Also Basar: Life in monochrome

From the fag end of October, five artists from various fields and I spent four weeks in the small town of Basar in Lepa Rada district in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Artists Residency of the Basar Confluence.

While we all worked on different projects (mine will be uploaded shortly), this was a small side project that I wanted to work on due to my interest in photography despite a complete lack of skills.

Home to the indigenous Galo tribe, Basar and its adjoining areas isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis. However, as in elsewhere in this state, much (if not the entirety) of its commercial life is operated and dependent on a large number of migrants from different parts of the country.

Businesses aside, there is also a high proportion of migrants who are also employed in several organisations, government offices, and/or working with religious organisations.

As it often happens with those of us who identify as being ‘indigenous’ to the land, many of the people I met held a singular identity for me, although in reality each of them has a story to tell.

Some of the subjects were born and lived their entire lives in Basar alone, while many have even married into Galo families. The images I captured don’t do justice to their lives and is perhaps a reflection of my myopic view: That the migrant among us lives his life in monochrome.

(Camera: OnePlus 6)

Disclosure: Basic editing done in Google Snapseed.

 

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Scenes of the night

Kasablanka Bar, Aalo, West Siang, Arunachal Pradesh, India, November 23, ten minutes to 9 PM, two young couples dancing to crappy Bollywood music and flickering disco lights and annoying bar underlight,
A group of five men from the plains on the first couch smiling, some looking around condescendingly, one possibly the “host” for the night probably a telecom employee, they settle on Heineken, I order my second peg for I don’t have much of the night left because I forgot to take down the hotel receptionist’s number,
Stupid,
‘Alcohol will help,’ I lie to myself one more night, convincing no one,
The night may end up long but I must be careful for it was outside this bar where a murder happened last year in March when,
the man who owns the hotel and the bar came in defense of his brother and shot dead the man who had fought with him earlier that night,
the man who was also his friend,
Dead,
A young woman walks in cautiously into the bar inquiring to another woman manning the bar about something and after a moment another woman patron with beautifully tied hair and a stunning body rushes out quickly as if to attend to a call and returns in a jiffy while I try to subtly check her out but the light from my phone screen where I am typing this betrays me as she catches a glance of me looking in her direction,
‘Damn you, phone’
I settle on four ice cubes and a mild cigarette,
‘Mild,’ I think, what makes a cigarette mild really, I wonder
What’s the gimmick, I wonder
I wonder why I didn’t follow up on what happened to that murder as my mind repeatedly wavers to that night when
the woman from before walks to the bar with a man she’s been dancing with for a couple of shots that she struggles with taking in at least three sips defeating the purpose of ‘shots’ before walking back to join their friends and to loud conversations that have to be had and had only in bars that fills up with the sound of loud Punjabi music that most people in the room here do not understand fully-well but incidentally enough the lone Sardar from the earlier group of five men from the plains isn’t exactly jumping with excitement as I had thought which is interrupted by a phone call from an old friend that I use as an opportunity to take a piss to return to the sound of the couple of couples echoing the hooting part of the song that’s been playing for that is probably the only part of the song that they know and now the bar door is open
with one man peering into the guest list for some reason who takes out a plastic zip lock bag with some khaini and disappears and the waiter brings me my third glass and instead of ice some iced water in a weird container that leaves me as clueless as what to do when I hear Anu Malik sing “Unchi hain building” and the waiter tells me that the weird jar has ice cubes and shoves in a pair of tongs before quickly walking back to fix the bill for customers leaving for he realises that attending to me with care is futile for I will leave no big tip, clearly he has no clue because hurting my ego will get him exactly that and someone in another table breaks a glass,
‘What happened that night’,
Was it not our responsibility as journalists to follow up on what happened or do I constantly tell myself that he is the brother of my sister’s good friend and whom I consider, think of as an elder sister too and so I must be considerate and that someone else will hold up our end of the bargain to write and report because that is our collective responsibility but would we have reacted as leisurely if the man who died that night was our brother, our son, our uncle, our father, someone we loved and wish to see again but never can and
what must the man who killed him be going through himself for the guilt must be killing him too, every day, each minute
this night is getting too trippy when I realise that I’ve downed 180 millilitres of scotch in less than an hour which is a quarter of a bottle which, in all honesty, is very little for man who can gulp down more than double that amount with ease on most days but I am in a strange town alone and after more than 30 years walking this planet you learn that its best to retire early when you’re in unfamiliar territory or when the guy on the dance floor has begun shouting ‘next’ because he doesn’t like the song playing out of the sound system and a Frenchie-sporting Asian man is unabashedly hitting on the only woman bartender to be constantly but politely thwarted but he will be back, his body language tells me and clearly she’s too used to such behaviour to be even slightly be impressed by a drunken man’s attempt to what can only remotely be considered “flirting” as I wonder why for heaven’s sake is Vengaboys’ “Shala la la la” and some other crappy song that I don’t remember the name of which this young man who was probably too young too even listen to when it first came out is playing, and damn,
I must leave before the bill does anymore damage and so I hand in the cash and leave a proper tip for I will be back on some other night, in some other year, for a different reason and he must remember me otherwise how else can I expect the royal treatment that I falsely think I am entitled to everywhere but then who doesn’t really for aren’t we all princesses and princes in our own worlds but paupers for everyone else,
Shit,
time to leave really cause I am a little drunk and beyond tipsy right now
And,
As I leave I catch a glimpse of an A4 size paper pasted above the wall of the entrance door that reads: Guns and other weapon not allowed inside the bar.

Quenching a forest’s thirst

Back in 2008, an official with the Arunachal Pradesh government’s horticulture department noticed that the water streams and rivulets that fed a number of villages were drying up near his hometown. In a place that has been blessed with natural bounty, water scarcity was a phenomenon that the tribal Galo people in Basar were unaware of. Now, that had become a very real danger.

Nestled at an elevation of 2,299 feet in the recently created Lepa Rada district in central Arunachal Pradesh, the Basar administrative circle has a population of 12,224, per the 2011 Census. Home to the Galo people, the town of Basar and the adjoining villages is criss-crossed by three rivers- Kidi, Hie, and Bam Hila.

The breathtaking view of Basar Valley from the hill.

While these rivers serve as a primary source for water supply, much of people’s water needs are satiated by rain-fed streams and rivulets that bring groundwater from the green hills to the villages that dot the landscape.

That began to change ten years back when unabated and unsustainable farming practices began to have an adverse impact on the life of the villagers.

“Around that time we realised that the villages were staring at water scarcity,” says Egam Basar.

The 43-year-old head of the State Horticulture Research and Development Institute is a native of Soi village in Basar. A decade ago, he was transferred here when he noticed that the streams that fed his and surrounding villages were drying up.

The man himself- Egam Basar.

Together with his nephew Gomar Basar, who was a student then and is now an assistant registrar with the Rajiv Gandhi University near the state capital, they formed an environmental group that would later go on to become the EB Project (EB as in his initials).

Egam had a plan to revitalise the streams and the rainwater catchment area in his village by digging “recharge pits” that could hold water that will seep into the soil and keep the fields irrigated.

Large-scale jhum cultivation practices and unchecked felling of trees meant that the hills could no longer hold rainwater and would just flow down.

The first hurdle that Egam faced was gaining ownership of the lands.

Funding was difficult to come by and so he had to purchase the lands from the money that he had saved up over the years.

Egam, who has a penchant for hats which he says he wears to hide his greying locks, doesn’t indulge too much into the details of how much of his personal income was spent in acquiring the lands that would eventually become the EB Project.

In total, he acquired 60 hectares of land and stopped jhum cultivation and deforestation. Since the project started, Egam and Gomar said that the forest and wildlife has been rejuvenated.

On the climb up the hilltop we were informed that there has been an increase in the wildlife population in the area with barking deer, clouded leopard, and reportedly even a tiger now call the place home.

Apart from the wildlife, Egam informed that there now plans afoot to introduce rare medicinal plants in the area.

Along with his advisors and support staff, the more immediate goal now is to reach the 1000 pits mark.

Digging of the metre-deep pits began in 2011 but it would take seven more years before the stream in Soi village did not dry up in the winter months.

There are currently 200 such recharge pits and plans are underway to adopt the system in other villages and their surrounding hills as well.

“Sustainable development,” Egam says, “is not possible without sustainable irrigation”.

– – –

This feature was first published in The Citizen.

Debating the deities

Someone please explain to me why illuminated red Devil’s Horns are a thing during Durga Puja. How is it that on a festival that literally celebrates the killing of a monster, the go-to symbol of evil has become the in thing to sport? Like, how?

The wearing of Devil’s Horns is just one of the several questions I have about Durga Puja and its celebrations in Arunachal Pradesh.

How is it that in a state in the far remote corner of India that is home to close to 30 indigenous tribes (a majority of who originally practiced animist faiths), Durga Puja is even a thing?

Let me put out a disclaimer and say that I hold absolutely nothing against the celebration of Durga Puja or any other festival regardless of its religious affiliation. I also realise that since the state actually does have a large non-tribal population for whom the festival holds great significance, Pujo time is a rather big deal.

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Make-shift stalls serving snacks pop-up everywhere in Itanagar during Pujo time.

The grandeur of the festival is no surprise either because obviously, people chip in to fund the beautiful pandals that abound the streets. Such a large population also translates into a possible vote bank and it makes sense to make sure for the powers that be that the people have fun at least once a year.

Still, I wonder how young and beautiful teens influenced by modern Korean culture who spend the majority of the year greeting each other with ‘annyeonghaseyo’ and ‘oppa’ can suddenly be so fascinated by the kirtan.

How do you go from watching surgically-enhanced K-pop stars to being transfixed by the neighbourhood mechanic as he performs to the beat of the dhol that we, for some reason, are all familiar with? Like, how?

One of the ‘must-do-things-during-Puja’ is to buy new clothes. I’m not exactly sure if that is a brilliant marketing ploy thought of in the office of an advertisement agency with pretentiously minimalist interiors or if the Goddess herself ordained it, but nevertheless, it’s a thing that is not restricted by communal lines.

Tribal, non-tribal, rich, poor, everyone is up for buying new clothes during Pujo.

In fact, my Adi colleague currently sitting on my left watching a YouTube series is wearing a newly-purchased patterned-dark blue shirt. I ask him if he buys new clothes during Solung and the answer is in the negative. He makes some lame argument about how he had to buy a new shirt anyway but I’m not convinced.

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A ‘band’ from Siliguri was invited to provide the beats for the kirtan and Pujo at one of the several pandals here. I asked them how they landed up here and the cheeky one in the group said, “by car”. Not Amused. Not. Amused.

It isn’t the celebrations of any festival that makes me question things but as a person with conflicting ideas of self-identity and lack of knowledge about my own community is what concerns.

Puja celebrations shouldn’t die down. Nor should the celebrations of any festival regardless of the religion it originates from or the community that it ‘belongs’ to. In fact, if there is great leveller and breaker of barriers between communities as us Arunachalese, it is Durga Puja.

All of us visit at least one pandal every year but when was the last time you joined in on the celebration of a ‘central’ festival celebration of any other tribe that you don’t belong to unless you were specifically invited by a friend.

Nahi, hum toh woh tribe ka nahi hain na, hum kyun (insert tribal festival name here) mein jaiga (No, I am not from that tribe, why should I visit the celebration of [insert tribal festival name here],” is something I’ve heard way too often.

As stated above, I hold nothing against the celebrations of any festival that offers people an opportunity to come together and revel in merry-making. I will also continue to hold questions about how Pujo got so ingrained in Arunachali culture.

While some will argue that its part of the greater identity of what makes us Indians, I will say its a form of unintended indoctrination. Others, as I learnt last year, are at the pandals for the kheechdi!

Purple Days or (No Lasik For Life)

It’s just two minutes shy of 10.30 on a Tuesday night. The purple haze from what was surely meant to set a sexy mood feels like how every seedy place across the globe does. As in everywhere else, a familiar scene plays out here too: Young men trying to cavort with young women and old men trying to cavort with even younger women.

Some will succeed. Some will go home to the comfort of their right hand; snug in the knowledge that tomorrow is a new day and that tonight will be forgotten by the time the birds begin to sing.

The bartender lives up to the stereotype: moving about, chatting to customers, shouting out orders to his subordinates- the ones who aren’t on the same level of bartending skills as he is.

I once heard a character in a movie say that a quiet bartender can make patrons nervous. I agree.

My new frames seem to mask my identity a bit. No one bothers me until they get a close look under these lights.

I know, choosing a bar where I half-expect to know half the patrons and wishing to be left alone doesn’t make sense. But here we are. Here I am.

A young lad I am acquainted with looks through me, not recognizing who I am. For now, I let it be.

A young bunch of people I am supposed to know are sitting across the room behind me. But with my back to them, I don’t know who is who until one of them walks up to the bar to get the next round of orders. He doesn’t recognize me.

Thankfully.

Some days, I want to alone by myself. Some days, I want to be in solitude. Today, I’m not sure what I want.

My life, so far, has been a series of extempore speeches. Stumbling from one sentence to the next, leaving in the wake a line of “aahs”, “umms”, and “wells”. Not the most eloquent, I know. My autobiography wouldn’t read well. At all.

“Ranju Dodum: A Life in Extempore Speeches”.

Punctuated with ellipses; exposing the uncertainty that is my life; attempts to hide my insecurities, my fears, and all of that sadly makes up who I am.

Am I ashamed of who I am? On most days.

The new glasses may change the way I look, but can it change my vision metaphorically? Correct it even?

I suppose there is No Lasik For Life? I suppose not. #NLFL

Why do I write? I have never given that any thought until I find myself sitting on a bar stool with a pretty young girl who subtly asked me to move my messenger bag from the stool next to me so that she could sit there.

No, she’s not the least bit interested in me. No, her attention is reserved for the men beside her and her equally young friend. All of them bespectacled and half of me- both in age and in weight.

I would like to think in intellect, too. That’s one of the things I like to hold on to.

Although age may take away my youth, and the sparkle in my eyes may fade (the glasses help me hold on to them, barely), I hope to retain my mind with its memories and experiences (both the horrific and the honourable).

I think I write to unintendedly chronicle my life. What will we be if we didn’t experience all that life could offer? And not remember the life we’ve lived.

After all, that’s the one thing older people have an advantage in- a head start in life.

It is an hour into the night, hip songs off of Bollywood films have been blaring through the speakers. The dance floor holds up well to the stomping of high heels and platform shoes.

My mind wavers into thoughts: Do Arunachalees realise how indoctrinated they have been to what is mainland Indian culture?

Two hours into the night. Five pegs of whisky and one shot later, the mood is lifting, subtly.

But only momentarily.

The alcohol is doing what it’s meant to. My words are losing their way. The sentences, becoming shorter.

These “chapters” are getting smaller. Right now it is almost 3 AM. I am home. The rice has been set at the electric rice cooker with the faux chilly chicken resting easy inside the carton.

This is my night.

Rewriting records and retelling history

A massive carnival concluded recently at Gujarat, seemingly to celebrate the ‘ancient’ link between mainland India and the country’s mostly-neglected Northeast region (a term that is more reflective of a region rather than a single cultural unit).

On March 25, on Ram Navami, the annual Madhavpur Mela kicked-off at Madhavpur (Ghed) in Gujarat’s Porbandar district and lasted till March 28. What caught most people’s attention, thanks partly due to the unending tweets by Arunachal West Lok Sabha MP and Union minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju, was that this year’s fair would ‘re-enact’ the ‘heroic kidnapping’ of princess Rukmini by Lord Krishna. While plays depicting legends and myths are a regular fare at religious carnivals, what made this year different is the ‘revelation’ that princess Rukmini was a member of the Idu-Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh!

The ‘legend’ of Rukmini being a member of the said tribe has been propagated since around the 80s, thanks mostly through schools in the state that later even managed to make its way into the official information brochures of the state government’s tourism department.

While most sources state that Rukmini was the daughter of king Bhishmaka of Vidarbha (in present-day Maharashtra), a myth has persisted in Arunachal Pradesh that she was, in fact, an Idu-Mishmi, probably sporting the traditional bowl haircut that was prevalent amongst community members earlier.

Where did this myth originate? No one within the community is quite sure or willing to go on record. The basis of the myth, however, is the ruins of the Bhismaknagar Fort, located near the Arunachal-Assam inter-state boundary around 25 kilometres from the Lower Dibang Valley district headquarter of Roing.

Falling under the jurisdiction of the Guwahati circle of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the fort is believed to have been built by the Bhismaka dynasty of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom that had a stronghold in the Sadiya region of present-day Assam and the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh. The kingdom is said to have existed from around the 12th to the 16thcentury.

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PC: Guwahati Circle of Archaeological Survey of India website.

D Dutta, deputy director of the state directorate of research (archaeology), said that the remains of the fort have not been carbon-dated and could date back to the 9th century. Archaeological evidence too, he said, suggests that there is no connection between the style of that found in the Arunachal Pradesh site to that of those in Vidarbha.

“Perhaps there was another king by the name of Bhismaka and perhaps his daughter’s name was also Rukmini,” Dutta said.

Ginko Linggi, president of the Idu-Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, informed that he and his friends began hearing about the myth when they were in school in the eighties.

Linggi said that there are no records or mentions of such a myth as per the traditional oral history of the indigenous tribal community.

Like many others from and outside the community, Linggi said that proper scientific research is required before any conclusion can be made on the veracity of the myth. One of those was Vijay Swami.

Swami has been a long-time resident in Arunachal Pradesh, having previously worked with the Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya for 15 years and is now the executive director of the Roing-based Research Institute of World’s Ancient Traditions, Cultures & Heritage. More importantly, Swami acted as a liaison between the state government and organisers of the Madhavpur Mela and was in attendance at the carnival.

Having reached Guwahati from Gujarat, Swami informed that a team of 22 people, including 15 members of the cultural troupe, five tribal shamans called igu, and two community elders, had attended the event.

While admitting that the myth does not match the archaeological evidence (considering that Lord Krishna was supposed to have ‘left’ Earth somewhere around 3100 before current era (BCE) and that the fort ruins are from a much later period), Swami said that stories of the myth are a recent trend.  Detailed studies, he said, are required and that the fair is an attempt at ‘national integration’.

And therein lays the crux of the matter.

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Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu rocking a pagri (turban) at the fair.

Myth or fact, the idea of ‘re-enacting’ the ‘heroic kidnapping was clearly driven with the motive to promote ‘national integration’ which would help cement Northeast’s ‘ancient link’ with the rest of the country and thereby somehow defy China’s constant claims over much Arunachal Pradesh’s territory.

Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Pema Khandu, is reported to have said that the fair is a way for people “in far-off frontiers will have a sense of belonging and relate to rest of the states”.

One news report quoted Khandu as such: We watch in news channels today that some other country is claiming some part of Northeast. But nobody can change the history and the ancient history says that Arunachal was not a separate state but entire Northeast was one. For centuries, we have been with India, mainland India. This is our strength.

As the mela concluded, a letter arrived from the ASI stating that the Bhismaknagar Fort is not demarcated and that the ASI does not have a revenue map of the site. The letter, erroneously addressed to the deputy commissioner of Dibang Valley district instead of Lower Dibang Valley which was created in 2001, sought “information regarding the demarcation of boundary, revenue map, and land records”. The letter further noted that it had “on many occasions earlier faced difficulties in taking up developmental works at the monument/sites” and directed the government to schedule a joint-inspection.

As myth and history were being inter-woven in Gujarat, the foundation on which the legend is based on suffers from a lack of attention.

K4 Kekho: Small man casting a long shadow

Sporting two long fringes that run down to his ears and despite not being the tallest man in most rooms, Kekho Thiamkho casts a large shadow. But then again, it was not his looks that shot him into semi-stardom.

Kekho Thiamkho, better known by his stage name K4 Kekho, hails from the small hamlet of Chinghan in Tirap district along India’s international border with Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh. A relative unknown in a state with a population of around 15 lakh until two years ago, K4 Kekho became a viral sensation when his song, ‘I am an Indian’, began circulating on WhatsApp.

Sung partly in English and a dialect of Hindi unique to Arunachal Pradesh, the song deals with issues of racism and ignorance about the state and the Northeast that people from the region often face in ‘mainland’ India.

Although the song deals with serious issues, it is the satirical tone of the lyrics and the catchy tune that leave a lasting impact on listeners.
The song opens with K4 Kekho’s signature ‘ollo’ (more on that later) and introducing himself before he goes on to the first lines of the song: Arunachal Pradesh ka mein. Kya yeh jegah China mein (I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Is this place in China)?

K4 Kekho during a performance. (PC: 4K Studio and CCRD)

The ‘China’ reference acts as a double innuendo on China’s territorial claims over the state and sets the tone for the rest of the song.

Midway through the song, Kekho sings: Institutions lok hum logo ko yaha mein padhne ao boltai. Phir roadside mein koi-koi lok jegah se jao boltai (Educational institutes induce us to join their academies. But people on the street tell us to go back).

Those lines are an expression of what many from Northeast, especially those who venture out to pursue higher education, continue to experience in places like New Delhi and Bengaluru. Incidentally, Kekho never spent any significant amount of time outside the state for his education, having completed his graduation from Don Bosco College near Itanagar. However, he had heard enough from his friends to feel confident to write and rap about the issue.

“I used to listen to my friends who were studying outside talk about their experiences. They were so angry and frustrated with what they had to undergo at times,” he said.
On January 27, K4 Kekho was at the lawns of the Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok in Itanagar for the launch of a six-part poetry-themed web series called The Vivid Project where he is one of the six featured poets.

Post a brief appearance on stage, K4 Kekho took time out to wander around when I introduced myself as a fan and told him that he was the reason I came for the launch.
During the conversation, he talked about how he was introduced to music through his father’s collection of old Hindi film songs on cassettes. He even sang one of those songs on stage one year in school.

“The teachers and the older people in the audience liked it but the young students were bored,” he said. The next year he switched to rap music as a more immersive art form to connect with the younger crowd. That decision appears to have paid off.

He is now somewhat of a minor sensation in his home state (‘minor’ meaning that he isn’t exactly getting swamped by fans on the streets looking for selfies or autographs). While he does seem to be living the good life now with him becoming a regular at local gigs, life wasn’t always easy.

Kekho said that as a child he had to walk for two hours from the administrative circle of Lazu to reach his home. Not much has changed as motor-able roads still haven’t been made that find their path to Chinghan.

Kekho doesn’t rap much about subjects that do not have social relevance in his eyes and cares for issues that are close to his community and his home.

He comes from the small Ollo tribe of Tirap district in the eastern part of the state that has been inflicted with insurgency and opium addiction among young men for years. Kekho said that he is currently working on songs that address these issues.

That evening, he gave us a sneak peek to a new song he is working on.
It begins: Ollo. I was born in a village called Lower Chinghan, located in the border of Indo-Myanmar, where one cannot speak for the rights he deserves, afraid of AK-47 loaded real guns. Ollo!

The ‘Ollo’, he said, is a tribute to his tribe and can mean anything from ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and ‘friend’.

By this time, a few of his ‘fans’ had become part of our conversation and listening intently to what Kekho had to say.

Continuing the conversation, he maintains a humble demeanour while his hands constantly wave about front and back, left and right, as if he’s engaged in rap-battle and says that his limited English-language vocabulary makes it difficult for him to freestyle. He also informed that a video for ‘I’m an Indian’, the song that birthed the K4 Kekho sensation, is in the works.

By the end of the evening, our conversation steers towards his height.

“I’m not quite five feet tall. Around 4.8 or 4.9,” he tells us.

One of the people listening in on the conversation quickly adds, “You may be small but your words are big.

To run a food stall or (ideas at 1 AM)

–Back in 2016, two friends-brothers and I decided to open a food stall at one of the biggest music festivals this side of the world. What followed was a series of accidents, miscalculations and all sorts of pandemonium. This is the story of the time three and a half men ran a food stall.–

What do you get when three men with absolutely no prior experience in the food, catering and/or hospitality sector decide it’s a good idea to open a food stall at one of the biggest music festivals in the country to earn some extra cash while still hoping to keep their jobs? You’re looking at a recipe for complete chaos and setting things up for a failure of unmitigated heights.

The Ziro Festival of Music is an annual extravaganza of independent rock and folk music and everything in between held in the fag end of September amidst the beautiful green-yellow paddy fields of Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh.  I first attended the third edition of the festival in 2014 and absolutely fell in love with the place, its vibes, new friendships that were forged and the endless flow of locally-brewed rice beer and different cuisines on offer.

So after two years since my first visit and three weeks before the festival commenced in 2016, when the idea to set up a food stall at the festival came up it seemed like a great one.

“There’ll be food, drinks, great music and fun vibes like the last two times. What could possibly go wrong,” I thought to myself. I hadn’t the slightest clue of what we were about to be hit with.

Like all great plans, this idea too was birthed at 1 AM after downing more than the recommended pegs of whisky among three friends. The exact details of how and when the idea came about are a little sketchy but I remember one of us (don’t ask who) saying it would be a great idea to set up a food stall at the Festival as a means to make some extra money on the side. Boosted by the alcohol in us, we said cheers to that. While I thought that the idea would be soon forgotten the next day as decisions taken after consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol usually are, I was wrong.

Like a male protagonist in a Bollywood (or most other Indian) film who continues to harass and pursue the female lead despite her refuting his borderline psychopathic advances until she gives finally in to the ‘hero’ in a moment of cinematic melodrama, the idea to set up the stall too persisted.

After my initial hesitancy and apprehension, I let my ambitious side take over the logical side of my brain and decided to go for it.

“What could possibly go wrong?” I thought so again. Everything, apparently.

So over the course of the next few days, we planned out a menu, set prices, met a guy who would be our ‘chef’ who for some reason thought we wanted to serve Italian food at the festival (pasta and what-have-you).

What we really wanted to do was just make some money and thought that it would be best to serve traditional tribal food in an attempt to cash in on the exotica factor since so many of the festival revellers would be composed of those from outside the Northeast who don’t get a chance to savour the best that the region has to offer.

Then, around two weeks before the festival was set to begin, a friend/business partner and I ran into another friend of mine who suggested that it would be best to serve ‘Indian food’ like biryani or chicken rolls. (Sidenote: Why is food from the Northeast never called ‘Indian’ food?)

Anyway, the suggestion seemed to make sense especially after my friend said that those coming in from Delhi, Mumbai or even Kolkata would most likely eat or taste pork cooked with bamboo shoot perhaps once or twice for the experience of it all.

“After that, they’d look for food they are used to,” he said.

“Hmm,” the two of us thought and brought our third friend/business partner up to speed about the new plan as well as the ‘chef’. So with two weeks to go, we changed the menu.

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The original menu. Not much of what you see here made the final cut. We don’t compromise on quality, son!

 

I should mention here at this point that as yet we still had not confirmed our stall with the organisers although I had been in touch with them. I was fairly confident that acquiring a stall wouldn’t be too difficult since I am friends with most of the top guys. Comfortable in that knowledge, we met our chef again and even had a trial run of the food he could cook. Actually, we just wanted to eat some biryani.

A few more ‘technical sessions’ later, we decided on a smaller menu with fewer items, made some estimates of the cost that would be incurred, came with a name for the stall (The Right Stall- where you can’t go wrong- I was so pleased with myself with that name) and thought we were golden. We had even managed a pick-up truck on discount and most of our utensils would be made available to us in Ziro, again on discount. I can’t begin to thank the number of friends who helped us along the way even though they probably wanted to tell us all that this venture was an extremely bad idea.

Speaking of friends.

An old friend of mine had flown in from Delhi for the festival on my insistence a few days before we were set to leave. Now, my friend was here for the festival but when I told him of our great entrepreneurial plan, he was supportive and said he’ll help out in the stall. In return, I told him that we’ll still have a good time since we would be taking turns manning the stall giving us ample time to soak in some of the bands that had come to perform from all across the country. Long story short, we didn’t and he’s still cursing me till date.

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Seitin, my friend who was unwittingly fooled into manning the stall with us.

 

So, armed with a menu, a chef and support staff, we decided to leave for the festival a day before and set the stall up. The plan was to wake up early, reach Ziro by early afternoon and set up the kitchen and start minting money. Small problem though- I overslept and by the time we packed all our things and left, it was already early afternoon. Needless to say, a few harsh words were exchanged, some glances of “I can’t believe you didn’t wake up on time” were shared and we were on our way.

Well, almost.

You see, for the life of me, I can’t remember why but even after we finished loading all our things and were hardly 20 minutes into our drive that we stopped by the highway for 30 more minutes. That aside, it was a pretty uneventful trip- some jokes were cracked, a little more planning was done, and even involved some driving under the influence. I am pretty sure we broke a few minor road laws.

By the time we reached Ziro it was already pretty late and in fact, the sun had set and most others who were running their stalls were already doing a trial run of their food and drinks (most famously the local rice brew- apong). We got cracking too as soon as we could, extending the roof for the kitchen with a tarpaulin (some of which had to be borrowed from our neighbouring stall. Thank you, guys).

Considering the low-light conditions, we decided it was best to finalise the setup the next day during the daytime. Having dropped our chef and his ‘sous-chef’ at a different hotel, we settled into our room and cracked open a bottle of whisky. For some reason, that seemed like a good idea at that time. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that our day the following morning started much later than was originally planned. Again, some words were exchanged, blames were shifted, the car key was miraculously broken by our strongman friend – a feat that I still can’t believe. If I hadn’t seen it happen for myself. But by late afternoon we were open for business.

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Gearing up for a new journey. Also known as the calm before the shit-storm. This was the last time anyone of us laughed for the next four days.

 

One small glitch that occurred on opening day was that our biryani was completely ruined. Our ‘chef’ had made an error which was apparently a result of us having bought the wrong kind of rice. It was so bad that we didn’t even serve it.

Now, remember when I said that we had absolutely no experience in this kind of thing? It showed in the initial minutes as the first orders began coming in. Chaos, confusion, panic, and pandemonium broke out when customers started coming in. We were taking double orders and serving the wrong dishes to the wrong customers – absolute madness. It was in those moments that I finally empathised with Gordon Ramsey. But we slowly settled in and got into the groove of things and calmed down.

At first, business was slow but it gained momentum as the night progressed. The one item that did exceptionally well was the roasted pork which had been priced very low. The reason, as one of us said, was because people would “lap it up”if we kept the prices low. And “lap it up” they did. It was only after we wound up, went back to the hotel and calculated our earnings that night did we realise that we had sold the pork at a loss!

Having learnt from our errors from the day before, and from feedback from our friends who so kindly helped us, we revised the prices and rectified the food.

The second day we did better thanks to the apong we were selling. By the evening of the second night, the stall was getting livelier as friends began to pour in. In all honesty, were it not for our friends who constantly dropped in, our business would have collapsed in on itself. That all changed the third day when a few of our friends from the fairer sex showed up and just hung out at the stall.

This is going to sound extremely sexist of me but one of the biggest takeaways from the entire experience was that it helps to have good-looking women manning such stalls. Is it fair? No. But that’s the reality of the world we live in and unless utopia comes, that’s how things will be for the foreseeable future.

Another takeaway was that it is best to source materials locally. Thankfully most of our things did come from Ziro but this was something we learnt from a few of the other stall owners who had not done so.

At the end, did we make a lot of money? Are we budding entrepreneurs ready to start a new start-up to be featured in business magazines? Not quite. But the entire experience offered great lessons about the food and catering industry and my respect for people in the industry grew by leaps and bounds.

Running a food stall is no easy task. Keeping count of money, making sure one gets the orders correct while ensuring quality service is delivered are all equations that one needs to take care of all the time. Compromises on any one aspect can mean a loss of customers and reputation. Will I ever undertake such a venture again? Well, all I can say is that life is short and there is no dearth of festivals. So until the next one, cheers!

Tattooed Tales: Behind the Apatani tattoo

In the kitchen of the home-stay that she and her husband run, Narang Yamyang said that the woman who tattooed her face refused to continue if she showed any signs of experiencing pain. Left with no choice, she remained motionless through the entire process.

Until the early 1970s, it was common practice for Apatani girls of Ziro Valley to get their faces tattooed and sport nose-plugs. The process was conducted in the winter to quicken the drying process, was often long and always painful.

The tattoos, called tiipe in the Apatani language, on a woman usually run from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, complemented by five strips starting from the edge of the bottom lip to the end of the chin. Some also pierced their noses and over the course of time larger nose-plugs made of cane called yaping huto would be placed. The ink that was used is basically soot (called chinyu) collected from the bottom of heavily-used cooking utensils. And no fancy tattoo needles here; what was used as a ‘needle’ was made by tying together a bunch of three-headed thorns called iimo-tre. A small stick hammer called empiia yakho helped produce the necessary pressure to pierce the skin and hammer in the ink.

Once a defining character of the Apatani people, the practice was banned by a tribal youth organisation in 1972; the penalty for which was almost equivalent to the price of an adult mithun at that time.

Yamyang said she got herself tattooed sometime after that but was not fined because her father had passed away and the implementing organisation spared her the penalty.

Narang Yamyang with her husband Tam at their paddy field.

Having been socially abolished over four decades back, getting a glimpse of the tattooed women of Ziro is becoming a rare sight. Everyone who sports them is at least over 50 years old. It has completely disappeared among young Apatani women.

Tattooing has existed in different cultures throughout the world. From the Polynesians to the yantra tattoos of the Tai people, tattoos have been always part of human civilisation and have survived till the 21st century with varying degrees of prevalence. Closer home, tattooing was common among the Baiga people of Chota Nagpur Plateau. In the Northeast, among the Naga tribes, it was a matter of pride for men to sport certain tattoos as it was an indicator of their martial skills. Unlike most modern-day tattoos, in the lives of indigenous communities, tattoos usually signified a rite of passage and a coming age for young men and women. So why did the Apatani women get them done?

At the very outset, it is important to note that it is not just the women but also the men who once got facial tattoos made, although the men only drew one thick line down the middle of their chin. Regardless, both men and women only got tattooed after they had reached puberty. It is when trying to unearth the reason why the practice started is where things get interesting.

Images of smiling women with blue-hued tattoos and nose-plugs abound the internet. The most repeated (and most believed) story of why the women had them made was because the Apatani women were so beautiful that the men of the ‘neighbouring tribe’ would repeatedly raid their villages and kidnap them. While this does not explain why the men got tattoos, many people, including those of the aforementioned ‘neighbouring tribe’, still believe there is credence to the story.

Yamyang’s husband, Tam, said that the story probably began once young Apatani people began to move out of the Valley and felt “awkward” when people, especially the plainsmen of Assam, would stare at them.

In the absence of any documented evidence of mass kidnappings of Apatani women ever having had taken place, the story is apocryphal at best and what anthropologist may describe as a type of cultural cringe where people are made to feel that certain aspects of their cultural practices are inferior and must be discarded.

Tam said that earlier it was essential for an Apatani to have a tattoo as it was a mark of their identity. “People would not even get married if their faces were not tattooed in the old days,” he said.

There are other explanations offered by the older Apatanis and the women who have the tattoos.

Tilling Rilung, an agriculturalist and wife of a gaon bura (village headman), said that the tattoos were made to distinguish between the Apatani people and the neighbouring Nyishis, indicating that it acted as a marker of tribal identity.

Like most other women who spoke of their experiences, Rilung too had to be held down on the floor when she was getting her tattoo made.

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Duyu Dinsung got her tattoo at her father’s behest who told her that it was an important marker of the Apatani identity.

Duyu Dinsung is another woman who said it was a painful experience and resonated Rilung’s explanation that they were made so as to distinguish between the Apatani and Nyishi people.

Hage Tado Nanya, a progressive farmer and a pioneering face of women’s engagement in Apatani society who also happens to be the reigning Mrs Arunachal, said that she was among one of the last batches of girls who got tattooed after the ban was imposed.

As with those who actually had had their faces tattooed, she too dismissed the kidnapping story and even claimed that the practice existed among the Apatani before they migrated to present-day Ziro centuries ago. In fact, she claims that the seeds of the iimo-tre plant were brought during the migration period.

The story behind the Apatani tattoo may have gotten lost in recent years and replaced with another. While there is no consensus over the origins of the practice, what everyone- tattooed or not- does agree on is that it is good that the practice has stopped.

Burning grass and breaking down walls

Sitting by the hearth of her home in Hari village at Ziro Valley in the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Hage Tado Nanya animatedly narrates how she along with around 30 women burnt large heaps of marijuana that was being illegally harvested a few years ago.

“Some of us even got high from the smoke,” she says.

Being one of the last generations of Apatani women to have tattooed her face as was customary, Nanya has crossed many milestones in her life. Last year, she shot into the limelight when she was crowned Mrs Arunachal- Mother of Substance.

Speaking of her time at the pageant, she explains that she was under the impression that it would be a one-day event, unaware of the grooming and continuous judging process.

“They would ask us to sing and we would. They did not tell us but they were judging us during that period too,” she says.

While her win thrust her into the public imagination, Nanya has been in the forefront of breaking barriers for the past four decades.

A loquacious woman, Nanya takes pride in her work and doesn’t shy away from speaking about them.

Back in 1976, her father had given her a handful of fish to clean and cook. But when time came, she was overwhelmed to see the fishes trying to breathe.

“I saw the fish trying to breathe through their ears (gills),” she says, motioning her hands in the fashion of how fish breathe.

“When I saw that, I could not bring myself to killing them,” she says, adding, “alag se feeling aya (I felt a deep empathy for the fish)”.

Unable to kill the fishes, she released them in the family’s wet-rice paddy field. She says that she was the first person in Ziro Valley to do so. Apparently, the now famous practice of farming fish in the same field where rice and millet is grown was started by her.

Nanya says that once the fish grew, she put some of them in a basket and took them to the bazaar to sell. The rush for the fish, she says, was so much that she had a difficult time keeping track of the customers.

She informs that she first began selling the golden carp and later moved on to selling the common carp from 1990 after buying a few fishlings at subsidised rates from the state government’s fisheries department a few years earlier. By then, harvesting fish simultaneously in the paddy fields had become a common practice in the valley.

Her entrepreneurial skills provided her with a steady living and helped educate her three sons and four daughters. Though not formally educated, Nanya learnt to read with her children as they were growing up. Her children in turn, would accompany her to the bazaar on some days.

“Now all my children are outside so I don’t spend too much time selling fish,” she says.

Nanya of course, engages in a variety of other activities to both sustain her income and work for the well-being of her community.

Having been betrothed to her husband, Hage Tado, when she was three years old and married at around the age of 13, she dons many hats from being a progressive farmer to yoga teacher. And she isn’t done yet.

Alcoholism and drug abuse among the young in Ziro, she says is a major cause of concern.

A few years ago, she led a large contingent of women affiliated to the Ziro branch of the Arunachal Pradesh Women Welfare Society (of which she is the adviser) to a hilltop where marijuana was allegedly being grown. What they saw made them gasp in horror.

“The plants had been cut and left to dry on a large mat. We were so shocked to see such large quantities of ganja,” she says.

The women then set fire to the marijuana, the smoke from which seemed to have left some of them intoxicated.

Currently, she and a group of her friends are seeking to close liquor stores in the valley and have been successful in banning non-indigenous alcohol during Apatani festivals like Myoko and Murung.

She also says that polygamy needs to be abolished and traditional property rights wherein daughters do not inherit ancestral land need reforms.

In her campaigns, she says she’s been fortunate to have the support of her husband.

“Even though it was a child marriage, I’m happy my husband is a good man,” she says.