Sardines in Paradise

Here is this month’s column for First City magazine. Comments more than welcome.

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Sardines in Paradise

When you imagine great road trips, I’ll wager that sitting hunched up in a Tata Sumo cheek-by-jowl with nine other passengers isn’t one of the images that pop into your mind. And especially not when the driver negotiates steep curves by holding the steering wheel with one hand and using the other to support his weight as he leans half-way out of the vehicle, preferring to watch the road free of such nuisances as a windshield. Yet such trips in the hills and valleys of Arunachal Pradesh, where this shared-taxi system is the only economical way of travelling if you don’t have your own car, can often leave you with lasting memories. And bruises.

We set off from Tezpur in Assam, close to the Arunachal border, on a road trip by shared-taxi that would see us cover over 1500 kilometres in 53 driving hours spread over two weeks in Arunachal Pradesh. The pervading Assamese landscape of paddy and mustard fields on deforested lands prevailed right till the border, but as soon as we entered Arunachal, the world changed. Now we were climbing gently through lush virgin forests broken up occasionally by short flat valleys through which gushed dark-green broad rivers. Waterfalls cascaded and leaves reddened in the early winter as we made our way to Bomdila, our halt for the night en route to the monastery town of Tawang.

An Unexpected Bond

Bomdila is a grubby little town in western Arunachal Pradesh with nothing particularly to recommend it apart from a decent library. The next morning, a Monpa tribal boy came to serve us morning tea. As he was leaving, he turned hesitantly and said, in Hindi, “Sir, you watched the match last night.”

The previous night, India had come from behind to square the one-day cricket series against South Africa, which I watched amidst frequent power failures. The policy in Bomdila appeared to be that half the town would have electricity at any given time. After about an hour, they would lose power and the other half of town would switch on.

“Yes. And India won”, I replied. He nodded and repeated, “Yes sir, India won the match.” At that moment, in that meeting of eyes, I became aware of our differences. In age (I am about 10 years older), class, ethnicity (he a tribal, me a South Indian), and language (neither one of us spoke Hindi particularly well, and we’d had trouble understanding each other till then). But on that chilly winter morning at 8am, at an altitude close to 12000 feet in a remote corner of India’s remotest state, our two worlds crossed paths in a unexpected bond over the success of the Indian cricket team.

Soldiering On

After tea, we set out for Tawang, a trip that would take nine hours to cover just 190 kilometres due to the winding mountain roads and the propensity of our driver to stop frequently to pile even more people into and on top of the jeep. As we left Bomdila, I began to see glimpses of Monpa tribal life: here a woman quarrying stone, there some men laboriously chopping wood, here some children rolling bundles of firewood down the road and jumping on board for a fun ride, there an old lady plucking palak and tossing it into the wicker basket she carries on her back but supports with her forehead. Their wooden huts were supported by long poles angled into the side of the cliff; giving a sense of houses literally hung out to dry.

Further down we reached a landslide and while we waited for it to be cleared, I began chit-chat with some of the ubiquitous soldiers. “You’re going to see Tawang?”, they asked.

“Yes, it’s great isn’t it?”

“Nah, it’s ok. No need to come so far from Delhi. You can see the same in Manali or Nainital.”

Fortunately the road was cleared by then, saving me the trouble of raising my eyebrows incredulously at the soldiers. For I had already seen enough to know that Arunachal is incomparable to the bored hill-stations north of Delhi.

By now, it was time for a breather from the winding hills. We descended to the stunning valley settlement of Dirang, with cottages and huts set along the frothy banks of a river that tossed and turned its way down from glacial Himalayan peaks. Outside the town, terraced fields with carefully demarcated plots of cultivable land, each with a house at one end of the property, seemed like humankind’s inevitable attempt to impose order on nature, no matter how awe-inspiring that nature may be, by imposing order on itself. Climbing again, the vistas that unfurled themselves from the windows of our sardine-packed jeep were sufficiently gasp-inducing to distract from the steadily increasing aroma of unwashed bodies (ours included) mixed with gasoline fumes and oily snacks.

We needed to climb through to Sela Pass which, at 13700 feet, guards the entrance to the district of Tawang. Getting close to the pass, the vegetation thinned out gradually from tropical to temperate to barren high-altitude desert and the snow-clad peaks began to play peek-a-boo through the clouds, giving them either a ghostly or mystical aura, depending on one’s inclination. The temperature dropped sharply and all of a sudden body odour could be overlooked by being thankful for all the body warmth.

Building roads in these isolated and rugged regions must be phenomenally difficult and kudos is due to the Border Roads Organization (BRO) for their impeccable work not just here but also in places like Ladakh, Nagaland and Sikhim. The BRO regiment in Arunachal is known as Vartak and, despite their road signs ranging from the paternalistic (‘Don’t Gossip, Let Him Drive’) to the mis-spelt jingoistic (‘Proude to be Indian’) and from the philosophic (‘Stop Existing, Start Living’) to the downright amusing (‘Safety on Road is Safe Tea at Home’), the scale of their achievement is no less wondrous than the region they have achieved it in. And they’ve smartly decided to stay and enjoy the place, as their manicured colonies with picket fences and evocative names like ‘Baisakhi’ indicate.

A Pig and a Priest

About an hour from Tawang, with shadows lengthening in the early twilight, we stopped for tea at a dhaba set typically in a broader-than-usual bend in the road. After amusing myself by taking photos of a stray cow eating a discarded whiskey crate, I turned around to see one of my co-passengers hacking away at the carcass of a pig. I had no clue that this bit of ‘luggage’ was along with us the whole time. It appeared that the enterprising salesman had seen an opportunity and decided not to waste any time. Suddenly tribespeople were materializing like ghosts from the woods and gathering around as our butcher cut off portions of the dried and skinned carcass, weighed them carefully, and negotiated a rate or a trade. Seeing my interest, the driver who himself had purchased a healthy portion of pork as his fee, sidled up to me and whispered, “Why don’t you also buy some? You can take it to your hotel and they will cook it for you?” At the thought of lugging a chunk of raw pig into my lodging, I summoned my best ‘Are you kidding me?’ look and he sidled away chuckling.

Post-butchering, we headed on, only to be halted at the outskirts of Tawang by a very animated Friar Tuck. Robin Hood’s gregarious pastor had been reincarnated as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Plump and jolly, with a red laughing face to match his crimson robes, he was not shy of frequently hawking outside the window, stopping us all so he could do some personal grocery shopping, and finally hitching up his robe to join the rest of us in relieving our bladders. All fairly normal human behaviours of course, but to see them performed by a monk in full garb isn’t an everyday experience.

Eventually, after nine cramped and bone-jarring hours, we rattled into Tawang’s bustling main road. Later, in shared-taxi rides elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh, I would witness other amusing, poignant, and beautiful situations and locales. (One that stands out is the sight of an Apatani man near Ziro walking along nonchalantly in shorts, slippers and a frayed shirt, with nose plugs in his ear, a dao (Apatani sword) in one hand and a fistful of bright red poinsettas in the other.) But for sheer variety and event, the drive from Tezpur to Tawang was one of the most memorable I’ve ever taken. Perhaps not quite of the sort that would inspire a Bruce Springsteen anthem, but a classic nevertheless.

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Acknowledgement: My travels in the northeast were partly made possible through the support and encouragement of Pravah, a Delhi-based organization that is “dedicated to equipping young people with skills essential to building sensitivity and responsibility towards the society we live in, and developing them into positive Changemakers of the future.”

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