“The President give me, with his own hands, Dr. A.P.J. Ab-dool Kal-aam…and this, Governor of Nagaland, P.B. Aa-charyaa…”
My gaze ping-ponged between his earnest face and the table in front of me weighed down by half a dozen certificates laminated in wooden frames, a pale-yellow cashmere shawl and a gold medal the size of a thumb-nail in a little glass case. Guru Sangyusang Pongen clearly had had an illustrious career.
A week before, I had met him in Kisama during The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland. He sat outside the Ao morung (a type of bachelor’s dormitory integral to Naga culture across all tribes, now rendered obsolete) in their traditional finery, patiently posing and smiling for zealot photographers, ever so often adjusting the khaup (gauntlet worn on the wrist glove) or tugging at the merangkhambang (spiked metal armlet).
I watched in silence from a distance, embarrassed, as one person after another, camera in hand, took his picture and walked away without as much as a ‘hello’, treating him like they would a museum exhibit. Yet never once did he wince, and hence I knew, he had done this many times before.
“Hallo! Come over here, take picture!” He waved at me, decaying front teeth put forth in a buoyant grin.
Mustering my brightest smile, I walked up to him.
“How are you?” he asked, arms folded elegantly over bare knees.
Something about him struck in me instantly an acute nostalgia. It was his voice, I realized, he sounded just like my late grandfather I last heard when I was twelve. My reasons now entirely personal, I sat down for a chat.
Wisecracking one moment and saint-like the next, he walked me through every element of his elaborate attire, spoke about the “many, many prizes” he had won and made at least three jokes about his age. His childlike joie de vivre was as charming as it was in the man I knew once, my jeje apa.
Twenty minutes into our conversation, I grew aware of the queue of people forming behind me, eager to take a picture with him. I got up in haste. He wrote down his name and number on a piece of paper and gave it to me, then repeated for the third time - “If you come to Mokokchung, you must come to Ungma and stay in my house.”
Located 160km north of Kohima, Mokokchung, the stronghold of Ao Nagas, had caught my imagination long before my journey began. Weeks before I left for my trip, I sat in the comfort of my bedroom, poring over the map of Nagaland. On it I could identify only two places - Kohima and Mon, the former I learnt about in school as part of my general knowledge curriculum, the latter I learnt from every travel blog and article written about Nagaland and its headhunter tribe, the Konyaks. What intrigued me though on the map was all that lay between the two - the unknown, the obscure. I made a note in my travel journal—explore Mokokchung and its neighbouring villages of Ungma, Longkhum and others—bearing no illusions of its childish simplicity. No amount of research would spew any useful information about these places. How did I plan to achieve my objective? I had no clue.
Post that meeting with Sangyu at the festival, I continued my journey. With no planned itinerary or bookings, I had been hitchhiking through Meghalaya and Nagaland for almost four weeks, often guided by locals and other travellers I met on the way, the notes in my journal long forgotten. The piece of paper with Sangyu’s details on it lay in the side-pocket of my camera bag, destined to be no more than a memento.
“God help me!”
My co-passenger’s cry was followed by the sound of her vomit splattering the outside of the sumo in which eight people, including me, were hurtling down a switchback towards Mokokchung town.
Three days had passed since a chance meeting with a stranger brought back a thought stuck in the pages of my travel journal.
We bounced with alarming frequency like characters in a slapstick sketch, bumping our heads on the roof of the vehicle and sprouting choicest expletives. It was no road we were driving on, it was the wretched tongue of the devil himself, deformed beyond reason. Close to six hours later, with sore backs and sullied mouths, we arrived in Mokokchung town.
After spending that night in the town in a seedy hotel, I set forth towards Longkhum village the next morning. Two days later, I would unfold that piece of paper in my bag, now severely crushed and wrinkled, and make a phone call.
Three hours of failed hitchhiking attempts and a cab ride later, I sat in the living room of Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Guru Sanyusang Pongen in Ungma village.
Bespectacled, bald patch on the back of his head no longer hidden by headgear made of wozume (hornbill feather) and wrinkles on face made deeper by his drab sartorial choice of formal khaki trousers and white shirt, Sangyu now appeared a lot older, a lot more like the seventy-five-year-old that he was.
“She was also there with me…when president give me award,” he gestured at his wife standing beside him.
She nodded her head in acknowledgement, smiling with great pride, conveying by manner what she could not communicate in English. They had been married for over fifty years. Their three children—two daughters and a son—were now raising their own families. The couple’s two-storey house was now home to just the two of them, kept still in pristine condition.
Utensils and containers sat in the kitchen racks in strict formation like soldiers in a parade. Not a single speck of dirt littered the polished wooden floor, not a single cobweb hung from the roof.
“Let’s go for a walk,” said Sangyu, carefully putting back all his prizes in the large plastic bag he had brought them in.
Thick, dark clouds of smoke rose from tar burning in drums next to the 60-foot metal pillar in the middle of the village that Sangyu would tell me “leads straight to heaven”. We started walking downhill on the road being paved.
“Ungma is very, very old village,” he spoke, hands tied behind the back as he walked, “our fathers come here first from Chungliyimti, then go from here and make other Ao villages…” He would pause to nod at his fellow villagers or stop to exchange pleasantries, which happened often for the man had been the village-chief for over thirty years. Every time he stopped, he would introduce me as his guest “from Pune who he met at the Hornbill Festival.”
Hundreds of houses, big and small, of wood and bamboo, with tin roofs turned orange from rust tumbled over each other, groping every inch of space – a telling story of the burgeoning population. Electrical wires ran helter-skelter everywhere, more than I had seen in any other village in Nagaland. This was not a coincidence.
Among the seventeen tribes of Nagaland, the Aos were the first to convert to Christianity and as a result gain access to Western education and modern thinking. It followed then that development reached Ao villages a lot faster than it did anywhere else in Nagaland.
“Saa-aa-ilent night, ho-oo-ly night, all is calm, all is bright…”
I stopped briefly to steal a look at the choir practicing inside a dingy room on our left. Two weeks short of Christmas, the entire village was imbued with festive spirit – floral wreaths decorated every door, potted plants sat wrapped in fairy lights.
“Are your children coming home for Christmas, Sangyu?”
“My son might come…might not…my daughters, I don’t think…”
I noticed for the first time, his usual cheer dampen for a brief moment.
As the sun started its downward march, we headed back. By the time we returned it was five. We walked through the ajar door of my host’s house and straight into the living room where a handsome fire crackled in the fireplace. My hostess, aunty as I had started calling her, sat in front of it on a low wooden stool, humming as she chopped onions while a carol played on the old, black radio on the kitchen counter next to the fireplace. The living room and the kitchen was one big space, the kitchen counter doubling up as a partition and a dining table.
“Hello! Walk over?”
“Yes, aunty. You should have come too, it was nice.”
She nodded in a manner I knew meant she did not understand me at all. I walked up to her and sat on the empty wooden stool next to her while Sangyu excused himself.
“Let me cut these,” I said taking the chopping board away from her.
She got up, rushed to the kitchen and came back with a huge pan full of water that she then set on the metal rack above the fire. Another rack, made of bamboo and coated in sticky, black residue from cooking sat high above our heads, suspended from the ceiling in a manner typical to a Naga house, pork curing on it. The song changed on the radio.
“Wa-AH-AH!” She burst out all of a sudden in ecstasy. I almost dropped the half-chopped onion, startled, making her laugh. It was in that moment of shared silliness that we no longer remained strangers.
That evening, she and I cooked dinner together to the tune of the radio – fried beef, potatoes sautéed with loads of onions and tomatoes, dal and rice straight from the local farms. While we chopped and peeled and stirred and sweat, Sangyu sat in front of the television set in the living room in a t-shirt and track pants, watching a football match. It was in this everyday humdrum, when they felt no obligation to entertain me as a guest, that I truly realized a sense of oneness with them.
Over the next two days, I would observe as they navigated though their everyday lives. While Sangyu attended meetings during the day, aunty cleaned and cooked and did all that one needs to do to run a house, all the while with a song on her lips. Their quite contentment halted only after the chores ended and they were spared a moment to look around their empty nest.
Perhaps our oneness was just the three of us, them and I, trying to find our old memories in strangers.
On my last evening in their house, we sat down in front of the fireplace after dinner.
“How did you two end up getting married?” I asked.
“I was always good at singing and dancing…not handsome but good dancer…” Sangyu stood up in one clean jump and did a little jig, the performer in him unabashed.
“…she could not say no when she see me dancing so good! You must remember, nothing matter if you are ugly, if you dance good, no one will see your face!”
We sat there for over three hours, constantly feeding the fire as we spoke about aunty’s love for Amitabh Bachchan and Sangyu’s younger days when he played as the goalkeeper in his school’s football team.
As I lay down in bed that night in my hosts’ oldest daughter’s room, one last time, cozy under a blanket, I looked back at my life on that one summer day in my father’s village of Lenkudipada in Odisha when I had lunch with my grandparents. They expired soon after, long before I could make acquaintance with the people that they were. I had always since wondered what life would be like if they were around and I had the chance to live with and know them. I guess I knew now, life would be exactly as it had been the last two days.
A version of this story first appeared in the May issue of Discover India’s North East Magazine earlier this year.
By Trishna Mohanty.