It gets dark here by a quarter past five. Lights begin to come on in the houses. The old cliché of such a scene resembling a multitude of stationary, but blinking fireflies on the hillside is an apt one to use here. The friendly clouds have departed from my level, but the senior lot high above has let loose its watery load. The sound of rain falling in the hills and on the plains, in the city, has major auditory differences.
And then it stops to rain. Just like that. The straggler clouds, much smaller in size, are still drifting in to my room and passing through the open door into the corridor outside. A sodium vapour street lamp casts an eerie glow on the cemetery. The straggler clouds wreathe about the headstones of the graves. Another cliché from a Ramsay Brothers film of the 70s! My daughter comes to mind, and I smile to myself thinking of how she loved to hear ghost stories as a child. I call her, but the connection is bad, must be the weather. We speak anyway, and I describe the scene before me. She laughs and says something I can't make out with the signal drops, but it sounded like a word or two of caution! When my child makes me smile I get the most wonderful feeling.
These mountains are not old, geologically speaking. At least not as old as the Himalayan range, which itself is comparatively new and apparently still growing. You cannot see snow-capped peaks or towering heights that amplify your own diminutiveness as you would were you in, say, Himachal Pradesh. But there's a rugged beauty here; a constant reminder of the wonder of nature. I have come during the monsoon which has added to the lush green cover. A million shades of green spangle the hillsides. One area seemed to have a strange carpet-like look to it. On approaching closer I saw they were the leaves of the squash plant vines. The squash, iskut as it's locally called, is a popular vegetable and extensively farmed. What I didn't know was that it grows under the cover of the vines, something like grapes.
My friend Ravi, who's been here for 8 or 9 years, wanted to take us to Champhai, east of Aizawl and not too far from the Myanmar border. I'm told that is wild and beautiful country but we couldn't go as there had been a landslide on the road and no telling when that would be cleared. The monsoon rains cause massive landslides and it was a risk we decided not to take. Instead we went to see some of the highest points around Aizawl. First we went to Berawtlang where there's another tourist lodge. The Mizoram Science Centre is immediately behind. Strategically built, the open terrace overlooks a valley and across it a panoramic view of Aizawl spread over 4 or 5 hills. It seems not an inch of space has been left untouched by housing in that city. The tin and aluminium roofs glitter diamond-like in the sunshine breaking through the clouds.
Two young Mizo couples are being video-taped by another. We think its just some normal handycam stuff happening until we see an older lady giving directions. We then realise they're shooting some sort of movie, probably a local music video. It's fun, watching them doing retakes at being lovey-dovey. We sit there for a few hours, vodka benumbed, till we see clouds creeping over Aizawl from behind, gently blanketing the city. We move then, back towards the city through Zembawk, passing the main bus stand and what is the red-light area.
On Sundays, Aizawl shuts down completely. The Church allows citizens to do nothing and expects them to attend 4 or 5 services throughout the day. We pass a Durga Puja happening in the Border Roads Task Force camp and I reject Ravi's suggestion to visit. We go to the helipad controlled by the Assam Rifles to get a closer 180° view of Aizawl on the mountains opposite. From there we drive on to Lungdai, the highest point of Aizawl. If the Church's establishments are omnipresent, the military is no less. Assam Rifles control the entire North East, and the BRO, Border Roads Organisation and their BRTF controls the roads. Yes the roads are good, but they are not so for the citizens as much as they are for the convenience of the military. BRTF have given themselves a nickname, Pushpak, and all over you can see signs which read, “Mizoram and Pushpak – Made For Each Other”. The blatancy of the military has never been poetic, and I realise they are vainly attempting to compete with the Church's multiple signages all over. Not that they need to. They have the power to overwhelm anyone at a moment's notice. I feel disgusted somehow.
Lungdai may be the highest point but there is nothing there for me to get the complete view I had imagined. We stand by the side of the road and look at the play of light from the setting sun on the mountain sides. On our way back, passing through the village of Sihpir, Ravi spots an old friend. Tipi is a bubbly, friendly sort who runs a small primary school in the village and tells us Calcutta is the best place in India. For a moment I wonder if she's being sarcastic, but I realise she's dead serious! We finish the remaining vodka in the remains of the day, sitting in her house and watching the lovely mountains from her window. She promises to come to my hotel tomorrow and take me around Aizawl. I would like that; to get an insider's view of this charming place.
We finally end up at the last high (in more ways than one!) point where the Theological College stands. Once again, Aizawl twinkles like fairy lights in the dark, and it is breath-taking. Ravi bumps into other friends as we stand there. Jane and Zothana Ralte are doctors but non-practising. They are both in government health service and occupy senior bureaucratic positions. Their house, built a couple of years ago, is just beneath where we had been standing watching the view, and it's really a beautiful place. Mizos are friendly and welcoming hosts; Jane and Zo will not take no for an answer as they invite us down. Not that I had any intention of refusing! We meet their sons, the older one practising on his electric guitar, as the younger one plays games on the PC.
I again ask Zo and Jane my favourite question about Mizoram's economy. While Zo says its agriculture and not the impression I have, he does not sound very convincing. It's obvious livelihoods revolve about the government. They tell me that while AIDS is a menace it has reached a state of stagnation. AIDS in Mizoram is mainly due to drug addicts re-using needles rather than unprotected sex as is the case in other parts of India. I hear that after many years the community has accepted the reality of HIV/AIDS and is now working together to help each other out. Earlier, AIDS awareness campaigns had scared people till the Church got into the act and began to preach about it from their many pulpits. This, and the strong, organised reach of the YMA – Young Mizo Association, the Elders Councils and the Women's Group have managed to bring about a sea-change in people's attitude to AIDS. We are offered a local red wine illegally distilled in the grape growing area of Nala, near Champhai. It's not too sweet but I opt for a Teacher's and we have a convivial evening.
It's 9 pm when we return to the hotel and the effects of all the heights we have experienced today have taken a toll on me. I gratefully pass out to wake this morning with the rising sun.