local veg & herbs cooked in bamboo shoot juice)
But I am not feeling very adventurous tonight. Frankly I am never adventurous when it comes to food. I settle for the usual affair – rice, chapati and mixed vegetable curry. The staff here are friendly, professional and serve the guests to perfection. The waiter walks me to the wash basin, opens the tap for me and hands me the towel. I am not used to this sort of attention and I’m not sure I can handle it on a daily basis.
As I leave Mokokchung, the memory of this little town will remain with me for long. The images of the surrounding hills, their gentle folds and lazy frolics with the passing clouds are not going to fade easily.