Winner of Write & Beyond contest
My life is a set of stories. Let me tell you one with a lake that forgot to reflect my face… and until then I thought no one could beat those people who invariably forgot my name.
‘What’s your name?’ Atsü asked me the day we were introduced at a press launch. ‘Forget my name,’ I told her, ‘it makes no difference to anyone to know it or not to know it. Call me Desi because when I am in India I am one and when I travel out of my country, people still think I’m one.’
‘Is it because you ask the air hostess for two beers when you fly out of the country?’ asked Atsü with a smile waiting to burst into a laugh. I smiled and nodded, ‘Could be. But to my mind, my name has too many complex parts and takes up more than three-quarters of the space on a line.’ I wanted to add that my name was almost like my girth that struggled in the E-class seat of even the most premium airline. Atsü, from then on has been my friend from Nagaland who was in Delhi and worked for a Delhi-based tabloid. And obviously, I’m Desi from Delhi.
Atsü loves stories because that is what she is always searching for. ‘I need a story,’ she screeches on the phone, ‘…now! Or my editor is going to kill me.’
Whenever she does this, I tell her, ‘What you look for is political inconsistencies and information on this unpalatable scramble for more that we see all around. These are not real stories. They are just headlines for a day.’
‘They are stories,’ she insists, ‘about the sort of wilderness we are in with seemingly impossible peaks of scams that man finally conquers. My editor loves these stories and I love to trek up to them.’
‘Let’s go to the real wilderness someday,’ I told her one day, and a week later she was at my door with the flight tickets bought and her rucksack on her shoulders.
‘Where are you off to?’ I asked.
‘Me?’ she laughed, ‘You’re coming with me. Get ready. I give you the luxury of one full hour to shave, brush, and bathe and then pack your bag. We’re going to my village.’
‘To your village on an airplane?’ I joked, but I knew she stayed an hour away from Kohima in Nagaland.
As we waited at Dimapur airport for our checked-in baggage to arrive, I tested my phone’s network.
‘Is the network there?’ Atsü asked.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and we took less than 5 hours to complete a journey that would have taken us nearly 35 hours by road.’
‘Ah! The pleasures of information that a 5.5 inch wonder spouts,’ she said.
I pulled out my jacket because as compared to the November warmth of Delhi, the weather here was near 13 degree Celsius and the chill factor tended to close in during evening though we were barely 1500 metres above sea level. In less than an hour we were comfortably seated inside a place called Rattle and Hum Lounge and were having something rather adventurous and spicy with lots of bamboo shoots, chicken, and pork. We avoided fermented beans or akhuni because Atsü had read somewhere that a stranger will love it only if he has tasted a few other Naga dishes first. So I had to be content with smoked pork stew and bamboo steamed fish… which were anyway delicious. Then there was also zu or rice beer in bamboo mugs!
‘Are you telling me that Nagaland is a dry state?’ I asked yet again. And yet again Atsü patiently said it is, but that rice beer is legal because it is brewed locally. We spent that night in some lodge with no view and turned in early because we were going to trek to her village and were starting early in the morning.
‘Trek?’ I protested, ‘why can’t we just hire a cab?’ I reasoned with her that going in a cab is much faster, but she insisted, ‘I know the way and I want to show you the lake too.’
‘I’ve seen a lot of lakes.’
‘Not a lake where every eligible Angami bachelor from my village goes and first converses with his reflection before asking a girl to marry,’ she replied. I noticed that she blushed as she said this. We had been dating for nearly a year now and the Punjabi in me had simply assumed that I would ask for her hand one day and she would agree. That night I knew what I would do the next morning.
Yes, we slept in the same room that night but my bed was pushed to one side and Atsü called it the Angami morung. ‘The bachelor’s quarters,’ I was told with a smile that had a strange mix of expectations, fun, and firmness.
Next morning saw her wearing a wrap-around skirt that made me remark, ‘Now you look like a real Naga girl.’ She smiled and said, ‘It’s a mechala…’ and we picked up our rucksacks and trooped out.
Walking out of Kohima was the nicest thing I must have done in ages because you really never notice the landscape so minutely when you’re zipping away in a car or a bus. When you’re not walking, you are not noticing but just passing by and maybe clicking a few pictures now and then. We walked past a lot of local girls and women wearing the mechala and the men wearing some kind of a shawl with red and yellow and sometimes green stripes. I was told it is a lohe and that the Angamis have a specific design and colour scheme that distinguishes them from men of other Naga tribes. I didn’t even realise when we had reached far from any kind of habitation that could be sighted… and that feeling of being alone surrounded by mountains and nothing but lush green, is unbeatably euphoric. This was when Atsü stopped and pointed to a peak that did not seem too far away, ‘That is Japfu’.
‘Japfu? Anything to do with the Japanese?’ I asked.
‘All I know is that the Japanese attempted to climb it many times but the stories say that they were never able to,’ she explained, ‘some say that the peak has mystical powers that protect it. But in my village…’ She paused and thought for a while and went on walking in silence. I was anyway fascinated by the mowed lawn look of the landscape, the rice cultivation terraces on the slopes, and the lazily moving clouds above. We’ve been meeting for many months now and silence has ceased to cause any panic as we know that discussions that aren’t interspersed by silence can become too tiring for the mind. I guess this is also a sign of love that had been brewing because only strangers are intolerant towards pauses. I remember having sat with her in a café sipping our favourite cappuccino with a double shot and not talking at all. I’m sure many of the others sitting there must have found this irregular… but love isn’t yapping all the time, you see. And so we walked on until she stopped again and said, ‘I was telling you about my village.’
‘Yes, you were.’
‘A few miles from here is Khonoma, a much bigger village than mine. But villages are clean here. All of them. We’ll go through Khonoma and walk on for another hour until we reach the lake…’ She stopped once more and I guessed there was so much to tell that the facts were probably fighting to be released first and caused some sort of a mental jam, so I laughed.
Atsü looked at me in surprise but before she could say anything, I said, ‘I was thinking that you have so many things to share, they must be causing quite a traffic jam in you.’ She smiled, took a step towards me and wrapping her hands around my shoulders, said, ‘You can read my mind.’
I looked into her eyes and said, ‘Let me guess what you have in your mind.’ I paused and then dramatically said, ‘Clouds!’
‘You’re dead right,’ she shouted… and then told me that people in her village, which was on the other side of the mountain lake down in the valley and a good two hours hike from Khonoma, had a strange belief that connected clouds and Japfu. ‘But we call this peak Tezhozhü,’ she even spelled it out for me before going on, ‘and believe that on a day clouds cover the peak and it is not visible, someone in the village dies’.
‘Does it really happen that way,’ I whispered.
‘Yes, it always happens that way.’
I said, ‘Thank God it’s a clear day today and the clouds are sparse,’ I said with a smile. All she murmured was what sounded like ‘Dear Rutzeh and dear Kenopfu, protect everyone in the village and please don’t let anyone die this week.’
I asked, ‘Why, if I may ask, are you asking the Gods to be generous during this week?’ She said nothing and just smiled. Smiles always say a lot and are never opaque about their intent. It is just that we thrust upon a smile just too many interpretations and make them seem absurdly mind-boggling.
‘My wild guess is that the two Gods that you just called out to, are responsible for life and death,’ I said suddenly, after walking for some distance, ‘tell me if I’m wrong’.
‘Well, let me tell you that pushing a cloud cover over that peak could easily be the work of some mischievous God and not the regular ones who are in charge of life and death.’ Atsü opened her eyes wide, swallowed more air than she normally did, and panted, ‘You do know how to make me nervous, don’t you?’
You see, life is hardly about saying the politically correct things… the spicy moments are in voicing every unexpected thing that comes in your thoughts and then waiting for something equally unexpected to follow. And it did follow… Atsü told me a rather intense story on the Angami beliefs. She said that there was a time when God and man were together on that mountain along with a tiger. But then a day came when they had to part ways and God was asked to leave this mountain. God was upset and didn’t want to go his way alone, so he asked man, ‘Will you eat tender green or ripe chillies?’ At this stage, Atsü broke into a song that went:
My wish is what I shall choose
My wish to choose will be my choice
And as the man opted to choose
God’s anger got a voice.
Atsü than told me that in this conversation, God decided that it would be his actions that would make man die.
‘Actions do make us die,’ I said, ‘I think I agree with this Angami story’.
‘Yes, but there is something strange about death coming every time clouds cover that peak,’ she said. She went on with the story and said that even man announced…
If man sees god before he sees him
God’s life would leave and not just dim
And this conversation is not a lie
Though your mind may ask: Why? Why?
‘Quite an interesting conversation you have in your ancient texts,’ I said. Atsü said it wasn’t the texts but oral tradition that had brought this story from one generation to another. By then we had reached a spur and could see homes on a slope not far. ‘That’s Khonoma. That’s where we’re headed to.’ Seeing me take out my small towel to wipe my face, Atsü said, ‘Let’s sit for a while and have something to eat now.’ I had forgotten that we had not eaten anything since we had started from Kohima… and the Angami snack collection with dried and salted pork tasted delicious. It was while we rested that she began the second part of her Japfu story and mentioned that in his anger, God made man change his eyes with a dog.
‘Dog?’ I whimpered, ‘you mean I have eyes that once belonged to dogs?’
Atsü laughed, ‘If you believe the story, then yes. But listen, this is why we are not able to see god anymore. And dogs probably see him. And dogs tell man all about him only if he listens to them’. This sounded funny but not really a lump of nonsense. ‘Sometimes my mind tells me that the stories in our traditions do have some kind of a believable base,’ I began, and then hurriedly said, ‘I think this trek is making my brain go upside down.’
Atsü smiled and said, ‘You’ll be surprised to hear the next part of this belief. God was smart enough to cut the dog’s tongue’.
‘Aha!’ is all that I could have the courage to say at this dastardly trick that God played, ‘No wonder we cannot hold conversations with an animal that says just woof and bow-wows to everything’.
‘And by the way, we have a similar conversational story between man and tiger,’ said Atsü. We had now resumed our walk towards Khonoma and Atsü told me that the conversation between man and tiger involved incest and that man made the tiger promise he would not kill him unless there was incest committed.
‘Rather smart,’ I said, ‘but it seems that tigers have forgotten this minor fact and need to be reminded. Remind me to write to Maneka Gandhi to communicate this to tigers, Atsü’.
And, as they say, stories are what make distance seem small… and soon we were walking through a village that was clean. Really clean. It was as we sat down in a village tea shop that Atsü said, ‘And now we are not far from a secret place. I have always called it makhrefii because girls are not allowed to go there.’
‘And you’re now going to break this rule.’
‘Well, even people not from our village are not allowed actually. But I am taking you there as I want you to know me and my people better. So I am just a guide and will not do what you will do.’
‘What will I DO there?’ I asked, ‘Shall we do what we haven’t done so far?’
‘No, I don’t mean that yet,’ she immediately said, ‘but you will touch the sleeping water and see your reflection and then…’
‘And then do what we haven’t done so far?’
‘No. And then say what you must say before you do what you must do,’ and then she laughed out loud.
‘Let’s go then,’ I said with a lot of enthusiasm and got up. It wasn’t more than an hour’s climb from Khonoma… but it was quite steep. And the first sight of this lake that Atsü had christened Dzüseva, was mesmerizing. A not very large water body that was high enough to be a peak but yet surrounded by mountains seemingly guarding it from probing eyes… the water seemed still and quite reflective. I could see the surrounding mountains reflected beautifully… and stopped to click them from where I was. We walked on, always a good 20 yards away from and along the shore until Atsü pointed out to a dangerously narrow goat trail literally plunging down, ‘We take this to go down to the valley and to my village’.
I looked at the short breeze-blown black hair and noticed that the strands were probably as excited as the narrow eyes that did not seem to betray any such thing. Only her hands were more expressive now and seemed to dwarf her five feet height that was a good four inches shorter than mine. She had walked on the undulating and at times rock-splattered path faster than me though her slim frame could never have explained that easy bounce of an expert mountain climber that she had. I was city-bred and was far less fit with a faint bulge which might expand into a paunch at a later date… though this hike had excited me and I had umpteen times said, ‘I think I look trimmer now!’
‘Well, it is time I told you something about our beliefs for Dzüseva,’ she said.
‘I know. I need to see my reflection like all the eligible Angami bachelors do before they do what they must do,’ I completed what she might have wanted to say.
Atsü smiled and then took out some kind of a Naga shawl and said, ‘You will need to wear this lohe and then see your reflection.’ I did that and… well, you know how excited bachelors can be when they know they are so close to sexciting… oops! exciting moments. Atsü sat on a rock, close to that plunging goat trail that we were to take once the reflection protocol was over. I stepped forward wearing a colourful Naga lohe, stood on a rock on the shore and looked down.
I saw nothing.
I peered hard and yet I saw nothing.
Just a dull light that seemed to make my eyes blink. But no reflection. I looked to my right and saw the majestic Japfu peak and a few clouds smiling. ‘Aren’t these clouds ominously close to that peak,’ I thought before I turned to Atsü and shouted, ‘I don’t see my reflection, Atsü.’
Atsü stood up and asked, ‘Can’t be possible.’
‘True. I don’t see my reflection.’
She was twenty yards to my left and yet I could see her tears reflecting the evening sun and even heard her cry, ‘Now you can’t say what I wanted to hear before you do what we wanted to do.’ And saying this she blindly rushed towards the goat trail.
As she rushed, my mind prodded, ‘The sun is tricking you. It was the sun reflected in her eyes… and is it the sun…’ And I ran a few feet to my left and looked up. Yes, there was a flimsy and translucent layer of clouds in front of the sun and this was probably what had temporarily got reflected in my eyes because of which nothing else was apparent. I went forward and looked down and saw myself and saw the confused mess that I looked right then.
I looked back and as I shouted ‘I saw my reflection, Atsü’ I saw her slip backwards. As I turned I involuntarily looked towards Japfu and saw a cloud cover on the peak… but there was no time to even pick up my rucksack. I ran and after a brief look at the direction she was hurtling down and jumped after her.
It was steep and the distance was enough to kill anyone falling… but surprisingly free of rock rubble and rather grassy. As I hurtled down I noticed that our distance was fast decreasing and this was probably because Atsü had heard me shout about my having finally seen my reflection and was trying break her speed even as I was making myself slide faster.
Yes, yes, this is not a tragic story… and she was able to stop herself almost as I reached her and caught her hand as I used my trekking shoes to give me enough traction to stop. We sat there and looked up to watch the clouds gently let go the Tezhozhü peak… well, the Japfu as people of Kohima say.
‘Quite an adventure,’ I said.
Atsü smiled and turned her ear towards me. I said, ‘Will you marry me? Shall we climb our mountains together and fall together and save each other? Shall we listen to both Angami and Punjabi stories together? Shall we…’ And this was when she lowered herself on me and whispered, ‘Kiss’.
This is one story that Atsü could never write about in her tabloid… nor I in my column. Yet the fact is that both of us search for new stories every day. Yes, we need stories every day.