At 80, Longrichiba Pongener is an extremely busy man. He is more likely to be in Dimapur or Kohima attending to a patient or a client than at home, resting as someone his age should. So after many phone calls and weeks of waiting I finally managed an interview in Mokokchung.
And what a pleasant surprise the meeting turned out to be! You see, his reputation exceeds him and since it took me so many days to arrange this meeting, I expected that he would be something of a celebrity healer but instead he was this little amicable man with a gentle aura and a pair of wizened eyes twinkling with mischief. He has a soft voice. But what got me staring were his palms; they were scarred and stained with years of tearing roots and rubbing leaves, the juices had left a permanent wiry path. A palm reader’s nightmare definitely.
I also gathered that he is a man who likes to get to the heart of the matter immediately because as soon as the basic introductions and explanations were over, he started off.
“Grandpa (referring to himself) was a tiger until I met Jesus during a Revival and threw out my tiger spirit*. I heal people’s ailments through prayer, make medicine using herbs, fix broken bones, massage and find stolen cars”.
I was not expecting the last statement and what was he again? A tiger? I have a thousand questions however this pause is mine not his. He says that he has been a bonesetter since he was seven years old. Nobody taught him how to do it; all he remembers is just following his instincts. He calls it a gift.
“The medicine making is more recent. It’s been just a few years…I think it was in ‘75 or ‘76 that I started making medicine using leaves, seed and bark”, he says.
He then fishes out three little plastic bottles of tonic from his bag that he hands to his clients. They are crudely labeled, scrawled with just the name of the ailment. The smell mistreats your senses badly. And though most of us who are not acquainted with herbal cures would need a certain degree of trust or even belief to down a spoonful, yet people come to him with special requests for these tonics. Longrichiba has an impeccable reputation as a healer and has a long list of grateful clients who would testify of the effectiveness of these tonics.
Though he prepares herbal solutions as per the client’s need, he has his regulars. Among them is an uncoated pellet of crushed leaves, roots, barks and stems for intestinal problems. These are made only once a year because not only is it difficult to procure the raw material but the process of making it is complicated and takes days.
He tells me that he cleanses himself spiritually through fasting and prayer during this time and no one is allowed to come to the house when he is making these pills. In 2011 he made 37,000 pellets. He is gracious to reveal that he uses the touch-me-not in almost all of his preparations.
However, of late the plant is not as abundant as it was years ago, touch-me-not in Mokokchung is disappearing, he says. He collects all his plants from the wild and does not cultivate any. When I ask him if he has anybody helping him, he replies that he had an ‘agent’ collecting leaves for him for many years but he had passed away. Now that it’s difficult for him to be climbing ledges and venturing deep into the forest, he asks people to collect for him though for some special ones he has to go himself.
His medicines are more oral than topical which shows his confidence and experience in his trade. So when I ask him if he would be willing to send his medicines to be tested in a laboratory, he says without hesitation that he would. He then pauses for a while and tells me,
“Do you know, our land is filled with medicines? That every leaf and plant around you is medicinal? We just have to open our eyes. We are always going to need medicines and God has given our land so many that we should take care of it”.
He goes on to add,
“I don’t need advertisement. I have so many people coming to me with so many requests that I cannot give time to all of them but people should know about our land and the plants in it”.
He has no other profession and is a full time herbalist and bonesetter. He doesn’t even crop a field as the rest of the villagers do. Despite not knowing how to read and write and being barely able to write his name, he is known to give pointers to students appearing for their board exams on what to study and what not to. He says that he prays and God shows him the answers. He also talks about love potions and how to make them, divorce charms and how when he was not a Christian he would talk to beings from the other world. I would like to know more about these stories but he asks me not to pursue further as he no longer practices them. It was very difficult for him to denounce his tiger spirit he says.
People flock to him with requests to chase evil spirits, cure enchantments, prayers for success in UPSC, NPSC and election prediction. “It’s a gift” he repeats. I ask him if he would ever take an apprentice or if his children are following his footsteps. He mulls over this and says he can teach whoever is willing to learn about the herbs but that the hindsight, knowledge, and vision that he has inherited is not in his hands, it is God’s to give.
After a pause he says, “This is how it is and this is all there is. I have nothing more to say.”