Celebrating diversity

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

Lands of Early Dawn: North East of India; Romesh Bhattacharji; Rupa, Delhi, 2002; pages: 350; Rs.395.

THIS is essentially a traveller's book, celebrating the delights, the discomforts and the occasional perils of travel and discovery in the northeastern region of India. The author spent several years in this part of India as an official of the Indian Customs service and travelled extensively in the region. Romesh Bhattacharji uses his pen and his keen eye, working even more keenly through his camera, to record his impressions of the people and the landscape, going beyond the cliches about "strange people and stranger places". Landscape is an important theme of the narrative as is the destination of the journey.

Just as no statement can be made about India without several qualifications, the northeastern region too defies generalisation. Bhattacharji's book is therefore not about "Northeast India", an expression that has come to acquire a degree of integrated political and geographical connotation, but about the "lands of northeast of India". The author's approach celebrates the diversities and differences between the various components of seven States (now, with Sikkim tagged on for political reasons, eight States) comprising this region, and indeed within these States as well. It is, for instance, meaningless, indeed impossible, to discuss in unidimensional terms the diverse variety of people dispersed very thinly over so vast a territory as Arunachal Pradesh, or seek to discover an `Arunachali' personality, or even search for that horrible contraction, the `Arunachalese'. What can one find in common between the inhabitants of Rupa in Kameng and Changlang in Tirap, except the fact that they inhabit the same political and administrative space.

One can take the argument further, apropos the demand for a so-called Greater Nagaland, and ask if there is anything in common between the people of Changlang and the Anals of Manipur, both inhabiting the political and cultural territory of the envisaged Greater Nagaland. The Anals have been constantly involved in (or subjected to) a process of invention and re-invention of their identity as Kukis at one time and now as Nagas, a process driven as much by the instinct of self-preservation as by interventions from anthropologists and historians, politicians and journalists.

People are different, even people in seemingly the most homogeneous of societies. The diversities and differences, the essential pluralism of every people, ought to be a cause for celebration, not half-baked agendas of national integration driven by panic and distrust.

The narrative is organised in seven sections of varying length and detail, classified as `glimpses', describing journeys made in the region. Each of these provides delightful insights on places and people that one had taken for granted. Who would have known, for instance, that Tipi, which is just across the `inner line' as one enters Arunachal Pradesh on the road to Tawang and which has a large orchidarium (as well as a seasonal invasion of midges), is actually an anagram of the expression `Transhipment Point'? What could be more charming than the account of the waking up every morning of the sawmill supervisor in Dibang Valley, with which the narrative opens, his dog pawing him awake, a hen twittering round his bed and an elephant letting in its trunk and spouting dust?

Indeed, one of the most telling accounts is of the predicament of the elephant, with its dwindling habitat, in the chapter on the elephants of Nambor forest, and the peculiar relations they have established with the people travelling on lorries and buses on the road between Dimapur and Bokakhat. Everyone who travels on this route has his or her own story of such encounters.

The narrative ends with an account on the extent of deforestation in the region, a major preoccupation of the author, and also has a short account, which hangs loose, of `unusual bridges', many of them bamboo structures hung high over deep gorges carrying torrents, challenging the traveller to traverse them. The description by a gaonburrah of the way such bridges are constructed (page 309) brings out both the skills and the community spirit that go into such efforts. There is a striking photograph of the most famous of such bridges, over 350 metres long (the photograph says, `at 300 metres') on the Siang river between Tuting and Jidu. The narrative also briefly describes engineering marvels such as the `curved' bridges and viaducts on the Lumding-Badarpur hill section of the Northeast Frontier Railway (Frontline, February 17, 1990).

The book refers to the 300-year-old arched masonry bridge over the Namdang on National Highway 37, just before Sivasagar as one travels east from Guwahati. On page 143, the construction of the bridge is attributed to King Rudra Singha while on page 311 the reader is informed that King Gadadhar Singha, who was the father of Rudra Singha, built the bridge in 1688. In fact, as noted both in contemporary accounts like Tungkhungia Buranji (A History of Assam) and in more recent accounts like Edward Albert Gait's A History of Assam, the bridge, which is 60 metres long, 6.5 metres wide and 1.7 metres thick, was built in 1703 by Rudra Singha (1696-1714), who is regarded by many as the greatest of the Ahom monarchs.

Informed with the best of intentions, the book reads easily. The good guys are the lonely persons battling against great odds single-handedly in inhospitable places, while the bad guys are the "builders and contractors" defacing a once-pristine landscape.

Underlying the narration, the selection, and the emphases is a deeply felt love for a people and their environment seen as facing threats that most of them cannot even comprehend; and a barely concealed antipathy to the contractors and lumber mill owners from outside the region, a deadly combination incorporating all the pet aversions of the author.

A passage at the beginning of the narrative (pages 8-9), one of several of this kind, is illustrative of these concerns, and aversions. The author recalls a journey to the Apa Tani Valley in February 1996, "by a good motorable road via Kimin on the border with Assam - ten years too late", only to find that the "earlier way of life" of the people had been "swamped" by "tin sheets, solar panels, STD facilities, wine shops and traders from North Indian plains". Horror of horrors, establishments like "Asha restaurant, Papu Sweets and RK Hardware" had come up in a place where "Bamin Tare, Tenyo Bida or Morpin Tajo" had been the popular names.

Concrete block structures in Hapoli and Ziro had edged out paddy straw thatched huts on stilts and lapangs - "the raised platforms on which elders used to sit every evening in council" - the last a truly idyllic image. The tall silver firs and the weeping blue pines had been replaced by the common variety of quick growing pines. The 35-metre-high poles for traditional gymnastics now co-existed with equally tall radio aerials; and the radiotelephones that were now available in the villages had enabled some of the youth to move far away for higher education or employment.

"The comfort of being able to keep in touch with their homes had cut the chains that kept them in the valley." The Apa Tanis, who traditionally practiced settled terrace cultivation, had now taken to commercial cultivation of orchids and the like for the market. "A by-product of this settled living is that they have two classes, the rich and the poor, unlike their neighbours, the Nishis and the Bangnis, who practice shifting cultivation but have no class divisions."

But then, without the "motorable roads", whose construction entails a measure of deforestation, this account - with its generous nostalgia for an uncomplicated past in which people are happy and rage about a present and a future that these very people are eagerly embracing - would not have been possible.

This is a mindset this reviewer has often come across in his own more modest travels in the region. Those materially resourced "lovers of the pristine simplicity of the tribal life" from outside the region would not for a moment forgo their material comforts or their firm moorings in an organised lifestyle in metropolitan centres even as they get worked up about the changes in the tribal way of life. After all, chains that bind will be cut, will have to be cut; classes will emerge even in seemingly classless societies. As a wise man has noted, one cannot seek a jugantar (new age) for oneself without allowing for rupantar (transformation) in one's environment.

However, the role of the author as a Jeremiah, warning of devastation of the natural and human resources of the region that is already on us, is also a necessary one. Not surprisingly, the narrative celebrates the figures of old, in particular those who visualised and laid down a policy of isolation (without ever using that word) and gradualism with regard to matters of the region's development: Jawaharlal Nehru and those who inspired him and were in turn inspired by him, like Verrier Elwin, and several others, mainly of the old Indian Frontier Administrative Service, resolutely tried to keep that tradition alive. Much better, perhaps, not to probe deep into what relevance they have in these harsh times.

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