Rising from death, debris, and destruction

We are all familiar with the narrative of how as a collective population, us Arunachalis are perhaps the most patriotic lot in the entire country. Any and every time politicians from New Delhi come calling, it has become mandatory for them to invoke the same repeated line that Arunachalis are so patriotic that they greet each other with calls of ‘Jai Hind’.

Whether that is true or not is beside the point. While the ‘Jai Hind’ rhetoric may simply be just rhetoric (and an example of jingoism), the fact is that Arunachalis really are a patriotic lot. In a region of the country where ethnic and tribal divisions mark out clear cut interests, and where sub-nationalism is a strong defining character and occupies much space in the public discourse, Arunachal Pradesh is somewhat of an anomaly.

So famous is the proverbial patriotic Arunachali that even the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, cited it in a recent meeting.

The how and why this distinctive characteristic came into being require a discussion for another day. In light of the recent events that brought the state capital to a standstill, what is needed now is an explanation and introspection on how even the ever-patriotic Arunchali turned against the state.

THE IDEA OF IDENTITY

Where and how does an individual, a group, or a community draw its identity from? How do we distinguish the ‘us’ from the ‘them’? Is identity fluid? Are we members of a tribe for most parts of the year and don the suit of the collective anonymous Arunachali when we require it?

The issue of giving permanent residence certificates (PRC) to non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (APST) is hardly a new one. It is a demand and a topic of debate and opposition that has lasted for decades.

The recent protests, violence, deaths, and excessive display of force by security personnel were played out amidst growing concerns that the state government was seriously mulling awarding PRCs to the six non-APST communities in question.

Although the Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) was to submit its report and recommendation that PRC should be awarded but with certain riders, there was never a Bill that was listed for passing in the Legislative Assembly. The chief minister later did say that the report was listed for discussion only.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the JHPC had recommended issuing PRCs (with or without terms and conditions) did not sit well with not just organised unions and bodies but also with the general tribal populace of the state.

For tribal communities, the idea of identity is one that is drawn from the land that they belong to. Without getting into the philosophical aspect of whether we belong to the land or the land belongs to us, suffice to say that as a collection of tribes, we are of the land, for the land, and from the land. It is the land that gives us a sense of who we are.

For communities like ours where even stretches of rivers and entire mountains can belong to an individual or a clan, the connection to the land and the people are inseparable. Is it really surprising then that the idea that we may have to share this land and its resources with those perceived as not being indigenous to the land ignited the kind of reaction that it did?

THE ‘OTHERS’

Much of the anger that fuelled the protests came from the perception that the six communities in question are ‘others’; that they do not fit into our idea of who is indigenous to the land.

The question that we must ask here is what factors go into deciding what makes someone indigenous to the land and someone else, not.

Representatives of those communities argue that they have been living in certain parts of present-day Arunachal Pradesh for generations and that all that they are asking for is a proof of address that they are domiciles of the state. That they have been living inside the political boundary of the state of Arunachal Pradesh when it was a union territory, separate from Assam.

Of course, the issue is not as simple as that and that PRCs will simply make it easier for members of the communities to apply for central government jobs (since they are already issued temporary residence certificates).

Acquiring PRCs will also bring with it other benefits and ease businesses for the communities in question. The JHPC on its part did say that awarding PRCs will not equate to extending tribal rights. The Committee even went further to add in a clause that the communities will not make any demands seeking APST status or seek benefits meant solely for APST persons such as reservations in state government jobs and educational institutions in the future.

One of the arguments from the other side has been that there is no guarantee that the communities now seeking PRCs will not demand APST status in the future. Indeed, one of the communities- the Deoris -did temporarily hold APST status until large-scale protests led to a retraction two decades back.

Perhaps it is ironic that some of the same people who argued against awarding APST status for the community are part of the JHPC that recommended awarding PRCs.

Another oft-cited argument is that awarding PRCs will lead to an influx of members of those communities who are living on the Assam side of the interstate boundary.

A state where large swathes of uninhabited fertile land exist, the idea of migrating here is an enticing one. While the JHPC recommended adequate checks to ensure that it does not happen, every true-blue Arunachali and anyone familiar with the astronomical levels of corruption that exists in the state knows that such measures will be compromised at the slightest of chances to the highest bidder.

WHAT NOW?

The violence that took place in Itanagar and Naharlagun has certainly left citizens shell-shocked. Perhaps only once before in recent history has such violence taken place that left the capital paralyzed the way it did. That protest too ended in death, as has this.

Whether the protests were sustained by motives other than those of pure emotions is something that may perhaps be revealed at a later date. What is undeniable, however, is that the anger was palpable. There is no doubt that anger had been fermenting for quite a while now and that anger spilled over to the streets.

As people took to the streets and damages were brought to several government and commercial buildings, security forces indulged in excesses and actions that should have been avoided. As of now, it is unclear what laws were invoked to incite such military action and as to who ordered the firing on the crowd of protestors in several places.

Amidst the protests that left at least three young men dead and several others injured, a number of people saw the chaos as an opportunity to update their wardrobe and electronic appliances. Cartful of clothes were being rolled away from one shopping centre while some made good with LED TVs and refrigerators.

On the other end of the two towns, the families of those who had died mourned.

So, where do we go from here? Is the outright rejection of the JHPC recommendation a permanent solution to the decades-old question? For now, the issue may have been diffused and the capital may be limping back to normalcy but it is bound to dominate discussion and debate come election season. And it is an issue that will be raised sporadically.

Can the issue be wished away? Or is greater debate, not destruction, required lest we want to see more young lives laying waste to the barrel of the gun?

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It happened one night

NOTE

This is one of the pieces for Basar Doyi (Basar Tales) that was the result of my month-long stay in Basar, Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Artist Residency for the 2018 edition of the Basar Confluence. For more info about the festival, head over to Instagram.

Based on the retelling of Migo Basar’s attempt to escape the capture and certain death from Yapoms that chased him for close to 12 hours, the style employed for this story was an attempt to capture the sense of urgency that he felt that night.

I hope I have done justice to his harrowing experience.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 

My gratitude goes out to Mr Migo Basar from Gori-III village who gave such a detailed description of the events of that night that I barely had to take any creative licence.

I am also grateful to Mr Minjo Basar who helped with the translation whenever my limited knowledge of the Galoo language would fail me.

I would also like to thank my editor, Mr Anup Kutty, for understanding the essence of what I was trying to create with this piece and for proof-reading and making the necessary changes.

 

 

It happened one night

1983, barely 17, clear March afternoon, I was returning from school,

weary, dreary, and ready to drop after

a long day of algebra, and a language imposed by the government, and

a sudden burst of fever, high body temperature, my physical self dropped, I lay still on the bamboo floor of our kitchen, two hours until

I awoke suddenly, feeling cold and the warmth of a parched throat and a wet body made me head to the water tap outside of our home in my white school shirt and navy blue trousers, an Assamese gamusa, a pair of Hawaii sandals with white inner sole, and matching blue under sole and straps, with my head thrown into the water pouring out of the brass-hued tap and the coldness of which almost caught me off guard, as I steadied myself and grasping the air around me I lifted my head while the water from my wet hair that now ran across my forehead petered down to my clothes when familiar voices of men and women from the village around me and in front of the house or on my sides, calling out my name, accusing me of some crime as they screamed,

‘We know what you did, pelting stones at people’s homes, breaking their windows,’

which I did not understand since I had done no such thing but to plead innocence would be a futile exercise for although I could not see them or where they were, the intent to hurt me in their voices was made clear abundant and so I bolted out the back fence of our tiny home and hopped over the bamboo barricades of our neighbours who looked at me as if they had seen a madman escape his cell from the Tezpur madhouse but, I could care little for what occupied my thought and heart at that moment was the voices of our elders, some whom I had known since I was a child, nearing even as I ran as fast as my young legs could take me but, their accusatory voices kept creeping up on me, even when I found myself behind my own school when the sound of their screams seemed to grow even louder,

‘We will have you punished for what you did,’

they said as I wondered who could have possibly filed a false complaint against me with the police as I was now convinced that the people from my village had been joined by men in khakis wielding sticks and stones and weapons of their own choosing and I ran, as fast and far as I had to, even dashing over the slippery water-supply pipe and faced a seven-feet tall barbed fence which I climbed over and for the first time since the chase began did I momentarily get a glance at those chasing me as I began to descend the fence on the other side but, instead of seeing the faces of any men or women whom I knew, all I saw was silhouettes of a cluster of people with no discerning features and hence I continued to run towards a light that I knew shone from the Basar police station where I could finally escape to safety, and for the first time since the ordeal that began four hours ago, I ran with the intent of actually going somewhere, reaching somewhere that could offer me refuge and somewhere where the people would help me, but as I flung open the door and grabbed the first havaldar on whom my eyes landed and pleaded,

‘Help me, there are people after me who I know will kill me when they catch me,’

I cried when he said “What people are you blabbering about, you idiot,’ looking around as if to convince himself that there wasn’t anyone chasing me, and so instead, he chased me away and told me to go home on the way of which I saw the same devoid-of-any-discerning-features silhouettes once again, and I could tell that there were around 20 of them, all of which were bent on making me their prisoner and ending me as I stood on that dusty road that led to my home, going towards which was now not an option as they stood ahead of me, blocking my path, leaving me with no option but to try and make good my escape by heading towards the ITBP camp and beyond till Aalo, if the need arose, and I would have had I not seen those same silhouettes suddenly appear a few hundred metres ahead of me so, I turned the road and headed to a paddy field through which I knew I could take a shortcut all the way back to the village and the safety of my home but the night had other plans for me and it seemed as if there was much that needed to transpire before this nightmare would even come close to an end, for barely had I stepped inside the golden-hued paddy field that in a distance I saw two women, all dressed in green from their galey to the clothes they wore to hide their bosoms, who were the perhaps the most kaken as I had ever seen until that night and they were women who I knew were not of this realm but were the first faces with features that I could make some semblance of besides the havaldar who chased me away and had it been a different day and varied circumstance, I would have followed these women to the deepest parts of the river who called me out to come with them but something inside of me told me not to, saying,

‘I’m not coming with you, go away,’

clearly offending them enough to make them reach inside the uduu that they were carrying with them and fling its contents on me as I managed to dodge whatever it was that carried their malice and turned right and straight into a forest of thorns with creepers that hugged and kissed each other, bleeding each other and waiting to do the same to anyone who crossed their path but since the only direction that I could head towards was the one in front of me, I had no choice but to enter what would otherwise have been forbidden territory on any other night but I knew this was no ordinary night, and the sight of the two beautiful women was a mere mirage, a trick because as soon as I entered the forest of thorns, the voices became clear once more as they neared, shooting arrows with intent and such strength that the sounds they made when they travelled and sliced the air on its path was not the sounds that arrows of men made,

‘Bhook, bhook,’

the arrows sounded as they came for me, carrying with them an ounce of my own fears, narrowly missing me each time and my fears only growing to a crescendo, especially when one of them almost sliced me into two with his rokse, at which moment I felt as though I had turned to water and meandered into the concrete road once again only to see more figures who now seemed to be getting closer with each step that I took to try and run away from them but, the faster I ran the closer they got with their torchlights that they shone on my face, trying to block my view of the road ahead which I could see only when lightning struck, which was odd considering it was a clear day and I could see the stars as clearly as could be, that being an afterthought, of course, for my concern then was to stay alive, escape whatever was chasing me but it was no easy task because the road I was on kept going astray and I kept losing my way, only to suddenly find a river on my path, in which I did not hesitate to jump right in as the silhouettes hesitated even less and followed me to the other side where I was momentarily stuck between two bamboo plants out of which I nudged myself out and made my way to the Medical Line and into the front yard of a Bihari workers house who asked me where I was going and offered me some tea which I could not considering the state that I was in considering it was three in the morning now and I had been running for my life for almost 12 hours and as I stumbled my way out to the main road bare feet and tattered white shirt and torn navy blue pants my cousin shouted,

‘Where were you?’

he asked with anger and concern but I had no answer or explanation to offer at that moment, so he took me home to a worried family who told me to get some rest but I had to clean myself up, especially since I was bleeding heavily from my nose and when I slowly walked towards the water tap the opu fell and from behind it emerged a large black silhouette, devoid of any features as the ones that tormented me the entire night, and easily leapt over an eight feet high wall, and while I thought that would have been the last I would have heard of them, since the nyibu had performed the Yapom Guula to cleanse me off of the effects of that night, the tormenting never stopped, especially immediately after that cursed night, when on many times as I slept I would continue to feel the slithering of snakes under my blanket but see nothing when I tried to catch them, and to this day, I hear them when I am awake, calling me to come with them,

them, who offer me riches and comforts of life but all of which I do not wish to attain from them, for why should I because,

since the events of that night, I have felt no fear,

no fear of the tools used by men or those who wish to call themselves mighty…

 

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!