Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Kohima Calling

Just back from Pune - again! - after spending last weekend in its perfect weather - cool and green. One of the high-points of this trip was the discovery of a packed Christian worship session every Sunday at 11.30 AM at city church, Pune organised by the NCF, Pune, i.e. the Pune branch of the Naga Christian Fellowship.

Staying back after the 9.30 AM Mass on Sunday 13 July, I saw a number of smart young Naga youth (white shirt bushshirts was de rigeur for the boys) and a number of foreigners with their kids enter and take their places. There were also a fair sprinkling of Puneites. This was unbelievable! So many Nagas - right here in Pune?! So far from the North East?!

Listening to the soft rock music transported me to the land of hills in the 'Far East' and the leader leading us in prayer on his guitar took me right back to where I was last December - in Kohima! The lines of a new praise and worship song he was teaching, appeared on the screen to the right - for a moment I thought I was at the weekly Thursday's karaoke at TC (Turquoise Cottage pub and restaurant) in South Delhi, with all of us singing in.

Here's what I wrote in Kohima where Western music is a way of life . . .

North East Diary
- Brian Mendonca

Asked to head to Nagaland last week from Delhi, I was wondering if it would be Christmas in Kohima. Visions of the lovely time I had in Jorhat two years back at the invitation of 'WaxEloquent' --a poetry group -- came flooding to my mind. I was still in touch with some of those friends, the high point of that trip being translating the poetry of Portuguese poet Sophia Maria Andressen for a Professor at Regional Research Laboratory (RRL), Jorhat, where I was put up.

This was all arranged by an SP of Assam Police, Jorhat with whom it has been impossible to stay in touch with owing to the necessity of him having to go underground, to ward of militant attacks. I remember we traveled from Jorhat to Dibrugarh and enroute stopped at Sibisagar to take in the tranquil Brahmaputra. His firm ‘ No ’ when I wanted to step across to visit Majuli island, still makes me smile.

Later I leafed through Sanjoy ’ s Assam to know the story of how Sanjoy Ghose an NGO activist disappeared during his work with the people of Majuli. Pop sensation Zubeen Garg ’ s song 'Majuli ’ first resonated in my ears on the NH 37 from Guwahati to Jorhat as we stopped at a wayside eatery exquisitely crafted in bamboo – and where Bhupen Hazarika himself had eaten – to demolish the food. Well-fortified, we could take anything – even the rhinos – as the highway heaved through Kaziranga with repeated warnings by the forest rangers enroute to guard against them. Later I was to see Bhupen- da live at his 'Bukhu Hom Hom Kore' concert at Siri fort auditorium, New Delhi.

Once more in rhino land, after an early morning dash from Delhi, we found ourselves breathless at Guwahati station after spending a charming morning at Abhijit Nath ’ s place catching up on the two absent years. The delicious hilsa which was prepared in mustard for lunch almost detained us as we clambered on the 5665 Guwhati-Dimapur train. Talk was rife about the recent bomb blast on Dec 13 on the Delhi-Guwahati-Dibrugarh Rajdhani, near Dimapur. The same group, self-styling themselves the All Adivasi National Liberation Army (AANLA) were responsible for the street violence at Beltala, Guwahati on November 26 to push for their demands for Scheduled Tribe status.

An inordinate halt at Lumding station saw me meandering along the platform, when I heard sweet strains of music coming from a group of young Manipuri girls singing soulful praise and worship songs in Manipuri. One of them – Daffodil Kahmee – strummed the guitar. It wasn ’ t long before I had jammed up with the group with my guitar and we were joined by the other boys in their group -- one of whom was also a guitarist. They were delighted when I taught them the ‘ Galilee Song. ’ Kahmee and the other girls were all working as nurses in Bangalore and were proceeding to Imphal from Dimapur.

Ensconced in Hotel Tragopan, Dimapur, as night fell it was nice to see a lit-up Christmas tree welcoming us. Yes, we were already in Nagaland. In a short while NDTV, Dimapur was announcing a bomb blast near Imphal as a passenger bus hit a landmine meant for the security forces of the Assam Rifles. This was while the channel was crowing about Chinese and Indian military leaders having a historic meeting at Tawang on the Northern reaches of Arunachal Pradesh.

This was the land which Temsula Ao had written about in her recently published book These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone (2006). As we commenced our climb into the hills and the ceremonial archway of Kohima district came into view, Nagaland Police asked us for our Inner Line Permit – mandatory for travel in this region. After I had sat a while in the cramped taxi halfway from Dimapur to Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, we disembarked for steaming tea and poori-bhaji, as sunlight seeped through a eucalyptus tree. Could this idyllic place, with the ‘ Peace Cradle ’ of bamboo constructed by the Assam Rifles ‘ to promote better understanding among the hill peoples ’ warrant the long convoys of foot soldiers with their LMGs walking single file to ward off casualties in case of ambush?

A pork-mushroom stew at Flaming Wok, Kohima city saw young Nagas speaking carefully into their mobiles and enjoying music which sounded like Celine Dion. Naga elders sold hand-woven Naga shawls (for which the village of Mon is renowned) desultorily by the wayside. Night temperature had been 7 degrees. Incredible though it may sound, I was told Nagaland is a dry state. On paper. Having a CM with a name like Rio doesn ’ t help. No spirits seems to be the diktat of the powerfully entrenched local Christian leaders. What is genuinely in short supply here is water. In the early days the precious water used to be transported through hollow bamboos shoots among the Naga hills.

As we hurtled homeward down the Naga hills towards Dimapur airport to take IC 7702 to Kolkata, I was also aware that in the states of Nagaland and Manipur, injecting drug use (IDU) is the leading cause of HIV. Along with Mizoram, these 3 states share a common border with Myanmar (Burma), from where injectable drugs are believed to be sourced. However it is the women in these states who are mobilizing to eradicate the scourge.

There were so many similarities with Goa here in the North East, viz. a warm friendly people, an unhurried pace of life, a tradition of Christan faith, a love for music, a tendency for the youth to seek jobs outside the state, and yes, the drug problem. There was also resistance, years back, when the Central Government offered the North East a railway link southward from Guwahati to Shillong the capital of Meghalaya. The proposal was later scrapped as the people of Meghalaya felt it would bring many people into their state. The Konkan railway is the Goa counterpart. The Scorpions had just played in Shillong and had rocked the listeners ‘ like a hurricane. ’ Lou Majaw –the Bob Dylan of the East ’ and who once played on my Yamaha on the Jorhat trip, opened the show. And the annual Hornbill Festival from December 1-7 was just over at the Nagaland Heritage Village at, Kisama, Kohima.

Would music offer a balm to this troubled land? As I swept into Dimapur airport I was delighted to hear soft instrumental Christmas carols on the public address system. As I waited in line for the security check I struck up a conversation with a gentleman who happened to be working at the Nagaland House in Delhi. As I introduced myself as a Goan bound for Goa via Kolkata-Mumbai, he said, ‘ Ah, your Governor is from this state. ’ I didn ’ t mention that he was also ambushed in November in Mokokchung, Nagaland when he had returned to his ancestral residence. It is believed the militants of the NSCN-IM also used rocket launchers but the Governor, SC Jamir, escaped. The current ceasefire for six months from December by six militant groups in Nagaland may give some respite for a more meaningful Christmas in Kohima.

December 24,

Pix: Khonoma, Naga and Gate. Courtesy -


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