In "Waiting for the Dust to Settle", author Veio Pou's delves into the turbulent lives of the Nagas in Manipur. The glimpses are poignant and often harrowing and reflect the turbulent times during the final decade of the 20th century. The book captures, with great sensitivity and insight, the stories of the men, women and children caught in a cycle of violent reparation from all sides, tales of hope as well despair,
The following excerpts from the book have been published with the permission of the author:
"Three young boys were playing their favourite game of marbles by the roadside. The slanting rays of the sun shone on their faces. Sweat visibly dripped down their forehead and onto their cheeks, falling to the ground where it merged with the dust. It was just another day in October. The late afternoon was pleasant despite the weather being dry and hot at this time of the year. After all, the rainy season was long gone and the winter was not quite in sight. Except for some wandering clouds that played with the sun, the sky was clear and blue. For children, it was the perfect time to enjoy outdoor games. The dusty roadside was their favourite space for their after-school games. Whenever a vehicle passed by, the yellow dust would rise and swirl, disturbing them. But it didn’t matter as long as they could get back to their game. They didn’t even mind the dust smoke choking them at times. That was like another game. Sometimes, the dust particles seemed to form an image of another playmate.
It was Rakovei’s turn, and he had bowled the marbles beyond the line drawn on the ground, which was a couple of yards away. His two friends, Manikho and Kangba, had already identified the target marble he was to shoot If he could shoot the target marble with his ‘lucky’ marble he would win the game, and along with it the entire set of marbles. Every kid had his own ‘lucky’ marble, selected as the best of his collection, which he believed possessed some magical quality. Rakovei’s lucky marble was a jet-black one that sparkled when he held it against the sun. Manikho and Kangba’s lucky marbles, which carried some flowery prints inside, were equally precious to them because they had won many games. The boys really cherished this afternoon playtime after their school. Their final examination was still six weeks away, and the pressure to study had not come from either teachers or parents.
But then Rakovei’s mother called him. “Come inside now,” she yelled, “don’t you know what time it is?”
Rakovei hated being interrupted in the middle of a game; after all, he only had a few hours after school when he could play with his friends. Reluctantly he looked up at the sun, which was about to sink into the western hills. But he knew his mother had not called him into the house because nightfall was approaching. In a few moments, the military convoy would be racing down National Highway 39, besides which they were playing. NH 39 is the lifeline of Manipur, as all essential goods meant for the state come through it. Even at the young age of ten, Rakovei, like all the other children in Manipur, knew the dangers of being out at this time."
"Mother, can I go and watch the convoy?” asked Rakovei, hearing the sound of the approaching vehicles.
“What is the fun of watching those ugly things?”
There was silence. Though it was almost an everyday thing, Rakovei’s mother couldn’t understand her son’s interest in witnessing the regular passing of the convoy. Nevertheless, she allowed him to go. “All right, you can look from the front room, but don’t step out,” she warned him.
As the convoy zoomed down the highway, with clouds of dust trailing each dark green vehicle loaded with grim army personnel holding on to their machine guns, the boy’s enthusiasm increased. He would count the vehicles each day to see if the number had increased. The roar of the speeding vehicles produced a strange sound, musical to Rakovei’s ear. As always, the convoy was in a hurry as though they were afraid of the approaching darkness? Or were they late in reporting for duty? Occasionally, heavily loaded goods trucks would form part of the convoy, even though they would lag behind and try without success to catch up. Yet they too added to the rhythm produced by the military vehicles. Rakovei had a strange fascination for the gang of huge men who never smiled but stared blankly at you with cold eyes. They were surely engaged in some serious business. Gripping the heavy SLRs and AK 47s, they looked ready to launch into an offensive at any time. He had watched them at close quarters when they occasionally stopped to buy medicine or other necessities from the nearby shops in the town. And he would marvel at the sight.
Of course, soldiers also patrolled the highway on foot. But they didn’t interest Rakovei much because most of them looked sluggish. They lacked the energy and alertness of the soldiers on the vehicles. Perhaps the long-distance travel along the highway took a heavy toll, so that by the time they reached the town they were exhausted. Or perhaps walking around a town was a welcome relief from the forced alertness that was expected of them along the deserted highway. The times were not peaceful. The regular foot soldiers were more vulnerable to wayside ambushes. There was another convoy that would go up the highway towards the north, but since it passed through the town only in the morning Rakovei usually missed seeing it because of school. The convoys in the late afternoon were the ones to watch out for because the time suited him perfectly. He was greatly drawn to them and marveled at the way the soldiers never parted with their automatic guns and intimidated even the shopkeepers with their attitude. Or perhaps it was part of their military discipline not to act friendly with strangers they encountered on their way. After all, that was also part of their duty. Rakovei had seen their shin-length black boots, their well-patterned olive green uniforms, their camouflaged suits, and their sturdy helmets at close quarters. Was it the clothes that made the men look tough? He had a deep desire to be like one of them, to wear their clothes, to wield a gun, and to be ‘powerful’.
He didn’t know when he began to fancy the soldiers. But that didn’t matter. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, he watched the convoy storm down the highway. And his fascination grew all the more. It was a dream he kept to himself. He was rather a shy child and rarely expressed what was on his mind. The first time he got the chance to partially achieve his dream was when his parents decided to reward him for standing first in class one. When they told him that they would buy him anything of his choice for Christmas, he quickly asked for an army uniform for children. He had seen these tiny uniforms hanging on the sides of shops designed to attract kids like him. Oh, how he had longed to wear one too! His parents were a little baffled at his preference. His mother tried to persuade him to buy a better, warmer and nicer set of clothes. But when they realized that he was adamant, they relented. Besides, how could they say ‘no’ to their only child?"
"As Rakovei stood dreamily staring at the street, his mother called out from the kitchen, “Will you go and bathe? Dinner will be ready soon.” He didn’t quite realize that the convoy had already gone past some time ago. Even the dust that danced to the rhythm of the convoy’s passing had settled. The normal quietness of the town had returned. Though the highway was the lifeline of the state, there was very little vehicular movement. Except for the huge goods-laden trucks and the tourist buses travelling to Imphal, the capital of the state, the residents did not see many vehicles. Very few people in the town owned vehicles. Anyway, the town was so small that nobody needed a car. It was this break in the dullness of the town by the military convoy that partly excited Rakovei. It was a treat to watch the army trucks every day, to hear their tremendous roar, and to feel the vibration of the shaking ground under his feet."