What do mountain-dwellers feel about their homeland—those forbidding and entrancing, life-sustaining highlands?Mamang Dai ponders the mystique of the Eastern Himalaya in Arunachal Pradesh
Every time I look at the mountains I imagine another face looking out of a window in some high, faraway place. The wind is blowing. It is early dawn. Perhaps there is a thin mist swirling down, and that face and mine are looking out at the surrounding mountains. Just looking. There they are, standing so big and firm, filling me with an indescribable feeling as if I am missing something, urging me to look beyond, over there.
I remember my grandfather talking about a place called Pemako, pointing north. I listened but did not pay much heed at the time. Now I know there is a Pemako Natural Fauna and Flora Reserve in China’s Nyinchi prefecture of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. “The Missing Link” was the term coined by early geographers for that bit of unexplored territory between the points where the great river of Tibet, called the Tsangpo, entered India through a cleft in the Himalayan barrier to merge with the Brahmaputra river in Assam. In Arunachal this river is known as the Siang, which flows past my hometown of Pasighat in East Siang district.
Old-timers say Pasighat once sported a golfing green and a river promenade lined with enormous trees imported from Africa. It was established as the base of operations for expeditions and survey missions into the hills in the days of the Raj. But all this is no more. Everything was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1950, on August 15, Independence Day, when a sound like thunder shocked the villagers as herds of terrified mithun crashed through the jungle into the villages. A moment later the ground heaved and shook from side to side. My father, who was studying in Sadiya town across the river, recalls the astonishing sight of the mountains tilting left and right. The circular market, the big trees, the Siang river itself, were all thrown off course as mountains crumbled and towns disappeared, changing the landscape forever.
I think: the mountain is an island, a survivor of countless battles—withstanding earth, water and fire to stand above everything. The mountain has a mind of its own. I have not known the mountains like a climber attempting to reach the summit. There is their imposing physical presence rising up like a deity, hard and silent. Cloud and mist soften its visage, but there is no telling what the mountain is going to throw at you. Every year it claims a hand, a limb, a life. And small machines flying in the wind touch its side, graze its face with a wing tip or a spinning blade, and there is a crash. Pushing through the bitter cold and the biting wind it is always the villagers who reach the site first. Rescue helicopters are so puny, shuddering in the wind blowing off the face of the mountain before they make a getaway, as tiny specks disappearing over the jagged peaks.
Most of Arunachal Pradesh is mountainous and, at the trijunction with China and Myanmar, the mountains are a jumble of ridges with deep valleys and lofty snow-capped peaks rising abruptly as if they had fissured and broken off from an elevated plateau. During World War II, this part of the Eastern Himalaya was nicknamed the “Hump”, where many planes crashed trying to fly over these mountains to drop vital supplies for the besieged Allied forces when Japan laid a sea blockade on China and captured Rangoon in March,1942. While the war raged in Europe this Asian frontier was a remote and distant battleground. It was only in 1998 that a war cemetery with more than a thousand graves of officers and men of the Second Company of Independent Engineers of the Chinese army was discovered in the thick jungle of a forest reserve near Jairampur in Changlang district, between the Namchik river and the historic Stilwell Road. World War II aircraft wreckage is still being found deep in the hills. The majority of losses took place in Arunachal Pradesh and a mission is in place to locate crash sites involving missing US servicemen so that the mortal remains of forgotten war heroes can be identified and given a respectable burial after all these years.
In 1962 this mountainous terrain was the scene of fierce fighting as every post in the frontier of the erstwhile NEFA was being abandoned before an advancing Chinese army. In the western sector Tawang had already fallen and everywhere people were fleeing into the jungle to reach their villages or find a way to the safety of the Brahmaputra valley. In Anjaw district a Mishmi elder, who was a young boy then, told me they did not know from which side the army was approaching. Then, by a bridge they came face to face with a young man leading a Chinese army patrol. He spoke in our language, recalls the elder. He had a familiar clan title, and belonged to the same ethnic group living together in the region before the demarcation of boundaries.
I thought: the mountains have secrets. The mountain is not a barrier. The lofty peaks guard a landscape of ancient routes and meeting places once staked with banners of friendship. The Mishmi elder said, apart from that momentous meeting with the army officer, what he remembered most about that time was the taste of sugar. The government had ordered officers to burn buildings and banks, and evacuate. The food depots were razed and the bags of sugar had caramelised in the flames.
These are the stories coming to us from the past, standing out from the few scattered records left by early explorers. At night I listen to the wind. What is it saying, rattling the town and shaking the branches of trees as if searching for a lost lover? Sometimes I think I was born in the mountains only to test my stubbornness to go away from the mountains and look at the sea.
In the garden the children are pulling on the hoods of their jackets. Big clouds are looming up, threatening rain. My little niece hints that she would love to see snow. We have to make travel plans. With hindsight I can say there are all kinds of journeys. Who knows what the traveller will find along the way. It is a mysterious tide that carries us away, and brings us back.
There is a story from a place called Riga in the Siang valley that tells of the journey of four friends in search of adventure. The idea was instigated by a firefly, born in the damp hollow of a wild plantain, who decided to travel to Tibet. On the way he met a caterpillar, a locust and a honey bee, who fell in with the idea of looking beyond the mountains. They crossed over and were enthralled. Here there was food and flowers and wool, and the friends lost no time eating their fill and taking as much as they could to carry back with them. Only firefly could find nothing. On the way back it grew dark. The four friends were fearful and hurried on in silence. Then firefly spotted something. It was a piece of flint dropped by a wandering spirit. Firefly picked it up and attached it to his tail. There was a spark, and a pool of light glowed like a lamp, guiding the four friends safely home.
Now it is between the mountain and me. People say: Lonely Mountain, Soul Mountain, Dawn-lit Mountains. What does the mountain mean to me? I have never thought about it. We just happen to live in the mountains. And what do mountain dwellers say about the mountains? What is there to say? Here we are, they say. There is the Abroka range, and Bayor Adi, Bapii and Pekung Diite, the old Dinku Dirak mountains with their familiar outlines brushing the wing tip of the sky. Perhaps in all this the missing link is but the idea of a sacred geography that I have pursued. It is lurking there, somewhere. If I look at the mountains when the sky is clear there is such beauty and silence. I think the mountain is a territory of solitude. More than anything else it is about the beauty of silhouettes, so precise and perfect with one distant tree always sticking out, tilted on the sky line. In this territory of expectation there is a clear idea of knowing at last what it is that you wanted to do, and how to do it. It is a moment when you can say, “yes, I am ready”. Will the mountain speak to me? Eternal Mountain locked in silence, perhaps the mountain will grant me a piece of iron ore.
This essay is published in April-June 2017 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue is The Himalaya and writer Stephen Alter is the guest editor of the issue.