THE VILLAGE OF KHONOMA, NOW BETTER KNOWN FOR ITS contribution to environmental preservation and as the home of the tragopan, is nonetheless deeply rooted in Nagaland’s turbulent political history. Khonoma was the village that was strong enough to stand out against the colonial rule, rallying the other villages around it. Despite being attacked and burnt down, the village held its ground indomitably and was the home of several key leaders in the Naga struggle for nationalism.
Khonoma is also the home of the author of this book, Visier Meyasetsu Sanyu, who belongs to the Angami Naga tribe. Visier tells a story that will resonate with many in these days of migrant populations fleeing political turmoil. His story is part autobiography and part history of the Nagaland tribes. He and his parents were forced to leave their home and find shelter in the jungles during the Indian army crackdown on Naga nationalism, coincidentally at a time when the leaders of the Naga movement were all in favour of peace.
Visier was only five at the time. He and his family spent two years in the jungles living off the land which meant surviving on fruits, monkey and bird flesh and occasionally stealing vegetables from the outskirts of villages. What Visier notes is the fact that being on the run and fighting starvation loosened their hold on traditional Naga ways and gave rise to a new perspective of the world. His brother’s cry of “We are not stealing, we are surviving” is a case in point. The entire grimness of that time is not described, but internecine warfare among the villages, fratricide and betrayal were common. Visier only comments that in some ways he found the British rule preferable to the Indian government’s iron fist and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act with its organised encounters. It is telling that Visier refers to himself as a Naga and not as an Indian.
Visier and his family later moved to Australia after he received an education in Bhubaneswar and Shillong and a PhD degree from the Northern Hill University. His education was disrupted by periodic violence and attacks on Naga students, typical of India’s turbulent relationship with its North East, and when he was appointed to set up the archaeological department at the newly established Nagaland University, that, too was cut short by violence.
However, in 2015, he returned to Nagaland where he created a Healing Garden near Khonoma spread over twelve acres. This was the result of a few events that caused a shift in his views: an international music revue about real life stories of forgiveness, joining a touring company, Song of Asia, which, too, preached forgiveness, and global encounters with different types of indigenous cultures.
What Visier reveals in the book is the importance of rootedness and the preservation of tradition. Losing one’s language and culture, he writes, is like losing one’s soul. Nagaland was overrun by Baptist missionaries during the Second World War and many Nagas embraced Christianity. However, the missionaries sought to dispel all pre-Christian beliefs, teaching their converts that those practices were wrong. Visier sees no harm in merging Christianity and Naga tradition where required: For example, he finds the Angami Naga observance of the kekinyi or feast of peace between villages fitting harmoniously into Christian teachings and suggests that it be incorporated into Naga Christianity.
Drawing on his days in refuge, he points out that this kind of melting of traditions can only enrich the Naga experience. It is Visier’s theory that the refusal to do so is the reason behind the current identity crisis that Nagaland faces. He is also honest about the impact that his decision to return to Nagaland after two decades in Australia had on his Mizo wife and three children. The search for home, he writes, is part of the ‘global migration story.’
EAVESDROPPING ON TIBET
PARIMAL BHATTACHARYA’S INSPIRATION REMAINS THE PATHS OF Darjeeling and the poetic gloom that lingers, enhanced by the spectres that loom on hilltops. He interweaves these images with the stories of two men who lived in Darjeeling and dedicated their lives to exploring Tibet and who were rewarded for their efforts with near death experiences, and ultimately, anonymity. The tailor-turned-spy, Kinthup, and the scholar of Tibetan culture, Sarat Chandra Das, were relegated to the archives of the Empire after years of gathering information on Tibet. George Bogle, the first ambassador to Tibet in Warren Hastings’s time also died of fever, though he spent less time in Darjeeling than the others, and his trip to Tibet, unlike that of the others, was not a forbidden one.
By the time Kinthup and Sarat Chandra Das went exploring, Tibet was a zealously guarded country where outsiders were executed along with those who helped them. Bhattacharya takes the reader through the different stories with their undercurrents of heartbreak—Kinthup, for example, was enslaved and returned after four years, to find his wife and baby daughter dead, along with the senior official who had sent him into Tibet. His pathbreaking exploration of the origins of the Brahmaputra was not recognised till much later.
Bhattacharya evokes Kipling and Kim’s Great Game when he talks about Simla and Scandal Point, another hill station capital and a hotbed of intrigue. The political network would drag long forgotten spies who had returned from Tibet to the Burra Latt’s offices in Simla for interrogation. Bells of Shangri-La attempts to find those still alive who may have had links with Kinthup or Das—Das’s relatives still live in Kolkata—and Bogle’s grave is to be found in South Park Street Cemetery.
The narrative of Bells of Shangri La twists and turns like the paths of Darjeeling with undercurrents of regret and violence returning again and again to the stories of Kinthup and Sarat Chandra—in Sarat Chandra’s case it has taken the form of a precis of the Pundit’s own book of his journeys. Interwoven are Bhattacharya’s own journeys in the region and his encounters with people who have lived and worked in the hills. Sikkim and Darjeeling being side by side, Bhattacharya also gives useful insights into the nature of home stays in Sikkim that he feels are fast destroying traditional ways of life.
Bhattacharya’s poetry comes to the forefront in his descriptions of nature, though those who have read his earlier book will notice overlaps, possibly for the benefit of the rest who are not familiar with No Path in Darjeeling is Straight. There is also an odd editorial glitch like the frequent use of the word ‘washings’ that crops up like pebbles in a rippling stream.
Tibet and the hills are no lost horizon waiting to be rejuvenated by visitors. In fact, the meadows strewn with blue poppies are also strewn with the corpses of those who died in the Indo-China war. The hills and those who love them inevitably seem to face tragedy of one kind or the other—whether this is due to the rolling clouds and the damp or some other karma is unclear. Today, hints Bhattacharya, the bells of Shangri-La symbolized in tinny yak bells are no longer what they used to be.
DARJEELING, WHO DO YOU BELONG TO?
DARJEELING IS CURRENTLY TRENDING IN THE MEDIA. FIFTY-TWO DAYS of bandhs, arson, demands for Gorkhaland—the longest in its turbulent history since the 1970s. In the past, the hill town has compared itself to Bangladesh and to that country’s struggle to preserve its language in the face of the Pakistani domination.
Who does Darjeeling belong to? Parimal Bhattacharya asks as he explores the different Darjeelings that he knows. For him, the descendant of a Bengali civil servant who worked in Darjeeling, the first of the hill towns is the one that his grandfather knew and loved, created to assuage the pangs of British homesickness with its Wordsworthian memories.
Bhattacharya begins with a place cut off from the plains during the monsoons, veiled in sheets of rain with no sunlight, where people have been driven to suicide at different points in time. A lonely academic up in the hills with a teaching job, he finds his own Darjeeling, a town that manages to be fascinating because of its mélange of people: Lepchas, Marwaris, Nepali migrants, and the ruling Bengalis, a town united over time by the Nepali language, the seed of the current unrest in the hills.
Through the mists, the paths twist and turn, rather, he says, like the history of Darjeeling. There is no clear timeline to its history, though there is some truth to the fact that it was established by the British who ignored the hill people that they found there, much in the same way that the state government has done. Workers were brought up from the plains because the myth of the simple-minded mountain folk persisted. At one point, people managed to co-exist but now a younger generation, uncertain of its own identity, has sprung up demanding recognition. People no longer want to lead the marginalised lives of their parents in mountain villages.
Bhattacharya sets this swerving passage of history against his own gradual settling down in Darjeeling. He writes a narrative filled with poetry, references to medieval writings and incidents like hunting for an extinct variety of salamander with his friend from the university. There are fragments of repetition, permissible because of the lyricism, but in the end the book centres on the single question: Who does Darjeeling belong to? Bhattacharya has good wishes but no answers.
Anjana Basu is the author of six novels. She has had a book of short stories published by Orient Longman; the BBC has broadcast one of her short stories, and her poems have featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. She has appeared in The Antigonish Review. The Edinburgh Review and The Saltzburg Review have also featured her work. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses in Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007.