My Years in Service
Khekiye K. Sema
The dividing boundary of the dispute was more or less clear in my head. All I needed to do was to plant the boundary pillars. It was however necessarily important to give them all the time to finish expressing themselves to avoid accusation of partiality. The sky was now decidedly darker with the night setting in fast. While in the process of my final judgement being pronounced many of the villagers were talking loudly amongst themselves without paying attention. My patience had worn thin by now. I snatched the double barrel gun being held by my DB close by and pumped off a shot. That got their attention.
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]imi had a very intriguing tradition that involved sacred rites being performed prior to the annual bat harvesting from the lime caves. I was told that the cave was the abode of a gigantic snake from the times of their ancestors and it was paid all due reverence and respect. The eldest from a priestly clan would perform the “gena” for hours before the actual harvest could be carried out. The mind boggling aspect was that the snake would actually leave the cave temporarily to allow the harvest and return after the deed was done. Their ancestors had seen it and they still see it happen in their times they said. Amazing! With the temporary departure of the snake, the villagers would completely seal off the mouth of the cave with tall tree branches and make smoke to suffocate the bats within. The villagers would then collect all the fallen bats and have it shared without leaving out a single householder in the village. That this ritual was an age old tradition was emphasised by another story that I heard about the priestly family. After the death of the eldest supervising priest the responsibility had been passed down to the eldest son. Now this son had converted to Christianity and he refused to continue with this tradition any longer. On the night of his pronouncement of discontinuance he had a very vivid dream which seemed more real than a dream. A person visited him in his dream and said, “ We have been together for so many generations and have shared all the blessings and good will. Why are you now forsaking us”? The son woke up with a very severe fever the next morning and suffered it for months almost to the point of death, losing all his hair in the process. It grew back of course. This son had become the DB from Mimi village and he confirmed this story. Sometimes the stories of our ancestors delving in the matters of the ethereal world are stranger than fiction.
From down at the riverside I had seen a sheer cliff high up towards the village with an erratic array of bamboos lining the side wall. I had not paid too much of attention to this at that time other than wonder what it was. I later discovered that this cliff was a permanent home of honey bees for generations hiving in all the nooks and crevices and the bamboo contraptions were the support system that the villagers had structured to climb down to harvest honey. Looking down the cliff was in itself a hair raising experience let alone negotiating the climb down for the collection. Evidently, over the years some had died during the honey collecting operations. For them however, such a possibility was always taken for granted and this amazing tradition still continue. What was equally amazing was the fact that the villagers had no modern protective equipments or dress to protect themselves from the sting of the bees which could be fatal at times if over stung. Imagine clinging on to a flimsy unstable support system, being stung by bees in hordes up at over 250 feet in the sky with a sheer unprotected free drop below. As for me, no honey would be worth that risk. For the villagers however, it was a source of income. Many of them even saw this as an adventurous sport totally unconcerned of heights. They must suffer from a loco syndrome is what I surmised.
Well, I still had work to do. By 7.00 am the next morning I was set for the track to Khongkha, the last bastion to Myanmar, as scheduled. The tracking roll call for Khongkha that morning showed a miserable response. Not a single officer volunteered. All were holding on to their aching backs and slowly flexing their tired muscles followed by innumerable excuses of joints disorder. Each of them wished me luck with big grins. The only option-less human being left to accompany me was Mr. Katiry my EAC, Pungro who had by now replaced Mr. Imkong. With the Army providing ROP the two of us with a few DBs headed for Khongkha. The terrain beyond Mimi was not as difficult as the one we had already traversed the day before. There were a lot of plain stretches. Despite the wears and tares the scenic beauty of the countryside was not lost to us. After a couple of hours of hard slog we reached a river from where we could see the village of Khongkha…a handful of houses with scattered granaries from where I was. Just imagine 27 families living in the wilderness halfway to nowhere. What discouraged me most was another steep climb that had to be negotiated to reach the village. I was dog tired. The thought of having a long track back to civilisation was needling my tired mind and body all the time. I sat down on a boulder by the riverside and didn’t have the stamina nor the will to get up again. Mr. Katiry along with the DBs were sent forward to do the honours to inform the villagers that I was by the riverside and wanted them all to come down and enjoy the ambiance with me. The whole population of around thirty Khongkha adult males and females came down with a prepared lunch. After a brief meeting with them followed by a lunch at the riverside we were ready to head back to Mimi. The Army Jawans also shared a hearty meal. My only regret was not being able to look beyond this village and see Myanmar on the other side. I have less recollection of how we reached the road head on our return walk from Mimi except the time when I had to take pulling support up the hills from some of the villagers who had accompanied us. In fact the whole entourage looked more like little mithuns being dragged for a celebration slaughter as we all laboriously climbed the hills holding on to a bamboo walking stick being pulled by a villager on the other end ahead. Most of the officers performed their official duties at home for a couple of days sipping chicken soup.
The one lesson all the officers learnt during this tour was their appreciation for giving prompt attention to the villagers when they come for help to their offices, having personally experienced the difficulties they undergo to reach us. I still had some problems within my own establishment though. Some of my critical support staffs who had to directly deal with the villagers had no inkling of this reality and were in the habit of asking the villagers to come the next day or pend their work until after they had leisurely had their tea or lunch. Once I had to attend to a 50 years old pending village boundary case between Yangphire and two other villages which had been presided over by no other personalities like Late Mr. Kevichusa and a host of renowned DBs after him. Their verdicts had still not been accepted and several deaths had occurred over the years. A summon was issued to all the three villages to reach the dispute venue minus their daos, spears and guns. Such a faceoff was a tricky business when an emotional outburst could lead to unpleasant confrontations. It was during this trip that I decided to take one of my staff known for his notoriety for putting off the villager’s work. In the early hours of the morning we drove up to Seyochung, then to the nearest village to the dispute site, and covered the rest of the difficult distance…walking for an hour through the jungle track. The long arduous task of listening and recording the statements of claimants began. A couple of hours had passed when we were interrupted by the arrival of my office staff, half walking half being dragged by a villager on each side. They sat him down at the fringe of the crowd. He was a human wreck. I carried on with my task in hand after this small distraction for another hour or so. I suddenly realized that my staff would slow me down on my return and so I asked some of the villagers to help him back to the road head. That was around 2.00 pm.
The sun was slowly working its way down the horizon and I was still not quite finished. We took a break to check the dispute area more closely on the ground. The smaller give and take situation was quietly assessed in my mind after hearing all the historical and subsidiary evidences which was now mostly being repeated. We were positioned at a commanding ground where the entire dispute area was visible. The dividing boundary of the dispute was more or less clear in my head. All I needed to do was to plant the boundary pillars. It was however necessarily important to give them all the time to finish expressing themselves to avoid accusation of partiality. The sky was now decidedly darker with the night setting in fast. While in the process of my final judgement being pronounced many of the villagers were talking loudly amongst themselves without paying attention. My patience had worn thin by now. I snatched the double barrel gun being held by my DB close by and pumped off a shot. That got their attention. All the disputing parties declared their acceptance of my judgement and signed the court’s record. With that over the stone boundary marker which was already predetermined in my mind were dug and planted in the dark. I looked down on the ground where I had sat the whole day and a carpet of white cigarette butts were visible even in the dark. I had smoked 10 packets of Wills Filter that tension filled day without realising it. My only satisfaction was that the boundary pillars that had been planted that night would now stand acknowledged by the contending parties. It still stands to this day…accepted. It was past 7.00 pm when we began our track back to the village and had dinner which tasted like sawdust. All sense of taste had vanished…and can you believe it? My staff was just about reaching the vehicle when I too reached it after having gone through the whole process of activities explained. This staff of mine did not attend office for almost a week in recuperation. On his first day in office after this I called for him. The moment he entered my room he spoke first. “Sir, I’ve learnt my lesson. I promise I will attend to the villagers’ work promptly from now on” he said and he did. In the process of teaching others a lesson I too had a change of habit. I stopped smoking…and picked up 120 pan eating, a habit which I probably will take to my grave. The Loyala School Catholic Father would have one less OPB (other people’s brand)to smoke. The next target amongst my ministerial staffs was a South Indian who handled the critical VDB files. When he was slated for my next walking tour to a village he came very early in the morning of the tour claiming he was down with high fever. What he told me was however amusing. He said, “Sir, I know exactly why you have picked me for this tour. Like my friend, I too promise I will promptly deal with the villagers cases. I will never ask them to come tomorrow”. His friend had given him the brutal details of what he had gone through, it seemed. “Is that a gentleman’s word of honour”? I inquired and dropped him from the tour on his affirmation. This pointed experiment had a desired impact in my office and there was a degree of promptness in our dealing with the rural folks both from the officers and the staffs.
The writer is a retired IAS Officer
Forest Colony, Kohima.