Consuming Kohima (Part 2): Chewing at Night

This month’s post for First City magazine. Comments welcome.

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Consuming Kohima (Part II): Chewing at Night

Author’s note: It’s been my explicit intention in these columns not to delve into the conflicts that plague Northeast India, since I believe it is time that other aspects of the Northeast receive attention. However, with this particular column, I am breaking my rule. And I do so only to illustrate not just how thorny these issues are, but also how some people are creatively trying to make things better. Since these are sensitive topics, I must disclaim that I do not endorse the views expressed here, but am only trying to present what I heard as accurately as possible.

You cannot escape the insurgency in Nagaland. Its shadow hangs over every town, shrouds every village, and eavesdrops every conversation between a Naga and an Indian that takes place in Nagaland. It’s beyond the scope of this column to analyse both sides of this complex conflict, but for those who came in late, two key facts about the conflict are that it revolves around a movement for Nagaland to be separate from India and that it is the oldest running separatism movement in the country. Furthermore, the Naga separatists have trained and financed every other separatist movement in Northeast India, which is why many people – inside and outside Nagaland – believe that solving the Nagaland problem could be the most effective way of bringing peace to all of the Northeast.

Not that any of this was on my mind when, at my friend Y’s house for dinner, he offered me a bite of the hottest chilli in the world. “Most people think the hottest chillis come from Mexico”, Y said, “but the hottest of them all grows here in Nagaland.”

He held out the chilli to me. It was orange in colour; a bright smooth orange that belied the reputation it had just received. “No thanks,” I shook my head. “I’m not into masochism.”

“Ok…well, at least smell it.” Y broke off a piece of the chilli and held it out again. I moved in to smell it but still had a good six inches to go when I found myself recoiling in horror. Even at that range, the aroma of the chilli had scorched my nostrils. Y laughed at my discomfort. “It’s hot stuff, no?”, he said and nonchalantly popped that broken-off piece of chilli into his mouth. I shuddered to think what it would be like to chew on it.

After dinner, while the women were watching TV (the soap Jassi, no less), Y took me into the kitchen and we sat down on little stools facing the heater. It was late November and hill-top Kohima was already bracingly cold. Y’s father, Q, soon joined us. Although Prohibition is the law in Nagaland, most people have a stash of alcohol in their houses, either country liquor or regular brands smuggled in from Assam. As we sipped our beers and warmed our hands and feet, the conversation moved inevitably to the conflict. And, with a couple of beers in him, Q’s tongue started to wag.

“No one will ever say it out loud”, he began, “but 90% of Nagas don’t want sovereignty from India. Do you know why?”

I shook my head. This was certainly not the impression I’d gained in my time so far in Nagaland.

“Because, unlike Assam, Nagaland doesn’t have the natural resources to sustain itself. We import everything! Let them put a trade blockade from Assam for one month and we’ll see how many people want sovereignty then!” he declared. “Also, if there is sovereignty, then there will be a civil war for control between the three different factions, and this will become a bloodbath. Successful people like us will become refugees. Within one week of sovereignty, some thug of a politician will take over my house, and my family will be refugees on the road to India or Burma.”

What’s the solution, then, I wondered.

“There has to be reconciliation with India; maybe with some limited autonomy but we have to be part of India.” Q became more impassioned. “We need a Red Revolution.” I thought at first that he meant a Communist revolution but he in fact meant it literally. “The Indian government must come down heavily on all three factions. Crush them, let the blood flow. As a Naga, I hate to say this but this is the only way. Only India can end this once and for all.”

I noticed that Y was keeping silent, simply nodding along with his father. Taking my cue from him, I refrained from questioning Q any more. Later, when Y drove me to my hotel, in between pointing out that all the best cars on the roads belonged to the highest ranking militants and expressing his concern that there would soon be violence between Nagas and the Marwari community, he begged to differ from his father.

“I think 90% of Nagas want sovereignty more than anything else in the world. But what my father is right about is that not many of them see the consequences of true sovereignty. My belief is that while total independence isn’t going to be feasible, Nagaland should have autonomy within India, with freedom of currency and foreign policy but not defence.”

Both Q and Y are well-educated successful Naga men. Y in particular is a history buff with an encyclopaedic knowledge of both Indian and Naga culture and history. But even to someone who sympathizes with the Naga grievances, Y’s solution is surprisingly naïve – all taking and no giving. No country would agree to such terms, let alone an India already battling separatism in Kashmir.

Having some time to kill the next day, I made my way over to a place that had been recommended by many young Nagas: The Dream Café. Sitting on a ridge with large bay windows that offer stunning panoramic views of the mountains surrounding Kohima, the Dream Café is a place designed for young Nagas to relax in a funky café atmosphere.

“There are no opportunities for youth in Nagaland to just spend time together”, Theja Meru, the founder of Dream Café tells me. “So many of the problems facing youth here, from drug addiction to AIDS to the problems caused by pre-marital sex like abortions and unwanted pregnancies are a result of youth not knowing what to do with their time. Also, whenever young people get together in public, the police get nervous. We started this café to provide a healthy space for youth to just hang out.”

The Dream Café is also becoming famous for its concerts. Meru and his band play there often and they keep the floor open for other musicians to parade their talents. But the café offers more than just a place to jam. “There are so many talented musicians in Nagaland”, says Meru. “Music is a major part of life in our villages, so we grow up with it in our blood. But sitting in Kohima, there are very few opportunities to develop these talents. Our musicians need to go to Bangalore or Delhi or Kolkata to get proper training but nobody can afford to do that. So what we offer here to aspiring musicians is that if they agree to work in the café for a certain time period, about a year or so, then we will sponsor their training outside Nagaland. This way, we provide employment for youth, which is badly needed in Kohima, but also give them the opportunity to work for their dreams. In the process they learn that nothing comes easy and if they are prepared to work a little bit, then they can make their dreams come true.”

With its stunning views, chic menu (at least in intent), art-plastered walls, bookshelves to browse through, and periodic concerts, the Dream Café is a lovely space for youth to let their hair down and their minds drift to what life can offer. It may also be one of the most positive ways of helping people think beyond the shadow of insurgency.

The day I was there, Meru had decided to fill one corner of the café with inspirational quotes and ideas related to the concept of following one’s dreams. On my way out to catch the shared-taxi that would take me back to Dimapur, he invited me to contribute to this section. Given the café’s emphasis on music, and the role it is trying to play in young people’s lives, I decided to quote Billy Joel: We all end in the oceans, we all start in the streams, and we’re all carried along, by the River of Dreams.

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