It’s 1999 and I am in Dublin, in my friend Rory’s house. We’ve returned from a pub crawl and are lying on two beds, placed on opposite sides of the room. We’ve been talking about the myths surrounding Guinness, the iconic Irish stout. The traditionalists believe that the Guinness in London tastes different from the Guinness that’s served on the ferry from Holyhead, Wales, to Dublin; the Guinness in Dublin tastes different from that served on tap in Dundalk, the East Coast of Ireland, where naked black mountains tumble into the heaving Irish Sea.
The Guinness we’ve been imbibing all evening has put Rory and me in a state of free-flow. Streams of consciousness collide and explode, then conjoin to become rivers before splitting again into countless thought tributaries. Rory wonders aloud what it’s like for me to live in India, so far from the British Isles, and the Continent, where all the action is. It is an innocent young person’s Euro-centric question. And I give an innocent desi person’s honest answer: “Feels like crap, man.”
Twenty years later I am reminded of this conversation, while travelling to Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. It’s tempting to reach for the obvious words: ‘far-flung’, ‘far-off’, ‘remote’ to describe my destination. Am I travelling from the ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’? Am I going from Dublin to Delhi?
Prior to this I’ve never set foot in any of the Seven Sister states that, along with Sikkim, make up the Northeast. And yet, I have sampled firsthand some of the centre-periphery division while a student at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, in the mid-1990s.
My room-mate is a soft-spoken Naga from the Phom tribe. One night I wake up to see him doing a hundred push-ups. He looks angry, sweat pouring down his face. He’s getting ready for a separatist student rally at Jantar Mantar the next afternoon. When I ask him what it is that’s put him in a tearing rage, he says bluntly: “I’m Naga, not Indian.”
I first travelled to Ziro Festival of Music in 2012, the debut edition. I followed up in 2013, then a break, until I returned again in 2018. In my Ziro freshman year I travelled nonstop by train to Guwahati for 26 hours, followed by a back-breaking road journey that took the better part of a day and night.
Landslides and tyre-bursts mean one has stop every now and then and take stock, not a bad way to experience the villages, towns and virgin landscape en route. Now, a rail link has opened up, an overnight train takes one from Guwahati to Naharlagun, Itanagar. The road trip is vastly reduced in time, though, on the train, the spectacular landscape passes one by in the dark of night.
Geography and climate play a unifying role, where language and distance divide. I live in Dehradun; the surroundings, as one drives into Arunachal, look vaguely familiar, the incessant drizzle, the rolling hills, the tranquil sameness, sloping tin roofs and the ramshackle architecture of fecund Himalayan valley towns. Only the green is a different green here, a distinctively lighter shade, a bit like Copenhagen.
The land is dotted with gurgling brooks, placid lakes, tall white grass. Yellow bisons graze leisurely in the pastures. One sees BJP’s saffron flags fluttering on tops of houses, and every once in a while a sign that announces ‘Bismillah Beef Hotel’. Standing millet borders the lush paddy fields where local farmers also breed fish in the knee-deep water.
In Ziro Valley, groups of women pass us in the street, sturdy old hill women with lined faces, their backs bent under heavy loads, their enquiring faces marked with elaborate tattoos. According to one story, a tribe called the Nishis would kidnap beautiful Apatani girls for marriage. The tattoos were meant to put them off.
On my first trip, we live in a traditional village hut. There is no cooking gas or electricity but plenty of firewood. There’s a big fireplace in the middle of the room and two taps. The centre of the house is where you can boil a kettle of water or have a bath. It’s a kitchen and a living room rolled into one.
In a place as beautiful as this, one has to constantly choose between options. Should I take in the sights? Or should I take in the sounds? After all, it’s a music festival and one is here for the music.
But there is also the valley to explore. It’s a good place to be curious because most people here speak and understand Hindi. One doesn’t feel linguistically crippled like one does in Kerala, where everybody speaks Malayalam and there’s no Hindi speaker for miles.
The problem with going native is that one can always be accused of going overboard-ethnic. I’ve been drinking the rice beer, apong, which comes in two variants, milky white, and a darker brew, the colour of rum, that is blended with millet. My new friends, residents of Ziro village, are drinking strong lager, imported Desert Stallion and Tuborg; the latter has just set up a factory in Arunachal. They tease me for not drinking what they are drinking and being the Dilliwala who wants to sample all things local. It reminds me of Ireland again.
When I visited Dublin, the country was witnessing an economic boom and trying to live up to its new-found reputation of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. While I, the tourist, foraged around for the perfect pint of Guinness, the globalised Dublin yuppies were downing pints of Heineken, a symbol of their break from an impoverished past.
I remain steadfast in my mission to go native with a vengeance. At the festival venue, one can sample the various meats on offer. A friend from Delhi asks me if I’d like to sample some cat. He lowers his voice dramatically and whispers in my ear, as if we are scoring heroin. We try the smoked cat. And the smoked dog. It tastes like smoked beef. Of course, when I tell my city friends, some stop talking to me, others cut me off permanently. I’m a brute. Maybe. I’m half Jain and I eat meat.
For me, once you have chosen to eat living beings, you have crossed the Rubicon. All animals are equally lovable and, may I add, edible. When time comes for slaughter, the chicken feels the same pain as a goat as a cat as a dog as a horse. One eats what one’s fellow human beings are eating. I will not judge their practices.
With liberals I encounter a logical inconsistency, where eating beef is celebrated but mention eating other animals and one is accused of lacking in compassion, while the natives who eat these so-called taboo animals are dismissed as ‘backward tribals’. You cannot have your cow and eat it too. From a humane point of view, killing all animals is wrong.
Oh, did I mention the rats. The rats are big and juicy, and in the old part of Ziro they are laid out with the snake gourd in veggie shops. The countryside has been planted with thousands of traps. Catching edible rats is a prized skill here. There are those from Arunachal who feel that this shouldn’t be mentioned. It feeds into a cliché about the Northeast.
I can be accused of playing up the exotic, like the foreigners who come to India and talk only of elephants, cows and camels walking the Indian streets not to mention the heat, dust, noise, chaos and colour.
The locals are hungry for conversation. They’ve spent years living together and are beginning to get on each other’s nerves. An annual influx of outsiders is a welcome occurrence.
It’s the entourage of Shillong creative types who keep mentioning the ‘mainland’ in pejorative terms. The mainland seems to be an amorphous entity encompassing Bangalore, Bombay and Delhi. Many digs are taken at the mainland and its self-contained navel-gazing. The Shillong crowd is making contemporary music and films and authoring books, and forms its own metropolitan elite within the Northeast.
There’s also a strong desire to join the ‘mainstream’. No one wants to be left behind. Arunachal is placed on the border with China and there is a strong anti-Chinese sentiment at play. At the festival venue, one man grabs me by the shoulder, and says pleadingly: “Sir, please save us from China.” China, he tells me, is screwing up the heads of the locals. It’s showering Arunachal with propaganda and lies. What pains him even more is that when he comes to Delhi he’s treated like an outsider.
My encounter with the China-hater took place in 2012. When I went last year, I found myself in the midst of three thousand people screaming ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai.’ This was interspersed with chants of ‘Fuck China’. A home-grown rapper has emerged to give voice to the kind of angst that infects the air here. When K4Kekho takes the stage, the crowd erupts in frenzied adulation. The girls scream themselves hoarse and faint. In his songs, Kekho raps about being an Indian: ‘Deko muje deko/Tora Chinese jesa dikta hu/Itna lamba nai lekin tora naata dikta hu/ Andar se hu Indian/ Paiso ke liya jeeta hu/ Election ka time mein hazaaro me bikta hu.’
The last line refers to a feature of elections in Arunachal, where the phenomenon of votes-for-cash is rampant. The average going rate for a vote is Rs 30,000. On his hit single, I’m An Indian, Kekho raps about the racism of the mainland: ‘Arunachal Pradesh kaa me e/ Kya yeh jaga China me e/ Choro na yaar, yaha mein deko tumara chera bi aina me / Let me tell you something, this is plus; this is minus/ Pardon your highness. I’m an Indian, not Chinese.’
The Northeast has so many tribes and communities that I as an outsider felt I had to tread carefully, so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings, what we in India for some reason term as ‘sentiments’. Hanging out with the NE kids, one realises how much fun they have with each other’s identities. There are enough in-jokes dissing each other tribes, or making fun of accents, there are Naga jokes and Khasi ones, all in good humour. As musician and filmmaker Wanphrang Diengdoh explains, “With so many languages, and Shillong attracting students from all over the Northeast, the town has become a breeding ground for PJs. At Ziro Festival, the comfort levels are so high, political correctness takes a backseat.”
The music festival itself does a good job of bridging the gap between the Northeast and the rest of the country. It also provides the essential auxiliary service of making mainland meet mainland.
I meet a Gujju boy, on his first trip to this part of the world, desperately trying to expand his horizons. As a Jain- Gujju hybrid, I can follow his phone conversations. He gives instructions to a flunky in Ahmedabad to transfer large sums of money from one account to another. I tell Gujju boy that while he’s busy clinching deals, he’s missing out on the scenery outside. “What to do,” he says matter-of-factly, “money runs in my blood”.
He unpacks his tiffin and digs into a thepla and red garlic chutney. He says: “After this I’m going to another festival. Guess?” I say I have no idea. “Navratri!” says Gujju boy, rubbing his hands in anticipation. He fills me in with details: “The going rate for parking spots during Navratri is Rs 35,000. Viewing tickets for two [no dancing] come at one lakh, including parking.”
I make my long way back to Delhi, armed with this vital piece of information. On the winding road back down to Guwahati, the sight that greets us is of mithuns grazing. The mithun is a large domestic bovine, a shy creature which comes out to graze only at night.
They are there all along the highway, grazing away in solitary splendour. I feel an odd kinship with them. For I too, like the mithun, come out to play at night, once the world has gone to bed.
What to drink? Rice beer; it’s delicious. The kiwi wine is drinkable too. Ask for a bamboo tumbler.
What jokes to crack? Bad network/ weak phone signal jokes.
What jokes not to crack? Where is the momo stall?
What to wear:? Sweatshirt, poncho, boots.
Do say: “Do you think it will rain today?”/ “Are you from around here?”/ “Can I borrow your lighter?”
Don’t say: “Wow, Northeast girls are so pretty. Ya’ll have such slim figures and long straight hair!” / “I hate heavy metal.”