“No, I quit.” I replied.
“Of course you know I didn’t mean just cigarettes,” he said laughing and dipped into his pink pockets for a cigarette that looked like a forgotten soul from Alcatraz. This incident was the final day of the Hornbill Festival in a nutshell. Merry-crazy crowds. Berserk with joy. Swaying in union, with a joyful abandon. Fighting with a passion, drawing blood. Singing along in a pitched frenzy. One after the other, all nine bands set the stage shuddering. The ground groaned under the stomping crowd of more than a hundred panting thousand. Camera crews were provided with thoughtful platforms – beyond flagellation by wildly swirling metal manes. But there was no escape from the dust that was kicked up, rising up like a billowy blanket and settling impartially into every nook and cranny of the cameras. And of course, there was no ducking the occasional bottle that came flying from half an ocean of humanity away. Some even had a few pegs of whiskey in them; I always knew the Nagas to be a caring lot, this gesture set me teary. Not to mention tipsy. Surrounded by so much love, there was nothing to worry about and I descended the platform / tree throne. I didn’t know whether the appreciative roar was meant for the song or my bravado. Roaming half-crazed through the craziest crowd, I touched Nagaland like I had never. I lived the spirit of Hornbill like it ought to be. Above all, I converted myself from a camera-toting coy observer to a mane-twirling, dust-kicking, metal-head. “Hornbill rocks!” The master of ceremonies screamed.
“Oh yeah!” I screamed back with the crowd.
“I touch my heart when I tell you this,” one band member confessed on stage. “You guys are the best I have performed to so far.” The cheery acknowledgment was deafening. The transformation was complete. Rockers who were jean-clad in the morning pranced about the stage in funky skirts. Some doffed shirts despite the biting cold. The vocalist who was seriously gauging his chances a few hours earlier on camera had jumped the barricade and was having his tee clawed. He did look like he never had it better. One after the other the bands executed to perfection what they were chosen for: enthral. When it came to delighting the metal-fed crowd, they were at par making the process of elimination a nightmare. The judges didn’t have an enviable job that night. Performances over, it was clear what everyone from this friendly north east had come looking for that night. There was no one in the crowed who discussed possible winners of the Rs 5-lakh booty. Rather most seemed remarkably disinterested to even discuss who would be taking home the biggest prize money in Hornbill history so far. Those who hadn’t made a beeline for the exit, squatted around catching their breath amidst the settling dust. I joined a crowd who was passing around the last cigarette – a symbolic farewell, ‘thanks for the lovely time’ gesture.
“Any personal favourite?” I asked one of them.
“Everyone should be given first prize!” She said and unhurriedly blew the blue smoke against the returning ashen-white of the sky.