Everest to the Left of Me, Unrest to the Right
There, in the forgotten corner of the subcontinent, nosed up between contentious Myanmar and hoar-rimed Tibet, lay the brocaded splendor of Arunachal Pradesh. A void in the national map, but not in the individual imagination.
Back to the future, I thought, heading for India again, that kaleidoscopic subcontinent now closing on a billion people, the squeeze of human beings fissured by religious righteousness and rapacious capitalism, with incongruous juxtapositions of seething hustle and mystic symbolism, ten and a half hours’ worth of time zones away from New York City. You have to like the idea of people — the chattering crush and possible divinity of myriads of them — to enjoy India. All those separate envelopes of rushing, self-important, self-involved dignity: The cut of the headcloth or glint of the sari denoting caste or class or whatever. People in galaxy numbers have a whole-is-greater-than-the-parts reverberation, at least for me. I’m usually elated by crowds, whether in New York or Cairo, London or Calcutta — the glee, ‰lan vital, and energy. Even amid vistas of poverty, I tend to think I see meaning. Generosity in squalor.
I was headed, however, for the state of Arunachal Pradesh (“Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains”), a salient of Indian territory in the foothills of the Himalayas extending eastward between Myanmar and Tibet. China, in fact, contests Indian sovereignty in this border region, home to some two dozen animist hill tribes, and invaded in blitzkrieg style in 1962, when Arunachal Pradesh was constitutionally part of the neighboring Indian state of Assam. Eighteen years earlier the Japanese, under General Renya Mutaguchi, had also invaded Assam, to try to sweep the British out of India. You need an internal visa to enter Arunachal Pradesh (it was opened to foreign tourists only in 1995), and tribal insurrections continue to harass the army and plague the police in Assam, where traditionalists want autonomy. At Guwahati, Assam’s capital, shortly before our arrival, Bodo rebels blew a hole in the bridge across the Brahmaputra River and, separately, derailed an express train loaded with Guwahati passengers for New Delhi, with great loss of life — all in the name of secession for “Bodoland.”
The approach by jet to Bombay from the Arabian Sea still affords views of a lovely diadem of yellow lights — not boastful or bombastic in its wattage like a Western city, but tentative, evocative, and homemade, sort of a glowing crescent. The passengers clapped as we landed safely, as they often do on Third World flights. Then we waited for an hour in a rattletrap bus before transferring five miles to the domestic airport, and five hours there. I was pleased, though, because my friend Trudy and I began meeting the surge of souls you do while on the road in India. A young engineer who was returning to Bangalore after attending a conference in Cincinnati. A cruise ship steward just back for six weeks of home leave in Cochin after six months of sailing in Alaska and the Caribbean. A couple of American Hare Krishna pilgrims en route to an ashram, and a shaky forty-something Canadian who had come in search of, as he said, “Nada.” Also a middle-aged Goan woman who had been living comfortably in London but was now returning to India for the first time in eight years because she had begun to suspect that the half-million-pound estate her family had donated to charity was being converted into a moneymaking scam.
Our next stop was Calcutta, that proverbially dying city and yet India’s intellectual and artistic capital. As in a parable, squalor and joy cohabit, while almost everyone over the age of 10 swims hard against the tides and density to obtain their daily pound of rice. If you think people are a chip off the old block, embodying a spark of divinity — God’s holy chosen tribe straddling like Gulliver the Lilliputian natural world — how many can be too many? India’s situation, seen broadly, looks more optimistic than this particular frenetic megalapolis of refugees and street-dwellers collapsing from accrued procrastination and dystopian dilemmas, nearing 300,000 souls per metro square mile, and any spare dirt patch ditched for a rice paddy or dug out to grow carp. By the millennium India’s population may triple from what it was at independence in 1947; Calcutta’s also, though Calcutta’s infrastructure is desperately asthmatic now. Yet the lift my spirits got in Calcutta is memorable because it seemed sanguine.
The next morning we had time to see the city’s wholesale flower market, down under Howrah Bridge — cantilevered, ramshackle, and ungainly, and said to be the busiest in all the world. Two million people a day somehow manage to cross it, afoot or squeezed into an assortment of vehicles — omnibuses, gypsy cabs, auto-rickshas, rickshas, mopeds, pedicabs. In the muddy warren of alleys below and south of the bridge, lorry-loads of flowers had been distributed overnight and were being sewed into red religious garlands for temple offerings, feasts, fests, marriages, and burials in a hundred tiny establishments, then tossed into bicycle carts and handcarts for delivery. The brown shoals of the Hooghly River were stained red and yellow from the masses of petals washed in by the rains, plus yesterday’s discarded flowers. Where stone steps went down, a lot of people were bathing in it also, though there was floating flotsam and offal. The mix and flux of flowers, people, and offal is of course India’s curse and blessing: what distinguishes it from “us.”
Another flight took us 325 miles northeast across Bangladesh to Guwahati, the administrative and trading center of Assam. It’s a sprawled-out, comparatively prosperous little riverbank city, cupped under choppy green hills. The government hotel overlooked the Brahmaputra River, as wide as the Mississippi even at this driest time of year, with a small temple to Siva on an islet in the middle, and a black and white stork stalking the shore. There were dugouts on the Brahmaputra too, and cormorants diving, harrier hawks and pariah kites scouting about, and vultures sailing high and martins scooting low. In the morning in the garden I saw an owl, and mynahs, common as robins, and drongos, magpies, gray-necked crows, and turtledoves. Cool, majestic trees decorated the promenade above the waterfront, and peddlers shook nuts into your hand for a rupee or two. Below, a dozen people were washing their clothes, soaking the garments and pounding them on a drift log. Several sampans were floating leaflike out on the vast river, each with a loaf-shaped little shelter in the middle and propelled by a man with a pole standing at each end.
The Brahmaputra flows 1,800 miles from inner Tibet, beyond the Himalayas, in a great loop around to the mouth of the Ganges via the plains of Assam, having drained in the meantime about 626,000 square miles by way of 24 major tributaries. Assam’s fertility is much enhanced as a result. Two-thirds of its farmland is planted with rice, and the other best cash crop is harvested from the plantations of tea, though it also produces a sixth of India’s petroleum. So the three minor insurrections that were in fitful progress in the state at the moment — and noticeable to us as graffiti in Assamese or bold headlines in the local papers (or else because any vehicle deemed drivable by the military had been seized for transporting soldiers) — were apparently not about hunger, but ethnic pride. The frontier with China, a much larger flashpoint, is north of Assam through the layered mountains of our Arunachal Pradesh and guarded by roadless outposts that the army’s helicopters supply. The Brahmaputra is famous for torrential canyons and pugnacious tribes where it crosses wildly through the main chain of the Himalayas from Chinese territory — dropping, for example, 6,000 feet in a curving canyon in just two miles, right at the border, but already more than 700 miles from its source. Yet here on the plains, it looked huge and sedate.
We set out for our adventure, six Americans and Gautam Malakar, our Delhi-based guide, in a stubby blue bus toward the city of Tezpur, a district center six hours upriver on the north bank, which had been the limit of the Chinese advance in the 1962 war. (The Chinese troops withdrew later that year under international pressure, and the border dispute remains unresolved.) Mostly rolling rice country, diked, ditched, and closely cultivated in checkerboard plots, with family fishponds occupying slight depressions amid the paddies, it was more of a breadbasket than claustrophobic. There were banana and betel-nut plantations as well, and we passed a sizable paper mill that was being fed with truckloads of bamboo poles and sal trees. Also the village of Nelli, where Gautam said 3,000 Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh had been slaughtered by Hindu locals 15 years ago.
As we got into higher terrain, the tea plantations began. These were extensive, but some of the hilltops were still wooded naturally, and the paddy fields presented a wide, pretty quiltwork of grays and greens. Scattered humpbacked brown cattle or black buffalo browsed the stubble in the fallow stretches, with dark tick birds and white egrets accompanying them, or straggling, peppy files of goats. A troop train rattled alongside the road for a while, the commanding officer leaning out the door in his military tunic and white pajama pants.
More and more tea plantations replaced the gridwork rice paddies as we climbed away from the Brahmaputra. On our ribbon of road there were two-man handcarts, one-man handcarts, and occasional battered, wheezing trucks painted like carnival wagons, blue with gaudy yellow designs and tinselly tassels hanging over the windshields. Periodically a broken-springed bus barreled by, careening to a stop if somebody walking raised a hand. Wicker fish traps were set in the streams.
After the town of Gohpur there were no main arenas of cultivation, just forested ridges rising into Arunachal Pradesh. At the clamorous border our skinny, lorry-pitted road passed through the small hustlers’ towns of Banderdewa and Naharlagun. A billboard greeted us at the roadblock where police checked our papers: Arunachal Pradesh awaits to your arrival with its enthralling valleys. Either our papers were not in order or some “efficiency money” (as bribes are called in India) had to be paid, because we went to a sort of truck stop for barbecued goat meat and Godfather Super Strong High Power Beer while negotiations progressed. Eventually the police chief’s brother got hired as our temporary guide.
Arunachal Pradesh (population one million), formerly known as the North East Frontier Agency, became India’s 23d state in 1987. The regional capital, Itanagar, is an ugly, energetic community landlocked among roadless mountains and largely cut off from the rest of the state it’s supposed to govern. We shared the dining room of the best hotel with the Minister for Tax and Tourism, who was bellowing drunk, but after supper we drove across town to the comely new yellow-roofed Buddhist monastery atop one of the city’s hills. It had recently been dedicated by the Dalai Lama, and the day before we visited, 20 young boys had arrived for their novitiate. They were visibly excited to be assuming the duties of apprenticeship — patrolling the lovely, freshly painted temple counterclockwise in shifts, with prayer flags flying overhead, launching a prayer to heaven with every tremble and flip. Later, they would be sent out individually with begging bowls to subsist for a year on the charity of strangers. Every religion, it seemed to me, should fly prayer flags at its temples and send priests out for long walkabouts to fathom something of the way other people live.
It’s not how Americans travel, however. Our group included a likable Fifth Avenue dentist and his school-board-chairman wife. Another man was a business executive; he had been a prep-school roommate of Jack Kennedy’s and said he hadn’t slept in a sleeping bag since he was 12. We had a staff of 10 to care for us: Gautam, a Bengali from New Delhi; four Sherpas from Nepal; three Assamese from Guwahati; and Michi Reni, an Apa Tani from the hill town of Ziro.
Because of the lack of roads, we needed to loop back into the lowlands of Assam for an hour or two in order to reenter Arunachal Pradesh and go farther, climbing along a series of river gorges brocaded in shimmering green. The previous night our little bus had been suddenly requisitioned for moving troops around (we weren’t told why or where), and as replacements we’d gotten three shaky, breathless cars, which soon began suffering breakdowns, giving us time to spare in villages such as Licky. The bamboo-slat houses had overhanging thatch roofs, and the villagers had Tibetan faces, not oriented yet to smiling at tourists. Over the next 10 days, in fact, we saw only one other party of tourists, a group of Austrians. Being well east of Nepal, and even of Sikkim and Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh is not a launching pad for mountain-climbing attempts, and politics of the old style had kept it unfrequented — not nuclear bluster, so much in the news recently, but skirmishing rebel bands, tribal fights, and the Chinese infantry along the border. It’s also not a druggy hangout, and there are no places to shop, no airports for a quick entry or exit. In every town where we slept over, policemen checked our faces against our passport photos, forgetting that satellites do the spying now.
I’d been in many mountains before, but not the Himalayas. Vertiginous cuts and gorgeous gorges succeeded each other, as we wound round and round, up the watersheds, with serrated ridgetops always rising above us no matter how high the road climbed. And these were the mere foothills. All we’d ever see were foothills, exhilarating and awesome but, at 6,000 feet, only a fourth as high as the farthest ranges. The dirt road was slippery where recent washouts had occurred; the only source of wage employment seemed to be in repairing it. Otherwise, people fed themselves by stump farming (slash-and-burning) or subsistence hunting — the men with old Enfield rifles, the boys with slingshots, their quarry including musk deer, wild boar, songbirds, monkeys, turtles, and miscellany such as caterpillars. The bulky wilderness cattle known as mithuns — which are domesticated gaurs, the wild oxen of India, like shorthaired buffalo thriving in the steepest rainforest yet tame when led back to the village to serve as a bride price or funeral sacrifice — were to be seen occasionally, like big black-skinned innocents grazing amid the riot of ferns, vines, rushes, grasses, and sedges, on sidehills pitched at 60 degrees. There had also been some sporadic logging of old-growth trees in the region, but this had just been halted by an environmentalist lawsuit in New Delhi. We saw an army helicopter laboring north to supply a frontier post a hundred miles beyond the nearest road.
We were aiming for Ziro. The Apa Tanis, 20,000 strong, are regarded as perhaps Arunachal Pradesh’s most prosperous tribal group. Even before their first contact with Europeans — H. M. Crowe, a British tea planter of redoubtable temperament, ventured into their territory in 1889 — the Apa Tanis had shifted from hunting and gathering to an agricultural economy. They occupy an anomalously level plateau of about 20 square miles 5,000 feet up in these otherwise tumultuous mountains, and intensively cultivate it. In the past, though demonstrating less prowess as individual warriors than such neighbors as the Nishis and the Hill Miris, they outnumbered them locally and had more cohesion, raising big families in crowded bamboo villages, and so were able to defend as well as grow an abundance of rice, while their adversaries lived sparsely off wild meats and plants like the sago palm.
In muddy Ziro, we camped next to an experimental orchid farm run by the World Wildlife Fund. (There are hundreds of native species.) But in traditional hamlets like Hang, we saw older Apa Tani women wearing wooden plugs in their nostrils and latticed blue facial tattoos, originally a custom that discouraged raiders from kidnapping them. The Apa Tanis trade rice for livestock and cotton with neighboring tribes and are good weavers. By legend, they originated their patterns by imitating a spider’s web, or the shimmering ripples on the Kali River, or a butterfly’s beauty, or a snake’s paisley skin, or the symmetry of a fish’s scales. The loom is a simple one, and the woman sits cross-legged facing it, leaning back against a strap that holds it straight.
Next morning, on the road to the tagin tribal stronghold of Daporijo, we saw forktails, rollers, and tits; saw fields of millet, maize, sugarcane, pumpkins, ginger, and gourds. The watercourses were not apologetic. They crashed, bashed, and plummeted by the logic of physics. No dams or levees, and the treacherous road tiptoed in tenuous switchbacks high above the torrents.
We first passed through the homeland of the Nishis. “Nishi” means “hill men,”and this tribe lives in a scattered fashion. Being aggressive, individualistic hunter-foragers, its members usually forgo the governance of headmen. The men sported talismanic hats that appeared somehow to contain a whole indigenous world. The basic frame was of wickerwork and musk-deer skin, but sewn to the front of that was a sizable tuft of black-bear fur in place of the customary podum, or knot, of their own hair that many tribes wear, with a brass skewer through it. Above the bear fur was a huge red-dyed hornbill’s bill, projecting forward. Attached to the top of the cap but instead extending back were an eagle’s muscular fingers and riveting talons. And a cluster of classy peacock feathers hung down in back. These Nishis wore short, sheathed swords.
After we stopped at one point and scrambled up a mucky rise, we provoked the hilarity of several startled ladies in saris, at work on a steep hilltop with pestle and mortar, or a backstrap loom, by asking through Michi, our narrow-faced Apa Tani translator, if we could tour one of their houses. Big bamboo porches led into the dimly airy interior, ventilated and lit by the spaces between the polework on the sides, and all tied with vines. Though tree posts and logs supported the crosshatched stiltwork below, and though the floor itself was closely laid with halved bamboo poles to furnish a flat surface, the structure moved, nestlike, according to the wind or the influence of our shifting weight. The four or five separate hearths in roomy compartments were partitioned by cane curtains and fireproofed by a mud foundation laid on top of the bamboo floor. Over each little fire there was a blackened canework sling that held the stored food — newly harvested rice that was drying and meat being smoked. The rafters functioned as a closet or as dresser drawers; clothing was hung at a convenient height on them. And on the side wall were a few nails where you’d see a winnowing basket or a cultivating implement or a quiver of slender bird arrows in a bamboo stem or an animal skull.
With Michi’s help we chatted, having climbed so sharply through the mud to meet them. Pigs ran around, and a dead goat hung on a fence. The boys wore slingshots round their foreheads, and some men were cutting house posts with bush knives trimmed with monkey fur. Nearby a woman was mixing sand and cement to bolster a small dam at the outlet of a forest spring. Sometimes, she told us as she worked, the villagers took drums and pounded through the forest, driving a congeries of wildlife — frogs, hares, rodents, wild hogs, and deer — into a trap amid the palms, creepers, wild banana, nahor, tita, and silk-cotton trees.
The bottle-green Kamla River demarcated the end of the Nishis’ territory from the beginning of the Hill Miris’, though after we had crossed the bridge there wasn’t an immediate difference to be seen. Unlike the Apa Tanis, who had placed their crowded villages on oddments of the least cultivatable land so as to maximize the rice crop, the less numerous, more warlike Hill Miris and Nishis had been primarily concerned with security when they set their settlements on hilltops, a long haul from water but a hard knoll for a band of raiders to get at.
Now that headhunting and skirmishing have ceased and the tribalists have been pacified (as recently as four or five decades ago, encyclopedias described Arunachal Pradesh as scarcely explored), with a couple of languid soldiers posted in every town that the road goes through, these defendable hamlets remain simply glorious vantage spots. Far-off vistas of cloud forest and plummeting slopes spread everywhere, both higher and lower than you, with the slash-and-burn quilting of farm work just occasional: rice, millet, yams, corn, wheat, potatoes, tobacco, peppers, in subsistence parcels. Otherwise, many varieties of bamboo and sal, poma and toon trees, walnuts, chestnuts, pines, spruces, oaks, rhododendrons, and vigorous undergrowth enrich the scenery.
Traditionally, the Hill Miris are said to believe that they found their home by following flights of birds south from Tibet and that, apart from the Sun-Moon Creator God, the most powerful spirit is Yapom, the deity of the forests, who may assume quirky but ominous human form. Hill Miris are flamboyant — the women with beaded necklaces and metal bracelets and earrings, the men bearing on their chests a leopard’s or a tiger’s jaws with a mirror in the middle and wearing a decorated cane helmet, sometimes with an entire tiger’s tail dangling down. We saw one man flaunting an eagle’s wing across his chest, and other men with cobra skins draped around their necks and boars’ tusks on their heads. Unfortunately, large cats such as tigers are vanishing from Arunachal Pradesh, and it was only the old men who had been able to kill one of them as a rite of passage. The young men either wore the smaller leopards’ jaws or else were reduced to using the jaws of mere wildcats the size of an American bobcat. Gautam told us that the Hill Miris are still an aggressive tribe, and they did object to being photographed, with several older men stalking severely out of camera range. Women standing in their dooryards dodged away.
Two gorges were set catty-corner underneath us in this clamor of mountains striped with streaming clouds. Burial in such a setting, as the Hill Miris do it, is performed by members of the opposite sex. Then several stuffed monkeys are placed on a platform above the grave of the person who died, outfitted for the trip to the netherworld with little pack-baskets of food and tubes of rice beer and miniature tobacco pipes stuck in their mouths, as servants for the soul.
We camped on the bluff of the tagin tribal town of Daporijo for two nights, at the confluence of two splendid rivers, the aquamarine tributary Sippi and the earthier Subansiri. It was more than scenery — it was positively paradisiacal, though the town is the site of an army base: the Ninth Assam Rifles. We saw crag martins stunting below us over the water, and ravens, forktails, white-breasted kingfishers, black drongos (like blue jays), yellow bul-buls, mergansers, a blue whistling thrush, pied wagtails, and a falcon darting, cruising, high above. The Subansiri appears to be lonely and majestic, a sublime, graceful river assembling thousands of square miles of Himalayan watercourses after their tumult is mostly done. All that drenching rainfall, the vertigo of the massifs of the mountain range, collected into just this one of many tributaries of the grander Brahmaputra, curving in quiet python coils toward the Bay of Bengal.
Daporijo had a concrete market street with assorted stalls and flickering electricity. We set off in the morning to visit some Tagins, up a gorge of the Sippi, in the next-to-last village, Nintemuri, that can be reached on four wheels. In two places the mud road had washed out next to horrific precipices where we skidded dangerously. The Tagins, like the Hill Miris and Nishis, were hunter-foragers who are thought to have crossed the Himalayas from Tibet and, also like them, until recently were little known to the outside world. And vice versa — in 1953 a group of Tagins ambushed a government exploration party, killing 47 of its 165 members. They wear round cane hats and build square bamboo houses; hunt barking deer, mountain goats, crocodiles, snakes, wildcats, and hares; lead mithuns about by a woven-vine rope; wear a black-root woven cape that looks like bearskin and sheds rain; and hang straw effigies on a bamboo frame in front of a shrine to ward off malignant wiyus, or spirits, which are subsidiary to the benignly indifferent Sun-Moon god, called Daini-Pol.
Verrier Elwin himself, the British explorer-author who, inspired by Gandhi, was the principal champion or protector of these hill tribes after India’s independence, wrote that the Tagin area was “the most formidable, the most desolate, in a way the least rewarding country I have visited … The climate is abominable; the people are undernourished and tormented by diseases of the skin; the tracks are impossible.” And the mountains were indeed molar and uninviting, the weather lawless. The V-cut of the valley cleaved the views in each direction very short and left little space for cultivating terraces. At Nintemuri, some Tagin men were amused to say that their grandfathers had shot arrows at the first survey helicopters that went over in the forties. Michi, in chatting, added that his own Apa Tani grandfather had helped fight the first military expedition that showed up near Ziro in the 1950s, having penetrated their territory from Assam, after India won its independence, with a mission to establish a national hegemony. Too young to be in the forefront, he’d stood behind the warriors, preparing and handing forward arrows — though many of them were killed by machine guns or taken away as prisoners.
The bridge over the Subansiri River was a funnelly rattletrap of metal and boards that had recently fallen out under a bus with 82 people on it and drowned them all. It did us no harm, but another bridge we crossed that day, going toward the town of Along, tore up the undercarriage of one of our cars and halted us for a bit. The steel-and-wood structure was falling apart. Loops of loose wiring and jumbles of nails stuck out from the rusting girders and busted planks.
We were crossing from the territory of the Tagins to that of the Gallongs and from the drainage of the Subansiri River to that of the Siang, the Arunachali name for the upper Brahmaputra itself. The tributaries of each river had carved giddy, green, orchestral valleys that deserved the august name “Himalayas,” and we wound like bugs along the vast margins of these, from pass to pass, and then down again. And begin again.
When the Gallongs — like the Nishis, Hill Miris, and Tagins — were still regarded as fearful cannibals and bestial murderers by the people of the farming floodplains between Guwahati and other populous towns beside the big lowland Brahmaputra after it has straightened out, they were not known by their present names, but as Abhors or Daflas, “savage” appellations bestowed on them by agricultural Assamese, who had long cultivated the protection and good opinion of the English and previous conquerors. And for years, into the middle of the twentieth century, they intimidated intruders, killed the occasional unwary explorer, and maintained a local pattern of hunting, raiding, and sometimes slavery, unsubdued.
The British first came partway up the Siang in force when the Japanese tried to invade Assam. Then, after Independence, the nationalistic expeditions became more punitive and punctilious. Down in Tirap, for instance, 300 villagers were massacred by the Assam Rifles in 1954. And several roads were quickly built after the Chinese invaded India in 1962. The Gallongs, however, seem rather milder, more assimilated, a less bristly people nowadays than the Tagins, Hill Miris, and Nishis.
From Daporijo to Along — home of the Gallongs — was a long, rainy haul. Clouds sopped the mountainsides, up, up around hairpin turns, fishhooks, switchbacks, with valleys set at a tangent like gargantuan elbows, and a peak peeking out at almost moon-height, way beyond. Or we’d skid through a streambed, a pony-size galloping cataract, if the road had washed out, and almost over a drop-off, where the forest, perhaps through sheer, seething density, bound by its cat’s-cradle creepers, had still managed to cling. Only birds had much fun negotiating these. The horn on one vehicle failed — as dangerous on mountain curves as losing your headlights at night (which we also once did).
We were just skirting all this immensity, threading the edge. When one of our cars broke down again, we walked uphill awhile to a well-watered settlement of lush fields and banana trees terraced on a slope. I saw a leopard’s prints on the track, and a bear’s prints, and heard so much birdsong, noticed so many butterflies, smelled the fragrance of so many flowers that it was clear these people had obviously struck a good balance between slash-and-burning for crops and maintaining the overall web of life.
The Gallongs grow grapefruit and oranges, do backstrap looming and mortar-and-pestle milling, but boast an occasional TV aerial on houses close to their capital, or an ornate porch railing and some hanging plants to dress up the primitive bamboo architecture. In the village of Pangin, spread in leisurely fashion along a bench above the Siang River, we saw smoked squirrels and monkeys hanging next to the hearths, and millet and maize fields galore. Yet also jalopies and pickups, and several young men who had been to the city.
But the principal boast of Pangin is its two 100-yard-long cane suspension bridges, in the splendid pre-Contact engineering tradition. The Siang cuts a good working trench through this part of the valley, so it can rise 30 feet without flooding the mossy ground where the big trees grow. The bridges, constructed of coils of cane, are slung all the way across like a swaying, looping-down, open-topped, V-shaped tube going from one huge tree to another. Bamboo poles are laid end to end on the bottom to provide a bouncing sort of footing, and cane ropes, horizontal but also webbed vertically, furnish handholds at about chest-height, plus a gingerly sense or partial enclosure. You climb up along a huge split log to the jump-off point and look down the narrow incline, which jounces slightly in the wind and slants scarily up again to the stubby platform on the tree over on the other side. Two people can barely slide past each other, if that becomes necessary, holding the vine rails and treading the pole floor.
Forty or fifty feet underneath us were four slim bamboo fishing rafts, each poled by a single man, who combined with the others to set a net and drive fish into it by banging the water. The river was at its most placid stage, despite the daily rains we had had, so a little later Trudy and I stretched out on a drift log on the wide gravel beach for a spell of privacy, letting the tour group move on and watching the tiptoe traffic of women carrying pack baskets of grain or loads of bamboo across the elastic bridge over us. Some little kids came down the band, questioned us about America, and waded with spears after fish or threw stones at them and scanned the bushes for a bird they could hit with their slingshots. The young men who had been fishing approached us with curiosity as well but asked whether we were afraid. We said no.
“The people here are innocent,” one told us. “In Calcutta they would rob you.” He moved off without doing so, but when we saw him beating a screaming dog not long afterward, and after Trudy had shouted at him to stop to no avail, I decided we’d better get back nearer the road. This was country where people like us might have been shot full of arrows as recently as when I was in my teens.
I went and sat for a while later on at the mud hearth fires of two lean patriarchs in their longhouses. One was a priest, also the son of a priest, as he told me through Michi. He had decided to become a priest 25 years ago, when he felt his own calling, and had been trained by another shaman. When I asked if he healed sick people with herbs, he told me no, just prayers and animals that he sacrificed. The twisting fingers of firelight, the silence except for our murmuring voices and the wind brushing against the bamboo house-frame, the smell of smoke and forest meats (the canework hammock hanging over the fire, where meat and rice were stored, looked practically fireproof, it had so hardened with soot), made me relax my wristwatch-and-monotheistic rigidity.
I live in the woods without electricity anyway for part of the year, but that is like wading in a swimming pool, next to the ocean of lifelong habituation of people who live by the sun, stars, and fire-flicker from birth to a quiet grave. The spirits of tigers and hollow old trees and the muscling-in weather and mountain massifs are no more implausible than Jehova of the Pentateuch — though in knee-jerk fashion we repel the thought that nature might be more that geophysics, that it might also be spirit and whimsy. Our own spirit can have no counterpart short of heaven, we think. It sprang full-blown into existence only with us.
The priest was probably fiftyish, though his wiry figure and face looked older by Western standards. His wife and daughter sat cross-legged across the stewpot-size fire in the breezy room, with the sky in its night costume outside. He said, through Michi’s translation, that the tiger was the biggest spirit in the forest, among the animals, though if you killed a bear or a leopard you would have to do puja, too, lest its spirit haunt you. The trees large enough to have a spirit were malign as well. They were being cut, so when the forests were logged off commercially and the wildlife killed, it would simplify things in the sense that constant propitiation might be at an end. But the undergirdings of the culture, of course, would be gone also. His negotiations were all with the world as it was before agriculture and industry.
The other patriarch, in another bamboo house with a busy, tidy fire as its centerpiece — the ends of two burning logs touching each other, controlled by how far he pulled t hem back or pushed them together — had worked for the British as a hod-carrier in the 1940s, when they had established a tentative military post at Pasighat, a week’s walk downriver on the Siang, about where it changes to the Brahmaputra. (In far Tibet is called the Yalutsangpo or Tsangpo.) And whereas in the cities there is a tendency to remember Calcutta’s Netaji Subash Chandra Bose as a hero who raised an Indian liberation army to fight against the British alongside the Japanese in World War II — exalting him even above Gandhi, who was too pacifist for contemporary tastes — remote tribal peoples such as the Gallongs remember the British more as protectors than oppressors, as they try to resist being swamped and nullified in contemporary India. He spoke in this sort of vein, as I enjoyed again the whickering silence, just the fire’s ticking, and the night birds outside. he and his wife muttered to each other in normal voices that were much softer than my ears could easily take in.
The labyrinth of giddy valleys and soaring high country of Arunachal Pradesh harbors 26 major tribes, of which we had encountered only five on the scant road system. We continued east toward Pasighat — maybe the finest drive of all, with the road running a thousand feet up along the Siang’s jungly gorge. One’s retinas could hardly register the green and white water boiling way down below and the stupendous opposite flank going up to regions that the clouds obscured or sailed alongside. The river twisted like a striped reptile, swelling and rolling — constructing cliffs, flooding meadows. After hours of wild, wonderful grandeur we saw, with reluctance, the gap where the Siang forks onto the plains.