Off to Arunachal Pradesh, for the Ziro Festival of Music. The plane lands at Dibrugarh in Assam and we have to take the ferry across the Brahmaputra. Lest “ferry" bring to mind something grand, I clarify that these are small wooden hulled boats with planks boarded together to form a deck.

Our four-wheel drive is loaded on with 6 inches of room on either side, beyond which is the river. The rest of the boat is packed with locals carrying little luggage, meaning that they are regular commuters on this 100-minute (including waiting) journey.

There are only a couple of bridges across the entire length of the Brahmaputra, and the one near Dibrugarh, which is next to our ferry ghat, has been unfinished for over a decade. Everybody in the North-East who isn’t near a bridge must use the boats, including the army, whose trucks bounce around on the dirt tracks that lead up to the Brahmaputra and then are loaded on to their own boats. We pass many Gypsies with Sikh officers in crisp turbans. If there is a war with China, I hope all the supplies are already in the north, because it will take days to ship the stuff over.

What can be said of a nation that cannot build bridges for its people but will send a tin can to Mars and thump its chest at the world?

Meanwhile, the time-zone nationalism that our government insists on brings great hardship to the North-East. It is light before 5am and dark much earlier than one expects. Those who want all of India to live under one time zone should ask New Delhi and Mumbai to bring their clocks forward rather than forcing the North-East to keeping theirs permanently back.

Tetseo Sisters.
Tetseo Sisters.

About 40% of Apatanis have become Christians. The others are animists and worship Donyi (sun) and Polo (moon). To counter the church service, the animists have made their faith congregational. We attend one session with a group of a dozen old people, mostly female, facing a wall on which a large sun is painted.

Some Hindu elements (a diya, sacred wrist threads and a pujari) are present and there is collective chanting of pleasant sounding hymns in soft voices.

And so on to the festival. The crowd was small but looked knowledgeable and civilized. I was not surprised to be recognized immediately. “I know you!" a man of the North-East said, his friends all turning to observe, “you’re Indus Creed!" I raise my glass to the group and move on.

I had not attended such a concert in years and noticed a couple of things. The first is that Indian bands write their own material these days, and stay away from the rock standards that used to be staple in the festivals 20 years ago. The other thing is that the instruments are much better.

The best band on Day 3 was Madboy/Mink, comprising two thin young people from Mumbai, a pretty girl who sang and a man with an Afro on the guitar. They played their bass and drums through a music sequencer and just the two of them were able to put out a formidable sound.

They were tight, high-energy and got the crowd closer to the stage. The man wore and held the instrument with a natural ease and looked comfortable with it, a beautiful blue-green Telecaster.

I noticed him in the audience later when another band was playing. He stood with his feet together, keeping time with his palm on his chest, an elegant figure. I discovered later that he was Imaad Shah, son of actor Naseeruddin.

Another fine performer was a girl from Bangalore called Suman Sridhar. She took her time to set up her solo act and is the most original musician I have heard in some time. Her first song was a mix of Ave Maria and some competent Hindustani singing. It was an a cappella performance so far as that’s possible with one person. It was unusual in that while on stage, she recorded some lines of melody and then began playing them in the background intermittently in layers over which she sang. She understood harmony and that is what made her unusual.

A third standout band was Imphal Talkies, from Manipur. They wrote political lyric and the refrain of their first song was “I’m tired of my country".

They sang of that shameful law which allows soldiers to kill citizens in the North-East and of an army camp inside the Manipur University campus. But nobody in the rest of India cared about this, they sang, and even the students there befriended the soldiers for free booze.

Just after his band struck up, the singer paused mid-song to take a swig from a bottle and confess that “it’s too early for us to perform" (it was 4pm but already dark) and that “generally we have a few drinks before we come on". He continued to speak while the band played on.

He usually bought his own booze, he assured the audience, and he had brought it with him this time also, but it seemed to have been misplaced. Later he stopped again and informed the crowd he had no MP3s and that they should learn to buy music instead of asking him for it.

I liked him immediately.

He sang of how he wanted to escape to Moscow, China or even Mozambique, anywhere but here. It was depressing stuff, but our mindless nationalists may find reassurance in the fact that at least he kept referring to it as “my country". So that’s fine then.

And so off to Majuli, the great riverine island on the Brahmaputra (by another ferry ride) in Assam. It is home to the monastic orders springing from the teaching of Sankardev, the 15th century mystic who took the island away from the orgiastic and bacchanalian worship of Sati and towards a Vaishnavism that Gujaratis will find attractive.

One of the monasteries, locally called satra, the Uttar Kamalabari is famed for its singing and dancing. We visit it and are taken to the quarters shared by a group of novice monks, the youngest of whom were deposited here between the ages of 5 and 9 and are now between 16 and 19.

Sajda Sisters with Neel Adhikari on guitar.
Sajda Sisters with Neel Adhikari on guitar.

They were lean of body, patrician of face and had repose. One in particular, long-haired and dreamy-eyed, reminds me of Charles Leadbeater discovering the child Krishnamurti at Adyar beach, in Chennai, in 1909 and seeing something otherworldly in him, a story I had found hard to swallow—till this moment. They are forbidden from cutting their hair and I ask this boy if he shampoos his curls daily. Yes, he says.

They have a TV in their room and say they watch the news. It doesn’t surprise me, when I ask, to know that they all love Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The oldest monastery here was built in 1653—when Shah Jahan was emperor of India (the Mughals never really conquered the Ahoms, who are both better looking and tougher than the rest of us). It is this continuity that makes Majuli special.

A couple of days later, we watch the Uttar Kamalabari monk and novices perform Hindu god Krishna’s abduction of Rukmini who he later married, and it is stunning. They are magnificent in dance. The emphasis of the song is not on lyrics, but stretching out of a few words (“Kriiiiiiiishnaaaaaa") at the end vowel.

It sounded like a Gregorian chant, and if you’ve heard Viderunt Omnes, you know what I mean. I think it was composer Philip Glass who said that Sanskrit was perfectly operatic, given its emphasis on long vowels: “Ma-ha-bha-ra-ta".

The only accompanying instruments are a drum and cymbals the size and shape of conquistador helmets.

The monasteries have banned booze and Durga Puja from the island, but idol worship has inevitably crept into some of the satras.

The food in Majuli is not very good but there is the bhut jolokiachilli, the second most lethal Assamese export (after Times Now’s Arnab Goswami) to be sprung on us unsuspecting plains people.

Eating a couple induces a stoned feeling—hand up all who agree. And to think my head is on fire, like the Iliad hero’s on learning of his lover Patroclus’ death: “Stand in the trench, Achilles, Flame-capped and shout for me" as the soldier-poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart put it.

Even if we don’t get those bridges, we can weaponize the bhut jolokia to sort out the Chinese.