Moving and insightful, Visier Meyasetsu Sanyu writes of the need to preserve Naga rituals and traditions, of being forced to flee into the jungles as a child, of travelling the world and of finding peace again
In the history of Naga political struggles, the village Khonoma occupies a unique place. “No other Naga village has ever enjoyed similar prestige or was strong enough to bully and levy such widespread tribute,” pronounced Pieter Steyn, the author of Zapuphizo: Voice of the Nagas. Khonoma was at the centre of Naga resistance to British colonial rule. It was burnt down and rebuilt multiple times. It was the home of AZ Phizo and Th Sakhrie, the two leading men of early Naga nationalism. It was also the birthplace of Visier Meyasetsu Sanyu, author of A Naga Odyssey: My Long Way Home.
Through his book, Visier, no less a Naga patriot than either Phizo or Sakhrie, strives to preserve the memory of the Naga rituals and traditions in danger of being lost due to western Christianity, and of the horrific tales of being nhanumia – an Angami term used to describe people forced to flee to the jungles due to war. Also in the memoir is his experience of being a refugee, of travelling the world propagating the Naga story, and of finding peace and home again. “This is a story I have to tell,” he insists, “and, in the telling, resolve my own trauma.”
Visier was born in 1950, the same year Phizo became president of the Naga National Council with the oath to ensure “the independence and sovereignty of Nagaland”. In 1951, Phizo’s NNC organised a plebiscite after which it claimed 99 percent of the Nagas had voted for full sovereignty. India’s first parliamentary election in 1952 was boycotted. A year later, thousands of Nagas turned their backs on Nehru, and according to some accounts, bared their posteriors during his visit to Kohima. The Free Naga Government was formed in 1954, and soon after, as the Indian army intensified its crackdown on Naga nationalists, a Naga army was created. In 1956, the NNC split even as the Naga constitution was approved. The faction led by NNC president Phizo chose armed struggle; the other led by its secretary Sakhrie favoured peaceful struggle. Sakhrie was soon abducted and killed. It was in the midst of this tumult that five-year-old Visier and his family and two-thirds of the population of Khonoma fled to the jungles to escape the advancing Indian army. Khonoma burnt yet again. It was only in 1958, two whole years later, that the villagers emerged from the jungle when a general amnesty was declared.
Two years in the wild, constantly moving in fear of death, feeding on mushrooms, raw fruit, bush rats, birds and monkey meat can’t be easy. Add to the mix the fratricide, and the intra-clan and intra-village enmities that the fighting and suffering engendered. But Visier spares us the grim details. Instead, he talks of how the necessities of starvation and survival broke taboos, lessened the hold of tradition and give way to new perspectives on life and the world. When Dozo, Visier’s brother, was confronted while taking vegetables grown by someone else, he retorted, “We are not stealing! We are surviving!”
Visier later studied at the Sainik School, Bhubaneswar and in Shillong, went to college in Darjeeling, and earned a PhD from the North–Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong. After a brief teaching stint at Nagaland University, in 1996, he moved to Australia with his family and lived there until 2015 when he returned to Nagaland, to his Healing Garden near Khonoma.
Visier’s travels and work with other refugees and indigenous groups affirmed in him the importance of cultural rootedness. He likens losing one’s culture and language to losing one’s soul. He is critical of the westernized form of Christianity that the Baptist missionaries imported to Nagaland and elsewhere which portrayed all pre-Christian practices as evil, to be discarded. He believes this is wrong, and that the Christian gospel is culture neutral. Visier sees traditional concepts of Naga spirituality and ritual practices as being fully compatible with Christian values. Indeed, traditional Angami practices like kekinyi (the feast of peace between clans or villages) are in harmony with Biblical principles and should be incorporated within Naga Christianity thus enriching and deepening the Naga Christian experience. To Visier, the failure to do so and the resulting loss of cultural roots may have a lot to do with the current moral crisis in Nagaland and elsewhere, which is manifested in substance abuse and the breakdown of values. This is a long-debated issue amongst Northeast Christians and the related insights that this book provides are invaluable.
Visier’s reflections on the political future of the Nagas are also worthy of attention. While he believes in Naga exceptionalism and nationalism, he is convinced of the futility of an armed struggle for independence and of the physical integration of Naga-occupied areas. He calls for “a broader base for Naga identity and nationalism, and the recognition of the difference between nationalism and state formation.” He believes artificially-created national borders need not prevent the cultural and emotional unity of the Nagas. The status of Scotland within the UK can be a model for the Nagas, he opines.
Visier’s odyssey – interspersed with trauma, rediscovery and redemption – makes for a riveting read. Their honest testimonies also reveal the dilemma that his wife (who is Mizo) and children, all of whom are now comfortably settled in Australia, faced as a result of Visier’s decision to return to Nagaland. The point though is that, at the end of his long travails, the man has found home. It is a calling that brooks no resistance. All one can do is whisper the words, vise volie. Go well, Go well.