The ride from Bomdila to Dhirang is a short one. I get into an argument with the driver for not storing my backpack on the roof of the vehicle.
‘This is not Bangalore. People here are short-tempered and not educated,’ one of my fellow passengers tells me. It is good advice and it has come at the right time. Violence is habitual to these people. Peace is yet a new thing.
The guy sitting next to me is holding on to what looks like a dried leaf or stem of some sort. It is dark brown. It is about three and half feet long and few inches broad. With its little pointed upcurl at one end it looks rather like a snowski.
‘This is a necessity for prayers. One piece costs fifty rupees, quite expensive because it is found inside thick forests,’ he explains.
‘Where can it be found?’
‘Parts of Arunachal and Assam.’
‘What do you call it?’
‘Namching. It has medicinal value as well. The seeds inside can be used to heal wounds.’
I check into a hotel in this little town, relax a while and later enquire about some hot springs nearby. It is a couple of kilometers away. I have plenty of time to explore the surroundings on foot.
Scene #1: By the hot springs
It is an easy walk to the springs. Down in the valley a river flows. I don’t know if it has a name. On the slopes of the farther bank are cultivated fields portioned into plots by low drystone walls. The hills beyond are greener. A fleet of steps go down to the hot springs.
There is only one main spring enclosed into a bathing pool by stone walls on all four sides. I dip my hand at the pool’s edge. It is mildly warm. It must be hotter at the other end of the pool where the water bubbles up from underneath. Two women are bathing there. I don’t think it’s a good idea to dip my hand between their legs. In fact, the place is quite undeveloped for tourism. I have visited hot springs in Indonesia with separate provisions for men and women to bathe or dip in the warm springs.
I enjoy the sound of the river below, the rustle in the leaves, the bloom of a wild purple thistle nearby and the stray lights peeping out of moving clouds. It is time for me to move on as well.
Scene #2: By the river bank
I see a little path heading down to the river bank. I am glad to lose the road. Some distance away little boys and girls are foraging at the water’s edge. The scene is silent and purposeful. I don’t think they are playing. They seem to be searching for something. I approach them for a closer look.
The children stop whatever they have been doing and eye me cautiously. I sense fear in some of them. After some seconds of silent pause they ignore me and get back to work. I watch from the sidelines. If they are not catching fish, what are they catching?
A little girl turns a stone half-submerged in a clear pool. Nothing. She digs into the mud and upturns the soil. Nothing. She rakes into a wet deposit of sand and gravel with her bare fingers. Something moves. Her response is quick. There is no escape for this little creature. It is a tiny frog. She brings out a plastic bottle already containing a dozen frogs. The new one joins the lot.
‘What will you do with them?’ I ask while I turn one of these bottles in my hand. The children have come to accept my intrusion and have warmed up to my curiosity. The frogs are jumping inside but it is all in vain.
‘Your mother will cook it tonight?’
I wonder what will it be – stir fried frogs, frog bhaji, frog curry or perhaps raw frogs in Bear Gills’ style. I notice other kids and even a couple of adults catching frongs on the opposite bank. The kids have decided that there are no more frogs here. They are going to move a little further downstream. I hand them back the bottle. Then something interesting happens.
The little girl opens the bottle, pulls out a live frog and dashes it against a rock. The frog spreads its legs wide, gasps one last time and gapes open-mouthed at the sky. One by one the frogs, jumping frantically in and out of bottle, are put to such a quick and bitter end. Dinner will be served soon.
I leave the group and pass little boys bathing by the river bank. They are shy and not used to having visitors. This is their river. What am I doing here? Who am I? They scamper off in a hurry and run to their mothers working in the fields nearby. Some even forget their towels and soaps in their anxiety to escape my evil clutches.
Scene #3: Across a wooden bridge
It is actually a metal suspension bridge with wooden planks. With every step, the bridge swaps. I seem to fall and rise from the river flowing swiftly below. A little blackbird wags its rusty orange tail as it holds its evening meal in its beaks. Some goats stand undecided at the other end of the bridge. They stop munching and eye me leerily. It is only when I get off the bridge they cross the river.
A group of women come down from the woods on the other side. They have collected their quota of firewood for the day. The logs are bundled neatly into cane baskets which they carry on their backs; but unlike my traveller’s backpack, this basket is carried by a looping rope with the full weight falling on the head. These women have strong necks through years of practice.
The women are shy when it comes to facing a camera. Maybe because I am a stranger, they hide their faces. They are probably wondering what I’m going to do with these pictures.
I get to the other side, leave the river bank and follow mid-slope paths through little woods. It is a picturesque view of the river and the pretty valley. An old woman is carrying a machette to chop wood. I have surprised her rather suddenly at the turn. She frowns. Her machette is raised high between wood and me. I ask her if there is a path to the river. I know the way but it was necessary to say something to put her at ease. There is nothing more human than a few words of human voice. It separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. She probably does not understand my question but understands my gesture. She points the way with her machette. I leave her to her chore. As I head to the river, I hear the splintering of wood.
Scene #4: A colourful weave
I have walked 6 kms from Dhirang and just passed the village of Rama Camp. Rama Camp is the location of some army barracks. A signboard says ‘Magnificent Seven.’ I make my return towards Dhirang by road. Soon after leaving Rama Camp I see a woman seated on the verandah weaving. The whole of North East has a rich tradition of hand weaving. It is a rare treat to actually see the process in action.
It is not the traditional handloom used in most of India’s handloom cottage industry. It is what I later learn to be the back tension loom used in these parts. A bamboo stick is attached across the width of the verandah at one end. The warp threads are neatly looped over it in colours of red, orange, white and black. As many as ten wooden sticks separate the threads to create the intricate patterns. At the other end, a cane woven belt goes around the weaver’s hip. She puts her weight on it to stretch the warp taut. Then she draws across a bundle of red thread which forms the weft. This is her primitive shuttle except that it is pulled across and not thrown across. She uses a wooden stick to tighten the weave. In the process she is looking at an already woven sample cloth for reference.
She does not mind my presence and continues quietly with her weaving. Her brother questions me with interest. A crying child falls silent suddenly upon sighting me. A woman passes by with a spindle in hand. She is making yarn as she walks. I don’t know what it is but it feels too rough to be cotton. She obliges for a photo. Meanwhile, the weaver has added a few more threads of weft to this cloth that’s only eight inches wide. It is some sort of a shawl. Weaving here is a slow process because the designs are complex. The colours are bright and cheerful, probably the only colours they would see in the long months of winter. The designs are unique and tasteful.
Weaving in this manner requires great skill and patience. Every thread has its place in the final design. To a visitor new to this art, the criss-crossing of a hundred threads can look a tangled mess. But for the expert weaver, the threads are elements of a design that is always in view.