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Khekiye K Sema

The Years In Service

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By EMN Updated: Aug 15, 2013 9:12 pm
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Continued from 9th August ……

Last week the writer in his story “The Years In Service” reached the Wakching outpost. Here, he learnt the inherent limited vocabularly of Naga dialects and why its crucial for people in public service to know important “words” and” figures of speech” used in the area.. Read on

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hough an Extra Assistant Commissioner, my immediate responsibility was solely related to village development matters. My jurisdiction as a Block Development Officer (BDO) covered three Administrative circles: Champang (now called Aboi) Chen and Naginimora. In 1975 VDB did not exist and the BDO was entirely responsible for Village development. I travelled like a tourist visiting and acquainting myself with as many villages as I could, verifying the ongoing projects and the implemented ones, as frequently as was affordable. It helped me to weave my way into the mentality of the area people, absorb the lay of the land and fathom the kind of development that would best complement the village needs and finally cobble the block development annual plan into perspective. Each day was an instructive introduction into the Konyaks’ way of saying, thinking and doing things. The rural Konyak elders very rarely say anything directly. Many a time they would hedge around in similes and leave you scratching your head wondering what they were actually trying to convey to you. Compounding the problems was their inherent inability to pronounce words starting with ‘R’ (unlike the Lothas) and ‘L’ correctly, interchanging the two when articulated. Once I asked an elderly man, “Baba kot jai ase?” His response was, “Eh, ini lasta lasta te belai ase”. See what I mean?
There was a devious incident of a Konyak villager trying to salvage a development scheme from the BDO’s office for himself in a most uncharacteristic manner. One evening after the office hours, a highly agitated Mr. Purba Ao, VLW (Senior) came to my residence holding a big rooster. He was accompanied by a middle aged original tattooed ‘missing link’ from Aboi area with pierced ear lobes. I patiently listened to the story related by Mr. Pur fuming with uncontaminated frustration. Apparently this ‘thing’, now smugly standing beside him, had visited Mr. Pur in the morning requesting him to intercede on his behalf for a development scheme from the BDO. With that request a hen had been presented to him. Mr. Pur had forewarned him that BDO was not likely to consider individual cases even if the subject was broached. He was however very persuasive and so Mr. Pur finally agreed to plead for him. Now Wakching was a place where nothing was available in the non-existent market. Mr. Pur therefore killed the chicken, had it for lunch and came to office. The matter of an individual scheme request was made and refused. When Mr. Pur reached home that evening his morning visitor was waiting for him. On being told the bad news he was extremely upset. After an awkward silence he turned around and asked Mr. Pur to return his hen. Mr. Pur was helplessly flabbergasted. He repeatedly told the villager that it was absolutely impossible for him to return the hen because it had been killed. Becoming aware that this thing was not about to leave without his hen, a rooster which was bigger than the hen given to him, was hurriedly purchased from the nearby Wakching village and offered in lieu. He still adamantly refused to accept anything else other than his original hen. No amount of explanation that his hen had been slaughtered, eaten and even excreted would pacify him. Mr.Pur was chimp eyed, cheerful, likable small statured man of about 4’.3” tall with an appearance of a man just about to spit. My imagination took a hilarious ride into the wild throwing up an image of a chimpanzee frantically trying to explain to the ‘missing link’ in Nagamese: “Tumar murgi tu marise, khaise aru paikhana bhi kurise ho!” but I maintained a poker face. The villager had intentionally placed Mr. Pur in an untenable situation expectantly hoping that the BDO would concede by giving him a development scheme as a solution to this predicament. See how they think? I picked up the rooster from Mr. Pur, handed it over to the villager and asked him to leave before I lost my temper. Without hesitation he took it with a smile showing all his black front teeth as if he was advertizing for a black toothpaste company and walked away nonchalantly. See how they act? In utter relief, Mr. Pur vehemently swore he would never accept a consumable gift from the Konyaks ever again even if it was given to him at gun point. As for that villager, he wanted to test the waters to see whether the BDO would buckle under the pressure that he had generated. He had not uttered a word in my presence but had achieved his intent without any personal loss despite the fact that he had degraded the customary practices of his tribe… annoyingly persistent in a weird comical way.
The rural Konyaks may not necessarily impress you as an intelligent being by appearance but their technical ingenuity can sometimes be remarkably astounding. I had arranged to visit a newly developed ‘pani kheti’ (permanent wet field). As we hiked towards the location, the villagers were confidently talking of having fish for lunch. Yet I saw no fish being carried. After reaching the field I was led to a fairly deep river gorge. What I saw was amazing. A very big trunk of a tree had been felled across a particular spot of a large perennial river creating a dam and a reservoir of about 15-20 feet in length. The tree trunk had been loped off at one end close to the bank from where the full force of the river current was flowing out. There were bamboo stilts raised to a certain height with a bamboo mat starting from the mouth of that current spout and gradually inclining upwards at the lower end of the river allowing the current to flow 50% of the distance through the matted flooring. What happened next was an absolute class act. One of the villagers casually went to the mouth of the river spout while the other two climbed on to the rampart. The man sat down on the open end of the spout and the current immediately disappeared from the rampart leaving two big fish thrashing about on the bamboo mat. The other two picked it up and the fish for lunch was in the bag. The simple yet intelligent application of trapping the fish, which was unable to swim back into the reservoir due to the force of the out flowing current and keeping the fish alive to be caught when they wanted it, was simply brilliant. I was thoroughly impressed. We headed back to the kheti hut and leaving behind those responsible for cooking, we inspected the irrigation canal and the developed area. The Konyaks were normally more into jhuming for paddy in small patches with serious partiality towards tapioca and yam. Permanent cultivation technique was less known or practiced at that time. This was a good beginning and I was happy that at least a couple of new acres had been added on my watch. Having completed the verification we headed back to the kheti hut. After a ‘fishy’ lunch I got an opportunity to watch yet another craftsmanship skill at work: preparation for opium smoking. Most of the Konyak men folks carry a Naga sling bag in which you would invariably find a knife, an aluminium container and a mug as constant items. With rapt attention I watched them slice pan leaves into thin strips; put the aluminium pot over the fire and dry fry the sliced pan leaves till it turned black. The opium dabbing on an absorbent strip of cloth was then scraped off with a knife and mix fried with the leave to increase the quantum of opium. Meanwhile I also observed another man working on the smoking pipe from an inch diameter of a freshly cut bamboo. After cutting off one end and leaving the bottom end of the bamboo with the notch intact, a hole was made 3 – 4 inches above it. Another smaller diameter bamboo 3”long was pushed into that hole that had been made. This would have the opium loading cup with a hole pierced through the notch. I watched them pour water into the main smoking pipe, load the opium and presto! They had a perfect filtering ‘hukka’ made on the spot. The Konyaks are fond of having black bitter tea brewed from tea stalks, (not tea leaves). They had already filled up a mug full and passed it to me with a lit opium pipe to smoke. They had shown me how to go about it and intently watched me pull the filtered opium smoke deep into my lungs, hold my breath for as long as I could, exhale and take a swig of black tea. I felt adventurous and went through the inhaling process three times for the very first time in my life. The amused villagers were clapping their hands in appreciation. Very soon a sublime drowsy feeling took over and after a while I had a nap where I sat without realizing that I did. Another way of putting it: I was literally knocked out. Later in the evening as we trudged home the villagers were having a great time sharing jokes and roaring with laughter. Somehow I couldn’t help the feeling that I was the butt end of their jokes.
Just about four months into my tenure at Wakching I spent a bizarre night in the twilight zone. Mr. Rai my Senior VLW had not reported for duty for the second day. Annoyed, I had sent the staff to look for him. They came back saying that his house was locked from the outside and he was nowhere to be found. Mr. Rai was sharing his residence with two other Naga boys working as Malaria field Inspectors. They had been out in the field for a couple of days and had returned that same evening and found the house all locked up. So they broke open the kitchen and found Mr. Rai hanging from the ceiling. He had committed suicide. On receiving this foul information, Dr. Sahu and I immediately went down to inspect. The body was already puffed up and decomposing with maggot infestation and therefore we surmised that the commission must have happened a couple of days ago. The nauseating stench was being accelerated by the half smoked rotting animal bile and innards hung up for smoking over the hearth which was also being invaded by maggots. We were unable to take down the body since the judicial inquest had to be carried out by the Magistrate, the EAC Naginimora. A wireless message was therefore urgently flashed through the Assam Rifle post in Wakching down to EAC Naginimora requesting him to come up immediately. The EAC however sent a flash back to let me know that it was too late for him to come up the same evening and that he would come at the earliest the next morning. As much as we felt pretty sad and bad about it we had no choice but to helplessly leave Mr. Rai hanging for another night. It was a night I will never forget.
Everyone had retired that night feeling rather uneasy with that nauseating smell of the decomposing body still lingering in the nostrils. The image of Mr. Rai hanging grotesquely in his kitchen persisted. At midnight a stupid Konyak stray cat came crying into my compound and started scratching the bamboo matted wall of my bedroom. I banged the wall and shooed it away. The cat jumped up on the roof, went towards my cousin brother and my PP’s side of the room wailing all the while in that most chilling eerie manner. When they banged whatever was near them the cat retreated and was again prowling outside my bedroom. Despite my effort to shoo it away it refused to budge this time and repeatedly scratched the wall crying all the while. In a time like this even simple things of no consequence begin to play creepy tricks on your mind. I remembered that the electrical line to Mr. Rai’s residence was directly drawn from my house. Somehow even this elevated the level of my discomfort. The tension was unbearably disconcerting. Listen to a cat’s cry at midnight alone and you will know exactly how I felt! My hair must have stretched two inches that night standing up the way it was. My heart was punching the chest so hard that I felt I would develop a lopsided chest, the left side outdoing the right. All that while my cousin brother and my personal peon had stayed put in their respective rooms. I silently cursed them for their lack of compassion…not coming to my aid. I bravely needed desperate help at that moment. In the calmest of voice that I could master momentarily, I called out to them in a slow controlled tone: “Tokivi… Giri… are the two of you deaf?! Go out and chase the stupid cat from the compound”. Only then did they have no further choice but to venture out and chase the cat away. The cowards! What unnerved me most was the deliberate way the cat had scratched the wall next to my bed. Even after silence was restored the creepy feeling as if someone was peeping through the holes of the bamboo walls persisted. Keeping the lights on was a problem and switching it off felt even worse. I finally decided to keep the lights on and read a whole novel that night not remembering a word of what I read. Hearing the cock crow that morning was the best sound I’ve ever heard in my entire life. By about 4.30am I decided I’d had enough and ventured into the kitchen. As I entered I overheard my cousin brother and the PP recounting the unusually terrifying event of the night. “Oh so you people got scared huh? It’s alright, if you were so scared last night, you can come and sleep in my room tonight” I told my cousin as I sat down for a cup of tea. Since no option was given, he did. The following night Mr. Braveheart hit the bed early to make up for the lost sleep of the previous night and slept like a contended baby.
The EAC Naginimora came up by 8.30am carried out the inquest with Dr.Sahu. Since the immediate family members of Mr. Rai were unable to make it to Wakching they allowed the body to be handed over to the Nepali community for cremation. I had to perform the necessary task of collecting the belongings of Mr. Rai to have it handed over to his family people at Dimapur. We arrived Dimapur late in the evening and stayed with my cousin brother K.L.Chishi. Mr.Rai’s box and bedding were left in the spare guest room. Another cousin brother Nihoto dropped in to stay with K.L.Chishi the same evening after I had already settled down in the guest room, thankfully. He was therefore given the spare room where Mr. Rai’s belongings had been kept. Now, Nihoto was not somebody who would scare easily. After we had all retired the dogs started running around the house barking like crazy. It was again around midnight. Nihoto was woken up by the commotion. He looked towards the door and vaguely saw someone sitting on the bedding that was on top of the box and even he felt his hair half stand. “Who is there?” he enquired without getting a response. That human shape disappeared. He prayed and went back to sleep. Next morning he found his door unlocked. He was definite he had locked it. He told K.L.Chishi in the morning that something was not quite right with the room he had slept in. Since I had other unavoidable dateline to meet, I requested brother K.L.Chishi to kindly have someone sent to hand over Mr.Rai’s belongings to his sister, who was working in Holy Cross School at that time, and left. It was later that I was told Chishi had forgotten to have Mr.Rai’s things sent off and had kept it for a couple of days more. The dogs kept up their antics at night until Chishi was reminded of the box and bedding. All things quieted down after it was dispatched. Strange as it was it did happen. As an afterthought, it also occurred to me that perhaps Late Mr. Rai must have been sitting with me all the way to Dimapur. Ugh! It did not inspire good feelings.
The Heads of Department i.e MO, SDO (PWD) and I spent a memorable day celebrating Aoling festival in Wakching village. They casually informed me that hygiene would be a stranger in Wakching Village. We therefore left Mr. Hygiene behind and resolved not to think beyond the rice beer and meat being served. We went from house to house drinking rice beer. Every kitchen we entered was dark, lit only by the fire in the hearth. We couldn’t clearly see what we were eating and drinking which suited us fine. The hosts would fill up the huge bamboo mugs with sticky rice beer, considered the best with salted plain boiled pork combination. After a couple of gulps our mugs were being refilled non-stop. With that much of an attentive liquid intake, we were doing an equally frequent relieving trip that would invariably take us to their bamboo balcony on stilts at the back of their houses. It was during one of this regular venture to the balcony that I made a startling discovery. Most of the families were rearing pigs in an enclosure directly below the balcony. It was quite obvious: the bigger the family members, the healthier the pigs. When this observation was shared with my colleagues they gave me a ‘we know’ smile and continued hogging the pork with their rice beer regardless. With a dreamy grin Dr Sahu reminded me saying “we left hygiene behind remember”? My adventurous palatal spirit had taken a serious dent. “Yeh yeh I remember but even in the absence of Mr. Hygiene I had not fathomed that I was actually eating the meat of a four legged shit!” I retorted. The novice felt immense relief that this discovery came only toward the very end of our escapade in the village.
I had no selfish intention of keeping this monumental discovery to myself. I ruthlessly shared this knowledge with all my guests over a pork lunch or dinner whenever the occasion arose. Vindictiveness at its best I know but why suffer all the unadulterated knowledge alone?

The writer is a retired IAS officer

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By EMN Updated: Aug 15, 2013 9:12:45 pm