Sinlung /
28 October 2013

My Mother, The Naga Warrior

By Esha Roy NagaFull circle Child meets the descendants of the warrior who adopted her mother, Ursula Graham Bower, at Magulong; (below) Child and with her mother and sister Allison in England, in traditional Naga attire

Her daughter travels to Nagaland to retrace the fascinating journey of Ursula Graham Bower, the British woman who made her home in these hills in the 1940s, learning the ways of the Nagas, and leading them against the Japanese during WWII It was an arduous journey for 62-year-old Catriona Child. A flight to Guwahati from New Delhi, a train to Dimapur, a night halt and then a 15-hour drive across the sparsely inhabited Peren district of Nagaland. But as she rode through yellowing fields of tall reed encircled by bluish mountains; as she hurtled and slipped while climbing slushy mountain slopes on foot, and hitched rides on dilapidated World War II trucks and newer gypsys, on her way to the remote village of  Magulong on the Manipur-Nagaland border, she was also coming home.

At the entrance to the village, children stood in a line, welcoming them with a song sung to the tune of God Save the Queen. "They had been waiting for us for several hours," says Child, who was accompanied on her journey by a group of friends and cousins. As was their tradition, the villagers offered to carry their guests in but when they protested, they tied a rope to the front bender of the gypsy and pulled it all the way to the church at the centre of the village.

With that, Child had travelled through an arc of time — Magulong was where her parents Ursula Graham Bower and Colonel Frederick Nicholson Betts were married by Naga rites over 60 years ago. Her mother, the amateur anthropologist who lived for several years with the Nagas, whose life and customs she was documenting in the 1940s. Her mother, whose image was splashed on the cover of Time magazine in 1945, celebrated as the woman who led a squad of Naga warriors against the Japanese during World War II.

Graham Bower, who was described by her mother to the Time magazine, as one who "never would sit still", arrived in Assam in 1936, a disappointed woman. Having fought all her life to be sent to the best private schools in England, the 22-year-old had been denied a chance to study at Oxford because of a financial crunch at home. "She felt that her life was over. Till a friend, Alexa Macdonald, whose brother was an Imperial Civil Service officer recently posted in Manipur, invited her to join them. My grandmother, who never understood my mother's ambitions, felt it was
a good thing and that she would find a husband here. Instead my mother found the Nagas," says Child.

In the beginning, Graham Bower, a plump, academic woman, did what other white women of the Raj did — shop at a bazaar in Imphal or watch a polo match on a sunny afternoon. Then, on a trip to Kohima, she spotted the muscular Nagas for the first time, in their traditional kilts and ornaments. Graham Bower would tell Child much later that she felt a strong connection with these mysterious people, a sense that her destiny was tied with them. She began visiting Naga areas and photographing them. When she went back to London and showed her anthropologist friends the photographs, they encouraged her to return to finish the work she had started.

Between 1939 and 1946, Graham Bower travelled to remote villages, helping the people with medicines and rudimentary medical care, as well as photographing them and documenting their traditions. She spent many years among the Zemi Nagas, the object of her study, in Laisong village in north Cachar, Assam.

In 1942, thick in the middle of World War II, her presence and familiarity with the villagers was a strategic advantage for the British, who did not have many friends among the local, often hostile, tribes. "Maybe, because she was a woman and not an official, people began to accept her,'' says Child. Graham Bower's medical kit had become popular among residents. There were few antibiotics available, so the medicines she carried would be the only care they had for sores, fevers and infections. Over time, she developed an unshakeable bond.

When the Japanese army invaded Burma in 1942 and threatened to push forward to India, she was recruited by the British to scour the jungles for the enemy. Bower mobilised the Nagas against the Japanese, placing herself at the head of a formidable band of 150 warriors, armed with ancient muzzle-loading guns. She herself would carry two sten guns. They came to be known as the Bower Force, for rescuing wounded Allied pilots and ambushing enemy missions.

It was in the hills that she met Lt Col Frederick Nicholson Betts, a fellow adventurer, who she married in 1945. The newly-married couple set off toward Magulong a year later to meet the tribes in "Manipur State, outside British India and 30 miles off across forbidding hills". First down into Jiri valley, over a steep hill, climbing over Maovam in lashing stinging rain and running down hills to finally reach a camp where the headman of Magulong, Khutuing, was waiting for them. He was carrying a ge-ze — a human hair-tufted shield and two long strands of human hair in his two ear lobes — a sign that he had taken the head of a Kuki. It was from Khutuing that Graham Bower learnt the headhunter's war cry. "My mother really loved them, as Magulong was a warlike village, very much like Khonoma, where the Angami (tribe) lived,'' Child says.

In her 1952 book, Naga Path, an account of her life in the hills, Graham Bower writes of her second wedding in this village. "Tim and I had been married, the village knew, by the sahib's laws and rites. But there ought to be more. It was right that I, who was a Zemi, should also be married by tribal rites as well — the only rites that the Zemi recognised. Magulong, therefore, proposed to see it done." Not only had the Zemi accepted Graham Bower as one of their own, but she had also started dreaming in their language, believing herself to be one of them, says Child.

For the ceremony, Khutuing adopted Graham Bower as his daughter and another family of warriors adopted Betts. There was singing and dancing and drinking till the early hours of the morning. A villager stumbled upon a bear in the middle of a field and speared it. He said he had killed it on behalf of Betts, in honour of his bride Asaipui, or the queen, as she was known by the Zemi.
Child is here to visit the two families who adopted her parents. Over a meal of meat, boiled greens and rice beer, she tells Gobi and Rimzam Disuang, 88 and 85 years respectively, the descendants of Khutuing, "I only have a sister, no brothers. You are my Naga brothers.''

Rimzam was six when Graham Bower first came to Magulong village, now in Manipur's Tamenglong district. "We had never seen a white person before and were frightened. She had different skin, hair, eyes, ears. She was so big! One of her thighs was the same size as a child. We all ran away. Then she took her gramophone to a small knoll in the middle of the village. There she started playing music. We went up to the knoll and looked around for the person singing the song. But there was no singer. Only a box from which these songs emanated in a strange language. One of the gaon budas (village elders) warned us. He told us not to listen to these songs as they would attract us and convert us to a strange religion,'' recalls Rimzam.

Child first came to India in 1986, intrigued by her mother's stories, and tried to visit north Cachar.

"But there were many restrictions then and I was turned away. I never told my mother I was attempting the trip. When she later found out, she was furious, first of all because it was a dangerous journey to make at the time and also because she was jealous that she couldn't be with me," says Child. It was only much later in 1996, after a decade of building contacts, that she met the Nagas from Magulong in Shillong.

A freelance writer and editor, Child is now documenting many of the dying traditions and folklore of the area. "I am worried that with the onslaught of modernity, the traditions will disappear. At some point I plan to write a book on my journey, just as my mother did,'' she says.

Child recalls that three villages were particularly dear to Graham Bowers — Laisong, Magulong and Asulu. "Not only did I want to come to the village that married my parents but also climb Mount Kisha which my mother spoke so much of and wrote about in her book. The villagers believe that there are spirits on the mountain guarded by the god, Kisha. Even my father, who was an ardent biologist, said that when they had climbed the mountain before their wedding, he heard strange cries that he could not attribute to any animal he had ever known,'' she says.

The mountain, which is estimated to stand at 1,462 m, lies on the Nagaland-Manipur border. Its north face falls in Nagaland, while the other side drops precariously into a clearing where Magulong village sits quietly, forming the northernmost periphery of Manipur and linked by a new muddy road to the world. Time stands still here. Rice is grown in the flat lands at the drop of the ranges, water is collected from the river which forms a natural boundary between the two states and hunters, armed with guns and slings, travel into its forests to bring back birds, porcupine and jungle fowl. There are no grocery stores, no modern amenities, just thatched huts and a church around which village life revolves.

Soon after India won its Independence, Graham Bower and her husband left for Kenya, where Child was born. She never returned to Nagaland after that.

Graham Bower died in 1988, two years after Child's aborted trip to the hills. The villagers of Magulong and Laisong had got in touch with her a while ago. "She wanted to do something for them,'' says Child. After her death, Child gifted the two villages Rs 2.5 lakh each. Laisong used the fund to build a guesthouse and a recreation centre for its children. Magulong used half the amount to set up an annual award for its best student, the other half to buy traditional attire for its cultural performances. "That my mother would really have approved of. She loved the dances of Magulong,'' says Child.



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