Purple berries of fire- Mishmi Hills
Exploring the Mishmi Hills over a century ago in 1912, FM Bailey had mentioned the treacherous terrain where 'blood-sucking flies were troublesome'. As Miwu and I clambered up a horseshoe-shaped mountain in the same region, swatting the notorious blood-sucker damdum flies and slipping on pine needles, 'troublesome' seems like a mild under-statement.
Parts of the Mishmi Hills where nobody has set foot in several centuries
On the moss covered trees, a pair of beautiful sibias flitted from branch to branch while the all-pervasive whistles of the hill partridges echoed through the bamboo forest further down in the valley. We struggled to chart out a route upwards as the forest was too dense to see further ahead. After ascending through treacherous terrain on all fours, we hit a rock face eighty feet tall and covered in scree. There is no way around. Simultaneously we sigh.
Tightening the waist-straps of our large rucksacks we retrace our steps and attempt to find another route up. Miwu, lithe and powerful, hacks through with his copper-handled dao vaguely following a game trail probably used by linsangs and leopard cats.Â The chill mountain air nipped the inside of my nose and stung my forehead even though under my jacket I was bathed in perspiration.
Parts of the forest that receive almost no direct sunlight in the winters
On my right, growing right above a patch of unmelted snow, amongst ferns is a small plant about a foot in length. The primary stem has four small, succulent-looking light purple berries hanging from its tip. Miwu is a few metres ahead. I call out to him to inspect the plant and ask him, "can people eat these berries?" (kya log isko kha sakte hai?). He studies them for a couple of seconds, looks me in the eye and replies, "yes, people eat these when they run out of water". I looked at my waterbottle- it was half filled and rather than stop, unpack the bag, get the pot out, light a fire, gather and melt snow once again I thought that a couple of berries would keep me going until we camp for the day.
I popped a berry into my mouth and took a few chews as a trial, a trick taught to me by the aboriginals of the Australian outback. First, take a small nibble and keep it in your mouth for a few seconds then spit it out. Then pause for a few moments. If it doesn't tingle then take a couple more chews and swallow it down and wait once again. (Then they would give a larger bit to the elder folk of the tribe- if they survived it was good to eat, if they died it probably wasn't!)
Neither did I have any elder folk to try it out on and nor did I mistrust Miwu. However, about four chews I violently spat it out. My tongue was burning, scorching as if I had swallowed goblet of fire! The acrid, blistering juice penetrated the roof of my palate, my tongue, gums, everywhere! I scraped my tongue with my nails in an attempt to reduce the sting, while my eyes started watering. My heart was racing, throbbing in my head. It felt like a hundred bee stings were simultaneously piercing the insides of my mouth. I furiously coughed and spat and cleared my throat and spat and spat. However, within seconds it had spread further down my gullet and into my chest cavity, it felt like crushed glass was fanning out, spreading through the tiny arteries and blood vessels around my lungs sending waves of shooting, sharp pain across. Nothing I did seemed to abate or arrest the spread. I walked a few feet ahead and asked Miwu whether those berries were edible at all. He replied, "Oh so you ate them? Who told you to eat them?". "I ASKED YOU!" I retorted. "You simply asked whether people eat them, I did not tell you to eat them!" he laughed (meine bas bola ke log usko khate hai, khane ke liye thodi na bola tha!). I gargled my mouth with the remaining water and had a few sips, and only after a while did the discomfort die down.
A quick breather as we ascend, right after I had popped the purple berry
Turns out, when the Idu Mishmi are in these forests in the drier months, they pop a few of these berries when they aren't able to find water in order to combat the mind-games that dehydration plays. Â Those who have been severely dehydrated will know of the trance, the stupor that you enter- that overwhelms your senses and reflexes, rendering them useless. The discomfort that these berries cause coupled with it coating the mouth with the acrid juice reduces the thirst and diverts your mind from hallucinating and getting delirious. Rather, you end up focussing on the painful irritation that they cause and that kind of kicks your senses into staying on track. For even a tiny lapse of focus in this unforgiving terrain could spell doom; a small misstep and one would go hurtling several hundred feet down the mountainside. Miwu smirkingly remembers the time his brother-in-law was with him, dehydrated, he trusted a loose rock with his weight and went tumbling down, fortunately breaking only a couple of bones as his dao strap got entangled in a tree and arrested his fall.
The potentially devastating effects of the dehydration in the wild cannot be downplayed; it takes your senses further away and away from you forming a vicious spiral. To read about how getting dehydrated felt in the sweltering terai forests when I was part of the tiger-monitoring team click here.
Smiling Miwu as we finally find a piece of flat land to lay our sleeping bags for the night
All photographs and text by Arjun Kamdar