I have once again run away from the mass hysteria of Calcutta during the Pujas. And for the second time running, opted to be instead in Mizoram, Aizawl more precisely. Apart from having my good friend Ravi here, I have become quite fond of this place and its people. Plus of course the chance, and the second one this year, to be up in the mountains.Okay, the mountains of Mizoram are not the Himalayas or even close to it, but they are mountains, and it's where I always prefer to be for some quiet time. It's why I'm here. Quiet time. Well, I have brought some work with me, but I already know I'm unlikely to complete it. Maybe I don't intend to?
The monsoon never wants to let go. It wanes, and just when you begin to look forward to the dry, slightly cold spell that we deign to call a winter in Calcutta which will surely follow the monsoon season, the rain returns with a vengeful fury. That's how I took off from Calcutta. In blinding rain. And then we popped through the clouds to stunning sunlight. But we rode over thick, roiling clouds for the good part of an hour all the way to Imphal.
Taking off from Imphal for Lengpui airport of Mizoram was uneventful since it wasn't raining there. But just as we approached Lengpui, the captain announced that we may have to abandon landing there as visibility was bad and the instrumentation down at air traffic control had some technical problems. The aircraft cabin groaned in unison and there was nothing to be done. But land we did. And that was such a good feeling. I really hate flying in planes. I don't have a fear of flying. I just don't care for it.
(But some time in my life I need to experience a ride on a hot-air balloon. And some paragliding.)
Here I must make mention of a couple of notable incidents that occurred prior to my departure to Lengpui in Calcutta airport. The first was at the Indian Airlines, now Air India, counter. I had a discounted ticket and the Economy fare counters were brimming with passengers, most of whom were re-confirming cancelled flights from the day before. A baggage handler came up and asked me my flight details and then took me to the Golden Edge, the frequent flyer counter, which already had a passenger checking in before me. The lady at the counter seeing me wait redirected me to the empty Executive Class desk. I was checked in without any hassle. Not only that, the baggage handler at this counter wrote out my cabin baggage tag with my name and destination in beautiful calligraphic handwriting!
The second incident was at departures security. I had a matchbox and cigarette lighter in my hand baggage and no one removed them. So much for anti-terrorist measures!
Ravi of course greeted me on my landing and took care of my Inner Line Permit formalities. I have no idea why the government carries on with this. The ILP is mandatory for any non-Mizo. You fill in a couple of forms with the usual trivia about yourself, cough up a hundred and a half, and you are permitted to stay there for 15 days, or 7 days, or whatever. No verification of any sort is done by the police personnel stationed at the airport for this purpose. I'm not sure if foreigners or non-Indian passport holders are treated differently.
The Chaltlang Tourist Lodge of the Mizoram government remains in the same state of partial disrepair as I left it the last time last year. I've even been given the same room overlooking the graveyard, with the balcony facing the eastern hills. Ravi and I stand there giving ourselves a Manali buzz and I spot that beautiful house up on the hill opposite my room where I had been a guest for a couple of hours during my last visit.
I enquire with Ravi about my warm hosts from that evening and he immediately calls up Jane who's driving back from work. She tells me Zo, Zothan, her husband is at the Tourist Lodge at that very moment making reservations for an upcoming seminar. Ravi gets hold of him and we sit and have a few drinks from one of the bottles I have brought in from Calcutta in my room. Jane and Zo are both doctors independently in charge of a couple of important units of the Mizoram government's health department. He has to go, and leaves us with an open invite to his house one of these days before I return.
The next day Ravi and I catch up for lunch after his work. We walk quite a bit and I take in the sights and smells from Chanmari to the Burra Bazar area to Treasury Square and Secretariat, the main government areas, and finally to the 23 Assam Rifles HQ in Khatla. Probably 4 kilometres.The Indian lunch at the Ritz Hotel was more than a disappointment. It was a disaster. Both the dishes looked and tasted the same despite having different names and meats. And the less I talk of the taste, the less of phantom indigestion will I suffer. Anyway...
Around the corner from the hotel we come across a blind lady singing a Mizo song karaoke style. She has a PA setup run on a scooter battery and she does have a nice voice. I feel generous. But we walk a bit and see another blind man with a similar setup. A few paces later there's a third blind karaoke singer. My generosity has its limits.
We briefly go to a couple of offices to meet people Ravi has work with. He knows a lot of folks in this town. We also meet up with Ronnie, my cousin's brother in-law who owns 'Hustler', a gift shop in Burra Bazar, and we plan to down a few together one of these evenings. The Burra Bazar has a different look, feel and smell than its eponymous cousin in Calcutta. Aizawl's BB is crowded but surprisingly clean. Its nice to walk past small shops, many with entire families manning them, rather than vaguely glide past plastic-and-steel 'outlets' in shopping malls. A shopping mall has come up here – Millennium Centre – but it did not seem to be one. It had the look and air of an office building where all the employees were absconding to watch a cricket match on TV at the neighbourhood electronics shop window.
We drop in on Jane in her office. She gives us black tea and biscuits and some pleasant conversation. We then walk on to the Assam Rifles HQ to meet with another pal of Ravi's, Major Aman Puri.
The Army and civilian worlds exist in parallel. And ne'er the twain shall meet. Except when you need booze in this one of three Indian states that have prohibition. Alcohol is one of the staples of Army life, and its perennial availability in military canteens is the meeting point for civilians who have the privilege of accessing that fertile source of intoxicating spirits. Purposeful? Could be.
The Army has its own agenda as to its large, and more than obvious presence here. It is unnerving and not quite everything it is cut out to be. But I shall reserve further comment. Let's just say I wish it wasn't so overbearing.
Aman himself is an astute, articulate young officer destined to go places. Both he and his wife come from a couple of generations of military backgrounds, so he's a natural defence personnel. He's clear that there is antagonism among Mizos for non-Mizos and the military. He deals with it by being high-handed when requests for the military alcohol quota come in. He wins his Pyrrhic victory and everyone's happy.
(An afterword: there is partial prohibition in Manipur, I'm not clear how. It is commonly known that the supply of illicit liquor is run by one of the hardcore groups supporting the state government from the outside to finance their operations. Prohibition in Mizoram and Nagaland is Church driven and influenced. And we all know why they have it in Gujarat, Gandhi's land. Ha, ha.)
At this time of the year, the monsoon season, clouds are a wispy, overwhelming presence. You wake up to bright sunshine and look forward to a clear day, when without notice, the sun is wiped out by thick cumulo-nimbus monsters. You see them approaching up the valley seemingly at snail's pace, and then in a couple of blinks, they are floating mistily around the hotel and my room. A smell precedes them, and then pervades the immediate environment.
It is not an unpleasant odour. It is like smoke coming off the burning embers of some light wood. It is also damp, leaving moisture on my skin. At one point, with enough gathered, a suffocating sensation overcomes me.
For an hour or so, the clouds waft about, and then depart lazily up the mountain sides to congregate on the tops, giving the city a loose turban of dirty white. Rain is an inevitable feature and it brings a chill to the weather. Even when the sun is let free of its prison of vaporous fleece to shine down on us soaked creatures, the chill factor remains. You know now winter will begin to trudge its heavy way into your life in the next couple of weeks.
Beraw Tlang is up another mountain that lies opposite Aizawl. It is a picturesque place and the right location for a tourist lodge. Ravi and I get there when it is raining but that soon stops. We sit out on the open terrace and I imagine the wonderful potential and possibilities for a place like this.
The approach to tourism here is one of relaxed basics. The goods on offer are simple enough to give pleasant memories but somehow I think more value can be added. Mizoram is a place for nature tourism. Thankfully, it has no religious spots because that brings with it quite a different breed of tourists who are demanding, careless of local sentiments, and uncaring for all but their selfish creature comforts while they make the journey to commune with their gods.
Mizoram's natural beauty is the grace reflected in its peoples. Strange I don't see many birds here. Of the feathered variety, that is. The women of Mizoram though, have an Oriental beauty that is delightful. No matter how overtly Western their way of presentation, strong elements of their own culture and traditions adorn their dress sense, their mannerisms, and their outlook.
Tourism is as much about the land as it is of her people. Ravi, perhaps because of the position he is in and also because he is a very amiable guy, knows many interesting people. I have never usually been disappointed with the people he has introduced me to. I've already mentioned Zo and Jane, and will say more about them a little later. Then the last time I visited there was the ex-Chief Minister, the charismatic Mr Lalthanhawla, who unfortunately is away in Delhi for medical reasons, so I miss meeting him this time.
This time I met Makuka, one of 7 brothers and a sister and their respective families who all live together in what they call a “colony”. It's a large, joint family property, a tribal thing, and I absolutely love the concept. The nuclearisation of family life in the cities has its own problems even as you cite the advantages. Such “colony” life is a stronghold against urbanisation in many ways.
Makuka is a musician first and foremost and a man after my own heart. He gave up a fairly prosperous business as a contractor to do his own thing some years ago. Which is music. He has trained himself to be a better drummer through correspondence material for 10 long years and continues to do so waiting for the right moment to do a public performance, even though he was already a reputed drummer in the music scene of the North East. Right now he represents music equipment manufacturers like Yamaha, Behringer and so on, selling, installing and training the buyers in their uses.
His son, Boom, is a guitar player with his own band, Boomarang.
They are now considered one of the top rock bands in this part of the country, and have gone on to win some fame and fortune in mainland India as well. While I'm not too crazy about the sort of music they play, at least they're composing their own stuff, and considering the background he comes from, Boom will eventually turn out to be a big name one day.
We talked of many things: music, politics, religion. The adda of Calcutta's Pujas was taking place in faraway Mizoram as well! We agreed that music competitions on TV shows were sad and of no real musical consequence. If such great singers are being generated every year, where is the scope for these competition winners to progress in their musical careers, find their own niche, and not have to depend entirely on the vagaries of a blatantly commercial recording and distribution industry that is only keen on Number One pop hits?
Makuka was just back from a bereavement in the family in Belgaum down in Karnataka. He was thoroughly moved by the way he was treated there and he was emotional. We discussed what being Indian meant for us. I propounded my own theory of secularism which I say is the implicit acknowledgement of separate communities, and hence the divisions that exist within the fabric of our nation. What secularism for India should actually mean is the existence of peace and understanding among all communities and peoples, regardless of their faith and culture. This can be unique only to India with our rich variety and diversity that becomes interwoven with a tacit Indianness. One of Makuka's brothers, David, is a Congress MLA. It looks like the essence of the true Congress spirit exists in places like Mizoram rather than in mainland India where it has been severely eroded.
Makuka is also very Christian in his lifestyle. No, he is not a Bible thumper. He just lives the life and doesn't need to advertise it. Praise and worship for him is through music and sincerely keeping the faith. He and his family have adopted the child of an ex-prisoner and is educating and caring for his well-being. They have taken in a woman of slight mental retardation who works as a domestic help in his house along with another woman who was a prostitute. They are not servants. They are part of the family, and I am introduced to them accordingly.
...continued Sunday - Tuesday:Part 2