Bridges in Sadiya

This is the last of my columns on Northeast India for First City magazine, a double feature combining August and September’s columns (which does make it a bit long, but I hope worthwhile). Comments, etc. welcomed.


Bridges in Sadiya

You’re So Handsome

The government official in the small town in Arunachal Pradesh was all business on our first meeting. We presented our reference and he happily shared a number of valuable suggestions regarding travelling in the region. A few evenings later, when we went to say goodbye, he was in his office with a friend.

“Come in, come in”, he beckoned. He ordered his assistant to bring us tea (which he spiked with rum) and genially inquired about our travels. Then, out of the blue, he said “You boys are sooo handsome. You should get married soon.” Since we’d been backpacking for the last two weeks, we were in fact dirty, unshaven and malodorous. We soon realized he was hitting on my travel buddy, who started to feel uncomfortable every time the bureaucrat crooned at him (“You’re so handsome”, like a stuck record) or brushed past with a hand pressing on shoulder. The long arm of the law.

It was past 8 p.m. and he’d sent a couple of drinks too many down the hatch. He complained about his salary, how much more his friends in private business were making, and how desperate he was to immigrate to America. This middle-ranking government official swore, “I will sweep the streets, I will wash people’s clothes, as long as I can get to America.” He also confided that his favourite city was Bangkok, where he’d been a few times on government work. “In Bangkok, you should always carry an extra condom because, you see, you pay by the hour. So if you forego the bath and the massage, you will have time to do it more than once.”

In the end, he invited us to go on a ‘night about the town’ with him, accompanying the relatively nondescript statement with a theatrically obscene gesture that made clear what such a night would entail. Seeing our terrible attempts at a poker face, he smiled sheepishly, “I’m happily married of course but, you know, a man needs new girls often. It’s a basic need, after all. Why don’t you boys come? We’ll find you some nice girls for the night…” In the midst of our stunned silence, his far more sober friend said something sharply in the local language. They argued for a while, the friend being insistent, and then he turned back and said, “Ok, maybe you better not come.” We fled.

Itafort on Sunday

The Itafort in Itanagar is ostensibly a tourist attraction but even auto drivers barely know how to get there. Today, this 15th century fort is so poorly maintained that all that remains are a handful of scattered forlorn piles of bricks.

Entering the premises late on a Sunday afternoon, we came across the once famous ‘South Gate’ of the fort. A group of primly dressed youth (of both sexes) sat on top of the gate practising Christmas Carols – calmly and naturally with no trace either of shyness or ceremony, like it was the most natural thing in the world to be singing hymns in public. A few yards behind the gate, a gang of teenage boys lounged on the grass drinking beer. In stark contrast to the formally dressed carollers, these were punks: spiky gelled hair, ear-rings and tattoos, black T-shirts with pictures of heavy metal bands or hip-hop icons, and boxer-revealing baggy jeans. They laughed and play-acted while they drank but kept their camaraderie to themselves. Just a few feet away, yet in an entirely separate group, a bunch of teenage girls sat together on a bench facing away from the punks. They were in the modern youth uniform of low-waisted jeans and white tank-tops under pastel-coloured jackets. They chatted and giggled in their own private world while admiring the impressive view of Itanagar town surrounded by lush rolling hills. Further down, a young couple relaxed against some rocks. As we walked past, the girl stared at us with unabashed curiosity. She was wearing an Army camouflage spaghetti-top that stopped well above her navel and knee-length Bermuda shorts. With her hair curling randomly around her face, bare shoulders and legs, a sultry come-on look in her eyes, and cigarette between her fingers, she was in every way the quintessential rebel.

Of such distinct groupings then was Itafort on Sunday. We sat down to look at the view, conscious most of all of being woefully out of place as two Indian men amongst several Arunachali teenagers. But it was an idyllic afternoon: the trees were in bloom, the birds in song, and eventually the sun descended gently down on our sense of surrealism.

Bridges in Sadiya

“So who are your favourite actor and actress?” D, my travel companion asked. The boy didn’t hesitate for a second. “Aishwarya Rai and Aftab Shivadasani”.

We were in a Mising (pronounced ‘Mishing’) village in the Sadiya region of northeast Assam. Braced against the Arunachal Pradesh border, Sadiya is a lovely land where roads meander windingly through endless paddy and mustard fields, interspersed every now and then with groves of banana or papaya or gooseberry surrounding stilt-raised Mising villages. We’d been sitting outside, one evening after dinner, enjoying the starry night sky with that mingled sense of wonder and loss that city dwellers often experience when they find themselves in places where they can see the stars. A couple of Mising teenagers, a boy and a girl, walked up to us and began chatting. Eventually, the conversation veered to Bollywood. At first, I was mildly surprised to see how much Bollywood had penetrated this remote corner of the country but thinking that if East Africans can be crazy about Aamir Khan (I’ve met a few), then tribal Mising knowing their Bollywood shouldn’t come as a shock.

“What about you”, I asked the girl, whose name was Tarang. She appeared to ponder the question quite seriously and then, with a thoughtful look said, “I like Hrithik Roshan best.”

“Hey, you know my name is Roshan too”, I said, God knows why. She looked up at me with the international expression for ‘Whatever, Dufus’.

“What about Shah Rukh Khan?” D, a devout King Khan disciple, sounded surprised that her hero hadn’t been mentioned. Hands on hips, and full of contempt for the Dilliwallas in her midst, Tarang answers “I think he is a bit silly and over-romantic.”

D subsided, as I had done moments earlier, both of us now feeling firmly put in our place. And I thought with amusement that the most sensible thing I’ve ever heard said about Shah Rukh Khan came from a tribal teenager, unaffected by the histrionic charm that appears to make sophisticated urban women weak in the knees.

Both Mising teenagers were participants in a youth development training program run by a local NGO, which had realized that the Mising tribe was the only major ethnic group in Assam yet to take to militancy. The Misings are a primarily river-basin tribe found along the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Unfortunately, they are also perhaps the most impoverished of Assam’s many tribes, which makes their reluctance to take up arms even more remarkable. Yet, they were just as unhappy with the State as the other tribes were, but received even less attention since they were still non-violent. Gradually, inevitably, several frustrated Mising youth had begun to consider forming their own militia.

Inspired by the Misings’ reluctance to violence, the NGO developed a training program for young Misings who had dropped out of the formal education system. Rather than ignoring these youth, as the formal government system tends to do, the three-year ‘Rising Stars’ program equips them to become dynamic leaders who will take their communities forward. The overall goal is to harness the local wisdom and creative potential of these youth for community development, and in doing so provide an incentive against resorting to militancy.

The ‘Rising Stars’ program is the brainchild of a Salesian priest, whom I shall call Fr. Kat. Like so many other priests and nuns in this region, Fr. Kat is a Malyali who made the astonishing decision, at the age of fifteen, to leave his home and journey to Northeast India to serve God by serving people. He went there knowing he would stay for life. After thirty-five years in the Northeast, he is now more Assamese than Malyali (although the Malyali accent still comes through).

He is also one of a handful of priests who are going well beyond the call of duty in working for peace in this troubled region. I’ve always been uneasy with missionary activity, and always strongly opposed to evangelization. But several priests I met all over the Northeast helped me see that a priest can carry out his duty to serve without necessarily converting others to his faith, and indeed without even feeling a need or obligation to do so. When Fr. Kat decided to begin his program, he was told he couldn’t do this from within his Order. He promptly quit, and though he still maintains close ties with his former colleagues, he now operates independently.

Today, everyone who cares is shouting themselves hoarse that the Northeast needs serious attention from India’s policymakers and that such a large region cannot be allowed to fall behind as the rest of the country marches on. But how will an essentially tribal culture react to an onslaught of consumerism? What will be the cultural implications of progress and modernity? Fr. Kat replied, “So what if the culture changes. What is the value of culture if, after all, it keeps a people behind? Of course, progress must happen in moderation and with due respect to traditional values but, yes, some values may and perhaps should change.”

So what then is the solution to the Northeast’s political problems: should those who want it be allowed independence or must they stay within India? Fr. Kat, an outsider who has made this region home over the last four decades, seemed like the ideal person to ask this incredibly thorny question. Given his life’s work and passion for the people here, if anyone’s opinion was worth noting, it would be his. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully and leaned back against his chair. “I don’t know. I’ve thought so much about this but I still can’t give a definitive answer. I just don’t know.”

Crossing the border from Sadiya into Arunachal Pradesh is a contrast so stark it makes you laugh. Prone to being ravaged by the flooding of the Brahmaputra, roads in Sadiya are little more than a concept, one which the Assamese government seems to have given up on. However, Arunachal Pradesh, though economically much less developed than Assam, has great roads due to its status as a sensitive border zone: its roads are maintained by the Indian Army. So you go bump bump bump across Sadiya at 15km/hr, step across the border and speed along towards the Himalayas at 70 km/hr.

Across this contrasting border, en route to the Arunachal town of Roing, flows the Deopani River, one of the tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra. In the dry season, it’s little more than a stream, gurgling along through about a tenth of its normal riverbed. But in the wet season, this tiny stream becomes engorged, a raging torrent carrying along huge rocks with force enough to destroy concrete bridges. Driving through the riverbed in our jeep, I saw the remains of a concrete bridge that looked like it had been broken off like a piece of chocolate to sate the craving river. Every year the government makes new bridges and every year the river pulls them down with glee.

In many ways, attempting to solve the complex and intricate problems of the Northeast is like attempting to bridge that enraged river. The forces at work in the region seem to delight in foiling the best laid plans, as the river tosses aside the sturdiest bridges. Yet, creative initiatives like the ‘Rising Stars’ program provide hope, gradually taking hold in unlikely ways and places. And forging bridges that last.

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