Before travelling to Arunachal Pradesh, I had researched all the must-eat foods of the State. But when I went to Tawang and asked about pika pila and lukter and pehak, everyone looked utterly blank.
It was only then I realised that in Arunachal the “must-eat” foods vary from tribe to tribe, region to region. In heavily Tibetan-influenced Tawang, your “local” options were momos and thukpa and thukpa and momos. The momos came with an entire saucepan of homemade bright red chilli sauce.
Arunachal Pradesh is still not the easiest place to get to. That means it is still relatively pristine, the mountainsides covered with thick forests instead of vacation homes. Even Tawang’s main market is not really busy. At night all one hears is the sound of barking dogs. But it also means that Tawang is not quite tourist-ready in the way many of us expect. I am not quite sure if this is a blessing or not. At the hotel in Tawang, there was an electric kettle to make hot water but no teabags. Most restaurants shut down by 7:30.
But there are alcohol shops everywhere. Our driver commented wryly that alcohol was cheaper and easier to find than pharmaceuticals. But there were no real bars except for Orange Bar, tucked away in an alley. It was dark and the neon lighting was pink, not orange. There were streamers from some long-ago birthday party on the wall.
“There are alcohol shops everywhere. Our driver commented wryly that alcohol was cheaper and easier to find than pharmaceuticals. ”
The bar was manned (or rather womaned) by Shikha (“call me didi’), a gruff no-nonsense woman wearing a monkey cap, along with her dog Brownie. She had been running the bar for 15 years, often single-handedly. One table had a glass top missing because a party the night before had gotten a little too boisterous. The bathroom was dirty and the light did not work.
But she said her bar was the only thing open in town after 9 p.m. She could keep it open as long as she liked because her clientele was largely the people who ran the town—personnel from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal, and visiting salesmen from Guwahati. That evening, though, we were the only customers. She told us to sit while she lit incense and opened up the place.
During the lockdown, she said, she had been closed for six months and 26 days. The bar was still limping back to life. There was a food menu but no kitchen staff yet. The liquor menu boasted of cocktails with names like 5 Steps to Heaven, Hot Berry, and Fire & Ice, but it seemed safest to just stick to basic whisky. Didi heated up water for it.
As tourists we want spectacular mountain views with all the perks—cute Instagrammable cafes, restaurants serving local delicacies, relaxing bars, and hot water on tap. But when towns like Tawang get all that, they turn into Darjeeling—noisy, dirty, over-developed. The price of the quaintness of Tawang is that some of that infrastructure and amenities are still not quite there. “People come for snow in December and run away when they find the electricity gone,” laughed Didi.
We went back to Orange Bar the next night as well, grumbling about the lack of other options after dark. She nodded at us, turning on the electric kettle. In one night, we had become regulars. We even got a plate of complimentary chaat, which we did not really eat. We were stopping by for a quick pre-dinner drink. A nearby restaurant had told us they served food till 9 p.m.
Didi was a little distracted. Her other dog Kanchi was at the bar too. Kanchi was sick, lying on a cardboard sheet, and the place smelled of old dog. The bathroom light had still not been fixed. Neither had the glass top on the table. We had our drinks and went off to dinner at 8:30 and discovered that the restaurant had run out of food. We stood around in the chilly night in a shuttered town wondering what to do.
Finally, we walked back to Orange Bar. Didi did not seem surprised to see us. I still don’t have kitchen staff, but I can rustle up a plate of chilli chicken, she said. We ordered another drink while we waited. She bustled over and poured out two more pegs and said, “That’s on the house,” as she disappeared into the kitchen. We looked with alarm at all the alcohol. We still had a long uphill walk back to the hotel.
“ Dheerey dheerey drink,” Didi said reassuringly. “It’s safe here, even if it’s late.”
“We’ll be back tomorrow on our last night,” we said as we left. But the next night the rain came down in sheets and we never made it back. We felt strangely sad that we could not say goodbye to a dingy bar and the woman keeping it going against all odds, 10,000 feet above sea level.
Sandip Roy is a novelist, podcaster and columnist currently living in Kolkata. His award-winning debut novel was Don’t Let Him Know.