War-pic

WAR

Sangailiu was the first one to voice that everything might not be well for the village that something bad was going to happen. When she told this to the family one day, her brother-in-law stared at her incredulously. Where did she get the courage to talk about her dream as something of significance? She’s just a married woman without any children yet. She said that in her recurring dream, the forest beyond their territory was enveloped in a dark cloud and it was coming nearer and nearer. Voicing such a grave premonition was not an easy thing to do for a young woman. She had decided to say it after mulling over it for the hundredth time.

***

Sangailiu gradually settled down in her husband’s home. The first few months went by uneventfully. Her husband did his best to soften the strangeness of living in a new home. Even how her family put the herbs in the dishes were different from hers. They liked to put the garlic in the pot while it was still on the fire. Her grandmother had taught her to put it when the pot was taken down from the fire. There were so many other things that were done differently in her husband’s house.

She tried to do her best in all the chores a woman was expected to do.

***

Her brother-in-law did not say anything but stood up and left when he heard about Sangailiu’s dreams. When he left, there was an awkward silence. The grandfather cleared his throat and asked for a smoke. Sangailiu reached out for the dried corn leaves and rolled into it some tobacco, lit it and passed it to him.

Her mother-in-law and Kadiganglung took her seriously, but did not support her openly.

One day, some emissaries came from Sangailiu’s village. That evening, a messenger came to Kadiganglung’s house, informing them to come to the peikai, the village council house the following morning after the morning meal. This did not bode well. A dead silence fell in the household after the messengers left. To Sangailiu, all the daos and spears hanging on the wall seemed to be moving and speaking to her.

“Don’t drink so much before an important work. It isn’t good for you,” said Sangailiu’s mother-in-law to her father-in-law, Kadigangliu’s grandfather. He had taken more drinks than usual this morning. The upcoming meeting seemed to be weighing on his mind. He muttered, “You women worry too much. Just be quiet. I’m fine.” After he had drunk down the last dregs in his gourd mug, he picked up his spear and dao. Taking the cue from his father, his son, Kadiganglung’s father too took his weapons and stepped out of the house, almost stepping on the chickens.

After they had left, the rest of the family got ready to go to the fields. It was getting late, so they left hurriedly. They met other villagers on their way and discussed what could the matter be. The entire day, everybody was speculating only about the visit of the messengers from the neighbouring village. Many of the villagers returned home early from their fields. 

When nightfall came to the village, the village crier could be heard. His bamboo flame torch could be seen from every nook and corner, as he moved from one place to place.

“Hear all, hear all meimathiu! All able bodied young men from all khangchiu are to gather at the pei tomorrow after morning meal. All field work to take a break. Chaam nai ye, there is news!”

***

Village elders have to be good at balancing when deciding contentious issues. Compromise on serious issues are not palatable to most warriors, especially to those who think it is the manly thing to go to war and prove their manhood. Compromises are considered unfair by such warriors in the aggrieved party. They will then work on the sly and recruit young men to break away and carry out their vendetta.

One evening, Inrouh returned to his village, injured, from a hunting trip. He alleged, falsely, that the hunting party from this medicine woman’s village had forcefully taken away his hunt after injuring him.

Without letting the village elders know, he secretly formed his own party to take revenge.

His friend was sleeping in the khangchiu. Inrouh knew it was time to wake his friend.

He reached out and shook him, while his other hand covered the sleeping man’s mouth to stop him from calling out.

‘Time to go,’ he whispered. “It’s as dark as it’s going to get. You need to keep low and make as little noise as possible.”

“Mmmph,” grunted his friend.

Together they woke up another friend from a different khangchiu.

Then they set out in pitch darkness to carry out their evil plan.

They laid in ambush for the man from whom Inrouh plan to steal his hunt. He did not tell the truth to his two friends. He told them this man had stolen his hunt. Luck seemed to be on their side. The hunter was the last one among the villagers going to the fields. They jumped on him and attacked him. He cried out a single piercing scream during the scuffle. Ambushed, and outnumbered one to three, he was easily overpowered. The hunter fell, dead.

Their dirty work done, Inrouh and his friends fled from the crime scene. Unbeknownst to them, the man walking ahead of the hunter heard the scream, so he turned back to look. He was able to see before Inrouh and his friends disappeared round the bend.  

Seeing them fled, he rushed to the hunter. He was too late. His neck was cut and his limbs splayed on the ground at weird angles. He knew nothing could be done. He quickly covered him with leaves put a sign on a tree branch and ran back to his village.

He ran straight to the khangchiu. He told the head man. Many youths too heard the report.

Arrangements were made to bring the body home. Words got around about the murder like a jhum field on fire and some hot headed relatives of the deceased took revenge by killing a villager.

In retaliation, Inrouh and his war party came to Sangailiu’s village. This time they did not come quietly. 

Distant cries rang out. The warriors keeping vigil at the village gate listened again. It sounded like a war cry. There was a flurry of activities in Sangiliu’s village, as they got ready to defend. The women, children and old people were herded off to the inner khangchiu, the main youths’ house. But there was no escape.

***

When Sangailiu heard about the bloodbath in her village, she crumpled. Childhood trauma flooded her memory. She had lived through an inter-village war.

Sangailiu’s kinsmen came to Kadiganglung’s village, one of the biggest and most feared in the region, to ask for help. The village pei decided to help, after serious deliberations lasting the whole day, but under one condition- they would send an ultimatum to Inrouh’s village to surrender and pay for their sons’ wrongdoing, otherwise they would side with Sangailiu’s paternal father’s village and fight them.

***

The moon shed its light, the feather soft rays flickered down and disappeared among the thick foliage. It remained dark throughout the night. The atmosphere in the village was somber as the dark moon. In the mornings, the eaves would drip with cold brown drops, stench of thatch filling the nostrils. The ferns wet and green.

The warriors gathered at the village opening. The Rih Pi stood up. He was neither very tall, nor muscular, but there was a fierceness about him. The fierceness could be seen around his mouth. A certain commanding look in his eyes. His fingers gripping the spear he was holding white. The knuckles looking like gnarled matted roots.

There was a tense silence. The war leader could read the rippling taut muscles on the faces of the most courageous warriors gathered. He started in a low rumble.  

“No, this cannot continue. They have snatched away what rightfully belonged to the hunter. They have turned a blind eye to his waywardness. The tree had grown strong. The evil kapiw, clump had grown big. They had the opportunity to bend and shape when the cane was tender. The elders were lazy to do that in time. Now there is no question of backing down. Inrouh’s village has to be taught a lesson. Even after Inrouh maimed and murdered our emissaries, the village elders had not reacted to bind their wayward son. We will help our neighbour’s village take revenge. Heads will roll!”

Then the war tactician stood up. “Select your spot, stand your ground. Make it seem you are about to strike, then withdraw, then swiftly strike. Deliver a lightening blow with your dao. Pierce with the spear. Avoid frontal attack. Seek a lightning decision.” So spoke the leader and was received in complete silence, showing absolute agreement by the people.

The warriors then gathered in a tight circle and ululated and shrilled, pounding the ground with their feet and spear. The village warriors’ shout sent shivers of fear and worry down the spine of the women, children and old people staying inside their houses. The warriors began throwing their spears up in the air and jumped up to catch it as it fell back down. The glint of the iron tip danced like mad in the sunlight. Like a falling leaf in autumn sun. Flickering and dancing in all its fallen glory. Short lived, yet beautiful and awe inspiring while it lasted. Such was the life of a warrior.

Kadiganglung too was caught up by the fervour of the other stronger warriors. His lost strength from the hunting accident came back to his chest. The warm blood coursing down his loin, to his thighs and legs. His arms taut with the adrenaline rush. His body seemed to have just woken up. He felt good again. He had doubted he would be fully a man again, after the terrible accident with the spirit tiger. The excitement of a hunt was in the air. The other more timid warriors too joined in in the chanting. The very ground they stood on seemed to vibrate with a life of its own.

Much later, after the war rites and rituals were done, the warriors set out, rippling with shields, daos and spears.

It was a warm night, there was a dusky twilight. No slumber came for Sangailiu and her mother-in-law.

“Take this wine, spirits of the forest, and spirits of war.

I pray that he’ll come home, back from his enemies,

With his limbs intact

To be happy together with the darting birds

Sanctify the warriors, prayed over by the priests

Gone to war righteous.

Before we close our eyes in sleep,

Before we cross the river of death

May we be blessed

To give the soil and people

A son to defend his people and village.”

Thus prayed Sangailiu.

The warriors of the two villages of Kadiganglung and Sangailiu met up at the river creek. They marched on. The fire in the warriors gave way to caution only when the warriors were deep in the thick forest. Everyone was alert, expecting to be attacked any time. The leader cautioned, “We don’t see them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there waiting for us to make a move.”

They encountered the warring party of Inrouh’s at the place they had expected. The fight was a sight to see. Daos, spears, warriors and shields clashed. Cries of pain and courage mingled with the forest sounds. The day wore on. When the limbs of the warriors grew exhausted, the spirits of the forest sent them a breeze. They were renewed.

The Rih Pi of Kadiganglung’s village fought hard and well. He was the best warrior. He was seen last leaping from a boulder onto an enemy, his spear and dao flickering in the rays of light that filtered down the thick foliage. Kadiganglung sent out a fresh battle cry, rousing and renewing the fighting spirit of the warriors and sending fear among the enemy warriors. He was taught well the techniques of warfare and face-to-face mortal combat in the khangchiu, among other things.

Inrouh dashed through the forest like an evil air, cutting down many lives not fast enough to dodge his heavy dao. He used both his spear and dao deftly. On seeing Kadiganglung not to far from him, he flung his spear at him. But Kadiganglung blocked it with his shield, which was made with several layers of cane and overlaid with the thick hide of a bison. Kadiganglung then threw his spear at Inrouh, grazing his side, drawing blood. Both rushed at each other, their daos raised, ready to strike.

For Inrouh, this was his chance to hit two birds with one stone. In his black heart he had harboured hatred for Kadiganglung who had married Sangailiu. Inrouh had set his mind to marry her. With a rage like a tiger cornered, Inrouh attacked. The heavy daos clashed and clanged. Both their shields holding up the hacking of the weapons. Inrouh, seeing an opening, leapt up and brought down his dao on Kadiganglung’s head. In the nick of time, Kadiganglung swerved, saving his skull from being cracked open. Without wasting a move, Kadiganglung spun around, his dao flying at Inrouh, slashing his stomach, right up to his chest. The wound was deep. Inrouh spun around, his eyes getting dark, blood spurting from his body like a bubbling brook. The low hanging tree branches were splattered with dark red blood. The blood dripped down onto the ferns below.

Time froze for a moment. Silence. The silence cracked with the piercing cry of the Rih Pi. His voice carried far. “Inrouh is down. Give up now. Surrender and flee.”

Hearing it, Inrouh’s warriors fled. They knew they would all die, if they stayed and fought.

The warriors of both the villages of Kadiganglung and Sangailiu returned to their respective villages with their war trophies. The fallen warriors were given befitting warrior funerals.

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