Sunday, February 24, 2008

Snapshots

A week-long trip to north-eastern India yielded rich photographic dividends. There were animals in the wild, snow on the mountains, miles of tea gardens, interesting local faces… We went a bit trigger-happy with our cameras and here are some of the results.

We went looking for the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga and found enough to satiate. They looked like armoured tanks but seemed pretty tame and timid to us from the lofty heights of an elephant-back. There were supposed to be 1855 of them in 2006, but we heard 10 of them were poached in the past 6 months. Greed does strange things to people.

We also found deer that went by strange names, a family of very shy wild elephants, wild boar, tortoises that I would have missed had someone not pointed them out to me and various birds whose names have vanished from my memory. All taken in over a long leisurely tramp (the elephant tramped, we clung on) over wild grass to the background music of elephants chomping away, birds twittering and the occasional elephant roar.


An un-hurried trip on a dinghy down a sedate river (the Pia Bhorelli) was pretty mind-emptying and led even the least poetic of us to talk in similes and metaphors. Doesn't that look like glass and broken glass?

The border crossing from Assam to Arunachal was pretty dramatic – the landscape changed starkly from the plains to the mountains, the girls were prettier and it was markedly colder. Every woman seemed to be carrying a baby on her back. And there were road workers everywhere – it seemed to be only one of 2 or 3 occupations people had locally. And surprisingly all the road workers seemed to be women. Some with babies on their back!

There is something primeval and secretive about the mountains – and when they are covered with snow, it is sheer magic. I can’t ever get used to snow. I came late in life to it and I feel blessed when I see it, touch it. Christmas postcards were the closest I ever came to it in childhood…and this had that postcard-like feel to it.


When in the mountains, can adventure be far behind? Ice on the narrow mountain roads, an army truck that had slipped, a blocked road and no way to turn back. A pretty pickle. Thankfully the local road workers (all women, putting all of us including the army men to shame) came to our rescue with their pick axe and hardiness.


This was the site of the scariest 15 minutes of our life. A narrow mountain road, mist all around, zero visibility to speak of and a driver who seemed to know no fear.

The army is ubiquitous. At 14,000 feet they are the only sign of life, other than a few hamlets. There are army bunkers in the ice and photography is forbidden there. The 1962 China war is scattered all around – in memorials to brave soldiers, in local legends and in places named after the dead. It was a war we lost and unlike Ladakh where there were chest thumping Kargil memorials, here there are some shockers. Like the plaque in a memorial that listed out ‘The Guilty’. They included ‘the magnanimity of Nehru, the presumptuousness of Krishna Menon, the failure of army and civil intelligence, the lack of high altitude training…’ It is a stark reminder that this area is still under dispute. That China claims Arunachal as their own and in 1962, they had actually occupied Tawang town. Eerie!


But then there is Amit Paul. For the first time in years the North-East was part of a mainstream pop phenomenon. The runner-up in season 3 of Indian Idol, Amit is very much a local hero even though he hails from Shillong. His posters dot Tawang’s marketplace and his show in Dirang the night we were there was sold out. It was heartening to see this sign of integration.


Tawang monastery was a bit of a disappointment. Ladakh’s monasteries seem much older and much more a part of local life. And they were prettier. But there were these really pretty murals and the player hall was colourful and dark and mysterious.


A tea garden in Assam had to be our last stop. It was a little bit of luxury in an otherwise Spartan trip. A night at a heritage property (a restored planter’s bungalow, a visit to a tea estate and a glimpse into the high life of a plantation manager were the highlights. The tea garden was pretty – tea plants as far as the eye can see. And the plantation manager was hospitable with his tea and whiskey to 2 complete strangers. It is a different life and in the midst of 14 hour work days, you kind of long for that kind of time, space and comfort.