Layers after layers of hill ranges surrounded the village, their blue hues fading gradually into the sky with such artistry that the latter reduced to the lesser end of an ombré. Made of bamboo, every house bore on it telltale signs of makeshift repairs done over the years. Outside every house stood a rack made of wood; on it, rows and rows of potted plants. Some had fences threaded with vines birthing melons. Roses and marigolds and bougainvillea blessed the soil everywhere in abundance. The entire village was an artist’s palette platter in waiting.

I was sauntering around Longkhum since that morning like a cow amid green pastures, content absurdly with the vision that was the virgin Naga countryside. Until I saw a familiar sight.

A woman, face heavily wrinkled and back bent over, was smearing cow dung on the porch of her house. The sight immediately transported me to my father’s village of Lenkudipada in Odisha where I would, as a young girl, watch my late grandmother toil away in her mud house as she smothered the floor with cow dung.

I walked up to the woman like my eight-year-old self once used to, to my grandmother. Breathing deep that fertile scent of my childhood, I said the brightest “Hello” that my knotted stomach could muster.

She looked up, arms covered with brown slime up until her elbows and smiled indulgently. I could tell by the way the shrunken skin on her neck folded like drapes that she was in her seventies, at least.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

She turned her head in a peculiar manner, straining to hear me, confusion writ large on her face.

“Kya main apki madad kar sakti hoon, daadi?” (Can I help you, granny?)

She tried hard to read the words on my lips that her ears clearly failed to hear. After a few more attempts, I decided it was best to let the poor lady finish her work in peace. Waving my hand like a zealous child expecting a crisp note of ten as he bids farewell to his grandparents, I walked away.

“Hey! Hey, you!”

A much younger lady, now standing next to the woman, beckoned me over. “Come have tea with us, she wants to know your name!” she said.

I did not need a second invitation.

The daughter, the mother, the hundred-year-old grandmother and I settled down on the bamboo divan in the living-room. In front of us, a tea kettle sat hissing over the open fire.

It was a lot cooler inside. The house bore that familiar musky scent I have now come to associate with every Naga household. Through gaps in the bamboo walls, sunlight cheated its way in, sometimes just a sliver, sometimes a little loud.

Soon, tea joined the company of three generations of Ao women and me. The grandmother recollected vaguely the chain of events that led to losing her younger brother in the Battle of Kohima in 1944.

In March 1944, the Japanese Army found their way into India through the dense jungles of Burma (Myanmar). Named Operation U-go, their plan was to take Imphal and then Kohima. The Japanese wanted Kohima as it lay perched on the summit of a pass, offering the best route for the Japanese to move into India. Once they broke through the hills of Nagaland, they could reach Dimapur on the plains, subsequently enter Assam and move towards Delhi.

Although the British had a garrison in Kohima, it had never been central to their plans. British and Indian forces at Kohima numbered around 1,500, stationed along with about 1,000 non-combatants. The Japanese army numbered close to 15,000.

A bloody battle ensued, possibly one of the worst during the Second World War. Although the battle ended in victory for the British, the empire was never the same again; the end of British Raj in India was near. For Japan, the loss ended its imperialist ambitions.

“The stench of corpses lingered for many, many weeks…sometimes at night, till this day, I wake up to that smell…” The granddaughter translated her otzy’s (grandmother’s) words.

I don’t remember exactly for how long we sat together, but it was long enough for damp eyes to light up with laughter. And I knew then that it was time to leave.

The grandmother muttered in grave urgency something that I could not discern, in turn urging the granddaughter to look at me and issue a warning - “Don’t you go away till I return!” She then went running upstairs.

I could hear her above me as she ran around the room, opening and closing what I guessed were cabinets.

She returned soon, with a humble smoking pipe in her hands and said, “My great-grandmother made this with her own hands. It has been passed down in the family and used by three generations of women.” She put the pipe in my hands. “We want you to keep this, to remember us by.”

It was an astonishing gesture, to offer a family heirloom to a stranger. I tried to refuse but they did not let me leave until I accepted their generous gift. And now, a dusty, old smoking pipe sits next to my bed, reminding and reinforcing many, many things…

I have never been a mountain person. I have never been a beach person either. Eventually, one beautiful sight makes way for another. I am however a people person. In them I find my most honest intent to see this world. In them I uncover and discover the places that I visit. In their kitchens I find the scent of generations already spent. In their pain, I understand humanity. And in their warmth, I discover mine.

{A gravestone in the war cemetery in Kohima read - “You will be missed by the son who has never seen you.”}