Gun For Cyclops

Story: Shahwar Hussain
Photographs: Anuj Singh

The feeling that you have just been turned into a human Guinea Pig sure is not a nice one. While riding through some dirt tracks in the village of N.Longithang, in Wokha, Nagaland, I had a fall that left me with a slightly bruised right arm. Upon reaching the village, I took off my jacket to clean the bruise and a really concerned village elder advised me to get a Tetanus Toxide injection. Good idea, I thought, but where in this remote village can I get a doctor? And he took me to a young chap who promptly gave me a shot with a disposal syringe. Impressed with his deft handling, I asked whether he was a medical student. “Oh! I am not a doctor or anything like that. I am a farmer and this is just my hobby.” Hobby?!! That means that he was practicing or even worse, experimenting on me! The damage was done and there was absolutely nothing that I could do but curse my luck.

Well, the injection didn’t turn me into some green gremlin that I had feared and we continued with our tour. My photographer friend Anuj Singh and I were riding through Nagaland as part of our North East India tour and what an amazing and educational trip it was A very large portion of the North East is rural and does not have proper roads but it is in these remote places that one comes across the most amazing visuals, meet the most interesting people and experience colourful and unique culture and tradition… experiences that the innumerable books on your shelves can never replicate.

Motorcycling is the best way to see the remote places in the North East, the risks not withstanding. The rider is one with nature. Wind (and dust) in the face, trees overhead, the road rushing beneath the legs, bugs under the collar and getting soaked to the bone are all the tangible joys of motorcycling. In a car you are boxed in and see only what the window allows you to see. In a motorcycle, the rider has a 180-degree view (or is it 360-degrees?).

After riding through the district of Mon, we made our way to Dimapur, the commercial capital of Nagaland. Dimapur, which has the only railhead of the state, does not hold much that would interest a rider other than the Hong Kong market and so we decided to push on to Kohima, the state capital that is 75 kms away. On the outskirts of Dimapur, the Nagaland Police flagged us down for a mandatory permit check. Ah! Now I knew what was bothering me all the way. I had left the Inner Line Permits in the hotel. Anuj and I wore our best smiles and tried looking as innocent and harmless as we possibly could. I guess we must have impressed the officer and he was satisfied with our driving license and the Press cards (they do come in handy). Couple of teas and a few smokes later we hit the hilly stretch for Kohima.

There has been a vast improvement in the roads and although it is still narrow and unpaved at stretches, it is simply a fabulous ride. Halfway to Kohima, we stopped at a place called Medziphema where the small eateries cater to the Dimapur-Kohima traffic. Since most of the places were taken, we decided to eat at a small joint run by a Manipuri lady. The hut was built on stilts and the windows at the rear opened up to a deep valley and amazing greenery. It was a peaceful feeling but the peace was rudely shattered as soon as I put a tiny bit of chutney in my mouth. It was excruciatingly hot. If ever I smoked through the ears, this was it.

Kohima is the fashion capital of the state or even of the entire NE. It is amazing how the youth juxtaposes the modern with the traditional. Girls invariably recreate the same fashion that one gets to see in Cosmopolitan or other fashion magazines but only at a fraction of the cost. And most of them carry those beautifully woven traditional shawls.

Nagaland is a dry state and the black marketers make an absolute killing. We were traveling on a shoestring budget and couldn’t afford those atrociously priced bottles of Rum or beer but Anuj succumbed to the Goddess of Temptation and bought one bottle (after that we ‘reluctantly’ let our friends ‘treat’ us). But for the rest of the journey, we made do with the local rice beer. Drinking the steaming rice beers in large bamboo mugs was a much better option. Excellent stuff too.

The Kohima market is an amazing place to be and you have to rather adventurous to try out some of the dishes in the nearby restaurants. There were exotic birds, squirrels, pheasants, barking deer, dogs, crabs, unusual fishes, toads and many other animals for sale. Most things that moves are perfectly edible and maybe that’s why Nagas have such fine athletic built.  I am an animal lover to an extent but when somebody gave a few pieces of a barking deer meat, I promptly ate them. Rather delicious I should say …and so were the roasted frogs and dog meat.

The Kohima War Cemetery, with it manicured lawns and perfectly aligned graves set among tall pine trees, has an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquil. Soldiers as young as 17 years had fallen in this battle, where the 2nd Division of the Queen’s Army finally halted the Japanese advance. A little distance from the cemetery lies a M3 Lee Grant medium battle tank, exactly where it was abandoned on the 4th of May, 1944.

Next day, we set off for Khonoma that is at a distance of 20 kms from Kohima. I would say most of it is an offroad trail and our Hero Honda Karizmas, with their modified suspensions and semi knobby tyres performed exceptionally well in spite of the heavy luggage that we carried. Khonoma is a legendary village; famed for its fight against the British troops whose advances the villagers repulsed a number of times. There are a few ‘Forts’ in vantage positions from where the villagers fought the British troops. These forts look rather flimsy and easily accessible today but all those years back, with thick jungles all-round, it must have been quite tough to breach them.  There is an amazing 7-foot tall muzzle-loading gun, made in the 1850s that was used against the invading British troops…and it still is in perfect firing order! It has a huge muzzle and I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes in a kilo of gunpowder for a single shot!  It was far too heavy and long for me to even aim it anywhere…forget about firing it. I am sure it packs one hell of a recoil. It is a gun fit for Cyclops!

The Angami Naga students’ body has done an excellent job of protecting the environment. Nobody in the village is allowed to cut a tree and sell it to a dealer even when he owns the tree. The owner can only use it as firewood. In fact, it has been declared as a Green Village by the environment agency of the UN. The cobblestone path, green rooftops, terraced fields and the lush greenery makes it a lovely holiday destination - minus the 5-Star trappings of course.  A trek of two and half-hours from the village took us to the famed Dzkhou Valley. It is a rather tiring trek but as we topped the ridge, the valley suddenly appeared and the sight of the green carpet like valley with wild rhododendrons of different colours was simply awesome. In fact, I would run short of adjectives if I start describing it. Stay in the caves or in the tents and it is an experience alright. Oh yes, when you visit Khonoma, do ensure that you are well stocked with cigarettes because you won’t find any in the village. We had to employ extreme austerity measures to make eight cigarettes last two days between the two of us. Will power!!

Couple of days later, we rode off to the district of Wokha, headquarter of the Lotha Nagas and as usual, the distance of 85 kms from Kohima took more time than it logically should and the reason was not the hilly serpentine roads. We could not help but stop and admire nature’s grand display of splendor as the whole valley was awash with the majestic golden rays of the evening sun. Realising that we were getting late we mounted and no sooner we did that, a Jeep with a couple of smart young men in it, flagged us down. They were very friendly and polite but they asked all sort of questions and we realized they belonged to one of the underground organizations. They figured out we were rather harmless and invited us to a roadside house for some tea and we duly followed. One of the men was carrying a well-used AK 47 and he was kind enough to show me how it works. I would have to loved to fire it but…

The moon was high by the time we took leave and it is extremely foolish to ride in the hills after sunset. In the Northeast, life comes to a complete halt after sundown and in case of a mishap or a breakdown, you won’t find a soul for miles on end.

As if to prove the theory right, Anuj had a puncture in the rear tyre (he almost spelcialises on it!). Since we carried a complete puncture kit we got the bike up and running in about 45 minutes. As we rolled a smoke, we realized that not a single vehicle crossed us all this time and the only living thing we had for company were the crickets and the sporadic call of jackals far away. 

Wokha has precious few hotels and so we stayed in the village of Longsa. Village stays are always better and for us motorcyclists, who always seem to travel on shoestring budget, it is the best possible option. It is cheap, good and interesting too. In Longsa, there were two elderly gentlemen who fought on opposite sides during the WW II. One had the war medals earned with the INA and the other man had medals awarded by the British army. And they had amazing tales to tell.

In the winters, there is severe water shortage in most places in Nagaland and we had to trek three kms downhill to get water from a stream. It is backbreaking work and after the first day, we switched on our dry cleaning mode. Winters meant we didn’t need to bath regularly. We sure smelled awful but there were no ladies on the rear seat, so no worry.

Nagas are very good marksmen and hunting runs in their blood. We accompanied some villagers on a hunting expedition but excessive hunting has taken its toll and even though we spent two days in the jungle, we had only one wild bore and a few small animals to show. The people have now realized the fact that the animals are fast disappearing and have now imposed some sort of hunting restrictions. But it will be a very long time before the animals return…if ever.

About 29 kms out of Wokha Town on the way to Mokokchung, there is a hydro electricity project run by NEEPCO. There is an old weather-beaten milestone 4 kms out of town that points the way to the project site. The road that branches off the highway had at some point of time been a black topped one but not anymore. Now it is all stone and slush whenever there is rain. And everyday, the overloaded local buses, trucks of the NEEPCO and the security forces are grinding it right back to dust.  29 Kms might seem like a small distance but the going was slow and quite tiresome. We came upon a small clearing about 5 kms from the NEEPCO complex where there were two small huts that sold tea, eatables and fruits. As we entered the first hut, a wonderful sight greeted us. Bang in the middle of the room, inside an empty corrugated box of Pepsi, sat a chubby little girl and keeping her company was a black Drongo bird! When the mother returned a few minutes later, I asked her who would take care of the baby if she cried. “Oh! Some passerby can take care of her for sometime” Simple as that! On our way back, we stopped at Sanchobeni’s (the mother) place again for tea. The little girl was still inside the box but the Drongo was gone. Eaten, I presumed.

NEEPCO has built a dam across the Doyang River that has resulted in a huge water reservoir. As we neared the dam, Anuj rode up to me and hollered “did you hear someone whistle at us?” “Must be the wind inside the helmet”, I hollered back. But as it turned out, it was the security personals. They caught up with us after sometime and after a very, very lengthy and intense interrogation at the police outpost, we were allowed to proceed but only after a known police officer from Wokha Town vouched for us. Dams are always sensitive areas and we were lucky not to have been shot for not reporting at the check post.  

 We pitched our two-men tent on the bank of the reservoir and loaded our bikes on to the ferry to go to the villages on the other side. After a bit of riding through the villages, we returned to the tent and helped Andrew, our boatman, catch some fish. Many people practice dynamite fishing and although the catch is rewarding, they have to pay a high price. Dynamites destroy the breeding and feeding places and over time many stretches of the Doyang river have become devoid of fishes or the numbers have dwindled drastically.

At night, the moon shone in all its glory. The ripples on the water shone like diamonds and a small dugout tied at the bank bobbed in the waves and made a rhythmic sound. Sleep was the farthest thing on our minds as we sat by the small fire, roasted the trout, smoked and drank black tea in bamboo mugs by the dozen as Joe Satrini’s guitar work drifted in intermittently from somewhere afar.

It was a peaceful easy feeling and I didn’t want it to end but we had deadlines to meet and a train to catch to Delhi. Back to the polluted, loud, cut throat world of the big cities. 

When you travel in North East India, you better carry cash or at the most, some Traveler’s Cheques. Credit cards are just pieces of four inch coloured plastics.

Visit these places before ‘civilisation’ pollutes them. You wouldn’t want to see a McDonald outlet in the middle of the jungle, would you?