The youths of Kadiganglung’s village were looking forward to the luangh ruantatmei. It was a time when the young people got to know each other as they foraged for wild herbs, roots and fruits in the forest few days before the winter festival. This festival was celebrated when the winter was on its way out and the early signs of spring were in the air.
Days were good with soft sunlight and cool blue sky. Sangnah rih between the three villages was over, or so they thought. Dragonflies darted around the tips of bushes and over water ponds. Two small birds circled each other noisily near the hollyhocks and the kaengjang clumps. A dog sleeps outside Kadiganglung’s house, its head resting against the sun-warmed whet-stone.
Seeing the village youths leave for the forest on the special day, Sangailiu too remembered her first trip to the forest on one such occasion. She rarely spent time with her peers. Living with her grandmother and learning from her had left her with very less time for leisure. She found that she could identify many herbs, even more than the older ones could, to their delight. On that trip, a turquoise butterfly had appeared, as if inviting Sangailiu to do a game. She tracked the butterfly as it hopped from one flower to another, going back and forth, feeling the soft texture of the petals. She had followed the butterfly with her eyes as it fluttered up to the taller branches of a tamuh tree and disappeared between the leaves.
The villagers prepared for the upcoming festival by staying home and repairing their houses. Everywhere there was hustle and bustle. Who would have imagined that one of the male youths would be killed in an ambush?
There had been sporadic killings between Inrouh’s village and Sangailiu’s village. The enmity between them had not diminished. The anger not put out, the hatchet not buried. This time some of Inrouh’s followers came to Kadiganglung’s village forest and killed one of the youths. The killing was committed during the youths’ luang ruantatmei. The murdered boy was the son of one of the leading men of the village.
When his body was brought back to the village, his mother was at the village gate, waiting to receive her son’s body.
On seeing the somber group bearing her son’s body home, she burst out,
“Jeanmei le, Jeanmei le
Alung thuna, my heart, my heart, my beloved.
Death comes for everyone
Spring leaf, summer leaf, autumn leaf, winter leaf
But you have not yet lived
Tears will come to every mother, whose son slips away from her bosom.
Death goes prowling on the trails, in the forests, in the fields
At night, at dawn, at sunrise, he never rests
Invited, uninvited, solicited or unsolicited,
Its springy knees up and down, up and down,
Spinning, skipping, never resting
The wind of fate twirling it on
Twirling down youths before their prime
My son’s dead, gone ahead of his parents.
Who are my brothers, fathers, my clansmen?
Avenge his death, his meaningless death
Let other mothers know the pain
My heart, my heart.”
Hearing her cry inconsolably thus all the way to her home, the women joined the lament, arousing love, anger and hatred in the hearts of men.
“You’ve not been allowed to die in your sleep, in your old age, surrounded by your loved ones. Without warning, you’ve been snatched away to taruai ram. How could you slip away so peacefully, leaving us alone, your wretched grandmother? You could have at least given me some signs, some omens,” cried his grandmother.
Genna was declared in the village after the funeral was over. The old people sat drinking rice wine, doing small talk in one of the elders’ house. Sangailiu had gone there for some errands and overheard one old man say, “Too much bloodshed in the three villages. The land is grieving. I saw the bamboos beginning to flower. It is said that the bamboos flower once in 70 years and when that happens, famine usually follows.”
“Inguai, inguai. Yes, yes. I also have heard that in other villages the field rodents have eaten up all the roots of the bamboos. This is not good at all,” rejoined his contemporary in agreement.
Sangailiu reported to her family what she overheard. Her father-in-law said, “My grandfather used to tell us about the flowering of the bamboo and the year of famine that soon followed. He had a terrible time. We can’t tell nature to stop, but we must do something to stop this sporadic killings.”
“We had won the war fair and square in the sangna rih. What right do Inrouh’s village have to continue this killings on the sly? Don’t they have elders to teach their youths? To control them?” said Kadiganglung angrily.
“A reconciliation between the three villages will stop the killings,” suggested Kadiganglung’s mother.
“This is such a serious and sensitive matter. The village elders only can propose. If not done properly we could witness even the village breaking up. It’s known to have happened in the past,” replied Kadiganglung’s father. His brows creased with deep lines.
“Better do something before these killings flare up again to something bigger and turns into a full-fledged war,” mumbled Kadiganglung.
That was how the younger people suggested to the elders. Subtly putting it across. His father did not seem like he heard, but he mulled over what his son had suggested. It would be a difficult thing to initiate such a big thing, chuksu-goh-rouhmei, but it could be done.
Spring was surprised that her buds and blooms had suddenly gone past their peak so soon, the bean vines listlessly swaying in the breeze. The yams and potatoes all dug up and eaten by the rodents. The landscape changed quickly in such a short time. The paddy fields, vegetable patches, and even edible wild plants were all eaten up by the fast multiplying rodents. Everything was eaten up. The most heartbreaking experience for the villagers was to see the paddy in their barns destroyed. Months of back breaking hard work had gone to naught.
Famine struck the villages of Kadiganglung, Sangailiu, Inrouh and the surrounding villages. Soon stories were heard of people scrounging in the paddy fields for left-over grains. Many folks, after boiling and eating discolored grain complained of stomach pain, leading to loose motion. There was no let-up despite medicine and herbal water. Many died within few days of diarrhoea.
Along with the famine came the plague. Sangailiu and her mother-in-law were called upon by the village’s medicine muhs, to help them. People needed medicine for headache, fever, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, vomiting, body aches and lethargy. The healthier and stronger ones survived the plague, but the sick, old and infants could not make it. Every other week genna was declared because someone had died.
The fear of being unable to feed their children hung over the parents. Many households, hearing of the deaths from eating discoloured rice, started eating only once a day, that too mostly watery rice. They were ever worried of rice running out. Most families did not have enough food for all family members. The adults feigned satiation, slurping loudly after eating few mouthfuls. They tried to hide the magnitude of the famine that ravaged the land. The more they tried to hide, the more obvious it became to the children.
Great calamity had befallen the region. Appearance of swarm of locusts had exacerbated the situation. The tiniest, most tender leaves of the vegetable plants had been gobbled up by them. Even in Kadiganglung’s family, everyone went to bed hungry. The children in the villages that survived could hardly eat. They stopped growing. Their bellies were bloated, their belly buttons pushed out, their bodies full of intestinal worms. They were the most vulnerable. Young women died during delivery due to bleeding.
On a cold-gray morning, one of the great warriors passed away. The family was left without anything, except for the shawls to cover his body. At his funeral, no sacrifices worthy of a great warrior were offered, just a banana leaf wrapped lunch packet containing rooster meat for him to take to taruairam, land of the dead. There was no befitting feast for the villagers. It brought great sorrow among the elders to witness this.
“It may be complicated, Sangailiu, but we can overcome it. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Trust me. I’ll talk to the elders. We cannot go on like this,” said Kadiganglung one day. This famine had brought them even closer. When nobody was around, Kadiganglung discussed important matters with his wife. Her thoughts he needed to hear. He remembered the better times, when he used to eat his yam and sip his rice wine, his back warmed by the late afternoon sun.
“I’m not too sure about that. What if the other villages refuse to agree to the chuk-su garoumei?
“They must agree to it. They are suffering more than us. I heard that many elders in Inrouh’s village have died. That was not just because of the famine in the land. They had fought a bad war, an unjust war, with their neighbours. The land is hungry for revenge, or wounded.”
“Go and talk to your father first. He can discuss the idea with the clan elders. The spirits will surely clear the obstacles in your path,” said Sangailiu.
Sitting in the sun-soaked backyard with her husband, she clearly remembered that afternoon many years ago. The sun had emerged weakly after a month of constant rain. The sunlight was pouring into a tree, lighting it up from the inside like a moiram. It was quiet and they sat on a tree trunk in the forest clearing and she had felt that quiet, light and secure feeling that everything always was as it was for eternity. Though hungry and emaciated, she had a warm feeling in her gut that soon the famine would be over and they could get on with their lives, once the peace ceremony, chuk-su gahroumei, was done by the three warring villages.