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Nowhere else

mamang dai | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 26, 2015

All together now: The Buddhist gompa in Itanagar is one of the most visited tourist sites of the city. -- Arif Siddiqui

Mamang Dai

Itanagar is the secret corner I return to, and it is in this space that my writing begins

I remember a ride through the city some years ago with a friend. The road was bumpy with potholes. It was raining heavily. At the time I was wondering if I should return to settle in Itanagar for good. “Can you imagine,” I said, “living here for the rest of your life?” “Not only live... we have to die here!” said my friend with a loud shout, laughing as we rattled past the dim shops and half-constructed buildings. Another summer, so many summers later and I am still travelling to and fro on this same road that is National Highway 52A, which runs through the city of Itanagar.

In the early 1970s, with the change of nomenclature from erstwhile NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) to Arunachal Pradesh, this site in the Himalayan foothills bordering Assam was selected for a new capital. This was the birth of Itanagar and its twin city, Naharlagun, which grew around a few small villages surrounding a lake and the archaeological remains of a brick fort (hence the name Ita-nagar), dating back to the 14th century AD.

In those early days, town planners had lined the first 50km stretch of road leading into the capital with rows of Bauhinia trees and bougainvillea, but obviously rapid changes have transformed the landscape. Today the speed of time is visual. One day there is the outline of the mountains, the next it is wiped out by a wall of concrete. Buildings rise up, collapse in the monsoon floods, and rise up again fortified with retaining walls. A motorcycle roars past. An old man wearing a solid cane hat and necklace of red and yellow beads walks slowly up the steep street.

Itanagar is a story of overlapping time periods, of an era gone and one in transition, as the city beckons one and all, like a beacon pointing towards the future. It is, after all, the seat of government and power.

For a journalist this was the place to be to cover news of the state. In 1987 Arunachal Pradesh gained statehood and I have been living here since 1991. Back then the media fraternity was small and we had our work cut out. Those were hectic days, rushing to meet deadlines, working against wind and weather, with power lines snapping and stories being trapped mid-air. I used my father’s typewriter, shouted into the phone and did some bad driving on these roads. Now, of course, things are different. I have since abandoned that Ambassador Nova and spend more time watching TV than doing any reporting.

Sometimes the thought crosses my mind — maybe it’s time to move on, to... elsewhere? I know people say: nothing like your own place. Where else can you feel so at home? The thing is — one can. People transplant. I read Julio Cortazár: “I realised that searching was my symbol, the emblem of those who go out at night with nothing in mind, the motives of a destroyer of compasses.”

There was a time I scrutinised maps like an explorer in the small library of my hometown of Pasighat. I yearned to live near the sea. I could pack my bags today. But these are emotions and emotions get knocked about, influenced, altered. Deep in my heart I know I would not want to live anywhere else. Every day I drive along this road gritty with sand and gravel. A huge new construction at a turning creates a bottleneck. Take a deep breath. What lies behind all this? Beyond the flow of traffic and people the mountains are green and mysterious. They stretch ever northwards into snow-covered peaks. More than anything else I think it is the indescribable aura of the land that makes me stay on. This is the one place on earth where I recognise everything about the landscape. More importantly, it is the entrance to a different place, another dimension that is the place of ‘feeling.’ It is the secret corner I return to, and it is in this space that writing begins.

Here there is no happiness of meeting family members with open arms. It is a more solitary reunion. The outline of the hills, the river, the green landscape — amazing! Clouds, mountains, sky-touching trees — amazing! My heart embraces this.

From my window I can see green trees and the wilderness of the garden. The sun glimmers for a moment in the western sky. It is like a glimpse of the sea. Someone calls from the gate. The dogs create a ruckus and the white geese start honking. Festivals of different communities of the state and nation are celebrated here. Friends and relatives turn up with food parcels. In ‘C’ Sector market the women selling vegetables ask me, “Have you been away?” I am happy to say — “Only a little distance, and back.” There is family here, and the presence of small children. Sometimes I go whale-hunting with them in the North Atlantic, shouting like an assassin on a playstation. Within the confines of hill and home I wonder if this is what the mystics talked about… this must be the ‘happiness of the drop’.

(In this monthly column, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)

(Mamang Dai is a poet, novelist and journalist. She is also the author of The Black Hill)

Published on June 26, 2015
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