One of the primary reasons why I travel is to witness how different the world is in comparison to what has been written or said about it. I question every day’s ‘breaking news’ which states horrific headlines, in an attempt to keep my sanity. I’m not questioning the truth in them. I’m questioning their power to influence our lives. How come we seldom emphasise and remember inspiring stories from the country?
Travelling has helped me dismiss these myths. And when I travelled to sensitive areas of Eastern Arunachal Pradesh a few months ago, I am grateful to have discovered life beyond the hearsay.
Myth #1: No food for vegetarians.
Tribals, by their obvious lineage, are meat-eaters. Head hunting has been an extreme and physically exhausting practice and to keep their bodies fit for the task, meat in their diet has been imperative. However, through generations of change—from headhunting to farmers to administrators at local panchayats, the people here have adopted changes in their daily meals as well.
While travelling through Tirap and Changlang, I’ve largely maintained a vegetarian diet and I was not dissatisfied at all. On the contrary my non-vegetarian companions have had concerns. Pork is a favourite in these districts (especially since it is readily available.) And chicken is an expensive proposition here. Most villages consume chicken on special occasions and rely heavily on the green leafy vegetables that grows in their fields. If there is a river close by, they may fish a fresh trout. Primarily, their diet consists of boiled rice (they are all rice-eaters), vegetables in minimal spiced curry or boiled, baked or charred leaves and potatoes in any form. Apart from this, if they manage a non-vegetarian delicacy, it is considered a feast.
Myth #2: Hindi isn’t spoken there.
Hindi is the most widely spoken language here, followed by Assamese. The remote villages of Tirap tend to communicate in different dialects of their tribe, namely Nocte and Wancho. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that they wouldn’t speak Hindi. Assamese dominates in Changlang and so does local dialects of Singpho. I spoke in Hindi everywhere, except may be four or five homes. And they’re so well-versed in the language that they even got my jokes and supported them with loud laughs! I’ve not had responses like that from other parts of the country.
Myth #3: Aren’t the people violent by nature?
Not at all. Much to the contrary, they’re hospitable and every time you enter their homes (whether in towns or interior villages), it is a compulsion to drink tea with them. They’re infused with curiousity and during my various visits, I have been invited for meals, have been taken on village and home tours, they have shown me their traditional jewellery and have sipped rice beer in numerous homes. I have learnt how to be a better host after my travels here.
Myth #4: There aren’t any concrete houses.
This one is a personal favourite. When I moved to Delhi from Shillong, many people assumed that we lived under trees and in the clearing of forests (seriously). And so when I was travelling to Arunachal, it did not come as a surprise to me when a concerned acquaintance asked me where I would be staying.
Every tribe constructs their home a specific way in Eastern Arunachal. This is an age old practice that represents the tribe. Their houses are impeccably clean and made in accordance of the land, i.e. a level above from the ground to keep safe from wild animals and rains, made of bamboo from the forests and they tend to have a separate male-female section (depending on the tribe.) I stayed in concrete houses though most of my rice beer and tea sessions were in their naturally lit and well-ventilated bamboo homes.
Myth #5: Insurgency is prevelant there and hence it is unsafe.
This one is partly true. There are pockets in villages or grove of trees where insurgent groups are prevalent and hence makes travelling around those sections somewhat unsafe. However, I exercise the safety precautionary steps that I would anywhere else, i.e. not wandering around the streets after sunset and abiding by the rules of the land. Though AFSPA is imposed on Tirap (and Changlang), I saw a healthy balance between the locals and the Army jawans. Of course, as a traveller, I cannot confirm the lawlessness of the villagers or the exploitation of power by the Army, but I did not feel that there were any evident undercurrents.
Insurgency in Arunachal has been a long-existing problem. There are various groups who regularly collect money from the houses here in the form of ‘tax’. When we were returning from a village close to midnight (since we had been in an accident earlier in the day) and there was absolutely no fear except the pitch darkness of the night, which merged the roads to the forests. It remains an obvious choice to avoid the patches where infiltration is dominant.
And like all other travels, I was introduced to ways of life here that I didn’t know existed. Here are my favourites from the new things that I learnt from Eastern Arunachal.
-There are no roads beyond Khonsa in Tirap and to Changlang town. We got lucky in Bordumsa and reaching Margherita in Assam was always a delight!
-The inhabitants have the clearest skin and the most curious minds I’ve known anywhere.
-In one of my unexpected lunch invitations, I was served baked leaves from the passion fruit tree. I did not know that it was edible. And it was very delicious.
-I’m always weary of people’s sense of humour, but everyone here sports a healthy one. While we laughed at jokes together, I felt very comfortable and secure in their company.
-Most houses, if not all, have television with a set-top boxes. And Sunday afternoons are essentially spent indoors, watching TV with family.
How has travel helped you clear misconceptions?