I had just reached Yatong, a small remote settlement 12 km from Hayuliang in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh. I was there for fieldwork for my Masters dissertation in Anthropology, Environment and Development from University College London.
The first thing I did was to look for a field assistant who would be my companion and guide through fieldwork. Basila Kri, a village council member, suggested that Ajeimai Yun would be the right person, “someone who is knowledgeable and nice.” Ajeimai lived in Gab, a village uphill and a two-hour walk along the UI river, a tributary of the Lohit river. The very next day, I set out for Gab with a young boy who was going towards the village. Trailing off the main road, within minutes we reached a very long hanging bridge across the river. Two women carrying bamboo baskets on their backs were on the bridge and we waited for them to cross first. Crossing these foot suspension bridges is sometimes the only way to reach villages. Some bridges are very old and in need of repair and can make you very nervous while crossing. Travellers to Arunachal Pradesh are both fascinated and petrified by these long hanging bridges. Fürer-von Haimendorf, a well-known anthropologist who worked in Arunachal Pradesh, said one has to be an “acrobat’’ to cross these bridges. Another visitor provided a useful top for the not-so- adventurous: “Never look down!”
Once we entered Gab, two girls with large bamboo baskets on their backs who were collecting some plants greeted us. I asked, “Do you know where Ajeimai lives?” One of them laughed and said, “that’s me!”, with a bright smile. I was surprised, as I had first assumed that Akeimei was a boy. Field assistants are known to be mostly men. I was glad to meet her. Ajeimai belongs to the Kman Mishmi, which is one of the 26 indigenous tribes in the Arunachal. There are an estimated 15,000 Mishmi people spread across 340 villages in Lohit and Anjaw districts.
Ajeimai looked short for her age of 25, probably due to a hunchback. She later told me that she had fallen ill when she was a child, and had since been hunched. Consequently, she could not do much farm work and remained restricted to household chores such as cooking, washing, taking care of chickens and tending kitchen gardens. Like many other young girls in Gab, Ajeimei wore a trouser and a blouse. Women both young and old wear the traditional daal-phlai (wrap around sarong), hand woven by the women themselves.
As we walked towards Ajeimai’s house, I noticed that Gab was a very small village, inhabited by the Yun clan of Kman Mishmi, with just 100 people and about 30 houses. All the houses were made of bamboo, including the floor and walls. These bamboo houses stood high on stilts to prevent wild animals and snakes from entering the house and also to keep the indoors dry during the monsoon. The space below the house was used to keep cattle, pigs and chickens. A thick log carved with steps served as a ladder. “Be careful while climbing, aaram se”, said Ajeimai.
It was dark inside her house, and little light entered even during the day. Ajeimai pushed two sliding doors, through which soft rays of light filtered through bamboo slits. A kerosene lamp was lit to brighten the room. “Gab mein light nahi hai” (“There is no electricity in Gab”), said Ajeimai. A man in his 40s who was cleaning his gun, greeted me with a smile. He was Ajeimai’s father, Sopreng Yun. I asked, “Going to the forest?” He replied, “No, just cleaning the gun.” After he was done, he got up with his fishing nets and his cane backpack. I asked him if I could join him for fishing, he smiled and replied, “You take rest, it will be hazardous for you.” After an hour, he came back with fresh fish. While I unpacked, Ajeimai collected some fresh beans and dug out some garlic from her kitchen garden. We had rice, boiled beans and delicious fish and began to chat.
Ajeimai was not sure if she was the right person to help me in my research. She had not done anything like this before. My research was to gather information about wildlife and wildlife hunting practices in the Kman Mishmi (or Miju Mishmi) society. I was keen to know about the animals hunted and the methods used, as well as what women did when men were out hunting. After I explained that, in general, I want to know about Mishmi people too, she looked intrigued and asked: “Is that your research”? Is that what you do?’ a question that became a frequently used one-liner to pull my leg.
Looking puzzled, she placed a kettle over the fire to prepare tea. She added few bay leaves, tea leaves into the kettle with lots of sugar. Laalchai was refreshing! Shaking her head with disbelief and smiling, she said that my research was easy and declared that we should begin doing research immediately. As I looked up, I noticed two bamboo trays, one above the other, hanging over the fireplace. She explained that the trays were used to smoke meat, dry grains and firewood. During the monsoons, it is difficult to get firewood, and these would come in handy. Ajeimai’s strategy was to share information about each and every thing around the house, village and forest. She became my eyes and ears, and a trusted guide in a matter of days.
One of six siblings, Ajeimai never went to school as she had to take care of her younger brother, who was only two years old when Ajaimai’s mother passed away. She took on the responsibility of household work to help her father. She could not weave because of her hunchback but she enjoyed knitting and embroidery and was good in all domestic chores.
Ajeimai knew everyone in the village, who was related to whom, who hunted what, and when. Based on my initial discussions, we prepared a detailed research plan. I told Ajeimai, “We have a lot of work and I need to interview hunters, document traps, photograph animal skulls.” Raising her eyebrows with a broad smile in playful tone, she asked ‘Is this your research? That’s all!’
We started our work the following day. Ajeimai took me around her village. It was difficult to climb up the steep slopes. Boys with catapults around their necks, with small pebbles inside their sling bags, wandered along the trails. Steadily looking up at the canopy for birds and squirrels, they had their eyes fixed on the trees.
As we walked round, curious villagers approached us with endless queries. Ajeimai was always bombarded with questions, and the villagers were not convinced that the topic of my study was ‘wild animals and hunting’. One man said, “Who will come this far to study wildlife hunting?” As hunting is not seen an unusual activity here, people suspected that I used hunting as an excuse to hide the primary purpose of my work. Many people asked asked Ajeimai, “Is she from the medical department to vaccinate children?”, “To sell clothes?”, “An official from the government department?”. Once she burst out laughing when a man claimed that I was a spy (jasoos) from China!
People finally believed me when I could identify some birds and animal skulls, thanks to Ajeimai. She would carry my animal books, bird guides and binoculars with pride to convince fellow villagers that I was indeed a ‘real’ researcher studying the hunting practices of the Mishmi. ‘Didi, show them the musk deer photo’, she would request. Musk deer (kasturi in Hindi, təla in Kman) was a star animal, and many were curious to to know what the animal looked like. As days passed by, we became friends. We shared jokes, worked together all day doing both research and household chores. Sometimes we mutually admired admired our skills in embroidery and cooking. She defended me and did not tolerate anyone making fun of me.
One morning, Ajeimei said she would introduce me to Kitusa who was a good hunter. I asked her, ‘What makes him a good hunter?’ “Oh… he is always out and never at home”, was her answer. Kitusa (name changed), around 35 years old, was busy scrubbing a leather shoulder belt for holding the machete (dao in Hindi, sut in Kman) when I went to meet him. Ajeimai spread out a brown coloured mat for us to sit on, which looked like an animal skin. She looked at me, expecting me to ask the obvious question. ‘What skin is this?’, I asked. Kitusa said, ‘Paahi’. Ajemai repeated ‘P-a-a-h-i’ and pointed to the skull on the trophy board. It was a barking deer. I confirmed it with the picture in the guidebook. Ajeimai used this book frequently, and there was a look of childish excitement on her face whenever she shared the book with others. This time she showed it to Kitusa, and both agreed that ‘Paahi’ was barking deer. The pictorial guide of animals raised curiosity and excitement among other members of Kitusa’s family, and they joined us too. They showed me the animals found in the region. Ajeimai helped me with the local names of other animals and birds, and a checklist was prepared. Local names made conversations more comfortable and exciting. She told me ‘Now that you know the local names of the animals and birds, people will trust and accept you quickly!’. I saw that she tried very hard to make me comfortable and made sure I was welcomed and hosted well during my research. As Kitusa narrated his stories of trekking up in the mountains and hunting, we got engrossed in his stories. He told us something which intrigued me. ‘Do you know who owns the mountains and the forests?’. I replied quickly and confidently, ‘Forest department’?. Kitusa laughed and said, ‘No. No. The owner of the forest is a Mountain spirit called ‘Shyutoh’. He continued:
“We hunters fear and respect the mountain spirits, and draw a circle around the camp for protection. After starting the fire, we make an offering to the spirits for safety, success and good health. Shyutoh is our mountain God and hunters pay respects to Shyutoh when they reach the hunting grounds. Shyutho owns the forests and provides us with animals to hunt.”
‘Which animals are found there up in the mountains?’ I asked. Ajeimai quickly replied, ‘Khyəm (Takin), Təla (Musk Deer), Rə’ai (Serow) and pheasants’. Kitusa said that one has to really go far to the snow covered areas to hunt musk deer. He said the trick they used to track musk deer was to smell the rocks. Musk deer leave a strong smell on the rocks where they rest. ‘The smell is powerful and remains for a long time. We look for footprints to track the animal.” Ajeimai confessed that even she never knew these stories and acknowledged my role: ‘Didi, because of you, I am learning about my community’.
Ajeimai asked her aunt, ‘When men go to hunt, what do women do?’. ‘What do we do? We sit at home and work!” she replied. We probed her, ‘Why don’t women join them in hunting?” Two more women joined, and we chatted for long hours through the night. A fire was lit and our faces glowed in the dim glimmering light.
Shamimai said ‘Women do not hunt, but there are women who trap small animals on the farm occasionally’. When asked why women don’t hunt, the reply was simple, ‘That’s the rule’. When I asked the men, they said,‘It is very tough for women’
These stories enriched my research. Kitusa added that the distance travelled for musk deer is more than for any other animal and that the rituals followed are very strict. People consulted Mishmi shaman priests (Kətuwat) before hunting trips for musk deer and takin. If a shaman indicated that the trip would be successful, villagers set out for hunting; if not, it would be postponed. Rituals were performed near the rocks, using some leaves and red ochre (glaa), an essential item. Ochre was collected near hot springs in the high mountains and had a spiritual significance. Glaa was sprinkled on the leaves by offering prayers and uncooked rice and millet were offered to the owner of the mountains.
Over time I met other villagers and gathered more information about hunting. Ajeimai found my work very interesting. We would go through the bird book together and identify birds spotted on the bushes or the small birds that the boys catapulted. She understood my work well and would update me with interesting events in the village. Having Ajeimai as my field assistant also came in handy when I wanted to interview women. ‘That is easy’ she said ‘I will take you to my aunt, Shamimai’.
Ajeimai’s aunt was busy weaving a multi coloured fabric flowing from the wall tied to her waist. The loom (tho’) had pink, black, green and blue coloured threads, and the design was intricate. We sat next to her and watched her excellent skill of giving life to bare threads. Among the Mishmis, each house has a loom and women weave daal-phlai (sarongs), tüpəi (bags) and gul khana (jackets for men). These jackets have a unique design and are usually pink and black. Later that day, we sat in the haanda (balcony), an extension of the longhouse that has a bamboo platform and a roof.
Ajeimai asked her aunt, “When men go to hunt, what do women do?” “What do we do? We sit at home and work!” she replied. We probed her, ‘Why don’t women join them in hunting?” Two more women joined, and we chatted for long hours through the night. A fire was lit and our faces glowed in the dim glimmering light.
Shamimai said, “Women do not hunt, but there are women who trap small animals on the farm occasionally.” When asked why women don’t hunt, the reply was simple, ‘That’s the rule’. When I asked the men, they said, ‘It is very tough for women’. One man said that women were scared of hunting. Ajeimai took over the interview; she was so absorbed in the discussion that it appeared that she was the researcher. Many of the things we heard were new to Ajeimai and her curiosity to learn more was endless. I realized that this research was no more mine alone, but belonged to her too. It became a collaborative project. Ajeimai turned to me and said, ‘Didi, did you know that when husbands go out hunting, their wives do not tell anyone that the husband is away hunting?’ I began to write everything she narrated. Stories filled up my field dairy. That day both of us felt a sense of achievement.
Till the end of my work, not a single day was spent without walking around the village, collecting wild berries and wandering in the forests around. She showed me the ‘danggri baba ka ped’, a tall tree where it was believed that spirits resided and felling was prohibited. She pointed to rodent traps (tawan) around the granaries. Over time, I developed an eye for things that I had never noticed before. Ajeimai became my teacher and my mentor. ‘Don’t enter this house, its kəmüt’ she would warn me. Three days after a ritual, the house is closed for guests, a period called kəmüt. She would point to the bunch of green bamboo grass at the door that indicates kəmüt. The information about taboos and the role of women in the society was possible only because of Ajeimai. Her constant desire to learn and willingness to share was boundless.
It was time for me to wind up my fieldwork and say goodbye to Gab. Ajeimai walked with me until Yatong. She pulled out a packet that had a colourful daal-phlai (sarong), ‘yeh, aapkeliye Didi’. A gift from Ajeimai that I still have and cherish. It reminds me of not only her but my connection with the Kman Mishmi society. Not knowing what to give her, I presented her my wristwatch. As I thanked and hugged Ajeimai, our eyes were moist and I felt a slight heaviness in my heart. ‘Achche se jaeeye, Didi’, she said as I sat on the vehicle to leave for Tezu.
I knew I would miss Ajemai but did not know that I would never see her again. A month after I completed my fieldwork, I received the sad news that Ajeimai was no more. She suffered from jaundice and malaria and died on the way to the hospital. This came as a shock to me while I was writing my dissertation. I lost a friend forever. I am forever indebted to her for the valuable contribution she made to my research.
Field assistants play an important role in our work and there is a deep association between the researcher and the community. Without Ajeimai, my fieldwork would not have been possible. When I submitted my masters’ dissertation at the Department of Anthropology in University College London, I dedicated it to her.
My field assistant and a good friend in Gab village who passed away after a month of this research work.
I dedicate this dissertation to her.