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Aroma of the hills

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SIANG SONG Mamang Dai at the Arunachal Bhawan canteen in New Delhi
SIANG SONG Mamang Dai at the Arunachal Bhawan canteen in New Delhi

Mamang Dai, well known author from Arunachal Pradesh, on life and its unusual tastes

The season's coldest day has just passed us. With the sun showing up in an unusually clear sky, it is a day with a new promise. And here I am, with Mamang Dai, well-known author from Arunachal Pradesh, the land where India sees the first sunrise. Or as Mamang puts it, “Where India begins.”

Mamang is in town for the launch of her coffee-table book “Arunachal Pradesh The Hidden Land”, a Penguin product. A sizeable hardback, it is replete with splendid sketches of the Himalayan range that surrounds the State, its vivid outfits, its food, its beautiful people, so veiled, so disconnected even today from the mass we call ‘mainstream India'. Every chapter begins with a drawing by a hearing impaired local artist whom Mamang knew long ago.

“His name was Komeng Dai, he used to paint typical Arunachali village life, its natural surroundings, etc. and store them in an old tin box. On my request, he gifted me many of them long ago. I am glad that they came to be of some use,” she says. Mamang hopes her labour of love is of some use to readers interested in the State. “It has all the information, not just about our culture but also about travel details.” The State has seven travel circuits as of now, including a visit to the highland of Tawang on the Indo-China border to Dong, which sees the first sunrise in the country.

Chilli-based dips

It is lunchtime on the watch and we settle down at the canteen of Arunachal Bhawan for a bowl of piping hot vegetable soup, made in the typical Indo-Chinese style. Besides the standard Chinese fare, the canteen also dishes out distinctive Arunachali dishes like boiled fish, boiled vegetables, lettuce — a popular vegetable in the State — with slivers of ginger, momos and of course, different chilli-based dips that Arunachalis savour.

Taking sips of the light soup brimming with shavings of carrots, cabbage, beans, and leeks, Mamang continues the conversation, this time about yet another book of hers. It is a book on Arunachali cuisine. “Good that we are talking about food, I often forget that I wrote a book on our food. It is called ‘Mountain Harvest, The Food Of Arunachal Pradesh' printed by Guwahati-based Anvesha publishers,” she says. Besides other details, the book has all the edible berries and insects that locals love to eat. “Rarely would you hear of anyone dying of eating the wrong berries or insects back home because they know what to pick. For instance, the river beetles called tari. Every November, these beetles go into hibernation under the stones. Many go hunting for them, older women love to eat them. They are kept alive till eaten. Many eat them raw by pinching out the breast which has a pungent smell, some roast them, some also make a paste of it.” The result is hallucinatory. “They try to behave like the beetle, some try to fly, some go under the bed, some cover themselves with blankets. The effect remains for two-three days.”

This former IAS officer of the Karnataka cadre who also works as a freelance journalist, talks about the edible berries and the wealth of local plants with medicinal value and points out, “They have not been studied much. They have not been recorded, with their local names along with the botanical terms.”

After being away from her homeland for 13 years “travelling across the world”, Mamang seems to have developed a renewed interest in her roots. “All those years, I didn't speak a word of my Ao community dialect. On returning home, I realised how much I missed it. I am now settled in Itanagar for good,” she states. Her aim now seems to make her State heard, literally. The author of the well-received “River Poems” and “Legends of Pensam” (both Penguin India) mentions Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society, of which she is an active part. With most communities having a rich oral tradition, the State has a lot to document.

Finishing her bowl of soup, she adds, “We are encouraging local people to write by using the Romanised script, though an attempt is being made by someone to work out a local script.”

Soon the frugal lunch is over, and she signs off with a line on food. “I love to make different kinds of bakes, pastas with red chillies and meat dishes — particularly meat with bamboo shoots.” Well, I part, drooling.

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

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