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Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains

Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains
The cover of the Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains,

Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains is an honest and incisive portrayal of a land and people in transition, buffeted by winds of change

Pia Sethi
November 27 , 2020
05 Min Read

On an unseasonably warm October morning in Delhi that made me pine for the jungle encrusted hills of the north-east, I received a Facebook message from a British journalist and travel writer, Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent. Antonia was planning to travel through Nagaland and wanted to make a stop at the Tizu valley, where I worked with local communities on a conservation project. I was intrigued when she mentioned she had written a book on her motorbike journey through Arunachal Pradesh - a land lately forgotten by the outside world, still bewilderingly wild and peopled by tribes with fascinating cultural and folkloric traditions, beliefs and practices. Whose origins remain shrouded in mystery.

But Arunachal for me was a remembered land, one whose hills and trails I had wandered more than a decade ago, listening to tales of little people who left their footprints on the tops of mountains. Of unforgiving snakes, slithering across hills and valley in search of those who had wronged them. Where I had watched shamans ritualistically slaughter pigs and chickens, reading their entrails for signs of the future. Whose forests and wildlife had taken my breath away. And where I had made friends for life.

So, I was part excited and part skeptical when I ordered a copy. Hoping this was not just another book written by an outsider, selling exotica from an as yet untrammeled part of India to a western audience. I knew of intrepid women who had spent years living in the wilds of Arunachal alongside local communities. Why not a book by them I thought? 

But how do you resist the beguiling voice of a spirited woman, who on being warned the north-east is a “hotbed of insurgent groups, wildlife poaching and cross-border trafficking,” decides there and then that, “I must go”?  Who chaffs at dull touristy mask-making activities, saying instead, “I wanted to be puffing up hillsides, trampling through the jungle, splashing through rivers and drinking moonshine in villages miles from the nearest road?” Or who ferrets out details of an obscure Assam Witch Hunting Bill passed as recently as 2015? Or who overcomes two years of anxiety and panic attacks, only to ride solo across teeming jungles and torrential rivers, in often uncharted territory.

And so, I re-discover Arunachal with Antonia, itching like her to leave the bland plains behind, breathlessly awaiting the first glimpse of the dawn-lit mountains against the horizon. Riding with her through the ‘opium-addled Mishmi hills’ which a former tiger hunter tells her is the fault of the English who gave it to them (she agrees)! Searching with her for Shangri-la and lost portals and mourning the disappearing Igu-shamans. As I listened to her often self-deprecatingly witty, unflinchingly honest, and occasionally lyrical descriptions of the land and its people, I feel I have discovered a kindred spirit. 

It’s hard to imagine that these isolated frontier areas now largely devoid of westerners (“You first Britisher I see. I only see on TV before,” Antonia was told at a checkpoint), was once a hub of war. After Singapore, Malaysia and Burma fell to Japan during World War II, their troops marched towards the north-east of India. To keep China supplied with fuel and ammunition to stave off the Japanese advance, American soldiers and ‘coolies’ worked to build an ill-fated supply road connecting Assam with China through the dense jungles of Burma. The Stilwell road, as it was called was built with the blood and sweat of the thousands who died in hellish conditions. An exercise in futility, completed twelve days after Germany surrendered. Apart from peppering the book with these tales of the Great War, Antonia weaves the expeditions and writing of many a British explorer and administrator within her narrative. Their experiences act as a barometer of the many changes Antonia witnesses on her odyssey. 

Land of the dawnlit mountains is an honest and incisive portrayal of a land and people in transition, buffeted by winds of change. And Antonia, resists a strong urge to romanticize the hard and remote life, always sympathetic to the desire of the youth for more than subsistence farming, and the comforts of roads and electricity. But the book is nevertheless a tribute to a fragile and vanishing ecology and culture, and what the loss of forests to dams and infrastructure portends. The Dibang valley has been in the news lately for the hydroelectric projects that are slated for construction, and Antonia dwells on the impacts of these proposed dams at length, lamenting with a local tribal, that, “you’ll need a microscope to find us Idu after that.”

This book chronicles traditions and landscapes that are fast fading with time. It is a must read for the adventurer, the motorcyclist, the explorer, or simply the curious arm-chair traveler in us all. For few will be lucky enough to experience Arunachal as it is today. It is also for the birdwatcher. I too have spent long hours on birding tours, chalking out lengthy ‘lifer lists’, oblivious to the larger charms of Arunachal. And in the process, it is often only the rampant hunting that impinges on visitors’ consciousness, muddying their memories of this unique land. A book like this then helps clear the misconceptions that still abound of the north-east- as an unwelcoming, insurgent-infested region, where the beauty of a bird lies in its flavour! For this book captures, the very spirit of Arunachal, which, to use Antonia’s metaphor for solo travel, “is like a drug - it has its risks, but it also has the potential to unlock rare feelings of euphoria.”

The book is Simon & Schuster publication and costs Rs499.


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