Pankeng Pertin was showing me around his orange grove. A small wiry man, he wore a black tribal vest with an intricate orange trim and had a machete in a fine wicker sheath slung across his back. How old? He’s not sure, but he was about six when the bomb fell on Hiroshima and Japanese jets flew overhead. I was surrounded by perhaps a thousand orange trees, all in fruit. They looked like what a child might draw: improbably skinny trees laden with large orange dots. Having seen at most a hundred oranges at once at my fruit vendor’s, this sight made me giddy. Then I lived the perennial urban fantasy of plucking and eating a perfect fruit—the segments thin-skinned and taut with sublime sweet-tart flesh.
Pankeng’s grove is on a hill above Dambuk, a village in central Arunachal Pradesh that is cut off half the year by the muscular headwaters of the Brahmaputra. Dambuk has over 100 orange farmers whose famed fruit travels all over Assam and into Bangladesh. But orange here is a young crop. It was Pankeng who introduced it 35 years ago, when illness made working his rice paddies impossible.
He needed a crop that didn’t demand annual work and had a winter harvest, when the rivers lift their siege, so the crop could travel to market. He grew his first orchard from seed, using fruits of a tree in his friend Bano Linggi’s backyard. He showed me an old photo of him and Bano with fruiting trees in the backdrop, in the same grove where I stood. Pankeng, an Adi, wore Bano’s Idu Mishmi outfit and Bano wore Pankeng’s. They had done a post-match jersey swap.
What was I doing in this pristine and inaccessible land of the Adi and Idu Mishmis? Dambuk has lately become home to the Orange Festival. Timed with the orange harvest, it is a four-day urban bonanza of high-adrenaline sports and music that attracts over 200 city slickers. I was one of them.
While getting here, I learnt the hard way that in these parts rivers pull rank. Trying to cross the Brahmaputra after dark, my ferry got stuck in the mud. The river extracted five hours in dues before letting me pass. The payoff, though, was immediate on the drive next morning from Pasighat. Arunachal showed its colours: distant blue hills cradling cloud banks, gloomy woods with buttress roots textured in red lichen, a turquoise Siang river with dark green slopes rising from its white rocky shores. And everywhere, lithe women in sarongs doing all the heavy lifting without breaking a sweat.
After about two hours of highway, I turned off onto the dry bed of the Sissiri. This vast river, now in its wintry quiet, was mostly sun-bleached rocks with narrow braids of steel-grey water and elephant grass on the sandbanks. On the slopes above the river were neatly terraced paddies and orange groves of Dambuk. The stillness was palpable. Until I ran into the festival’s 4x4 off-roading rally.
Over 30 vehicles—converted Gypsies, Jeeps, Polaris dune buggies—plunged down 60 degree banks and careened in and out of shallows. A small clutch of villagers had gathered to watch. They seemed curious about the cars and bemused by the activity, off-roading for them not a sport but routine. Just then, a decrepit truck trundled out onto the riverbed, like a farm worker gatecrashing a garden party. The handlers quickly worked their walkie-talkies and shooed it out of the 4x4’s way. It teetered over the rocks, weighed down by crates.Dambuk’s orange crop was heading to market.
That evening I was at the festival’s music venue. The dais, crisscrossed with coloured light beams, stood in a shorn paddy field surrounded by orange-clad hills. On stage was Yesterdrive, a fresh indie-rock band from Arunachal but based in Delhi. Their tight full sound and piercing guitar leads pulled me in. The crowd of about a hundred were largely youth from the neighbouring states; the handful of us from the major metros were older. Most stomped on the hay stumps, and us short folks stood on the aisles for elevation.
At the edge of the field, the villagers had set up a dozen food stalls. Yiju Benjo, a pretty Idu Mishmi girl, was selling smallish rice pakoras—three for `10. She was shy about the price and explained: “It's festival time, no!” What did she think of the music? “It’s all English,” she giggled, “my English not so good.” The music venue was on her father's land. I learnt he was charging rent worth about three festival tickets and wished Yiju was less shy.
The food was largely tribal fare. I began with a magnificent whole fish, spice-rubbed and grilled on a stick, the skin crisp and the insides steamy moist. This I chased with juicy roast pork. Then, rice cooked in young bamboo that you peel like a banana and the rice tube emerges cased in a delicious bamboo membrane. I tore off bits to dip in a side of braised venison, gamey and toothsome. I washed all this down with Apong, the local rice beer brewed in every home, served in sections of bamboo about 8” above a knuckle, with the top lopped off at an angle to allow easy sipping.
I was spending that night with an Adi family. The family’s grown children live in various towns but the festival was exciting enough to be back in the village for. They were still at the venue when I arrived at their house past 9.30pm. The elderly matriarch was lounging alone on a rattan mat, toasty next to the central hearth. She watched a soap on ZeeTV and I watched plains India beaming itself into the bloodstream here.
Not far from the TV, was the family's Apong brewery: a wicker cone hung inverted from the rafters. Lined with ikkamleaves—the size of banana leaves but not prone to tear—it was filled with rice fermented with yeast. From a leafy funnel sticking out the bottom, a slow drip of clear liquid plopped to a pan below. I dozed off to this hypnotic soundtrack.
In the morning, the family—eight adults and three children—gathered around the hearth in a blur of activity. Unlike plains India’s rural hearths that are banished to a corner, the Adis place their fire at the very centre of the home. A non-proscenium theatre of family life plays out around it: prepping, cooking, eating, chatter, and laughter. I basked in this as the women, in a display of crisp collaboration bordering on choreography, prepared a four-course meal for their large family.
We were sitting in a raised longhouse, wood-framed and thatched, with bamboo slat floors. Pigs and chickens occupy the crawlspace below and polish off any food swept through the cracks. All around me were exquisite samples of bamboo and cane weaving: baskets, trays, stools, containers for hanging meat from the rafters—all objects of daily use. The women wore beautiful sarongs and scarves that they had woven themselves.
Later, walking the neat streets of this village, I thought about isolation and autonomy. The people of Dambuk are effortlessly clever with their hands: they build homes with local materials, weave what they wear, and eat mostly what they grow or rear. I was stung by this self-sufficiency; all my hands are good for is typing. Dambuk will inevitably change, but for now it’s an heirloom in amber.
That night was the festival’s finale and the top-billed musicians were going to perform. I was at the stall of Tinlang Ukir, an Adi woman who had walked nearly 5km to the venue with a wicker basket strapped to her head, filled with ikkamleaf parcels of pork and rice. The charm of these parcels is that when opened it becomes your plate. As I ate, Joe Arthur, celebrity musician from New York City, took the stage. The crowd sent up a collective roar. Tinlang, curious, looked towards the stage. Just then, with no warning, the skies opened up. It was freezing but Joe had stripped down to his sleeveless tee. His tattoos glistened with sweat and steam rose from his body, backlit by blue floods. In a breathy drone, he sang: “We travel as equals or not at all.”
Joe’s song spoke to me. That pledge, noble but futile, is really a tacit admission of all the unequal travelling we do. I saw Joe, in India for the first time, singing in a rice paddy at the edge of nowhere, to a drenched crowd who seemed to know his songs. And I saw Tinlang, agog at both the white man on stage and the blue lights playing on him, who would go home to a village without electricity. A perfectly flat world would hardly admit the memories we each minted that night.