NAGALAND? URI baba!
This is often the reaction whenever friends/kin catch me ‘roaming’ in Nagaland. You can’t blame them; encounters, fratricide, headhunting are stuff they invariably read about the frontier, Northeast Indian state.
Nagaland, trust me, is one of the nicest places on earth. Minus travel on terrible roads, never for a minute have I felt uncomfortable in that State.
“You think so? It’s because of the I-card you carry,” said a trader who frequents Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub. “As a reporter, you don’t have to pay taxes to militants or deal with people with fists itching to land on your face.”
Does that make Nagaland scarier than Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where I worked? Or Mumbai, where I spent a few days? Thugs and “mafia” use the same strategy in these two north Indian states, as do the bhais in Mumbai.
Sometimes you feel the region’s militants and the Mafiosi elsewhere in India are two sides of the same coin. Both relish targeting unarmed people, are commandeered by expatriates. The difference is in terminology – rebels here, underworld there; “revolutionary tax” here, goonda tax or hafta there.
Before this reads like a plant by the police or armed forces, let’s come to the point: Nagaland is as safe or as dangerous as anyplace else. Though in a state of flux – a prolonged ceasefire is heading nowhere – it has a higher degree of warmth.
Nagaland taught me to smile at strangers, and to be less of a hypocrite (my plains pride still plays spoilsport). It also showed me how to enjoy the simple things of life. Such as handing out salt for a semi-wild mithun to lick, plucking snails out of soggy paddy fields, tailing a tagged bee to its hive for honey-harvesting.
Problem is, the world beyond tends to be condescending on Nagaland, talk to the Nagas with an I-am-on-a-higher-pedestal attitude and be dismissive of their points of view. And yes, turn up their noses at what they eat.
Nagas, like most ethnic groups in the Northeast, swear by the swine. A meal without pork – fresh from the slaughterhouse or smoked/dried – is less satiating. The H1N1 outbreak has forced many to opt for chicken and other meats, but nothing quite compares.
Traditionally, pigs have meant more to the Nagas than just food. I discovered this while researching for Where Warriors Waltz, my coffee table book on the festivals of Nagaland. Slicing the swine to clinical precision and apportioning the right body parts to the right people was desired of prospective grooms. Goofing up could lead to diplomatic disasters.
Meat – pork, beef or mithun – has also been a mediator for resolving conflicts in Nagaland. To bury the hatchet, a warring tribesman would invite his antagonist and offer him the best pieces of meat along with the best cooked rice and the best brewed beer. The message would be driven home, wordlessly.
Nagaland’s political crisis can perhaps do with some meat diplomacy. Eating across the table is way better than talking, talking and more talking.