By Buno Iralu
Heroes don’t die, they only get bigger after they make their exit. And that’s Athi Kaka Iralu’s story in a sentence.
Athi Kaka (Athi is a Tenyidie word used to address one’s spouse’s older sibling) was and will always be a hero to those who knew him as he should have been known. The little kids, the young, the not-so-young, the old, and the very old folks, who had the privilege of meeting him in person or through his writings, looked up to him and went away with an assurance that everything would be alright. There was an aura about Athi Kaka that made people remember him; a presence that attracted people from all walks of life towards who he was and what he had to say.
At a “belly” size competition of some adult family members, where every participant wished NOT to receive the prize, an innocent five-year-old nephew placed his trump card on the table and proudly declared: “Apfű Kaka’s is bigger than all of yours!” That had the group in stitches and feeling relieved but the resolute confidence in the little nephew’s eyes was enough for them to gauge how seriously he regarded the contest. For this boy, his “Apfű Kaka” was the greatest hero in every regard.
Athi Kaka, noticed and regarded “small” people with a sense of seriousness and earnestness that usually escaped most adults. A scene I watched some fifteen years ago when our own two boys were at their active best, remains as fresh as ever. The two boys comprised his audience as they sat on mini moras under a huge Banyan tree in front of the family home in Medziphema and listened with rapt attention, for more than an hour, to their big uncle “Apfű Kaka” tell them true stories from years past. That one sitting that evening did something to their little minds and hearts. They found a hero. There was this easily recognisable childlike and humble nature in Athi which endeared him to little people.
Athi Kaka was a story teller par excellence. He narrated his tales not for entertainment or in pursuance of recognition. He took to the art primarily and fervently to draw his listeners’ ears and minds to a cause far greater than himself. He did not rehearse his lines or gestures or intonations. He didn’t need to, for what and how he spoke flowed straight from a heart that had heard, seen and felt what a human heart should never have heard, seen or felt.
Athi Kaka had a heart that constantly bled for the Naga braves who were tortured in indescribable manners, modest virgins and older women and mothers who were pushed to the hard ground and raped and killed, young and promising men who were shot down in broad daylight for no crime they had committed, for the villages and granaries that were reduced to ashes overnight, and many more events that shook his sensibilities to the hilt. How could a hero stay idle or silent when he knew there were too many agonizing stories that must be heard and told; when there was too much to be done, and there wasn’t enough time at all?
When he told stories, they were usually real stories he had actually been through himself physically or emotionally. When he related them feverishly, even with traces of fury, it was because he had seen devastations one too many times, caused by injustices and plain senselessness. If he seemed irascible and lacked control, it was because there was too much brokenness within him wrought by the untold pain and humiliation his own people had been through politically for more than seventy years. How could a hero rest when his spirit constantly screamed at him that things weren’t as they ought to be? How could he rest when he saw the blood of innocent people flow time and time again, turning villages and towns into funeral homes where obsequies became the normal thing? What’s a hero if he did not become the voice for the voiceless? If Athi spoke with vehemence and belligerence, it was because he wasn’t speaking for himself.
It was somewhere along life’s way as Athi encountered God and vouched to live for something greater than this life itself that he ran into human and spiritual bulkheads that towered over him and broke him repeatedly. He wrestled with human ideologies and philosophies, even that of believers’, which stood at loggerheads with what his faith represented. He fielded allegations and vain opinions with what his belief system was made up of, to no avail. The hero in him learnt the painful way that human vanities were as real as human ambitions. Did all these hard lessons make him give up selfish pursuits to shift towards a life of simplicity and selflessness, as there just weren’t enough people willing to take the hard, uphill road of sacrifice to serve the greater good of the Naga people? I believe so. A hero, after all, can never be one who amasses wealth and glory for himself and sits on his ivory tower, blind and deaf to needs and cries around him. Athi hardly cared for earthly security, name or fame, but these entities visited him on their own accord on some rare occasions, nevertheless.
Story-teller he was, but there never was a time when I heard Athi Kaka talk ill of others or guffawed at the mishaps and misfortunes of others, not even those who toiled to mute his voice. Like a true hero, he had no time for meaningless chatter or pointless character assassination, not even of those who fed evil to society. He always had more important, more urgent things to let his mind and tongue dwell upon. He respected people – the good, the bad and also the rejects. This hero was also a sensitive gentleman to the core.
When Athi was a young man, to many young damsels then, he was the most good-looking man in town with an impelling charisma to match. When he spoke, people saw through his good looks and found themselves in a world where truth and reality pierced hearts and souls. As a school girl in the 80’s, I first heard Athi Kaka preach the Word of God to thousands of spiritually hungry people at a Gospel Crusade at the Christian English School (Christian Higher Secondary School now) ground, in Dimapur. I watched with awe as people sang, wept, repented from their sinful ways and walked over to the stage to receive Jesus into their lives. I remember wondering if there was anything more glorious, more sacred in the world than what I witnessed. The testimonies of those who found meaning in life from God through the ministry of Athi Kaka continue to live on and bear witness to what a single life touched by God can do for God and His kingdom.
Athi’s love for singing is known by all who knew him closely. How he sang his heart out for one last time to his Creator, and for his son Dieze Iralu and his bride, and for himself, in the kitchen while awaiting dinner, just a few weeks before he took his last breath, will be cherished for a long time. Heaven’s choir surely must sound richer, the bass in particular, now that Athi Kaka has joined the host of angels! Yes, heroes sing. They sing when the songs and beats deep within their hearts burst and they cannot be contained inside anymore. And when they are done singing, their songs and music are carried on by the winds, to faraway lands.
Athi Kaka’s stint at Union Biblical Seminary (in Yavatmal then), were years when sports - football in particular - must have taken a fresh turn as theology and adrenaline got rolled into a bundle and found itself stashing away trophies and accolades time and time again. The prowess and valour with which Athi tackled the game as the Goal keeper each time, I am told, is legendary. Some still remember vividly how, one time, he flew and prevented a goal, but in the process, hit his head on the goalpost and lost consciousness. His pals and teammates from those glory days of sports still narrate about their impressive victories with glints of pride and joy in their eyes. This hero entertained and created indelible memories for many.
Athi Kaka has passed on. He left for his heavenly abode on the evening of April 9, 2020. He left suddenly. No one was prepared for it. His funeral at the family home was brief, simple and quiet, necessitated by the social distancing policy set by the government on account of the Covid 19. Many felt that should not have been. They expressed that they should have been given the time and space to come and pour out their great sorrows, point their muzzle-loading guns to the skies and pull the triggers in respect, and wail and mourn to their hearts’ content in true tribal Naga style at such a time. Yet, our Sovereign God has his own way and timing. And knowing Athi Kaka, he would probably have thought it improper, even wrong, to be celebrating his life and singing his praises when the Naga struggle, the longest standing struggle for independence in any given history, was not yet over. When his people’s agonies have not been erased, when fear and terror still stalked the true sons and daughters of the land, perhaps it was most apt that people remained in their quiet homes, discussed the chronology of the Naga narrative at leisure and reflected on what is still left to be attained and achieved. Perhaps Athi would also have wanted it that way.
Like a true hero, he laid still in his coffin, peaceful and at rest, having sown sufficient seeds in the hearts and souls of those who listened and understood, for them to take the baton from then on to carry on the mission. No, Athi might not have wanted throngs of people to come and look at him and think hope is no more; that hope is dead. Rather, he would have wanted every thinking and feeling citizen to take time in the quietness of their homes and work through the turmoil and sorrow in their hearts and grasp the enormity and severity of what he had stood for and had given his life for. Yes, Athi would have preferred that. He would have preferred to let the Naga saga spread through quiet, but real and deep conversations around the family fire, the dining table, and the Morung. It is not the end; it is only of one handing over the task to the next person until daylight breaks for the nation Athi loved dearly with his very existence.
Athi Kaka shed all forms of comfort, sophistication, pretension and decorum to fight for a cause that was for him, “Now or never!” He had his flaws alright, but who hasn’t? Without his failings, he would not have been a human, but a demigod. No, he was as human as a human could ever have been. Which is why, in retrospection, Athi Kaka’s life and the cause he stood for undeterred, must be celebrated but more importantly, be understood and emulated by anyone who cares for truth and justice to flourish and find their rightful place. Athi Kaka was never lauded enough nor was he loved enough. Nay, we failed him on many accounts. On his part, he never whined or demanded what was deprived him. On the other hand, what was for the welfare and good of others – the weak, the harassed, the voiceless, he fought with a fierceness and audacity which no power on earth could arrest. That’s a hero to the core.
It is true, heroes don’t die, they only get bigger when they leave. Athi Kaka has left the stage. It’s time now for his voice and his convictions to multiply and take deeper roots in minds and hearts. It’s time for his legacy to take flight, soar high and reach places which have never been reached before. Conversations on the Naga saga must continue on until it reaches a just and legitimate end.
As for you, Athi Kaka Iralu, even if history pages missed out on you one day, hearts will not. Your memory and legacy will live on. Real heroes live in people’s hearts, not on some pages that can fade away.