Alcohol-related deaths - a familiar tragedy in a dry State

So many young men are dying of alcohol poisoning, and bootlegging business is thriving in Nagaland. Can we create a safe space for reasoning together?

Nona Arhe

The morning was balmy outside. Inside, in a dimly lit room, a woman sat alone at the edge of a bench, weeping, staring at a coffin placed on a double bed. Neatly folded pants, T-shirts, and socks were laid next to the coffin. Pots, pans, cups, and plates hung in uniform on the far corner wall - making it evident of a one-room home.  

Her husband was dead for over 12 hours. She has almost lost her voice and strength mourning her beloved. As I walked closer to her, she made an effort to get on her feet with the support of the wall. She managed a low ‘thank you for coming.’ I nodded. Lost for words; I quickly made my way out.  

Outside, men from the neighbourhood sat around fading embers of the fire that burned through the night. The men were in deep conversation, talking about local politics and quaffing endless cups of black tea. The night before, two women from the same building, went around collecting anything they could from the neighbours - firewood, food items, chairs and crockery’s, some contributed money too.  

‘John (name changed) worked as a pick-up truck driver’ their next-door neighbour told the guests. 'We knew this day would come soon. He drank all sorts of alcohol and, in the last few weeks his skin begins to turn yellow.'  

I took a seat behind a group of women sitting in a row, singing the hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ However, I continue to hear the widow mourning her husband, ‘How could you do this to me? How do you expect me to raise our two young boys alone? I don’t mind your drinking. I don’t mind staying up at night waiting for you. I hope you will come knocking on our door again. I will wait for you, I will wait for you, and her voice grew faint.  

Feeling miserable hearing her cry, I decided to move further away and carried my plastic chair towards where the men folks were sitting. The men were still in a deep conversation. The topic has changed from politics to alcohol and prohibition. ‘Prohibition is just on paper, look how easy it is to buy any booze in Nagaland, it’s available everywhere from pan shops to grocery stores.’  

‘Our forefathers drank rice beer for all their lives, and they lived up to 90’ years, some even crossed hundred years in good health. If they must drink, these youngsters should switch to local rice beer, at least it will not kill them so early in life.’ A senior man lamented. A young college boy joins in the conversation. ‘Prohibition in Nagaland has failed on all counts. Prohibition has only given rise to counterfeit, adulterated alcohols, bootleggers and black market. The state is losing out massively in its revenues because of a thriving black market. However, no amount of arguments or statistics can make the NBCC (Nagaland Baptist Church Council) change their minds. Prohibition act has become a moral act. No political party dares to challenge the council.’  

‘Most youngsters on a tight budget buy the cheapest and usually the most toxic liquor, for quick effects. There’s no one to check on manufactured or expiry dates. A young man has left behind a young woman to fend for two young boys. The Government has failed him. The society has failed him. The church has failed him. It is a collective failure.’ Said the only woman who joined in the conversation.  

A man holding a big Bible up close to his chest interrupted: ‘It is eleven o’clock now, at 11:30 we will have the funeral service here and proceed to the public burial ground outskirts of Kohima town. Since we are few in numbers, I would request you all to accompany our brother for his final journey to his resting place.’ Two young boys, four and five years old, perhaps, were ushered to the chair next to the coffin, with their frail mother dragging her feeble feet along. In the midst of the funeral service, the pastor asked if anyone would like to say something about the departed soul. Neighbours, friends, relatives, anyone? No one answered the call. How about the house owner? There was pin-drop silence. An elderly woman covered her head and quietly walked out. “That is the landlady,” someone whispered.  

There was no eulogy. So the service ended with a prayer. ‘I ask you Lord, please forgive his sins and give him mercy to enter your Kingdom.’ The congregation responded with a loud ‘Amen.’ The pastor wiped his face with a handkerchief.  

A group of young men, with unkempt hair, wearing faded jeans came forward to carry the coffin. As they slowly walked up the 100 odd steps leading to the waiting truck, neighbours lined up along their fences to get a glimpse of the coffin. One of his friends carried the cross and walked behind the coffin. From a distance, I could read, born on July 17, 1983.  

He was, indeed, too early to die.  

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