Brethren

Amro

Amro was lost. He had run for miles and miles following the course of the river without understanding where he was headed. His legs were giving way and his stomach growled with hunger. All he wanted was to grab a bite and doze off. But the petrifying sounds of the gunshots, the agonizing roars, the sawing and the giant yellow black creature that shook the earth haunted him, making him sprint faster. He had to find Tine.

At daybreak, he collapsed amidst the grasslands, well camouflaged by the titian glow of the rising sun on the tall blades of the elephant grass.

Tine

Tine was lost too. Lost, in a different way. She tossed and turned on the strange bed, unable to sleep. She wondered why the inhabitants of this big city preferred to honk, hoot, and scream into the wee hours of the night. Where she came from, they respected the rhythm of the sun and the moon, the tantrums of the seasons, the position of the pole star and the planets. Back home, the merriments of a pink dusk would ungrudgingly make way for the peace of the starry nights, allowing the creatures of the dark to play their part. As she lay thinking, she had this uneasy feeling about something terribly wrong in her land. She made up her mind to call Naba first thing in the morning.  

Naba

Naba was lost in thought. The much revered septuagenarian from the Idu Mishmi* tribe shook his head in despair. The breathtakingly beautiful, untouched forests of the Dibang valley* in Arunachal Pradesh had been home to his tribe for centuries. The challenges of living in the tough mountainous terrain were made easier by their animic faith of worshipping the living spirits in plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena. He was familiar with every tree, each type of rock and all the nooks and crannies of the jungles surrounding the village. But the harsh world beyond the valley disgruntled him. A handful of trips to Itanagar had shown him how humans had forgotten to take care of the very Divine mother who had gifted them all they needed. The very thought of his beloved granddaughter in a faraway city in another part of the country disturbed him. And now, this…!

“How would she react to the devastating news?” 

 Tine & Naba

Naba’s eyes glistened as he recalled holding little Tine’s hands and walking her through the verdant undergrowth. Tine ,though brave, would get startled at the sudden appearance of a wild hare, an unanticipated shrill cry from the reclusive Hoolock gibbon* or the defensive sting of the wild plants.

He would then pick her up and introduce her gently to the mysteries of the wilderness, the sources of the sounds and intricacies of their habitat. After the untimely demise of his son in a freak hunting accident, he was the only father figure that Tine had and so she called him ‘Naba’*.The stories of his adventures were so popular amongst her friends, that in a matter of time ,the doting grandfather was rechristened ‘Naba’ by the whole tribe.

As she grew older, a petite but determined Tine learnt to balance the rationale of modern education with the intuitiveness of traditional wisdom. No school could teach her what she learnt from Naba. In return, she would update him on the developments in the outside world. The two enjoyed an unspoken understanding and a friendship defying the age gap. Needless to say, he missed her terribly now.

The tintinnabulating handset at dawn brought him back to the present and he answered the call hesitatingly.

“Naba, is everything ok?” inquired Tine.

“No, my dear!” cried the old man. “All is lost.”

 In tears, he recounted the events of the past three days, apologising to his shocked granddaughter about failing in the task she had entrusted him with.

Tine & Amro

Tine disconnected the call in disbelief. Inspite of all her efforts, what she dreaded, had happened earlier than she assumed. 

“Amro! My bro…” she sobbed, remembering their first encounter.

Almost a year back, Tine had been scouting the foliage near her village, looking for some medicinal herbs that Naba had asked for. Her closeness with the flora and fauna had prompted her to venture a bit deeper than usual. As she bent forward to examine a sapling, she sensed being watched. Umpteen practical lessons from Naba had taught her well not to panic, but also, to respect territories and so, going about her work cautiously, she inched away from the dense undergrowth.

As she neared the village boundaries, her curiosity got the better of her and she glanced back. From amidst the lush green vegetation, a pair of magnificent, amber eyes returned her keen gaze.

Amro had been frolicking around with his brother, running back and forth to his mother resting in the shade, when a red panda had caught his attention. Chasing it, he had meandered away from his mother’s watchful eyes. With the panda having climbed a tall tree, Amro was about to turn back ,when his ears picked up a euphonious voice. He peered through the leaves to find the notes emanating from a long-haired angelic being. Frozen into inaction, he looked on until their eyes met.

And she had smiled.

A reprimanding growl from behind made the three- month old tiger cub, back off and join his kin.

The following days saw a fascinated Tine and a captivated Amro making excuses to visit the patch of green where they had met. However, it took many an enchanting melody by Tine and quite a few juicy chunks of meat to coax a guarded cub to come out of hiding.

Tine’s mother got worried about the sudden increase in her appetite and the large chunks of meat disappearing from the kitchen.

“Eh Tine! I am so sure I kept some left- over meat from day before but can’t find it.”

“Nani*, you are forgetting things. Will ask Naba to give you memory boosting herbs!”

Another day, when Tine found her perplexed, she exclaimed, “You know, in school today, there was talk about a fox stealing food from huts. Maybe, he is visiting us too.”  

Amro, on the other hand, would cleverly pretend to practise his hunting skills, and sneak away when his mother and brother napped.

Brotherhood

What began as a chance encounter, soon blossomed into an unexplainable companionship. The trees whispered to each other charmed by the bonhomie shared by a human and an undomesticated cat.

The heavy rains failed to deter the clandestine playdates and the two spent many an afternoon exploring the jungle together. With time, even the protective tigress whose maternal instincts had initially detested the young girl’s intrusion, relented, and kept watch from a distance.

Naba’s eyes hadn’t missed Tine’s afternoon trysts either and one day, as they sat around the fire, he prodded, “Tine, seems you found a brother, eh?”

“Naba, what are you talking about?”asked Tine.

He reminded her of the age-old belief of Idu-Mishmis and tigers being born of the same mother. Naba narrated the mythological story, which made them indebted to protect their feline brothers. None of their tribe would harm a tiger and even if it ever happened by accident, the penance was much greater. 

Tine nodded and disclosed everything about Amro.

Visitors

As the weather cleared, and the autumn sun lit up the evergreen Mishmi hills, outdoor activities increased for the tribesmen. For Tine, meeting a now bulkier Amro, without being spotted became impossible. Word of the unusual friendship got around and Tine would often find pesky kids or concerned elders following her. She paid heed to Naba’s advice and lessened her forest visits, much to Amro’s dismay. The young cub began loitering dangerously close to the village boundary, waiting for his human friend.

News of multiple tiger sightings accompanied by amateurish pictures on social media spread like wildfire beyond the community, the valley and the state, and the village  became the hotspot for wildlife researchers and reporters. 

Ironically, the wildlife authorities had until now refused to acknowledge the presence of the tiger at such higher altitudes. Naba and other elders had tried to enlighten the wildlife enthusiasts “One can find many tigers high up in the mountains.” Their tips would be  disregarded , as expert studies strongly advocated  that the Panthera tigris* was a very conservation dependent species, residing in lower altitudes and grasslands.

Lately, the wise tribesmen thought it in the best interest of their mythical brothers to remain ignored.

Alas! But the secret was out .

And with it came the perils of publicity and power. In no time, a declaration of converting the area into an official ‘tiger reserve’ followed by a resolve to start hydroelectric power generation by erecting a dam over the Dibang river was made.

For Tine’s animic tribe, it spelt doom. The proposal would not only displace them, but was in absolute defiance of ‘Golon’*, the supreme forest spirit they worshipped.

As for the much sought after striped feline species, the Idus were well aware that this  act of eco-fetishism* in the name of conservation would only deplete their population further.

When the Going gets Tough, the Tough get Going 

A determined Tine refused to accept the decision, and with the support of Naba and her community, wrote countless letters to all the departments involved ; tweeted  renowned wildlife experts, tagged eminent botanists, pleaded with animal right activists, and even contacted the human rights commission.

Many a feather was ruffled  that chilly winter as this quiet corner in the north-east of India flashed across the television screens frequently. 

The Reh festival of the Idu Mishmis in February attracted a lot of attention with many political bigwigs and celebrities joining the celebrations.

Tine and her friends, while observing all the three day customs dictated by the shaman *, managed to circulate pamphlets exhibiting recent opinions of researchers clearly quoting that the tiger count in Arunachal had been higher in indigenous community owned forests rather than government sanctuaries.

Amidst all the frenzy, the big-hearted girl would check on her canine companion and his family. Amro would smell her from far, run to her and rub his thick orange black pelage against her arms, communicating unflinching love and trust.

The hard work paid off and a notice soon after temporarily halted the project.

Tine and her tribe’s struggle featured in the national dailies and the headstrong girl became a youth icon for passionate environmentalists. She and two of her friends were immediately invited to a World Young Environmentalists’ conference in the National capital region to speak about the unique relationship they shared with the natural habitat they lived in.

And that is how she landed in the charismatic, chaotic capital city of Delhi, which charmed many a tourist by its monuments and culinary extravaganza, cleverly concealing the undercurrent of bigotry that it subjected migrants from other parts of the country to. 

The Outsiders

For Tine and her friends, the charm of the adulation they received at the convention died down whenever they stepped out of the plush venue that hosted them. 

“Hot chowmein!”

“Oye Chinky!”

Derogatory eve-teasing on the roads to judgemental stares in the underground metro, and snide remarks on their attire, the hostility surprised them.

At other times they would giggle at the harmless ignorance of well- educated individuals addressing them as foreigners in their own country.

The emerging pandemic world over made things worse for them and one day, the girls were bullied by a group of ladies at a restaurant, hurtling abuses at them.

“Go back to China!” yelled one.

“Filthy Bat-eaters!!” quipped another lady

“Mummy, Corona!!” wailed her five year old, pointing at them.

No amount of logic or explanation worked and Tine’s group had to leave the place.

Humiliated, and tired of the racism they faced in their own country, the North-easterners decided to cut short their trip and leave the very next day after the convention ended. As it is, a premonition of impending trouble back home had been nagging Tine. 

The early morning phone call to Naba had confirmed her fears. 

Trouble in Paradise

When Tine left for Delhi, Amro and Naba shared the anxiety of separation from her. As requested by Tine, Naba kept an eye on Amro and his family. Colourful birds chirped around in the early spring air ,trying to cheer up an old man sitting at the border of the forest, his sadness mirrored in the  eyes of a young tawny carnivore, stretched out a short distance away behind a cluster of trees.

It was the lull before the storm. Without a warning, the peaceful village and its surrounding vegetation was thronged by uniformed gunmen, woodcutters, contractors, earth-movers, and cranes. The deafening noise echoed in the valley as the shocked Idus witnessed their abode being vandalised and revamped.

On an unusually cold March evening, the newly employed security guards, inebriated, went deep into the undergrowth. Anticipating a threat to her offsprings, a tensed tigress bared her fangs at the intruders. Impulsively, one of the guards shot at her. When  her scared cub attempted to maul the perpetrator, he was  shot too. A helpless Amro saw his mother and brother fall to the ground, in a pool of blood.

Angry voices from another direction distracted the guards. The tribesmen had heard the gunshots and the heart wrenching roars and rushed to the aid of their canine family. But it was too late.

A shivering Amro ran for his life, without looking back.  

A distraught Naba searched everywhere in vain for Amro before breaking the news to Tine.

All lives matter?

The last day of the conference saw a disturbed Tine on the dais. Neglecting her handwritten notes, the fiery young girl spoke vehemently.

  “A few days back, my village saw thousands of dismembered bodies of our close confidantes strewn around.”As the audience gasped, she continued, “Their fault …..these members  could not move or speak. Its another matter that they sustained us and so many other lives. My people heard the silent shrieks of the trees they worshipped.”

With a choked voice, she added, “Less than thirty six hours back, a mother lost her life protecting her kids. Just like any parent, she bravely ‘spoke and moved’ to ward off danger. Her fault…..she was not a homo sapien and not ‘ being human’!  My people heard the wails of their brethren.”

And finally, in the next two years, I and my people will be homeless. Our habitat destroyed, our lifestyle disrupted , we will try to thrive, maybe come to your lands, and will be labelled migrants, foreigners or criminals .Our fault… we can speak and move, but not the way you want us to. We speak to the trees, the rocks, the rivers and the tigers and we move as the spirit of the wilderness guides us to.

“I, Tine Julu , of the shamanic Idu Mishmi tribe from Dibang, Arunachal Pradesh , bowing down to that spirit, ask you, ladies and gentlemen,

Do all lives really matter?”

Oblivious to the standing ovation, a forlorn Tine left the venue, and was soon on a flight back to her state, a couple of days before India went into lockdown in lieu of the pandemic.

 The Curse

Mother nature took her sweet revenge. All work on the tiger reserve and the dam came to an indefinite stop because of the Corona crisis. The air, the trees, the water, the birds and the animals were all happy as the smallest of them went out to save them.

When the authorities tried to resume work, the number of corona cases amongst their men peaked, making it impossible to continue. Eerily, the Idus remained unscathed.

Tine’s heart pined for Amro. The restrictions had not allowed her to search for him and the internet and fervent prayers were her only hope.

The Reunion

As the country struggled to normalise, Tine was invited by an eminent tiger conservationist from Assam to attend an event at the Kaziranga national park*. A reluctant Tine went on Naba’s persuasion.

On the second day of talks, Tine’s heart skipped a beat when the speaker mentioned the discovery of a famished fifteen month old tiger cub  in the grasslands on the banks of the Dibang river , just before it joins the Lohit* in Assam and eventually, forms the Brahmaputra. Inspite of the best rehabilitation efforts, the young male didn’t seem to adjust to Kaziranga ,worrying the  forest rangers  about his survival.

Tine got up and announced “He’s a Mishmi…..In our culture, tigers thrive on tall mountains! Send him home!”

Shortly after, a small gathering of conservationists, forest rangers and wildlife photographers gaped in awe as an eighteen year old lissome girl strode bravely into the grasslands  singing in response to a rarely heard prusten  from her two year old striped comrade.

Back in Paradise

It took a month of paperwork and help from the Kaziranga forest officers to get Amro back to Dibang.

With the fate of their land still uncertain, Naba’s delight on seeing Amro was masked by a frown. 

On a clear peaceful night, the moon illuminated three very different silhouettes, on a journey uphill. As the first rays of the sun kissed India on her easternmost shoulder, Tine, with a heavy heart, hugged her furry brother for the last time, and coaxed him to escape into the  virgin terrain high up.

Not surprisingly, many a moonlit night after that ,Tine and Naba exchange knowing smiles when they hear an affectionate chuffing from the woods and feel the warmth of a pair of flaming amber eyes on them ! 

**************

Author’s note:  A work of fiction, the story is inspired by a few real- life incidents in Delhi and Arunachal Pradesh that I have been influenced by recently.

 The planned Etalin hydroelectric project in Dibang, may prove beneficial for many, but involves cutting of 2,70,000 trees and displacement of the indigenous tribes.
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GLOSSARY:-
Idu Mishmi-is one of the two major tribes of the upper and lower Dibang valley and Lohit districts in Arunachal Pradesh.Theyspeak a Tibeto-Burman language.
Naba- father
Dibang valley-  is a district  in Arunachal Pradesh named after the river Dibang
Hoolock gibbon-primate species of genus Hoolock in the gibbon family native to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Northeast India and southwest China
Nani- mother in Idu Mishmi language
Panthera tigris-scientific name for the tiger
Golon-the supreme forest spirit worshipped by the Idu Mishmi 
Eco-fetishism-the form of separation and disintegration of the species from its anthropological and social meaning
Shaman- priest; In Idu culture,a healer with the spirit of a tiger
Kaziranga –a national park in Assam 
Lohit- river which is a tributary of the Brahmaputra
Amro- inspired by ‘amra’ meaning tiger and ‘aromro’ meaning brother in Idu Mishmi
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