The famine in Kadiganglung’s village became worse. Crops were ruined, the barren fruit trees grew brown and the smaller plants died out. Dogs laid on their sides with their ribs sticking out like the mountain ridges, and cows moved about with exposed ribcages, searching for grass. There were no more chickens and roosters. The villagers were tense. Anxiety and bitterness built up, compounded by hunger. All things living would have eventually died if this continued. Children’s cries grew softer and softer. People had to stop trying to cultivate. It was no use. The rodents destroyed whatever little grew. They wanted to preserve the little energy they had. And the richest man’s barn was running out of paddy. He shared generously to all the villagers, whatever he had.
The muhs of the villages had been offering sacrifices to the spirits for the field rodents and the locust swarms to leave the villages and the people alone. There was very little one could do.
Kadiganglung’s father took it upon himself to talk to the elders of the village to perform the reconciliation ceremony, Chuk-su Gahroumei. He was convinced that unless his village initiated the Rih Chuk with Inrouh’s village, the famine and the plague would continue in his village and in the other villages in the region. Chuk should be initiated by the just and victorious party. That was the way of the people. Inrouh and his followers had started the killings and they had been continuing even after the war had been won fair and square. The blight on the land had come because of too much bloodshed.
Sangailiu gazed at her mother-in-law’s back, working laboriously with the pestle, dull thuds in a steady rhythm as rice was pounded. The once broad shoulders, had grown very thin. Beads of perspiration glistened like dew drops in the morning sun. The skin hung loosely on her arms. Her wide, beautiful hips all bony now. Her heart went out for this woman. Their relationship was unlike that of a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They were more like sisters, despite the huge gap in their years. Their shared knowledge of medicine brought them together.
Sangailiu continued looking at her mother-in-law, shadows of weariness and concern crisscrossing her forehead. Would her mother-in-law survive this famine to see her grandchildren grow up? Her mother-in-law turned to look at her. She asked, “What are those shadows on your forehead? Don’t let the flame of doubts build up. It can burn down hopes and prophesies. Don’t worry, I’ll still be around for many more years,” she said. Sangailiu was shocked. Her mother-in-law laughed, seeing her jaw drop in shock.
“How did you know what I was thinking, anei?” asked Sangailiu.
But she didn’t respond to her question. She started to say, “I’ve been meaning to tell you…” then trailed off.
“Tell me. What is it you wanted to tell?” asked Sangailiu earnestly.
Sangailiu waited, even though she knew her mother-in-law had made up her mind not to finish what she started to say. She could make out she was too tired. She leaned the tall pestle against the bamboo wall and sat down heavily on the wooden mortar, wiping her face with her upper body cloth. She was perspiring a lot, even though the weather was quite cold.
“Would you get me some water from the kitchen?” asked her mother-in-law.
“Yes, anei. I’ll bring. Don’t move, sit there.”
A wave of exhaustion hits her. The mother-in-law felt again for that lump in her breast. The size of the lump has not grown any bigger, but it was definitely there. She knew from experience that it was not a good sign. She had made some medicines for some of the women in the village who had suffered from the same kind of growth.
Once the lump started to grow, the women suffering from it did not last long. But she had started using her medicines early. She had wanted to tell Sangailiu about it, for her knowledge about medicine was much more than hers. She was as good as the senior pu-muh, the medicine priest. Sangailiu’s grandmother, the great medicine woman had taught her well while she was alive. On second thought, the mother-in-law decided not to tell her daughter-in-law, because there was too much going on. Everyone was just trying to survive.
As Sangailiu dashed into the kitchen to get the water, she almost tripped against the black dog. She had to adjust her vision in the darkness of the room. For no reason, she started to cry. She was too tired. The darkness converged on her. Its wings spread and began to cover her. Silence filled the house. She wanted to close her eyes and give in. But for some unknown reserve deep within her, came a little courage that grew and enveloped her. She questioned the darkness, “What are you doing in my house? There is no place for you here.” The dog suddenly started barking. Sangailiu could now see well. She shook her head, as if to shake off something.
“Honoured and revered elders, muhs and my brothers and sons, we are gathered today to discuss whether we should initiate the chuk-su Garoumei, and if yes, which chuk to do. I call on the elders to open up the deliberations,” said Kadiganglung’s grandfather, even though he was among the elders. There were elders more senior to him.
One of the priests cleared his throat and started his opening remark after acknowledging all present.
“We are all angry at the sporadic killings of our villagers as well as of Sangailiu’s villagers by Inrouh’s followers after we had won the war. We are all critical of the inability of the elders and their lack of leadership to guide and control their wayward warriors. Many of our daughters made widows and many of our sons cut down in their prime. We have been greatly wronged. But we are not like them. It is a fact that the villages surrounding us know that we had won the war. We had fought the war not for our pride or for our power. We had fought to give aid to Sangailiu’s village. We gave our help to right the wrong done to our brothers. As one of the biggest and most powerful village in the region, let us decide responsibly and well.”
Many other elders spoke and deliberated on the merits and demerits of the proposed chuk rites.
“Let the younger ones voice their thoughts”, said one of the muhs.
“Inrouh’s village people are not only wicked and foolish, they are weak too. Why don’t we go and finish them off? We would be considered cowards to go and initiate peace with them. In the past they never dared to stand before our forefathers. We must go to war again. They are already weak with the famine,” spoke Dingkham, visibly angry. He was known in his village as moi-gan, fire of lightning, because of his fiery temper.
“I do not doubt they are weak and wicked. Now that the evil worm Inrouh is dead, the others will see sense when we talk to them,” said another.
“We firmly believe that good deeds are rewarded, and evil acts are punished. We fought a just war. Why are we reaping the wrath of the earth? We might as well take revenge for the killing,” said Dingkham’s friend.
“Inrouh had always been a wayward son of his village. His whole village should not be cursed because of one bad seed. We must straighten the crooked path that village had taken. Some of us are angry and rightly so. Sangailiu’s village also have suffered from these unjustified killings. If this goes on without being dealt with, it will cause further pain and trauma to many more. We should take steps to stop this. In the past too, the party that won the war initiated the Rih Chuk to bring back peace,” said Kadiganglung’s father to the gathering.
The elder most among the gathering spoke, “Every warrior’s death was performed with dignity and pride. Tanbaulung’s funeral was not done properly due to the famine. He was the best warrior we had. I also mourn for our wives and for our children. Look at their eyes. What do you see? Look deep into them. We are a people known to keep our word. For our bravery. But most importantly for our search for what is good and right. Yes, many of you are angry, and rightly so. But we don’t want our anger to undermine who we are, and our relationship with our pu-chai sumei, in the other villages. Anger is precious. It is a good force when rightly used. It is a force that propels a people forward and unite when insulted and wronged. Yet we need to use it with caution and wisdom. The war has harmed the friendship and mutual regard between our peoples. It will be wise to think for the generations following us. We must seek to re-establish the goodwill and relations so that the future generations do not suffer from perpetual warfare. By initiating this chuk, it does not mean we lose or are weak. It shows we are powerful and are in a position to forgive.”
He spoke at length on other lungriaks, ways of the people, and ended by asking what the village head thinks.
The village head did not respond straightaway. He looked down at the ground. He did not speak for a long time. Everyone waited. Grey hair was revered among his people. They did not mind him taking his time to respond. They did not feel the need to fill up the silence. When serious things were discussed, gaps of silences were often encountered. It was not an uncomfortable silence. The elders and muhs teach the youths to listen to the silence, for it speaks wisdom.
A long silence passed before he spoke. He stood up. He adjusted his shawl, a white coloured shawl with black borders. With his right hand, he wrapped it over his left shoulder from under his right arm-pit. He looked ancient, with his grey hair and wrinkled, sunken cheeks.
“We are bowed with grief,” he began, “I am deeply grieved. I mourn for the village, the people, and for our ancestors. I had never witnessed such famine in my life. And I have lived a long time. I have listened well to all that you have said and not said. I too have thought deep and long. We have to take out this thorn from our hearts by doing the difficult thing. The land must be repopulated again, it must be made alive. The land must not be murdered along with the people. I think we should consider performing the rih-chuk, to bury the wrong doings of the past, to free ourselves of the hatred and misunderstandings. Then when peace is restored, the land too will heal.”
At the end of the deliberation, it was decided unanimously by all to send word to the two villages to come together with them for the Rih-Chuk ceremony.
Once the decision to perform chuk-su Garoumei was taken, some of the youths in the khangchiu and liuchus became more curious of how chuks were performed in the past. The elders began to teach them every night, after their frugal meals. In one such session, a young boy asked what the ingredients used in this ceremony were.
The old man said, “I’ll tell you all the stories how the chuks started some other time, but for today I’ll tell you samlapma, in short, only what you need to know for the time being.”
“There are five chuks: Rih Chuk, War Chuk; Nggan Chuk, Assault Chuk; Kalung Chuk, Heart Chuk; Nap Chuk, Rice Chuk; and Pouhra Chuk, Grandfather’s Chuk. The ragwang charakhandi-muhjhung-pu, the high priest, performs the rites. Ingredients used for the Rih-Chuk are:
Chuk, a white soft root; Rangkah, a bitter fruit; Ngaihniam, a shoot of a thatch grass; blood from the sacrificial blemish-free dog; fresh water from a brook; and Nkaang, a kind of grass. That’s it.” said the old man.
The boy who wanted to hear about this ceremony was not satisfied with only this boring part of the information, so he asked for more.
The old man looked to the head of the khangchiu to help him out.
Taking the cue, the khangchiu head cleared his throat. “I’ll tell you the story of how the soft white root called chuk was found for the first ceremony of Rih-Chuk. The family who needed to do the first Rih-Chuk in the olden days searched far and wide for chuk, but could not find it. They asked the animals to help them look for it. Those days, man and animal understood each other’s language. Amunga, a bird, told the family that Pallu, the tragopan, knew where to find it. So Pallu was summoned and was requested to bring the chuk. The family promised that if it could do that, any of its wish would be granted. Pallu brought the chuk and as for its wish, it would like to grow a spur on its legs every year and also have the ability to scare and startle even the brave and the fierce. It got its wishes and so the bird has many spurs and also scares people by making a sudden racket of cackling noise every time people pass by.”
It was now the third rainy season after the chuk su Gahroumei was performed by the three villages. The land had healed quickly and the villages began to prosper again. They had put the famine firmly behind them. The bamboos were growing again and the fields looked luxuriant under the summer sky. The birds started to sing again. Cries of newborn babies wafted in and out of the bamboo walls. The mid wives’ inrap, the rack on top of the hearth, used to dry and store food items, filled up with dried river fish, dried meat and other assortment of dried vegetables. They were given so much by the happy households welcoming newborn babies. The grand old woman of the village needed a helper to perform the annual ear piercing ceremonies for the children. Almost all the children born after the Rih-Chuk were strong and healthy.
The muhs were busy again, performing rites and rituals for the village. The village was feared and respected by all its neighbors. It was powerful in war and shamanism. Through the added knowledge handed down by the grandmother of Sangailiu, the pu-muhs’ were feared. They had potions to make the warriors strong. For many generations to come, neighbouring villages would not go to war against Kadiganglung’s village, without first endeavouring a peaceful settlement.
Kadiganglung and Sangailiu worked hard to help build up their family’s barns. Every day they went to their fields together, like an ant couple, Sangailiu walking ahead, followed by Kadiganglung. He looked at her walked down the steps, her slender hips slightly swaying from side to side. Her fair calf muscles contracting and loosening as she walked ahead. He thought how beautiful she looked. Her hair shone again under the sunlight, though it was tied up in a bun since she got married, as was the custom. Also, she had stopped sporting Ndan-sam, front bangs. Wearing a bang was allowed only for the unmarried young women.
Kadiganglung picked a blooming orchid and gifted it to his wife, like he had done many times in the past, before they got married. Life too was blooming again.