It seemed like any other Sunday- most of us were in church, singing hymns in praise of the Lord. The Christian missionaries from Nagaland and Mizoram had arrived at our village in Arunachal Pradesh a few years ago and told us about how our souls were lost and we had to let the one true God into our hearts for a place in heaven. Deliverance aside, they brought with them medicines and textbooks. Back then the state was still a union territory and was called the North East Frontier Agency. My father was one of the first in the village to take to the new faith. In a few short years, most of the villagers had converted as well, save for the few older folks who clung on to the old gods and spirits. Takar’s father was one of them.
Despite his best efforts, Takar was unable to convince his father to convert. ‘What good will I be as a father and husband if I can’t even hold on to my faith,’ he had told Takar, soon after he was baptised.
Takar was a regular at church, attending Sunday service even during the harvest season. On the rare occasion that he missed a service it was only if he fell ill, which was an even rarer occasion. He was a strong, stout man in his twenties. His height allowed him to camouflage himself well in the dense forest where he often hunted. With time, he had gained a reputation of being the best hunter in our six-village radius. While he often worried for his father’s ‘soul’, he was a jovial man and was the life of the village feasts.
Today at church however, he appeared uneasy. Takar usually sang the loudest but today he sat at the corner silent as the church filled with the sound of ‘To God Be Glory’.
For a week after returning from a hunt, Takar had not seemed his usual self. His skin had become pale and his eyes wore a look of distant fear. His mother told some of her friends that Takar was having nightmares for the past few nights- shivering, shaking, sweating. The first night they woke him up when they heard him moaning. He had fever but was fine once the sun rose. The next night, the same.
Takar had gone hunting a week before with Marto and Doni. They were gone the entire day and returned late into the night empty-handed. Doni later told us that all along the way Takar kept cursing his misfortune, blaming his friends for the failed hunt.
‘You two were too loud’, he told them.
It was the first time he was returning home from an unsuccessful hunt since the day he ventured into the forest with his father as a little boy for the first time many moons ago.
How would he live this down? Surely the villagers will mock him, he thought. While it was understood that not every hunt will be successful, for Takar game failure was new territory. As they neared the village Takar thought he heard the rustling of leaves in the bushes some distance away.
‘Did you hear that?’ Takar said.
‘Over there in the bushes behind the trees.’
‘You are hearing things,’ Doni told him and suggested they head back.
It was getting dark and it wasn’t safe to be out this late. Takar was unmoved and mockingly told his friends to return home while he went and got something for the village to eat before trailing off into the darkness.
Almost three hours had passed since Marto and Doni reached their homes dejected but Takar had not yet returned. His mother was now worried and went over to their homes to find out what had happened. He’ll be back, they said trying to reassure her.
When he finally did return, Takar was a sweaty mess. His clothes had gathered weed and soil from the forest and his feet were covered in mud. But it was the look in his eyes that disturbed his mother the most. Far from the gleeful joy that his eyes usually wore, they looked as though something inside him had died. His mother yelled at him for being so late and told him she had worried herself to death.
‘Sorry aane, I thought I had found something. I didn’t want to come home empty-handed.’
His mother said something to the tune of warning him to never do such a thing that he didn’t quite catch and told her he was tired and wanted to sleep.
‘What about your dinner?’
As he went to his room, he caught a glance of his father looking at him, eyebrows frowning. Takar and his father were close a long time ago. As the only son, he provided his father with some male companionship in a house full of women. Over the last year though, the two of them had grown distant as he began spending more time with the Ao pastor from Nagaland who preached at the village church. As his interest in the King James’ Bible increased, his interest in listening to his father talk about how in the old days men and wyius, the spirits, fought each other began to wane. Instead he tried to get his father to convert.
‘But you will not get salvation if you continue to believe in the spirits, abo,’ he told him time and again. And each time he got the same answer: I only believe that which I know.
On the third night when he awoke from another nightmare, Takar found his father sitting beside him.
‘It was a Patey, wasn’t it?’
Takar was taken aback but said nothing. ‘How did he know?’ he wondered.
That day in the forest, that rustling in the bushes was indeed a Tiger. Takar had followed the sound for a while and shot his arrow straight into what he thought was a large stag. It had become dark and he could not see what he had thrust his arrow into until he got closer. When he saw that it was no stag, he froze.
He was a good shot and only the tail end of the arrow stuck out of the creature’s heart. It lay there unable to move, breathing heavily, grunting.
Like many of the tribes in the Northeast of India, us Nyishis too believe that man and Tiger are brothers and therefore killing one for game is a sin. Although he had converted to the new faith, the old tales and legends still played in Takar’s mind. He knew that the animal would be dead within an hour and any attempts to save it would be futile. So, he took another arrow, pulled the string of his bow as far back as it would, aimed for its head and sent it deep into its skull.
Once home, he found himself unable to tell anyone about what had happened because he knew he would be forced to perform a series of elaborate rituals to please the spirits. How could he go back to the old ways after having convinced half the village to convert? And so he held his silence.
That day after church I walked up to him and asked how he was. He mumbled something that I could not quite catch before walking away. Over the next few weeks, Takar began to grow reclusive. He stopped coming to church and his eyes grew even more distant. Even when his eyes looked into someone else’s, he wasn’t seeing anything. I went to meet him once, just to check on him. His mother was growing weary watching her son lose himself in himself while his father sat by the hearth every day losing hope each night.
Sitting in his room a few days later, eyes fixed at the forest in the hills beyond the village, Takar seemed to be aware of his surroundings for the first time in a long time.
‘I must go. I understand it now’, he told me.
‘To be with my brother.’
I didn’t quite know what to make of what he said and asked his mother if she knew what Takar was talking about.
‘I don’t know what happened that day in the forest.’
‘Patey,’ his father said fixing the fire.
That was the last anyone saw of him.