Putserng Meyor has never travelled beyond Tezu, headquarters of Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district, but he knows that the red coat he wears on special occasions was given to him by New Delhi.
The coat gives him the power to preside over his village of three households and 18 people. The coat is the only symbolic link that Dong, the country’s easternmost village, has with India that is Bharat. The coat makes Putserng the gaon burrah, village chief. “We are appointed by the government of India,” Putserng says with understandable pride. He shows a photograph of the Arunachal Pradesh governor handing the red coat to him as confirmation of village chief-ness three years ago.
The ‘official representative’ has all the powers of adjudication in this small village, the country’s easternmost extremity, that sees the earliest sunrise in India every morning.
At 1,240 metres, Dong is located at the confluence of the rivers Lohit (a tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra) and Sati, strategically placed at the tri-junction of India, China and Myanmar, and can be reached only after a one-and-a-half-hour climb from the important military base of Walong. The two-day road journey from Tinsukia in the Assam plains is a nightmare with the rivers in spate; we have to put our Tata Sumo on ferries five times to reach Walong. The journey and the stay at various places are made pleasant by the army, which has a large presence in the area.
We begin to climb from Walong at 3.30 am to catch the sunrise, crossing the fast-flowing Lohit by a hanging bridge that strong wind gusts are swinging wildly. With us are two Gorkha soldier guides, Havildar Tara Bahadur Thapa and Naik Ram Prasad Rai, both sceptical about our ability to endure the climb.
We make it in 90 minutes, descending into the Dong valley even as the sun is faintly visible over the peaks.”We do this in 45 minutes,” Thapa reminds us. From a distance, Dong is a disappointment. Only three huts!! We came all the way for this?
Putserng is surprised but not astonished to see us. He is wiser after December 1999 when a group of adventure-seekers from Guwahati had camped in the village to witness the millennium’s first sunrise in India, at the country’s easternmost inhabited place”.You are the first civilian visitors after that night,” he says. The millennial visit by the Guwahati group has made the Arunachal Pradesh government sit up and take steps to make Dong accessible. “Today, the minister in charge of the area is coming across the river to lay the foundation of a bridge,” the gaon burrah says. So far, villagers from Dong had to either walk 90 minutes to reach Walong, or take the more adventurous ropeway where you tie yourself to a rope, catch hold of a pulley and slide down the 100-metre long single wire across the rapidly flowing Lohit. Even small children take this route to reach the ceremony. A young mother, Dorma, with her six-month-old child goes across. She is matter-of-fact about it: “It is a matter of convenience. Instead of the 90-minute climb and descent, it’s better to risk the one-minute crossing.”
Putserng and his wife will, however, take the longer route. “I have to be more dignified,” he says in surprisingly shuddh Hindi. In fact, all villagers, be it the young Dorjee or the 70-year old Ladu, speak good Hindi. I ask them about this. “Interacting with the army personnel and learning it in schools.” But there is no school in Dong? “Our children go to Walong,” says Putserng. He himself has studied up to class four but wants his two sons and three daughters to at least complete matriculation. So far, the highest anyone has gone is a young girl named Tinka who has passed class nine.
How do they live? “All of us are farmers,” says Jaji, a young man of 25. They are in a valley, and the people of Dong make good use of whatever plain land is available. “We grow paddy, makai, phaphar (a variety of maize) and rear poultry and raise pigs,” Jaji says proudly, showing us around. Does he know who governs him and which country he belongs to? “I have not been beyond Tezu but I know our sarkar is in Itanagar.” And does he know where Delhi is? “Oh, it’s far far away, but someday I want to go there.”
Ladu, the village elder, says matter-of-factly that things have not changed much except for the fact that the road to Tezu is now all-weather and that Indian soldiers are in better shape than ever before. Ladu remembers the winter of 1962 vividly when the army put up its bravest fight against the invading Chinese at Walong. “They didn’t have anything then, but fought valiantly. Today, they are much better off,” says the grizzled old man, playing with the baby of the village, sitting in the prettiest house in Dong.
Putserng won’t let us go without having the rice beer he keeps in reserve for special occasions. “You will never perhaps come again, so you must taste our brew,” he insists. So at 9 in the morning, we gulp down a glass of warm rice beer. The sun is scorching as we start to trek back. As we pant our way up, it hits us that for four days we neither read newspapers nor watched TV. Only my small transistor was keeping us up to date about Phoolan Devi’s murder and the post-summit developments. In Dong and Walong, of course, they could not care less.