The valley of the Shidi River occupies the easternmost wrinkle in India’s scrunched-up forehead, the Himalayan range. Thick jungle covers slopes that rise from its banks, and around its headwaters, to ridgelines that delineate the border with Myanmar. Fenced in to the north, east, and south by those geographical and political boundaries, the river rushes west, aimed at the vast drainage of the Brahmaputra basin. If borders were visible from the air, the Shidi Valley would appear like a dark green finger, jutting out of northeastern India and pointing at Myanmar.
When dozens of families fleeing unrest and famine in Myanmar macheted their way into this valley in the 1950s, both India and what was then called Burma had already become independent states, but the border between the two had yet to be drawn. These migrants, belonging to the Lisu tribe (later given the exonym Yobin in India) found only the scattered, stateless settlements of Lisu forerunners who had arrived just a few years earlier. Before those initial incomers, and stretching back through time immemorial, the valley had only hosted temporary visitors: hunters; purveyors of jhum, an age-old slash-and-burn cultivation that shifts from year to year; and the occasional itinerant priest or monk. No records exist of any visit by a British, Indian, or Burmese representative of a state.
But in 1961, 14 years after India’s independence, the Indian army did finally reconnoiter the valley, and nine years after that, India and Burma agreed to define their border, if only with lonely stone pillars placed hundreds of miles apart. For those Lisus who happened to live within India’s new valley, their “discovery” and subsequent envelopment into India marks the beginning of a perhaps inevitable tryst that even the most remotely situated peoples must have with statehood.
The valley is home to what are probably the most remote villages in India
The first time I heard of the Shidi valley, albeit indirectly, was from a wizened old man in another valley, the Dibang, also in Arunachal Pradesh, a boomerang-shaped Indian state that abuts Tibet and northern Myanmar. The Dibang is remote, but unlike the Shidi, it has a road, electricity, and intermittent cell phone reception. As his grandson admired my friend’s camera, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked me a question with a sly look on his face.
“This boy keeps dreaming about what happens in Guwahati,” he said in Hindi, referring to northeast India’s biggest city, a smoke-choked urban nightmare a dozen hours’ drive from where we sat. “But no doubt people in Guwahati watch Delhi and Bombay on TV and dream about life in those cities, and then those city people must also be thinking about how it is in your country. And now you, here, came to find what?”
My response might have been incoherent because of my middling Hindi skills, but more likely because I’m not exactly sure what force attracts me to remote places, to seeking knowledge in the nooks and crannies of relative statelessness, to idealizing the isolated, the supposedly wild and natural, the flipside of my suburban upbringing. When I managed to mutter something like, “Cities are very polluted, and I don’t like how concrete looks, so I try to go far away,” the old man gestured vaguely at the layers of green, pyramidal peaks vanishing towards the east in the midday haze and said, “Then you should go there.”
Weeks later, on Google Maps, I determined that “there” was, unofficially, the Shidi valley.
The valley is home to what are probably the most remote villages in India, if we measure remoteness by distance from a motorable road. Upwards of 5,000 people live the better part of a week’s walk from the nearest road in Miao, where the river meets the plains. To reach the most distant villages, one must follow muddy footpaths that cross jungle-darkened hills and vanish along slippery creek beds, then along the rock-and-driftwood-strewn banks of the Shidi River—and further, traversing its tributaries on handmade bamboo bridges for almost 100 miles.