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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).

The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

Panama by Panga (Benjamin Howe, Panama, December 2, 1998).

Tower of Babel (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, November 18, 1998).

An Unlucky Place (Katherine Guckenberger, Ireland, November 4, 1998).

The Wonder in the Bog (Allan Reeder, Ireland, October 15, 1998).

The Hills of Sighisoara (Akash Kapur, Romania, October 1, 1998).

Dionysus and the Virgin (Wen Stephenson, Greece, September 16, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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Opium in the Naga Hills

September 1, 1999

The shadow of Burma lies over Mon town. This is the furthest corner of Nagaland -- a small, remote border state in northeastern India -- and is home to the Konyak Naga tribe. Mon perches along one of the smaller ridges of the upper Naga Hills. From here the border post is just twenty-odd kilometers away, but it takes well over two hours to get there. The handful of officials from both countries at the lazy border-settlement would rather sip fortified tea than scrutinize monsoon-ragged identity papers. Their superiors want them to look for opium, but they find little. This is hardly surprising: a single Assam Rifles company patrols this rugged frontier that stretches for about a hundred kilometers. "The border," sighs Mon's district commissioner, "is very porous."

For Indian officialdom, a border exists. For the Konyak Nagas, there is none. It is merely an inconvenient line drawn by a British cartographer in the last days of the Raj who perhaps knew the tribes, but didn't much care which side of the line they were on. Konyaks -- head-hunters until a generation ago -- have never paid much heed to what the surveyor-general recommends.

Up in the highlands of Mon the British still have much to answer for. Opium, the seniors say, was brought into the Naga hills to subdue the tribes and distract the Konyaks from accumulating heads, particularly British ones. The old men of the hill villages still wear bronze trophies around their necks -- little symbolic heads that indicate how many enemy skulls have been accounted for. One little bronze head usually means at least one real head; two almost always means considerably more than two; and three means quite a few. Now these warriors' sons and nephews are full-time opium smokers who often enjoy the luxury of home delivery.

I was taken, one cold evening this summer, to a dense collection of bamboo and thatch-roofed huts on a Mon hillside. Through their roofs rose thin streamers of smoke that collected to veil the valley below. Nyamto Wangsha, the principal of the local high school, was my guide -- he is one of the few figures in the district able to walk unannounced into the homes of the opium smokers. Opium smoking has become a monolithic habit in Mon, and Wangsha has only the Konyak Mothers' Association, a unit of the Assam Rifles, and the over-stretched Baptist Church -- which sees opium as the source of needless social stress in a region that is consistently ignored by developing India -- to rely on for his anti-addiction and rehabilitation agenda.

To this end the principal is nominally aided by an unlikely force: the Naga underground movement, dreaded for its methods even in a northeast that regularly spawns bloodthirsty secessionists. The underground wants an end to the opium economy because potential recruits are lost to addiction and sources of revenue dry up if they go instead to support the smoking habit.

Throughout the northeast, home life in the evenings is conducted around the kitchen hearth. The home we visited was no different, and as we squatted on low cane stools, the rich smell of pork stew surrounded us. Above the hearth was the Konyak Naga bamboo superstructure that rises five feet and forms a dim loft. From it, typically, hang strips and cuts of meat set to cure in the smoke. Tied to the structure were a half-dozen cane baskets. These are placed there for about a fortnight's slow baking, and over time their interweaving strips slowly flex and then bind together in the reflected heat.

Between dark dry meats and burnished baskets are wedged all sorts of small pots and containers: collections of small, wild potatoes and purple onions, assortments of herbs, the inevitable sheaves of bamboo shoot, and jars full of beans. This extraordinary array is the living larder of the Naga home.

Below it sat the family -- a couple and their two children. With them, as much at ease as a visiting uncle, was the opium peddler. He had brought with him a generous stock of raw opium. This is pure poppy extract, first pressed into a square of linen and dried, and then sliced into small strips, about a centimeter wide by five centimeters long. They are sold in little bundles of ten, for about a hundred rupees, or $2.40 in U.S. dollars.

That evening the peddler removed an old cigarette case from inside his pullover. He opened it and shook out the contents: fourteen little stacks of opium strips. He'd arrived in Mon with about twenty; our host had smoked six over the past two days, and was about to embark on his entertainment for the evening with another three. He didn't have very much to do but wait, for his vice was not only home-delivered, but prepared for him as well. With not a trace of self-consciousness, the peddler gently heated the strips in a metal ladle over the kitchen fire. With his free hand, he arranged before him a pan that contained what looked like dark, curly wires. He called the stuff "phallu": grilled remains of a leaf that apparently helps the addict stand the harsh bite of raw opium extract.

In a few minutes the opium was off the strips and had turned into a gummy liquid. The peddler stirred the mass and added the phallu. More minutes of steady stirring followed, until the ladle contained a semi-solid cake of smokable opium. When it cooled, the peddler patted the cookie-sized cake a couple of times between his palms and handed it to our host, who carefully placed it on one end of his bamboo hookah. Using an ember from the kitchen fire, he lit the cake and we heard the water inside the hookah bubble as it allowed the narcotic smoke through. He took a deep pull, the children watched us, his wife stirred their dinner, and the peddler began preparing another batch.

"This," said Wangsha as we stepped outside for a breath of cold hill air, "is an evening routine in Mon." When the strips come out, stalwarts of the Konyak Mothers' Association curse quietly. The opium turns their children into good-natured zombies who can do nothing to help Mon through its long, isolated winters. When we went in again, the opium smoker welcomed us vigorously and asked his son to fetch a box. From it he brought out something that looked bronze, then spoke to Wangsha.

"He's asking if you want to buy a necklace piece," Wangsha translated.

It was a head-hunter's trophy piece, larger than any I'd seen on the elders' chests, and triple-headed. He wanted just six hundred rupees for it (about $15), which would probably see him through another two, perhaps three, visits by the peddler. Antiques dealers in Chittagong, the port city in eastern Bangladesh, would gladly pay four and five times as much for the piece, and would make up to ten times as much on the deal.

We left soon after, without the bronze, and began the slow walk back to the school.

Rahul Goswami is a journalist who lives in Dubai. He also writes for the The Indian Express and the Middle East portal of Orientation.

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Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. Photographs by Rahul Goswami.
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