I found myself one evening in Mancotta Chang, a large planter’s bungalow on stilts in the tea district of North-East Assam. There wasn’t a sound. The air was fresh and full of life. I’d eaten a delicious dinner, drunk a bottle of Kingfisher Beer – and I was content. The more I sat, the more I drank – the more content I would become. I was a long way from anywhere – a day’s driving north and I could stand on the border of China, India and Burma. Not that I wanted to – it was enough to know it was there.
My mission in this latest phase of my life has been to sail down every navigable inch of all the major rivers in South East Asia. First I attacked the Mekong, next came Burma and the Ayerwaddy, then the Chindwin. All up, I spent forty-seven days on the rivers of Burma – but I still had the bug – the river bug – and the rivers still had me.
Once, not far from Homalin, as close to the Indian border as the Chindwin went, I looked out and saw a range of cloudy mountains and knew that just over those peaks, across an impenetrable border lay the Mighty Brahmaputra. I decided then and there to go. Here I was.
Mancotta Chang is all very Fifties. Sit deep in an armchair, a silent staff of young Assamese lads whisk food and drink to your side then disappear. They have just enough English to understand an order for beer, bring dinner in a great reverent silence, fold and dissolve away with a shy smile. I confess, after the cities, it seemed all very tentative, very polite and as I was the only guest, kinda strange. It was either like being the king – or having the plague.
But they were just being scared and wanting to do everything perfectly. They were boys in the middle of nowhere learning a trade. No amount of friendly smiling could elicit much response, not in public anyway, so I settled back and learnt how to be king. As it turned out, it was useful practice – I was the only white man in Assam. From the moment I arrived – till the moment I left eighteen days later – I saw not one other Caucasian, fair skinned guy. A certain celebrity was thrust upon me whether I liked it or not. No skill required. I was white. I was there. That was enough.
Looking out of my foreigner face, I forgot I was the only one of a kind. Looking in – at me – was the rest of Assam. They certainly noticed.
No amount of imagination could conjure up a reason to like Dibrugarh – there is nothing remotely charming about the town itself. This is not entirely Dibrugarh’s fault; in 1950 a massive earthquake levelled the place and what has replaced the damaged city is not overly inspiring – which in my warped mind made it even more of a challenge. I embarked on a city tour that ran out of fascinating sights almost before it began, first dragged kicking and screaming to an uninteresting concrete temple covered in bathroom tiles where I saw a mystical tree with a sign that read:
‘On this eucaliptus tree LORD SHIVA appeared [Deeply Embossed] and was seen from 11 a.m. on 2-7-78 and was there till midnight of 4-7-78 and thereafter DISAPPEARED.’
I wondered at the time quite why Lord Shiva had bothered to deeply emboss himself upon Dibrugarh – but he is Lord Shiva and knows much more than me, so I tried to deeply emboss myself on Dibrugarh too. I patted some very nice horses in a stable, did the obligatory wander through the market, stopped at the shops and stalls feigning interest then gave up and refused to go any further. If I said that snapping a picture of the sign outside the Ayurvedic Piles Fishure Fistula Chamber was nearly the highlight of my day thus far – you probably get the idea.
The Ayurvedic Piles Fishure Fistula Chamber was just of many such establishments; Dibrugarh seemed to have more shops to attend to intimate matters of the body than all of India combined: the Skin Hair Beauty Clinic, the Sex Problems, Skin and V.D. Clinic, the Sex Skin Clinic, The Bablu Drug Agency, Doctors [M.D. Medical] by the dozen, Pharmacies, hundreds of beauty salons and barber shops: ‘Ladies and Gents DONE HERE’. Why Dibrugarh? Another of life’s little mysteries.
Normally, denied India’s big splendours I settle contentedly for India’s little ones. I people watch for hours, drink chai and blend into the background, go have a shave, sit in the dust. But I knew that somewhere nearby was the reason I came to Dibrugargh in the first place: the greatest splendour in all of Assam.
‘Take me to the Brah-h-h-maputra,’ I demanded in my best theatrical voice – and smiled a curious smile. It’s not something you get to say every day.
We pulled up beneath a flight of steps that led to the levee bank. A mouldy concrete sign announced that this was ‘The Beautification Project of the Brahmaputra Dyke dedicated to the People of Dibrugarh, and I could only commend the effort. Perhaps not beautiful, exactly, more a practical kind of aesthetic, but an effort none the less. In Dibrugargh every little bit helps.
A half dozen youths were hanging on the railing chewing the cud. They watched the foreigner get out of his car, stared vacantly as the apparition from Planet Mongo walked slowly up the steps past them, looked him carefully up and down, then resumed their conversation. They weren’t impressed. I reached the top. King Dogster stood on the edge of a great adventure.
Alas, the Mighty Brahmaputra had run away. People were playing cricket mid-stream – or rather, on the beach where mid-stream used to be. A herd of goats wandered by. ‘Ma-a-a-a-a!’ said one. ‘Ma-a-a-a-a!’ said another. Then they all burst out laughing at the white man
‘Where did the river go?’
She gestured south.