Mokokchung: Civilisation defined

There is a paradisal feel to this place, a sense of orderliness, neatness, humility, aesthetics, independence, and devotion to work

Syeda Hameed

I stood on the porch of the state guest house on a crisp Saturday morning. Hundreds of women in red mekhlas and deep blue shawls thronged around me, singing songs of welcome. Large necklaces of ochre and aquamarine beads with silver spikes were strung around their necks. Their hair was knotted with black or white string tassels. They looked resplendent. The ones who stood close to me were older women who sang dramatic sounding lyrics in the Ao language. They were there to escort me from the guest house to the Community Hall where I had to inaugurate the silver jubilee of “Watsu Mungdang”, the Ao Women’s Association. I had received the invitation eight months ago from Dr Yangerla Ao. Little did I imagine the splendid panorama of mountains on either side of the winding road as I drove from Jorhat, Assam. Driving around blue-green mountains, I had left behind me the blistering summer of Delhi for the cooler climes of Mokokchung, Nagaland.

April 20, 2007 was a big day for the Ao women of Nagaland: Watsu Mungdang had completed 25 years. According to Naga tradition, as soon as a girl crosses 18, she automatically becomes a Watsu member. In the same manner, as soon as a girl becomes a mother, she becomes part of the Naga Mother’s Association.

The other excitement about visiting Mokokchung was the fact that it has the highest male: female ratio in the country. A declining sex ratio countrywide has caused me sleepless nights and for many others; we have grown up on the diet of Amartya Sen’s immortal words: “70 million missing women in South Asia.” It was heartening to learn that people in this remote part of Nagaland allow girl-children to be born in natural proportion.

The audience consisted of 2,000 women and 100 men. I marvelled at the discipline with which they sat throughout the three-hour-long inaugural ceremony. As I walked in, they all stood up; a small choir sang hymns in the most mellifluous tones. Throughout the morning, not a single cellphone rang. No one moved, no one talked or walked out of the hall. This gracious discipline is unheard of in most other parts of the country. The first item was commemorating the women pioneers of the Ao tribe: the first woman graduate, the first woman teacher, the first woman dentist, the first woman doctor. Posthumous recognitions were received by their surviving children or other family members.

Never in my life have I had a warmer welcome than what I got in Mokokchung. They took meticulous care of every detail—from the beautiful bed linen or towels that they had brought from their homes for my comfort to the meals that were carefully served by the Watsu members. Given the fact that their staple is rice and pork, in deference to us (some vegetarians and some non-pork eaters), they served meal after meal of delicious chicken and fish preparations, paneer and even aaloo paratha. The state guesthouse had a negligible kitchen, so individual members were assigned the responsibility for our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Carrying casseroles and plastic containers in their hands, they trudged up the hill to serve us pineapple cakes, scones, muffins and sandwiches, in addition to all our meals. They never ate with us, though. Young girls would stand and serve, and when we asked in amazement, “Who has made this?” someone would quietly answer, “I did.” In those three days, I felt a sense of peace and wellbeing. This was greatly due to the aesthetics of the place. Mokokchung is known to grow the best quality roses and carnations. Big blooms in bright colours at the end of long stems: this is what the roses are all about. There are orchids, some exotic and other wild. Everywhere, even in humble homes, one sees lillium, red Easter lilies, single carnations, and anthuriums. Mokokchung is the veritable garden of India, the land of passion fruit, oranges, papaya and ginger. Houses on either side of roads that connect one village with another have window boxes with multicolour flowers. There is an air of orderliness and neatness one misses as soon as one hits the plains. Their inner discipline is partly due to the influence of the church, but mostly it is the tribal culture that makes the people responsible and resilient.

The people of Mokokchung have created a successful model of communitisation of social sectors such as health. At the health sub-centre in Mopungchuket, which had been adjudged the “best village in communitisation,” the villagers had contributed small sums of money towards the augmentation of medical supplies. As a result, basic medicines are always available to the villagers, regardless of supplies from Kohima.

I found Naga girls among the most talented in the country in certain areas like interior designing, flower arrangements and culinary skills. Fresh-baked bread used to appear at my breakfast table. When I inquired where it was from, Nanu, a beautiful young girl smilingly said, “I baked it.” Nanu used to work for HCL in Delhi but came back to her village to look after her mother. Now, she runs a restaurant called Dolphin, where people are being introduced to Chinese cuisine. Delicious almond icecream was made by hand by one of the Watsus, since she had no icecream machine at home. They specialise in confectionery and multicuisines. Unfortunately, when in search of employment they move out to Kohima and then to metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore, they end up waiting tables or making beds at five-star hotels. This is a colossal waste of their talent when they can add immensely to the aesthetics of any public place; hotels, guesthouses, airport, lounges, etc. If only they are given the opportunity, they can be made to run bakeries and eateries in many metropolitan cities. Furthermore, they are all trained in music and have beautiful singing voices: they can be showcased as performing artists anywhere in India or internationally.

The highlight of the inauguration was a song by Miss North East 2006, 19-year-old Tiyarenla Jamir. A high school student from Mokokchung, she had been chosen Miss Nagaland and then Miss North East. I was struck by her sense of dress, at once fashionable and modest.

Watsu has its work cut out. The theme of this year’s Mungdang was Kumkumshidi, which means “to revitalise”. Under the dynamic leadership of Dr Chubatola Aier, they have struggled for property rights for women. Now, the challenge is to have women in decision-making. At a village meeting in Chuchuyimlang, we met the Village Development Council. But there was not a single woman representative present. When I asked, “Where are the women?” an elderly council member said, “They are busy.” I said, “Next time I come to your village, I want to see the women right here with the rest of you.” Watsu Mungdang, who had accompanied me to this village, nodded in agreement. Time to revitalise, to reinvent themselves, has come at last.

Dr. Syeda S Hameed is a Member of the Planning Commission. She is the founder member of Muslim Women’s Forum and a founder trustee of the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia.