28 Aug 2017 15:48 IST

Arunachal on a bike

A rare, new book about a little known part of India is both insightful and entertaining

Travel takes you far, to places unknown, unfamiliar. And as many have discovered, it also takes you into your deepest self. Even as you roam the wild and exotic all over the globe, you embark on a journey of getting to know who you really are. In Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains, Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent finds the words and the ways to intersect these these parallel paths.

Meeting an intrepid ‘go to’ individual in Delhi was, in a sense, the trigger for her decision to explore Arunachal Pradesh: “The most inaccessible, culturally diverse and little known of the Seven Sisters, here was a place hidden in the shadows and wrinkles at the edge of the map; a far-off land that spoke of magic and mystery, gods and monsters and the glorious wild.” The book unravels how she found all of these and much more: warm, affectionate human beings who shared their stories and their lives with her.

A Babel in the wilderness

Sprawled over nearly 90,000 sq km in mountainous, jungle territory, and located in the north-easternmost corner of India, Arunachal Pradesh is home to the highest number of regional languages in the Indian subcontinent. It shares borders with Bhutan, Myanmar and China and, consequently, requires special permissions and permits to visit. The paperwork smoothed out, ABK sets off on a recalibrated Hero bike after invoking the blessings of Goddess Kamakhya at her abode in Guwahati, Assam.

Even though for much of the trip she was accompanied by local guides, friends of friends, and introductions, it still meant negotiating mountain roads, army convoys, sign language, and the possibility of encountering militants and wild animals along the way. It is daunting, so why would anybody venture out on such a foolish whim alone? ABK has an explanation: “Solo travel is like a drug — it has its risks, but it also has the potential to unlock rare feelings of euphoria. Only when I’m totally alone, miles from anywhere or anyone I know, have I experienced its pure, unbridled joy.”

As a reader, you experience the author’s pure, unbridled joy vicariously, in the fine details of the journey; the recollection of the history of the region or the moment; the vivid descriptions of the people she meets and the unfailing hospitality they extend to her; the questions she asks herself regarding the tribal way of life, their customs and practices; the people’s relationship with the mithun (bison); what the building of roads may mean to life and the environment; Arunachal Pradesh’s relationship with the rest of the country and the pressures of living close to international borders.

Last week’s review of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis by Prerna Singh Bindra ( Businessline, August 21) draws attention to the building of the 3000-MW Dibang Valley dam (on the river Talo), in size larger than the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada, but hardly ever finding a place in the common discourse. Its 26.7-mile long reservoir would apparently be visible from space. Locals tell ABK that apart from the sandy, unstable soil of the Dibang Valley making such a venture unsuitable, it also meant that tens of thousands of labourers would be imported from Assam: “ ‘You’ll need a microscope to find us Idu after that,’ one man had lamented.”

Insightful narrative

The narrative is not merely descriptive, it is insightful and interesting. She shares, for instance, how the tea trade came to the North-East; how the Stilwell Road, “a 465-mile supply route that would connect Assam with China” came to be built on the backs of thousands of locals, and US conscripts, 70 per cent of whom were African American; where the waters of the Tsangpo eventually flow (clue: it becomes the Brahmaputra); why the remains of some 400 US airmen still lie in the jungles of Arunachal; why young people in Arunachal don’t want to be subsistence farmers anymore; how it is easy to romanticise the beauty of nature, yet how in some parts of the State people are well-fed and contented; and how the ‘outsider’ idea keeps popping up at regular intervals.

She reflects on the notion of development and its negative and positive impact, and whether economic prosperity ends up making us more miserly. She draws attention to the reality of cultural differences, and ruminates on how to engage with them.

The many glugs of apong, arag, chang and other local liquors quaffed down in the course of the journey have definitely contributed to the candour and affection with which ABK’s story of Arunachal is communicated, at once objective and subjective. She writes lucidly about her goals and fears, and her battle with panic attacks. Bold she is, but she deals with her fair share of doubt and despair which she makes no effort to hide.

That really is the charm of the writing: an open, almost conversational style with the superior British ‘bite’ very much on edge fed on a large dose of self-deprecation and humour. But there is also a sincere effort to understand, and an honest one not to romanticise. The prose is quite consistently lively, as for instance when she talks about “an eternity of crumpled earth receding into the supernal mist”. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that a difficult word would never stop a child, but a boring story will. ABK throws up a host of challenging words — pescatarian, chthonic, louche, mephitic — but it doesn’t matter, they’re delicious!

Of course she got asked by a middle-aged Assamese gent: “How does your husband allow you to roam around like this?” But as she writes, “Every journey is an exercise in unshackling yourself from the safety and routine of everyday life at one end, and letting go of your fears of the unknown at the other. And on every journey there’s a moment when the bonds are loosed, when at once the journey inhabits you, and you inhabit it.”

Give yourself the pleasure of inhabiting the land of the dawn-lit mountains as ABK paints the picture.

Meet the author

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent is an adventurer, travel writer and TV producer, with a background in setting up extreme and complex adventures all over the world. She has worked and travelled in over 50 countries.