The last priest of the Fengche village descended up the dry village path overgrown with wilting pigweeds, briskly walking past the mighty old Haitala tree towards a house over the edge of the hill. Today he was especially adorned in his formal traditional outfit: a hornbill beak headgear, traditional cotton parri, an eagle wing fan, and a small cased dagger. It was an important occasion and he had his wife polish his hornbill headgear twice. It had been quite a while since he was summoned for priestly duties. The importance of his priesthood was fading with time, with people of his village branching out to settle down in the valleys to embrace the growing churches of Abo Jesu. Gone were the days when the ardor of a priest sanctified every event in the village- every child born, every field plowed, every house warming event, every marriage ceremony, every sickness, and every death. The priest was once upon a time the binding force between the natural and supernatural philosophies and a priest’s incantations were intertwined with the souls of the people. Now-a-days, people peeked at his archaic rituals with hideous indignation, walking away whispering quietly under their breaths, ‘Praise the lord!’
The priest reached the house and climbed up the steps carved in a wooden log to the bamboo house and sat down on a warm sunny patch on the balcony, saluting the warm winter sun in his mind. The day was radiant and his heart beamed to see the trusting faces of the host family who still believed in him, and the last vestiges of animism. His duty today was to determine the fortune of the family. The lady of the house welcomed him with a warm jug of rice beer. A small chick and an egg were brought to him. He held the chick and the egg and blew his breath on them to initiate his grand priestly rituals. He remembered each word of his religious incantations. The words were inherited and ingrained in his priest-blood for generations which swirled like a conjured spirit in his breath. The priest started chanting with a salutation to Donyi-Polo, the Sun-Moon god. Oh, Ane Donyi and Ato Polo, the paths of livelihood shown by you, the cycles of life drawn by you, the hundred mountains our ancestors had crossed over to reach this mountain village. The first grain that we sowed here, the first harvest we reaped, the first rain that we felt, the first storm we saw, the first child born, the first dead we buried. I, priest Tagingbo, give my salutations to seek the fortune of this family.
The ladies of the house kept the fire hearth burning and served the best portion of the roasted mithun meat sprinkled with fresh mountain chilli and dried bamboo shoot chutney to the priest. The gents of the house sat accompanying the priest, anxious to hear the prophecy for the future. The priest paused to sip the warm rice beer from the wooden jug. The beer tasted sweet and faintly sour with a ricy flavor and the meat was tender. He looked down at the winding pathway below the village that had become National Highway 13. The mustard garden blooming with yellow flowers breezed now and then with every speeding car. He took another gulp of the warm beer and resumed chanting, staring at the gullible eyes of the chick with white fluffy feathers. The chick perfectly snug inside his palms chirped faintly. The words were now addressed to the chick and the raw egg. You new young born chick with uncharted destiny, you new egg teeming with fertility; enlighten us with the paths of futurity.
The priest stood up, chanting louder, waving his eagle wing fan, and walked along the whole length of the bamboo house- from the wooden balcony to the fire hearth, from the spaces around the fire hearth to the wooden bed on the corners, to the other end of the house with a small platform where the ladies kept the harvested paddy to dry in the sun and back to the balcony and stood near the altar built of thin wooden frames decorated with scraped bamboo frills and black charcoal arts. Above the altar, hollow horns of mithuns sacrificed by the family in the past hung among the rows of white shoulder blades of the animal. The chick was finally ready for the sacrificial ceremony and killed by the priest with his dagger, and the egg was sent to be boiled in the fire hearth in a new unused vessel. The priest sat back on the balcony taking a break from his chants, waiting for the egg to be boiled and the liver of the chick to be carefully operated out.
An affluent black sedan appeared across the village pathway and stopped in front of the house. A man from the city in a well dressed western suit and clean shiny shoes stepped out of the car. Everyone turned to look at the man and kept staring as the man walked towards the house. Who was this stranger from the city? Everyone’s faces inquired.
‘Oh, Tagingbo!’ The man from the city greeted the priest as he climbed up the carved steps carefully. ‘Have you forgotten your old friend?’
A shy smile appeared on the priest’s face. His heart warmed up seeing his old friend. He stood up with ease in his arms and welcomed his old friend with a firm solid embrace. A long-forgotten juvenile twinkle played in his eyes and for a moment he forgot that he was a priest, a shaman, a heralder of the village heritage and responsibilities on his shoulder. In his mind, he went back to their boyhoods, rolling down the dusty village roads in self-made wooden rollers daring the winds, stealing oranges from the orchards for a few paise, and climbing up the old Haitala tree to suck on the blue-skinned berries.
The lady of the house earnestly served warm rice beer to the man from the city that had graced their humble hut. The priest looked at his friend’s western suits and beamed at how his friend had adapted to the modern western ways. The priest sat down folding his legs to hide his cracked heels and in slight embarrassment rubbed some spit on his white winter scaly skin.
The friend sat down, dusting the wooden stool with a handkerchief and asked, ‘How have you been doing, Tagingbo?’
‘Old friend, you have conquered the harang lands and crossed over a hundred mountains and I have been here, sturdy like this old Haitala tree, growing old along with these mountains. That’s how I have been doing.’ The priest said looking at his friend with a forlorn longing in his eyes, recalling the days when they shared the last few mouthfuls of brown rice from the same wood carved plates, wore the free distributed school uniforms and satchels to march to the newly opened government primary school in their village with gleeful smiles.
‘Someone has to stay back and look after our village so that the ones like us who have wandered away can come back somewhere.’ The friend remarked meekly.
The priest shrugged a careless smile and narrated to the host family, ‘You know we went to school together. He moved to the harang lands and I have stayed back here. Now he is holding the topmost position in the government hierarchy. A single signature of his can decide the fate of the whole Arunachal, that’s who he has become.’ The priest looked at his friend with admiration as past memories from their primary school days emerged in his old mind. The government primary school in Fengche village opened in the year 1966 with a single school teacher, Gohain sir, an Assamese from the plains of Assam with big rimmed cylindrical glasses and brown saggy skin who had travelled on a supply truck to reach the mountains of Fengche village, who spoke and taught everything in Assamese, slowly making the students converse in broken Assamese with him. The priest used to be Gohain sir’s favorite student. He used to be the smartest boy in the class and scored better than his friend. After class five, Gohain sir spoke about sending the students to the city to pursue higher education. The village folks shuddered in trepidation to even entertain thoughts of sending their children beyond the safety of their mountains and vehemently accused Gohain sir for exploiting their children’s mind with flimsy ideas. There were only two boys who were determined to pursue higher education. The priest and his friend; they had kept their class five passed results and transfer certificates in their satchels to join the school in the city. They were excited to see the harang lands beyond their mighty mountains. To feel the wider skies and to sail different river courses. Every evening, they would lie down on the wooden balcony looking at the effervescent old moon dreaming about their future full of possibilities.
‘Have you heard any news about Gohain sir?’ The priest asked, coming back from his old reverie from the past, realizing everyone had shifted their attention to his friend’s city tales.
‘He died five years back.’ The friend grimaced.
‘He was a good old man.’ The priest’s heart sank. ‘I can still speak and write Assamese taught by Gohain sir.’
‘Why didn’t you turn up that day?’ The friend asked pensively. ‘I was waiting for you that day.’
The priest grew uncomfortably silent. A forgotten pain swelled up in his weary chest. He recalled the night, forty five years ago, before the day when they were set to leave for the city school.
The priest’s father roared inside the bamboo house when he came to know about his young son Tagingbo’s plans to sail to the harang lands. ‘You are a priest’s son. You must assist me in my priestly rituals and learn the ways to attain priesthood. A priest holds the highest position and regard in a society, how dare you have any intention of following the teachings of the rogue harangs? You will stay here in the village and become the next priest of Fengche village!’
‘I will go to school, Abo. There are possibilities in harang ways too. And I want to explore and see the world outside of this small village!’ A young Tagingbo cried.
‘HOW DARE YOU???’ His priest father took out his long machete as a warning statement. The sick mother intervened. Young Tagingbo kicked the burning firewood in the fire hearth in angst scattering tiny fireworks into the darkness. The sick mother quickly doused the burning flames.
‘If you leave, I will disown you, son!’ The priest’s father hollered as the young Tagingbo started to pack his notebook and uniform into his satchel.
That night, Tagingbo did not sleep; he kept his packed satchel near him and quietly waited for dawn. With the first ray of sun, he gingerly stepped down the wooden steps of his house.
‘Son!’ His mother wept from the door, ‘If you leave me, who will bury my dead body?’
Young Tagingbo glanced at his mother’s tear drenched face and without a word, left the house. He ran down the slippery village path towards the valley below. A supply truck was leaving for the city that day and Gohain sir had verbally requested the driver to take the village boys for admission to the city school. Young Tanginbo ran fast. From the last bend of the path, he could see the truck waiting on the unpaved road. He looked at the truck, catching his breaths. He spotted his friend’s searching face, anxiously looking out for his arrival, seated on the hood of the truck. Their eyes met. A grimace appeared on Tagingbo’s face. A deep worry. He turned to look at his village and stood still on the hill above the road for moments in demented contemplation. ‘Let’s go!’ His friend cried in confusion. Soon the truck thundered started. ‘Come on, Tagingbo! What are you waiting for? Let’s go!’ His friend shouted. Tagingbo’s feet did not move. It seemed to be anchored by an invisible restraining chain. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he stood watching the truck slowly move ahead and disappear into the muddy road that led to the city. He could have been on that truck that day on his way to the harang lands of untold possibilities, but he decided to stay back.
‘If I remember that day, I want to dig out my father’s corpse and break his skull!’ The priest muttered, trembling in angst.
‘Your father died a long time back, there would be no skull left by now!’ The old toothless granny of the house jested. The rest of the host family giggled at the granny’s banter.
The priest wished he could weaken the memory of that day when he walked back home, defeated by circumstances, and sat beside his priest father, under his wing as his assistant priest, learning the secret language of the Nyibus, memorizing each word in full sacredness till years later the words became a part of him, an entity, a sacred embodiment. When Gohain sir had asked him, why he hadn’t taken the truck to study in the city school; he replied in broken Assamese accompanied by an embarrassed smile: Father sent me to tend the mithuns in the next mountain, if I leave, the mithuns will get lost in the mountains, sir.
‘I guess every man makes his own choices and destinies. My father did not let me attend school, so I let my son attend school but the irony is that my son does not want to read. He just exists in the crossroads, neither embracing ancient priesthood nor fitting in the ways of the modern world. If my father had let me study, maybe I would have become someone great too.’ The priest reflected pensively.
‘You are still great.’ The friend applauded. ‘You have attained priesthood and mastered the art of a great orator. You have understood the language of the wind, the land, the rocks, the trees, the animals, the humans, and the spirits. You are the shaman of this village, the wise one, who can address the discourse of our ancestors and who carries the key to the treasure trove of our tribe’s intricate secrets. Now every civilization is slowly returning to seek the primitive roots that they had uprooted to accommodate the new.’
The priest solemnly nodded at his friend’s kind words. The host family murmured agreement at the man’s thoughts.
‘Please buy me a good hat from the city, will you?’ The priest smiled and took off his headgear, ‘Just look at my receding hairline.’
‘I will.’ The friend smiled back. ‘Send your son to the city, maybe I can help him find a job.’
‘Indeed, that would be helpful, old friend. During our father’s time, a man’s worth was measured by the number of mithuns he had but now it is measured by the security of a noble job. I will surely send him.’
The friend stood up and took out some money and gave it to Tagingbo. ‘Buy a new parri for you and your wife!’ He said. The priest accepted the money quietly and watched his friend walk into his car.
‘If I remember that day, I want to dig out my father’s corpse and break his skull…’ The priest repeated; a part of him still wounded by the old memory. This time no one heard him. The host family was busy whispering praises about the man from the city and stood on the balcony looking at the car wind down the road that led to the city. The priest stood with them nonetheless, realizing that the times had changed and the priest no longer held the highest position and regard in the society. When the black sedan disappeared into the next curve of the mountains, he sat back on the stool and turned his attention back to his incantations. The delicate liver of the small chick was brought immersed in a bowl of water and the boiled egg was presented to him for his shamanic observations.
The priest sliced the egg into two equal halves and studied the color and shape of the egg yolk. Then he picked up the slippery liver between his forefingers and observed the lobes and ligaments stretching over the reddish-brown surface of the liver. He said, ‘The omen is good. There will be progress in the coming months and the sons and their sons will earn a good name for themselves.’
The host family, delighted by the positive prophecy, thanked the priest for his priestly duty and gifted him rice, smoked mithun meat, and a brass plate in appreciation. The priest walked back home, his dark silhouette passing under the old Haitala tree that had stood hundreds of years on that mountain village watching the generations grow and wither under its prudent shadow. The sun was setting in the west behind the old verdant mountains giving way the appearance of the glorious old moon in the skies.
That night in his bamboo hut, the priest took out his old satchel from his wooden trunk. The packed satchel that had missed an intended journey forty five years ago. The years had outgrown the small school uniform and the pages of notebooks had crumpled and aged like him. He wet his index finger with his saliva and flipped the pages. The words greeted him with invariable sameness. He smiled with a glint of tears looking at his boyhood handwriting. The notebooks were his last souvenirs of school life. He held the notebooks, cradling them over his lap and sat near the warmth of the fire hearth hearing his wife softly hum a mountain song as she brewed warm rice beer for him. He stared long at the fiery uninhibited dancing flames and felt the house dissolving like dreams. Life at that moment seemed like a floating reverie between the things he could achieve in his life and the things he could not achieve. In that silent darkness, he saw the stoic tribal faces of his ancestors rising from their graves, their emaciated bodies laden with stories in their spines, stamping on the earthy realms initiating spirit dance around the fire hearth. The ancient spirits arched their backs leaning down to whisper: we are here, we are within you. Tagingbo sitting by the fire started humming soft rhythmic chants that rose along with the smoke rising up above the thatched roof of his bamboo hut standing on the dark forgotten mountains of the east.
I, Tagingbo, the last priest of Fengche village pledge under the shadow of this ardent fire that as long as I haven’t crawl under this humble earth, I will live on to serve as an identity to sustain the story of my tribesmen, the smoky diasporas of our mountain lives and will uphold the impressible name of Donyi-Polo, the god that our ancestors once used to worship.
Glossary of Words:
Ane Donyi and Ato Polo: Respectful salutation- Mother Sun and Grandfather Moon
Abo: Father in Nyishi dialect
Abo Jesu: Local Arunachalee way of calling, Father Jesus
Donyi-Polo: The term stands for Sun-Moon god, an indigenous animistic religion followed by the Tani group of tribes of Arunachal Pradesh which due to cultural appropriation has considerably reduced in practice in present times.
Fengche: A small mountain village in East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh inhabited by Nyishi tribes
Harang: It is the local way of referring the mainland Indians/foreigners who are not part of the tribal regions
Haitala: A local tree with blue skinned berries used for its medicinal properties
Mithun: Common name of Gayal (Bos frontalis), a bovine animal which has major cultural and religious importance among Tani group of tribes of Arunachal Pradesh
Nyibus: Of Priest, Priestly
Parri: Traditional cotton wear of Nyishi people