Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Bomdo with and without electricity

Its Steinbeck when I get back to the dark already-misty Inspection 'Bungalow' in Bomdo village in Upper Siang; starry sky, the orion, jupiter, the big dipper, the works. There is no electricity and am heady with a drink of rice beer they serve here in copious quantities. Stomach's full of a pumpkin and smoked mithun meat meal with a tinge of the cinnamon-like Taari (a pentatomid bug also called gandhi pok) chutney.

The village is very different when there is no electricity, it is livelier with more conversations. People who would otherwise watch fake wrestling and soaps with lavish make-ups are talking; someone talks of the best places to get firewood for the winter from, others talk of a man who has hunted three wild pigs in a day (thats a record!), someones hunted a barking deer tonight and has arrived to gift the leg piece, about someone who has gone into the forests for four nights to lay cable traps for animals, about rice this year not being productive owing to the rains, about someone who got a lucky contract from the Junior Engineergood money and so on and so forth. Good for me I understand only a little of the Adi they speak here or I could read the news about the village like those eccentric channels in the television!

For me, the evening began with a stroll close to the volleyball field near the Naamghar (the community hall) we have here in Bomdo, I met Jabo who promptly invited me over for a drink and I happily obliged. When I reach his home, he asks me to wait, for he had to have a team meeting about the hunt they are fortnightly on, they are to leave the next morning while the cock crows into the forests beyond the hills behind the village. His wife Olak had been searching for sticky-rice beer called Nogin locally for me and found enough. Jabo got back and announced he was off at 3 am for 3 nights to the Siku camp along the Angong river; a good 7 hour walk from the village for the Adis and a 10 hour walk for me.

Jarring, Jabo's brother is back and announces he ate out tonight at his cousins place where wild pig entrails were cooked. Home food to him was boring, but after he left, Jabo's mom had selected a prime mithun smoked meat slice to go with the tasteless pumpkin boiled earlier. Thats the thing here in Bomdo, one can go to a neighbors home and they oblige with food and drink, for the neighbour is a close relative too and anyway everyone in the village is related to everyone, often both through lineage and marriage. I am an outsider but was being provided a homely drink and a meal, nice!

Back in the 'Bungalow', its dark I can't even see my own fingers! Thankfully I am equipped for this; I have a solar charger that charges the phone that provides a torch and a kindle that provides good read and some music. Am back to ' The grapes of wrath'. Some say one should not read such books in which sorrow is so elegantly depicted when alone and far from home. But I slip and slide away into the story and into the night. 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Twisting by the pool!

I have learnt swimming only this year at the National Centre for Biological Sciences swimming pool. Very nice; a changing room, put on trunks, take along a towel, shower before swimming, put on swimming goggles and get into the blue-looking water – swim as long – a hot shower after the swim, a drier for the trunks, a hair drier even and hot coffee and sandwiches upstairs!

We have such a facility here along the Siang river too; a pool is formed during the month of November aside the Siang river along the sands and rocks and the forested valley. Before November it is still connected to the river so its dangerous, one can win a free ticket to Brahmaputra if one misjudges the current and after November is too shallow to swim. So I went to this pool called Gandhak by the Bomdians two days back with Gekut my manfriday. Sandy banks, the warmth of the sun above, the chill of the onset winter – swim as long – bask in the sun to dry yourself and the clothes, listen to the waves of Siang roar, watch an Indian cormorant glide by, smoke a beedi perhaps, overall a therapeutic experience. The swim was fantastic, the water deep enough for me to stand vertical without touching the bottom. Gekut had earler fixed some banana trunks together with sticks for a float and we thoroughly enjoyed rowing it. Unfortunately it was a one man float and we had a hearty laugh when both of us sat and it upturned! An hour spent there and then we collected some 'taari' and left back for the village.

Taari is a locally eaten insect found below the rocks that is collected for the protein as well as for the cinnaomon-like taste. We left some stones unturned but still collected enough to go with the evening meal. There is also a curious fever associated with eating 'taari', people may be allergic to a certain individual insect and may get spasms for the next four days to week and may remain high enough to not get out of their homes! Still, folks here cannot resist eating the bug and relish it and so do I. I think I will go to Gandhak again only next November.

Gekut rowing the banana trunk boat!

Me, rowing for the first time anywhere ever!

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The norther brother

It had rained several days and the mind was hungover from an overdose of nothingness; a sort of a vacuum, hungover because it was bright for a few hours. It was early April, a bit early for even the pre-monsoon but the rains were on time for the prepre-monsoon. We have many of those in the Upper Siang. Like right now, in early-October, its pouring; the prepost-monsoon rain. A quick plan was made to go north to cover other villages in the district, to know about their shifting cultivation practice and possible economic opportunities. Bamut Medo, the ever-smiling gaam bura accompanied me, later I came to know he was going to have collateral benefits. He is about sixty years old, had pillioned on a bike only a few times and never for so many hours or kilometers. So after a few hours he complained of butt-ache and I duly stopped. It is such a landscape too; a stream, a river, a big tree, a beautiful panorama is always on the way. Sometimes a black eagle does a cameo too..

We pass the villages etched in the hills of Janbo, Mosing, Migging, Pango, Ningging and then Tuting, 120 km away, all the while viewing the Siang river from different angles each time with a background of a different pair of mountains' rendezvous.

We spent a day and a half in Tuting and Ningging and retracked our way to reach Pango. On the way, we crossed a bridge on the now-murky Sira paté river, since it had rained so many days. This is where the trek to the Takin hunting area for the Adis here begins. Bomdo people travel to this point on a Sumo, get off at the Sira paté and start walking. It apparently takes at least a full-days-walk from here.

The Medo clan was here too, in fact Pango was a branch of Bomdo that split and went further north. So we were more than welcome at Bamut Medo's second cousin's place. The evening meal with fresh mushrooms and rice followed the interesting conversations over rice beer we had swigged. Slowly I learnt about Pango and was convinced it was a far more remote village, cached in the hills, with no electricity or telephone network. Even the road to the village was still not complete. Below Pango though, in a shop I had seen Round-up and 2-4-D, two deadly weedicides banned in most developed countries. Its amazing how these things among others find themselves in the most remote places, I've seen hair straighteners, refrigerators, pool tables, TATA Sky, cosmetics in places with no phone network even! I guess with the arrival of televisions, everything else follows. 

The Pango folks make at least three trips a year for the Takin hunt, Bamut Medo's cousin's husband tells me. In fact while we were sitting there in April, a group had gone into the hills to hunt Takin! Then, Bamut asks his brother-in-law for two Takin horns as souvenirs. In Bomdo, among 65 households I think only 6 - 7 households have the Takin horns hunted by the Bomdians. And the next day while we leave late morning, these horns adorned my bike. Star City - Definitely Male with the male Takin horns!

In the morning, we met an old lady, Bamut's first cousin, twice removed, close to a hundred years old, living with her husband. They lived in a separate home this lovely old couple. They also grew the local tobacco called kusér, which is almost locally extinct. They exchanged updates while I looked at a persistent rat trying to pick the rice in the house. Updates about who was born and who had passed on. I was amazed that this kind of information in the times of twitter, facebook, mobile phones and internet gets passed on once in few years! I pointed the rat to the old lady who duly caught it by the tail and whacked it on the bamboo floor a few times, ensured its dead and offered it to the dogs at home who reluctantly nipped at it. 

The return trip was mostly uneventful, we stopped by below Migging village for a quick rum in the cold, and oh before that there was a landslide before the Sira paté. I pushed the bike up and slid down with the bike and then we went along. I think four-wheelers were stuck at this point for the day. 

I look forward to spending some more time in Pango this year. More takin-hunts every year, more people have been to the Indo-Tibet border here and is definitely more remote. Surely there is more to know and write about this place. Watch this space...for more updates about Pango, Bomdo's elder brother!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The monk who did not own a Ferrari!

The monk was from Burma and had come over to India in the late 70s. A long flowing grey beard, a pleasant smile, broken Hindi and a constant peacefulness characterised him. People from far away come here to take his blessings. I was in Devakota, nestled in the verdant hills, encircled by the Yang Sang Chu river in the eastern section of Upper Siang. A bit of background.

Last year's January, Roy and I were headed to the Singha village at the edge of the district close to the Dibang valley district. The trek from Tuting to Singha was to take us about two days, maybe three. The 70 odd km is often traversed by the Membas, Adis and Mishmis in the region in a single day! At Tuting we crossed over the Siang to the other side on a long cane bridge and passed through a few Adi villages; Nyameng and Jido being the first.
Most of the first day's trek was along the Yang Sang Chu, a river that cared a little about directions; it is a river that owing to the terrain, flows from South Easterly to North Westerly direction to meet the Siang close to Tuting. Somewhere after the Jido village, Roy exclaimed “this much forest can hurt the eyes!”. And he was right, in all the directions we could see there were beautiful forested hills, some of them with snow toppings. Since in the landscape we were in settled cultivation along the Yang Sang Chu valley was more common than shifting cultivation along the hillslopes, the forests in the hills looked fairly contiguous.
We figured we had just covered a third of the distance to Singha in the first day and Togorey our Mishmi guide took us to his sister-in-law's place in Nyering where we would rest the first night. Nyering is a village that has a mix of Adis, Membas and few Mishmis. The following day, prayer flags welcomed us to the Memba village Payengdam from where the view of the Dibang valley side was stunning.
The mithuns reared by the Membas looked relatively smaller than the ones reared by the Adis, and as it is looked a bit different and there were horses here too.
As I climbed down from Payengdam gazing at the prayer flags of Mankota, my knees gave in and I decided that going till Singha may not be a possibility. And if the pain in the knees stayed the trek back to Tuting would be even more difficult.

Which is how I spent three days with the monk at Devakota, a little distance away from Mankota! Devakota has a Buddhist temple and two houses beside it where the priests stayed. The monk I stayed with, the head priest, was different in many ways. Firstly, his wife, he belongs to the sect of the Buddhist priests in which marriage is allowed, offered me a mug full of millet beer with a bamboo pipe to drink, which is the Memba style. Of course in the three days I was there I never saw him drink any.

Also, between his prayers at the temple, he often goes to collect firewood or to do some chores. One of the days I went with him and he was intent on clearing a path for bringing back a huge log of wood from the banks of the Yang Sang Chu. When I figured he was tired, I took over in clearing the forest path, and after five minutes he took the Dao back unhappy with the way I was doing the job!
We chatted about Buddhism, about life in Bhutan and here in India, life in Devakota and he also told me that the Government was not sending enough funds to maintain the temple. The monk's wife was very interested in the bird book I was carrying and spent more than an hour going through the pages and telling me the local names for the birds. Later that day the monk told me to take a picture of him wearing his priest robe with his wife and asked me to print it and send it over whenever next possible. This will be possible next month since Roy will be going back.
People from all over Arunachal and even from other states visit Devakota to the Buddhist temple here to do Kora of the temple itself and the hill on which it is located. For me the three days spent there taught me the importance of being idle! I had carried no books to read, there was no electricity and no one to talk much to. But I enjoyed that feeling too. Prayers of the monk in the temple, a constant hum of the river flowing closeby, calls of several birds in the background, colours sprinkled into the day by butterflies, conversations with the monk and his wife filled my days.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Notes from the Aran festival

At 3 am I woke up once hearing the sound of pounding pestles; the Bomdian women were making 'Ittings', rice cakes for the 'Aran' festival. The men were perhaps still sound asleep, for their work begins much later. At 7 am, the men are now busy, gathering palm leaves, bamboo poles and tree boles, each one in charge of slaughtering mithun, pig or chicken. Today is the 'Aran' festival, although it is a hunting festival, it marks the beginning of the farming season. Overall, 15 chickens, 8 pigs and 1 mithun will be slaughtered in four households of the Bomdo village today. The meat though will eventually trickle down to every family in the village either from the clan or the clan-in-law portion. For instance, the Medo clan would divide all the meat among the 10 Medo households with the biggest portion for the household that owned the animal. These ten households will further distribute their portions to their in-laws. This year, although only two clans; the Medo and Duggong households slaughtered animals, the meat will be distributed among the seven clans in the village.

The Aran festival itself has had a herculean effort preceding it. The Bomdian men have been making fortnightly visits to their hunting camps, a day's walk (at least 15 km up and down the hills! link) from the village since last November. All the meat is smoke-dried in their camps and brought back to the village just before the Aran festival. On the day of Aran, the sisters would make rice cakes and offer it to their brothers who in turn would offer them dried meat; this could be of wild pig, serow, barking deer or even, rarely, the takin.

On this particular day, everything went on like clock work. It began with the pigs in the two Medo households followed by the massive millet beer brews. The smoked squirrels on the sides of the Phrynium leaves are supposedly put to bring balance to the brewing filter. And then I went to Kangong Duggong's home, where a huge Mithun was due for sacrifice. This one needed tugging by at least 20 folks and the Mithun actually broke two of the bamboo steps made for strangling it.

Then, there was an unexpected sad news. Bamut Medo, my field assistant's mother had passed on. This was particularly melancholic since I had sat beside her in the morning and someone had checked her pulse, she was alive when I was there. Now, an hour later shes gone. And gone with her are the experiences she has had in this landscape over a century, yes she was over a century old. She had been to Tibet thrice in her younger days, when salt was still bartered with the Tibetans in exchange for rice, rice beer, rice wine beads and cane artefacts from the Bomdo village. This is no mundane experience since the Tibet border is at least ten hills away, some of them snow-peaked. She used to bask in the sun every morning in Bamut's house and on my way and back from field she'd tell me she can't see me but can clearly hear me. With the broken Adi that I know I used to ask her if she had eaten, and she kept telling me it doesn't matter since she will be gone someday soon.

Half hour later I sat for a while with her body, while a tear unchecked made its way down my cheek, I saw her daughters and sons gathered for their final goodbyes. An old man was talking to her like she was alive, maybe she did hear him still. Couple hours later, some meat trickled to the place I stay in too and the day ended with some major notes and one major minor note.