This is the nucleus of the agarwood industry, Upper Assam, and it’s an enchanting place that I watch for hours from the car window. Most of the homes that we pass are made of thatch, fronds, perhaps brightly coloured concrete, with swept and spacious yards. Agarwood trees generally grow in front. It seems every house here has agarwood trees. You can always sell an agarwood tree to fund the important milestones in life. So even though there are a few plantations here in the traditional sense, there is also an abundance of trees in people’s yard’s, meaning they are cultivated trees.
We fled after the agarwood market, back to Mr Birren’s distillery, picked up Pinky and Maryam, and shot off into the night for Shyamgaon, a little slice of heaven in the forest. Shyamgaon is a Buddhist village, deep in Hindu/Muslim Assam. It’s way up, or out, right on the Nagaland border. And if the world made sense it’s what you would find when you looked in the dictionary under “adorable.” And we got there at night! The roads are tiny, and every house has a little bamboo picket fence around it. Bamboo, agarwood, eucalyptus…..every variety of tree welcomes you from the shadows. Even though they are Buddhist, their caste is Shyam. I don’t get it, but that’s India for you. I had the utter pleasure of meeting these people, I think they are all related. I didn’t get too far, as Quavi and Pinky had lots to talk about with them and of course they were feeding us, another meal I can’t describe. I feel like the boy who cried wolf. Always I say this meal or that one was indescribable, but this time it’s actually true. The only things I can say is that the rice came in a ball and I have never had that kind of rice before. There were fruits masquerading as vegetables. Things that looked like you should eat, you drank instead. Somehow, a boiled green was addictively salty and pungent—I couldn’t stop eating it. There was a strong sense of relief while eating it, like Ok, thank God, this has finally happened. No idea what it was. None. It was completely plain, no sauce, no spice. Just boiled.
|I think innoculated|
|Slim pickins for resin these days|
Our evening came to an end too soon, and we were off to Jorhat, where the Quavis took me to a hotel and raced off to see Pinky’s family, who live there.
The next morning I was in for a terrifying surprise, as Pinky’s family had a huge welcoming breakfast for me. Believe me I had no idea and was so shocked and at sea surrounded by all the friendly and welcoming yet fierce Indian women asking why I wasn’t married that my left eye exploded. Just a broken blood vessel but I look like a monster (still) and Quavi wondered if I needed to go to the hospital. But again, events proceeded, and I ended up sitting in the yard in the sunshine with some of these ladies and eventually things calmed down. They were all waiting to greet me in their very best saris and believe me that is something to see. All the more so when you realize that this is the rest of the women’s weaving cooperative, which weaves silk saris in Assamese traditional style, using gold thread. They are magnificent.
Back we went to Mr Birrin’s so I could pick up my oil—and we stopped off to see another distiller as well who showed us an oudh with a nasty burnt note that lasted for about 5 minutes and then began to morph into the most beautiful classical Indian oudh, rich and delightful, a complete shock for us. There is so much to see in Assam, and Upper Assam in particular is just heaven. If I didn’t live in Oman I would go stick to Shyamgaon immediately.
But leave we had to. Thankfully it was Sunday and we had minimal traffic all the way back to Guwahati. I caught a plane the next day and here I am in Bangalore, another world from the quiet of Assam.