Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Back from the field again

I am writing this from Chile where I arrived after spending just three days in Volkach on my way back from India. This time I spent almost two full months in 'Tangsaland' with two weeks in Guwahati thrown in at the end. Looking back, this trip did bring a sense of closure to my whole Tangsa project, and also made me feel that it was time for me to start 'writing up' my findings for whatever they were worth. There are many things that happened but considering everything there are three aspects of this recent trip worth writing about.

The first is the fact that as far as my field work with the Tangsa is concerned, I have probably come full circle -- when one begins to hear the same stories being told again and again and the same names of people who I should meet, then it is probably time to call it a day. This was my fourth time in the field and I have now spent at least 1 + 3 + 6 + 2 months, that is more than a full year with the Tangsa. And have come to be accepted by them. The proof of that came right at the end when I heard that the Tangsa have begun to refer to me amongst themselves as the 'pagli baidew' meaning the 'crazy sister'. At first I was a bit miffed by this but then Lukam Aphu explained to me that nobody but someone crazy could physically do what I had done, and that by calling me crazy, they were not making fun of me, but just acknowledging my incredible physical capacity to go to so many different places to meet so many different people in the little time I had.

I ventured out to many new places in Arunachal Pradesh this time -- to Changlang town, to Miao, to Roing, to Renuk, ... and met many new very interesting people. The absolute high point of this field trip (and also possibly of all my trips so far) was attending the Wihu festival at Kantang village beyond Changlang town where I recorded a 'shamma' sing the Wihu song and with her singing making the 'riben' thread bend to drink rice-beer from a container and the 'sun-se-po' flower dance to her wishes. I had heard that such things happen from many Tangsa before but had never imagined that I would actually have the good fortune to see it happen with my own eyes. In Changlang I also heard of many miracles performed by the healers of the new Rangfraa faith of the Tangsa. The big moment came at the very end of my field-season when I had the opportunity of meeting the man behind this new religious movement, who many revere as Rangfraa's eldest son. More about that some other time...

Another new aspect of this trip was the widening of the range of people I met in the field and in Guwahati. Since I needed to place the Tangsa is the wider world around them I had decided this time to try to meet also other people who either lived close by or were somehow relevant -- Nepalis, Singphos, Asamiyas, as well as politicians, bureaucrats, and officials from the various oil and coal companies of that area. What they told me helped me a lot to understand the bigger picture better. And much to my surprise they turned out to be a much nicer bunch of people than I had imagined. For example, one day I called Mr Borun Bora, a retired teacher who lived in Margherita and who had written a lot about the ethnic communitities living in that area, and asked whether I could come to meet him the next morning. He readily agreed. I had not expected much, but when I arrived, not only was Mr. Bora very interested to hear about what I was doing and very keen to help in whatever way he could, he also had looked through all his books and papers and had made photocopies for me of everything he had that could possibly be relevant to my work with the Tangsa -- and all this with one night's notice and entirely at his own expense!

I also had the good fortune of meeting and spending time with Mr. Suren Barua who had worked in the office of the Assistant Political Officer at Margherita from pre-Independence times. Basing his story on meticulous notes that he had maintained throughout his service career, Mr Barua has written a splendid book 'Tribes of the Indo-Burmese Border' which is a gold-mine of information about the people of that area. Although in his nineties, Mr. Barua is still absolutely fit mentally and he happily discussed my project in detail with me and also gave me some invaluable maps of the area before I left, which he claimed he had shown no one to date. I felt so happy to have the blessings and affection of his amazing and great man. It was sad to learn that there was no one willing to republish his book, which has been long out of print, and I came away telling myself that I would try to do whatever I could to change that.

Things were not as happy once I got back to Guwahati, and my experience at trying to work in the State Archives at Guwahati, despite having friends in Dispur who could vouch for me, was nothing short of a disaster. The details some other time. But my meeting with the MLA of Margherita, which I had kept till the absolute last moment, did lead me to question the rather dark opinion I had about politicians in general. Although he was surprised that we had not met earlier, Mr. Bordoloi was very friendly, interested and eager to hear how he could be greater help to the ethnic minorities of his own constituency. Having met him and also a few very friendly and helpful government officials in Margherita and Tinsukia, not to speak of the many good friends I already have amongst the Tangsa big-shots in Arunachal, all the worries and fears I had all these years about meeting people who were in power, began to look rather foolish and misplaced.

Finally, what made this trip very special were some incidents -- some beautiful, some scary, some extraordinary -- that occured around me this time. For instance, one day I set out to visit a village called Wagun Ponthai, near Bordumsa, for the very first time. I knew absolutely nobody there when I arrived. And I stayed there for slightly less than 24 hours in all. But when it was time for me to leave, there were tears in a few eyes, my hostess had not only cooked and fed me an early lunch, she had also packed another full meal for me and my driver for the way, and in the village Rangfraa temple earlier that morning, the entire village had prayed for my well-being and safety. I came away wondering how lucky I was for where else on earth could one expect to meet with such affection and good will, all within the space of less than a day!

The most scary incident was being nearly robbed of my lap-top and a lakh of rupees in the middle of the night while travelling on the Intercity Express to Ledo. It was sheer luck that I woke up in time and was sleepy enough to dare to hold tightly on to the wrist of the robber till other passengers got up and handed the man to the police. The other very close-shave was leaving a Tangsa basti on a sudden hunch one evening and hearing that there was some serious trouble with the army and the underground ultras there just couple of hours later.

It could have been sheer luck that kept me safe and helped me avoid danger. But every time something like that happened I could not but think of what Maitu Mama had said to me one day in Nampong this time -- he told me that he believed that I had a guardian spirit taking care of me and which would keep me from coming to harm. He said that he (and also a few other old Tangsa like Lukam Aphu) has always been worried about me and the fact that I was a woman travelling alone to so many new and supposedly dangerous places. But that after he saw that vision, he felt certain that I would be okay. I do not know whether I have a guardian spirit or not, what I do know now after so many years of working with the Tangsa is that their affection, their blessings and their prayers are always with me. And they will keep me safe.


  1. Fascinating article, baidew. Many people have spent time with the Tangsas but very few have had the privilige of being accepted by them so warmly.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment! Would like to know more about you and your connection with the Tangsa...

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  3. Bijoy Sankar Barman11 August 2015 at 06:33

    When I started talking with Mr. Barun Bora for the first time, I was surprised with the limit of his extension. Nicely written, Baideu.

  4. I hope you had a good time at my village,wagun ponthai(jongchum as we call it in our dialect). 😊
    And if you did a background research you would have find out a bit about the denizens there."the migrations,the origins and mythologies."
    I guess you probably know it.but just wanted to share,
    We are known as ponthai subtribe of tangsa.as far as i have researched actually the word ponthai is un-indigenous to us.the name got stucked and named by britishers as panthai to the tribes near the hills of ledo area.meaning unknown though.(found out in internet and old books, sarkari nagas in innerline of NEFA) And we like to call ourself as a community as phongsa/phong. And call ourselves as 'nokta'.
    The story of migration as i have heard and know it till from present tirap district area probably in deomali circle.
    From there to near 'nau mile(nine mile)' area in changlang. And from there to present area in bordumsa.
    We have 4 villages in bordumsa circle.jongchum(wagun ponthai) , longkom, phonsok(galenja) and balijan.
    And our phong community has villages in ledo area of assam, changlang area(now tutsas) and largely many in deomali constituency in tirap district.
    There is little bit of variation in tone of dialect, which is pretty common in all the patkai hill tribes even from village to village.
    There is so much less exposure about the tangsa and tutsa tribes.and if there is books and articles written is probably biased or not fully researched.
    No doubt, though tangsa tribe is a complicated community with numerous subtribes under it. Also the subtribes are complicated like mine where we have affinity with other tribes too.
    So, i don't blame the writers entirely.😁
    Well, anyways, thanks for doing your work based on tangsa tribe.
    And i hope you will visit again.
    May almighty rang wa khothak rang bless you in all your endeavours.

    John longkho