Mon. The name will not ring a bell for most of us. The land of the last legendary head-hunters, this picturesque district of Nagaland, running along the Myanmar border, is one of the remotest in the country. Mon is also typically considered one of the most “backward” districts. In my one year of work and stay at Mon, I, however, have often felt compelled to contemplate on what it really means to be backward. Having grown up in one of the most prosperous and well-administered parts of India — in and around Chandigarh — and having lived in two megalopolises — Boston and London — I thought I knew what it means to not be backward. The people of Mon, belonging to the Konyak Naga tribe, continuously challenge my hitherto held clichéd notions of advancement and backwardness. I share the story of one such subversion.
One of the grandest annual celebrations in Mon is the “Lao-Ong Mo”, a post-harvest festival of the Konyaks. I too was invited to express gratitude to the divine spirits for the bountiful harvest by way of praying, singing, dancing and feasting. It was a spectacular affair, attended, inter alia, by a posse of political leaders, senior government officials, heads of village councils and local unions. The feast was a gastronomical delight — tables groaning under the weight of an endless array of dishes, prepared from the freshly harvested produce. But more than the colourful cuisine, it was the unique dining experience that struck a real chord. As I walked into the dining hall, a bearer, decked in her traditional finery, handed me a beautifully woven bamboo food tray. The tray was shaped quite like a North Indian thaal/thaali, sturdy yet light to hold. It was lined with fresh green leaves. After I had finished eating, another equally charming bearer swiftly cleared away my tray. I followed my gentle helper, out of curiosity, to the room meant for disposal. I saw her upturn the tray into a large waste bin, also made of bamboo. The leaves had been lined on the trays with such skill that they fell into the bin as a neat little packet with all the waste food secured inside, without any of it soiling the tray, and without the cleaner having to touch any leftovers. The trays were being collected for sunning and reuse.
As per the Konyak tradition, an anti-oxidant rich black tea, called “phika” is served after food. I was again thrilled to find my steaming phika cha poured into a disposable glass, carved out of bamboo stem. Such a seamlessly biodegradable pattern of food consumption was a first-of-its-kind experience. I was also one of the luckier guests, who received a gift hamper of local produce. Recently harvested millets, spices and vegetables were meticulously packed in firm packets made of palm leaf, and all the packets were tucked inside a beautiful sturdy bamboo basket. Not a speck of plastic was used in the otherwise usual guzzlers — feasting and packaging.
Generally, public events of such scale, both in India and abroad, would generate an abominable quantity of non-biodegradable waste. Material prosperity, associated with high-end retail and luxurious lifestyles, but built on toxic and unsustainable consumption patterns, may not quite be a sign of advancement. For instance, Starbucks’ reported consumption of plastic, of which the straws alone annually contribute 2,000 tonnes of plastic to the world’s oceans, is exacerbating global menaces like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and threatening the marine ecosystem.
At the end of the festival, I scanned the vast ground and the massive dining hall and found not a trace of refuse. I stood there for a while, immensely satisfied to have had my stereotypes about “backwardness” take a beating, yet again. It was a powerful reminder that true advancement must encompass the good sense to clean up after ourselves and the thoughtfulness to adopt consumption patterns generating as little waste as possible.
My experiences in Mon regularly reveal to me that there is more to every story and so much to learn in places one might little expect. This new year, let’s embrace advancement by looking beyond the constructed narrative, shrugging off generalisations, and learning from one another’s transformative ideas and cultural wisdom, even those in faraway corners.
The Father of the Nation would have been proud of Mon. I certainly am.
— This article first appeared in the February 4, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Oh so ‘backward’