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.
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.