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.

A village gets connected to the world

Its just another Sunday morning, things are easy and slow; a bit laidback, a bit purposeful and a bit hungry. So, I got my bike out, eat a ...