The house stood on a hill covered with bamboo thickets. It was raised on concrete pillars twelve feet above the ground and looked slightly askew, as if ferocious winds had buffeted it. The old wooden boards slanted to the left, though looking up from the sloping path to the house, the pointed dome of the hill behind the house and the triangular ridging of the roof appeared to be joined in a perfect line. More hills loomed behind.

An old cane sofa, a table and a couple of stools were placed haphazardly on the veranda. No one seemed to be about. The front door was wide open. I walked in. Bright sunlight spilled in through thin cotton curtains and the emptiness inside the house gave it an air of a transit camp. I knew this was the old part of the house. I had been here before but this visit was coming after a gap of many years. I noticed a new extension that jutted out on a slope overlooking a clump of trees surrounded by rice fields.

“Hello, hello!” I called out, not worried by the absence of people because I knew someone would come round by and by. I peered out of the window. A path below to the right led to a lake and a zoo, and the road on the left was the national highway that skirted a big hotel and turned in towards the city of Itanagar. From this intersection another road ran straight through the mountains to Gohpur town in Assam.

A pile of books was stacked in one corner and the wooden boards of this room were tacked with calendars in horizontal layers of bright colours. There were pictures of flowers, lakes, gushing waterfalls, gods and goddesses, the sacred heart of Jesus, lilies, Japanese art, sea birds, snowflakes, everything; and they came with the printed names of shops, agencies, student unions, arms dealers, cement mixers and a host of other companies who had taken the trouble to print out these pictures for all the years that had come and gone.

A number of dates were circled in green ink. Perhaps they were important dates. What had been so important, I wondered. Where had the owner of the house come by this great collection?

“Ah, everywhere I went, every time I bought something in every small town, I was given a calendar. I don’t know why,” said the owner of the house. He was an elderly man in his mid-fifties who had come in from working outside somewhere in the big compound. “I thought I would put them up like this,” he said. “Pity to throw them away. Anyway, they brighten up the place, don’t you think?”

“Yes, but what are these dates – all circled?”

“Well, they are just marks. March – May – summer – winter – a reminder of time for an ageing politician, that’s all. Tell me, how are you?”

“I am working on a project. That’s what I came to tell you.”

“You look happy,” he said.

I was feeling happy. I was starting work on something that interested me, and it felt good to be sitting drinking tea on the veranda. “I wanted to ask you some questions,” I said.

“Oh, like what kind of questions?”

“Questions about you, politics...your life...”

“Hmm...What is there to tell? You can ask anyone here about me and they will tell you more than I would ever be able to! What don’t people know about politicians?”

This was true. No one was better known than Lutor, the veteran politician with his long and successful career in politics since the formation of the state. Children shouted his name and women’s faces broke into smiles when he entered a village. Men spoke of him with evident camaraderie and he was welcomed wherever he went.

“I have some good friends, that is all,” he said, sipping tea in between answering my questions about his political career. He laughed when I pointed out that everyone spoke about him as if he had extraordinary powers to predict the future. Yes, he knew about that but he disputed that he had any powers. “Look at me,” he said, “do you think I look any different from the man next door?”

No, he looked like any one of my uncles with a familiar, dependable face, but I didn’t say anything. I had an idea of Lutor’s reticence and I knew this was his way of making conversation to deflect interest away from himself. Nothing about him gave any sign of his extraordinary influence on the lives of men and women in the villages. But I knew something of his past and I shared an association with some of the characters in a story from long ago when everything had been different and full of possibilities.

That evening, I opened the windows of my small study and stared out at the hills. Everything was still. I looked around the room. There was the table. The lamp. The pen. I rummaged through a pile of papers until I found an old journal marked “NEFA NOTEBOOK”. Other than a few entries in a clear, slanting hand there was little else in the book except a photo of a young man sitting on a stone with one arm resting on his knee as if posing for some artistic effect.

In the background was a bamboo hut, slightly out of focus. I began flicking through the pages. A piece of paper fell out. I picked it up carefully, knowing what it was. It was a blank sheet folded in two that held a piece of pressed fern. I stared at it. How old was this piece of memorabilia? It was almost withered away, but here it was – these things that had been nudging at me all these years to look again at this green life offering food, shelter, medicine; and explore the secrets of their buried, invisible roots.

Now the brown memento was so old and stiff it was ready to fall apart if I touched it too much. It could go into the fire and that would be that. The lives of people in every village and district had changed since the time this piece of fern had been so carefully pressed in between the thin pages of a book. There were new roads and new towns growing faster than anyone could have imagined. Yet the land remained the same. Nothing could change the outline of the hills.

In the dry winter months, the jungle could be pushed back but the next summer would always see the return of wild creepers flaunting their monstrous beauty and clinging to the swooning trees. No work force with hundreds of men and machinery and giant excavators could dig away the trees and rocks and fling the insidious vine into a permanent death.

I held the photo and continued to gaze out. I could feel the chill settling on my shoulders. Something was tugging at my heart. I hit the light switch and the small lamp made a yellow pool of light on the table. I thought about Lutor and the things he had said about the mountains and how they were always there, rearing up over our lives. But now I sensed something else.

A lake was hidden somewhere and a small wave was curling and lifting, as if to peel back the surface, beginning with a corner, there – along the quiet edge of water. Was it true what Lutor had said, that everyone was born with an original obsession? From what age did anyone begin to realise this? Was it from the time a person could dream?

No, Lutor had said. It was after the first setback, or even very late, maybe after several setbacks. It was the time when you realised life can fool you and you have to fight back. Then you find out which way your heart lies and after some time, suddenly, the rules of the game are trespassed. The common guidelines no longer apply. Instinct takes over and we act according to our memory of the original obsession.

Escaping The Land

Excerpted with permission from Escaping The Land, Mamang Dai, Speaking Tiger.