AHOM ~ A Home

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What started as a joke, rather an impractical assignment to take up, ended up being an experience of a lifetime!! It was an interesting project to read about in a DesignIndia mailer.

A team was being formed as a part of the ‘Great’ North-East project, titled ‘Textile Traditions of the North-East’, that the design / craft frat had been talking about for a couple of years now, this time round, for the rather large state of Assam, erstwhile Ahom. Two months of field work and then documentation time……sounded very long for some reason.

Back and forth of numerous mails landed me a part in the team along with one known candidate, batch-mate and friend of 9 years. So we were going…yes…we were!! Where though?? Aah…Upper Assam, sounded very up above the world, hills, clouds, mist, tea plantations….I had imagined it all, overall it sounded very dreamy, so Upper Assam it was for the next 60 days, spreading across Sept. Oct and parts of Nov. 2011.

This was to be preceded by a 2 days orientation at our Alma mater, NID where I had last been for my Convocation. The charms of the exposed-bricks had worked again; I was going to Apnu Amdavad !!

The prelude to the travel was obviously the packing….that took some careful planning, shopping and lastly stuffing it all in my HUGE back-pack…that was big enough to fit me. So, there was umbrella, wind-cheater, sneakers, candles, torches, medicines, mosquito-net, toiletries, appropriate (read: unmatched & loose) clothes for the field…I had it all.

Cut to: NID Campus, Ahmedabad

The guards and their familiar smiling faces greeted us at the Middle gate. Then came the Guest house, beautifully furnished, warm and welcoming, which made us feel comfortable, wanted and happy as Alumni of this prestigious institute. This obviously was only the trailer-facility as I call it….what happened to us once we got back from Assam is another matter altogether!!

At the orientation we met the 13 other fellow travelers, exchanged pleasantries, valuable documents, discussed big issues like money, resource sharing, terror attacks and loads of other seemingly important issues…those that were to be refuted & countered eventually on field….but there’s no harm in yapping away when there’s coffee/tea and biscuits I suppose.

All equipped, having said sweet good-byes, we packed ourselves in a mini-bus on the way to the Sardar Patel Airport, what felt like a school picnic…except that snacks were missing, that we all gorged on, at the Subway outlet just before boarding the flight.

The map above shows the part of North-eastern Assam that we traveled extensively across and the tribes that we came across, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by surprise!

Cut to: Guwahati, Assam.

 We reached in the evening and soon found ourselves huddled in taxis and off we were towards the main city. One of the first things that brought a giggle was the name of a shop ‘Durga Chweets’ as spelt in Ahomiya…where ‘s’ is replaced by ‘ch’ in most cases…that was learning no:1. Then came the radio that played an Akon-ish song called ‘Chammak-challo’, which later became the favourite-most party song.

Then were the 10 glorious days in Hotel Hornbill in the middle of the dynamic Paltan bazaar area, where sounds, smells, hawkers and people swarmed about in a perennial state of Brownian motion.

Soon we found ourselves, on what can be safely called Rekha beds….with red, frilly, silky bed linen…only thing they did not rotate! Hoards of people gathered and before anything we ordered for our first ever cup of Chai……the Assam tea that we had had so far outside of Assam, so the excitement rose and so did the number of people on the bed, mostly prostrate !! Soon after we were moved to Suites, which were huge, nice and comfortable and consumed all of our daily accommodation allowance, but what the heck, the rooms were plush. A big bed, TV, almirah, a sofa (which we used to its death) and a balcony…..which later became a historic balcony!

Over 10days we were divided, re-divided, sub-divided to solicit as much information pertaining to our areas as possible and to get useful contacts and sometimes not so useful ones, but it was all good as long as all of us met like one big happy family at the end of the day and went out to different places for dinner. Most often, there would be merry-making post dinner, in our room ofcourse, room no: 308, which would extend to the balcony at times.

Pranks, jokes, laughter were as much a part as were emotional upheavals and a dissatisfactory day of work. Life had taken a pattern; early breakfast, out to work in some corner of Guwahati, dinner at some place, laundry every alternate day and rounding it off with some chai every now and then, but I have to say, chai had been disappointing so far. We hoped it would get better when we hit the interiors.

A day was decided when we would all put forth our travel plans and tentative schedule for the next 2 months. Over a round of chai, most teams clearly or unclearly spelt their agenda out. So, it was decided. Ramya and I would cover Upper Assam in a clockwise fashion, with a minor anti-clockwise move. Our journey would be as follows:

Guwahati to Dibrugarh district

Dibrugarh to Tinsukhia district and back to Dibrugarh

Dibrugarh to Sibsagar district

Sibsagar to Lakhimpur district via Jorhat or by ferry

Lakhimpur to Dhemaji district

We were warned that there had been a flood and that Dhemaji was badly affected, so we would have to give it 90 days, of which roughly 30 had passed, so we had no choice but to keep it for the fag end of the journey and therefore the clock-wise route.

One of the other warnings that came was not to take the trains or buses to Upper Assam, since it was considered unsafe, so after much deliberation, arguments and discussions we booked flight tickets to Dibrugarh, our first district.  Another warning that was given to us was to cross the mighty Brahmaputra only where it was widest, seemed very simple and logical.

Cut to: Dibrugarh, Upper Assam.

 Finally, the day had come when we bid farewell to the few left behind and took our flight to Dibrugarh, where for the first and the last time we were greeted by the hotel cab driver and a rather warm sky, so much for carrying all those woolens I thought.

Meanwhile we ran around to book ourselves accommodation at the Govt. Circuit House. Several permissions and 2 days later we were in a colonial setup, a little away from the bustling town and the ‘thaana-chariali’, the cross-road we had become familiar with.

A big room yes, 2 beds with mosquito nets, damp walls with peeling paints and a rather big bathroom with a stained toilet seat and a door adorned with termite castles was to be our abode for the next 10 days.

The long corridor with lizards on the ceiling and mosaic flooring, all of it seemed like a slice straight out of my childhood vacations spent in ‘langar-tuli’ in Patna; the quintessential Colonial Bengali setups, with pillared corridors and butterfly doors.

A dining room with a long table, sunken chairs, a wooden cupboard and unused mattresses stacked up were to be our fellow guests. A perpendicular corridor leading to the kitchen was almost always empty and dark. So if you had to fetch something you’d better do so before humanity vanished. We had a mostly-drunk care-taker (who later ran away with my money), a cook and a fat man for company.

First 2 days were spent in gathering contacts, visiting the Govt. bodies that could help us etc. This was also the time for Durga Puja, celebrated with as much fervor in Assam as in Bengal, a few notches lower may be! So we did pandal hopping, since that was the best way to spot people in their fineries, mostly silk. So one fine morning we set out to one of the biggest Namghars (the places of community worship in Assam) in Dibrugarh. Having interviewed and photographed a group of ladies, we were invited for the bhog by a kind lady Mrs. Banti Baruah and later she also took us to a few other puja pandals to far off places along with her very kind son, who almost killed us with his formality.

At the end of it, we were invited for lunch to their place on pretext of looking at her private collection, so we obliged in the due course of our stay.

Meanwhile, our regular dinner (usually at 6:45pm) haunt was a Tibetan joint, that had a very sweet Acha-la hosting us every evening.

New leads were found everyday, until one day we found a writer who agreed to take us to 2 far flung villages, one called Deori-gaon, where the Deoris resided and the other called Nam Phakey, where the Tai-Phakials resided, one of our very first migratory tribes. It was an opportunity that needed us to have better resources, so frantic calls were made to our videographer-photographer team, who were kept busy at another location, so we were to summon the other pair to help us cover this village.

Considerably unfortunate, since this pair had to travel the entire width of Assam to reach us. From Bodoland to Dibrugarh only for a day and a half; this was only the start of unfortunate planning that was to follow us like a hawk follows a rabbit!

The duo reached us safe but tired. The day after was the trip to Nam Phakey and it was a day that will be remembered for a long time. A beautiful village by the riverside, stilt houses galore and a Therevada monastery to top it all……..what more could we have asked for? Several hours, a Nepali Bhante (monk), a sumptuous Phakiyal lunch, some out of tune songs & a cotton mekhla later we were in our respective rooms watching ZNMD…….the touch of Bollywood, that for me defines the journey of Ahom!

Soon, we were off to Tinsukhia, our next destination and the drop off point for the buoys to get back to Bodoland. An evening drive along the railway track, a big disk of the bleeding moon and apprehensions galore.

So, off they were in a train that had a weird bug under their birth welcoming them and scaring the living daylights out of them at the same time.

Cut to: Tinsukhia, Upper Assam.

During our stay at Dibrugarh, a student Swati was added to our team, a local who understood Ahomiya and if you throttled her would speak in broken, unsure Ahomiya. But it did us a whole lot of belek belek good in times of need.

Through her parents we got to know of this erstwhile writer, who then guided us to the some more people while we were in Tinsukhia. Notable among them were Manjela.

A middle-aged Singpho man, who runs a lodge called Eco-lodge amidst a forest in Margerita, surprisingly glamorous a name for a tiny village!

Manjela hosts travelers and lets them have a taste of the Singpho life, while his wife trots around in the most exquisite textiles known to mankind and has similar ones for sale in the lodge.

We were scheduled to reach Margherita before sunset, but that never happened.

Our trip was routed via Kakupathar, where we were to meet one of the few Deori woman entrepreneurs. However, we were advised to leave the place before noon, since most attacks on this route were recorded post noon. But our discoveries, questions and photography knew no time limits. Meanwhile, our driver was quite petrified, even more so, since as outsiders we were not paying heed to the norms, which everybody followed for security reasons.

So, we reached Eco-lodge a little before 8pm that was good 2 hours post sunset.Much to our horror, our poor driver had been instructed to return to the town.

A bamboo stilt hut with a welcoming patio greeted us. It had rooms on either side of a reception area and a kitchen at the back that you can access by walking all across a damaged bamboo flooring………..the bathrooms you ask…..are beyond and below the kitchen area and are the only structures made in concrete.

By this time the chill had set in and days had begun to be shorter. The squeaky flooring made using the loo a tedious task at midnight, with torch lights flashing everywhere, fireflies buzzing, frogs croaking and the still dark night almost made the uric acid in your body freeze!

A day later we were told some outsiders were kidnapped and that venturing out without escort was unadvisable, so we hired a lady. A 2-hours long journey, that included some walking and an excruciatingly painful rickety auto-rickshaw drive later, we reached a Tai-Shyam village, our second migratory tribe. The drill was the same almost everywhere , sweet talk them into showing us their textiles, listening to stories, noting things down, having tea where offered and politely refusing the beetle-nuts in places where they would take offence to our refusal.

Soon after, we were back in Dibrugarh for a few days, during which we had the famed lunch at the Baruah household, witnessed Lakshmi puja, visited a tea-estate in all its glory and saw the private jewellery collection of the lady there.

Speaking of jewellery, we also got a sneak peak into the private collection and designs of a Tea estate Manager’s better half. Getting to be in a tea estate bungalow itself was fascinating, all the things around, were a reminder of the era gone by. We were offered tea and snacks in a style that truly complemented the ambiance, the food trolley, the crocheted linen and the checkered napkins were all seeming very appropriate.

It was after all this then finally headed downward to Sibsagar – the abode of Lord Shiva.

Cut to: Sibsagar, Upper Assam.

By now, change had become predictable, we knew the place would change, so would the rooms, the beds and everything that came with it. Bookings were made before getting to each of these districts.

This time around, the town was built around a Shiva temple and a water-body nearby.

As was routine, we hunted down the Circuit House, which for a change was in the middle of the city and along the lake, but unfortunately had no rooms to spare, so a hotel it had to be, albeit a little away – Hotel Brahmaputra.

Three of us in a medium sized room was getting claustrophobic we realized within hours of getting in. As soon as an extra mattress was added, there was no space to move around. It was not like the Tinsukhia hotel, where three of us fitted comfortably in a room.

I chose to move out to a single occupancy right opposite the previous room. It was self-contained and beautiful with a balcony and fairy-light forming a curtain outside……..

I realized it was time for Diwali. We had been out for more than a month and winter was here. The days were well-lit and warm but the nights were pleasant.

This time we were lucky enough to have a restaurant in the hotel itself, so life was better after a hard days work and travel, since nothing seemed to be less than 40kms away for us. Soon enough we realized that we were roughly going as per our schedule that we had drafted initially and there was nothing really out of place, except that our assigned photo-video team had still not been spared! Several confusions, misunderstandings and monologues later, the other team was uprooted (yet again) and sent to us.

Now, life began with 2 more monkeys in the pack, Amit and Abhimanyu, who were made to occupy another room in the same hotel. After a preliminary visit to a Tai-Khaymyang village we realized, that there was a golden opportunity coming our way – Poi Lu – an all night festival, where womenfolk dye, weave and stitch a robe for the statue of Lord Buddha residing in their monastery!! Just the sort of thing that we could call the highlight of our trip had been bestowed upon us. We were ecstatic, until we figured that the lady who had mentioned it to us was not too keen on hosting 5 of us over one whole night. However, we persuaded, practically agreeing to stay put in the car that was to take us, until ofcourse the driver declared that he had to get back to town and would come back to fetch us the day after……!

Preparations were made; warm clothes packed, water, bread, bananas, biscuits, jam and sweets for the hosts, we were all set.

The winding roads at night seemed ominous and they were devoid of humanity….perfect recipe for a horror movie. However, our chorus singing lightened up the ambience and one of the monkeys, who would invariably always occupy the seat by the driver, decided to enact Hrithik Roshan and before we knew it, had his legs spreading out into the wilderness, while he sang along!! Just then, the car came to a screeching halt and you ask why? Because a man just leapt across the road like a mad monkey on the prowl and looked at us………windows went up and a chill ran across our spines. An immediate U-turn it was and a few wrong turns later we reached the village, where a beautifully lit pandal and a host of well-dressed villagers gathered around with curious eyes, while we haggled with the driver over some monetary confusions.

He abandoned us for the night, with the promise that he would come back to fetch us the day after in the morning, which turned into noon.

What we saw that night and experienced was magical. The whole village had gathered in and around the Monastery premises and it was all so festive. Women were in their best wrap skirts, boys/men in their customary checkered scarves and a few oldies walking about with their thungs (woven bags), full of offerings.

Two groups of women were tirelessly setting the warp for the weaving of the robe to begin. Meanwhile, the others were making merry by dancing and singing along with a video that ran in the background. All this, while some monks were being ordained in the monastery and the rituals continued till dawn and so did the weaving.

Once the weaving got over, stitching began and finally the robes were done.

One robe offered by the Tai-Shyams of Arunachal and the other by the women of the host village. We had befriended a family by then and were playing ‘mafia’ as discreetly as possible. A sumptuous dinner was followed by an interview of an old lady, who turned out to be a Bengali, having fallen in love with a young Shyam man in her times.

The darkness night was melting steadily, but we were wide awake. Eventually we occupied a corner of the monastery and had barely settled in on the cold floor, when some villagers started trickling in and the rest of the rituals started. And at the crack of dawn, the robes were presented to the statues of Buddha. Having duly documented all this, we rested for the next 2 hours at 2 different houses respectively.

Sibsagar was quite eventful more than once. The festival of Diwali was as usual colliding with Kali Puja, so yet another occasion for us to be a part of the cultural milieu of the State we had come thus far to capture. After some planning we landed up at the Kali Badi, which we were told was the puja venue, most revered by the people and the fact that animal sacrifice was going to take place, made it a little more exciting for some of us. And the wait began…..and just never ended. From 7:30pm to 12am, we waited, patiently, pretty much like the little baby goats that were awaiting their turn to be listed for the sacrifice that was to take place soon after. Thank God for the bhog that sustained us till then. After a little while, having exhausted our patience, we left the venue……..only to walk on the empty roads of Sibsagar for a good kilometer, until it started raining, so we took shelter in another temple that was conducting the last set of rituals. Having been blessed with flowers and the holy water, we started our walk again, only this time to be halted by a Police Patrol van. They wanted to check our identity, but were not even remotely courteous enough to let us hitch a ride with them to our hotel. So we walked and walked and walked for close to 4-5kms all the way to the hotel, only to find the same Police van racing down the same road…….what a night that was!

For a couple of us this was the 2nd long walk in 2 days. The day before Kali Puja, we had gone out amidst the Diwali mayhem and just could not get a vehicle back.  What happened would be anyone’s guess, we walked and walked, while the other 2 were lucky to get a cycle-rickshaw to ferry them. We walked for about 2 kms and then found someone to take us to the hotel. An old man, who’s trembling hands were tirelessly trying to put a fresh marigold garland across the front portion of his cycle rickshaw, but failed each time, while mumbling how this was an act of pleasing the Goddess Kali and if not done appropriately, might bring misfortune! Finally having reversed the vehicle, we sat on it and then he took us for a ride….literally! It was obvious our man was intoxicated and happily so. He proclaimed his arrival verbally at every 5mtrs, like a King to his subjects and yet a tiny aloo bomb burst right under his feet and mine and then flew sparks of obscenity from his mouth, directed at the little monsters who broke into peels of laughter as the bomb burst, shattering our King’s ego. And finally we reached Hotel Brahmaputra.

All this followed by or preceded by far flung village visits, meeting and spending time with people etc. which if I started to state, would make a book!

An interesting, rather amusing incident was when we went for a dyeing demonstration to the one of the poorest Mishing villages far away from Sibsagar. The villagers were desperately trying to describe one of the ingredients, since none of us including the driver understood what the local name meant. Finally they decided to procure it to show us and I out of exasperation and excitement said “its broken moong (lentil) man” and the next second the villagers surrounding us mimicked me to perfection!!

An embarrassment it was, but nothing wrong with a hearty laugh once in a while I thought.

The pattern being the same, work all day and relax with a chit-chat at the end of the day, life was starting to be predictable, when again it was time to move to the next district across the mighty river Brahmaputra and further up, to Lakhimpur.

Discussions happened, maps came out and phone calls to helpful people took place, only to know if one could cross the river from where we were and how tedious that was going to be. Final decision was simple, take a direct bus, which would take really long, but with the amount of luggage we had, it seemed like the most appropriate thing to do.

The last evening was kept aside as usual for settling bills with the hotel. Who was to know that it was going to be such a tiresome exercise! Cards, cash, pens, bills, calculators were flying everywhere and the air was tense. 2 people were sent to the Bus stand to stop the fleeting bus while 3 of us stayed back to clear the bills. Meanwhile, there was no transport to take us to the Bus stop, panic had set in for long now, it was time to act so we began walking and luckily the car that had taken the other 2 to the bust stop was coming back. We jumped in and finally managed to bag our seats in the bus, sure that we had been cursed by every waiting soul in the bus. And finally we moved, with a hint of excitement but no expectations, because every place had something to offer and we were willing to soak it all in each time.

It was the 3rd of Nov and I remember this day well!

We stopped for food at a Dhaba, only to realize that Ramya had lost her wallet. It was the last of unfortunate things for the day.

Cut to: Lakhimpur, Upper Assam.

Early in the morning we reached the Lakhimpur Bus Depot, which mercifully was in the middle of the town. We had the reference of a hotel, with a rather unusual name, ARA2, situated in the middle of a busy market area (which wasn’t as busy as yet, since it was only 6:00 in the morning). Numerous phone calls, yelling and knocks later, we were ushered into ARA2 and were given 2 rooms, with dirty plates adorning the corridor.

We wanted to breathe, so we walked up to the covered balcony at the end of the corridor. There was a sight to behold, a view of the mountain ranges far away that separated Assam from Arunachal Pradesh, bathed in the early morning sun. Sleep had vanished; chai was all we craved to kick-start this brand new day in this brand new place!

While one had Bank issues to resolve, another sleep issues and yet another health issues, 3 of the remainder decided to pay the Govt. body a visit and do the usual persuasion act, with a letter and a gratitude-filled fake smile at hand !!

Must I say, it worked wonders or so we thought! We were told that we were doing an exceptional work, so the State had to play a good host and hence we were allotted the Water board guest house, since the Circuit house was full.

If only we hadn’t seen the Circuit House already, straight out of a fairly tale, tiled roof, checkered curtains, cane chairs, patches of green, it looked like a cake house!! But alas, it was not meant to be, so the WB guest house it had to be.

One of the officials Mr. Saurabh (who later became Saurabh ‘da’) was kind enough to drive us to the location for a quick look. The drive seemed endless, from the heart of a town to the dusty outskirts, auto spare parts shops and chicken shops were all we saw, until we took a right after a Cemetery and drove along a narrow water body with a burning ghat or cremation ground along side! Houses and some greenery later we stopped outside 2 abandoned bungalows, one freshly painted, while the other telling tales of British Raj.

The last words one would expect to hear then would be ‘how cute’, but that’s what I thought I heard. Several phone calls were needed to summon the In-charge and on his persuasion came a man on a cycle, apparently who goes by the name of care-taker.

The door was unlocked. A dusty, misty room with dining furniture presented itself, flanked by a room each on either-side and a corridor that led to the kitchen.

Bathrooms were large, smelly and home to creepy crawlies of several varieties and generations. It was lying unused for years, lending a somewhat horror movie touch to the ambience.

Honestly, I was skeptical. It wasn’t exactly well connected, no shops, barring a village shop opposite, more graves than living villagers at a stone’s throw and I wouldn’t even want to picture this place after 4pm in the evening, dark and lifeless, since the eastern sun gave way to the moon a lot earlier than we could fathom.

Enquiries about some of the basic things like water, electricity and the kitchen facilities just went unheard. The care-taker agreed to be at our service if we moved in, but some what unsurely and in a non-committal manner. A few excited nods and we were scheduled to move into the haunted house!

So excited were some that they wanted to move in that very evening.

Haggling with the auto fellows was the least of the problems that were to reveal themselves hereafter!

We reached a little before 6pm. The girls occupied the bigger room with the TV, while the boys took the other. We gathered at the dining table almost expectantly.

The caretaker appeared out of nowhere and we asked him for a cup of ssa in my broken yet comprehendible ahomiya, only to be told “etiya toh na hobo baideo”, meaning that at the present moment that was not to be! I asked him why and followed him to the kitchen, only to let my jaws touch the dusty ground below. A tiny room, dimly lit by a zero-watt bulb, charred walls, a concrete slab, traces of utensils and the star of the moment…….. an earthen stove!

Wow! We really signed up for a lot more than we could handle. Immediately I started jotting down a grocery list for the care-taker to procure. We handed him my flask to fetch some chai and some dinner for that night. Amit accompanied him on his cycle and in an hour and half, there was chai and food, strewn across the dining table.

As we waited our turn to charge our phones, the lights went off!! The obvious occurrence at a haunted house you should think, but trust me it is anything but funny!! Only then did we understand the significance of the thick, tall pink and green candles that were placed in our rooms. Luckily, before our imagination could run any wilder, the lights came on.

Soon after, plates were borrowed from the guest house next door and the cold food was made to pass through the esophagus.

We wowed not to buy food again, but the wow lasted only for 24hours. By the time we got back from work the next day it was too late to do anything, so we had some more of the spicy, cold food.

We decided to be smart, so we’d stock up on fruits, biscuits, eggs, bread and bottled water everyday. The only thing our master-chef signed up for were tea and breakfast preparation…….took me back to his unsure nodding in front of the Govt. officials.

Lakhimpur was proving to be a little more tiresome than the other places, since the contacts were not outright helpful, slightly hostile at times and add to that the fact that the distances were enormous.

Anyways, we decided to request the person next door to cook us dinner everyday and so she did after much deliberation.

It became a family dinner each night, when we all gathered at her dining table savouring the home-cooked food, fresh, healthy and piping hot! She was a motherly figure far away from home.

Eventually we got lucky or may be not. A Govt. official, Mr. Saikia, agreed to take us on a tour of the Sericulture farm far away, provided we made travel arrangements, which we were anyways in the habit of. Only that we needed a bigger vehicle, to accommodate the 5 of us, Mr. Saikia-the VIP, and a friend of his, who landed up uninvited that very morning!

The VIP occupied the front comfortable seat, the other 2 girls sat in the rear portion, while 3 of us sat in the middle seats, only to be squished unceremoniously by the friend of the VIP.

They were dominating to say the least, the songs on the radio being changed to suit their taste, occasional item songs being hummed by the friend and irrelevant questions being thrown in the air. We swallowed it all thinking that they were going to provide us with something worth it all along. They took us 90kms away to a Sericulture Unit that they knew all along would be shut on a National Holiday!! Thereafter we were taken to a place where we documented Eri silk reeling and spinning. Ramya and I took one cocoon each as memorabilia.

(While mine still remains intact, Ramya’s cocoon had a moth that came out one of the days that it was left abandoned in the guest house.)

Anyhow, we were starved after the long journey, so decided to stop at a place of the VIP’s insistence, where 2 more visitors joined us.

After lunch we waited and waited for the officials to turn up and they just wouldn’t. Amit was sent to have a little chat with the VIP’s friend and he came back with a distraught face and wouldn’t utter a word about his chat. Eventually we realized our man was tanking up on alcohol. That was not the end. They insisted on stopping to buy fresh fish on the way. We retaliated saying that Swati, the student was a vegetarian and I in my state could not bear the stench. They would not listen, till we made the driver and Amit walk up to them and stop them. By this time we were exhausted of their dominance, misbehavior and the travel.

The day ended with yet another revelation – our VIP was an ex-ULFA member with some of his friendships still intact! No wonder Amit looked the way he did.

On another day, Sri Bhupen Hazarika decided to leave for the Heavenly abode and with him left years of poetic extravaganza, strung like pearl beads were the rustic sounds of the Brahmaputra.

The whole state was in a state of shock and we were affected how? The offices were shut, there were demonstrations and tributes at every corner and the villagers lit candles outside our haunted house every evening.

They were not the only visitors we had. Each morning and evening we’d have a bunch of village boys smoking up and creating a ruckus in our portico. On the solitary evening that our boys decided to confront them, Amit was left injured and had to be carried inside and was left limping for the next couple of days!

Slowly, the haunted house felt like home; a home with more problems, than advantages. Nevertheless, it fostered a sense of lost-togetherness in the wilderness that it was. We started enjoying the evening chit-chats over smoked chai and moori (puffed rice), taking turns to charge our devices, discussing work and doing the dreaded hisaab every couple of days.

For me it was making of the grocery list, waking up at 5:15 to open the door for the care-taker, telling him what to make for breakfast, waking the others up with the morning chai, scraping the last bit of butter off the paper, locking up the doors before we left and coming back to more chai, the sumptuous dinner and the drawing of the curtains at the fag end of the day………that I loved doing and those that would be fondly remembered!

During our next couple of visits, we landed up at a yet another Deori village, one of the predominant tribes of this area and happened to witness a ‘Haanti-pujo’ (peace prevailing ceremony). This is where we saw the tribe in all its glory, where white clothing with red borders were floating about and it is here that we were served with their local rice-beer in brass bowls. Potent as it was, it left us hungrier than ever, while our driver downed 6 glasses of it with ease. We had two choices, either to carry on in search of the other tribes or turn back towards the town in search of food. Unanimously, people were in favour of the former. But as they say ‘daaney daaney pey likha hai khaaney waaley ka naam’…….we landed up at a Tai-Khamti village, that was winding up its

Poi-lu arrangements, but graciously invited us to have the left-overs and well fed we started our journey back.

While all this was happening, we got wind of Raas-leela that was to take place in different parts of Assam.

The Ras-leela in Majuli islands is a much talked about event and attracts international travelers during this time of the year. However, Majuli islands were not a part of our itinerary, although geographically it could be a part of ours as much as the others’.

But with the amount of strict instructions that were pouring in every now and then from the HQ, we decided to make do with the lesser known, tribal versions in the far flung villages near Lakhimpur.

I am sure Majuli was a lot more informative, poetic and documentation worthy, but what we witnessed could go down in history, under the title of anti-climax !!

As usual, we were all packed up, prepared and excited to see the Raas-leela amidst the village crowd all night long…..what a theatrical extravaganza it was going to be.

After dinner (we got it packed from the guest house) and some beverage had us merry, we reached the venue, a big hall packed with people greeted us. We were ushered in and given the second-row, a prestigious offer indeed, since some local MLA with a Nepalese cap and an enviable Naga shawl was occupying the first row. By now we had also been to a Sema Naga village near Ledo, so we knew Naga attire from the Non-Naga.

A long wait, some felicitations and mike-tests later the curtain was raised amidst loud cheers. What presented itself was Lord Vishnu prostrate on a rickety prop, while his chaperon fanned him, a stoned Lord Shiva occasionally rattling the damru, looking up and down with his eyes half shut (or should I say ‘her’, since it was an All Womans’ act) and a constipated smoke machine that farted smoke out intermittently !!

Then were introduced the characters of King Vasudeva with his bushy white wig, his expressionless wife Devaki, clad in a Mekhla and Kansa, with a pronounced meanness about him lent by his eye make-up, the strokes of kajal and bright pink colour smeared around the eye. While Devaki had a squeaky voice that mostly went unheard in all the noise, Kansa would rise up and down on his heels, looking up to recall his dialogues…….all of this was funny enough. Add to that, scenes like these, where the King and queen are jailed, while the constables drink and smoke and fling the cigarette that gets caught by some in the wings of the stage and yet another where the baby Krishna, till then a doll is flung from backstage right into the jail.

Just when we thought this was all that there was to this, when the icing on the cake moment unfolded; in a bitter fight between Kansa and Vasudeva, the latter’s fluffy white wig fell off! Abhimanyu, who was had one hand supporting the Video camera, waited for a while, until he couldn’t control it any longer and burst out laughing and the footage, needless to say shakes till date. We would have rolled on the floor if we had any more space…….this was the crowning moment of the Raas Leela.

Not the garish clothes, not the mythology, not any of America’s funniest videos, nothing compared to this sight at our very own Narayanpur gaon!

From impatient mumbles, to whistles, to giggles, to full blown guffaws, we had witnessed it all.

It was sometime after this that HQ orders had begun tormenting us yet again.

Back and forth with the schedule, why this, why that, how is that possible, why isn’t the other way possible…….all this after assurances over the round table in Ahmedabad that we were on our OWN, working professionals, who were perfectly capable of making judicious decisions and that they trusted us….but alas!

So, it was time for the last leg of our trip….the flood affected Dhemaji it was to be.

We gave the care-taker a muffler and some money, only to realize that while he was shedding tears emotionally, he was also hoping for more money. We also presented a shawl to the aunty next-door. And like this the bitter-sweet goodbyes finally happened.

The bungalow we hope gets inhabited soon, after the short lease of life that we breathed into it and then left!

Cut to: Dhemaji, Upper Assam.

The journey from Lakhimpur to Dhemaji was not a straight one and neither was it a planned one. Only things planned were the vehicle taking us and the destination.

On the way we saw wrecked bridges, a barren and devastated landscape, this after 60 days had already passed and we wondered what Dhemaji would look like when not flooded.

Our journey was peppered with two very significant rendezvous enroute. We were to meet Dr. Ronesh Pegu, one of the founder members of The River People, a distribution, streamlining and retail channel for SHGs that produce Assamese textiles. The Mishing textiles in particular, since they are the most commercially forward tribe and have gained acceptance owing to the use of cotton, the vibrancy and versatility of the products made.

Over some tea and biscuits, Dr. Pegu enquired about our accommodation plans in Demaji and here we were with none whatsoever! He was gracious enough to guide us to a place called RVC, run by a friend of his by the name of Mr. Rabindranath.

RVC we were told was located about 50kms from the Dhemaji town in Akajan, tucked away in the middle of a Mishing village! Incentive enough we thought, since we were hoping to document this tribe up close and personal this time. So far we had gone to not so populated Mishing villages and individuals, so this was our golden opportunity.

Having figured our route, we bit adieu to Dr. Pegu.

On the way we stopped by to check on a much talked about and read about writer Mr. Pushpa Gogoi, author of the The Tai journal that we had come across in the SibsagarStateMuseum, Sibasagar. The journal sadly was under published due to lack of funds, as is usually the case with most of the ethnic documentations, they don’t circulate much, are not made available and eventually forgotten or found gathering dust in the State archives.

Up and down on the same road five times and we were finally greeted by a figure, graciously serving as a landmark for us on the bylane that takes us to his house.

A museum more than a house I must say. Xorai (2-piece brass mantles that have a base-plate and a conical cap) in all sizes, certificates and mementoes were adorning the walls and shelves – he was a celebrated man we thought, one with heaps of humility though. Unselfishly, he shared with us information about the Tai communities, his views on the various ethnic groups, his writings and that’s not the only things he parted with, he gave us copies of his published material, a gesture so touching!

We told him we would meet him again on the way back, assuming the return would happen only in 7-8 days’ time, roughly the minimum  amount of time we spent in each district, since anything less was enough only for a tourist!

What we did not account for was that ‘assumptions’ were susceptible to foreign attacks!!

The Rendezvous (not the Simi Garewal type mercifully!!) having taken care, we headed to Akajan. Several winding roads through a Mishing village later we were finally in front of what can be described as a concrete camp, with a central pathway lined with creepers for a canopy and a host of rooms / spaces clustered together at every bend, painted in red and white. It had an Alice in wonderland like feeling, minus the glamour.

A lady showed us to our accommodation, a barrack-like quarter with a noisy grill was unlocked and we said hello to what? A common area of about 5’ by 10’ lined with 2 sinks, a tiny table and 4 chairs, best suited to Hobbits or the bear family, a door to the solitary bathroom, yet another door to a spacious room with 3 beds, 2 of which were hospital beds and the third one being a cane bed. I claimed this one; since it would minimize lizard attacks from either wall. Of all the things this room had a sink inside as well and an access door to the bathroom, that we thought was a boon, except that each time we’d have to lock the other door without fail!! Now, having figured our suite, we went to take a look at the other room, or should I say pigeon-hole! It was a dingy thin room with 2 hospital beds placed head to butt and there was barely place to put luggage. The solitary source of light was the window that opened into the pathway outside. I say solitary, since electricity was a luxury in these parts and so were many other things as we realized.

Having arrived we were to meet the Director Mr. Rabindranath, who came in a little later and with him came cups of smoked tea. A man of good built, salt n pepper hair tied in a ponytail, and an obvious air of confidence presented itself to us.

By the end of it there was more to him than just that. A man who built a parallel universe of his own, where he was the Monarch of all he surveyed and truly so! He moved to this place years ago, having worked in the rural-social sectors and started RVC as an initiative towards disaster control, infrastructure upgradation and on the whole help creating self-sustaining, self-reliant and empowered communities. It encourages volunteers from in and around to participate in the change they as an organization are trying to bring about in the rather volatile district of Dhemaji.

He was a story-teller we realized and an engaging one at that! Not everyone can make you sit around out in the open in the biting November cold, with an empty stomach and a bursting bladder!! Every time we were distracted by our bodily functions, we’d run right back to be a part of the narrations. This in spite of the fact that he said the site for RVC was in fact atop a graveyard and had one alongside!! This information wasn’t as horrifying as were the ones where he was attacked by an ethnic group after all these years of having been there. He asked us to be careful, since it was an ethnically and environmentally volatile area and outsiders were advised not to venture out unescorted or in small numbers. Luckily we were 5 of us we thought, not that anyone could do anything if attacked, but the number of people was reassuring.

Eventually hunger manifested in growls and I just had to find out when and how food was to be procured, so I ran to the kitchen, only to be told that it would take time…..must say, I almost died!

By now we had sat for close to 4 hours with this one of a kind orator. It was time for dinner, which was laid at the dining area cum work space cum library.

The sight of food was a blessing and that of the dreaded bhoot jholokia, a treat to the eyes! Only distraction was the metal chair. If by the Devil’s grace you happened to touch the arm rest, then that was it!

The evening seemed to roll into the night quickly, but sleep was not compelling enough, particularly since the grill door was an open structure and let in the chilly winds throughout, making the rooms really cold. So, we decided to cover it up with newspaper, since we were going to be here for a week atleast and the cold was only getting worse, coupled with the months of rain that preceded it, making it cold and wet at the same time.

It was around this time we got a call saying that we had kept the photo-video team for too long, an estimation clearly gone wrong and that we had to chart out our POA immediately. We had barely been there for 12 hours, how was anybody to plan anything. It took a minimum of 2 days to unearth contacts, filter out relevant ones and then go ahead. Suddenly all the pressure, that too on people who had meticulously conducted the whole fieldwork so far, adhering to the original plan, without any complaints and at times without the necessary resources.

We tried explaining that if it was so pressing, then we would try and wrap up Dhemaji in 3 days instead and then the photo-video team can make their way back to Bodoland, yes, yet again!! All this owing to the fact that it was extremely unsafe in these parts; we really had no one steering us, since Mr Rabindranath was also traveling every other day, so in case of untowardly events, there was no one to fall back on.

We asked for just those 3 days, not too much we believed, since here we were sitting on a gold mine of tribal culture and if we planned it well enough we could get volunteers from RVC to help us. All of this went unheard, strange yet true, indecisiveness helps shut ones ears, inspite of us trying to make a valid point. We were to expect another phone call from the HQ the day after. We were disturbed, but secretly hoped and prayed that good sense would prevail in the mind of the caller. But God can only do so much we later realized. We decided to deal with it the morning after.

The fun started when our little girl Swati was scared to sleep all by herself and decided to share my bed, saying that she’d start using her own once she got used to the place.

Anyways, having duly laid all my paraphernalia (water bottle, torch and balm) next to my pillow, I retired to bed, thinking about the experiences that were to unfold in the days to come. The night was eerie, the winds whistled, the kittens gave out cries, the fox were having a time of their life, until it started raining and the frogs decided to make their presence felt!

I couldn’t quite sleep, so decided get up and ask around at the kitchen for tea, warm water for bathing and a couple of extra buckets to store water, before the others woke up; it would be quite chaotic if 5 adults were queuing up at the same time for the morning chores! I was told that the water wouldn’t last long and warm water was not even an option.

A bucket in hand, I ran to fill up more water, forget a bath, we needed enough for the toilet ceremonies!! Eventually crow baths with chattering teeth happened, reminding me of the misty Ranchi winters.

A basic breakfast of bread and eggs I think was midway, when a HQ phone call just had to axe it all early in the morning.

What happened next was unfathomable! Insults were hurled at us like someone procured them in bulk. We were called names, personal remarks came like sharp arrows, opinions were flying over the phone faster than the speed of light and any attempt on our part to open our mouth was snubbed by yet another insult!

A monologue it was…..only that the listeners were left sobbing and distraught. If only, that was all that we had to go through at the fag end of our journey.

We were ordered; mark my words, ordered to send the photo-video team to Bodoland in the next 24hours! Insane you think, wait till you hear this. All this on the assumption that all they had to do was cross the river Brahmaputra and travel as the crow flies and reach from the north-eastern most part of the state to the west-most part……..brilliant we thought! We were being told that since it was not as unsafe as in the 1970’s its no different now and that the floods were irrelevant and that it would not rain anymore!!

We did not know whether to laugh at this level of ludicrous sense of reality or resign to the fact that foolishness had eons to prevail before it got wiped out! It poured like crazy the day after!!

The phone call was not just disturbing, but de-motivating to the greatest extent. We felt demeaned. Wondering what we were doing roaming about an unknown territory, facing hostile situations, being true to our work, sending out updates when possible, being as professional as possible, only to be reduced to dirt by those sitting far away in the comforts of their office rooms, aided by assumptions and a sense of unmistakable authority. A decision had to be reached, without compromising on our own safety, so we told them that we would leave along with them and will be forced to terminate the program, which obviously did not go down too well either and we were told it would be at our own risk and that our faces were not to be recognized back on campus anyways!

We on our part decided that we’d brave it for 2 more days and be Guwahati bound via Lakhimpur after that.

What happened in the next 45 minutes is a blur. A vehicle was hired for a rather expensive fare, which would take them to Lakhimpur via Dhemaji. From Lakhimpur they would have to take a night transport to Kokrajhar, the thought was arduous enough.

In the middle of all this we had accounts to settle, so I parted with some money, only to realize that I barely had 200 bucks on me, while Ramya was no better. Swati was the only one with 2500 stashed away, which we had to keep for contingency. We planned to withdraw cash from the nearest ATM soon.

On this very day we decided to visit the local Mishing families and managed to unearth a Gado or a Mirijim, tufted blankets made with cotton, a rare find, since not many families have them or make them anymore. A visit to the women’s’ weaving centre was also accomplished that very evening.

The day ended rather quietly and the night rolled by unceremoniously, with the wind whizzing past the window panes.

The morning after we had planned to visit yet another tribe called the Hajongs, in Harinathpur, which was located far away, so we were escorted by 2 volunteer ladies.

Before we knew it, the long concrete stilt hut, which functioned as the community centre cum shelter, had villagers sitting, waiting to share information with us.

Soon, on our insistence, the womenfolk broke into an impromptu dance in their traditional striped attires and I just prayed that I knew to operate the video mode on my newly acquired camera!!

During the chit chat we realized that there was a festival going on and there was a fair nearby as a part of it. What caught our attention even more was that the day after was going to be an all night women’s festival as a part of the ongoing Kaati Puja.

Idols are placed, offerings made, dance, music and lots of merry-making……..it sounded like an opportunity. However, we must necessarily be escorted we were told. Women’ traveling alone in these parts was not seen as wise.

It was stupid to have come this far and miss an opportunity like this, there had to be a way out, but we were handicapped. Some people’s misplaced sense of team management had landed us in this situation. Our security was not of any concern to these people, but we had families who we were answerable to and our security was in our own hands; so reluctantly we went back.

On the way back to Akajan, we stopped by the only ATM, to discover that it was dysfunctional and yet the villagers were stuffing their cards with the hope that it would work. This was a blow, since we hardly had any cash on us.

It was quite shameful, but we had to explain the situation to Mr. Rabindranath, who was very gracious and told us that we could send it later to their account. Unimaginable a gesture in this day and age, where an outsider trusts you completely and people who hired you don’t!

Even today I am reminded of that missed opportunity at Harinathpur and who knows how many more such events, people and experiences would have come our way, had we stayed back a little longer. We could have rounded it all up well, mostly satisfied and with a sense of accomplishment, of completion and pride and not feeling bitter or betrayed.

But whatever little we saw, was a treat to the eyes and the mind, all thanks to the didis from RVC. They were unaware that we had cut short our trip; Ilu didi bid us farewell with teary eyes.

We hired a vehicle that took us to the Lakhimpur bus depot first, where we booked ourselves tickets for that very night, back to Guwahati.

It was a chaotic and tiring evening and a back-breaking bus ride back to the Capital city.

We reached the outskirts early morning and made our way to the atrocious, outrageous and yet familiar Hotel Hornbill and yes, we got ourselves the same room, 308, where it all started.

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