Tribal: the word has a stigma of social and cultural backwardness. Yet, the definition is changing as the internet continues to penetrate rural communities. At least for the Bodo’s – the scheduled Assamese tribe I stayed with for a couple days – the changing definition is intertwined with globalization.
People are people, supposedly.
It wasn’t that my expectations went unfulfilled. The experience was insightful and Kokrahjar was by far the most hospitable place I’ve had the pleasure to stay in. Yet, their joint candor and demeanor was, at times, almost uncomfortably familiar. Maybe I was expecting too much.
I don’t know.
Now isn’t the time to write another manifesto. Instead, I‘ll talk about my last day in the fabled northeastern state.
Adil and I woke up around 3:30 in the morning. After we got ready, we grabbed our luggage and left for to the bus stand. Looking out at the dimly lit compound, the Stalin-esque vibe I got from this socialist relic was fading. Regardless of the political system, the people here seem happy. Around 4:15, we hopped aboard the bus. Although the ride was rocky, it was nice to feel the sun rise and watch the world re-animate. At the station, we bought two tickets to Guwahati: Assam’s largest city and our final destination.
Trip length: 4.5 hours. Cost: 35 rupees. Conversion: $0.52.
The train arrived in a couple minutes. Following protocol, that is, India’s ever-present social Darwinism, we rushed in to find seats. Claiming the first set of empty benches, we guarded our seats territorially, like hippos. Soon enough, the engines kicked into gear, churning on to the next stop.
18 more to go.
As vibrant discussion characterized the next hour together, my stomach grew increasingly upset. Needless to say, tribal food should be eaten with due diligence. Yet, deference to hospitality often outweighs health concerns (See: Utilitarianism). Grabbing my phone, I shuffled to the “bathroom.”
52 cent train rides aren’t without their shortcomings: toilets.
Dimly lit by what few rays flooded in, there was no commode inside. There was no seat. In fact, there was nothing at all, just a rusted hole to squat above. Three weeks in, I had become adjusted to the… uh… nuances of Indian life. Striking what I believed to be a near-perfect balance between feet position, back posture, and iPhone light, I did my… uh… official business.
Then I dropped my phone.
Another important subtlety of Indian trains: there is no waste tank. The hole leads straight to the train tracks below. My phone had just fallen into the middle of God knows where in Northeast India.
We got off at the next train station, rushing to the railway police. Apparently all we could do was file a report. I suppose fate would have it that we would go look for ourselves.
Leaving our luggage in their possession, we climbed down onto the train tracks, umbrellas in hand. Important subtlety number 2: this is about the time that monsoon season starts in Assam. Even with what protection our umbrellas could provide, absolute sogginess proved inevitable. My loafers crumbling in the process, we searched for the… uh… testament to my… uh… official business. Local villagers were also scanning the tracks for goodies. 4 kilometers deep, not a trace of phone or digested river fish was to be found. In all likelihood some unassuming scavenger already had it in his clutches.
I gave up.
Rather than turn around and go back the way we came, Adil and I swerved off the tracks, down a path to a local community. After a brief exchange with a village boy, we followed him through a couple fields that could be aptly dubbed bogs. Completely soaked, we eventually found an auto-rickshaw driver to take us back to the station. The road was a stretch of half marsh, half lopsided concrete. Our vehicle inching forward, I observed the indigenous landscape. Children played amongst another, goats patrolled the streets, half-submerged cows fed off grass. Staring straight into the heart of rural Indian life, I could only wonder about these people’s perception of the world. For generations on generations, most if not all have lived and died here. This is all they know. Any man with humanity would wish to help these people.
Minus 100 rupees, we got to the train station and went back to file a report. They all barely spoke English, so Adil handled negotiations [as he did most of the trip]. Even though the police commander was relaxing and reading a newspaper, he refused to hear to our case until we wrote an official letter communicating our situation. No other options, I proceeded to pen a letter, force-fed words by the lower tier officer.
“Most honorable sir, I humbly beg for you to consider my request…”
It was despicable, as if I had to get on all fours and bow before for him to get my case considered: the remnants of old-world ideology. I gave into formalities anyway. Request notarized, we rushed back to the ticket station, hoping to buy a pass for the next train before it departed.
The next train to Guwahati was leaving at 9:00 AM: two hours later.
Angry and frustrated, we left the station and sauntered along the streets. My beautiful loafers were nearly destroyed; I could almost feel my heels rubbing against the concrete.
Soon enough, we found a bus station, climbing aboard 15 minutes before departure. No one was talking or observing the environment, though, their full attention on the television screen at the front of the bus. Gunshots and fake punch sounds blared from the rear speakers. Even this deep into the Indian countryside, consumerist culture still infects.
I miss U.S. fire safety codes.
For the next 4 hours, we traversed the Assamese terrain, sandwiched between students and workers. Social Darwinism means there’s always room for another. Anyways, we made it eventually, shoveling luggage into the first hotel room we could book. We were supposed to visit a silk factory around the time, but due to the… uh… unexpected circumstances, we hadn’t yet made contact with Dilip Barooah, CEO of FabricPlus.
One phone call later and we were leaving for the factory in 15 minutes.
Following a frantic rush and poorly-timed miscommunication, we hopped out of a rickshaw to meet him alongside the side of a highway. Getting in, a 70 kilometers journey ensued.
We step out into the compound, one of the few industrialized parts in an otherwise un-mechanized village. It was here we met the other visitors: London filmmakers who were shooting a documentary about the role of silk and militancy in Assamese culture. We had a delightful chat, and as I explained my research, they mistook me as a Ph.D. candidate collecting information for his doctoral thesis. Safe to say that everyone in the room was shocked when I told them I wasn’t yet 20.
Touring the factory afterward, we got to observe the most minute intricacies of the production process. My suspicions were confirmed: this is the most advanced silk factory in northeast India yet some of the machinery dates back to the 1950’s. Continuing our excursion, we made it to the weaving center’s entrance. Before us, a large board displayed all his international customers. Not only did large scale importers and exporters dot the world map, but so did prominent fashion houses. Of the most pre-eminent: Balmain. To those little aware, Balmain is the most important Paris-based maison. Balmain is also a staple in every Kardashian’s wardrobe.
FabricPlus’s silk finds its way to the world’s most famous celebrities. I am now affiliated with the chief executive of FabricPlus. Talk about insider information.
We parted ways with the filmmakers. Loading up into the SUV, we – that is, Adil, Mr. Barooah, his top associate and I – rolled away into the rainy night.
70 kilometers to go, I realized that I was talking to the kingpin of Indian silk.
We discussed the industry’s future, what needs to be changed, what needs to be standardized, what needs to be researched. I asked him about his past, his rise, his future vision. It turns out that he is the founding chairman of the Asian Silk Alliance.
Halfway to Guwahati, I realized that I was having a one-on-one conversation with arguably the world’s most powerful man in silk.
Prodded with the biggest and most important questions that could come to my mind, he all but completely answered the central questions of my research. The cherry on top: he believes that advanced technology will lead to the enslavement of the human race. He’s right… to a point.
It’s time to stir the pot.