| Aotemsü Jamir | January 2024 | Short Story |

When Miss Vivi announced that we had to create a superhero with a grandparent for our English summer project, I knew that my second visit to Mokokchung was confirmed. The first time I went there was four years ago when I was in Class 1. I don’t remember everything, but I remember that Obu [1] was very funny. I don’t know if he’s funny in the same way that some of my classmates are, but he’s funnier than all the old people who come to our church. Anyway, he told me that the next time I came to Mokokchung, I would be old enough to go fishing with him.

[1] Obu: (Ao language) grandfather

So, when he picked me up at the Tata Sumo stand, the first thing I told him was ‘Obu, now I’m ready to go fishing!’ but then he said we had to finish our work before we could plan anything. Oba and Oja [2] had already informed him and Otsü [3] that I had to finish my project before I could think of enjoying, and he mentioned that he had his own project to finish. I asked him if I could help, and he said yes. For some reason, it made Otsü very happy to see off the two of us when we went out to the town, as if we were heading off on an adventure. The main town area of Mokokchung is about half as big as the main town area of Kohima, but I liked it better because it had fewer shops, so we didn’t have to walk as much. There was just one hardware shop that we had to visit to buy the paint for the bench. Obu asked me to pick the colour. I picked one called ‘Cool Turquoise’ because it sounded…cool. Obu said he had never heard the word, and I believed him because when we got home, he told Otsü, ‘We are going to paint it this tortoise colour picked by Wabang’.

[2] Oba and Oja: (Ao language) father and mother

[3] Otsü: (Ao language) grandmother

Obu retired about four years ago, so he had as much free time as I did. We used this free time to work on the bench for the rest of the day. We had to wait another day for the paint to fully dry. When it had dried, the two of us moved it into the living room. Suddenly, Obu  scared me as he dropped his end of the bench and shouted, ‘Wabang! Now the bench is ready for the interview! I must also get ready then. Are you going to record the video too?’

I had no idea the project was going to be an interview. Miss Vivi told us that we could do a voice recording for a minute as proof and then write down the rest of the dialogue afterwards, but she hadn’t said anything about video.

‘No, Obu. Miss told us to just record your voice.’

‘Is there any rule against taking video? You have my permission. Who knows? We might get bonus marks from your Miss!’

Obu headed into his room, and I headed into the kitchen to ask Otsü for her phone. She was making mapok am [4], so her powdery hands made the phone powdery as well. I cleaned the powdery phone by rubbing it with my t-shirt and headed back to the living room to find a surprise waiting for me. It was Obu, but he had instantly changed his appearance, just like one of those performers who can change their outfits on stage.  He had put on a clean new shirt and given his hair a quick combing. He was taking this interview thing seriously all right.

[4] mapok am: sticky rice roti

‘Let’s start?’ I said.

I sat on a moora facing him, and I had another moora beside me where I kept Otsü’s phone. Obu placed a pillow on the bench for his back and then he said, ‘Chalo! What are we waiting for?’

‘First, we’ll have to come up with the name for our superhero.’

‘Koai, koai,’ Obu started. This was what he said whenever he took time to think. ‘You are talking about those Batman, Superman types, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, but we’ll have to be original and come up with a new name.’

‘Accha, accha, then, in that case, I have the perfect original for you. The Aspirant!’ He almost jumped from the bench as he said this, and then he stood very straight as if he was going to deliver the national anthem he was so fond of singing on his evening walks. Also, he pronounced ‘Aspirant’ as if there was an ‘us’ in the word.

‘Huh?’ I said. The only time I heard anyone use that word was when the pastor asked us to pray for the thousands of UPSC aspirants all over Nagaland.

‘Don’t you know what an aspirant is?’

‘I think I know, but it sounds nothing like a superhero.’

‘Arré! Who is telling the story? If you want to write your story, you go back to your room, and I will sleep sweetly on my bench. You better believe me when I say I’m talking about a real-life superhero, not one of those jokers like Superman or Batman who run around in public in their underwear as if they have no family.’

I started laughing. Obu was getting into one of his moods, and whenever he got into these moods, it was best to just sit back and watch. No one was safe from his insults, and his favourite targets were the helpless characters on TV who could not talk back to him.

‘Fine, The Aspirant. Next question is, what is his origin story?’


‘Origin story. I mean, how did he become a superhero?’

‘Ohh, you should have said like that in simple words. Koai, koai…long ago, when I was a boy like you, it was a time of darkness in the Ao region. We got our first taste of…bad medicines…from our neighbours in Assam. You could not pass by two houses without being greeted by the smell of cough syrup from a window. It breaks my heart to say this, but most of my friends had fallen into its clutches. Our parents and the elders from the community grew worried. They were witnessing their children turn into corpses; you could say it made no difference whether they were buried or breathing. Unable to bear the thought of losing a whole generation, they gathered around and mobilized this massive eradication movement called ‘Addicts to Aspirants’. Hmm, credit to them, because this movement eventually bore fruit. It was slow, but one by one, a young man from a village would give up the bottle for the book, and well, things took a brighter turn.

As part of the movement, most of the prominent Ao villages had announced that they would be sponsoring one aspirant each, so our village also followed suit. Our village chairman gathered all those students from our village who had cleared Class 12. Five, six of us. Don’t laugh!’—Obu struck the bench and gave me a warning sign— ‘Back then, that was a number to be proud of. So, the chairman asked us, “Asen yimer boh aspirant ka tah mali noh?[5]” (Obu said this in a different voice, and it sounds better in Ao, so I’ve written it exactly as he said it). No one raised a hand. The village chairman looked disappointed, and he rose from his chair, ready to leave. At that moment, which I remember like a favourite movie moment, I saw a vision flash before my eyes: I was being paraded on the streets of our village, songs and poems were composed in honour of me, and a flock of young ladies, some from as far away as Kohima, threw themselves at me with marriage proposals in their hands. That was when I shouted, “Mr Chairman! I will be our aspirant!”’ Obu became quiet after this, perhaps even emotional. He looked outside towards the sky.

[5] asen yimer boh aspirant ka tah mali noh?: (Ao language) is there no aspirant among our villagers?

It might have been a bad time to interrupt him, but I just said it. ‘Wait, but if every village had an aspirant, what made you the Aspirant? And since when did it become your story?’

Obu snapped out of his daydream and raised his hand as if to slap me. ‘Arré! Have you no shame? Do you want us to finish your project? Until I get to the end of the story, you are not to interrupt me with silly questions again. Understood?’

I put up my arms. This was no longer my project. Miss Vivi would give me no more than a ‘D’ if she read this. ‘Okaayy, so where do you want to pick up the story from?’

Obu gave me a cold look and resumed. ‘Not long after I announced my ambition, I left for Delhi. My father, your great-grandfather, happened to know someone in Nagaland House, Delhi. It was this fellow who I followed around until he found a coaching centre and a small flat for me. Next question.’

‘Okay, so the Aspirant went to Delhi. I don’t know where we’re going with this, Obu, but what kind of powers did he have anyway?’

‘Now you’re talking sense. The modern world may have something to say about this, but back in my time, when your whole village anointed you as the chosen one, they placed a great responsibility on your shoulders. And with great responsibility comes? Great power, right? Listen carefully, for these were the powers conferred on the Aspirant.

Number one’— Obu raised one finger— ‘super hearing. The Aspirant could hear the shuffling of a rat’s footsteps inside his cupboard. He could hear shouting matches three floors below.  And he could hear the munching of chips from the room next to his. No sound could escape his ears.’

‘Number two’—Obu raised two fingers— ‘super smelling. The Aspirant could get the whiff of fresh pork being cooked two houses away. He could smell all the fragrance notes coming from the ladies who walked past his balcony. And he could smell every drop of alcohol, sorry, cold drinks, that was being poured in his block. No smell could escape his nose.’

‘And number three!’—Obu raised three fingers— ‘super seeing. Without opening his books, the Aspirant could see which of them had dog ears. Without having to go to his balcony, he could see what materials the pigeons were using to build their nest. And he could see every particle of dust on the giant world map covering his wall. No sight could escape his eyes.

Hmm, that’s it, no? What was the question again?’

‘Very long list, but yeah, that’s it. And by the way, he doesn’t even sound powerful. He sounds more like someone who can’t study. Obu, are you sure you’re not telling me the story of your life?’

‘Tebo[6], the world is full of coincidences, and often, the truth is stranger than fiction. I’m reminding you again to learn to listen till the end.’

[6] tebo: (Ao language) affectionate term for a young boy

‘Sorry, Obu. I was just trying to follow instructions. Miss told us to cross-check if we heard anything unbeliev—’

‘You want to cross-check huh? If you want proof, I still remember the exact address. 1021, fourth floor, Mockerchi Nakar!’

A stranger would have been knocked out by what he said, but luckily, I was familiar with the way he pronounced Rani Mukherjee’s name. And Nakar was probably Nagar, going by the way he pronounced Nagaland as ‘Nakaland’.

‘Okay, okay, I believe you, Obu. Let’s move on to the next question. This is a fun one.’ I giggled before I could ask the question. ‘What did his costume look like?’


‘Costume. What did the Aspirant wear?’

‘Ganji banyan. And boxers, to allow the fan to cool his internals. What? Why are you laughing again? If you were in my place, you would be crying from the first day like ‘Ojaaaa! It’s too hot here! I want to come back home!’’

‘I’m just trying to imagine! Now I like where this story is going.’ At this moment, Otsü’s voice came from the kitchen. ‘Wabang! Wabang! Come to the kitchen and collect tea and snacks for the two of you.’

Otsü was waiting in the kitchen with a serving tray. There were two cups of tea and eight pieces of mapok am on a plate. Obu shouted from the living room, ‘Come fast!’

Otsü looked towards the living room, and then at me. ‘What are the two of you up to today? Our next-door neighbours have a newborn, just so you know.’

‘I’m just telling him about the four years I spent in Delhi!’ Obu shouted again.

‘Four months! You spent four months!’ Otsü replied.

‘Four years! You weren’t the one living in Delhi.’

Otsü didn’t reply to this one. She turned to me and said, ‘This old man isn’t going to listen, so you’ll have to make sure both of you eat the mapok am before it gets cold, all right? And keep the volume down.’

‘Okay, Otsü. Thank you.’ Then I went back.

‘Four years, four years’ Obu said as I entered the room.

‘Okay, Obu. Four years. Let’s get back to the story?’

‘Of course.’ For some reason, he said this in English.

‘So, did the Aspirant have any allies?’

‘In the beginning, the Aspirant stood alone. Although he put up a brave fight, he had to admit this was a cause too big to tackle by himself. He needed partners in his quest, so he called for reinforcements from Nagaland. Mr Takotemjen, then my best friend, would become the first Assistant Aspirant. When I picked him up at the railway station, he was accompanied by his friend, Mr Tokishe from Zunheboto. Within a month, our membership swelled to seven members. Our HQ was my flat, where we used to have…gatherings every Friday and Saturday, to address the burning issues of the day. Oh, if only you were alive to witness our debates! The fire in our eyes and voices would have put to shame those people who took charge of drafting the Indian Constitution. We didn’t know it back then, but now we fondly recall those times as ‘The Legendary Era’.’

‘Where are your friends now?’

‘Koai…three of them are no more, three of them are lost God knows where, and the remaining one’—Obu made a funny face as if he wanted to say a name— ‘went on to become a distinguished civil servant.’

‘Whaat? One of you cleared it?’

‘This is not his story; we’ll get to him some other day. Selfish fellow. Self-study it seems…What a tsümar[7] concept it was back then. Hmph!’

[7] tsümar: (Ao language) people from the plains

‘Okay? And what about the Aspirant’s enemies?’

‘My enemy? Yes. Put down her name. Mrs Gupta.’ Obu gathered his fist into a ball. ‘Poor old lady must be part of the pollution in Ganga or Yamuna now, but when she was alive, akakaka. It was almost as if she had powers herself. If I could not wring out all the water from my laundry and a single drop fell on one of her plants, she would come storming upstairs. If I played music above a specific volume that I could not know in advance, she would threaten to snatch away the speaker. If I even dared to cook the pork I managed to smuggle with so much skill, she would be at my doorstep the second I took it out of the freezer. There were times when I thought she would appear in my room if I even imagined eating pork. Aiyah, and whenever I ran into a traffic jam and couldn’t make it home by 8 pm sharp, I would be forced to sleep on the streets.’

‘No way! How did you live four years with her?’

‘Four months!’ Otsü shouted from the kitchen.

Obu turned towards the kitchen and muttered, ‘Felt like four years to me.’

‘Obu, all of this sounds so real, so I suppose the next question wouldn’t make sense.’

‘What’s the question?’

‘Defining moments. Important incidents where the superhero showcased his powers.’

‘And that, Wabang, is where you are wrong again. How can an interviewer make such assumptions?

I’ll tell you why these powers were more valuable than all the powers of fictional characters put together. It was two weeks after Tako and Tokishe joined me. Our discussions during those first two weeks were so intense that we could no longer stand each other’s faces. So, we confined ourselves to our rooms; me in my room, Tako and Tokishe in the other bedroom. We would meet sometimes in the kitchen when we felt hungry at the same time, but nothing more than that. Still, even though we weren’t in conversation, they were in my thoughts whenever I sat down at the desk. But the longer this went on, the more it felt as if something was amiss in the house. You see, whenever I was in the kitchen, or whenever I was in the shared toilet between our rooms, my nose picked up a certain foul smell. And no, it’s not what you are thinking. It was a smell unlike any other I have encountered to this day. I checked everywhere. Was the dustbin overflowing? No. A gas leak? No. Were the two of them flushing the toilet after each use? Yes.

Frustrated, I sat down and told myself, “Arré! I’ve checked every corner of the house, but nothing. So that leaves me with only one place. I know they are studying intensely and trying to avoid disturbance in their room, but I must take the chance.”

So, one night, I deliberately ate very slowly so that I could catch one of them. Tako was the one to come out. After he finished his dinner, I asked him, “Tako, I hope you and the new fellow have settled in well? Do you mind if I take a look at your room?”’

‘Now this sounds like a detective story,’ I said.

‘Shh. The best part is yet to come. With the authority that I had as the original Aspirant, I kicked the door open to catch my guest unaware. However, I was the one who had a surprise waiting for me. The poor fellow had his eyes spinning like a cartoon character! Didn’t recognize me at all. It was then that I solved the mystery of the smell. Right in the middle of the room, measuring at least five feet, was a mountain of filthy clothes sitting on a chair. I nearly threw up, so I tied my handkerchief over my mouth and nose, bandit style, and stepped back. From the doorway, I could see that every inch of their window was occupied by Michelle Pfeiffer, Madonna, and Maradona. There was no sunlight coming in. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I ran out of the room and asked Tokishe from the kitchen, “Brother, I hope you are satisfied with the room?” And the sickly fellow answered, “Yes, but can I ask you one thing? Where is the nearest pharmacy?”’

‘Whaat! So, you saved his life? You think he would have died without you?’

‘Of course! Have you not heard of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy? If not for me, you would have heard of the Delhi Gas Tragedy as well. Look at him. A small-town boy from Nagaland, never lived on his own, never knew how to do laundry. Of course, he would have passed out had I hesitated for one more day.’

‘Wait, but how come Mr Tako didn’t fall sick?’

‘Heh. At the time he told me he didn’t notice the smell at all.  I didn’t believe that, of course. However, it would take another forty years, just before he passed away, for him to reveal the truth. You see, unknown to me, and certainly unknown to Tokishe the simpleton, Tako used to sneak out after midnight to sleep over at his girlfriend’s place. When you find a new home, I suppose you can’t be bothered if your previous house is on fire.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Forget it. Tako survived, Tokishe survived, and I survived, all thanks to my super senses. That’s all that matters.’

‘I feel like I missed something there, but I can’t keep getting distracted from the storyline. Can we now have the final fight?’

‘Final fight, huh? I will perform this part with action if you don’t mind.’ He rose from the bench as he said this. ‘Is the video still on?’

It was off, but I said, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’

Suddenly, Otsü came into the room to collect the serving tray. There were four pieces of mapok am remaining; Obu hadn’t touched his.

‘Aiyah! What drama is this old man up to now?’ she said.

‘You also sit down and watch, or you go back to the kitchen if you can’t keep your commentary switched off.’

Otsü gave him a funny look and sat on the bench he had vacated.

‘By the end of the fourth year, the Aspirant and his assistants had grown to their full strength—seven members. We had honed our skills well, each of us had become full-blooded aspirants, and after many years of maintaining a strategic distance from the exam centre, we decided we were ready to take on the UPSC exam.

Two nights before the big day, we had one last gathering…to rehearse our strategy. All seven of us gathered in my room, and that night, we had our most legendary discussion. So legendary that none of us heard the knock on the door. Guess who it was.’

‘Mrs Gupta!’ Otsü responded before I could say it.

‘Quiet! I’m asking Wabang.’ Obu raised his hand as if he wanted to slap Otsü, but it wasn’t scary at all because he was trying to control his laughter.

‘So where was I before you interrupted? Yes, the answer is right. It was our sworn enemy, Mrs Gupta. With that nose of hers, she had smelt something coming out of my room, and with those ears of hers, she had heard some powerful words. Who knows? Maybe she wanted to be a part of the discussion too. We lowered our voices, I sent the other four to hide in the bathroom and Tako’s room, and then I asked Tokishe to open the main door, with Tako ready to welcome our landlady with a glass of water. But the moment the door was opened, it was clear she wasn’t in the mood to discuss, because who brings a lathi to a discussion? Before she could harm any of my friends, I acted fast. I charged and delivered a flying kick to her triple chin—’ Obu pretended to run and put one of his legs up in the air.

Otsü commented again. ‘You can exaggerate all you want, but please don’t make up things that never happened! You would have been arrested if you did that.’

‘Does it even matter? When we got kicked out of the house anyway? Let me go out with a bang! That’s it, that’s the end of my Delhi story. Done!’

‘Obu! It can’t just end like that? Did you end up homeless? Did you get to write the exam? I have too many questions now.’

‘What more do you want? The hero beats the villain in the end. That’s how superhero stories end, no? Or do you want a happily ever after? If you want that, then I have my happily ever after here.’ He gestured towards Otsü in his cutest manner. But before she could respond to his joke, he gave her a gentle nudge with his elbow. It was time for his afternoon nap.

‘Yeah, but Otsü came much later in your life. That’s one more story you have to tell me when you wake up.’

Obu was yawning by then. ‘Later, later. Akaka, who knew interviews would be so tiring? You ask your Otsü to help you finish the rest of your project. Good night.’

‘Good night.’

I turned to Otsü once Obu began to snore. ‘Was all of that true?’

Otsü spoke in a low voice. ‘Yes, I’m afraid he was just like this in his youth. As you know, he has blown up some details. But if I remember correctly, his Delhi adventure came to an end when the landlady asked them to vacate their flat within a week of their so-called “legendary discussion.” It was shortly after this that he returned to Mokokchung and we met.’

‘So that means he didn’t write his exam?’

Otsü smiled and whispered, ‘No. Anything else?’
‘That’s all. Now I just have to draw and colour the Aspirant.’

A few weeks after school resumed, Miss Vivi returned our papers. The ‘A’ wasn’t the only reason why I called up Obu. There was a comment at the end. ‘Did not see this coming, but I enjoyed this more than I should have. Obu gets full marks for his interview too!’


Aotemsü Jamir is currently living and working in Delhi developing ELT (English Language Teaching) content for a private publishing firm. Prior to working in this field, he had a short stint in the fascinating world of child psychology. He has one short story titled Your Smile Will Bring Us Happiness to the End of Our Days, published in The Criterion Journal. Besides this story, he has compiled a collection of yet-to-be-published works that include two novellas and several short stories. 


Display photo via Unsplash

Find The Mean Journal on Instagram @MeanPepperVine

Tagged in: