Set in 2007, around six decades after a rebellion burst out against Indian rule in the Northeast Indian state of Nagaland, this is the story of Mose – a former rebel who is confused and bewildered with the daily violence that rocks his beautiful city and state. After a shooting in the marketplace, where he had gone to buy vegetables, he wonders how the situation in Nagaland had come to this point and what might lie ahead. A sensitive story that shows what it means to live in a constant state of fear, despite relentless violence that has turned banal after army-sustained terror from the rebels and state forces alike.
"Get out of the way, old man!" A hand roughly pushed Mose aside. The owner of the hand then made his way through the gasping crowd. Actually, the terrified crowd had swiftly begun to scatter at his approach, and the killer, holding out his pistol, effortlessly strode out onto the main street. There were no policemen in sight. The killer made his way toward the Dak Lane side street. Then he began to quicken his pace. All that anyone could hear for a long time was the sound of running feet.
It was over quickly. The young man who was shot lay dead in a spreading pool of blood. Shops quickly downed their shutters. Vegetable-sellers trying to save their goods scampered off with their baskets of vegetables.
After some minutes, there were just a few people left at the crowded market. Mose stayed rooted to the spot, but when everything became quiet, he crept over to look at the body. One of the shots had gone wild. Luckily it was embedded in the wall of a hotel. No one else had been harmed. There had been times when bystanders had been injured, even killed by stray shots in these shootings.
Mose looked down at the body on the ground. The dead man was no longer twitching. Blood-red tomatoes lay crushed under his feet, and vegetables dropped by frightened shoppers were strewn on the ground near him. Sand clung to his mouth from which a small trickle of blood had begun to flow. The blood-spill from his chest was steadily spreading on the ground. He was very young. He looked barely twenty. In death, it was difficult to tell which tribe he belonged to. Short cropped hair, smart clothes and expensive shoes.
Mose noted all these facts quickly, before the police came and unceremoniously dumped the body into a van and rushed it to the morgue. The standard routine was to take the victims of shootings to the emergency unit of the hospital. But it was obvious that there was nothing that could be done for the young man. Once the van had driven off and a police cordon established round the area, Mose turned towards home. He was still clutching the plastic bag in which he had been carrying the chillis and brinjals he had bought just before the shooting.
The streets were deserted now. House-owners had hastily locked their doors and faces peered out from behind curtains in windows. The deathly stillness of yet another day brought to a close by a sudden killing brooded over the town. Tomorrow life would begin again slowly, cautiously. For tonight however, even the foolhardy would stay indoors, talking in hushed tones about the killing.
There was no curfew on, but the town was very still. Though there were lights in the windows of the crowded houses along the streets, there was hardly any movement on the streets. Only the occasional police car cruising past.
Mose walked out of the Supermarket area past the shuttered shops. The smell of rotting vegetables assailed his nostrils as he crossed the alley that led to the Dak Lane road. There were two stray dogs on the road, looking for scraps of food. Mose slowed down when he reached the beginning of the steep Mission road. Again, all the shops on either side of the road were closed. It was amazing how quickly news of a shooting could spread.
The old wooden houses on the Mission road leaned against each other in the twilight. Most of the wooden houses in this hill town were being replaced by concrete structures these days. When he reached the Choto Bosti road he walked faster. At the turning, houses were built halfway down the slope. Below the last house were fields and then the river. Mose stayed on the main road and headed towards Seikhazou. He caught up with a neighbor and they continued on their way home.
"They're always too late," muttered the neighbor as a white police gypsy went past.
"You're right," Mose agreed. "The killers are too smart. In any case, the police dare not catch them."
"Everyone is afraid of them. That’s a fact," the neighbor stated.
"Everyone is sick of it, all these killings. But no one has the guts to do anything about it," was Mose's reply.
"No," said the neighbor. "Maybe if we had guns too." They both knew it was a lame idea.
Mose and his neighbor walked on silently. At the next turning, they parted ways. Mose's house was further on. He walked slowly. He wasn't in a hurry. He felt he needed the time to think over things. The almost daily killings, the young men on the streets calloused by hate and shouting at everyone in sight, and the complete collapse of cultural life – it was unbelievable that it could come to this, thought Mose.
The war that they’d begun with India more than 60 years ago was a just war. The Nagas had been fighting against the takeover of their ancestral lands by the new nation of India. Men readily came forward to replace those fallen in ambushes and encounters. Villagers fled into the forests and many died of starvation. But the survivors were tenacious and had fought on. In all the villages they had entered they had been hailed as heroes, soldiers of the Naga army who the villagers never grudged sharing their meager food supplies with. He had felt so proud to be a soldier back then, a freedom fighter. But now, these killings, this terrorizing of their own people – was this what it had come to? Mose checked himself as a sob rose in his throat. No, not that way, he would not shed tears again.
He felt helpless as he turned at the bamboo crossing and headed up the path to his house. He had built the two-storied brick house himself. Mose opened the gate and entered the small yard, relieved to have reached home safely. But his thoughts stayed on the incident in town. What was it the killer had shouted? Old man. Mose felt he could still hold a gun as well as any other and sprint so that none could overtake him. Old man. Those words came back painfully to him.
"Mose!" His wife's voice woke him out of his reverie. "Man, are you mad? Didn't you know we would be worried about you?" she scolded loudly as she took the bag from him.
"There was a shooting in town," Mose began.
"Do you think we don't know it?" his wife snapped. "I was about to send Vila to look for you. When will you remember you are an old man now? Think how awful it would be for me if you were shot."
Mose's wife was a big woman and quite strong willed. He cringed as he realized he would not hear the end of this harangue. So he stated quietly, "I was not anywhere near them." He didn't say anything beyond that. Dissatisfied, his wife kept scolding and upbraiding him for the inconvenience he had caused to members of his family by being out during a shooting. Finally Mose said, "Enough, woman. I have not died today." She heard the tense anger in his voice and stopped her tirade then.
That was how it was between them these days, icy silences and things left unsaid. He sometimes felt his life was passing him by, particularly when he found himself wandering alone aimlessly in the town or neighborhood. But outside his home, Mose continued to be a respected elder in the community. Young men sought him out to listen to his stories. His peers desired his counsel when it came to land disputes and other clan disputes. He still had admirers of his fairness and life wisdom.
Mose sat down heavily on the porch. Kohima town lay spread out in front of him on the opposite side of the valley. Each house was bright with lights. Stars filled the sky, spread thickly over the forested hills surrounding the large township. He could hear the frogs croaking from the stream below his house. He also heard another voice. Old man, Mose heard that voice over and over again. Like a harsh reprimand. Old man, the young killer had hissed. Old man, shouted his wife when he came home. Old man, repeated the voices in his head.
Mose didn't feel old. For a moment back there, the blood had rushed to his head when he had heard the younger man rasp out at him. He had almost charged him. He knew exactly what tackle to use to disarm him. If he had dared to stop the young man, he might have held him off temporarily but not for long, for there was no real strength left in his arms. And what would have followed? He would have become just another statistic. There had been deadness in the killer's eyes as he glared at Mose. These were men for whom life and death were just games.
It had not begun like that. The freedom struggle that Mose had been a part of, the struggle that the dead-eyed young man of today claimed to be a part of had not always been like that. Memories flooded Mose's mind as he sat out on the porch. No, it had not been like that at all.
Easterine Kire is a writer and poet from Nagaland. She published her first collection of poems at 22. Her first novel, A Naga Village Remembered, published in 2003, was the first published Naga novel. She has since written three more novels and a children’s book. She currently lives Norway, where she moved in 2005 after firsthand experience with the conflict in her homeland. She is a cofounder and partner of Barkweaver Publications, a small publishing house that focuses on Naga folklore and literature.