The cold blanket of darkness began enveloping the mountains as I stepped into the relative comfort of the traditional Naga hut. He sat there with his wizened face, creased with experience, lit up by the flames of the crackling fire in the kitchen. He invited me to sit next to him on a low wooden stool even as his wife offered me hot tea. His grandson peered at me hiding behind his father’s trousers, inquisitively as Naga children did wherever I went. I looked at him and smiled, he smiled shyly and ran off outside.
I turned my attention back to the old man. “How old is he?” I asked of the ex-village chairman who had graciously accompanied me and offered to act as my interpreter. “Oh he is the oldest man in the village. Some say he is 70 years old. Yet others claim he is 90 years. Nobody knows”, he answered. I looked back at the old man and smiled. He smiled back at me, a flash of browned teeth. Encouraged, I ventured ahead-
“How was the forest in your childhood?”
He looked at me, then looked into the fire. He sighed, the deep long sigh of nostalgia. Staring into the fire, he began (interpreted later by my guide):
“Trinkle trinkle trinkle. I still hear the stream in my sleep. Every monsoon, the stream would flow besides our village, before disappearing into the forests below. As children, we loved splashing in the stream, chasing frogs, catching fish, rolling in the muddy water. Mother would be waiting for us at the door, rolling pin in hand. How we would run! She would come after us, shouting ‘Pigs! Rolling in the mud! Who will wash your clothes now!!!’ Sometimes, she caught up with us and gave us a sound thrashing. Other times, we got lucky as she got tired or had to hurry off back to the kitchen. My father would return from the jhum fields in the evening, dao slung across his back. Occasionally he would bring back a partridge or a pheasant caught in his traps. We would have a feast that night.
In my childhood I was always afraid of the forest. You barely had to walk a few hundred meters before the trees got together, the thick canopy blocking out all traces of sunshine. The forest was so dense that the stream we played in was rumored to have black water before entering the village. The trees had huge trunks and towered over us as we walked the path adjoining the forest. In the mornings, the trees were filled with cackling hornbills that feasted off the fruits.
The ex-Village Chairman tells me you are interested in hunting. Let me tell you about how we hunted in those days. Early morning, the men would set off into the forest, hunting dogs and all. Towards noon, the dogs would locate the animal. The men would circle and close in on the quarry, spears in hand, walking silently through the forest. Then came the strike…the animal would be rendered immobile by fright and confusion – as the spears pierced its body. The victorious hunters would return to the village, and the hunt would be shared by the community…Those were the times.”
The dancing flames lit up his eyes as he evoked a past long forgotten. I let him draw comfort from his reminiscences and silently took his leave.
The next morning, I gazed out into the rolling lands. The raw shimmering light lent a golden glow to the crowns of mountains. For miles together, I could only see tall grass. The grass that establishes itself through succession when trees are fed off to the timber industry. The trees in the distance looked young- none of them had the dark menacing character that the old man had described. The hornbill, Nagaland’s state bird, had not been sighted near the village since a few decades. Hornbills are known to prefer old growth forests; without the wizened trees, the birds disappeared as well. Guns have replaced spears and occasional selective hunting has been replaced by indiscriminate killing. Big game such as the Sambar deer were plentiful in those days- today, you would be extremely lucky to even sight one, let alone hunt it. Rodents, pheasants, smaller cats face the brunt of hunting, the hunter of the 21st century shoots any animal he encounters during his foray into the grass-dominated jungles. He also travels further, spending more time to catch what two generations ago, his grandfather managed with much less effort.
The same story was repeated to me by hunters across Nagaland. Of higher efforts and reduced yields. So often did I hear it, that I had to stop myself. And ask WHY? Why is it so difficult to find game? Is it guns? Commercialization? Exploding human populations? Jhum? Logging? What is tipping the balance? And how can we change the future? For wildlife? For a people whose lives are so intricately tied with the forest? And I think back to the old man’s shy grandson, already bereft of a culture, of an experience that he deserves.
P.S: Experience narrated by a friend Roko (with some imaginative edits of my own).