Sunday, 7 September 2014

Tobacco trails/trials

I still remember the time the salt-and-pepper-bearded always-smiling old man asked me to get tobacco back to Bomdo. He said, "just get this here, and we will be glad you ever came around"!

Two visits in two years I had forgotten, but this time I really gave it a thought and when I was back in Bangalore, I made some contacts regarding this. I told a friend of mine, I need to get back tobacco in a place far removed from here, somewhere they had planted it long back and it's now gone locally extinct! My friend was working with a reputable Tobacco company, studying hybrids of tobacco to produce the best variety, which had fields close to where I worked. He thought for a split second and said why don't you come along with me and take the seeds back with you, let's harvest them together; I was excited, the salt-and-peppered bearded old man smiling wider in my thoughts. Some remote village in Arunachal Pradesh getting the finest tobacco grown in some fields in Bangalore was awesome! So I went with my friend and collected, each time content with the number of seeds, but my friend kept insisting, "your situation is different, take more!", I think I collected millions, the seeds are really small like very tiny mustard seeds.

Back to Bomdo. One of the things I did was meet the old man and give him his precious seeds. He was happy, "kusher" he said, these are called kusher and old men and women used to smoke the dried leaves of this plant up and the plants were grown around the house. The plants needed excess care but was worth the effort. But I could not figure out if kusher was always present or was planted by the Adis here. The situation even fifty years back in the Bomdo village was quite different; even salt was bought from Tibet through a barter system. The walk to and fro Tibet, called Mimmet by the Adis, took more than two weeks. So I doubt kusher was the same variety of tobacco.

So, the old man planted the seeds. I also gave around the seeds to several families in the village, I had millions of seeds and word spreads around faster than fire in the village. Some folks even came to the place I stay and collected the seeds. In the place I lived, Roy and I planted them and they grew about a centimetre a day during the rains and in a few months were 3 metres tall! It looked like the plants were really having a good time in Bomdo, we may have produced a new cultivar! And then the rest of the story came together.

The tobacco plant, it flowered in just three months!
In Bomdo, people like spit tobacco not smoking tobacco, although they enjoy that too. They buy the dried tobacco leaves, called 'Bihari saada' from the shop and mix it with lime bought from the shop or lime prepared by some of the old men from snail-shells smoked over fire. Beedis are too expensive to buy, particularly since match-boxes have to be bought with the beedis (which for some reason are too expensive these days). And this prime tobacco that I brought from Bangalore was 'smoke' tobacco, it smoked awesome, we tried some in a bamboo pipe my friend Gekut had made. But this tobacco did not work as spit-tobacco. The spit tobacco had a different end-process to it (which I guess Biharis had mastered) that gave it the taste that lasted long. And then the complaints began!

"Tigbo (that's what they call me in the village), the tobacco you brought is great for smoking and for leeches (one can make a paste of the leaves and apply, it works pretty well), but is not great for spit tobacco, can you fix that". I, obviously, had no answer to that. Now there are several plants of this great tobacco growing near homes and in vegetable gardens in Bomdo but people don't know how to use them! Some day I hope to figure this out and tell them too. Well, going by the way Adis are, they will figure out another complaint to that too! I hope to post that story in the coming years!

A close-up of the flower