Pasighat is chilly in November, especially when the breeze comes dancing down the foothills. It is also misty early in the morning. Actually, most of Arunachal Pradesh is. The forests are thick and the mountains, soaked with water, are open invitation for clouds to form and float up their tousled sides. When we set off from this somnolent town up the long and winding road to Tuting, the mist clung to the Sumo obstinately, till the jeep broke out on to an open bend where the sun could reach out and shoo it away. Below in the valley ran one of the mightiest rivers in the world, now in transformation phase, shedding vigour for languor, it short twangy hill name for the longer grander nomenclature of the plains. The Siang was becoming the Brahmaputra and below too, on my ankle, I noticed another transformation in progress: a thin black leach was becoming into a fat black leech.
In the late 19th century the effluence raging down the impenetrable Siang valley was the suspected but unconfirmed twist in the Tsang Po-Brahmaputra mystery. Were Tibet’s Horse River and the Son of Brahma one and the same? Kinthup, an intrepid Sikkimese pundit, was dispatched by the British to try and unravel this mystery. His plan was simple: float specially marked logs of wood from the upper reaches for his masters to watch out for down the valley and put a cap on the controversy. A simple matter of logging in and logging out. Unfortunately, though the wood kept its word, the effort was wasted. But that’s another story. A more recent one is Mark Shand’s walk down the rough road we were trundling up. But that’s another tale too, best read in his book River Dog.
To cut long stories short, let’s revert to this one. We hit the first village an hour up the road. Life was honking, barking and pecking. Chickens, pigs and dogs loitered between stilted bamboo houses, but of humans there was no sign. We had half a mind to ignore the baleful glare of mithun skulls hanging over doorways and venture into these intriguing homes till a geriatric lady laboured up and informed us through descriptive gesticulations why people power did not manifest Animal Farm. Evidently, it was gainfully engaged in the fields. She also nixed any intention of us entering an Adi—a generic term for Arunachal’s several tribes—home. She had a dao.
Now, these daos (machetes) are wicked pieces of work. The cutting edge of Adi culture, daos were once used to hack off enemy as well as mithun heads. Though the former purpose has long been served and gotten over with, it’s best to be wary of this lethal component of standard male, and as it seemed, doughty old woman attire. The former purpose is, of course, still fulfilled, especially on ceremonial occasions.
We passed many daos holstered on Adi anatomies and many, as yet, un-daoed mithuns on the way. At last, the urge to get into the mind of a dao tripper got the better of us and the Sumo swung into Riga, a Minyong village. The headman’s head is what we wanted. However, he turned out to be well protected, sheathed as his fashionable Beatles-style haircut was in a cane helmet. This is no frivolous headgear. The bamboo hat can take the full fury of a dao slash and yet not be bamboozled. Studded on the bamboo hat were hornbill beaks and wild boar tusks, a sign of privileged class. Suddenly, the anti dao became a more coveted souvenir than its adversary. But it isn’t polite for a humble traveller to ask for the king’s crown and we settled for his subjects’gracious offer to enter a residential domain. Mysterious and dark, Adi homes are basically one huge hall ranged with all kinds of household necessities. Hunting trophies of deer, cat and bear skulls adorned the walls. On the merum or central fire sat a big steaming pot of the evening meal. We were invited to partake but didn’t wish to over reach the hospitality. Instead we wandered the village with a bunch of budding young warriors till the setting sun brought down the curtain on the land of the rising sun.
Quite a paradox, this term, for on most mornings in the Siang valley, a bleary eyed sun struggles to rise out of grey blankets of pregnant clouds swathing the hills. Yet, the early battle between these two elements is mesmerizing. Dark and beauteous, daybreak deserves that you exit dreamland before it does. I was appreciative audience to this unconventional awakening before we set off on the day’s journey. Wide awakening from the heavens beholded terraces of yellow wheat and barley dotted with orange trees. We halved the lazy day on a broad silvery beach with oranges, lemons and fish from the Siang’s stormy flow sold by a bow-and-arrow brave. And if we thought our meal exotic, we obviously were babes in Minyong country woods. Langurously, first, we gazed at our purveyor busying himself scrabbling in the sand, searching beneath small rocks. Curiously, then, we gravitated around him inspecting the fruits of his labour. And horrifically, finally, we gaped as he deftly clipped unwanted appendages and popped the live beetles into his mouth. They were quite safe, our local friend, also a Minyong, explained, the connoisseur had removed the poison. Care for a non vegetarian tidbit, offered the skilled skinner. On second thoughts, he peeled out a tiny red ball from his catch and flicked it away. “He’s removed the spicy part so that you find it easy to digest.”
Tuting township nestles in a wide valley not far from the Chinese border. The last part of our drive was through 30-feet-high sand dunes; a roaring exertion through an environmental aberration; the legacy of a river in unprecedented spate, when its anger had welled into a 50-feet-wall that had smashed everything from beetles to boulders to big iron bridges. But that’s another story. We camped on a flat plain overlooking the Siang and promptly set forth to test our sense of balance and immunity to vertigo on a long curving eyam (suspension bridge) spanning the swift stream. Marvellous pieces of bamboo and rope engineering though these bridges are, us city types used to stable, unmoving constructions of nondescript steel and concrete, need blind faith for the first time to embark upon swinging, swaying, see-through surfaces. Gingerly, I stepped on the creaking rafters, much to the amusement of the pretty village lass enjoying my idiotic maneuverings on what was a routine walk for her everyday. Somehow, I groped and stumbled to the middle of the crazy cradle. There I stopped to congratulate myself. Suddenly, though the furious movement of the bridge continued my trepidation vanished. Perhaps it dropped 100 feet into the swirling waters? Or maybe the sweet wind coming down the valley blew it away? In the soft light of evening I gazed at monsterous rapids rippling like a dragon’s back on the Siang and silently prayed. Tomorrow we would be tackling those. May our boats, like this lissome but tough eyam, swing and sway but not give way.
But that’s another story too.