Rishikesh #FIN

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7.

Jessica’s exit made Jasbir glum and morose for a couple of days. He became unusually pious, taking the front row seat at Swami D’s discourses and accompanying him to the Bhagavad Gita recitals at the ghats where he sat for hours on end rapt in attention. Even Swami D appeared to be perturbed by this abrupt change in character and would wonder if he was alright because although his old self could be highly repugnant, this newly reformed character was downright scary. In order to snap him back to his original, brash avatar, I would tell him that he was being like Joseph (whose lovelorn Romeo manifestation Jasbir abhorred) and induce him to make a crass joke or two, all to no avail.

Which is why I was taken aback when he showed up so cheerfully at the Green Italian Restaurant the day I was sitting with Mohan and Archana. Jasbir had been attending the yoga classes assiduously since Jessica’s departure and it was in one of those that he met Natalya, the Russian girl. She had the immediate effect of making him forget all about Jessica and while Jessica wouldn’t even look in his direction, Natalya found him highly endearing. She would make him tell her stories about his life in Delhi and would laugh at the mere suggestion of a joke.

Jasbir would insist that I join in some of these annoying displays of mutual courtships. We would be sitting in Chotiwalla, eating a thali, and Natalya would wonder loudly what was up with the bald guy with the pink paint all over his face sitting outside the restaurant all day. Then, Jasbir would make up a fictitious story which would give her laughter fits and have the entire place stare at our table. We would walk around Swargashram and Jasbir would make up ridiculous names for the babas lining the roads, calling one “Happy Baba”, another “Charsi Baba”, all very loudly, inviting the wrath of the people around us as they watched Natalya whelp with laughter.

One day, tired of being tagged along in these amorous escapades, I begged Jasbir to leave me out the next time. To which, Jasbir said, “Bhai, tu akela hai na? Mere saath ladki dekhega toh samjhega kaise patathe hai. Jalan bhi hota hoga na tujhe? Accha hai. Hona bhi chahiye. Tabhi dhundega apne liye kisiko?” (Dude, you’re lonely. Only if you see me with a girl will you learn how to flirt with one. You must also feel jealous, right? That’s good. You should be because only then will you go and find a girl for yourself.)

I told him I had absolutely no interest in looking for girls in Rishikesh. All I wanted to do was to see what life in Rishikesh was like. Jasbir scratched his chin, stared at me suspiciously and said, “Bhai, tu kahin woh gay type toh nahin hai?” (Dude, are you one of those gay types?)

I heaved a weary sigh and said no, I wasn’t a “gay type”. But I was also not in Rishikesh to score girls like he was. Jasbir conveniently ignored the second line and said, “Acchi baat hai. Mai kuch karta hoon.” (That’s good. I’ll do something.)

What he did was show up with two girls the next day when I was quietly reading a book in an undisturbed corner of the Ganga Café. One, of course, was Natalya and the other was…

“Mera naam Vishnupriya aur aapka?”, said a young, snow-white face with blond hair. Jasbir grinned gleefully like someone who had gift-wrapped a present and was certain the recipient will be eternally thankful for it. But this recipient was angry.

I didn’t know how to react. It was obvious that Jasbir had gotten Vishnupriya in on some ruse and she had no idea what his devious intentions were. So I chose not to outrage and deal with him later. It was also the moment I decided it was time for me to leave Rishikesh because after 3 weeks in the town under the inescapable glare of Jasbir, life was getting to be a bit creepy.

Jasbir ordered me to dump my book and get ready to leave the café because we were all going to the 13-storey temple near Lakshman Jhula, one of the unmissable visual landmarks in Rishikesh. On the way there, Natalya insisted she wanted to see it from the riverside and take pictures. So instead of going over the bridge and be done with it like sensible people, we took a long detour via loose rocks on the river bed. Then, once we were at the edge of the river with the water right underneath our feet, Natalya wondered if we could take a short-cut and cut across to reach the temple.

It was a terrible idea because even though the river was very shallow where we were, it was a lot deeper further down and it was apparent to even a child that it was impossible to cross such a big river with its horrendous currents. But Jasbir made encouraging noises and told her that was a great idea. He asked me to stay behind with Vishnupriya and… do something while he went on his long foreplay ritual.

So Vishnupriya and I stood there trying to make awkward small talk while Jasbir went yowling behind Natalya and awkwardly tried to negotiate knee deep waters in the swirling currents. I told Vishnupriya that I needed a coffee and she could either stand there and watch the two lovebirds giggling like swans all alone or join me at the Devraj Coffee Corner. It was a no brainer and at an airy terrace table of the Coffee Corner, watching monkeys pouncing on the passengers feeding them food, we made some conversation.

Vishnupriya was a Finnish girl in her late 20s who had been living in Rishikesh for 5 months learning Patanjali Yoga under a learned guru. The learned guru had coined her Hindu name after carefully going through name-lists and choosing one that he felt defined her the best astrologically. She had also been learning Hindi and Sanskrit from one of Jasbir’s myriad acquaintances and it was on one of these casual visits that they met each other. Because of her resolution to learn the language as thoroughly as she could, Vishnupriya spoke only in Hindi with everyone she met in India.

Our conversation was interrupted by a cheerful gentleman in saffron robes. This man helped himself to a chair and Vishnupriya introduced him as someone who was a disciple of the same learned guru as herself. She then told him that I was a film editor from Mumbai (in 2009 I still entertained hopes that I was) and he reacted to this information like he was being reunited with a long-lost cousin.

“Your film industry made me very sad once,” he said, with his eyes gazing at the shiny shimmers on the waters of the Ganga down below. “I was a young actor in a Rajesh Khanna film, one of the villain’s stooges who had to stand around and laugh at his mad jokes. I was still very young and wanted to make it big. All big actors had to start with small roles and I had only four dialogues in the movie. I forget what they were but they were your typical dumb lines of yelling and shouting. I was very excited because this was my first role in cinema. When it released, I took my mother to see the film in the theatre. She was a big fan of Rajesh Khanna, completely in love with him. I knew she would love the film and appreciate me for being in the same scenes as the star she loved so much. But, alas, as soon as the screening got over, all I got was a tight slap on my cheeks. She scolded me for wasting my life and her money on such tripe. That was the end of my film career because I realised she was right. There was no point working in the film industry unless you were Rajesh Khanna.”

Then, bidding a cheerful adieu, Vishnupriya went back to her ashram with this gentleman. I, too, returned to my room to recuperate from the activities of the day. On the way back, I said goodbye to everyone I had become acquainted with in all these days, the bookstore owner at Pustak Bhandar, the chaiwallah outside Parmarth Niketan, the friendly waiter at Puri Dukan etc. At the guest house, I sought Swami D and Ashok to tell them I was leaving . Ashok looked at me suspiciously and said, “Aap toh do din ke liye aaye the. Ab teen hafte ho gaye. Koi setting hua kya?” (You came here for two days. Now it’s three weeks. Did you find a girl or something?”) I just shook my head incredulously and went to my room.

An hour later, Jasbir showed up to find out how it went with Vishnupriya. I told him what we did and he was predictably disappointed. To dishearten him even further, I said I had resolved to get out of Rishikesh the very next day. Jasbir would perhaps have been a bit more aggrieved had he not been under the spell of Natalya but he took this news with a great degree of equanimity, as if he was expecting this to happen the whole time. It was I who felt peeved at his frigid reaction.

With its Little Tibets, Nirvana Cafes, Ganga Beach Camps etc., much of Rishikesh is a marketing exercise geared towards making a variety of spiritual ideas more palatable, understandable and most importantly, saleable to western eyes. Some of it is undoubtedly genuine but a lot of it is designed to take you on a rollercoaster divinity ride. It’s nevertheless a fascinating place. I would be back in Rishikesh a number of times over 2009 and 2010 but it was the 3 weeks of bargain basement living in the cramped dwelling in Swargashram, waiting in shit queues, listening to Swami D every morning, hanging out with a kaleidoscopic variety of people, getting in and out of strange situations, that I had the most memorable times. I haven’t recounted all the stories because to do so would consume the length of a book but when I look at my clumsily assembled notes from the time, I find it difficult to believe that so many bonds were made in just a matter of 20 days.

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Thenzawl

Thenzawl is a nodal town, 90 kilometers south of Aizawl and makes for a convenient place to break the 8 hour slog to Lunglei. The tourist lodge here is among the oldest in Mizoram and is better managed than some of the others in the state. My room was huge with a balcony that overlooked a little brook that gurgled all night long. Here I killed many hours reading my kindle and watching a colony of fiery golden ants industriously running up and down a water pipe carrying scraps of food in their mouths.

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A majority of the clientele at the lodge weren’t tourists but people on official duty. While lunching at the dining hall, I got into a conversation with an Army Officer stationed in Lunglei who couldn’t believe I had travelled all the way from Mumbai to cavort about Mizoram where there was “nothing to see or do”. Nevertheless, he enthusiastically showed me videos on his mobile phone of all the scenic spots that he had seen in the region and invited me to a round of drinks at his office in Lunglei. It was a generous offer and a difficult one to resist in the predominantly dry state.

Another guest was Rajesh, a Petroleum Inspector from Bihar who was treated royally by the Mizo petrol pump owners that had accompanied him. After they departed, he joined my table to vent his frustrations about the job. 4 years ago, after a trip to Aizawl, he made the mistake of attempting to impress his boss by telling him that he loved the scenery here. Little did he realize that he would be the only one to show any enthusiasm for the place with the rest of his colleagues regarding the assignment more as a punishment than a pleasure. So he would become the sole individual sent to Mizoram to do the work. And now, married with a kid, he loathed the long haul he had to make every few months here.

Like many of the tourist lodges in Mizoram, the one in Thenzawl is about 2 kms shy of the town proper but it’s a pleasant walk where you pass through dainty pools of water, picturesque houses clustered on lush green slopes, wide open spaces housing poultry farms with clothes drying in the sun hanging languidly by the fences and curious little boys and girls running up to you as you take pictures to see what you’re shooting.

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One of the more ubiquitous sights in Thenzawl is a handloom mill. You see them at the backs of houses, by the roadside, in grocery stores and in their own little private closets with the women of the town chugging away at them. Although it may seem like a quiet, little place, the handloom industry in Thenzawl has boomed with entrepreneurial zeal thanks to sustainable development initiatives involving the women in the area. A lot of the product goes to the Aizawl markets and further to other markets in the Northeast and beyond.

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If you go by the Mizoram tourist brochure, there are plenty of things to do and places to see around Thenzawl. There’s the Vangtawng Falls, supposedly the highest falls in all of Mizoram, the Chawngchilhi cave, commemorating a folktale about a romantic union between a girl and a serpent, Chhingpui Tlan, a memorial stone erected in the memory of the downfall of two lovers and a Deer Park on the outskirts of the town.

But I was content with just walking up to the Presbyterian Church on one of its hillocks and looking at the panoramic landscapes around. There were quaint churches nestled in the hills, quiet little roads curving between thickly forested hills and football matches being played at the training grounds far down below. Perhaps, the best way to experience an ordinary town is to take pleasures from the ordinary things it has to offer and Thenzawl is a marvellously pleasant ordinary town.

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Hmuifang

After getting my ILP extended for up to a month at the D.C. Office in Aizawl, a painful process that I’ve chosen not to recount, I began exploring more of Mizoram. The first spot on my way was the mountainous village of Hmuifang, 50 kms south of Aizawl with the thickly forested 1619m high Hmuifang mountain towering above it.

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The only place to stay nearby was the isolated and lonely Hmuifang Tourist Resort run by the Mizoram Government and situated on a deep green grassy knoll between the villages of Sumsuih and Hmuifang. Words like “idyllic” are bandied about in travel lit for places that don‘t deserve it but Hmuifang truly embodied idyll in the 3 nights I spent here. There was no network, no electricity for long stretches and no guests other than myself staying there. My room was populated with moths of all forms and sizes and was still recovering from a monsoon which had destroyed many of its electricity connections. But for a measly 600 Rs., it was spacious, well-appointed with a geyser and a balcony overlooking the foliage below and had a friendly caretaker who brought you a cup of tea whenever you wanted.

The resort had a long menu but the caretaker could only make a basic rice thali and an omelette because of the lack of clientele and the remote location. But during the day, bang opposite to the place, there was a small dhaba type joint run by an ex-army guy and his family where the options were considerably better. Here I attacked plates of chicken pulao, cheese omelette sandwiches, bai (a porky mizo salad with vegetables) and numerous cups of chai while chatting with the disarmingly friendly owner R, who would entertain me with tales of bravery from the front and vent about his regrets at not being able to serve his country anymore because of an injury he suffered in action.

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A cottage at the Hmuifang Tourist Resort

 

There wasn’t an awful lot to do in Hmuifang but walk to places and take in the views. The best sunsets were from a spot just 100 meters ahead of the resort where you climbed up to a clearing to get a front row seat to the galloping symphony of mountains cascading one on top of the other in the fading light. There are some sublime views to be had on the way to Hmuifang village of the high ridges surrounding the area and some impressive villages stacked up on top of the steep hills playing hide and seek with the clouds.

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The Hmuifang mountain at 1619 metres is the highest point in the area but my climb here was aborted by a burst of heavy rainfall that I was ill-equipped to handle. The trail, signposted in Mizo, winds up and above Hmuifang village beyond a school through thick forests and splendid scenery. The only people I saw on the way were a couple of kids (bunking school?) and a man shepherding his herd to graze in the knolls above. Again, splendid landscapes on the way.

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Most people don’t linger in Hmuifang nowadays because of its proximity to Aizawl and the somewhat dilapidated condition of the resort which was still trying to get its feet back up after suffering terribly during the monsoon fury. But it’s thoroughly worth spending at least a night or two because the Mizo landscapes you see from here are second to none and it’s a peaceful, less touristed alternative to a more visited spot like Reiek.

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Aizawl – A Sunday in the City

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No city shuts down as completely as Aizawl does on a Sunday. The shops are closed, the roads are empty, none of the restaurants (apart from the ones in the expensive hotels) are open and if you’re thinking of getting out of the city, you might have to do so in your own vehicle because all the buses and share-taxis stop plying as well.

V had gone off to church early in the morning and I had woken up with a hungry stomach. I found R and S, two travellers from Mumbai who were also staying in the same airbnb, ransacking the kitchen to find some edible food. Eventually we found a few eggs in an upper shelf which we broke open to make some omelettes. And then, there was nothing to do but make lots of tea, consume it for hours on end, sit in the balcony, take in the sweet mountain air and play with Moi, the friendly dog in the house. It was the perfect way to spend an Aizawl Sunday.

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Lazing in my room, dreaming bananas
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Moi, the house dog, taking in the views of the city

 

But by 3 in the afternoon, our stomachs began rumbling again and we went to one of the only two places in the city that we knew was open – the Magnolia Restaurant at the Regency Hotel. Here we ordered all the meaty mizo food they had and gorged on it – a platter of starters, roasted pork with mashed potatoes, spicy pork salad, smoked pork with a saucy soup and lots of rice to go with.

The city shuts down on Sunday not just because people want a holiday but also because they have to pray. So in lieu of busy traffic junctions, you have people congregating to sing gospels. Melodious chorals ring out from the churches all around the city filling the air with piousness. Even though all three of us were athiests at heart, it was difficult not be moved by this show of religiosity. Unlike the exceptionally well-dressed people on the streets, we looked like bums in our cut-price t-shirts and shorts but when we entered one of the Presbyterian Churches lining the market road to have a closer look at the choral singing, we were welcomed inside with happiness and warmth.

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After drowning in the Christian air of an Aizawl Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t an awful lot to do but go back to our refuge at Laipuitlang and take in the sunset views from the terrace. It was an utterly spectacular evening to watch the sun go down as big shafts of rays filtered through the clouds in the yellowing light cutting their way between the hills. As the day dimmed, the clouds assumed a kaleidoscope of colors, now golden, then tangerine and in the growing darkness, deep vermillion fluffs hanging above the hills. Faint echoes of chorals from the churches far down below wafted towards us with the gentle breeze and for a few moments, we envied everybody who lived in a setting as magical and beautiful as this.

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Aizawl – Laipuitlang Landscapes

Eventually I did reach Aizawl at the unearthly (by Aizawl standards) hour of 10 in the night when every shop and restaurant in the city was closed. There were some boys and girls smoking by the roadside who pointed me in the direction of the house I was going to. I stumbled up in the darkness using my phone as a torch and reached the PWD building at the top of the road where L was waiting wearily to chaperone me to her mother V’s house where I would be staying.

V’s house is, by far, the best place to stay in Aizawl. At the highest point in the vicinity, it commanded the most sweeping views of the city and the hills beyond. Turn right and you went down a road that zig-zagged vertically down to the market through homes and schools and basketball courts that defied the laws of gravity. This road is so steep that it is provided with a row of steps for the less sure-footed to make their way down. While the climb up is far more arduous and exhausting (even if it’s only a 700 meter walk), it’s the hike down that destroyed my knees.

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Turn left from the house and you staggered down to Chaltlang Road beyond the Salvation Army building taking in the sublime views of the layered hills overlapping in the distance. The hills that you see from here are less populated and prettier to look at.

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From the terrace of the house one had an uninterrupted view of the western flank of the city where multi-storeyed buildings were stacked on top of each other with the spires of its myriad churches punctuating the monotonous architecture piled around them. And beyond these civilized slopes were the unmolested wilderness of the Mizo hills beyond.

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Because the hills that Aizawl is built on are both vertical and razor sharp, much of its civilian architecture had to mould itself to accumulate one over the other haphazardly on vertigo-inducing slopes. In 2013, a massive landslide slid down the Laipuitlang Hill burying all the houses in its way. V’s house was one of them. They had lost everything they had and rebuilt the house I was staying in from scratch. The large 5-storeyed PWD building was the culprit which was built on a weak foundation and had developed cracks which had been neglected until the slide happened.

I stood on the spectacular vantage point on top of V’s terrace and looked at the city around. Few lessons appear to have been learnt. The houses were still stacked one on top of the other and in another natural catastrophe (Aizawl is both landslide prone and sits on a high seismic zone), they could tumble down again. But for now, it was as astounding visually as a city could be.

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Elusive Aizawl

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I wanted to get to Aizawl as soon as possible so I could take in a bit of the city during the daylight hours. So I hopped around the sumo counters lining the Circuit House Road looking for the earliest vehicle that was going and booked a 7.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl.

Next morning, at 6 a.m., the man at the counter called to tell me that the 7.30 wasn’t going because 3 passengers had bailed out and it wouldn’t be possible to fill the jeep at the time. He asked me if I could make do with a back seat at the 8.30 instead. I said, okay, considering I didn’t have much of a choice.

At 8 a.m., I checked out of my room and staggered across to the sumo stand. A grumpy looking man stood there gently savouring a cup of tea in his hands. He had big bulging eyes that looked like they’d either seen too much alcohol go down the liver the previous night or hadn’t been shut in a long time. I asked him about the sumo. What sumo?, he said. The 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl that I was going to be on, I said. There is no 8.30 a.m. sumo, he said, while lackadaisically scratching the back of his neck.

I made a phone call to the person who woke me up at 6 in the morning and heard a ring-tone bearing a Salman Khan hit number ringing right in front of me. “You called me in the morning and said that I had a seat on the vehicle leaving at 8.30. I have already paid for it. Where’s the sumo?”, I said, waving the receipt in his face with desperation creeping into my voice. He lifted his eyes wearily, stared at me blankly for a few seconds, took the receipt out of my hand, rummaged in his wallet, handed me the 240 Rs. I had given him for the seat and walked away.

Left to my own devices and having no idea what to do, I frantically knocked at every counter I could see but none had vehicles traveling to Aizawl at that time. It was a slow day on the Aizawl route, they said. There weren’t enough passengers, they said. And as I was flailing about helplessly, a cheerful gentleman walked up to me and asked me to stop hyperventilating. He took me to his shop, gave me a cup of chai and calmly told me that he had a jeep going at 11 a.m. It was an Aizawl jeep, he said, and it had to go back today come what may. So I thanked this gentleman, booked my seat and twiddled my thumbs at a chaishop near the counters. I had to keep twiddling them beyond the appointed hour because consistent with my fortune that day, the sumo didn’t arrive until 12.30 p.m. My only consolation for this eternal wait was that I got the front seat and since the vehicle was 4 passengers short, I had the entire space to myself.

The distance between Silchar and Aizawl is 172 odd kms. Even allowing for bad roads and chai stops, it shouldn’t take longer than 7 hours. But our driver had other ideas. So 15 minutes after embarking on our journey, we stopped for half an hour near the Mizoram House on the outskirts of the town. The reason? A potential passenger had called and he was on his way from another part of the town to take his seat in the vehicle.  Dust whirled all around us clogging our windpipes and choking our lungs. It was one of the times I wished I had one of those ugly breathing masks on like some of the sensible people sitting behind me did.

About an hour later, we stopped again. Why? Because the driver and some of the passengers wanted to shop for vegetables at a market before the Mizoram border. They were going about it so diligently that I wondered if there was a famine where we were going.

After this bout of shopping, we ascended from the plains up to the Assam-Mizoram border post at the outskirts of the village of Vairengte where we had to furnish our ILPs. This was a crummy, isolated and derelict spot with views of the hillocks below between a few bamboo stilt houses that lined the dusty road. It wasn’t a place one wished to linger.

The driver went to the permit office with all our ILPs and got thrown out immediately because he had only 6 permits for the 8 non-Mizo passengers he had on board. The culprits were the two labourers sitting at the back. No one had told them they had to get ILPs made. So we had to wait while they finished the painstaking process of furnishing IDs, filling up the forms and answering questions.

By the time they got their ILPs, it was 3 p.m. Some of us who hadn’t had lunch were getting very hungry. But we had to wait longer because after sputtering for 100 metres, the vehicle came to a grinding halt. It had run out of oil. I looked at the driver accusingly and asked him how he forgot to stock up on such a crucial ingredient while he was happily shopping for vegetables. He just shrugged and to be fair, none of the other passengers seemed too bothered. They kept their cool like this sort of thing happened every day.

The driver had to walk 2 kms down to the village to get some oil. He took an hour to get back and it was getting dark by the time we got moving again. So it was in the darkness of 5 p.m. that we had lunch in the little town of Bilkhawtir at an eating house sort of establishment after which, he conveniently disappeared for half an hour because he wanted to hang out with his friends.

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The menu at the Bilkhawtir eating house

This was annoying because we had barely covered half the journey in over 5 hours. I went up to one of my co-passengers, a businessman from Silchar, and asked him how he was so tolerant of this crap. He replied with a benign air that the driver worked very hard and deserved a good break once in a while. He was certain that we would reach Aizawl in under 3 hours. It seemed impossible. We had spent over 5 hours traveling 70 odd kilometres and had about a 100 to go and all of it on hilly roads in the darkness.

When we finally resumed our journey, the driver abruptly switched his playlist, which had until now been blaring Bollywood item numbers, to some sermon by a mullah in Assamese. This weird, ambient discourse in the air appeared to have triggered a switch in his head. He throttled his speed from slow as molasses to fast as a shark and we zipped through the hills in the gloomy darkness. It was frightening in its ferocity and I tried to tell the driver that it was okay if we reached Aizawl at midnight as long as we reached there alive. The driver laughed at this suggestion and asked me to stay calm because he did this every day and if he didn’t leave the vehicle with the Aizawl owner by 8.30 p.m., he would be in trouble.

Hanging on to dear life, we reached the outskirts of Aizawl where we had to confront another obstacle strategically planted to delay our progress. This one ticked the driver off as well. The two labourers sitting at the backseat had to get off at Kawnpui, about 60 kms north of Aizawl and had conveniently slept through. Their boss had been waiting for them wondering where they were and called the driver. The driver put him on speaker phone so we could all hear the litany of abuses thrown at him. The boss ordered the driver to turn back to Kawnpui to drop the labourers off or he would speak to the driver’s boss and cancel their contract.

This threat appeared to have worked because he began turning back immediately. Now it was the turn of the other passengers to revolt and they castigated the two labourers for being so lackadaisical in their approach to work. After a fiery debate, we came to a resolution that we would wait at the spot until we found a vehicle that was going towards Kawnpui and willing to take the two passengers.

The landscape here was surreal. On the one side, there was pitch black darkness with hundreds of constellations of stars blinking overhead and on the other, Aizawl’s vertical cityscape lit up in the distance like gigantic fairy lights draped on a mountainous scale. While I was waiting there taking in this stunning scene and breathing the clear, chilly air of the hills, I got a call from L, the owner of the Airbnb I had booked, asking (angrily) if I was ever going to show up. I didn’t know what to say. I should have arrived in the afternoon but it was 9 p.m. and while the city was visibly close, it remained painfully elusive.

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The 13175 Kanchanjunga to Silchar

Because I was traveling with friends who had to go back to work in Mumbai, the week-long trip to Meghalaya, while thoroughly spectacular, was speedier than I prefer to travel. So by the time I got back to Guwahati, I spent two days vegetating at the Sunderbans Guest House and lazing at some of the city’s hip cafes while editing the pictures from the trip (future post alert).

I had no idea what to do next. One option was to go back to Mumbai. But having come all the way to Guwahati, that felt like a cop out. NE India is not an easy place to decide what to do because there is so much to do and I had a number of mouth-watering ideas on the list. Go to Ziro, do another trip to Tawang, say hello to my friends in Kohima, maybe go back to Meghalaya and explore the Garo Hills, spend a few days idling in the hilly tracts of Assam, hit Imphal and Agartala, too many options.

To resolve this dilemma, I bought a map of NE at a bookshop in Paltan Bazaar, closed my eyes and pointed my forefinger at a spot on the map. It fell on Mizoram. The very thought gave me goosebumps. I trawled through Indiamike and other online blogs/forums but there wasn’t an awful lot of information available and the less information I found the more excited I felt about this journey.

Mizoram is one of the states in the NE which requires Indian citizens to have an Innerline Permit to travel around. So I went right away to Mizoram House and applied for one. I got the permit in less than half an hour but was terribly disappointed to know that it would expire within 7 days of entry. I wished to spend a month in the state and was hoping for at least a 15-day permit extendable up to 30 days. But the people at the Mizoram House wanted me to furnish a local sponsor for a longer permit and my arguments that it was unlikely for an “outsider” like myself to know anyone in the State didn’t gain any traction.

Nevertheless, beggars can’t be choosers, so I resolved the make the best of what I had. There were 3 ways to get to Aizawl – 1). a quick and painless hour-long flight to Lengpui Airport, 2). a hideous 24 hour journey by shared sumo via Shillong and the Jaintia Hills and 3). A 12 hour train to Silchar and a shared sumo from there. I don’t like to fly when I can avoid it because you see a lot more when you travel ground up. Long road trips on hilly roads make me nauseous. And I love taking a train. It would be the most roundabout way to reach Aizawl but it had the potential to be the most satisfactory as well. So I hit the irctc app and booked a 2nd class sleeper berth on the Kanchenjunga Express leaving at 4 a.m. the next morning.

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One of the disadvantages of the 2nd class non AC coaches in India is that the toilets can be quite filthy. The Kanchenjunga travels all the way from Kolkata and by the time it gets to Guwahati, the loos are well-used. So one has to walk through coaches and sneak in to the AC bogies when one needs to go. But one of the benefits of traveling bottom class is that the windows can be opened and unlike the unwashed and scratchy glass of the AC coaches, you get a clear view of the world outside.

Which is great for this particular route because in terms of scenic beauty, it belongs up there with the Mumbai-Goa Konkan Railway and the Siliguri-Darjeeling Mountain Railway as the very best in India. The bogies scythe their way across bright green valleys, paddy fields, high mountains and a number of gentle rivers gliding across the elysian landscape.

Between Lumding and Haflong, the line gains altitude, the air gets nippier, the mountains get taller and the bridges get higher. There was a significant army presence in this stretch, a reminder of the violent history of this insurgency prone region. But these hilly tracts were so beautiful that I resolved to stop at Haflong on the way back to take in more of this stunning landscape at leisure. 

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It was dark by the time I reached Silchar and no sumos were leaving for Aizawl so late. I booked myself into a tolerably clean no-service budget hotel called Center Palace. This was on the main market road very close to the junction where sumos for Aizawl, Imphal and Shillong departed. Having starved all day, I stuffed myself with a biryani at the restaurant next door called Nawabs which was run by a tremendously friendly guy. He had been to Aizawl a number of times and gave me plenty of tips for things to do. It was the perfect weather to travel around Mizoram, he said.

I couldn’t wait.

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Rishikesh #7 – Bengaluru rants with Italian food

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5 and #6.

Alternate evenings at the ashram were assigned to yoga classes which weren’t as compulsory to attend as Swami D’s early morning philosophical orations. I skipped these sessions regularly because I found them quite boring. If I needed exercise, I preferred to be out walking along the river and taking in the breeze.

So, one day, while the rest of the group was shedding calories, I was putting on a few at the Green Italian Restaurant in Swargashram. It was a crowded afternoon and I was lucky to find a table in a corner by the window. Soon, two well-dressed people in their mid-30s, one in a bright violet kurta and the other in an exquisitely embroidered saree came over to ask if they could share my table. I was in half a mind to ask if they’d just come from a wedding.

Archana and Mohan were from Bangalore and had come to see their son who was studying at an International School in Mussoorie. They were wealthy people with Mohan running a highly profitable hereditary garment business and Archana managing a beauty salon in the heart of the city. My banal ice-breaker “So how do you like Rishikesh?” was answered not by glowing tributes to its spiritual air and chilled out atmosphere but a litany of complaints and a sociological analysis of everything they found wrong with it and how they have to deal with those effects at home.

Mohan was the first to open up on his reservations against the IT boom in his city. He was pleased to know that I had roots in the South and came from Mumbai because in Mumbai, he saw a certain kinship with his own beloved city. It cleared the way for him to launch a surgical examination of the decline of Bangalore.

“You see, North India is a big dustbin which is why you see, Bangalore is also becoming a dustbin. When I walk around my city nowadays, I don’t recognize it anymore. But when I come here, I see it. Everything is fake here, the people are fake, the yoga is fake, everything is fake. Only the money is real. And that is what is happening to Bangalore, too many fake people who don’t come from the city making a lot of money and cluttering the place.”

Archana then cut in with her observations, “If people go to another place, they should respect the culture of that place. That is completely missing when these people come to our city. They have also taken up all the local jobs. Most of the maids in Bangalore come from these places and they don’t even know how to communicate. My new maid is from North India and I have to spend a lot of time teaching what to keep where and how to clean things properly. It’s all become a big mess.”

So if North India is so bad, why send their son to school there? Why not the best school in Bangalore?

“Mussoorie is different from North India, you see. There are a lot of westerners in the school and it’s a safe environment. The school is 6 kilometers above Mussoorie, so it’s an undisturbed location. It’s only when you go to the main town that you see all the garbage. We want our son to grow up with clean air and beautiful surroundings and Bangalore air is very polluted now”, said Mohan.

Archana then chimed in with her thoughts. “The school also makes it easy for us to manage our business. It would be difficult to take care of the boy with our busy schedules and there’s so little help available in Bangalore nowadays. Can’t leave him with anybody.”

Mohan continues, “You see, there was no poverty in Bangalore before these outsiders came in. People had enough money to fend for themselves and didn’t have to go begging in the streets. It was a quiet, peaceful town where I could go driving or cycling every day without worrying about getting stuck in traffic or being run over by a car.”

Archana then said, “My sister lives in Denver and she says the same thing. She lives in a white neighbourhood and she makes it a point never to go to the black neighbourhoods because that’s where all the violence happens. But at least she has a choice to avoid the areas that are bad and can plan her life accordingly. In India, it’s impossible to avoid ugliness.”

Then wearing his concerned corporate social reformer hat on, Mohan said, “If India did as much for its poor people as America does for its black people, then we wouldn’t have these problems today. Our government needs to think more imaginatively to counter poverty. We need more good schools to educate these people and give them jobs so that we don’t have to complain about these things.”

I looked at Archana and asked, “But why does your sister fear black neighbourhoods if that’s the case? Shouldn’t she feel safer if America’s taking care of its African-American people so well?”

Archana said, “That’s a different issue. I think—”

And here, Mohan cut in testily with an irritated tinge to his voice, “People aren’t always grateful. Imagine, all of those people were slaves in the previous century and see how they have been allowed to come up. If black people are still ungrateful for what’s being done for them, they are the ones to blame. If they are so backward despite living in the most developed country in the world, they don’t deserve all that progress. In India, we didn’t even have slavery. Under the British, we were never slaves. We were free to do what we wanted as long as we accepted their rule. It is because of that co-operation that we reap so many of the benefits the British and the Indians under them left us. You think we could build the railways on our own? We can’t even take care it. We are capable of it but don’t have the drive to do anything.“

I wasn’t as woke in 2009 as I am now so all that naked talk of provincial superiority laced with racist and classist angles and stereotypes did not make me want to throw up my ill cooked pizza all over the floor like it might have today. Then, perhaps reacting to my non-committal nods and getting a hint that I was getting bored, Mohan deftly changed the topic and asked, “So what music do you listen to?”

Heavy metal, progressive rock and a lot of stuff in between, I said.

“Ah, I see. Rock music, eh? I am the biggest fan of Harry Belafonte in the world”, he announced.

I told him I had no idea who this guy was.

“You don’t know Harry Belafonte?”, asked Mohan with a look of profound bafflement that suggested I had spilt a bottle of tomato sauce onto his shiny kurta.

I shook my head.

He let out a deep sigh and said, “Harry is a legend. You know, he is a black man but he is also classy. The greatest folk artist ever. He understood America like no one did. He understood soul. You’ll know what soul is if you listen to—”

And here, my head which was nodding robotically was interrupted by a big pat on my back. It was Jasbir, who was standing behind me with some European girl and had a wide grin plastered on his face. I tried to introduce him to Archana and Mohan (who looked upset that his treatise on his beloved artist was being interrupted so rudely) but Jasbir just ignored them completely and went on his typically irreverent vein, “Arre tu yahaan akele kya kar raha hai? Aaj aaya nahi yoga class mein? Kya laundiyan thi yaar. Dekh, ye mili mujhe wahaan pe. Russia se hai. Badi feel aa rahi hai yaar.” (Hey, what are you doing here all alone? Why didn’t you come to yoga class? There were so many hot chicks today. See, I met this girl over there. She’s from Russia. She’s making me excited, man.”)

Jasbir then turned to the Russian girl and said, “He my friend. Good man.”

Mohan and Archana stared at this scene as if their worst ideas of North India were coming true in front of their eyes.

Then the Russian girl asked Jasbir if they could sit somewhere. Jasbir looked at the empty plates of Mohan and Archana and ordered them to get out. Mohan looked at me helplessly like he was counting on my support to get rid of this alien pest. But I just shrugged as if I didn’t care one way or the other. He then turned to the waiter for assistance, but the waiter just asked them to pay the bill and move on because more customers were waiting.

Archana then got up angrily and left the restaurant. Mohan stood up, looked at me and said, “I thought you were civil. But you are just like one of them.”

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Gluttony in Shillong

By far, the best gastronomic experience I had in Meghalaya was at Sankrita’s house in Mawsynram. It was local, authentic, delicious, generous and homely. But you don’t have to compare everything to the best. So here’s a few cafes and restaurants in Shillong that I tried over multiple trips –

Trattoria – Don’t go by the misleading high-brow Italian name. If all you want to do when you’re in Shillong is to have some authentic Khasi food in a no frills, inexpensive environment, then stop right here. This little place near the Police Bazaar circle is tiny and often full and unlike proper restaurants, has slim communal benches arranged in rows in lieu of tables. It is also run like a canteen so you might have to wait your turn before they take your order and serve you. But for people who don’t mind the barebones ambience, it’s excellent. For newbies to Khasi cuisine like myself, they have helpful pork/mutton/fish platters that have a little bit of every preparation served with Jadoh rice. Can’t recommend this place highly enough.

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The pork platter with Jadoh rice at Trattoria

Café Shillong – This trendy first floor café in Laitumkhrah may be done up as a cool hang-out spot where food is secondary but it’s quite fantastic for grabbing some meaty Khasi dishes. Their steaks are decent but their succulent pork ribs are to die for. I also tried the smoked pork bastenga which was a bit too pungent and salty for my taste. The coffee wasn’t as good as the last time I was here but they have a double shot cappuccino option which is significantly better than the ordinary one. It has live music on Sunday evenings for those who like to go for that sort of thing and generally has a pleasant, cheerful vibe.

Delhi Misthan Bhandar – Hot and sweaty aren’t two words you would ever use to describe anything in a town like Shillong but that’s exactly what Delhi Misthan Bhandar is. It’s always packed to the gills with people and as if the challenge of serving so many customers with a handful of waiters isn’t enough, they complicate things even further by having a strange booking system. So you go to the counter, pay for your chola bhatura, take your slip and go upstairs. Here, you wait for a waiter to show up in a crowded, unventilated sitting area and transfer your order slip to the kitchen. You see them flitting all over the place but no one ever stops by to take your order. You’re getting angry and so are some of the people around you and after half an hour of feeling like you’ve been baked in an oven, you shout at one of them asking when he’s going to get the order. He stares at you sternly and waves an open palm gesture and runs away. Then you go to the manager who asks you to go back to your seat and wait like the other people are doing. Soon you realise that people who came after you have been getting their orders. You are not the sort to kick up a fuss but you try to. The manager looks at your order and says quizzically, “Oh, sirf ek chola bhatura?” (Just one chola bhatura?) and makes a waiter go get it pronto.

The chola bhatura is pretty good and probably the best you’re going to get in all of Shillong.

Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee – This little café with two tiny tables in Police Bazar does the best coffee in Shillong by a fair margin. The coffee is sourced from local growers from different parts of Meghalaya and roasted and packaged by the family that runs the business. It promises to be pure coffee without any added chicory. The place was only open once during the time I was here but I highly recommend picking up a few packets because it’s homegrown, local and run less like a business and more like a passion.

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The Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee place

Swish Café – Another place that does great coffee is this hip little cafe in the Laitumkhrah Beat House. This is known to be among the oldest cafes to open in Shillong and is a charming and friendly place to have a cuppa. I had a whiskey flavoured coffee on the suggestion of the woman taking my order and it was splendid with just the right amount of tang and texture. The food is pretty good too with some filling breakfasts, pork ribs, burgers and pancakes on offer.

Dylan Café – This is a pretty cool place to hang out if that’s all you want to do. There’s a nicely done-up interior area and an open terrace to lounge about. Predictably, Dylan pictures, lyrics and quotes form a significant part of the decoration. The food is college canteen standard and I found the burger and the noodles pretty ordinary. The coffee here was the worst coffee I had in all of Shillong. But still, a good place to chill with friends if your expectations from food aren’t too high.

City Hut Dhaba – Possibly the best place to have North Indian food in Shillong. It’s a tourist favourite and you might have to wait for a table during weekends. The ambience is geared squarely towards big groups and families, so brave solo travellers who venture here might feel slightly out of place (like I did). But the tandoori food here is good and the waiters are friendly and helpful.

Cloud 9 Rooftop Lounge – On the top floor of the most prominent hotel in Police Bazaar, this is a fine place to go for an expensive drink when you’re in the mood. The whiskey sour I had here was as mean as it should be. The Pan-Asian menu leans overtly towards Thai cuisine and is pretty decent for what it is. If you don’t compare the food here to what you get in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, you’ll be fine. The main reason to come here is to unwind after a long day of seeing the sights and it does the job perfectly well.

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Around Shillong – Umiam lake and Shillong Peak

Anyone who’s been to the North-Eastern parts of India might have noticed one strange phenomenon, that the sun sets early and in a lot of places, as early as 4.30 pm. So while we were lazily finishing a leisurely meal at Café Shillong, still invigorated by previous night’s Steve Vai gig, we realised it was 3.30 and if we didn’t get out and do something immediately, the day might well and truly be over.

We hailed a taxi and went straight to the prettiest place around Shillong, the Umiam lake. This mass of hydropower water, about 20 kms from the city, is an unmistakable sight when you’re transiting from Shillong to Guwahati but it’s worth going there for its own sake. Since we were a bit late, we could only hit a couple of viewpoints. The first, on the way to the lake shore, is from an elevated platform that gives you a panoramic view of the entire landscape.

By far, the better view of the lake is from the viewing platform near the Orchid Lake Resort. The place charges a nominal fee to non-guests and what you get for the little money you spend is a marvelous, unobstructed view of the shimmering waters and the tree-laden hills around. There’s a water-sports corner where the more active tourists can take a ride in the still waters. In a way, we were fortunate to have started so late because we were just in time to see the sun down and for the orange-yellow sunset colours to deepen and dissipate in the clouds radiating over the hills.

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A few days later, we were making our way back from Mawsynram to Shillong and on the way, we did a detour off the highway to Shillong Peak. The turn-off to the peak begins about 10 kms before Shillong on the Cherrapunjee/Mawsynram road and if you have some time to spare, it might be worth the foray because at close to 2000 meters above sea-level, it is the highest point in all of Meghalaya.

The peak also houses an Indian Air Force Base and security is predictably tight. We had to furnish our IDs and one of us had to leave it at the gate in exchange for an entry permit before going inside. You aren’t allowed to get off or take any pictures on the way to the peak. But once you’re there, you can put your tourist hat on and whip out your camera because the tourist circus is well and truly in show.

There are two observation towers and one of them is equipped with a telescope if you want to take a closer look at the city. Shops selling trinkets, clothes and snacks are clustered together for the benefit of those who might want to do some shopping. There are booths where you can put on Khasi costumes for 50 Rs. and get your pictures taken.

We chose to go to the tower without the telescope because there was nobody there. The bird’s eye view of the city from here through the tall pines was both magnificent and somewhat distressing. You could see the extent of ugly urban agglomeration eating into the forested hills around. Nevertheless, like all sweeping landscapes, it was a pretty impressive peek at the city.

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