Of the two, I met Mmhonlumo Kikon first. An eager, ambitious activist with great love for his homeland and greatly engaged with the world at large, Mhon showed me Nagaland as only someone in love with it can.
I then knew of Apen, the lady formally known as Penmi Phazang, as someone Mhon was besotted with, and wanted to share his life with. I recall a few phone calls he would make to her, delaying a discussion on politics and peace, to insist a life with a future politician may be difficult, but never pointless.
She appeared to agree. In my brief meetings with Penmi I realized Mhon was a fortunate man.In a few short years, in late 2011, I was in Dimapur as the best man at his wedding. I remember that afternoon at the Lotha Baptist Church. It was hot and humid. Mhon looked a proper gentleman, Penmi was a dream in white. I was pleased for them both, as were all their friends. It took a lot for this lady to put aside her dreams of being a painter for a life with politics; it was more than a simple union of tribes. Mhon is a brother to me. And so Penmi should have been like a sister-in-law, but somehow, I always saw her as a sister.
In short order Mhon became a legislator. Penmi and he became parents, first of Noyingroni, and then Lumchilo. My delightful, brave nieces.
In the frenetic world of politics, and Naga politics at that, Penmi was utterly calm, the pivot of this modest family unit, with time and smiles for everyone in the extended family that politics always is. The illness that finally took her life drained her daily, ultimately needing a move from the hills of Kohima to the plains of Dimapur, but she didn’t miss a step. She also found time to care for children at two orphanages in Dimapur, one of them for blind children.
I recall meeting Penmi and Mhon in mid-2017 in Chennai, where she had arrived for treatment. Like a foolish man I told them something they already knew better than most: each day would need to be special, for their sake, and the sake of their children.
Mhon told me of how she would be drawn to orphans, knowing one day soon her children may be without their mother. It would move her to tears, Mhon would tell me. She wanted to resume painting when she got a little better, when the girls were a little more grown up. This graduate of the Delhi College of Art wanted to sell paintings to raise money for orphans.
Then she was gone, in January 2018.
There’s now Noying, Lumchi, and Mhon.
And Mhon’s tribute to her. Call them thoughts. Call them emotional outpourings. Call them poems. Separately and together, they are.
I read The Penmi Poems with a heavy heart, but also with a lightness of affection and memory, as surely Penmi would have wanted.
“Even angels have suitcases …” Mhon writes of her.
And then, in another place, he writes:
“Only now when the mist has evaporated
I know I should have held onto the rain drops.”
Mhon has. The Penmi Poems is his tribute and remembrance. But as a lament and passion play, it is much more.
Sudeep Chakravarti is a leading commentator on matters of business and human rights, and socio-political and security issues in India and South Asia. Sudeep’s non-fiction narratives – Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, on India’s ongoing Maoist rebellion; and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land (4th Estate, HarperCollins), set in North-east India- are critically fêted bestsellers. His essays on conflict are contained in several collections, including Non-state Armed Groups in South Asia; and More Than Maoism: Politics, Policies and Insurgencies in South Asia. Sudeep is the bestselling author of “The Bengalis!”