The Jungle Nook

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A family outing runs unexpectedly into an opium trail in Namdapha

I SAT IN A Mishmi tribal’s hut, tucked away somewhere in the Himalayan jungles at the Indo- Myanmar border. The smoke escaping his pipe, ingeniously created from a deodorant can, enveloped us all, especially his five-year-old grand- daughter who sat right next to him, snacking on his moong dal chivda, an offering of friendship from me. Despite our interest in the opium that he collected from his poppy fields and regularly smoked, we refused to share his pipe. His company and his hut were surreal enough.

Mr Mishmi, as I would like to remember the charismatic tribal, was a thorough gentleman. He was an ex-soldier, trained in the ways of war and engineering by the Indian Army, and in opium and orange cultivation by his upbringing. He had volunteered to take us through the entire process of opium cultivation, right from draining the poppy flower to soaking the juice, ultimately diluting it with dried leaves to smoke. He also played to the gallery and covered himself with a traditional shawl for the benefit of our photography. I was touched by his capacity to trust strangers, something we urban animals had long forgotten.

Meeting him signified the culmination of our journey, one that involved a seven-hour-long flight, followed by three-and-a-half days of driving and hiking. We had travelled from Mumbai on the western coast to the eastern border of our eastern-most state, the dawn-lit land of Arunachal Pradesh.

We were probably the first strangers in decades that the Mishmi had welcomed to his isolated hut, the only one that existed in the entire supposed village, surrounded by poppy fields and orange orchards. And contrary to every piece of advice, rumour and anecdote I had heard, this opium cultivator was the most forthcoming and charming man I had met on my entire trip. Far from breaking my camera and shooing me away, he welcomed us with a beaming smile and a stuffed pipe.

For years I had fantasised about visiting Namdapha National Park to research my novel, but the expensive flight tickets had kept my plans at bay. One would have to fly from Mumbai to Dibrugarh in eastern Assam, then continue by road to the Indo- Myanmar border in Arunachal Pradesh. So when airlines dropped their prices by half on a flash sale, I didn’t think twice before booking. I did have to reconsider the trip, however, when my parents and partner found out about it. The jungles around Namdapha were known for insurgent activities, poppy fields and an easy crossing-over point between India and Myanmar. One would also have to drive through the ULFA heartland and villages suffering from opium addiction and related crimes to reach the national park. There was something about the afeemchi (opium addicts) that scared them more than the lawlessness of Bundelkhand, uncertainties of rural Kashmir and psychoses of Tanzania, places where I had worked alone.

My parents booked their tickets soon after, refusing to let me go alone. My partner, feeling cornered, decided to join in too. My dreams of unpredictable adventures on my own came crashing down. I had read of writers in their biographies travelling with their illicit loves or muses, if anyone at all, definitely not their entire family in tow.

And that is how we arrived in Dibrugarh in eastern Assam, the tea capital of India, with a roadmap, hired SUV and a proposed plan of action. Though I had made it clear I would be the leader of the trip, I had sensed reprisals early on, with my mother demanding to visit the neighbouring tea estates and ancient temples, and my husband constantly desiring snack breaks. My father seemed like the only compliant one, dozing off to sleep as soon as he sat in the car.

It was only when I read my mother’s diary much later did I realise I was an excuse. Having lived a part of her childhood in the Northeast, she had yearned to relive those days once again. With the ladies on board, the men had to follow suit.

A town settled on the banks of the Brahmaputra, we trailed the river as we left Dibrugarh, the concrete mess swiftly giving way to the unending horizon of tea estates. Assam produced more than half of India’s chai, and the tea cultivation here was different from Darjeeling, or so my mother told me. Tea was grown here on flat land, and was largely the CTC variety, what we use in the regular Indian chai. Darjeeling on the other hand was known for the orthodox variety, the golden brown tea liquor one would expect at high-tea ceremonies in England.

A family friend, Michael Ward, a Scottish gentleman, had spent his childhood in a tea estate in Pengaree and Hokonguri, Tinsukia. His father had managed tea estates for the Assam Frontier Company from 1946 to 1976. In the town of Digboi, home to Asia’s oldest oil refinery, we took a small detour to visit Pengaree.

We found the tea estates of Michael’s childhood buried in weed, behind locked gates that too. In the 1970s, Surrendra Paul, Lord Swraj Paul’s brother, had bought the Assam Frontier Tea Ltd. Soon after, he was murdered by suspected ULFA terrorists, one of the events that prompted the Government to airlift senior tea managers from their estates and eventually led to President’s Rule in Assam. Silence still loomed over the tea estates and its neighbouring structures, a World War II cemetery and Buddhist temple. Even the presence of a bustling school nearby couldn’t disturb the silence that accompanied structures and historical events forgotten by public memory. In the cemetery, there were no fresh flowers on any of the graves. As I read the epitaphs, I came across names belonging to Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and many that remained unidentified for posterity.

I had spent the night imagining multiple possible scenarios of what I would encounter. Meeting the Mishmi man and his granddaughter defied all of them

Due to the looming presence of the ULFA here, we were told to hurry up our visit and leave before sunset. Despite the evidence of the Raj all around us, lulling us into daydreams of Memsahibs sipping on tea, Studebakers and steam-engines bustling with people out of a Merchant-Ivory production, Sahibs discovering oil in an elephant’s footprints (as the legend of Digboi goes) and brave soldiers perishing on the battlefront, this region, at present, was best avoided.

Soon after crossing Margherita town, we found ourselves driving down Stilwell Road. The road was originally called Ledo Road, as it began at Ledo in Tinsukhia, the eastern-most broad gauge railway station in India. The historic road connected the Allied Forces in World War II directly to Kunming in China, bypassing the Japanese-controlled Burma Road.

The majority of our road trip was on Stilwell Road, known among war historians for its significance in connecting Chiang Kai-Shek’s army in China to the Allied Forces in India after Burma fell in the hands of Japan. It took the engineering and military prowess of the Americans and English collectively to construct the road on time, encountering tropical illnesses, swamps, jungles and an ominous lake, or so the military folklore goes.

At some point, the road reached a fork. The Stilwell Road went further east onto Pangsau Pass, entering Myanmar. Just a few kilometres from the border was the Lake of No Return, a misleading name given to a picturesque lake during the War, when aircraft were rumoured to have crashed into it. Eventually, we forked out from Stilwell Road to Miao in Arunachal Pradesh.

Culturally and geographically, Arunachal Pradesh began even before we officially crossed the state borders. The asphalt highway turned into a dirt track surrounded by bamboo forests. The chai transformed into a locally grown and brewed version, stored and dried in bamboo shoots over the kitchen fire. The uniformly flat land gave way to hills ascending into mountains, and mountains ascending into unsurpassable snow peaks that divided India from Tibet, Bhutan and Burma. At Miao, our destination for the night, Phupla, a local belonging to the Singhpo tribe, claimed it was Singhpos who introduced wild tea to the British, not the Chinese. He prepared a traditional Singhpo meal for us, consisting of various kinds of fish, leafy vegetables, curries, rice and unidentifiable herbs. My partner and I gushed over the new tastes exploding in our mouth, praising how different it was from the mainland fare. My father remained silent. The next day, he asked for dal chaawal.

NAMDAPHA NATIONAL PARK was only eight kilometres away from Miao, but the journey to the forest guest house took us at least two hours. The road was now a dirt track capable of repositioning our spines, and the landscape suddenly shot up vertically. The park is known for its stark altitudinal variation, ranging from 200 metres to 4,571 metres above sea level. This in turn, has endowed this region with a wide range of biodiversity, to match the diversity of forests and landscapes. Namdapha is one of the few places known to have four big cats: the tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard. It attracts bird and butterfly enthusiasts from the world over, but that didn’t entirely explain why we were here. As a journalist, I had followed the trial of a group of Burmese insurgents wrongly arrested by the Indian intelligence, some of whom had lived and trained in these very jungles. I had also heard tales of poppy cultivation, and contemplated a potential sub-plot in my novel based on it.

We arrived at the guesthouse to discover it had no electricity, running water or mobile network. But the loss of amenities was substituted by a spectacular location overlooking a confluence on the Noa-Dihing river, with the glory of the tropical Himalayas ahead. In the absence of mobile phones, music and other distractions, we were all forced to communicate. For the first time in my life, I heard my father talk more than my mother.

The road, we realised, would be best navigated on foot and elephant-back, from now on. Namdapha was the opposite of a national park like Ranthambore. Only the earnest few made it this far. And the ones who did weren’t chasing tiger pugmarks and selfies in the wild.

After a day or two of convincing, our guide agreed to take us across the Noa-Dihing river, to a neighbouring village and make our way to the nearby opium fields, hopefully in a local’s vehicle so we could go unnoticed. He was still apprehensive, at best, scared. My partner voiced his concerns too. He found the potential risks involved not worth the half-baked idea I had in my head. My father, who had largely been asleep or silent for this trip, woke up to play his part, with an unexpected twist. While everyone dissuaded me, he volunteered to come along. The simple action had a domino effect, and everything else fell into place. In order to keep him away from this unpredictable adventure, the guide and my partner readily fell in line.

I had spent the night imagining multiple possible scenarios of what I would encounter. Meeting the Mishmi man and his granddaughter defied all of them. On the soot-soaked walls of his hut, I saw skulls of many animals that I should have seen on the park safaris, but didn’t. He called them his gods. Of all the possibilities, I didn’t expect to make a new friend, pinch the pink cheeks of a little girl, watch pigs and hens make merry under a traditional hut on stilts, and taste the sweetest orange I would eat in a while.

(Shubhangi Swarup is a writer working on her debut novel, Faultlines)