Stories Told at Sunrise: Agh-ü Gwanyule’s Life in Tseminyu

“Tell me the stories of these mountains

Which my heart is yet to know

So that my flight be for the stars

While my heart remains grounded to my roots.”

The alarm rang at 4:30AM. Outside the window, the sun was emerged from behind the hillocks and threw golden rays on the deep valleys. I quickly got up from my bed and changed into my jogging clothes. Sunrise in Tseminyu has always been dear to me. 50 kms away from Kohima, this is a small town dominated by the Rengma tribe. Across the mountains, Tseminyu is surrounded by the hills inhabited by the Angamis, the Semas and the Lothas. In the morning, while the hills are blanketed by cottony clouds, the sun emerges graciously from below, illuminating this tiny town in its warm tangerine hues. The Pughboto hill stands tall as the colours deepen to a warm orange just over the church roof. This is the golden hour of my little town when the the golden rays inject little doses of morphine into my system. Every day begins on this calm and serene note, almost like a miracle. Perhaps, it replaces the dread I wake up with whenever I am in a big city. Tseminyu and her sunrise is the miracle I yearn for.

I got ready for a jog to my Ahg-u’s place (grandmother’s sister) . I jogged up the steps which led to the highway and crossed the line of yellow sumo taxis that were waiting for its passengers to start the journey to Kohima. In general, I observed people getting ready for the day, some were setting up stalls while some were cleaning up. There was excitement in the air to face the day. It made me very excited for what I was going to do. I had decided to spend the morning with my grandmother’s sister who lives alone in Tso-keda (The Big Stone ), a little hamlet further ahead from where I live. According to my forefathers, the place got its name when a cow mysteriously transformed into a stone and it has been there ever since. Much of spending my childhood in the mountains with my community was about getting to hear exciting folk tales and legends such as the one about Tso-keda.

I knocked on her  door and stood outside observing the house that she had built for herself. Time and again, the house reveals stories about her husband’s death. It has become a symbol of her heroism. In a place where the terms of the lives of women are dictated by someone else of power, Ahg-u’s decision to live alone and independently even while in her 80s fills me with strength and inspiration.  Ahg-u and Abon (Grandfather in Rengma) didn’t have any children. Her life came to a standstill after Abon’s death. Life challenged her with loneliness and emptiness. However she was able emerge and fill the empty spaces by building a house and calling it home. Agh-ü taught me an important lesson- life goes on. While I was lost in my thoughts the door suddenly opened and Agh-u stood there, a wide smile pasted on her wrinkled face shining in the golden morning light, “Anga, what a lovely surprise early morning! Please come in.”

Dressed in the usual traditional Rengma Mekhala (wrap-around skirt) coupled with her favourite floral top, gifted to her by my aunts as a mother’s day gift, Agh-ü looked as beautiful as in her youth. In any case, is being youthful really a precondition to being beautiful? Just as in her youthful days, she carries herself with grace and confidence. Maybe that is what beauty is about. It is rare to see her without her collection of colourful necklaces- Tyϋpun and Tycϋha. Tyupun is a bright orange necklace with a black bead. It is worn by both Rengma Men and Women. Tyucha is a necklace worn by the Rengma women. It has bright orange beads with small yellow, white and blue beads in the middle. She brings soul to the necklaces and the colours. The auspicious unapologetic soul of a Rengma woman.    

A steaming cup of tea lay on her table. I don’t usually take tea, but Ahg-u asked me to help myself and make a cup of tea and give her company. I hadn’t been home for a year due to my studies outside the state and it felt refreshing to join Agh-ü for an early morning cup of tea. As I sat down across her, I realised how time had passed by in a flash. She had changed. Her wrinkles and the folds of her skin were now more deep and pronounced. She has stopped dyeing her hair black as though she had finally embraced old age. She looked more peaceful than she ever had.

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We sat ourselves down on her unmade bed, sipping hot tea and witnessing the sunrise through the window. Then Agh-ü She started telling me stories through folk songs, it has always been one of our favourite things-to-do. My favourite one was “The Daughter and her Mother”.

The song went like this:

“When I winnowed the grains, my mother scolded me

When I went down to the river to fetch water, my mother scolded me

If only someone had a mother like mine”

Long ago there lived a young girl with her Mother. They had no one but themselves so the Mother was always protective and particular about her daughter’s well being. She wanted her daughter to always be dressed in her best attire, adorned with the most beautiful ornaments. She wouldn’t allow her daughter to do anything that involved hard labour, “Your only job is to take care of yourself and look beautiful”.

Whenever the young girl went to the paddy field to winnow the grains, her mother would always scold her and send her home. If she dared go to the river to fetch water ,her mother would scold her and say “This isn’t something you should be doing”. A few seasons later, her mother suddenly died and the young girl was left all alone with the house and the paddy fields. Now, whenever she tried to winnow the grains or went to the river to fetch water she would fail. There was no one she could run to for help. She had to toil harder than anyone to meet her daily needs and survive in the harsh world. So, the young the girl was left to lament over the ignorance and stupidity of her mother for she failed to teach her daughter the fundamentals of survival. She now sings and wishes if only someone had a mother like hers, they would understand the pain and hardships she is going through.

After singing the song and narrating me the story Ahg-u spoke again, “Not only does honesty begins at home but the fundamentals of survival begin at home. Children with wise parents learn better how to survive mentally, emotionally and physically.” Agh-ü has found the greatest strength in this folk song throughout her life. As a survivor of tragedy and loneliness, she finds it important for women to be independent from an early age.

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Agh-ü Gwanyule Kent in front of the monolith stone she had put up in memory of her Grandfather Nrilo Kent and her Father Rϋsilo Kent at Tso Keda Junction.

After her mother’s death, she independently opened a small stall in Tseminyu and that’s how she met Abon Chettri, who was from Sikkim. Despite the disagreements from the villagers and the family, they chose to get married. Ahg-u and Abon Chetrri were married for more than 40 years until his death in 2011. As she leaned on the window recalling the bygone days, a melancholic smile spread on her lips. Ahg-u reminisced how Abon was a very warm and affectionate man and in spite of all the hardships he always had the strength to embrace life with warmth and compassion. She describes her relationship with Abon Chettri and their love as an eternal source of strength and hope.

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After narrating, she suddenly got up and opened her trunk which revealed the traditional shawl Nyari. It is generally worn by young girls and is also used as a bridal attire by the Rengma people. She had hand-woven the shawl with handmade cotton . With enthusiasm and pride, she handed me the nyari and said, “Anga, you have just started blooming. You still have a long way to go. But I have become old and this shawl will be more useful to you than it will be to me .So keep it as a gift from me“.

I was touched by her gesture. I accepted it as a symbol of her journey and for all the journeys to come my way. The nyari felt like the baton was passed onto me and I felt like Agh-ü had imparted valuables life lessons that a Rengma woman should know. I felt the responsbility to carry forward her tales and stories to the generations of Rengma women to come. She also took out two passport photos of her and Abon Chettri in their late thirties and told me to keep it as a memorabilia of their youth and love. I carried forward the poignant moments shared and stepped out into. The mesmerzing sunrise had passed and the sun was afloat much higher above the hills while everyday affairs was in full swing in my little town of Tseminyu. 

Post contributed by Kesonye Kath

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