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Into the Hidden Valley

By Stuart Blackburn

Click here to buy Into the Hidden Valley.

One day in early March, the boys in Gyati’s group were sent to collect wood. They left at sunrise and walked to the northern end of the valley, where they began to climb. After an hour, they broke through the mist shrouding the valley and kept climbing, past rhododendron bushes and wild cardamom flowers, up to the wet smell of pine.

Sitting on piles of needles to keep themselves clean, they ate a mixture of cold rice and spinach leaves and drank rice-beer from hollowed-out bamboo tubes. Sunlight filtered through the dense foliage as they rested. But Gyati felt uneasy. Unlike paddy fields, forests had no clear boundaries, and no one really knew what separated Apatani from Nyishi land.

By early afternoon, they had felled a thick oak with their crude axes. When the excess had been chopped into firewood, everything was thrust into deep V-shaped baskets hoisted onto the back and secured by a tumpline across the forehead. The heavy load made the descent difficult, and the young men edged sideways down the steep slope, steadying themselves with walking sticks.

Gyati was looking down and bumped into another boy when they came to a sudden stop. Nyishi men blocked the path. The Apatanis turned and looked at each other, though none said a word or moved an inch. They outnumbered the Nyishis, but they were young and burdened by their loads.

‘That’s our wood! Drop it now or we’ll cut off your hands!’ The Nyishis drew machetes and stepped closer. Gyati shrank back. They’re capable of anything, he thought, as a blade flashed in front of his face. He wanted to run but his legs couldn’t move.

‘Manyang!’ someone in his group cried, identifying one of the Nyishis as a ceremonial friend. ‘Manyang,’ the Nyishi man replied and confirmed the bond. In the blink of an eye, the tension had been deflated. Fear drained from Gyati’s body and he nearly collapsed.

Machetes were sheathed, baskets lowered to the ground and the two groups sat around a quickly-mustered fire. The Nyishis handed around tobacco from their cane pouches, while the Apatanis shared their rice-beer.

Soon it emerged that the Nyishi man owed two pigs to the father of his Apatani ceremonial friend. After several impromptu speeches, punctuated with miscellaneous accusations, it was agreed that the pig debt was equal to the allegedly stolen wood. All square, and the Nyishis departed along a path that led to their settlement on a mountain ridge a few miles away.

As the Apatanis threaded their way back down to the valley, Gyati thought about what had happened. He had tried to follow every word and gesture, his eyes darting back and forth between speakers. Somehow, he told himself, confrontation had turned to cooperation because of what was said. Words had revealed and revived a bond. But what if those words hadn’t existed?

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