“You watchin’ me smoke?”
In the old markets around the Charminar in Hyderabad.
35mm, f2.2, 1/60, ISO 200.
The 12 pm jeep that I had booked in Aizawl to go to Kolasib got delayed indefinitely because the President of India was visiting the city. So a lot of us who had to go elsewhere had to wait the few hours before the President, his convoy, his entourage and his security people could pass through the main thoroughfare. While local cops and some of the residents gathered on the pavements to watch the convoy go, I sat glumly inside the tiny medical shop that doubled as the taxi booking counter watching Aizawalites shop for all the drugs they required for their myriad ailments.
The consequence of this delay was that I wouldn’t reach Kolasib until after dark. The Tourist lodge in Kolasib, located on a slope below the highway, looked like it was getting ready for a party. There was a stage being put up, a truck unloaded and a garden decorated hastily with LED lights. The reception desk was empty and I wandered around the space looking for anyone who looked like they worked at the place. None of the people putting up the lights or unloading the trucks had any idea and as I looped around the building, I asked an old man sitting in a corner absorbed in cutting onions if he knew where the receptionist was. He beamed a smile and proudly introduced himself as the caretaker of the property.
The old man was a bit of an eccentric. He said he didn’t have any rooms available but when I reminded him that I had made an online booking and showed him a receipt, instantly an entire buffet of rooms opened up. He took me around the lodge and I had a look at the entire gallery of ramshackle rooms that were up for grabs, from crumbling cottages set around the garden to dark, bare rooms deep inside the corridors. When I asked him why he said he didn’t have any rooms, he told me that there was a wedding about to happen the next day and he feared all the rooms might have been taken up by the families of the guests.
Two hours later, I told him I would like to have dinner and he said there was no food available but when I began throwing a bit of a panicky fit (because the lodge was a good distance away from the main town and I did not want to go hunting for food in the dark), he summoned up an elaborate list of items he could prepare to satisfy my pangs. My dinner, then, would consist of a plate of pakodas for starters followed by large bowl of dal, a mountain of rice, numerous chappatis, two varieties of chicken curry, four different vegetables (potatoes, mushroom roast, stir-fried beans, mutter paneer) and some gulab jamuns for dessert to go with. When I asked him why he claimed to have no food, he said I was fortunate because the cook for the marriage party had stayed back and he had used some of the raw material reserved for the wedding to cook me this gargantuan meal.
Having eaten to my heart’s content, I tried socializing with some of the wedding guests who had arrived. These were to be my last two days in Mizoram and I wished to make as much of it as I could. One gentlemen, who frequently went to Mumbai on business, explained the profound differences he felt between the two cities and cultures like it was the sort of intimate knowledge only he possessed. There was more air to breathe in Mizoram, the pace of life was more relaxed, people were more spiritually rigorous owing to the Church, the hills were more beautiful, the roads were more terrible, the climate was cooler etc.
I made a lame excuse and went to another corner where a group of young boys were fiddling with the playlists on their phones near the DJ console. These boys were among the most musically secular people I’d ever come across. The speakers would be wailing an Adele song one moment, then effortlessly move on to the cantankerous rap of 50 Cent and just as indifferently shift to Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden. I went up to one of them wearing a leather jacket and a hoodie if he preferred any of these. “I can’t say,” he said thoughtfully, “They are all good, you know. Music is music.”
The next day, I wandered about the streets of Kolasib. It was as calm and easy as the other Mizo towns I’d been to with windings lanes, vertiginous slopes, overhanging trees and churches adorning the hillocks. As I walked around trying to find a decent place to eat, I was reminded of what I was going to miss when I went back to the more crowded, noisier towns outside Mizoram. There was a laconic beauty to the laidback, unassuming life here that wouldn’t be so easy to find elsewhere.
At a corner by the market square, I again ran into the musically secular boys from the previous night’s party. They were headed for lunch to a yuppie café in the innards of the town and invited me to tag along. The place had a typically teenager menu of fries, maggi, cheese sandwich, bad coffee etc. I slurped my bowl of maggi silently while the boys were engaged in a raging debate in Mizo about something. Their argument became so animated after a point that I thought they would come to blows. But one of the quieter boys in the group pacified the two calmly after which everyone sat at the table staring at their bowls.
I took advantage of this lull in the storm to ask the quiet guy what they were talking about. He just shook his head and discreetly motioned me to keep my mouth shut. But my snooping was overheard by one of the boys at the center of this brawl. He asked me, face snarling with swagger, “Do you drink alcohol?” I said yes. “Some of us like to drink. But this man,” pointing at the boy he was arguing with, “doesn’t want us to. He works for the MNF. He wants a ban for alcohol across Mizoram.”
“It is a sin against God”, said the other dude.
“It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that it is a sin. You want people to stop drinking because you want to be in power.”
“You know I speak the truth. Too much drinking is a sin. Will you drink only one beer and say it’s enough? No. You’ll have many more and get drunk and create nuisance. You won’t go to work because you get sick. Then you’ll steal money so you can buy more drinks. That’s the problem. But you don’t understand.”
Mizoram had been wrestling with prohibition since the late 80s when it was first imposed in the state. It was lifted in 2014 after the Congress Government came to power because they felt too many people were falling prey to spurious liquor. But this had been opposed tooth and nail by both the Church and the Mizo National Front, who vowed to reimpose prohibition if they came back to power. In the month I spent in Mizoram, alcohol had been consumed widely at every tourist spot I had been to and was often the only cause of unruly behaviour I had experienced.
They then resumed the argument in Mizo and went hammer and tongs at it again. The quiet guy looked at me wearily and said, “Now they talk about girlfriends.” So I ordered another cup of sugary coffee and sat there listening to them talk about their girlfriends in a language I didn’t understand.