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An odyssey of life & time

BOOK REVIEW

Nagas were head hunters. They are animalists. It is their soil that begets uncompromising insurgents who refuse to be part of the ‘country’. All these are facts and when put together give a monochromatic and myopic view of a little-known section of people. But when put in context, each fact broadens in perspective giving a deeper meaning to age-old tribal life and adding facets to a one-sided story.
Visier Meyasetsu Sanyu’s narration of his journey from the jungles of Naga Hills to around the world not only speaks of an individual’s transformation but also timelines the political and cultural upheavals of the state and its tribes over five decades.
A Naga Odyssey: My Long Way Home is a personal story and yet it has a tremendous political undercurrent. The epicentre of the narration is Khonoma, the place that gave the state its two great leaders — Angami Zapu Phizo, the president of Naga National Council who died in exile in London in 1990, and Theyiechuthie Sakhrie, the general secretary of the same group who was killed in 1956 by his own men.
Sanyu’s journey in the book starts with Sekrenyi, a 10-day festival of war, in 1956 when the five-year-old author was readying himself to enter manhood and the men’s long house, the morung. Soon after this, Sanyu and his family, who belonged to the Meyasetsu clan of the Angami tribe, were forced to go into the forests as the Indian Army attacked and razed his village.


“The year 1956 was a dark one for the Naga,” writes Sanyu. Violence spread in Khonoma and the rest of Nagaland as the Indian government flexed its muscles and sent its army to butcher innocent villagers, including children, in the pretext of hunting down Naga armed force members who attacked the Indian garrison in Kohima in the same year. The situation flared up as fissures appeared among the Naga groups.
Sanyu gives a vivid description of the plexus of political relations between Nagaland and the Indian government on one hand and the plight of poor villagers running away from tradition to take refuge in the jungle on the other.
The two years which Sanyu spent in the forests with his parents, siblings and fellow villagers in exile were fraught with danger and hardships. During this time, the tribesmen and women witnessed several transformations from their traditional ways, one being embracing Christianity by a large section of Naga.
“… it changed all our lives. Before we went to the jungle, tradition as I explained meant boys were educated in schools but girls were not… Traditions were altered and taboos were broken out of desperation,” says the author.
Sanyu writes how those in exile had to scourge for food and how life was threatened by starvation and diseases, besides wild animals.
Life after exile was harder as the embers of hatred still burnt. But Sanyu, egged on by his elder brother Dozo, found recluse in education in Kohima where he stayed with his eldest sister and other siblings cramped in a room.


As Sanyu traversed the boundaries of Nagaland and came to the mainland after his admission in Sainik School in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, he describes his tryst with big cities like erstwhile Calcutta and how enamoured and intimidated he was at the same time by the vastness and population. It was a painful separation from family but it was also the beginning of a journey that would take Sanyu around the world. During his stay in Odisha, Sanyu learnt about the malice of the mainland, the caste system. A racial discordant at the school brought Sanyu back to his land and later to Shillong.
In Shillong, Sanyu’s encounter with the members of ‘Anything to Declare’, a music revue, and later Initiatives of Change, was an eye-opener.
Conflicts have been part of Sanyu’s journey and moulded him as a human being. His jungle life, social work with Bangladeshi refugees in North Bengal and travelling with ‘Song of Asia’, besides the divisive Naga politics, made a deep impact on him.
Later, Sanyu would insist on the imperative need to teach Naga youth about the history of Nagaland and the tribes. He became the inaugural head of the department of History and Archaeology at the University of Nagaland.
The intensive travelling that Sanyu would embark on with members of Song of Asia as a youth also impacted his world view. His friendship with Hans Ragnar Mathisen from Samiland in Norway gave Sanyu the opportunity to know about the struggles of other indigenous communities in the world.
As Sanyu’s story progresses, the political power play between Indian state and Nagaland also changes. Despite several rounds of talks, peace remained elusive for the indigenous community, forcing the author and his wife and children to leave the land again, this time for Australia.
After getting his PhD in history, Sanyu studied Theology in Australia, and worked with refugees of the world. The “cultural and spiritual dislocation, loss of language and the search for identity” never deterred Sanyu or his family to consider their roots. Probably that was the reason why the author came back to Nagaland.
The simplicity of Sanyu’s narration, which commingles personal emancipation with socio-politico-economic changes, takes the reader through an emotional journey. The ecstasy of knowing an unknown group of people will suddenly give way to trepidation. As the thrill of exploring the jungles captivates you, the rigours of surviving the state’s high-handedness will bring in psychological disturbance.
So eloquent is Sanyu’s description that a reader almost feels migrated to a world that never and would never belong to her or him. The book is an odyssey of events and experiences. With the advent of internet, information is easily available but if one has to feel Nagaland and its struggle deep inside, then the five-year-old Sanyu can guide one through the intricacies, a teenaged Sanyu can teach one about reconciliation. A more matured Sanyu can bring about a spiritual change .
A Naga Odyssey is an insight into the Naga struggle and a state chequered by violence and intimidation. It is a journey worth embarking on. It is a travail worth embracing.
~ NM

Book: A Naga Odyssey: My Long Way Home; Author: Visier Meyasetsu Sanyu with Richard Broome; Publisher: Speaking Tiger; Pages: 316;
Price: Rs 499

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