Saturday, 2 April 2016

Micro stories 2

The following was written during my stay in the Bomdo village in Arunachal Pradesh in May 2015. While writing loosely-connected short anecdotes, I drift a lot between stories but try and return each time. You may notice the influence of Brian Doyle's book Mink river here. Given that there was no electricity, phone network or internet, I wrote quite a bit! So I post it in parts. The first part was here and here follows the second part.

23rd May 2015

Solung, mana and the pig

Two days later, we had the Solung festival yesterday and today and tomorrow are Mana (holidays) days. The Mana days need a special mention. For a third or more field work days in Bomdo village, there has been Mana, which basically means that no one is allowed to work; compulsory holidays, what a lovely practical concept! These are the days reserved for merry, rest and spirited conversations. There have been many occasions when Roy and I have loads of field work but it can't be done because of Mana. In the Adi language, it is called Gena. Coupled with unpredictable rain spattered across nine of the twelve months of a year, Mana has been a crucial factor dictating how much work can be done in a field season (usually from October to May).

Solung festival. Three Mithuns (Bos frontalis) and several pigs were sacrificed during the festival. A couple of years back, I had spent time in a few households during the festival and by the end of it, I had had enough millet beer to have donated my slippers to someone and only later realised I walked around the village barefeet all day! this year, I decided to spend my time with my friend Takkar, he was cutting a pig himself, not bothered much with what else was going on in the village, he was celebrating personal Solung, he said.

A male pig from the Egin, the toilet. Takkar had already killed the pig by strangling it with two bamboo boles buried into the ground and tied up together tight about a meter above the ground with the pigs neck in between. The pig stays alive a while, refusing to give up; few minutes in between when it tries to take a world of air but manages a little and slowly dies of asphyxiation. The pig was reared for this day, this moment...four years of living in a dingy toilet for a day to see the sun and die. The world is an unfair place, but perceptions concord with only a fraction of the larger scheme of things, I let the thought fade.

I help Takkar burn off the skin hair on a small dried-palm-leaf fire. We turn the pig around and round and scrape the burnt hair off  with a palm tree branch till its ready for the 'operation' as Takkar calls it. Takkar turns the pig around over its back and cuts open a portion around the belly. The small reverse-curved knife, the chigdo cuts it as smooth as a knife would a pastry and belly fat floats up. When you look at it, it seems improbable that an animal stores that much fat, but that was the reason it was kept in a 3 x 3 m enclosure; so it does not expend energy moving around. So the fat stored can be transferred up the trophic state to another being to sustain the energy required to be an Adi; to farm, to hunt, to walk miles and miles in the mountains and valleys around the village, not just a culinary detail.

Beyond the belly fat, the Yakdin, considered medicinal and stored for long periods, lie the visceral organs. Takkar pulls them out one by one, the intestines first, next the lungs, then the kidneys, then the heart and some other organs that Takkar throws away before explaining what they are to dogs eagerly waiting by the house. All this pulled out, the blood lies in a small pool, Takkar collects the blood for a dish called Mumney, blood, belly fat and rice boiled together into a paste. Mumney is a thing of legend among the Adi, but I don't much prefer it.

Its not often that Mumney is cooked in the village. Whenever it does, its often during the festivals in the Naamghar and the entire village comes to eat. The old men sit by the fire and the person incharge of the Mumney stirs it round and round, once in a while checking to ensure that its cooking well. I am not too fond of this Mumney, but sometimes when I'm hungry enough can take a bowl full but not a morsel more. the Adi love it and find it irresistible, some even it to the point till it causes indigestion!

While cooking a meal following the 'operation', Takkar asked me which was my favorite part of the pig, to which I replied that I do like the ribs. And for having helped him burn the skin hair and for helping him the little I could with the 'operation', he offered me the choicest portion of the ribs, which I cooked a day later to perfection. Will leave you with that thought. More to follow!

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Palming off the forests: implications of introducing oil palm plantations in North-east India

An oil palm plantation landscape (photograph by Arati Kumar-Rao)
Oil palm plantations are lucrative and are being actively encouraged by the Government across north-eastern India. After the first cut of forests in the region for oil palm in Mizoram, spread across over 20,000 hectares, Arunachal Pradesh State is on track to becoming a major oil palm producer in the coming years with over 100,000 hectares considered suitable for oil palm cultivation. In August last year, the State Government signed contracts with three companies to open up oil palm plantations over 20,000 hectares in the next five years. The rationale seems simple according to a report by the State Government of Mizoram; farmers currently undertaking shifting cultivation, which is perceived as wasteful and destructive, can grow oil palm and improve their own economy as well as reduce the country's dependence on imported oil palm. But several examples from South-east Asia provide evidence to suggest that oil palm plantation development is riddled with complexity. Lets first look at the ecological impacts.

Effects on landscapes

The forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, countries that produce most of the world's oil palm, have borne the brunt of oil palm expansion over the last three decades: by the year 2005, oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia affected over 30 million ha of forests. Besides directly causing deforestation leading to biodiversity loss and increased carbon emissions, oil palm plantations have collateral impacts such as soil erosion as well as air and water pollution due to mill effluents and plantation run-off.

Water quality in streams is affected by plantations: studies have shown that water from plantations was nearly 4°C warmer, sediment concentration over 500 times higher and the stream health in terms of stream metabolism was lower than forest streams. While oil palm plantations support lower biodiversity relative to other land use types such as rubber, cocoa and coffee plantations, diversity is also lower than in secondary forests formed following shifting cultivation, which involves small-scale forest clearing followed by natural regeneration.

Palm plantations also accentuate the risk of fire in landscapes; while many oil palm plantations in Indonesia are on drained peat forest rather than uplands, low tree density and lack of ground cover can contribute to a hot, dry, fire-prone environment. Industrial manipulation of the landscape for oil palm development was considered a significant factor responsible for more than half the fires that raged across Indonesia last year and affected over a million hectares of forests. George Monbiot, the environmental writer, called this “the greatest environmental disaster of the 21st century so far”.

The stark contrast between a forest and an oil palm plantation (photograph by Arati Kumar-Rao)

Impacts on people

Such ecological impacts will affect the forests in the Indian North-east, which besides supporting several endangered flora and fauna are largely managed by indigenous communities. Shifting cultivation or swidden, a mountain farming system practised by about half a million families across a roughly equal area in hectares, annually, is the mainstay of the region. While on the one hand, the practice provides food security in remote mountainous areas, on the other, farming communities also draw strong links between the practice and their own cultural identity. As oil palm plantations spread and replace cultivable area under swidden, they can be expected to affect livelihoods of farming communities that subsist on the practice. For instance, palm plantations have affected the Dayak community in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia; following the establishment of plantations, communities had to travel farther to collect forest produce, to hunt and to prepare their swiddens.

Besides such direct impacts, other indirect social impacts have been documented from South-east Asia such as lack of transparency regarding the smallholder-plantation arrangement, bonded labour, use of non-local employees, amenities promised by companies not being made available, unsafe use of fertilizers, high rates of injury among plantation workers, corruption between officials and plantations and breakdown of traditional social structures. Further, the perceptions of economic benefits of oil palm vary across different stakeholders–local communities, corporations and governments–and this has led to conflicts between them. Several sites with oil palm plantations in South-east Asia have reported economic gains but some argue that these gains often accrue to migrant labourers rather than indigenous people.

In most parts of North-east India, settled cultivation or wet rice cultivation provides an important alternative and often supplements the activity of shifting cultivation. Irrigation comes at a premium due to the undulating terrain in the region. Diverting this scantily available resource to water-intensive oil palm plantations could affect food security and livelihoods of farming communities. The remoteness of the area further complicates the prospects for oil palm. Several parts of North-east India are not well connected with markets and processing units. Where access is poor, product quality may suffer, since fresh oil palm bunches need to be processed within 24 hours of harvest to ensure good quality oil and to avoid build-up of free fatty acids.

Sustainable palm oil?

Recognizing the problems associated with oil palm plantations, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 to ensure environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices and to certify companies that adhere to its principles. Certification should provide some protection for North-east India, however implementation of RSPO principles has been fraught with issues. Firstly, RSPO membership itself is problematic: 65 % of the RSPO are members that trade crude palm oil while only 20 % are oil palm growers. The majority, then, have no direct responsibility for practices on the ground. Secondly, the social, ecological and environmental expertise for effective implementation of the principles of RSPO is lacking in the countries where oil palm is grown. Further, in the year 2012, only a third of palm oil production by RSPO members was certified as sustainable.

Are there alternatives?

Given that oil palm plantations have affected both forests and communities in South-east Asia, and that the expansion of plantations in North-east India is still at its nascent stage, the time is ripe to look for alternatives. However, alternatives are not easy to come by since palm oil is widely used in edible and cosmetic products and oil palm is a highly productive crop in comparison with other oil crops such as soybean, sunflower and rapeseed.

Short-term measures involve improving productivity of existing plantations and avoiding further deforestation for future plantations. Some conservation biologists claim that boycotting oil palm is not the solution since producing oil from a different crop can affect even larger areas. Instead, making existing plantations more efficient and productive and utilizing a portion of the revenue generated from plantations to safeguard other forests has been suggested. Even the focus of the international environmental organization, Greenpeace, is to 'break the link between palm oil and deforestation rather than forpalm oil to be excluded'.

Long-term alternatives are being researched with some success. In February last year, researchers at the University of Bath, England developed a way to produce the oily yeast Metschnikowia pulcherrima that has the lipid profile of palm oil. While they believe that it can likely grow on most organic feedstock and that its commercial production could be undertaken in 10 to 100 times less area than oil palm, the economically viable production of this yeast may take a few more years of research.

Concluding remarks

The forests in North-east India are already vulnerable to proposed dams, timber extraction, non-traditional shifting cultivation, mining for coal and limestone and previously introduced monoculture plantations such as tea, rubber and cashew, among others. Similarly, the livelihoods of farming communities are affected by policies that discourage shifting cultivation, a practice that provides subsistence to remote mountain farming communities. Introducing another forest conversion scheme at a large scale of several thousands of hectares poses risks to the land and the people.

Learning from experiences in a similar cultural and ecological landscape in neighbouring countries in South-east Asia, it may be more practical and ecologically sound to initially undertake small-scale oil palm plantations in previously cleared sites in North-east India and expand slowly in sites with other land use types without causing further deforestation. The expansion should also be based on learning from successes and failures at initially established sites. In terms of management of oil palm plantations, companies designated to establish oil palm plantations must strictly adhere to RSPO principles, and local farmers should be involved throughout the decision making process including the actual management of the plantation to prevent negative social repercussions. Otherwise, instead of improving the economic conditions of communities in North-east India which is ostensibly an important reason for oil palm expansion, plantations may further marginalize farmers that subsist on shifting cultivation and cause extensive and irreversible ecological damage.

Articles cited:

  1. Fitzherbert, E. B., Struebig, M. J., Morel, A., Danielsen, F., Brühl, C. A., Donald, P. F., & Phalan, B. (2008) How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?Trends in ecology & evolution, 23(10), 538-545.
  2. Gillespie, P. (2011) How Does Legislation Affect Oil Palm Smallholders in the Sanggau District of Kalimantan, Indonesia?. Australasian Journal of Natural Resources Law and Policy, 14(1), 1-37.
  3. Koh, L. P., & Wilcove, D. S. (2007) Cashing in palm oil for conservation. Nature, 448(7157), 993-994.
  4. Obidzinski, K., Andriani, R., Komanidin, H., & Andrianto, A. (2012) Environmental and social impacts of oil palm plantations and their implications for biofuel production in Indonesia. Ecology and Society, 17(1), 25.
  5. Raman, T. R. S. (2014) Perils of Oil Palm, 20 August 2014, Newslink (Aizawl).
  6. Srinivasan, U. (2014) Oil palm expansion: ecological threat to to north-east India. Economic and Political Weekly, XLIX, Sep. 06, 2014.

The article was written for the Current Conservation magazine with Dr. Deborah Lawrence.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Micro stories 1

The following was written during my stay in the Bomdo village in Arunachal Pradesh in May 2015. While writing loosely-connected short anecdotes, I drift a lot between stories but try and return each time. You may notice the influence of Brian Doyle's book Mink river here. Given that there was no electricity, phone network or internet, I wrote quite a bit! So I post it in parts. The first part is here.

21st May 2015
1130 hours

Of a big meal and curry leaves, pressure cooker and a Bose speaker!

The story could start anywhere because the story is made of smaller stories, all linked, linked by the fabric of continuity and relevance. Like, for instance, after a few days of having small meals of Ragi huri hittu, I decided to prepare a big meal this noon. The people here call it 'Baara baaji khana', the 12 O clock meal, perhaps the most important one of the day for them, since they work hard in the fields. I will not drift into other stories right away but it is difficult to stick to a narrative since everything is linked, and everything is interesting, to me. Anyway, the big meal.

The inspection 'bungalow' I stayed in, in Bomdo village, Upper Siang.

I make a fire, that's the start of every meal here. I cut strips of the discarded cartons someone left here, thin strips. I scrape few strips of bamboo, and over these I will later put thin pieces of wood and lastly big ones. Over the years of staying here, I've learnt to light a fire as well as I light a candle, and nine out of ten times, I make a fire with one matchstick. I light one. The matchstick flame lights the carton strips light the bamboo strips which in a few seconds transfer the fire to the small sticks, which in a whiile light the big ones.

I decided to cook dal (lentils), I wash the dal, cut onions tomatoes, chillies and then remembered the curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) at my friend Kubbo's home. I had brought the seedling all the way from Bangalore. A small bag of mud, three small seedlings with only two leaves each. The seedlings were on a train first, then a bus, then a Sumo (four-wheeler), then a bike ride followed by a short walk, it was a long journey; seven days! When I sipped water from the bottle, I also watered them during the journey, but only one survived. Now, four years later it is a small tree, already flowering. I took the short walk to Kubbo's place and brought back a few leaves for my dal. After the dal is boiled in the pressure cooker, I will season it with onions and curry leaves. I've asked Padi (Uncle in Adi) who is presently working in the field adjoining my camp to join me in the meal, for the 'Baara baaji khana'. He has been weeding his field for a couple hours but now its raining, pouring even. So he sits by the fire drying himself.

Padi, uncle, weeding his field.

The pressure cooker just whistled, it used to be a new sound for the village even few years back. When Kubbo bought a pressure cooker and it whistled with pressure, his mom almost fell back and broke some wind too and we all laughed. Now, most homes have pressure cookers and it is a familiar sound, of the cooker whistle.

Roy and I had two 2.5 litre cookers; one for rice and the other for dal/meat. By now, we know the characters of these two cookers. Usha was an old style one, faithful and loyal and after about 15 minutes would usually whistle. Hawkins had a lot of attitude, it was of a newer generation, she just sits there on the fire with no reaction, giving no indication of an upcoming meal while we stare hungry. Then, suddenly it would spew out steam. Sometimes the Hawkins had so much attitude that it wouldn't whistle over a small fire. But we soon figured the trick; adding bamboo strips after fifteen minutes. Bamboo fire is short but has much more heat and then the Hawkins would be satisfied and whistle. Several days when we don't have bamboo, cooking with the Hawkins was a pain.

Papad roasted on charcoal tastes better!

Just now we finished eating our 12 O clock meal; dal, rice, fire-roasted papad and Gongura pickle my mom sent from Bangalore. Mom always packs intelligently, things that last, pickles and powders. I always carry mom-made Sambar powder and Roy and Agar bhai would say 'Dalo dalo Maa ka pyar' (put some motherly love). Once after a peg or two of rum, Agar bhai said 'Dalo maa ka doodh' by mistake and we all roared into a laughter. That joke will live forever!

Which brings me to another joke. Agar bhai and I were doing field work one day and in my field bag I was carrying a lux meter, to be used for measuring light intensity. It almost looks like a phone contraption, complete with a light sensor connected with coiled up wire like a phone receiver. I started the joke. I pretended that I was speaking to my mom using the digital device reaching far out with the light sensor for better signal connectivity. After about two minutes of pretending to speak I gave the lux meter to him to speak. Agar bhai was suddenly all shy and the word he said first was 'Maaaa', a bit stretched version of 'Ma' (mother). This is funny because of two things; the village has never had any phone network and perhaps will never even have and Agar bhai is ten years older than me and my prank had transformed him into a child calling out 'Maa'. Unable to control myself any longer, I broke into a loud laughter and he joined me soon!
Padi and I finished all this dal with rice in one meal!

The other day another friend Tabu bhaiyya was about to cut my expensive Bose audio speaker into two with his knife, very brave. This is why. I had bought a wireless bluetooth Bose speaker to field to listen to music. I can play music or sound from my phone even 10 m away. The IB, inspection bungalow, I stay in has four rooms. Two rooms are mostly dark and seem haunted almost! The Adi never go alone near the IB in the night since it is built over a graveyard. But I need not worry they said, they are Adi ghosts that haunt Adi people, besides there is the language issue, fair enough, I said. And after a year of getting used to sleeping alone here, they reaffirmed to me that anyways only kids who passed on were buried here, not adults, and I really had nothing to fear!

From the game called 'Angry Birds', I had downloaded sounds of pigs grunting and laughing. The sound is quite scary in a place like the IB and the Adi are anyway trigger-scary of ghosts. I could play the sound from my phone in the pocket and pretend I had nothing to do with it. I set it up. In the night over spirited conversations, I told Tabu bhaiyya about the sound from the dark room and that it scares me. Then, I played the sound. While initially we was surprised, he soon ran towards the sound with a Dao (machete), I then had to shine my torch and declare to him that it was just a harmless speaker. We burst out laughing!

Another day when I played this even in the daytime, a teenager kid Kebo, who was talking to me casually, having heard the sound suddenly started sprinting away from the IB. Feeling guilty, I ran behind him with the speaker to tell him that the Bose speaker was responsible for the sound, he ran harder away. When he came back I explained it all to him and he was still shivering in fear! He said nearby the dogs were running too and he was convinced they had seen or heard something scary too.

More micro-stories to follow.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Who moved my greenhouse plastic?!

This post is a thin slice from the times spent in Upper Siang, Arunachal. For my research on forest recovery following shifting cultivation, I introduced seedlings of different types of tree species in different-aged fallows formed following cultivation. To cut the jargon out, I was trying to understand how a plant that is usually found in a forest fares in a recently cleared and abandoned site and vice-versa. So I planted seedlings of such trees in fallows and in forest and monitored them for almost two years. I was also testing if preventing mammals from eating the seedlings, clearing existing vegetation and introducing artificial shade makes a difference to the survival of the seedlings I introduced.

To do this I needed only a few things: hundreds of seedlings collected from sites along streams and roads where they would not survive anyway, greenhouse plastic, metal exclosures and loads of patience. While the last of these I had mastered in the village where several fortnights are spent waiting for the rains or the festivals to stop with no electricity or phone network, the equipment needed to be bought from Guwahati town, 500 km away and the logistics of bringing them back to the village is the stuff for another story.

Anyways, it was all set, seedlings had been planted in different sites in different plots. Now I just had to wait two years for my data, with fortnightly visits to the sites which involved hours of trekking in the forests surrounding the village, whether its raining, sunny or cold. That's when the action began.
The plot with different treatments

Within the first few months, some of the metal exclosures and the greenhouse plastic started disappearing. It was clear to me why the metal exclosures were disappearing; they make excellent fences for kitchen gardens in the village but why greenhouse plastic, I wondered. Anyways, I needed to sort out the exclosures issue first, they were expensive and irreplaceable considering they were brought from far far away.

A meeting was summoned at the head-gaam's (village-head) home and all the gaamburas (village elders) gathered. First things first, the village-head asked me if I had got them a little something; luckily I had bought some rum from Yingkiong town and offered it to them. Upon being offered a bottle, the village-head mentioned clearly that one bottle was not enough to discuss the disappearance of the exclosures; so, I got another bottle. Anyway, then the folks took up the issue seriously and decided that they will fine any person stealing the metal mesh a staggering amount of 50,000 rupees! I thought that went well. As it happens, some boys in the village were summoned and they went about in different directions shouting the message that 'whoever steals karthik's fence will have to pay a fine of 50,000 if caught', perhaps the only time ever my name was announced to a whole village! The catch was in the line 'if caught', no one was ever, but still I was happy, it was some progress. The exclosures stopped disappearing. Now, about the greenhouse plastic...

Turns out folks were collecting the greenhouse for uses I had not imagined! They were used to sun their rice, to sit on and chat, and to make a temporary shelter from the sun and rain in the forest and fields! While I appreciated their out-of-the-box thinking regarding the uses of my greenhouse sheets, my study was taking a toll! Anyways, after the announcement that I had experiment plots in the forest, the plastic and the exclosures stayed on for the next few months. I also started using the extra greenhouse sheets I had in my camp; to clean the camp, to wash vessels, to store stuff by bundling up the sheets and rarely even as a fire-starter. We also used it as a net to play local Sepak Takraw and then on a long night a friend slept on the sheets and even used them as a blanket in the winter!

Monday, 3 August 2015

SMS without a phone or network or even electricity!

The Adis have lived in the remote hills of the Upper Siang in Arunachal Pradesh at the frontier of the country with Tibet for centuries. Electricity is intermittent, phone network completely absent and evenings in the village are fueled by lively conversations. As a city-dweller, I also realise staying here the importance of conversation, of communication of even the most trivial matters to the more significant ones, daily micro-story-telling around the evening fire.

Evenings are also the time when work for the next day is fixed; some are seeking the physical help of others in the fields, some are seeking partners for fishing in the Siang river or its tributaries, some looking for bikes to take them to the nearest town and so on and so forth. While communication between households happens through short visits in the evening, communication at the village level is another story.

Decisions made by the village heads could be regarding the start of a traditional festival, the start of a communal hunting session, the settling of a dispute between households, the start of a communal farming activity such as fencing the fields, to announce that young boys in the village need to go far into the forests and bring back cane required for fencing the fields or for a game of tug-of-war and several such village-level activities. Now, once these decisions are made, how does one get them across to each and every household in the village. Thats' where the short messaging service in the village comes into play. Young boys in the village are summoned and sent out in three different directions shouting the announcement loud enough for every household to hear and comply. During these announcements, all conversations within homes come to a pause and attention is paid to ensure that the message is clearly understood.

Such messaging service is also used during summers between march and april when fire accidents are likely since every home has a central fireplace and the homes are built of easily combustible material such as bamboo, palm leaf-thatch, cane and wood. Two members from two households in the village are recruited every day to stay in the village and shout 'Kolonkoy Hoy Hoy' throughout the village, which translates to 'Ahoy, watch your fire'. The rest of the villagers are busy in the fields undertaking shifting cultivation, with few old members in the homes taking care of small children. From Bomdo, there is a story of how long back folks who were supposed to watch over the fire got drunk and could not prevent a fire accident, were banished from the village.

More than one and a half century ago, Father Krick, who was referred to as a plucky missionary wrote about an interesting interaction with the Padams, a sub-tribe of the Adis. Krick visited the Adi villages alone, equipped with his cross, flute, sextant and his medicine-box. This story is best conveyed in his own witty words in this rare article; 'Whilst the villagers were away working in the fields, the village took fire. On hastening to the spot, what was my surprise to see standing on the top of each roof one or two men brandishing long swords, and endeavouring to kill the fire-demon. "Fetch water", I shouted; but they were obviously too busy with their quixotic performance against the devil to hear me; so I told off the women, who were quietly admiring the valiance of their husbands, and forced them to fetch water; and as they saw what the water could do, they all rushed back to the torrent. Even our Don Quixotes, seeing that their sabres were not half as effective as water, soon exchanged their weapons for the water-jars...all acknowledged that the demon of fire dreads the water, though some felt inclined to blame me for not having foreseen and prevented the accident'.

In Arunachal Pradesh, inter-village messaging service has also existed in the past. In Tirap district in Eastern Arunachal, massive log-drums were used by the Nocte community to announce festivals, enemy attacks, community hunting, among other such communication to the neighbouring village. Such effective wireless networks indeed!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Things fall in place

I arrived to my study-village in Arunachal Pradesh after more than a year, hungover from times in the United States of America, and from four days spent at home in Bangalore. Resources were superfluous in the last nine months; electricity, internet, phone network, home delivery, libraries and suchlike. Here - no electricity, no phone network or internet, have to cook food on firewood and more rain than the village needs right now, life quickly slows down. And then as the feeling sets in, good things start to roll.

The first house I went to, I see a new baby born and in spite of meeting me for the first time ever, she smiled and welcomed me. I was at my old home again. The entire village was cultivating a complete new hillslope in the landscape, the previously cultivated hillslope in the foreground, its a bit like the feelings I was going through, new ones replacing the old ones which are presently fallow.

I enter the old Forest Barracks/Inspection 'Bungalow' where I've spent many months in the last five years and I now wonder how. A dark place alone where silence hangs like its part of the air here. And then I wonder, do I still remember to make a fire? So, I try to start a small fire, a single matchstick lights strips of papers light strips of bamboo light woodstrips light small logs of wood and the fire sustains. Yes, I do know how to make a fire! The first meal, Ragi (finger millet) powder in hot water, filling.

So many flowers have bloomed and ferns look healthy, its their time now what with all the play of rain and sun these days.

And on a short walk I see a white-faced Mithun (Bos frontalis) nurse her white-faced calf. Nearby, the Siang is roaring with white water with all the rain; carrying silt a thousand miles from here as well as bringing in silt from thousand miles to here.

Back in the barracks, evening is taking away the little light available and Dungé my friend built a contraption with two batteries to light few LEDs and I have light, bamboo makes good battery hold it seems. This light lasted the two weeknights I was at Bomdo, when I read 'The Mink River' by Brian Doyle, stories from a beautiful village called Neawanaka, not very different from the village I was in. Intertwined stories of joy and sorrow of ordinary people's everyday life that are told with intricate details, and most imaginative metaphors. 

In the evening, its still raining so hard that I see a small little bug sitting motionless under a leaf-umbrella, nice choice of place for a shelter from the storm. 

The next day when the rain reduced to a spray, I took another long walk. Ricefields on the other side of Siang look like a multi-layered cake in a confectionary, either I'm hungry or I'm getting acclimatized to the loneliness, mostly the latter, I'm well-fed. 

A pill millipede anxiously crossed the road ever so slowly; its back is waterproof, and when it figures I am close enough it closes up just for a few seconds, then builds up courage and opens up again and continues its journey; we're two strangers crisscrossing that mean no harm to each other..

Back in the village, the old people are chatting as one of them is making an umbrella for the rain with cane, three layers of these to keep the rain at bay. They offer me rice wine and I join them, warm chat after a long walk in the rain. 

In the evening I visit a close friend's home for dinner, there's fish from the Siang river for dinner and chats over fire catching up; he tells me more old people have passed on in the months I wasn't here than new kids born. 


A new grave  when an old man dies, they bury him close to the village and hang some of the Mithun's horns that were sacrificed from his house, also his cane-bamboo backpack, his kettle and some pots and pans, he is going to need them in the other world.

Finally, one sunny day, the barracks I stay in, nested in the hills.

I start my field work. On the way, one of the villagers is bringing back a boar. He hunted it yesterday and his clan people have joined him in bringing back the meat, must be a big one, its a load for at least five people. 

Back from field work, I eat some more of Ragi porridge and the kids have come to the barracks asking for gifts. Having seen me enter the village with big bags few days back, they think I have gifts for all of them, many. I have none. But will buy some later from the nearest town and give them. 

The next day is also bright. Bamut bura is weeding his rice field opposite the barracks, its a hard job.

I asked him why he had tied white strips of cement bags to the tree boles in the field. The strips move in the wind and scare away the birds that were eating up the ricegrains he had broadcasted in the field. 

I prepare my first big meal in the barracks; rice, dal and papad. Someone had made a dal-mixer with bamboo, perfect for my use, thanks, someone. 

After eating, I venture out and realise its a field day for insects. A crimson-tailed marsh hawk adds extreme pink to the colours on a sunny day, a common gull butterfly sits pretty on a yellow flower, a bee pollinates in exchange for a drink, a jewel beetle walks the tight rope on a thin leaf blade, and a pretty snail decides to do a slow-motion bungee jump with its mucus.

Then it rained again for a week during which the Solung festival happened. The two days following Solung are 'mana' days, days during which it is restricted to do any work. So like a gaulish village on a holiday, the entire village drinks and by noon some are singing, other arguing, others indulged in a game of cards and strangely some even sleep in the noon. On other days sleeping in the afternoon is almost a taboo. I think the point of the 'mana' is just that; few days in the year are reserved for rest since other days are full of hard work for agriculture.

When finally we had few hours of sun one day, everyone was out again. Some kids playing cricket in the field, smaller kids collecting colorful wrappers, and the women playing cards, there is nothing much else to do. But that was a short break and the rains broke out again.

Some more days in the barracks spent, with a loud background of rain falling hard on the tin roof, contemplating the answer to life, the universe and everything. Lonely times in a place with no electricity of internet where the only choice you have are to read or write are rare and I have learnt to savor them, because afterall, things fall in place.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The forest with a white-browed canopy

Nokrek National Park is a thin slice of forest perched on a ridge with Garo villages on all sides, with an area of less than 50 sq. km. To make matters worse, experimental orange, cashew and rubber plantations pockmark the forest at the edges. Legend has it that Nokrek is the home of the Mande Burung or the 'Big foot', with even a few sightings reported by the locals! Were these sightings of the rare Red Panda, recorded from unbelievably low altitudes? We'll never know, but a Red Panda was indeed shot in the area in the 1960s. Anyway, with all these disturbances at the edge, it must be quite inconvenient for the 'Mande Burung'. But Rohit, my Garo friend Bensen and I were here to not to see the 'Big foot' but to see the 'Big beak', the Great Indian Hornbill, since we had heard about its recent sightings here.

The village Daborikgre atop a hill is beautiful and just as we reached, the mist cleared giving the scene a dramatic effect.

We were to walk into the Park along an established trek route to a watchtower about two hours walk away. As soon as we entered the beautiful forest from the village, we saw a Himalayan Marten. Often in north-east India, the marten is only a dash of orange in the green of a forest, but this one wasn't in any hurry. The marten scurried away only after noticing us and even stopped awhile at some distance. We walked in further and the forest got darker with thick canopy. And then we heard the gibbons call or rather sing.

For any person who enjoys time in a forest, hearing and seeing a gibbon family in the early morning is an amazing experience. We saw the dark-coloured male and the grey-brown-coloured female and perhaps there was a baby in the family since the male gibbon seemed a bit jumpy. Swiftly dashing across the canopy, the family retreated sufficiently far and then the male gibbon looked at us again just to be sure his family is safe and far enough. With my binoculars, I had a clear view of the gibbon peeking from behind a branch; the dark canopy looking at me with white eyebrows! Instances like these make walking in a north-east Indian forest a thrilling experience.

Black gibbon, white eyebrows hidden in a green canopy somewhere in this frame

A third of the view from the watchtower, the rest was hidden in the mist
Not wanting to disturb the family further, we walked on ahead and soon heard a group of Capped Langurs. We could not see them but it was good to know they were around too. From the watchtower we had a beautiful 180 degree view of the Garo hills but the mist in the valley had not cleared completely. But through the mist I imagined that at one point the Nokrek National Park must have been contiguous with Siju Wildlife Sanctuary and Balpakram National Park further South-east and animals such as the hornbills, elephants, gibbons, stump-tailed macaques and perhaps even tigers must have moved across the entire landscape. We did not see the Great Hornbill during our three hours in the park but we did hear the high-pitched cackle of the Oriental Pied Hornbill on our way back. Inspite of being a tiny remnant of what must have been a vast stretch of evergreen forests, Nokrek is still beautiful and is teeming with wildlife, for now.'

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Chillis that can capsaize you!

It really looks like a dull chilli, with an uneven axis and the most modest appearance for being the hottest chilli in the world! But one bite changes it all...

Mithun marcha or Bhooth jolokia or Capsicum chinense,
(image sourced from wikipedia)
In north-east India, I encountered the hottest chilli I've ever eaten. I took a single bite and felt like my tongue caught fire and here I will quote from a quote from an article which is about this hottest chilli ( '“In the Chang village of Hakchang (in Nagaland),” the anthropologist J. H. Hutton is quoted as saying in 1922, “...women whose blood relations on the male side have taken a head may cook the head, with chilies, to get the flesh off.” Hutton’s use of “cook” would seem to be a reference to Chang culinary practice. Only on rereading did I realize the Chang weren’t eating the chilies—or the flesh, for that matter—but using them to clean the skull'. You need to know here that the Nagas were headhunters several decades back. This chilli is so hot that the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation wanted to use them in hand-grenades to control terrorists and rioters! By the way, Capsaicin is the primary chemical ingredient in the hot chillies that makes one feel like their the tongue is on fire!

Back to the aftermath of the bite...water and sugar made no difference to the chilli heat. I had to sit and wait for the heat to pass, and then enjoy, remember and respect the flavour forever! In Bomdo village, they grow this chilli and is called 'mithun marcha' in Hindi or 'sidik' in Adi. In Assam, its called 'bhooth jholokia' or 'ghost chilli'. Once you are used to eating food with 'mithun marcha', all other chillies are just carrots and beets. In Bomdo, they also smoke the chillies, dry them and then powder them. This powder is even more vicious and just a pinch is enough for a meal of two. A small box with this powder can last months. The flavour is so good that we often eat this powder with salt with a meal. I like the 'sidik' so much, every year I carry back some home and this year I even planted them and they've grown into small seedlings, hope they flower and get pollinated and fruit soon. I hope the right bee is around!

There are other types of chillies grown in Bomdo too; silong, sibet, seka, sitin, banko marcha, siri, sike and petang, one of these even had the distinct smell of 'ghee' or clarified butter! Ghee was rare in this remote village, so initially when I cooked food with this chilli, I was wondering when I'd put it in the food! The kids from Bomdo start eating the 'sidik' chilly at a very young age. There are kids who are just about three to four years old who stop eating as soon as the 'sidik' powder in their plate is over and look for a refill. They sit in a corner, sweating and swallowing their saliva often because of the chilli heat but they will not stop eating the chilly!

Now I am here in the United States for a few months and initially found the food very bland. Till I accidentally met the habeñaro from South America. One day I casually bought a yellowish chilli, pepper, as its called here, thinking its a type of bell capsicum we use in India.

I should've recognised it, it looked a bit like the 'mithun marcha'. I cut a whole chilli into one sandwich and took a bite when I realised my mouth was on fire, but I was happy, because I finally met a chilli at least as hot as the 'mithun marcha'! Recently the habeñaro beat the bhooth jolokia for being the hottest variety in the world, and what I had in my mouth was the habeñaro! The competition is a bit unfair though, all the chillies are grown in the same kind of soil to control for other variations and then compared. The 'mithun marcha' probably is hottest when grown locally and does not retain its hotness when grown elsewhere. By the way bhooth jolokia is available here to buy, but its expensive, costs a dollar for one; we could buy at least 15 in Bomdo for that price. I am sure your mouth is watering by now, I hope you get to taste the 'mithun marcha' and get capsaized! Me, I'm going to have a meal cooked with the habeñaro right now!

Monday, 19 January 2015

A Siang winter's tale

I have spent five of the last six winters in Upper Siang, Arunachal, and this time I am not there! I keep looking for a fire to warm my hands, legs and my back. Central heating or warm air blowing or warm clothes just doesn't do it for me. In the winters in Bomdo village, everyone huddles up near the nearest fire and chats endlessly, constantly reinforcing the thought that its cold indeed, "anchinga", they'd say. And when some days the sun is out, everyone squats in the centre of the village which is flat and basks and chats.

Some of the best conversations happen around a fire.
Early winter, in November, on sunny days we know exactly what to do. We visit the local swimming pools that are formed along the Siang river. Before November these pools are still connected to the river and later in the winter, these pools are too shallow. Imagine having a natural pool with beautiful rocks and sand with a verdant background you can dip in. My friend Gekut even makes a banana trunk boat in about four minutes and we sail on these pools on the boat. After the cold dip we pick up Taari (Halyomorpha picus, an edible stink bug) from below the rocks on the bank and make a meal of them!

Our private pool along the Siang river bank!
Most days, the cold wakes me up early and the first thing to do is to make a fire. Firewood comes at a premium, during field work, Roy and I would ask our field assistants to pick up dead wood and bring back to the camp. Also we had seven fast-growing neem (Azadirachta indica) trees that were planted about 8 years back, three of which we used over the years we were there for firewood. Each time one of the villager comes to the Inspection Bungalow, they would remark that we always make small fires, 'lakdi ka kanjoos' they'd say!  In return for making a bigger fire, we would ask them to send us some firewood and often they would too!

Woodstock! All their homes have firewood stacked up below their houses that are raised on wooden boles or cement pillars. 
We had to make do with limited firewood while the villagers pile up firewood through the years.
Cooking on firewood in the winter is fun too and we even made a double stove by fixing a broken stove with our main stove using metal wire. 
Almost every evening, my friend Roy and I start a fire and put water to boil in the sootiest blackest kettle you may have ever seen. A small walk to the nearest shop gets us some cheap friendly rum called 'Amigos', distilled and bottled in Arunachal. Hot water with rum warms our souls and we slowly cook and chat endless hours. The whole process of cooking takes more than two hours and by the time food is ready we are starving. Food tastes ambrosial; hunger tastes better than any elaborate recipe I guess. Anyone who visits the Inspection Bungalow we stay in, in the evening is treated as/with Amigos and food too, but hardly anyone comes in the late evening, since they believe that the bungalow is haunted, which works well for us!

The mandarin oranges fruit in December and we eat them by the hundreds. None of the fruits of trees around the village are actually sold anywhere and anyone is free to pick as many as they like. In the winter, I hear tiny kids climbing the orange trees right in front of the Inspection Bungalow or trying to and as a last attempt even shaking the trees and throwing stones at the fruits, stones which would often land on the roof of the bungalow. Gekut also taught me how to flick the peel in a way in which the peels fly like a frisbee and lands far; best to try this on a slope to watch the peel fly away.

Lot of activity happens in the village during winter since it is the best time to travel far from the village into the forests and camp and hunt since in this season, there is less rain, no leeches and no snakes. On the 31st of December we celebrate every year what folks in the village call 'waiting night'! They say that this night is spent 'waiting' for the new year and therefore the name. On this night everyone visits every home where there is a party and wishes them and there is also a lot of dancing. During one such large party, a person from the village who more recently shifted to Yinkiong town for a Government job, announced prizes for school kids who scored well in their exams. People celebrate 'waiting night' and 'waited morning' and 'waited night' the next day of the new year in groups with each person in charge of specific tasks. My task in the two 'waiting nights' I celebrated at Bomdo was to visit Yingkiong, the nearest town, 35 km away on a bike and bring back meat, alcohol and other goodies, not a simple task since it could be raining too and on the way back besides looking like a travelling salesman, there is the risk of things falling out of the bike on the hilly potholed roads.
Most kids love their photograph being taken but someone had scared them saying that when a photograph is clicked they will be trapped in the camera forever, so they don't look happy, especially the young ones!
The first morning of the new year is celebrated on the Siang riverbank and both men and women cook and drink while kids play on the riverbank and most of the men dare to bathe in the shallow parts of the Siang river. I've done this and its shockingly cold, that one dip packs the chill of the entire winter it feels like, but feels great after the initial jolt!

In the party the following night, there are also awards given from the money that is leftover from peoples donations from the parties; 'best dancer', 'best cook', 'best worker' and I am proud to say that I won the 'best bike rider' award of 100 rupees, since I rode back to the village with a very drunk person back from the river bank on the bike making sure he didn't tip over while riding! Every person who gets  these prestigious awards does return the money back so more food and alcohol can be bought for the party! This party is definitely worth the 'wait'!

The February rain showers are the coldest and even if one gets used to the winter chill, these showers still make you put bigger logs into the fire. The rains in the region often cause a landslide and electricity is unavailable, for sometimes months.

Sometimes taking photographs of raindrops is a nice way of spending time! 

During the winter rains when there is no electricity, we make a fire and read a book beside the fire, or play 'chilo' or 'sepak takrow' with a ball made from bike tube strands in one of the rooms. Gekut here is happy with his shot!
In February, the local raspberry fruits and we eat loads of them but they need to be carefully picked; if you are too greedy you are stung with the thorns of the shrub. Gekut and I often pick these berries and eat and accuse each other of being greedy or 'yeering'. Gekut would say 'No yeering baah', which translates to, 'you are very greedy', while picking off the best raspberries!

Few days in March are actually sunny and with the passing days it gets from warm to hot. Walking in the forests gets sweatier and more leeches welcome you and the weather; you realise that you already miss the winter chill. Winters are simply fun in the Siang valley.