‘There is no Tourist Lodge here,’ a couple of Biharis tell me. I had assumed that there would be one at Longleng. There is an Omega Lodge a little downhill from the bus stand. The Biharis walk with me to the lodge. One of them intercedes with the lodge owner in Nagamese. The woman is shaking her head. She gestures with her hands in refusal. She seems busy with the Road Show and rushes off to her chores.
‘She says it’s full. There is no vacancy,’ the Biharis comes back to me. After some minutes of pondering the Biharis are willing to put me up at their place for tonight.
‘We’ll work out something,’ tells me the sober one. His companion is fully drunk and boisterous. I walk with them to the open ground where the Road Show is underway. I would like to go to their place, dump my backpack and come back to the Road Show later on. I am getting stares from everyone at the ground. A backpack draws unnecessary attention. It could be a bomb. Peace is a new thing to the people of Nagaland.
‘Shall we go to your place and come back here later?’ I ask the Biharis but they are in a mood of their own. They don’t seem to listen to my question. I am dragged into the crowd, my backpack brushing against and parting the crowds. Everyone is looking. I am feeling uncomfortable. A visitor in a strange place should never draw attention to himself. I deliberately lose the Biharis in the crowd and head out of the ground. I need to find a room for the night.
Right opposite the ground is a house. I walk to door. Some youths are sitting on the verandah.
‘I’m from Bangalore. I’ve come to see the Road Show. There is no lodge here. The Omega Lodge is full. Can I stay at your place tonight?’ I tell them.
Initial responses are not positive but I am hopeful. An old woman comes out of the house and appraises me. She knows only Nagamese but with her boys as translators the situation is explained once more. She takes pity on me and lets me stay in the Christian prayer hall. I am not sure if such dedicated prayer halls are common in every house in this village. There is an altar at one end. Six plain wooden sofa without upholstery are lined against the walls. The woman brings a couple of blankets to make things comfortable. I thank them for this hospitablity. Imagine letting a stranger into your house for the night! It is unthinkable in a city like Bangalore but it happens in remote Longleng.
I realize that food is going to be a problem at Longleng. I am already thankful to this family for the accommodation and I don’t wish to impose on their hospitality with more of my problems. I would have to go without dinner tonight. I leave my backpack in the hall and return to the Road Show.
A welcome gate is beautifully constructed in natural materials of wood, bamboo, dried palm leaves and reeds. This is one of the traditional constructions of the region. A similar and more elaborate structure decorates the stage within the ground. A banner proclaims,
58th Phom Day and State Road Show
State Road Shows are part of a rural reach programme mooted by the State Government. They give a stage for tribals to showcase their traditional handicrafts, lifestyles, cuisine and culture. It helps the government to connect with the people of these remote regions and plan for their development. These are of course the stated reasons. Truth may be far simpler and limited to gaining political popularity. It is like the Romans organizing gladiator fights.
Nagaland has a total of 16 tribes and many sub-tribes. Longleng is the home to the Phoms. Each tribe has its own festival. A Road Show is normally organized to coincide with the day of the festival. It is the 58th Phom Day at Longleng but only the second time the Road Show is coming here.
On stage, a singing contest is going on. A large crowd of mostly teenagers is gathered in the open ground. People cheer wildly when their favourites appear on stage. Everyone is enjoying themselves but I am not enjoying this. Am I the only one who is feeling a deep sense of loss? I had come to Longleng to experience local culture, something typical of Nagaland that you don’t find elsewhere. Instead I find contestants singing popular English songs of pop, rock and R&B. Their dresses betray influence of Western cultures. The same is to be said of teenagers in the audience. The coming of satellite television, the likes of DishTV and BigTV, to places once cut off from modernity, has completely changed the complexion of these villages. I learn that eighty years ago people here were near naked, clothed in only leaves. Longleng itself was a small village until it was made a district about 7 years ago. The coming of the road more recently has brought development and things may change more rapidly than we can predict.
If I feel lost here, I am not the only one. I sense a different kind of loss in the eyes of old men and women who are in the audience. They are from a time now fast disappearing. To them the Road Show brings home a cultural shock – the elaborate stage, the bright moving lights, the loud speakers, songs unheard of and dance moves so alien to their own. Just as I have come to see another world, another world has come to them and they are spellbound by it.
I have a good night’s sleep. In the morning, the old woman greets me silently with a cup of tea and a snack. I am surprised at the snack. It is exactly what my mother makes at home for evening tea. It consists of little diamond-shaped pieces of crispy salted flour fried in oil. This is one more thing to prove that Nagas are not a class apart, that they have things in common with the rest of India.
Things are quiet in the morning. The Road Show will begin today only at ten. I take a long walk to a nearby village on the hills. When I return, I see vendors busy setting up stalls. The stage is busy. Someone is giving a talk. Under a shelter I see three groups dressed in traditional tribal costumes. They are Phoms from villages nearby. I have come at the right time. These groups are slotted to perform just before lunch.
But the man on stage has no intention of keeping his talk short. When he is finally done thanking God and calling out his hallelujahs, his exit is in vain. Another man takes his place with a longer talk. Every speaker who comes on stage talks about peace. The memory of violent days is still fresh here. Peace is still a fragile thing in Nagaland. Tribals have an agreement with the government to keep peace in return for money. It is an agreement that has worked well the last decade or so. The Nagas have now tasted the nectar of peace and their yearning to keep peace is growing. Nonetheless, economic development still eludes the region. Anything can happen on impulse.
As for Longleng, the man in a crisp suit promises better roads. The dream to make Longleng a transport hub is alive. It is after all at the crossroads of Assam, Mokokchung district, Mon district and Burma further east. He makes a point about progress while preserving rich old traditions; but some traditions such as head hunting are to be forgotten. It may sound strange to most of us but RCC is a big word here. Where most buildings are really huts of bamboo and wood, RCC is a sure sign of progess. The fact that Longleng has a handful of RCC buildings is a indicator that development has begun. There is no going back.
Finally one of the groups goes on stage to perform a folk song. One of them carries a string instrument, probably not more than a couple of strings. It is played with a bow. It reminds me of the Chinese erhu. Unfortunately the performance is a fiasco. The microphone does not pick up the strings or the lead vocals. So there are long periods of silence followed by loud choral voices. What should have been an enjoyable item is marred by the sound crew. I am disappointed.
Next are two groups who perform their tribal dances in the open ground in front of the stage. The men are dressed in wonderful costumes. I say costumes but these are really their traditional dresses before the coming of modern day shirts and trousers. They wear sleaveless vests decorated with cowrie shells. For necklaces are boar tusks. Headress is of cane and painted red. It is decorated with Hornbill feathers. A colourfully woven cloth flap decorated with cowries hang before the crotch which is further emphasized with a brass metal disc. They wear a belt which at the back with a receptacle for storing the machette, a little cane basket and sometimes the skull of a monkey. I learn that in days of old monkeys used to be hunted and consumed. Men carry machettes, shields made of buffalo hides, decorated spears and sometimes guns loaded with gunpowder. Some wear a pair of tiger teeth in their necklaces.
The men skip and dance in two files, turning side to side. They sing in chorus as they advance towards the stage. I walk towards them to snap a closeup. Suddenly they fire the guns into the ground. I don’t think it’s a good idea to get any closer. I watch them perform from a distance. They lay down their shields, stick the spears into the ground, put away their machettes, join hands and dance in a circle. The music they sing is without the aid of instrument. It is primitive and beautiful.
The women dancing at the same time in another circle sing their own songs. Their dress is just as colourful but much simpler. Their beaded necklaces and coiled bracelets stand out. They wear red sarongs white little bands of colours running across. This is a dress common all across Nagaland. The locals call this the makhela. Each one carries a bamboo stick whose ends have been shaved thinly so that the fibres gather to give form. The women strike this stick into the ground as they dance and sing.
I follow the groups out of the ground to take more pictures. A couple of students of Longleng are honoured with certificates and cash prizes for getting good results in the state examinations. This is celebrated by the community. The men perform a special dance for the two students. It gives an opportunity to take a close look at the tribal dresses. The group is from a neighbouring village.
I return to the ground to browse through the shops. Good handwoven shawls start at Rs. 1000. They make an excellent souvenir and present to someone but I am reluctant to load my backpack any further. Assam tea is being sold at one stall. One stall is crowded and all he is selling are packets of potato chips. I buy a packet. I am hungry, not having had a proper meal since yesterday lunch time.
‘What’s this?’ I ask a couple of guys munching over something. On the table is a large leaf of some sort containing clumps of sticky food.
‘This is called aanthpath,’ one of them says. ‘Try it. It’s a local dish.’
I take a pinch of it for taste. I like it. I help myself to more of it. It is basically rice mixed with minced vegetables, wrapped in leaves and then steamed. I have eaten similar stuff in Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines. I thank the guys and wander off to another stall. One woman is selling something. I don’t know what it is because it is wrapped in leaves.
‘What’s in this?’ I ask her. She explains with a smile. I don’t understand a word of it.
‘Is it something I can eat?’ I ask with gestures. She says something and it makes no sense to me. A couple of onlookers take interest in this strange dialogue. One of them comes to my aid.
‘Is it something I can eat?’ I ask her.
‘Yes, yes. Can eat.’
She says something to the vendor who unwraps one of the packets. I see beans. They appear to have been steamed and half-cooked. I buy a packet for ten rupees. I dip my fingers into it and start eating. Everyone starts laughing. I know something is wrong.
‘To make chutney,’ one girl says. I realize that this is probably not meant to be eaten this way. It has to be processed further. Anyway, I can’t stand the stuff. It stinks. The horrible smell fills and stays in my mouth after just a pinch of this stinking beans. I carry it around for a long time and dump it discreetly amidst other trash at a bus shelter.
I am done with Longleng. Tomorrow is the last day of my permit to stay in Nagaland. I need to reach Imphal by end of tomorrow. If that’s not possible, then Dimapur. But today is Sunday. There are no buses going to Mokokchung. No other form of private transport is available. With no food at Longleng and the Road Show over, I have no reason to stay here. I might as well hit the road and hope for a ride.
I walk for about fifteen minutes when I am summoned by a man from the first floor of his house. I had seen him in the morning on my walk to Orangkong. He is still there idling away the Sunday.
‘I am on my way to Changtongya,’ I tell him.
‘But that’s about 32 kms away. It is already 3 pm,’ he points out rightly. I tell him there is nothing in Longleng for a tourist like me. He checks my permit and my ID card.
‘You can stay here tonight. I can provide you dinner.’
I really would like to get going but the chances of getting a ride to Mokokchung so late this afternoon is looking bleak. Sundays are bad days for getting around in Nagaland and Meghalaya. Christians are in the majority. Sundays are to them a day of complete rest and prayer. Public buses and private vehicles are already rare and next to nil on Sundays. I somewhat reluctantly accept his offer to stay in his house. Deep inside, there is a relief that I don’t have to do this long walk.
Longti Phom is a civil engineer and works with the government on rural development projects. He has two sons and a daughter. As his wife offers me a cup of tea and patties made of sticky rice I ask him about the Road Show.
‘It’s okay but really the money could be spent for development. You can see how bad the road to Longleng is,’ he tells. After a pause he continues, ‘Sixty lakhs are spent for just two days of Road Show.’
I had not imagined it would be that much but I suppose many little things add up. Meanwhile, his furry dog is looking longingly at me. I offer it a piece of the rice cake. It has been expecting it and gobbles it up quickly. There is a kitten running and jumping around the wooden flooring. Outside in a cage is a large owl. I ask him about it.
‘I got it in the forest. It’s expensive. It costs me Rs. 200 a month to feed it. It eats only meat, you know.
‘What will you have for dinner?’
I tell him that I’m a vegetarian but eggs are fine. So his wife gets busy. Her daughter helps her in the task. One of her teenage boys kills a live chicken. The chicken is dressed. Firewood is gathered from store and a kitchen fire is started. The chicken is boiled whole in a pot of boiling water. It is then roasted lightly over fire. Finally, it is cut up into pieces and cleaned. The leftovers are eaten up by a couple of dogs and the kitten. The owl looks on from its cage as the sun sets beyond the hills.
Dinner is served for me first – rice, daal, boiled vegetables, boiled eggs and salad. One of my favourite dishes of Naga cuisine is boiled vegetables. I first tasted it in Kohima. Vegetables are simply boiled in water with a pinch of salt and served in large pieces. This simple cooking preserves all the vitamins and minerals.
Meanwhile the man of the house is still sitting on the wooden bench and watching the road below. His Sunday is a day of complete relaxation and laziness. Bare-chested and pot-bellied, he sits all day doing nothing. His mouth is however busy with either of two things – chewing on betel nuts and leaves of which he keeps an ample stock; or dragging on cigarettes and beedis.
‘Do you get betel leaves and nuts in this manner in the South?’ he queries me.
‘Yes, we do.’ He is a little surprised by this. In fact, many people think that North East is a world apart from the rest of India. There are more things common than you can imagine. Chewing of paan supari alone is enough to vindicate the whole of North East as Indian rather than Chinese or Burmese.
As darkness sets in, some of his friends visit for a chat and smoke. I am putting up with all this smoke. One of them pulls out a pipe and stuffs into the spout and lights it up and drags.
‘Would you like to try it?’ he hands me the pipe.
‘Tobacco?’ I ask.
I have never smoked in my life and I am not going to start now.
‘If this is your first time, you should try it. You will always remember this moment and Longleng,’ the guy reasons out. He is quite right but a memory is an unimportant thing. What happens in the present moment is the only thing that matters to me. I learn that opium is imported from Burma across the border. It’s been like that for decades.
Electricity comes and goes. Having electricity itself is a big thing in Longleng.
‘Back in the 70s we used to have six-cylinder Japanese generator. It was diesel powered. It served Longleng for years. Of course, those days it was not such a big town,’ Longti reflects. He gets a little nostalgic as he goes back to those years past, ‘The generator used to come on only for a few hours in the evenings. It was a noisy affair but we had electricity.’
As I sit with the opium drinkers, a Naga folk song is wafting through the chill air. It goes on for nearly an hour. With long drawn breaths, interspersed with words from the lead singer, the song is delicate, prayerful and meditative. As every singing breath tails off, another begins. To me it feels like an invocation to the spirits within and a salute to the grandeur of nature. There is no Western staccato here. There are no elaborate gamakas of Indian classical music. It is just pure sounds linked by immanent feelings.
The song is coming across the road from one of the huts. I go down to join the group. A door is open. There is an oil lamp burning. Some torches are lit up. A group of about dozen singers who had performed earlier at the Road Show today are seated around a central table. A woman is trying to record their folk songs with some basic equipment running on batteries.
As I walk into this group, no one stops me. No one asks me who I am. I am offered a low bamboo stool. A little later a girl offers me a cup of tea. This is the incredible hospitality of the Nagas. As a traveller you mostly dream of such experiences. You wish to come, see and experience without intrusion. In Nagaland, I am actually living the dream. Meanwhile, the recording has just ended and the singers launch into light conversation. The woman tells them about the Hornbill Festival that happens every year in December. The hostess of the gathering leads everyone in Christian prayer before dispersing.
I return to my room and a comfortable bed prepared just for me. It’s another night. Who knows what’s in store for the brand new day to come?