Tzudir and his band mates remain cynical. (“It’s nonsense,” Akum Aier, OFF’s long-haired bassist, says when I ask him about a new peace overture from the Indian government.) And yet, in one respect, Rio’s plan is already working. The guys in OFF don’t feel compelled to join an underground faction, and they are beginning to see rock and roll as a ticket out of Nagaland.
The question is: Where to go? Young Nagas feel alienated from “mainland India,” as they call the rest of the country. Most Nagas look East Asian, not South Asian, and those who travel to other Indian cities for education or work sometimes face discrimination or assault. Nagas speak English or Nagamese, not Hindi. They prefer Korean pop or American death metal to Bollywood or Bhangra. In a nation of Hindus, Jains, and Muslims, most Nagas are Baptist, thanks to American missionaries who ventured here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Every morning, I get up wishing I had been born somewhere else,” a 31-year-old engineer confesses to me during a party one night in Kohima.
OFF opens its first set at the festival with “Free Me,” a song that captures this longing for escape and the impossibility of realizing it: “Take me to some place where I can never be / Where I’ll become who I was meant to be,” Tzudir sings, his face aglow in multicolored stage lights. “Politics and sermons, you can’t move me.”
It is sometimes said that the Nagas have lived “10,000 years in a lifetime.” And on the competition’s last night, all 10,000 years seem to go by in a glance: girls in skinny jeans furiously thumb text messages while rubbing shoulders with guys in loincloths and headdresses who carry machetes and wicker baskets decorated with monkey skulls. Thousands of teenagers pack the outdoor amphitheater. The crowd is raucous, fueled by copious local rice beer. A wave of delighted screams washes over OFF, among the hometown favorites, as they take the stage. Throughout their set, fans in the front leap up and down like the colored balls in a toy corn popper.
When the machine-generated fog of rock war finally lifts, OFF emerges as the winner. “We still can’t believe it,” Tzudir texts me from backstage. The next morning I ask him what the band plans to do with the prize money. “Most will go to paying off the loans on our instruments,” Tzudir says, his voice still hoarse. “Then to make a recording of our songs and maybe upload it to the Net, or something like that.”
For a moment, it is easy to believe in the transformative power of rock and roll. The leaders of the largest Naga rebel faction recently met with top Indian officials, and both sides say they are serious about reaching a settlement. But they remain far apart on the details—and in Nagaland, gunfire has a way of drowning out a rocking bass line.