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Year-End Special: The story of my name

A mother and son journey to a tiny town in Arunachal Pradesh to relive memories in the town he was named after

A firewood collector at the Digaru river near the Alubarighat bridge. Photo: Shamik Bag
A firewood collector at the Digaru river near the Alubarighat bridge. Photo: Shamik Bag

We are laughing at each other’s names: her Nefa to my Tezu.

Nefa, I remind the affable middle-aged lady, doesn’t exist any longer. She laughs back. Tezu, she tells me, is no longer the same. We are strangers bonding over the nostalgia suffused in our names, laughing at the whimsy of parents naming their children after places where they had thrived in their own youth. There had to be something about places like Nefa and Tezu.

My mother, who is in the same room, conversing with the wife of a bank employee she had befriended a little earlier, is distracted by our laughter. Mother and son had fortuitously met Nefa, a guest of a bank official’s wife in Tezu. She’s Meitei, a member of Manipur’s dominant tribe, but born in the part of Arunachal Pradesh that was earlier known by the acronym Nefa, for North-East Frontier Agency. Created in 1954, Nefa, the nomenclature, lasted till 1974, the year Nefa, the person, was born. For her parents, it was a memory that came to life every time their daughter responded to the name.

In the Bengali tradition of nicknaming children, my daak naam became Tezu. I have neither lived in this small census town in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district, nor was I born there. It is quite possible that I was conceived in Tezu, where my father spent four years as the branch manager of the only bank there. In that remote hilly nook, within eyeshot of the spot warmed by the first ray of the sun in India, Ma carried me in her for those months leading to my birth in Assam’s Dibrugarh. I’m sure that being carried around in the womb in a valley with crisp air, rushing rivers, gorgeous greenery, sun-dappled mountaintops and vast vistas has an impact on a child.

Young locals in Tezu.

I would like to believe that the one precious thing I did get from my father, along with the name Tezu, is his travel tic. Baba died young. He was 47, I was 11. A couple of years earlier, his itinerant mind had yet again sought a posting away from the big city—this time in lower Assam. That is where he had his first cardiac arrest, news that Baba concealed from the family in Kolkata during Durga Puja. By Dashami, Puja’s final day, he was gone.

What he left behind for me, from the few years I had with him, were memories of travel and the travelogues he penned for Bengali newspapers. I remember Baba more from the road than at the family dinner table in Kolkata, where schooling based us. We would join him four-five times a year while he travelled on work or vacationed—wading through shallow forest streams to reach a bewitchingly beautiful tribal hamlet in Jharkhand; spotting a scared deer that ran ahead of our Ambassador on a dark forest road somewhere, its tapetum lucidum glowing like flashlights when it turned its head; fearing leopards in Odisha and tigers in the Sundarbans; Baba helping us up a lighthouse in Gopalpur for a stellar view of the Bay of Bengal; goading us to trek to the majestic heights of Kedarnath Temple in Uttarakhand, our first real venture into the heart of the Himalayas. Forests, oceans and mountains made up Baba.

While memories of travelling with Baba were etched in my mind, Tezu played in my imagination. Since I hadn’t been there, Tezu became a reconstruction through stories retold by Ma and uncles. Stories of the long haul to reach Tezu from Assam after crossing the Digaru river on elephant back and boat or by jeep when the river wasn’t in spate; the peaceable Mishmi people who knew little about monetary transactions but would badger our banker-father for extra cash; the tribal festivals, hikes, picnics and parties.

A car being ferried across a river in Tezu.

Often, the family photo album, from an era that was still seeped in sepia, gave outlines to the imagination. A couple of photographs shot by Baba made a lasting impression. One was of a Mishmi man crossing a raging river, monkey-crawling along a rope spanning the torrent, body upturned and legs crisscrossed and locked around the rope. Numerous times, Ma shared the tragic anecdote of a child who slipped out of the harness attached to the Mishmi mother’s back while she attempted to monkey-crawl across the river. The lady completed the crossing, sat on a rock and wept silently at her loss. The other photograph was of Baba’s friend, the bearded Dr Bordoloi, smiling genially on a boat. The doctor would later be gored to death by a tusker.

From the stories and the family album, it seemed that Ma had an unfettered life in Tezu, free of the constraints that came with being married to the eldest earning son in a joint family, the responsibility for the day-to-day running of the show within shared spaces, with nary a day off from the domestic drudgery. Here, the kitchen came with a garden where flowers and vegetables grew; and the wooden bungalow’s verandah had wicker chairs, on which she sat and knitted sweaters on sunny afternoons. Tall eucalyptus trees and much taller mountains in the backdrop completed the frame. Once, Ma had to tie my impish three-year-old sister to a cane table with rope so she could go in for a shower. True to form, my sister dragged herself to the road along with the cane table, until someone found “the branch manager’s daughter" and returned her to her home, still tied to the furniture. Baba went to work at the bank, a lane and hotline number away. All that was dear to Ma in the world was close at hand in Tezu.

Distant Tezu, paradoxically, was also her window to the world. Here, being the wife of the seniormost bank official, she tasted the good life. She often threw and attended parties involving “colonels and brigadiers" in a town that was close to the Tibet border, and had a large army presence. Here, Ma took her first “distasteful" sip of alcohol, had her first bite of venison and participated in baking parties. She made friends, socialized and tasted the high life. Tezu, it seemed, spelt escape for my parents.

Forty years later, Ma, now 70, is back in the Tezu of her musings. It’s been a long-cherished dream for me to take her there, and to discover the Tezu I get my name from.

These days, the journey from Assam’s Tinsukia town to Tezu, which once consumed the better part of a day, is a smooth 3-hour drive. There is gentle anticipation in Ma. She waits for our car to arrive at the Lohit river, a marker of the border to Tezu. As our car flashes over the spanking new Alubarighat bridge, Ma remembers the time when a car forcing its way through the river was swept away. She keeps an eye out for the familiar, but as we reach Tezu, nostalgia grudgingly gives way to bewilderment—there are many more roads and houses, she observes; dish antennas cling to the sloping roofs of homes where people once gossiped around transistor sets; a clutch of hotels have come up where there were none; the Mishmi women wear denim instead of sarongs.

Over the next two days, Ma searches for the Tezu of her past. Locals report enormous changes, more so with the construction of bridges and roads, drawing Tezu closer to the mainstream. Somewhat representative of this change are a couple of dust-venting stone quarries at the bank of the Digaru, mining the river a pebble at a time. Ma finds the office that Baba headed. Inside, she feels lost in the crowd of customers; busy bank employees don’t have time to attend to her sentimentality. Outside the bank, a stall sells easy car loans to prospective Mishmi and Khamti customers. Ma finds the bungalow where they lived. The beautifully spread-out property is crying out for maintenance; the garden pleads for green fingers.

I remember Dr Bordoloi from the photo album and the elephants of my imagination. But a resident informs me that the animals no longer visit the land. There was widespread deforestation to accommodate mountain settlers in the now accessible valley. Continuing the pattern, snow now covers the surrounding mountaintops for only about a month each year.

To my newcomer’s gaze, Tezu feels quaint and charming, despite the fault lines. But not for Ma, burdened as she is by memory. Eventually, mother and son end up at the top of a hill which affords an uncorrupted view of the Tibet-originating Lohit’s run through the floodplains. It is a breathtaking sight, the river splitting into silvery veins glistening under the sun, headed lazily towards the Brahmaputra valley, attestation to the unchanging course of nature. Ma brings out her smartphone, the one she’s still getting used to, and fumblingly clicks a couple of photographs. “Your Baba would come here often to take photos," she mutters, finally happy at the union of her past and present. Those photos from Tezu, I hope, will eventually make it to the new digital family photo album.

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