In The Last Light of Glory Days, Avinuo Kire shares some stories from Nagaland. Divided into two parts, the first holds three interconnected stories, set against the backdrop of the Indo-Naga conflict that began in the late 1940s and remains unresolved to this day. In the second, everyday events in the mountains are infused with an element of the supernatural.
The following is an excerpt from the first part, “The Disturbance”.
Grandmother Neimenuo stopped talking to me the day I married. You see, I had married
an outsider from beyond our hills; worse, he was a tephremia. I did not resent Grandmother for extricating me from her life so effortlessly, like the rotten bits of vegetables I’ve seen her expertly chop away without thought while conjuring up mouth-watering meals inside her kitchen. In truth, I would have been surprised if Grandmother had reacted any other way. I understood well just how deeply my decision had hurt her. It wasn’t she who had hurt me; no, I was the inflictor of hurt and she was the wounded.
Grandmother’s tephremia were always men in green; dark hairy soldiers in camouflage, toting guns and dripping sweat which could be smelled a kilometre away. I once wondered what uniforms kekramia—the white men—wore. But regardless of whether or not they wore green uniforms and slung rifles around their shoulders, as far as Grandmother was concerned, the kekramia were nothing like tephremias—they were our guardians. They built roads and schools, provided blankets and relief aid and protected our people during the invasion of the Japanese in 1944. And they brought Christianity. The last bit effectively summed up Grandmother’s case for the white man.
Grandmother once recounted, ‘It was the kekramias who warned the villagers about the great war that was coming…the white men, these kekramias, they looked out for us…I must have been five or six. We had been hiding in the forest for weeks. I was dirty and hungry. While searching for edible plants in the woods with my brother, we bumped into a young British soldier. He still looked handsome, despite the fact that his face was grimy and his golden hair matted with sweat. He picked me up, unmindful of the fact that I was filthy, not having been bathed for days (neither had the soldier, I thought, but did not interrupt) and tickled me with his chin stubble which sent me into fits of irrepressible laughter. Before he left, he dug out a tin of powdered milk from his rucksack and presented it to me. I was so shy; I couldn’t even thank him. How our family relished the precious white goodness! Mother carefully rationed the milk powder and each of us received a capful every day. The last remaining powder was given to me.’ This was one of Grandmother’s fondest memories of the British.
Doubtless, Grandmother had many such stories which attested the benevolence of kekramias. ‘The Japanese, they looked like us and so some of our people initially thought we should help them for this very reason. But they turned out to be cruel and looked down on us. So our people decided to help the white sahibs instead.’
The one and only time Grandmother conceded that the kekramia might have harmed the Nagas was when she recounted The Disturbance. This was how people of her generation referred to the 1950s and 60s, the turbulent years following the departure of British colonizers and the subsequent arrival of the Indian armed forces which unleashed a reign of terror on our lands. An undeclared war raged between the Nagas and the Indian forces because the former resisted continued foreign invasion and began the long struggle for sovereignty. ‘I suppose the British sahibs had to leave at one point of time. They had their own homes after all. But we helped them during the war. They should have seen to us. They demarcated and ceded our land as part of Indian territory and left us at the mercy of the armed forces,’ Grandmother ruefully remarked as her halting words slowly trailed into heavy silence.
My now aged grandmother was one of the many young people who paid a heavy price during the violently turbulent period in our people’s history, euphemistically referred to as The Disturbance. During the ceaseless bloodshed, she had lost her father and younger brother, whom she had dearly loved. Her husband followed soon after. My stoic grandmother never dwelled over the way they died. But she did once mention that her brother was killed in a battle. She said he died valiantly, trying to protect our lands from the Indian soldiers. At least that’s what she told me. But I had heard that the day after Grandmother’s brother disappeared, the villagers discovered his body strung up and skinned like a rabbit beside his own paddy field. He had been tortured and was unrecognizable. But they were certain it was him because my grandmother’s brother had a pronounced limp and one leg of the dangling body was noticeably shorter than the other. They said his limp appeared even more grotesque in death. I never told Grandmother what I heard.
For Grandmother, India was synonymous with the army; with the sweaty men in green.
Growing up, I viewed kekramias through Grandmother’s bygone nostalgia. So whenever I spotted the occasional white tourist in faded jeans or khakis with heavy rucksacks on their backs, I saw the handsome white soldier who had cradled my grubby snot- and dirt-stained grandmother as a child and given her a precious tin of powdered milk. For the most part of my childhood, I believed that kekramias were sweetness and light. It was only later when I went to college to study English Literature that my re-education began. As I read Fanon, Ashcroft, Said and all the other postcolonial theorists and writers, I began to view what had happened to our land in a new light. But although my previous pre-set partiality towards kekramias faded, my love for Grandmother remained strong. And so, whenever I returned home for holidays, I indulged her bouts of wistful melancholy by listening to her stories of the good years under British rule. She had no idea that I was slowly growing up with world views of my own and that growing up was exposing me to other narratives. But despite it all, I found that I lacked Grandmother’s conviction and certainty in beliefs. The kekramias were kind to the villagers and so she loved them. In a way, my grandmother’s perspective was simpler, unambiguous, and I envied her simplicity.
I had the occasional tephremia classmates in my school in Kohima. They were the brainiacs who topped the class and were especially good in maths and science. ‘Eat fish, eat fish. These tephremias eat so much fish, that’s the secret behind their sharp minds,’ Father would insist. But he still continued buying pork most of the time. I was certain the lack of seafood in my diet was the reason why I never developed a head for numbers. Being ‘outsiders’, the tephremia classmates, particularly the boys, were always vulnerable targets for local bullies like Azo, Chumbemo and Neiphrezo. I witnessed them harassing Sanjeev and Rajesh many times. Although it upset me enough to throw dirty looks at a confused Azo who was my next-door neighbour, I never had the courage to actively intervene. It was common knowledge that Azo’s father had been killed by the Indian Army many years ago. I knew that this tragedy did not justify his bullying in any way, but it somehow made me a little less harsh in my judgment towards him. I felt I could empathize with his bitterness against a race of people who were responsible for his loss. Nevertheless, I prided myself in being fair-minded and never disliked my non-Naga classmates as they had nothing to do with what had happened in my land. It never occurred to me that I would be at the receiving end one day.
I remember the first time somebody called me ‘Chinky’. I was fifteen and had just been admitted to a boarding school. It was my first time away from home, my first time outside of Nagaland and the absolute first time I had heard the word. Well, it was actually ‘Chinky Pinky’—each syllable emphasized in a deliberately high-pitched tone. I did not know what it meant or what the word implied, but I instinctively sensed it was derogatory and I didn’t like it. Words can be arbitrary, intentions are not. I didn’t like the sound of the word nor the intentionally nasal way the speaker uttered it. It made me feel cheap. The person who initiated me to this word was a senior in my school who later told me that he was just trying to be ‘friendly’.
It was now my turn to struggle to fit in and to be accepted. There was something about this unexpected struggle which confounded me. See, I knew why those like Grandmother, Azo and sometimes, people like myself too, felt the way we did about Indians or being Indian. A psychiatrist had once remarked that what had happened to the Nagas had created a deep-rooted fear psychosis in their perception of mainland people from beyond the hills. This was especially prevalent amongst the generation of Nagas who had lived through the worst of the Indo-Naga violence.
‘It’s understandable why some Nagas feel the way they do, given the history. But what have we ever done to them?’ I hotly exclaimed one time. My voice sounded whiny even to my own ears. I hated that this city had hardened me, made a bitter person out of me.
Although I did not expect a reply, my friend who had lived a lifetime in the city, sighed wearily and put down the book she was reading. Without bothering to get up, she levelled her eyes towards me and replied in a resigned manner, much like a patient parent speaking to a petulant child.
‘Zhabu, you have to learn not to let such people get under your skin. It’s just ignorance, plain and simple. Quit looking for justification, for a compelling or logical reason because that’s not how racism or discrimination works. It’s human nature to be wary or suspicious of the unfamiliar. Some people just don’t feel comfortable around those who are different from them.’
I felt my friend was too magnanimous in her acceptance of discrimination. But I still thought long and hard about what she said that night, going back to memories of school days in Kohima when Azo, Chumbemo and Neiphrezo bullied Sanjeev and Rajesh. Was it fear psychosis, prejudice passed down to them by elders or did they just bully simply because they could—because the other boys were different? Was it because it made them feel powerful, less helpless? I suddenly felt uncertain about everything I had been taught to believe in.
I met my husband in college. He was a senior, wore khakis, sandals and carried a jhola jute bag. He was a brilliant student, known for his leftist views because he was very vocal about it. Somehow one evening, after a student meeting, the two of us began talking. It became one of those rare conversations between kindred spirits which stretched with coffee after coffee until the waiter was compelled to inform us that they were ready to close. I had liked it that he didn’t ask me about ‘the Northeast’ like many of my classmates did, neatly clubbing the entire diverse and multicultural region as one singular province. He also didn’t make any puerile comments about Nagas and dog meat or enquire whether Nagas still practised head-hunting. I always sensed that these trite questions were asked merely to condescend rather than out of genuine curiosity. When I spoke of home, he didn’t ask ‘How do I get to Nagaland?’ for which I now had a ready stream of sarcastic replies, the final segment of the journey always ending with a bullock cart ride. I was surprised that he knew about the Naga political movement and even more pleasantly surprised when he didn’t use terms like ‘insurgency’ or ‘terrorist’. I had never met anyone like him. I never imagined there’d be anyone like him.
The two of us became confidantes. I found myself telling him things I had never told anyone. When I told him about my grandmother’s brother, he quietly listened and sympathized. But then when I told him about the man who died a gruesome death after being pushed into a tub of boiling asphalt meant for road construction for the crime of aiding Naga political workers, my confidante made a remark along the lines of terrible things which happen everywhere during wartime. His remark irked me and I clammed up for a while. But despite the little irritations now and then, he was good for me. He had a calming effect.
‘Don’t let ignorant people get to you,’ he’d urge. I took his advice and gradually discovered a new tolerance I never knew I possessed. With him, I found myself reverting to the idealistic happy girl I once was. My defences peeled away as our friendship progressed.
During a holiday, he invited me along with some other friends to spend the weekend at his parents’ home where his parents would also be present.
Their anglicized, somewhat opulent lifestyle took me by surprise. His father smoked cigars and played polo while his mother collected art and gave us a tour of an art gallery which she was currently involved with. I knew he was not his parents but for some reason, considering all his griping about the evils of western influence and capitalism, I had somehow expected something more frugal. The contradictions didn’t put me off, however. On the contrary, it felt comforting to know that perhaps, he may be a little confused too, just like me.
As he dropped me back after that weekend, his car stereo played sappy songs and I laughed out loud, finding his bad taste in music incredibly endearing. He couldn’t understand my amusement and I enjoyed his disconcertment. That evening, I finally had to admit to myself that he wasn’t just a friend anymore. I had been in denial for so long because of who I perceived him to be. But now he was just a man and I, a woman.
There was an unspoken understanding between us the next day. I knew then, there would be no turning back.
Ironically, he comforted me when Grandmother refused to meet him and reminded me why she felt the way she did.
‘But doesn’t it hurt you too?’ I had asked plaintively. I understood why my grandmother behaved the way she did. But somehow, in my heart, I had desperately hoped that her love for me would overcome the hurts from the past. I understood then, that some wounds run too deep.
‘No. I know it’s not personal. She’ll come around one day,’ he said. I shrugged, attempting nonchalance. I realized I had prepared him better than myself.
I had not told him the details of my last meeting with Grandmother. I wasn’t sure whether it was to protect him or Grandmother. Perhaps it was both.
Grandmother’s eyes had gradually widened in alarm as my story about the wonderful tephremia friend I had made slowly veered towards life and marriage. Grandmother kept eerily silent the entire time as I presented my defence, carefully worded, corrected and rehearsed many times over. After I finished, she finally spoke with a pleading look in her eyes.
‘Do you know that the National Naga Council in 1946, passed a resolution that Naga ladies will not be allowed to marry Indians? And that those who were already married to Indians before the resolution was passed were fined a sum of fifty rupees?’
‘That was a long time ago, Grandmother. Times have changed!’ I exclaimed with an impatience I couldn’t control.
‘A hundred years will not change the fact that Indians tortured and murdered my only brother.’ So she knew. That was the first time Grandmother acknowledged the truth of her brother’s death. It was also the first time she spoke so bitterly of the past.
‘Will you at least meet him once? Give him a chance, just once. For my sake.’ This time, it was my turn to plead with my eyes.
Without a word, Grandmother got up and walked past me. As she passed, she tightly gripped my shoulders with her firm bony fingers. She let go before I could raise a hand to cover hers. I waited and waited but she did not return.
My grandmother stopped all communication with me the day I married. I imagined her shock that I actually went through with it. I understood. I still tried to understand when she refused to meet her first great-grandchild. ‘Hu derei! What a stubborn old woman you have become!’ I thought, my sadness intermingled with grudging admiration and a dash of humour at her obstinacy. I loved Grandmother too much to resent her unrelenting spirit. Ever since I married, my prayer was for Grandmother to love me again, for her own sake, if not for me. In time, as I became a storyteller to my babbling toddler of a daughter, I found myself increasingly given to reminiscing over memories of Grandmother’s storytelling. A quiet resolve gently took form as childhood memories with Grandmother cadenced back and forth. Somehow, some day, I would share stories with Grandmother again.