By Nishiraj A. Baruah
An Ocider, if you didn’t know, is a person who seeks to learn about and experience a place through its people. Visiting a place without any communication with the locals is like watching a movie in the mute. The story is only half told. After all, people make a place.
It was no different in Mechukha (Arunachal Pradesh) where we went to cover the annual festival Adventure@Mechukha. On the line of duty, we interacted with many locals who made the place so much more friendlier, so much more familiar and so much more memorable. Here’re some encounters.
1. Wonder if Lord Buddha approves
Trekking up the hill where the 400 year old SamtenYongcha monastery is located isn’t easy. However, the warm and pleasant weather helps us make good progress without losing our breath. When we do, we stop to take in the panorama down below in the plains: There is the meandering river, there is the hanging bridge over it which we crossed a while ago, there are the houses scattered here and there in the villages of the valley. Escorted by two army personal, Zinia and me continue our leisurely climb, taking pictures on the way.
“How far?” I ask a group of young giggly girls descending down. “Not much. It is just behind that bend,” they say. The bend comes and goes but there is no sign of the monastery. “How far?” I ask again, this time to a trio of boys. “Oh, you have done just half so far,” one of them says, in a manner as if he derived some sadistic pleasure seeing our breathless misery.
But it is worth the climb, we realize, when we are finally at the top. With its strong spiritual vibes, prayer flags fluttering in the wind, the monastery sits pretty in grand isolation. Inside, there are ancient idols of Buddha and various other gods and goddesses – all looking dangerously menacing. Sacred scriptures occupy the book shelves. Zinia gets busy shooting virtual reality videos.
The lone man who stays here is a security guard. For Rs 7,000 a month, he is happy to live the life of a hermit, away from his family who live in the village below. The wind is chilly and we are thankful when he invites us to the warm kitchen. Sniff…sniff…There is something cooking inside.
A few class 11/12 students from the village are sitting around the fireplace, drinking vodka and roasting chicken. Zinia and me sit cozily. Smelling chicken, three cats pussy-foot around us, hoping to get a share, brushing their bodies against our legs. “These are my pets,” the guardian of the monastery tells us. I pick one of them and place it on my lap. Zinia does the same. Mew… they cry. Cute they are.
“Do you do this often?” I ask the students.“Yes, every time we have a holiday, we come here,” one of them says. “Is it always chicken or you eat pork and beef too?” I ask. The answer isn’t so palatable when it comes. “Sometimes chicken and sometimes this,” he says, matter of factly. “It’s very tasty,” he adds.
Zinia and me look at each other and then at our new feline friends, clutching them closer to our chest.
2. Oh yes, there is something called a free meal!
That is a story from the top. Down in the plans below, there is another story waiting to happen. “Be a little fast, no,” I tell Zinia while descending from the hill. “It’s going to be dark soon!” Zinia, smoker that she is, does her best, while I wait for her to catch up with me. When finally we are back in the plains, past the hanging bridge, we realise we are dying of hunger. Spotting the only shop there, we enter and ask the woman at the counter: “Didi, bahut bhook laga hein. Kuch khana de do!”
Her response displays the embarrassment she feels at having to say no. It is past lunch time, of course. “How about some Maggi?” I ask. At this her eyes lit up. A gentleman comes out of an adjacent room and asks us in English: “Where are you from?” When we introduce ourselves as journos, he calls us inside the kitchen where two other men are sitting around the fireplace, snacking and drinking. The gentleman, a relative of the lady, introduces them to us. One is a security officer attached with the Arunachal CM Pema Khandu. Another is from Rajasthan who is now settled in Arunachal having married a local woman. They offer us Blenders’s Pride.
Of course, they are in a chatty mood, guest from outside a welcome diversion in this sleepy, forlorn village. They are curious about us, about what’s happening in New Delhi, and about our impression of Mechukha. “China has built such an impressive border road but we have nothing. Before we were afraid that if we built good roads on the Indian side of the border, the Chinese would have easy access to India,” one of them says, but the “views are changing now. Indian govt. is planning to make one too. That will help in border trade.”
Two steaming hot bowls of Maggi are placed on a table in front, each spoonful driving us to near nirvana. Finally it is time to leave.“How much?” I ask the lady taking out my wallet. “Na, na, na,” she says. I insist, “Please didi, take it!” She looks at her relative – the one who welcomes us in – helplessly. “Aare what are you doing?” the English speaking guy says in a manner that leaves us with no room for argument. “Please don’t insult us by paying for our hospitality,” he says. It’s our turn to be embarrassed now.
3. Guess what they use to light up a fire? No, not kerosene or twigs!
Late in the night (late in Mechukha means 10 pm), I and Zinia are walking back from the festival ground after the Parikrama concert is over. We are heading towards our homestay, Dorsom. The road is uneven and seeing an SUV, we ask for a lift. It stops and the driver tells us to climb in. “Where are you headed?” I ask them.
Well, they are going for the after-party at a place called Camp Chupala, a private island of sorts between two rivers. It sounds exciting and we instantly decide to come along. It is a long drive in the dark over a non-existent road as we finally arrive at the place throbbing with music. Entry fee is Rs 2,500, but when they see our press cards, they allow us complimentary passage.
Inside, it’s a different world altogether. There are bonfires all around, girls in streaked hair, high heels and cool clubwear stand, hips swaying to Techno beats. On the stage, a female DJ called Yani is churning out electronica. Several young couples are seen engaged in various stages of PDA; others snacking on burnt pork and duck meat. Many come with their own bottles of booze. I and Zinia stand by a fire, observing the crowd and taking in the exotic ambience. Most of them have come from nearby towns like Aalo, Pasighat and Guwahati to take part in the Mechukha fest.
Someone places a huge log on the fire, but instead of flames, cloud of smoke rises up the air, watering our eyes. No problem. One of the guys opens a sealed bottle of 100 Pipers Scotch and to my utter shock and grief pours the entire liquid content to fuel the fire. Some people have the money to burn, I tell Zinia. It is a raging fire by now. Everyone claps and some gives him the thumbs up. He has become a hero for sure, literally glowing by the fire with his 15 minutes of fame.
4. They just wanna be friends
Most locals are eager to talk to the outsiders. They are curious. In another DJ night at Paradise Island, a campsite popular with bikers, two young men befriend us. They are from nearby Aalo. They are happy to know that we have come all the way from Delhi to report on the festival. But they have a complain (which is a common one among most Arunachalis): “India doesn’t think we are Indians. Despite our loyalty to India – my grandfather was a colonel with the Indian army, Indians don’t trust us,” says Kelly Dorjee. Having graduated from Delhi’s St Stephen’s college, Dorjee now runs a Patanjali store in Aalo. His family also owns Hotel West – “the best hotel in Aalo”. His friend, BhaskarYomcha, also a businessman, holds an important position in Galo Students’ Union. Both of them invite us to their town. “You don’t have to pay for anything,” he tempts us with ‘free’ hospitality.
It’s about one in the night now and we want to leave the party. “How will you go? You got a vehicle?” Dorjee asks. “No,” I say, “But I’m sure we will get a lift on the way.” “Impossible. Nobody is going that side now,” he says and arranges a scooty to go back to our homestay. “Very sorry to have sent you in scooty. All our cars are out on work,” he apologises.
5. She just wouldn’t stop talking
“You are so beautiful, madam,” says the woman. “Thank you,” Zinia graciously accepts the compliment.
Spotting a bonfire inside a food stall on the festival grounds, we step in to join a group of local women. There is one among them who seems to be a bit too high on spirits. She welcomes us and when we respond in English, she interrupts with a “Only Hindi, please!”
Fair enough, only that she wouldn’t allow us or others in the group to talk, herself doing all the talking, going on and on about how Zinia looks. “You have a lovely figure too, madam. Your eyes are sooo pretty,” she says. “And look at us, we are short, we are fat and we have ugly eyes.” “Why do you say that? You look lovely too and you have such beautiful hair,” Zinia reciprocates.
Next comes a barrage of questions all directed at Zinia. “Are you married? Do you have kids?” and then referring to me, asks, “Who is he? What’s your relation with him??” When Zinia says she was married once but has no kids, this woman of many words is utterly shocked and expresses her ‘sympathies’. Oh yes, she is a mother of five herself. “It isn’t easy to bring them up. Husbands just knows how to produce children, but after that they are least bothered, leaving their children to the mothers,” she grumbles. “Mard log aisa hi hote hein.”
“But madam,” she continues,“you should have kids. It is a very nice feeling. It’s your duty as a woman to be a mother.” The woman just wouldn’t stop, leaving no chance for others to participate in the conversation, repeating the same points over and over again, each time louder than the last, sounding like crows with firecrackers tied on their feathers.
Enough is enough. Zinia loses her patience, gets really pissed off and leaves abruptly. I follow. “She completely drained me out, man!” Zinia tells me later.
6. The entire house is yours, feel at home
She is a complete busy body, buzzing like a bee and working like an ant. Wearing her wrinkles like jewellery, this mother of four is the hostess of our homestay called Dorsom. She would make you food at all odd hours, offer freshly brewed apong glass after glass, and cook us pork, thupka and puri-sabzi on special request. And when not doing that she would be everywhere at the same time, now washing the utensils, now the linens, now sweeping the wooden floor, ensuring that the house is clean enough to eat from the floor. All the six rooms of the homestay are occupied by guests and her younger daughter who is doing her graduation in a college in Aalo has come home to help her mom out in this tourist season. The man of the house, an English teacher in a school in a different town, has also come home for the festival. Followers of Buddhism, they belong to the Memba tribe, and speak to each other in a local dialect, but all of them speak pretty good Hindi too.
The meeting and eating and drinking and chatting all happens around the fireplace at the centre of the large kitchen. They also sleep there. There is also a shrine for prayers. So what kind of people come to stay here? Israelis mostly, she replies. But their conduct leaves a lot to be desired. “They sit in a circle and keep smoking. There is no difference between boys and girls,” our hostess complains.
7. Drink in the open at your own risk
The entire town is high on apong or IMFL during the festival, every food stall selling their version of local wine, but that doesn’t mean you can go around town drinking in the open. This is specially true if you happen to be a public figure like a minister representing people. At the VIP enclosure where ministers and senior govt officials are seated facing the stage, there is a steady supply of alcohol for the officials. In plastic glasses, pegs of Chivas Regal are being made by a woman behind the chair backs and passed on stealthily to the esteemed guests. I get my share too as the esteemed member of the press.
However, I am not treated very well another evening when I am seated on the lawn enjoying a show on the stage. A cop appears from nowhere, lifts me up unceremoniously and before I can protest escorts/drags me outside. My crime: I have a Kingfisher can on my hands.
8. Dude from Dehradun becomes an absolute Arunachali
Now this is a big surprise. When we land at Mechukha’s airstrip, I just can’t believe when I find that among all people who come to welcome us is Sanjeev Monga, my classmate from Ramjas college, Delhi. Though we are connected via Facebook, it has been decades I have not met him. I knew he had become a filmmaker but then that is about it. What the hell is this child of Dehraduun doing in this small nowhere of a village in Arunachal? At 44 he is still unmarried and his Hindi has a thick Arunachali accent.
Sitting by a bonfire later that night he tells me about his love affair with Arunachal which started when he first came here a decade ago to shoot a film. Ever since, he has been coming here again and again, made loads of friends and now he is almost settled here. He has been to all parts of Arunachal and narrates some fabulous stories from his trips to the remotest parts of the state. As a member of the organising committee of the adventure festival, in charge of media and entertainment, he has a large staff of Arunachali girls who simply adore him. “He isn’t like a boss,” one of the girls says. Monga tells me that the simplicity of the people here, their innocence and the beauty of the landscape bowled him over and that he is completely at home and at peace here. Not for him the madness of the metros.