Before you know its worth, the incident you thought was just another drop in the ocean becomes part of an irretrievable history. And all you can do is to wonder if you’d lived it differently, would you still be the same.
If we had not been forced that day to go to a picnic of sorts with our parents, Chaitanya, my now dead brother, and I would never have crossed the stream to enter a different world. Shergaon, we discovered with time, was an example of a place where people don’t bother with inane things like time. A hamlet about 20 km from Tenga Valley, our home-of-the-year in one of the Indian states called Arunachal Pradesh, it lived a life quite removed from what we had ever seen.
Almost 30 years ago, I was just as reclusive as I am today, and just as awkward in forming human ties. I preferred a book, or a pine needle instead. Even a newly-legged toad would do. One of these attractions was precisely why, I think, I turned down my parents’ offer to picnic that morning. Well, no, it wasn’t an offer, it was an instruction to get damn well ready for it. They won, I sulked.
It was the same story with Chaitanya. (We call him Shonu affectionately.) Shonu was interested in playing cricket with his friends. But who was listening? We were sure at that time that they, our parents, were the worst anyone could be lumped with. How cruel they were! We were asked to get moving, get ready, and climb up the Jonga (an Indian army issue jeep-like vehicle) jolly well before they lost their top. Who’d heard of a picnic where the picnickers wanted to be elsewhere? And what fun would a village be anyway?
It was a tense drive. Our parents chattered aimlessly (so we thought); while we looked out of the window, wondering if there was a way out of this time-out from hell. Who’s to teach sense to an eight or eleven year old? A twenty-kilometre drive on most mountains in India takes about an hour. It seemed to me like the pine needles would turn brown sooner than we’d reach there. Papa’s “They’ve even got apple orchards!” “And there’s the Lion and Peacock dance this afternoon!” were all met with only Mummy’s enthusiastic exclamations. The target audience was busy looking out of their windows, and, yes — sulking.
Looking out of a car window at the distant mountains is the best antidote to imposed gaiety, trust me. It helped me then, it helps me now.
As we neared Shergaon, the purple-indigo mountains at a distance that could make your head spin at the thought of your tininess began to look more interesting than we’d admit at the time. “Look, that’s China,” Shonu informed me generously. If I were the current me then, I am sure I’d have heard my parents’ collective sigh. Their child — at least one of their children — had woken up! “Hrmmph. China’s not so close,” said I, even though the obvious distance and height of those giants were making my head spin. And I am sure, Shonu’s too.
Perhaps that’s why the conversation began rolling.
We talked of the orchards we were going to see, the butter tea we might have, the children with pink cheeks and dripping-with-the-thickest-possible-goo noses, the slightly scary looking lions with funny legs in the Lion and Peacock dance… Before we knew the time, we’d reached the stream that shhhd along the edges of two different worlds — one that made you do things, and the other that made you want to do things.
I don’t know how it is now, but when I was 8, you had to drive through a shallow stream to reach Shergaon. And it made all the difference. The road we had left to reach the stream went on to even more distant lands — those of monasteries and valorous soldiers, and strawberries-under-the-snow. This road ended in a stream, and then went on to kiss the feet of a whole new world — that of blushing green apples, pea fields, houses on stilts. It was awesome. It was so awesome, I can even use the now-exploited word for it. Eyes agog, Shonu and I transformed along with the air. It was as if we could breathe magic. The dirt road was flanked by green fields; the houses were all made of wood painted red, or blue, or green. Or, left in a splendid naked. And their stilts! The people of Shergaon were wizards, I was now sure! I knew it was all because the magical people understood that the houses had to have some means of running away, should the lions decide to stop dancing. The gompha stood like the sole guardian of the valley. Everywhere we looked, we found stuff that makes memories. It was wonderland.
We went to a miller’s small house (it wasn’t on stilts, but had the most impressive carved wood rafters). He made us sit on a cot and offered us something that looked like gooey halwa. We forgot the taste that was so strange to our tongues because we finally saw some cute, apple-red cheeked toddlers lolling about in the courtyard. They all had dripping-with-the-thickest-possible-goo noses. Splendid!
As the morning turned to noon, we walked through the fields (I don’t remember the crop) to reach the massive wooden courtyard at the back of a red building. I think it was the gompha, but it could’ve been a wizard’s palace.
Shonu ran away to climb up a stone wall to go to the courtyard. We were to sit there to watch the dance. Then the butter tea came. It had the power to bring down the rush of a newly-discovered wonderland, the taste of the brew was such.
But we were adamant. We, Shonu and I, had made up our minds to have the best picnic of our lifetimes. And it wasn’t difficult. We sat there, mesmerised, as the dance began; the tea bowls in our hands, we knew no other way to spend time. The dance, the drums, the smell of wood and incense all joined in. Staccato drone and thump of the drums made our heads all woozy with Shergaon. Well, it wasn’t just the drums.
We had picnicked to remember.
It is Rakshabandhan today. A festival in which sisters tie a string of love around the wrists of their brothers. The string is called rakhi — The Protector — urging the brothers to protect their honour and integrity. Rakshabandhan means The Bond of Protection. I tied rakhi to Shonu for 26 years. It’s been eleven years since he’s gone to, hopefully, a wonderland of which I know nothing yet. He’d have been 38 this Rakshabandhan (also called Rakhi to simplify matters).
Pronunciations in the order of appearance:
Chaitanya: Cha (as in charity) – I (as in indigo) – Tuhn – Yuh
Shergaon: Shar (as in shame) – Gaa – Ohn (n nasal)
Tenga: Tan (nasal n) – Gaa
Arunachal Pradesh – Uh – Run (as in Cameroon) – Aah – Chal Pruh – De (as in day) – Sh
Shonu – Sho (as in show) – Noo
Jonga: Joh – N – Gaa
Halwa (sweet-dish made of flour or cream of wheat): Huhl – Wah
Rakshabandhan: Ruhk – Sha – Bun – Dhuhn
Rakhi: Raa – Khi
Priya: Pri (as in primitive (!!)) – Yaa
All images, except that of the stream have been taken from the internet. The photo of the apple orchard is from a random search — it is not of Shergaon, but the trees resemble the ones in mind. The gompha is in Rupa, a place very close to Shergaon; and the stream at the end flows in a land very, very far away from Shergaon.