Sentilong Ozukum’s Sincerely Yours takes the readers on a magical ride across nine tales of a land and people nestled between India and Burma named Nagaland-- the land of the ancient headhunting tribes and their tryst with modernity.
Adapted into two short regional films since its release in December 2017 and a major motion picture currently under production, Sincerely Yours has opened new vistas of reinterpreting the Naga society and the hills that they inhabit in the modern world.
Across nine tales, the author pulls every string in the heart as he takes the reader on a timeless nostalgic journey of love, death and redemption that will linger long after the last page has been turned.
Sneak peek of the book! A Teaser ! Here is one of the short stories from the book called "Grandmother" .
I STILL REMEMBER THE summer grandmother came over from the village to undergo a small operation in her eyes. We were not aware of her failing eyesight until the day my father paid an unexpected visit to her home in the village, and she nearly struck her son dead with a stick mistaking him for a burglar. Upon returning home, father made an appointment with the best eye surgeon in town who told him, much to his excitement, that a remedy was available. A simple painless operation would partially restore her eyesight. Soon arrangements were made and the date fixed for the surgery, and on a rainy afternoon in April, grandmother walked into our home. It was true. She couldn’t recognise any of us. I was rather pleased about that.
I had just turned seventeen. Board exams were over and I was having the most terrific time of my life. I did what every boy of my age dreamed of doing but lacked the courage to do so. I imitated everything that was flashed on the television screen. Posters of rock stars with funky guitars adorned the walls of my room. It was ‘Nirvana’ for me to look at them all. My wardrobe was submerged with tons of oversized T-shirts and torn jeans. My eyebrows were pierced in more than one place, tattoos of various designs decorated my arms and my breath reeked of tobacco. As if that weren’t enough, I had even started to sport a little moustache. Being the only child of my parents, you could say that I was rather ‘spoilt’. Actually I was worse. I was every parent’s worst nightmare. I was the living example of what every mother didn’t want her son to be when he grew up.
Every quarrel between a mother and her son in our small neighbourhood ended with the mother pointing her fingers towards our house and declaring, ‘You better listen to what I’m saying if you don’t want to become like…’ That was the summary of my life in a sentence. In school I broke every law in the book. Almost every day my father was summoned by the principal. One day it would be because I had forged his signature. Another day would be because I had broken a few school properties. It wasn’t that my parents did not try to reform me. Father had tried everything he could think of. I suppose he had accepted his failure for he had altogether given up on his role. ‘I’m not your father anymore,’ he shouted at me with disgust, stopped talking with me, and waited patiently for the day when I would walk out of the house and never come back. I wasn’t even sure if that day was coming. My mother on the other hand, in her infinite love and wisdom, tried her best to respect my choices, albeit quite sceptically I would say. She did not embrace me when I pierced my skin or encourage me when I wore my pants way below the waist line, nor did she shout at me when I bombarded the house with the not-so-sweet music every morning and afternoon. She made her peace with the thought ‘this too shall pass’. However, when I decided to grow my hair longer than her own, she couldn’t wait for it to simply pass by. My mornings never missed her long lectures on why it was morally and culturally wrong for a guy to let his hair grow beyond his shoulders. ‘It’s a shame,’ she would cry before letting the sarcasm flow thick, ‘Why don’t we share my skirt as well?’ When she realised I wasn’t going to listen, she bought a bottle of Pantene and handed it to me saying, ‘If you aren’t going to cut it, at least keep it clean.’
However, nature took its own course when grandmother came over to our house. Mother found a new reason to convince me. ‘Are you going to stand in front of your grandmother looking like that?’ she nagged repeatedly. ‘Why can’t you do one right thing and make all of us happy?’
When I still hadn’t visited the barber, the day of the removal of bandages from grandmother’s eyes came. I stood nervously in front of her looking like Samson in his full glory much to the embarrassment of my parents. Given her personality, my parents were adamant that grandmother would leash out a seminar on culture and anarchy, and drag me to the nearest salon. There were loud cheers as grandmother slowly opened her eyes. The operation was successful. She started acknowledging the presence of everyone in the room like a kid asked to identify different sets of animals placed before her; until her eyes rested on me.
‘Who is this?’ she asked looking at my mother, her fingers pointing at my chest.
‘Well, that’s your grandson,’ mother responded with a nervous chuckle.
‘Good heavens,’ grandmother blinked before declaring. ‘I thought the good Lord himself had come for a little personal visit. Come closer so that I can see you clearly.’
Everyone laughed again. I breathed a sigh of relief.
A few days after her operation, mother brought the subject up once again at the dinner table.
‘Tell your grandson to start behaving like a man and cut his hair,’ mother said to grandmother, stealing glances at my direction. ‘I’m sure somebody will arrest him one day in a case of mistaken identity.’
I stared hard at mother for disrupting the peaceful atmosphere and started chewing my food quickly. My plan was to quickly leave the kitchen before grandmother could unleash her tongue on me.
‘Well, what’s wrong with the hair?’ grandmother looked at her daughter-in-law and then at me. ‘I like it.’
Both my parents stopped chewing their food in total shock and sat staring at each other in complete silence. I looked at grandmother wondering if I had heard her correctly. I coughed, and helped myself to a second serving.
‘Have you lost your mind?’ mother cleared her throat. I smirked at her and gulped my food ecstatically.
‘You don’t know how many times we’ve been summoned to the principal’s office for his appearance,’ father chipped in. ‘In a few months he will be denied admission. No college is going to admit him looking like that.’
‘He isn’t a rock star,’ mother continued. ‘He can’t even play the guitar properly for that matter.’
‘Mom!’ I shouted, with my brows in unison and anger boiling within me.
‘Even you sported long hair when you were in your early twenties,’ grandmother looked at her son.
‘What?’ I burst out laughing. ‘Daddy had long hair?’
‘Ask him,’ grandmother smiled. ‘I think his hair was even longer than yours.’
Father completely stopped eating at this point. ‘Stop talking nonsense,’ he yelped.
‘Well, I’m not lying,’ grandmother continued. ‘I thought he was going to sport it till his death but one day he cut it off. Just like that.’
I laughed even more.
‘And his time will come too,’ grandmother said looking straight into my eyes. ‘One day he’ll grow tired of it and walk straight into the barber’s shop. Until that day comes, let’s all just wait.’
‘But he is not going to get tired of it any time soon,’ mother declared lifting a chicken leg from her plate and pointed at my head. ‘Which college will admit him looking like that?’
‘Perhaps we should all look for a college that will admit him based on his abilities and not on his looks,’ grandmother replied.
I immediately transferred some chicken bones from my plate into her plate. If sharing is love, and I’m sharing any of my stuff, it had to be grandma. Both my parents remained quiet for the rest of the evening. The whole night I kept giggling in my bed trying to imagine father in his youthful days.
The next morning, I had yet another round of argument with my mother. My only crime was that I woke up late. But she started yelling at me as if I had just returned home after robbing the local bank. When I remained silent, she started to remind me of all the sins I had committed since birth.
‘You are the skin disease of the entire town,’ she announced as she handed me my cup of tea.
‘Stop it, mom,’ I grinded my teeth.
‘Stop what?’ she scowled, ‘Stop from trying to correct my son?’
She then started prophesying, saying I would end up jobless in the future and go hungry and begging and all that David Copperfield crap. When I couldn’t take her anymore, I kicked the door open, screamed my lungs out and walked out of the kitchen. The most astonishing thing was that grandmother was present in the kitchen the whole time mother assaulted me with her verbal stings but she neither came to my rescue nor joined mother in scolding me. She sat in complete silence as if she had gone hard of hearing.
‘Why won’t you say anything to your grandson?’ mother shouted at her as I walked out of the door.
‘What they say is true,’ mother continued as grandmother continued to sit in silence. ‘Every grandparent destroys their grandchildren.’
Later in the evening, grandmother walked into the TV room as I was flipping through the channels and gently sat down beside me.
‘Can I tell you something if you don’t mind?’ she asked.
‘Oh sure, grandma’ I replied and shifted in my seat. I could see a lecture coming.
‘Can you turn that off for a moment?’ she motioned towards the TV.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I mumbled nervously and pressed the red button on the remote.
‘I hope you won’t hate me for saying this to you,’ she cleared her throat.
‘Why should I?’ I smiled, my heart beating faster. I only had to hold a face that wasn’t so harsh or soft.
‘The thing is …’ she paused, looked toward the ceiling for a moment and then at me. ‘When you have done something wrong in life and nobody corrects you, it means that people have given up on you, and that’s the worst part of being alive. Do you agree?’
I nodded my head. What else was I supposed to do?
‘So, be happy when somebody reprimands you for the wrong you’ve done,’ she smiled.
‘It only means they still haven’t given up on you yet.’
I sat frozen for a moment letting her words sink in. I wasn’t sure if I had fully understood what she was trying to tell me, but the way she said it made me think she was telling me something important. An eerie silence followed.
‘Okay, now switch the TV on,’ she patted gently on my shoulders sensing my discomfort. ‘Let’s watch a game of football together.’
I wasn’t sure if I had heard her correctly but I quickly pressed the buttons in the remote to one of the sports channels airing a football match. It was a repeat telecast of the Spanish La Liga where Barcelona was playing against Real Madrid.
‘Is Maradona playing?’ she asked me.
‘No, he doesn’t play football anymore, grandma,’ I replied trying to suppress my laughter. ‘He has retired long ago.’
‘Then who is playing?’ she asked further.
I explained the teams in detail. I was beginning to enjoy the evening.
‘Who is that cute guy over there?’ she asked me, her eyes fixed on the TV screen.
‘That’s Messi,’ I chuckled and explained further. ‘He is the best player in the world, even better than Maradona.’
‘No one is better than Maradona’ she scowled and then added, ‘I think that guy looks like you.’ I laughed hard, trying to bask in the glory. ‘I think you need to go see the eye doctor again,’ I replied.
‘Now, let’s watch it in silence,’ she suggested.
I still couldn’t believe that I was sitting with my sixty-year-old grandmother and watching a game of football. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends how cool my grandma was. The game progressed steadily and within ten minutes Barcelona scored the first goal.
‘Yes! Goaaal!’ I feigned interest and turned towards grandmother with my hands in the air expecting for a high five. She was dead asleep and snoring lightly, her head leaning against the cushion.
‘Grandma,’ I whispered and nudged her arms gently.
Immediately she woke up, jerked her head forward, blinked her eyes rapidly and then turned towards me. ‘Argentina won the match, huh?’
I rolled onto the floor laughing.
The following morning grandmother announced that she had decided to stay with us for a few more days. That came as a shocker because ever since the day the bandages came off, she had been hell bent on boarding the nearest bus to the village. After the morning meal, mother suggested that I should accompany grandmother to visit a cousin’s place who had been recently blessed with a baby girl.
‘It’s okay, don’t bother him,’ grandmother said stealing glances at my direction. ‘Why would a young man want to accompany an old lady like me?’
‘Come on, grandma,’ I laughed. ‘I’m free all day.’ It wasn’t that I was all eager to spend my day with her. I wanted to make a good impression as long as she stayed at the house. After all, she was with me during my worst times. Moreover, the task was simple. We would hire a taxi and come back the same way. No big deal.
‘Well, if you don’t mind being around me,’ grandmother shrugged her head trying her best to hide her grin. ‘I could use a little help from my grandson.’
In no time I found myself carrying a caged chicken and a crate of eggs and making our way towards the highway that ran towards the cousin’s place. There had been a short spell of rain in the morning but the sky was clear now. Summer was still a month away and it was another beautiful day in the hills.
‘Wait here, grandma,’ I lowered the chicken and the eggs into the concrete road and motioned her to stand still. ‘I will get a taxi.’
‘But I prefer to walk,’ she replied. ‘Taxis make me feel dizzy.’
‘But grandma,’ I tried to sound as polite as I could. ‘It’s more than five kilometres from here and we can save time and energy if we go by a taxi.’ There was no way I was going to walk beside her across the busy streets with the caged chicken and the eggs in my hand!
‘Walking is one of the greatest pleasures of life,’ she replied motioning me to pick up the caged chicken and the eggs. ‘Why would we even try to shorten it?’
‘But we will get more time if we…’
‘Why should we pay money to buy more time? Isn’t it free? Now get moving. We are wasting time.’
Reluctantly I armed myself once again and walked beside her with my head bowed down. The day wasn’t unfolding the way I had expected. We passed along the dusty road flanked by vegetable vendors and confectionery stores. We could as well have been walking out of a refugee camp. People on the road smiled as they walked passed us. School children giggled and speeding motorists slowed down and stole glances at our direction. I kept my head low, my face burning with embarrassment. I wished I could evaporate with the heat of shame I felt within. A young man dressed like a rock star balancing a caged chicken and a crate of eggs on his hands and walking beside an old wrinkled grandmother—this had to be the picture of the millennium.
‘Are you ashamed of walking with me?’ grandmother suddenly stopped walking and stood facing towards me. She must have sensed my discomfort.
‘What are you talking about?’ I mumbled. My face was now the colour of an over-priced tomato.
‘The weather is humid,’ I said wiping sweat from the face with the back of my sleeve and pointed towards the sun which was hidden behind a veil of clouds.
‘You should never be ashamed of doing good things,’ she said and halted a taxi.
‘Let’s take a cab.’
‘It’s okay,’ I tried to smile and continued, ‘We are already half-way there.’
‘You are a young man,’ she smiled. ‘But I’m old and my legs can’t take me further anymore.’
That was the best part of my grandmother. She would always make you feel you are doing her a favour when in fact you were being offered one. I jumped inside the taxi with a sense of relief.
‘Why do you want to live in the village so much?’ I asked grandmother one evening at the dinner table. ‘Why don’t you come and live with us in the town?’
Dad stopped his chewing mid-way and gave me a ‘do – you – even – know – what – you – are - asking-son?’ look.
Grandmother laughed. ‘I am an old tree with my roots planted in the soil where our forefathers toiled. You can’t uproot a tree and plant it somewhere else.’
‘That’s not a proper answer,’ I objected.
‘People here can’t live without the toys you have built to amuse yourselves,’ grandmother explained stealing glances at my parents. ‘And you’re amusing yourselves to death. Too many machines to save time and yet everybody is running short of time. What an irony life has turned out to be!’
My chewing came to a temporal halt.
‘And what do you think is the most important thing in life?’ grandmother thundered looking straight at me. The meat pieces on my plate almost jumped back into the pot. I looked towards my parents for an answer. They were more interested in studying the rice patterns on their plate than take part in the discourse.
I cleared my throat. There were a lot of important things out there. Money, success, fame, power… Right now the most important thing for me was to finish the dinner quickly and sit in front of the TV.
‘Happiness,’ I replied trying to sound intelligent.
Her face lit up, as if she had been expecting me to say it.
‘Why do you think so?’ she asked further.
‘I don’t know,’ I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I guess everybody in the world wants to be happy. So we work hard and become rich and buy things.’
‘But are they really happy?’ she asked me and looked at my dad. ‘I think the biggest illusion mankind has ever conceived is to convince himself that owning more and more things makes him happy. I think real happiness comes only when we give and not when we receive.’
‘Well, that maybe true, but…’ mother hesitated.
‘Then what is the most important thing in the world, grandma?’ I jumped in.
‘A young man like you might not understand this,’ she replied gracefully, ‘But over the years I have come to the realisation that the most important thing in the world is to love others unconditionally.’
‘What is love?’ I chuckled. I had no idea where the conversation was heading. But it felt good to keep grandma busy with my questions and not vice versa.
‘You are the one who listens to love songs all day,’ grandmother laughed, ‘You tell me what love is.’
‘I asked you first,’ I raised my fingers. Yes, I belonged to that generation who listened, watched, talked, breathed and dreamed about love but didn’t know what love was.
‘Love is a lot of things,’ she said. ‘But ultimately love is sacrifice. Without sacrifice there is no love. And the best way to express love is through time. One of the most precious things you can offer someone is your time, and the best way to express your love is by giving away your time. Didn’t Jesus do that by sacrificing His life for us and being there for us every moment of our lives?’
When it was time for grandmother to go back to the village, she summoned me to her room so that she could lay her hands on me and bestow her blessings. She had stayed in our home for more than a month.
‘There are only three things in this world that a man ought to be doing when he is alive,’ she told me as I bowed my head in front of her, ‘Never break a woman’s heart. Never make your mother cry. Never be ashamed of doing the right thing.’
I nodded my head.
‘A man is worthless even if he conquers the whole world but is afraid to fight for the truth.’
‘You break a girl’s heart and you’ll wish to crawl back to your mother’s womb.’
‘You make your mother cry and I will personally make sure you are permanently disabled.’
‘Yes, grandmother,’ I whispered nodding my head in quick successions.
‘Good, now let me lay my hands on your head and bestow my blessings.’
With that, she placed her palms on the top of my head and prayed for me and left for the village.
That was twenty years ago.
And a day hasn’t passed without me thinking of my grandmother and the wisdom she radiated. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been if she hadn’t spent those few days at our house that summer. Not that I followed her principles strictly all throughout my life. Not that I conquered the whole world. It was just that I felt like her words occupied a small space somewhere at the back of my mind and guided my life all along. Like a rudder propelling a ship.
Maybe some of you are wondering if I ever got admission in a college. Yes, I did join college but I can’t tell you the number of years I took to graduate. It’s a record that is yet to be broken in our hometown. And judging by the way kids are becoming smarter each passing year, I guess I will go down my grave with that weighty crown. I was never the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree anyway. Luckily, two years after my graduation, there was a mass employment drive in the Education Department of the state and by a sheer miracle I got appointed as a clerk. My mom shed tears of happiness when I brought the first salary home. I also fell in love with an old classmate of mine and three years later we tied the knot. I corresponded with my grandmother until she passed away a couple of years after I got married and three months before we had our first baby. She was eighty one. When the nurse came out of the delivery room and told me that it was a girl, I knew what we would name her right away.
About my hair? It went off in the second year of college. One morning I stood in front of the mirror and didn’t like the person staring back at me. Instead of college, I headed towards the nearest salon. I guess grandmother was right. It wore me out.
A few months ago, our daughter was flipping through a stack of old albums where I had stacked my college photos. She stumbled upon the young man whose hair ran longer than the ladies’ standing beside him.
‘Is this you, daddy?’ she asked pointing her tiny finger at the old photo.
‘No, sweetie,’ I replied fingers crossed, ‘That’s…That’s an old friend of mine in college.’
‘I like his hair,’ she said.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Memories of an evening dinner flashed through my eyes.
‘You mean this one, right here?’ I asked pointing at the same photo and in the same direction she had pointed earlier.
‘That’s your daddy,’ I replied with immense pride, ‘How could you not recognise your dad, huh?’
I haven’t let anyone bring the scissors anywhere near my head ever since, not even my wife. It’s back to the good old days once again. My wife has taken the role of my mother and every morning I’m bombarded with sermons on why it is a sin to keep long hair. She even said that the Bible forbids men from keeping long hair. She couldn’t locate the passage but she was sure it’s in there somewhere. How I wish I could invite grandmother over for dinner. I am sure she would have supported my new avatar.
After all, it’s just a phase, isn’t it?
About the Author:
Sentilong Ozukum is a civil servant, a motivational speaker, story teller and an emerging literary voice from North East India. His debut novel, Campus Blues, published in 2010 was adapted into a mini television series by Doordharshaan. Sincerely Yours is his second book. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published internationally through Amazon KDP.
Published in India by Heritage Publishing House, Dimapur, Nagaland.
Publisher: Amazon KDP/Heritage Publishing House
Author :Sentilong Ozukum
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