May’s column for First City magazine. Comments welcome!
Consuming Kohima (Part I): Tasting By Day
Like most people, my first impressions of Nagaland come from Dimapur, the most widely used border crossing for all visitors to Nagaland via Assam. If the way I put this makes it seem like I’m crossing an international border and not a state line, then that’s not too far off the mark. For, thanks to an archaic British policy that the Nagaland government keeps in place for baffling political reasons, ‘mainland’ Indians need an Inner-Line Permit (ILP) to visit Nagaland. And the process of acquiring such a permit is very similar to that of getting a visa for another country, albeit far cheaper – the price of the ILP is a princely Rs. 6.
Dimapur, with its dusty flatness, warm climate, bustling trade, and linguistic and ethnic diversity, gives off the strong first impression of a frontier town, a gateway to another land. Yet, it could well be one of the least representative gateways in the world; once out of Dimapur, the dust and flatness make room for fragrant air and undulating hills, the heat dissipates before cool and often biting winds, the bustling trade comes to rest in the somnolent little shops it services, and the ethnic diversity fades as ‘Indian’ faces become fewer and farther between.
The road from Dimapur to Kohima snakes through gently sloping hills covered with foliage so lush that it seems to have come from another time, an age gone by such as the one Michael Crichton re-created through amber-trapped insects. I lean my head out of the window to better take in the views but often have to duck back in as a leaf the size of my dining table comes rushing forward to decapitate me. Then again, perhaps the flora is doing so well because all the fauna has been eaten (but more on that shortly).
Like most towns and villages in Nagaland, Kohima, the capital, is situated on a hill top with panoramic views of the nearby country. In his novel Surface, Siddhartha Deb’s narrator waxes lyrical when he arrives in Kohima describing it, accurately, as “a hill town with pine-scented outskirts and tribal villages perched like bird’s nests on the surrounding mountains” possessing a twilight that “brings a strange peace to the clouds brilliantly coloured by the…setting sun.”
Nagaland’s reputation for having hip and beautiful people is well deserved. Kohima’s streets throng with youth wearing not just Western clothing but, in particular, the self-conscious costume of the American street – baggy pants and baseball caps for the boys, low-slung skin-tight jeans and spaghetti tops for the girls. Business establishments spanning the gamut from textile stores to bakeries to phone booths serenade you with Western music ranging all the way from Louis Armstrong to ABBA to Shaggy. Therefore, walking the streets of Kohima is not just good exercise (given the steep slopes of the city roads) but also an exercise in irony. For this highly modern and in-tune-with-the-times society was, no farther back than 150 years ago, also a society where headhunting was widespread. Where Naga tribesmen would make daring raids into the plains and return with the heads of their vanquished foes, making them one of the most feared peoples around, one that even the British never fully subjugated.
But the word is mightier than the sword; what force couldn’t conquer fell before a more potent power: religion. In the mid 1800s, American Baptist missionaries sneaking into China through the backdoor – since they’d been excommunicated from the front – realized that there were a heck of a lot of potential converts along their way. And so headhunting Nagas became God-fearing Nagas. Today, over 95% of the state is Christian, which needless to say is remarkable in India. Religion has become so integrated into everybody’s daily lives that one Naga social worker tells me, “The Baptist Church is in every village and every hamlet in Nagaland. If you want to do any development work here, the Church is the platform. Without the Church’s backing, it’s impossible to make any change happen”.
My social worker friend reveals this dogma to me while showing me around Kohima’s legendary market; a place where it seems the rule of thumb is that if it moves it can be eaten. Business is good today – in pig and chicken, but also in worms, water snakes, squirrels, an assortment of birds, grasshoppers…you get the idea. But there are so few animals left in Nagaland today that the government has banned the consumption of the more endangered species. To little effect, however, for dynamited fish are also selling briskly and, as we penetrate deeper into the market, seemingly innocuous tarpaulin sheets are lifted to reveal portions of rictus-frozen deer.
At a friend’s house for lunch, I am offered grasshoppers and oak worms along with the usual fare specially cooked for my Indian palate. Both these items have been lightly cooked in oil and hot water. They are chewy but taste fine, although I find them slightly bland (or perhaps this is my Indian spice-accustomed stomach yearning for a little more flavour). The oak worms are supposed to have great medicinal value, especially for arthritis, but loading an unfamiliarized stomach with too many of them can also cause debilitating knee pains. No pain, no gain, I suppose. But I am only allowed two of these white-brown-red squiggles.
It’s remarkable what we deem to be edible or not. My host loves the oak worms but turns up his nose when I ask if Nagas (like the Thai and other nearby cultures) eat cockroaches. His wife, who grew up in Shillong, won’t touch the worms; yet, she enjoys the Khasi dish jado, which she has grown up eating. And what is jado? Well, now that you ask, it is a delightful combination of rice and pig’s blood. Similarly, the French eat frog legs and snails, Australians eat kangaroo, and ruddy-complexioned Scots find the intestines of sheep irresistibly delicious. While most people in the world happily eat chicken, we’d find it awful to eat dog meat, which the Chinese quite enjoy. Is it me or is this all rather arbitrary?
My home-cooked meal in Kohima reminds me of a funny conversation I once had with a Nepali man who asked me why chickens were plentiful but tigers were nearly extinct. “Because everyone eats chicken and nobody eats tiger. It’s a paradox, isn’t it”, he continued, “but maybe the best way we can prevent tigers from becoming extinct is to start eating them.” Going by the state of Nagaland’s wildlife population, a concept that is now all but historic, such wonderfully counter-intuitive reasoning is probably not quite accurate.
Maybe it’s the worms, but as the day fades into a twilight as potent as the one Siddhartha Deb describes, I realize that Kohima has well and truly possessed me. Somehow it has burrowed into my skin like an oak worm into a tree, camouflaging itself neatly so that I, like the trees, don’t even notice.