25 October 2015 – Munchies (Vice)
It’s strange, in retrospect, that I responded so enthusiastically when my friend Chumei Konyak asked me if I wanted her brother to take me hunting. I’m American, born and raised, but I grew up in a nice liberal part of suburban Baltimore where it was normal for parents to forbid their kids from going near any house that had a gun in it, as my parents did—in part because those houses were few and far between. Guns were machines for killing, we were taught: they were not for fun.
I’d been thinking for a while of taking a several-week break from my home in hyperkinetic Mumbai to go traveling around the Indian state of Nagaland, a remote tag of lush tribal hills stitched to the eastern hem of the Himalayas where India dissolves into Myanmar, and had called Chumei to see about finishing the trip at her village near the state’s northeastern corner. At that point, I’d never so much as fired a gun, let alone fired a gun at something, but when she made her suggestion, I thought, what the hell?—of course I wanted to go hunting. She made me promise not to use her name or her family members’ names or the name of her village in the piece I planned to write (which is to say none of these names are real). Outsiders have been welcome in Nagaland for the past decade, she explained, but we are not, by law, welcome as predators of the local fauna. There could be legal complications and neither she nor I wanted any part of that. I gave my word, crossed my heart and hoped not to die.
When I arrived in Chumei’s village a month later, a place called Moping (again: not a real place, though a totally plausible name—there are settlements in neighboring districts called Chatting and Kidding), the first person I met was a bootlegger whose nickname translates into English as ‘A Million,’ in honor, he told me, of his wiliness with cash. It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and he’d come from his house in the next village over with a crowd of men, a case of rum, and the aim of purchasing a cow for the Christmas festivities a few months hence. But the rum had gone faster than the negotiations, and when I turned up, any fleeting chance of regaining focus went squarely out the proverbial window.
Plopping a felt cowboy hat on his balding head, A Million slurred a string of the usual questions: what was my country? where did I live? why was I in Nagaland. I told him I’d come to Nagaland to write about food, and to Moping to hunt. He heaved a toothless laugh and told Chumei’s brother, Chingwang, who was sitting beside me, to take me out boar hunting in the rice paddies one night. Chingwang—tall and handsome with bright eyes and a quick, gasping laugh that rewards even the laziest quip—took a sip of rum, a puff of his cigarette, and smiled: “Let’s see,” he said.
The 36 tribal groups that identify as Nagas first came to these hills about two millennia ago from some unknown corner of the east. Until the advent of Christianity in the 19th century, they were notoriously fearsome headhunters living in bamboo-built hilltop villages, each its own independent fiefdom. They used shifting cultivation to grow rice, millet and maize, but most of their food came from the jungle: wild greens and starches made from the trunks of fish-tail palms, bamboo shoots fermented and dried, fish and crabs from the rivers, and, of course, bushmeat: wild boars and deer, opossums and squirrels, jungle fowl and wild pigeons and every manner of insect.
For their first two millennia in the hills, the Nagas came to the plains almost exclusively to trade for salt and metal, using the latter to fashion the weapons they used on the hunt. The Konyak tribe developed a tradition of gun-craft, still practiced in a few villages. They used coins to make bullets and prepared gunpowder from a combination of tree bark the ammonia from crystallized human urine. According to local lore, when the British showed up in the Konyak areas late in the 19th century, brandishing their guns like the cocksure colonialists they were, one of the Konyak chiefs took the new visitors to his house and showed them his own gunrack, as if to say, ‘Yes. And?’—so the British introduced opium and the Konyak were subdued. Neighboring tribes, like the Ao and the Lotha, came under the influence of Baptist missionaries from America and quickly gave up their more war-like tendencies in favor of Christ’s beneficence.
When the Brits made their hasty retreat from the Subcontinent in 1947, they drew a shoddy border, north to south, down a ridge in the Himalayan foothills, dividing the Naga territories between the new nation of India and what would soon be Burma, thereby setting the stage for what is now the longest running insurgency in Asia. Tensions mounted into the early 1950s, and Naga leaders retreated to the jungle where their political movement became a guerilla one. Violence broke out in 1953 and reached its orgiastic climax with the mass inferno of 1956: by July of that year, the military had burned at least 200 villages to the ground, forcing the villagers to join the militants in the jungle.
In the village of Monsengyimti, I stayed for a few days with a man called Dentang (the uncle of a friend’s sister-in-law—hospitality casts a wide net up in the hills) who remembered the dispersion vividly. “When they burned our houses, we scattered out of fear,” he said. “They burned all our rice stores, too, but we collected even the burnt rice and crushed it and we ate that. All we could think of was surviving.” From April until October they lived in the jungle, surviving on bamboo shoots and jungle vegetables, whatever fish they could gather from the rivers and whatever meager supply of meat they could catch with slingshots and bamboo traps. They had to cook in the daytime lest fires at night attract the attention of the army. Guns were out of the question.
In the last decade, things have calmed down considerably. The villages have all long since been rebuilt, the larger rebel factions have signed ceasefires with the Indians, and as you read this, peace talks (mysterious and controversial and, most Nagas I met seem to think, bogus) are under way between the largest of the insurgent factions and the central government. To outside eyes, Nagaland could hardly seem more pastoral, more peaceful—until, that is, you see a jeep rumbling down a country road with a machine-gun mounted to its roof, or notice the perfunctory weekly visits that armed troops still make in villages like Moping. At night along the mucky, pock-marked tracks that pass for roads in Nagaland, army checkpoints materialize spontaneously out of the fog. In some districts, the Konyak areas among them, insurgent factions still live as jungle nomads, and still launch the occasional attack on army convoys.
So while things are probably calmer now than they’ve ever been in Nagaland, most people are fed up. The army presence remains oppressive. Violent flare-ups are hardly unheard of. And the insurgent factions themselves—known collectively as The Underground—aren’t really freedom fighters anymore, they’re succubae, running a parallel government that extracts its own taxes and demands tribute from villagers. A friend living in Mokokchung, one of Nagaland’s bigger towns, told me, “it’s not that the national feeling has died, but there’s a lot of frustration.”
And in any case, it’s hard to believe, at this late date, living in a state that still relies almost entirely on central government funding and government jobs for its survival, that a sovereign Naga state would be viable at all. Even Dentang, who’d lived through the depredations of the early war years and the horrors of Indian military aggression, said, “we still believe in the cause, but who wants to fight? And what could come of it when we’re still so poor?” The Nagas are stuck between the rock that is India and the hard, beautiful place that is their home.
Over the last century, the Naga have shed cultural traditions like excess skin. They’ve traded animist ritual for Christian sacraments, woven sarongs for western clothes, folk songs for classic rock (people here listen to bands like Journey with alarming sincerity)—the insurgency itself might be next. But food, remarkably, has remained virtually unchanged, and hunting, legal and conservation issues notwithstanding, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Farm-raised beef and pork—sometimes fresh, sometimes smoked—are easier to come by than they’ve ever been before, and I ate both in gut-bursting quantities during my three weeks in Nagaland, cooked with sesame and fermented fish, or with pounded and smoked yam leaves, or with a malodorous fermented soy paste, called axone. But the real delicacies are wild: river fish boiled with ferns, wild tortoise with fresh bamboo shoot.
On one especially memorable evening in a village called Changki (real name), I ate a stew of deer intestines cooked in blood, shimmering with the pins-and-needles burn of Sichuan peppercorn. The deer had been hunted the day before and, in Naga village tradition, divided up among the local families so every member of the community could share in the forest’s bounty. I was staying at the time with the village youth pastor, an earnest 28-year-old with tidily parted black hair, at the shiny new church dormitory, where the dazzlingly white concrete walls reverberated with Christian pop at all hours of the day. But this dish was warrior food if ever I’ve tasted it: simple and robust, driven by three big flavors—game, iron, that Sichuan dazzle—each distinct and powerful as a gunshot.
I couldn’t immediately convince Chingwang and his cousins Anden and Aman to take me hunting, so on my second day in Moping, they took me fishing instead. We drove Chingwang’s turquoise Royal Enfield out to one of the family’s tea gardens, took out the motorcycle’s battery, and fixed it to a wooden panel that Aman carried on his back, attached by wires to a makeshift pitchfork. We hiked down into the valley past rice fields, orange groves, teak forest, and finally into the jungle, profuse with bamboo and banana trees and butterflies, black and blue like bruises on the rocks that lined the streambed. Chingwang turned on the battery and, as we followed the water to the main river, he prodded at the surface, intent and vaguely smiling, like someone scanning the sand for gold. At the river, Anden waded into the water with a more analog tool, a weighted net, and cast it blindly into the heavy tide.
For lunch, we cut the stem from a banana tree, crushed its glossy white core to a rough, sticky pulp, and mixed it with salt, ginger, garlic, dry fermented bamboo shoot, king chili (one of the hottest known to man), and wild ferns, all of which we boiled with our modest pull of eels, fish, and one or two tiny red shrimp. The result: a hearty mass of fish and banana stem—hot from the chili, mildly funky from the bamboo, with a texture somewhere between tapioca and celery—and a pretty nigh perfect fish broth, which we drank from narrow-mouthed cups made of bamboo. We drank rum and smoked and swam in the river, fast-running and muddy from rain the night before. The sky was bright as a reflection on glass. It was a perfect day.
Two mornings later, Chingwang, Anden and Aman finally agreed to let me tag along on one of their near-daily hunting trips. We walked down to a valley on the other side of Moping, a steep descent on moss-slick rocks past paddy fields and more tea gardens. Fingers of dark-gray cloud gripped the crests of the hills, an impending storm playing hide and seek with the valley. Under the forest’s canopy it was dusk dark and stagnant, the air damp as wet wool. We’d carried three guns among the four of us, and I spent the better part of three hours sitting in a clearing, nibbling on the sweet, white fruit of wild cardamom bushes and waiting. Every now and then I’d hear a rustling overhead and wait for the sound of a shot. None came. We didn’t net a single bird.
“Sorry, today was no good,” Chingwang said afterward as we sipped tea in a simple thatched hut at Anden’s tea garden. To make up for it, he handed me his shotgun and showed me how to brace it against my shoulder and direct my aim at a target he’d fashioned from an unripe pomelo and a stick. I fired—and missed, of course. But I was smiling giddily, nonetheless. As it turns out, hunting, like an unwinnable battle, really isn’t much fun—unless, that is, you’re the one holding the gun.