The author of Monpas: Buddhists of the High Himalayas, Vinay Sheel Oberoi, a former IAS officer, was breathing his last at the hospital when he repeatedly told his wife, “I have to finish this book.” For Nandini Oberoi and her daughters, it started a long journey of endless delays, meetings with publishers, travelling all the way to India’s far east, coping with the Covid second wave, and, at times, in the mid of it, saying “Let’s just let it be.”
But in January 2022, the book was released by Roli Books – crowned with a warm foreword by the 14th Dalai Lama and a spirited message from Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu about Monpas’ contribution to the literary world. It captures the lives of the Monpa people, a nomadic tribe living in the Tawang and West Kameng regions of Arunachal Pradesh. Nandini Oberoi though wasn’t lucky enough to see the book receive appreciation at the Jaipur Literary Festival held in March — she was down with Covid.
Not a typical bureaucrat
For more than 30 years, Vinay Sheel Oberoi had been closely linked to the Northeast in more ways than one. A professional life of civil service in the Assam-Meghalaya Cadre warranted economic and political interaction with the region — but unlike a typical bureaucrat, Vinay would fold his sleeves and let himself loose on the field to capture a lifetime’s memory with a camera in hand. Perhaps, it added colour to the drab routine of an IAS officer stationed in a place with little to no connectivity — and Nandini remembers it clearly. She tells ThePrint, “Connectivity would be a major problem in the area. I wouldn’t hear from him for many days on end.”
Right from the ‘90s, Vinay had other things on his mind — in 1999, he produced a film titled In The Forest Hangs A Bridge on the building of the 1,000-foot-long suspension bridge in the Damro village of Arunachal Pradesh. At the heart of the movie was the Adi tribe whose only tool in building the bridge was a machete-sized blade. A year later, the film went on to win the Golden Lotus, or the National Award for Best Feature Film.
Then Vinay would return to his desk, where he would contribute his administrative bit through various initiatives, including the National Mission on Bamboo Applications, which supported the manufacturing of engineered bamboo, activated charcoal, and gasifiers to generate electricity for the region.
Returning home, Vinay would add new photographs to the couple’s collection, which, Nandini thinks, had “more photos than most people have of any one place.” So much so, that in October 2018, the couple brought out the collection at an exhibition at the India International Centre, New Delhi to much acclaim, realising that Vinay’s work had higher potential. What had begun as a part-time indulgence turned into an ambitious pursuit for Vinay when his wife gifted him a professional camera to celebrate his retirement. Nandini now dismisses the admission with fond laughter: “Of course, there was the gift. But it all started with the one camera in his hand and him always clicking pictures.”
Soon after Vinay’s retirement, the couple had thought they were “ready for something like a coffee-table book.”
Monpas stays faithful to its original conception — it was never meant to be a scholarly dense academic work. For Vinay, Monpas were one of the many communities that turned from dry “associations” to “friendships”. And the author’s ‘friends’, having lived in the obscure pockets of India for centuries, were amazed knowing they were going to be featured on the glossy sheets of a Roli Books publication.
The travelogue showcases some of the best photographs from Vinay’s collection — a Monpa woman wearing a shingka and tasselled hat smiles on the cover, visuals of Torgya festivities with masked dancers enjoying smoked meat, Yak dances venerating Aum Jomo, the Brokpas deity, Buddhist prayer wheels and butter lamps lighting the Tawang Monastery, and the many Monpa matriarchs that make their livelihood through weaving, road building, and paper-making. The book also ventures into the home and hearths of the Monpa people, bathed in traditionally ordained colours in Buddhism — blue, white, red, green, and yellow — representing the elements. If you’re a guest, you are most likely to be draped in a tudong, a Monpa silk jacket, and offered a generous serving of yak butter tea.
Linking Northeast to India
In retrospect, Monpas proved to be more than a coffee-table book.
When asked why her husband felt so strongly about it, Nandini Oberoi raises some important questions — For how long can traditions sustain in an increasingly modernising world? Does the rest of India, with its cultural pomp that has dominated the narrative, know the history of the Monpas? Does it even have ‘access’ to it?
All we know about the Monpas is the sad, disjunct history of a community that experienced its first ‘crack’ with the drawing up of the McMahon Line in 1914 and got split between China, Tibet, and India through their geopolitical power play.
For Nandini, the book fills gaps in the Indian imagination of the Monpas and by extension, sheds light on the lack of knowledge of the Northeast. Placing the region at its cultural blindspot is India’s own doing. And to know better, one can’t simply use a telescopic lens — after Vinay passed away, Nandini went to Tawang, gathered missing details, sourced the handmade paper that queues as the book’s first sheet, and approached the Dalai Lama. While the Tawang she knew isn’t the same now — and won’t be in the coming years, for young Monpas are modifying their ways of living too — her husband’s book, she hopes, won’t be a distant memory.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)