Atim had not thought of herself as a Naga. She knew she was a Tangkhul and she also knew that her people were fighting for freedom. While she was studying in Holy Spirit School in Longpi, near Kalhang, her mother’s village, the girls exchanged stories about the heroic tales of the Alungpashi or the people who live underground, sometimes known as Ishipashi or ‘our people’. Atim had assumed ‘our people’ meant Tangkhuls, rather than the Nagas as a whole.
There was a senior student called Rachael. She would tell the younger girls about the valour of the underground. She said there was one man called Yarchung who was identified by the Indian army by the mole on his cheek. But when they caught him, he jumped down the hills from a moving jeep and escaped. Rachael said that three Tangkhul freedom fighters could kill a hundred Indian soldiers. Her audience listened in awed silence.
The girls would practise Kung Fu moves that they had seen in the movies and were absolutely enthralled by a Tangkhul movie called Ramchoramrin. It had scenes of real ambushes carried out by the underground.
Except for one incident, Atim had not personally encountered the Indian army. That had happened when she was with her mother’s elder sister in the paddy field in Kalhang. When the other women started running away because the army was coming, her aunt was not scared. She stood in the field and the soldiers called out to them. The aunt told Atim to ask for roti and the little girl called out, ‘roti dedo’. A soldier gave her two rotis which she ate hungrily.
Atim had childhood memories of hearing shots at night in Ukhrul when the Indian army exchanged fire with the Naga militants, and on one occasion two people had hidden in their house for several days. One of them was injured. That was the day when they heard that one of the underground had worn a Haora Tangkhul shawl and calmly walked to the army post and shot some officers. Another time, when there was curfew in Ukhrul town and one of her mother’s friends needed to go somewhere urgently, she had put ash in her hair and pretended to be a madwoman.
Later, when she was older and living in the Greenland locality of Ukhrul town, she used to see a very well-dressed young man. It was whispered that he was in the movement and had a reputation for his acts of daring. He even tried to get Atim and her friends to join the organization, but they were not willing to leave their families. Later, they heard he was killed. Atim had also heard of a legendary Naga freedom fighter called Livingstone who, it was said, could turn into a fly and enter the Indian army camps. Atim’s father used to tell her about how he had secretly met Muivah himself at Shirui village.
Sometimes, when Atim was angry with her parents, she would threaten that if they did not listen to her she would join the underground. At the same time, she knew that the life of a freedom fighter was not easy. She had also discovered that there were divisions among the underground. Her mother had told her a story that made Atim’s spine tingle with fear.
Atim’s mother’s friend, Thing Thing, was in the NSCN and living in a camp deep in the forests on the India-Myanmar border. Once, when the women had gone into the forest to collect banana leaves to use as plates, they heard their camp being attacked by the Khaplang faction. All the men, mostly Tangkhuls, were killed. The women ran deeper into the forest. They had no food to eat. One of the women, Ngalangam from Khangkhui village, did not have boots and her feet had started to fester so she could no longer run; she told the others to leave her. They put her under a tree and managed to reach a village to fetch help. When the villagers reached the spot where she had been left, they could not find her body and they assumed that wild animals must have attacked and killed her.