Azuo remembered things in a fragmented manner and her stories were narrated without a beginning, a middle, and an end. You would just have to be around at the right moment to catch the story as it appeared, dredged up from her memory bank, and pondered upon as though it had been another lifetime altogether. She sometimes seemed to doubt that what she was telling us had really happened. She never answered my many questions directly; she simply narrated what she remembered of that time period.
“There was nothing,” she continued the next afternoon as though we had never stopped to eat dinner and gone to sleep and gotten up in the morning. “There was no food when we came back from Dimapur because all the Marwaris had gone away. The Marwaris who sold groceries in their town shops had all abandoned Kohima so there was no food to be had. DC Pawsey was very angry at this and he banned them from ever returning to Kohima after that incident. But then, how could anyone have stayed on in a town that was being bombed day and night? The Brothers Chakravorty and the owners of Doss & Co., all Bengali traders, also ran off to Dimapur, but they kept their shops open with assistants to look after the shops, so they had no problem in coming back to reopen and carry on their trade.
When we returned after the war, we spent our first night in an abandoned house. Many families did that. The house was in a dilapidated condition, but at least the kitchen had a roof and we could cook food.
The five of us joined together the two beds in the bedroom, and we were so exhausted we slept immediately after eating even though the wind was blowing in through holes in the walls. The next morning, we went to find our house and what a shock we got! Nothing was left standing. The place was unrecognisable. There was tin strewn on the ground, and a few burnt planks were all that was left of our house. We cried when we saw the total destruction the war had wrought. Uncle Suohie’s house was the only one in the vicinity that was still standing. It was not a big house, but its walls were still intact. They invited us to stay there while we rebuilt our home, and all of us crammed into that little house. We children were excited to be living under the same roof, but Ntsa was greatly embarrassed by the fact that her family would be imposing on our neighbours for a long period of time. She constantly reminded us not to be naughty and to help Uncle Suohie’s wife with the fetching of water or wood.
In reality, no house in the village had escaped bombing. Even their house had holes in some of the rooms, but it was possible for the five of us to sleep in two of the beds.
Uncle Suohie’s daughter Neiseü was my friend. In the morning, we got up early and excitedly ran off to see the rest of the village. Like us, other people were returning to their homes. We saw several women mourning loudly because they could not find their houses any more. Kohima village was like nothing we had seen before. Most of the houses were gone, and as we went around the ruins, we saw men at work. Some were bringing in posts to make new dwellings, while others were dragging in house materials, such as bamboo and planks, and the women were helping by digging and clearing the debris away.
‘Children, don’t go that way!’ a man warned us when we were about to run past the old British bakery. The British had not removed the corpses of dead Japanese soldiers they had found holed up inside the giant oven. It was from that position that the Japanese had been sniping at enemy soldiers and causing many casualties.
The sight of grown women weeping over their lost homes as though mourning their dead was fascinating for us, and we stood at a distance and stared and stared at them.
Afterwards, when I told my mother about it, she chided me saying that it was very hard for those people who had nowhere to shelter; that it was very rude of us to stare at such people. I felt a twinge of shame when she put it that way. But really, we were children, we didn’t know better. Nor could we have done anything to help. Some men were clearing away the debris of old thatch, bamboo and wood, while others were disposing of burnt stocks of grain. Every few yards we could see the temporary shelters they had put up to live in while they made new homes.
In the Mission Compound area, there were a few houses that had escaped bombing. The Mission House that had been built by Clark was quite damaged in the war. But the chapel and the mahogany house were still standing. Reverend Supplee conducted English services in the chapel regularly before the village was occupied by the Japanese. We would see soldiers come to church with their rifles at their side. They would lay down their weapons, kneel, and pray before going back to their posts. Reverend Supplee and his family were evacuated to America at the beginning of the war, but when the war was over, they returned to their Naga home.
The little mahogany house with its red roof was used as a school building by the Mission School.
By a miracle, the teacher Rüzhükhrie’s house in the Mission area was quite unharmed by the bombing. The few other buildings that survived the bombing were the Jain temple which had been built in the 1920s, and some of the houses that were used by the Marwari traders. These were in the town area. In the village area, there were practically no houses left standing.
The ruins of Kohima village were a result of regular bombing by the allied forces. They said it was the only way to get rid of the Japanese who were very firmly entrenched in the village.
The District Commissioner’s men did not take long to show up. Even as people were dismantling what was left of their homes and scavenging whatever could be reused, such as nails and screws, DC Pawsey and his men drove up with truckloads of tin and timber. DC Pawsey’s Angami assistants set up a table and wrote down the names of all the people who had lost their homes. They went from clan to clan writing down names. Against the names, they wrote down the exact losses suffered by the household, such as loss of grain, houses, and so on. Every family who reported their losses were given new housing material to rebuild. DC Pawsey also distributed some money by way of compensation. The money and sheets of tin were given to all the people with damaged or destroyed houses and granaries. After distributing the tin, the DC’s men, in addition, brought bags of ration rice for all the villagers to use. I heard that they did this in every village that was bombed.
It’s amazing how, after a war, people scramble to get their lives back to normal. We all did this too, rebuilding homes and beginning the cycle of school and field-going as soon as we could.
Excerpted with permission from A Respectable Woman, Easterine Kire, Zubaan.