Sunday, December 22, 2013

Enchanting Assam

This is a reprint of a 2010 AbsoluteTrygve post.

After a delightful breakfast of dahl and bread, it was off to the local TV Station, where I was a guest on Nagaon Today. Sompriti and I discussed agarwood and why Assam is known for it as Tajul and Quavi watched from the screens outside. It seemed like it went ok, and the show was done in English and Assamese. (I did the English part.)

After this I was off with Quavi, his wife Pinky and his 3 year old daughter Maryam for the wilds of Assam. And what a delightful state it is!

First we drove to Ajmal’s farm and it was quite an interesting visit. Ajmal, for anyone who is unfamiliar with it, means “Prettier” in Arabic and they are a very big company based in Assam and selling agarwood all over the Middle East. Even Salalah has 3 Ajmal branches. Ajmal has been growing agarwood trees all over Assam for 20 years and even with the ridiculous restrictions imposed by the Assam Wood Based Industries Rules 2000 and CITES (which you can read about in detail on the previous post “Agarwood in Assam,”) it seems to me that they run the show.

A tiny part of their stock

Teak and agarwood.
Ajmal has a big complex in Hojai, which is one of my super-geeky holy grails, one of my stops on the must-go list. But it’s not sarcastic. I am thrilled to have actually made it to Hojai, a fairly unremarkable town to an untrained eye, until one gets to the Flower Valley Agro Tech in Gopalnagar, where Ajmal’s nerve center buzzes with odd activity. There are 5 brothers and I met 2 of them, and the nephew, who was loquacious and kept up a pretty good rap. But there were no women around and I mean no women at all. Not a woman in the place. Not one. Men crawled all over this office-housing-etc complex, construction workers, maintenance men, servants, gardeners, security men, the owners themselves. But Quavi thinks I might have been the first woman some of them have ever talked to after their mothers and sisters. It must be possible. 

At first we ate and why is it men can always talk about fish? The Nephew, whose name escapes me at the moment regaled me with stories of fine fish eaten, and the lengths some of them have gone to in order to eat a particular fish, flying all the way to Bombay in one case, and spending a small fortune in transportation just to eat a 500 RS fish. Soon they were forcing more fish on me and I have admit it was very good fish indeed, river fish from the Brahmaputra.

Despite its size, and the presence of a rose garden, Ajmal does not distill roses. They only distill agarwood but had a sample of Assamese sandalwood and will start to cut their trees in 5 years or so. They have patience. They have started growing sandalwood along with agarwood and I have some pictures of the two growing together. Sandalwood being a parasitic tree, he can’t live unless he has a host to mooch off of. 

We walked to the market-size agarwood receiving area where wood is cleaned and sorted and found ourselves in the open area between these receiving areas and the agarwood storage. So many locks on the door to the agarwood storage it looked like a New York apartment circa 1984. Three boxes of cleaned and good looking agarwood was pulled out, all of it supposedly from natural occurring infection. 

The scene was surreal—a dozen and a half men milling about, our armed guards, the two huge Ajmal guys in white, the Nephew, whispering prices and promises in my ear, the heavily locked storage rooms and the hum of electric energy you get when lots of expensive agarwood comes into the room. 

A small part of the agarwood reception area

Exactly what one might hope for, coming to the ends of the earth like this. They even speak their own language at Ajmal—it’s a dialect called Sylleti.

They actually buy agarwood oil from all over the area, from the small distillers, and this keeps a lot of people alive and in business. If it wasn’t for Ajmal, a large part of Assam’s economy would probably collapse. 

We spent a couple of hours at Ajmal, way beyond our original plan of course, and finally roared off into the night for a long and exhaustive trip to Kanziranga State Park.

Next morning we were off for a jeep ride through the park, looking for wild rhinos and elephants. We spent several hours bucketing about in the back of the truck and saw plenty of elephants and deer and even a few rhinos. The Indian one horned rhino is critically endangered (far more deserving of CITES protection than agarwood) and it was wonderful to see this nearly blind and sweet vegetarian armoured creature nibbling away in the brush across the river but I couldn’t help but be grateful that I started traveling when I did, way back I the 80s. I remember I rode an elephant through the Terai brush in Nepal early one morning in 1985, following one of those big rhinos for hours, getting about 20 feet away from him. 

 After this it was off to Upper Assam and the land of agarwood distilleries. We wound up in the late afternoon at the distillery of a delightful Hindu man (most agarwood people are Muslim) and served a delicious lunch that perfectly matched the delicious oudh oil. I learnt quite a bit about the actual distilling that I didn’t know. The chips (not dust here) are distilled for maybe 4 days, then removed. Then the wood is distilled another 7 days maybe. Then removed again. Then it’s distilled another 10 days or so, depending, constantly removed and checked to make sure it hasn’t reached the point where it hardens. Once that happens you have boyah and the oudh plummets in value. You can sell boyah as well, but not for nearly as much. Boyah is the stuff that gets hard. It’s from white wood, not infected or with very little infection. Most of what you see in the US is boyah. Even though it is technically agarwood oil, distilled from an agarwood tree, it’s not oudh.

So this was a fine opportunity to try each fraction (for want of a better word) of the oudh. I have never had that opportunity before. I must interject that nowhere in Assam did I see the things that usually spell suspicion of adulteration to me. In each and every family distillery I saw exactly what I would have expected to see. It’s a nice surprise to have no ugly surprises.

Oud fractions

Realizing the day was almost over Quavi propelled me into the car and we shot off toward the agarwood market in the deepening twilight. After endless turns and through enchanting but completely disorienting landscape we came upon a space by the side of the road littered with bikes laden with entire small agarwood trees. Well, I don’t usually get intimidated but I sure as hell did here. These guys were quite obviously not pleased to see me, and, I later learned, nor Quavi. No one knows whether to love him or hate him I guess. And me? I think they thought I was a CITES official or a journalist. I foolishly had my camera with me. Later Quavi laughed at me and said he didn’t know why I felt intimidated but really it was something. These guys, not one of them smiling, pressed in really really close and the vibe made me realize just how far away I was from anything or anyone who might have cared if I got lynched.
Notice there's no people in this picture?

Obviously man made infection
But aside from that, and figuring that I was already in the soup anyway, I managed to squeeze off a few blurry photos of the infections. Some were obviously naturally occurring and some were cajoled out at knifepoint! I didn’t get any answers to prices as I had taken it about as far as I could and I figured I should go get back in the car. I could see Quavi about 50 feet away surrounded by his own gang of angry farmers. And he didn’t look so comfortable either, despite what he said later.

Anyway, we lived.

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