Nagaland Diary – A Trip to Kohima for KET
Frances Pinter

7th January 2012

Frances Pinter
Dr Frances Pinter

I’ve only recently begun to think about my March trip to Kohima since Christmas. It will be an unusual introduction to India, a place I’d never visited before. My husband David is making a film for the Kohima Educational Trust, a body set up by veterans of the Kohima battle to show their appreciation for the help given to them by the Naga people in 1944.

KET wants to help with the education of the Naga young today and tomorrow.

The film David is producing has two main purposes – firstly to preserve the memory of the battle of Kohima and secondly to show something about Kohima today. It will act as a promotional and fundraising tool for the good work of the Trust and hopefully will be used to enthuse a younger generation of people who will continue the work started by the veterans of a battle that took place before I was born – and I’m already of retirement age – not exactly a spring chicken!

India means so many things to everyone, and to each of us the medley of images is different. Part of me is sceptical about the place. So many people go looking for spiritual peace. When they come back, claiming to have found it, I find myself shaking my head with doubt. But everyone says the people are wonderful, always for different reasons. My friend Mary Kaldor, a professor at the LSE loves the fact that everyone will talk to you about politics – but then she is a political scientist. Others love the variety, the sheer size and the chaos. I know I’ll be most strongly hit by the poverty. I’ve seen poor people in Africa and in South America but I suspect it will be on a different scale in India. The number of millionaires in India is staggering. I heard a figure of 50 million, but that can’t possibly be right. Must check my facts.

Sunday 5th February
While David talks about the kinds of settings he’ll need I sat pondering on what can be added to this film to give it longevity. Yet again I found myself thinking of my friend Eva Hoffman who wrote an excellent book called ‘After Such Knowledge’. It is about what happens now that the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying and the ‘never forget’ cry is coming from their children who are themselves in middle to old age. Soon there will be no one on this planet who even knew a Holocaust survivor. Will the Second World War fade into history and barely be a footnote in the textbooks – like the War of the Roses or some such event?

KET is one of many organisations that due to some quirk of history finds a connection between people on different sides of the globe. Not born out of large development projects or tainted by the politics of the day, these initiatives are the creations of people driven by a passion to give back for a very specific reason.
KET is readying itself for the long haul. In place is a Trust that is meant to survive its founders – the veterans of the Kohima battle of World War Two. The stories could be anywhere and at any time – about heroism, sacrifice, fear, sorrow, relief and the triumph of the human spirit. But these took place in Kohima, capital of Nagaland – a place seemingly frozen in time – or so it seemed.

Monday 5th March

Guesthouse Kohima Guesthouse Kohima

Day one in Kohima – after two days of travel. Had breakfast late. Now watching Sylvia and David planning the day. As they sit around the table they are pouring over maps. Sylvia is receiving a crash course on film lighting. David wants to be sure that our itinerary makes optimal use of the sun.

We filmed a lot of memorials, some quite visible, others tucked in between the new buildings. We found the famous abandoned tank. I suggested to David that he filmed looking up high, as it is surrounded by very majestic pine trees.

In the evening we were invited to a 'typical' Naga home. Well, typical of the average Naga millionaire. A huge house, three stories, six bedrooms and as many bathrooms, two sitting rooms, dining room, study, terraces etc. And all, absolutely all, the floors were in marble! The furnishing was sparse, but they'd only moved in five months ago.

The owner was a contractor who clearly had made a lot of money. He was born in a mud hut and has done well for himself. His five children (including three girls) all want to be professionals of some kind. We discussed the Internet. The children love it, but the father was more skeptical. Pfelie – who runs a school called Northfield, told us he forbids access to the Internet at school until pupils reach the age of sixteen – and he encourages parents to do the same. His concern is that there is too much 'unsuitable' material that can undermine the teachings of faith at a tender age. This reminded me of my heated debate once with the Minister of Higher Education in Russia who didn't want to see any reference materials on the Internet because 'they may have mistakes in them'. Well, this is a juggernaut that no one is going to be able to stop. The horse has bolted.

I've been asked to tell a story at the Sunday school in Kohima. This is a tall order for an agnostic Jew. I tried to pass the task on to David, but of course, he's filming. I'll have to find a way around this.

Nagaland isn't quite India. The people have features more akin to the people of Mongolia, Tibet and Nepal. I expected poverty and it is very much like what I've seen in other parts of the world, Africa, South America, Asia – well actually, most of the world. Over a third live below the poverty line.

Tuesday 6th March

The road to Phek

We set out today on something that was originally billed as a four-hour trip to Phek, but depending on who you talked to it was more likely to be six hours. The roads curled around the mountainsides – sometimes paved, more often not.

This is jungle terrain; beautifully hilly, craggy and very romantic. I was surprised how polite people were on the road. The width could only accommodate one vehicle yet it was used as a two-way road. I wondered how the drivers would navigate this. I imagined aggressive youths and more cautious elderly folks blocking the way. Yet there was no tension. The faster jeeps managed to overtake the slower cars wherever there was a slight widening in the road. Tough hairpin turns necessitated tooting the horn to alert people who might be breezing around the corner and miraculously there were no accidents. 

Zhavilie Huozha, Merema

One of our interviews was with an old man we’d stumbled upon in a village in Merema on the outskirts of Kohima. He was 92 years old and very photogenic. Dieze came into his own. Not only did he do the translation, he also recorded what can be used later as the English voiceover. This he did brilliantly. We got him to do the translation for today's interview in Phek where we interviewed the man who took care of Ray Jackson when his plane crashed. This man, called Sosai Hoshi said he was 102 and looked incredibly healthy and robust, as did his chatty wife, Venetsulu Hoshi, who was 'somewhere in her nineties’.

In this little community we found just about everything we needed for atmosphere. The gravestones of the deceased family members (Nagas bury their dead in the family gardens) the cockerel strutting his stuff, the several generations all living together in different degrees of poverty. One of the younger families had a motorbike and a satellite dish, as do many of the houses we've seen.

I wondered why so many people live in houses perched precariously on the steep hillsides and not in the valleys. I was told that that this was because in times gone by people felt more secure on the ridges so they could see if any invaders were about to arrive. Nagaland is made up of lots of tribes and until the middle of the twentieth century headhunting was not unknown!

Wednesday 7th March
We went on to Jessami in Manipur. We’d been warned that we might get stopped by armed men. In extremis we could be taken hostage or worse. We took the risk and at the border a very nice young Indian from Dehli kept apologizing for delaying us as he took down every detail our four passports contained – by hand. We then went to the memorial where from nowhere a wreath appeared. David got one of the fully dressed military men to perform a laying of the wreath ceremony. Everybody seemed quite willing to become part of the film. Sadly they told us we were the first Brits to visit since the war. We then interviewed Ngu Kamo – aged 102 and Vehikhu – a mere 78, dressed in the traditional red blanket.

In Phek we’d interviewed Sovehu Nienuh, a man of 96 years – with all his medals sitting on low Naga stools in wonderful sunshine.

I really don't feel as if I'm doing this diary justice. I don't have enough time to recall all the sights and sounds I'm experiencing. David just points his film camera and captures what he sees forever. I'm trying to translate into words a barrage of information, images and emotions as they swirl around in my head.

Thursday 8th March
I'm up early because it’s raining heavily, and the noise on our ceiling makes me wonder whether it will hold up (the ceiling that is). The monsoons aren't due yet, but no one told mother nature. This is going to be an interesting day!

Sylvia asked what made the biggest impression on me during the two days away from Kohima. It was actually the terrain. The dense foliage of the jungle coupled with the steep cliffs with the constantly changing colours of the stones was absolutely fascinating. I could have driven on for days. I particularly enjoyed the dirt roads and the skill of our drivers left me with no fear whatsoever. My thoughts always veered back to Gordon and how unforgiving this terrain was to the young Brits sent out to fight.

It must have been equally terrifying for the Japanese. One Naga elder asked why was it that two peoples of places so far apart from one another ended up killing each other just here and in the process tearing up and ravaging these tiny village communities that sought no interference from outside and had no resources worth fighting for. They were poor tribal people who were only armed with a fundamental sense of decency. First they welcomed the Japanese, but when they began to plunder their villages they switched allegiances to the British who treated them with dignity, respect and gratitude.

WeddingNaga wedding Kohima

At 2pm we gate crashed a wedding reception. The bride and groom insisted on having a photo taken with us in it. David was allowed to wander about and film at liberty. I traipsed after him with the tripod, trying to prevent any children tripping over it. We were forced to eat, even though we'd just had our safe chicken soup. Somehow I managed to dodge the food but I did eat some of the wedding cake. The attire was a great mix from western smart to traditional dress. The bride had a beautifully beaded white dress and a corsage that must have taken a week to prepare.

There was a local camera man with a VHS video recorder about ten times the size of David's latest HD compact digital device. There was a moment when I saw them each filming one another which was a hilarious site. I wished I had a camera – but tripod carriers don't usually film. I spotted a gorgeous man with hair down to his waist. David pronounced him gay and when Sylvia asked how he could tell he said it was by the way the man held his camera. It seems Pfelie is related to both sides of the family so felt perfectly entitled to take along his four foreign guests.

Kohima Orphanage

Then we went on to the Kohima Orphanage. The orphanage was founded by a very energetic lady who passed away last year. She’d won several international awards for her work. Her daughter continues to run it alone. She used to be married, but they divorced which has had a profound impact on the orphanage because he had a mini van. Now the children have to take buses to their various schools.

So when Pfelie asked them what they needed most they said – a bus. Second on the list was a new sound system and third was some land to make a playground. Although the conditions were sparten the place is run mainly on a self-sufficient basis. They have no staff. There are 79 children and they take care of each other under the eagle eye of the manageress. They are taken in at just after birth only and live there until as boys they find jobs and as girls are married. There are a few in college studying for their BAs. They sang for us. Mostly Christian hymns, but the leads looked like all young boys around the world wanting to become rock stars. Maybe that's because they get so much second hand clothes with cool slogans written on the fronts.

Friday 9th March
Last night we went to bed at a reasonable time as we had to leave to go to a senior politician’s home for breakfast, leaving at 7:30. I really wasn't happy about this, but it was a three-line whip. Once there though we had great views of Kohima which were duly photographed and I ate three digestible pancakes before we set off to set up for the scholarship award ceremony.

Naga Boy

David and I set up at the hall used for the 2012 Scholarship Awards (camera position in the gallery). David rushed around taking still shots and hand held filming of the lovely children. Apparently they'd decided to dress in their tribal uniforms rather than school clothes for our benefit. The girls had some stunning outfits with necklaces that could easily have been sold on Beauchamp Place. There was one boy in what looked like full warrior kit including feathered hat, the only incongruity being a pair of large round-rimmed glasses giving his face the look of a scholar.

As is so often the case with these things the organisation was both a triumph and a shamble. The kids came from a variety of villages, most having had to travel up to Kohima the day before. Proud parents sat at the back.

The students needed individual mug shots to identify them with the names of their donors as well as their own names. Poor things I was reminded of prisoner line-ups. They then were asked to write a letter to their donor. I felt so sorry for them that I got up and talked to them, offering tips about what sorts of things would be of interest beyond their name, sex and age (name, rank, serial number). They were so shy, so well behaved, I really wanted to see someone do something naughty, but it was not to be.

The award ceremony that involved giving the pupils each an envelope of cash began late - of course. Yesterday was a holiday and cash couldn't be drawn out of the bank. When Bendang went to the bank this morning it did not have enough cash. I'm not sure how the balance was procured, but it all arrived after 11:00 (ceremony starting point) and Sylvia, Hugh, Charles and Bendang sat behind the scenes counting the money and putting it into envelopes. I think it was about 12:30 by the time the ceremony began.

Each child came up and received their envelope. After that group photographs were taken, and just when we thought it was over the kids were asked to stay on and return the paper with their donor's name and sign a receipt for the funds before they could go. To keep order they were asked one by one to approach the desk where Bendang presided. He, by the way, who used to have a ponytail, now has a Mohican style haircut. Dieze turned up for a while. I discovered he'd been to visit his mother in Norway many times and has traveled all around Europe but never to England. I could see him fitting into the London creative scene very easily.

Saturday 10th March

Woke up to another day with new challenges. This was the day when we were going to film two ten-year old girls picking flowers, walking along through town and markets and finally placing the flowers on a grave in the cemetery. We wondered whether we would get the right sorts of girls, pretty and innocent looking, but sensible enough to follow film direction. We really lucked out with the two selected by Pfelie. And an older sister came along which helped tremendously. We needn't have worried. They took to the camera as if they were Shirley Temple twins and played their roles magnificently. We finished seven set ups in only three and a half hours. It could have taken all day. We also had some wonderful impromptu scenes such as playing with a monkey that was sitting on a man's shoulder. Everyone was very kind when we halted traffic and bumped into people. At one Market David was filming whilst walking backwards with me behind him, holding his belt and guiding him along. No accidents!

Sunday 11th March
Our first stop was to interview another old man who'd turned his front room into a WWll museum. Lots of shells and strange looking masks. His English was very good and he gave a good interview. Though I had some doubts when he said he thought the British and the Japanese went to war in India because they were of two different races. He said the reason the Nagas sided with the Brits was because they gave them food.

We then went on to another interview of an elder in Jotsoma. Dieze turned up to do the translation. The old man was great. His three remaining teeth were incredibly long. I don't think I've ever seen such long teeth in a human being. But he had a kindly face and a beautiful walking stick.

Eco Project
Jotsoma nature conservation and ECO project

Then we were in for a surprise. The reception committee insisted that we take a short drive with them; only ten minutes they said. In fact it was more like half an hour, but it was heavenly. We climbed up the steep hillside on what was a cleared, but not surfaced road cut out of the jungle. This was true jungle as I've never seen it before.

We passed a cow reserve also cut out of the mountain side. And finally, when we reached an altitude of 6,000 feet we were at a clearing where a chalet was being built – for tourists to stay overnight and enjoy the unforgettable sight of the mountain range that stands at the foot of the Himalayas. It was breathtaking.

The committee brought tea and various things to eat with pancakes. David made everyone stop talking while he filmed and recorded some wonderful bird song. We were accompanied by a very energetic man who had managed to turn his vision of an eco project into a reality through hard work and good political skills, getting the whole of Jotsoma behind the idea of developing this lovely nature reserve.

Now I wish we were staying longer in Kohima. Each day I see something new about this society. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the dirt and the poverty. And while we can see change in the buildings and the roads the real modernisation is happening in the changes in behaviour, attitude, aspirations and communications. The Nagas have a long history and much has changed only relatively recently – all creating a crisscross of societal pressures.

The impact of the Web is huge and can be seen on simple things like the Hornbill Festival website. There will be some very trying periods coming in what will inevitably be a clash of generations. It is likely to be particularly severe as the young challenge the ways they've been taught by their conservative Baptist forefathers. People are talking about both finding and creating identities that work in the 21st century but are firmly rooted in tradition. Compared to many parts of the world the Nagas are in a time warp that is about to break open. Only time will tell if their core values will survive the onslaught. Meanwhile, we benefited from their friendliness and hospitality even while seeing the tip of icebergs of tension and strife.

Monday 12th March
It's our last full day in Kohima.


At Northfield David went into about half a dozen classrooms, all the children were adorable. He also filmed kids dressed in traditional clothing doing little skits for us. We also filmed a few children in the computer room. Then more tea and cakes.

After that we dropped into a state school. I'd had in mind doing a comparison between Pfelie’s school and a state school. But actually to a western eye they all look physically poor, with the state school being just a bit dingier. In both schools children looked happy and engaged. The difference of course is in the teaching. Numbers of pupils in state schools are two to three times the number in private schools.

In the evening disaster struck. The transfer of the days film rushes onto David’s computer failed and it looked as if we’d lost the whole day’s filming. Frantically we did some late evening interviews with people at the hotel. A few weeks later we found a company in the UK who retrieved the day’s shooting from the memory card – but we didn’t know if it would be possible at the time.

Tuesday 13th March
David woke with some good ideas for how to turn adversity to advantage. We weren't entirely happy with some of the interviews yesterday. But we could track down the girl we'd photographed outside the church who is studying music at the University of Leeds. She would certainly be very articulate. And Dieze had told us that he would be coming to Europe in the summer. We could invite him over from Norway, where his mother is living, and get him to check the voiceover translations. So we could re-interview him.

After a quick fried egg and bowl of porridge we went back to the school. The shots we got were actually better than yesterday's. More action, more kids in the computer room, and more playing around on the swings and running into school as the bell rang. (Yesterday they were all in classes when we came so only I sat on the swing). The children also sang Happy Birthday to Rob!

We then set off to the airport, making one last stop at Zubza. We had already shot some footage on our arrival. But David wanted the view in sunlight. Unfortunately it was hazy, and he'll probably have to use the takes from the first shoot  – but it's all ‘in the can’ as they say.


David and I bathed and showered in our luxurious bathroom before having dinner at the Delhi Imperial’s French restaurant. We took a walk around the hotel before turning in and ran into Sylvia and Rob as they were leaving to go back to the airport for their London flight – after dinner with the head of the Harper Collins Delhi office. I felt a little shell shocked from the abrupt change of environment. My head and heart were full of the simplicity of life in Nagaland, but of course, I was happy to be reunited with a hot tub, reasonably safe food and all that goes with the very comfortable lives we lead.

 Frances Pinter, June 2012