Kolasib – the lake, the sunset, the farewell

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When I returned to the market square, I saw a concert going on at the main thoroughfare where a Mizo rock band was playing to an audience of bystanders. It was impossible to tell how good they were because all I could hear was a loud pinging feedback from the speakers I was close to. This pinging resulted in a resounding ringing in my ears and for a few minutes I couldn’t hear anything but the ringing. I felt as if time had stood still and my head was doing a 360 degree move like one of those cinematographic shots from Gravity. When I snapped out of this reverie, I realised I couldn’t hear a thing and I feared I had gone deaf and just as I was beginning to run helter skelter in panic, a hand pulled me aside and threw me inside a shop.

It belonged to the lady who ran a small tea and snack store that doubled up as a sumo counter. A cup of tea landed on my table along with a yellow pill. The face of the lady who pulled me inside was staring at me to make sure I consumed the contents on the table. I was still dazed and dizzy from the ringing, so I gulped down the pill with the cup of hot, watery chai without thinking of the repercussions.

The pill worked. The ringing slowly subsided and I felt fresher and more energetic than before. I asked the lady how she knew what was wrong with me. She replied saying these impromptu gigs happened all the time and she had been a victim of some of these before.  We made conversation as I ordered more cups of tea to celebrate my recovery. She wondered if I worked for the government and when I replied in the negative and told her I was merely a tourist taking pictures, she crinkled her eyes in suspicion and asked me why I had come all the way to Kolasib because there was nothing to see or do there. I told her I was wondering about that myself and that I liked boring towns to which she sighed unconvinced and pointed at the hilly range looming in distance and said I could go look at the lake from the Church if I wanted to.

So I went up to the Church located on a hillock down the road to have a look at the lake in the hills. While the view of the hills from here was magnificent, I could only see a hint of the lake and it wasn’t an ideal place to get pictures because the landscape was criss-crossed by the power lines in between. Then I saw some houses on the other side of the street which appeared to have a more direct view of the lake and the hills.

Now I’m hardly the sort of guy who would knock on a stranger’s door asking if I could get on their roof to take pictures but I don’t know if it was the tablets the woman had given me or a general adrenalin rush because that’s what I ended up doing. The woman who opened the door was understandably coy and perplexed at my request but went inside and got some big keys to open up a rusty lock on a wooden door that was broken up in 10 different places. On the terrace, I weaved between laundry lines to get to the edge to witness a glorious unobstructed scene of the Mizo mountains in the distance and the water body that spread between densely wooded lands below.

The lake was the result of the Serlui hydel power dam and in the evening light it was shimmering in myriad shades of blue to go with the honey orange hues that were filling up the forests around. The woman too had walked up to see what I had been doing and while she approved a picture or two that I had taken, went away thinking I had gone crazy as I stood there clicking a 100 more. Perhaps I “had” gone crazy because this beautiful scene ought to have been enjoyed by keeping the camera asida and sitting on a wooden chair gazing into the distance because when was I ever going to see these Mizo hills again?

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When I got off the roof and hit the street again, I found the musically secular boys walking back to lodge. I assumed they were going to the wedding but they said they knew a spot to watch the sunset. So I tagged along and we took a road that turned right from the lodge to a wide playground that one of the boys said belong to a hostel for blind children. At the edge of the field, there was a grassy vantage point surrounded by trees and infested with mosquitoes that gave away views of distant hills, now glimmering and fading away in a misty orange glow as the sun set behind them. It was a glorious view, the sort the makes you want to live in a place and keep seeing it every day. I wanted to go back to the lady at the teashop who rescued my ears and show her the pictures to tell her my trip to Kolasib wasn’t so futile after all and that what I wanted to do was to spend many more days here taking in the languorous vibe of the place and do nothing.

But, alas, my permit was about to run out the next day and I did not wish to be rounded up for questioning for prolonging my stay further than I was allowed to. It wasn’t so easy to get this month long permit to roam the mountains here in the first place and I wanted to come back many more times and take in its chilled air and explore this most unexplored corner of India. The next morning, I went to the market and boarded the first Silchar bound vehicle that had an empty seat and left these beautiful hills once and for all.

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Singapore – Bugis Junction, Tree Inn Lodge, Plaza Singapura

The first world consumerism of Singapore hit me in the face as I disembarked at the Bugis Junction metro and weaved past top line brand stores and sanitised food stalls selling everything from coffee to ramen to international cuisine to the tune of “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele which could be heard no matter where you were in the building and it was only after I had exited through the covered arcade did I realise that it was the first bit of fresh air I was breathing in Singapore because I had been stuffed in air-conditioned comfort all the way from the airport in Mumbai to this mall by the Bugis metro.

Two minutes of fresh air and I was ready to go back to the AC comforts of the malls because when you’re inside enjoying the cool air from the vents, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a hot, humid tropical place that could soak your clothes in sweat in a matter of minutes. So I went back inside to the food court upstairs to have a “TCC Premium” coffee at this place called The Connoisseur Concerto thinking a place that used such big words might have a decent idea of how to do a good cup of coffee than places that named themselves Starbucks. Connoisseurs might not entirely be satisfied with the quality on offer here but for my low standards, it was serviceable even if not entirely worth the 6 dollars I spent on it.

Having fortified myself with caffeine, I strode out to Tan Quee Lan Street where, in one of the old Chinese shophouses still extant in this modern, burgeoning metropolis, lay the hostel I had booked before I left Mumbai. I had never stayed in hostels before, so I had no idea what to expect as I climbed up to the reception. A cheerful girl welcomed me and took me to my room while filling me in on house rules, things to do, eateries nearby etc. It was a small place with about three compact dorm rooms, a common shower/toilet area in a corner and a hall near the reception furnished with tables and benches which served as the common area for people to hang out.

Tree Inn Lodge was also an environmentally conscious hostel which attracted droves of cyclists from around the world. That meant you had rules plastered all over the place. So the shower area advised residents to finish their showering within 5 minutes to conserve water. There were notes put up on recycling and the benefits to the environment of cycling over other modes of transport. The air-conditioning would be turned off between noon and 6 pm every day to conserve electricity and to encourage people to go out and breathe some fresh air.

It was noon by the time I reached the hostel and I hadn’t gotten any sleep the previous night owing to my conversations with the surly man on the flight. So I was very much looking forward to getting some shut eye. But it became practically impossible for me to get any sleep in the humid Singaporean weather thanks to the environment friendly policies of my hostel, which while extremely commendable, were somewhat unkind to the weary traveller sweating in its beds.

But I needed sleep and I couldn’t just sit somewhere in a Mall or a Café or the Metro or the street because I didn’t know how Singaporeans reacted to random dudes snoring in public spaces, so I went to the only place where I thought I could sleep in comfort, the cinema.

I took a train to the Dhoby Ghaut Metro (and yes, it did incite a twinge of nostalgia if not for the iconic tourisy place in Mumbai certainly for the city even if I hardly been 12 hours away from it) and stormed into the Plaza Singapura past the obscenely gaudy Jelly Baby sculptures and into the Golden Village cineplex where I bought a ticket for a seat in an unpopulated corner of the hall for the longest film playing at the earliest, a Korean film whose name I didn’t bother to check which ran for about two and a half hours long.

As soon as the film began, I was immediately transported to its world of what appeared to be a grand Asian city complex of high walls, fluted columns, magnificently opulent ceilings gilded with gold, expansive gardens and beautiful women gliding gracefully by the grassy banks of the streams. This shot, among the greatest I had ever seen until that time, appeared to be from the perspective of the narrator as sweeping camera angles effortlessly swooned over the landscape and the buildings and in steady, fluid movements panned around the principal characters who looked and interacted with the camera as if it was the protagonist.

I couldn’t quite get what the characters were saying because the dubbing was very poor with dialogues spoken in a garbled, sluggish English but it was OK because I was thoroughly enamored at how ravishing it looked. The entire film was set in the mighty palace and new characters kept popping out of nowhere to set up intriguing plot twists which were forgotten just a few scenes later as another set of characters took over to carry on a new thread of narrative. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this film because it appeared to have been made on a stupendous budget and had the sort of bravura tenth wall breaking cinematic stunts that I had never seen in cinema before.

Then just as I began wondering why some of these characters appeared familiar and seem to have been borrowed from my life, I felt someone shaking my arm. I wanted to lash out at this person because who the hell shakes someone’s arm in the middle of a movie? So I turned to rebuke this person and when I turned to look up, the film shut down abruptly and I found myself staggering out of my seat from a deep slumber with a young boy with a big broom in his hand looking at me with extreme contempt and saying, “Show over, sir. Please get out.”

This prolonged 150 minute nap in the cinema hall gave me an adrenalin surge and I felt I could finally take on Singapore with all the energy and clarity I possessed. But first, I needed to have some coffee. So I headed up to the branch of Wang Café in the Plaza Singapura and had a highly fulfilling cup of Kopi with a set of kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs to go with.

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Inebriated Stories from Dhaulachina to Almora

Two old, weather-beaten faces and a long, oblong head furnished with a handlebar moustache glumly watched me get into the back of the jeep that went to Almora. These faces looked at me as if I had interrupted a critically important discussion that I had no business to be a part of. I tried to soften the situation by smiling awkwardly and muttering a few hellos, tentative gestures that only made their faces look more bitter. The oblong headed body reeked of alcohol and the blood-soaked eyes in its head kept staring at me like I was a strange ghostly apparition.

Soon, as the jeep rattled on, Mr. Oblong appeared to have gained his composure and continued the conversation he had been having with the two old men. His words slurred, his speech rambled and he had a lot to say. The two men were staring at him expressionlessly, nodding once in a while, but never saying a word.

“Toh jaisa ki mai aapse keh raha tha, woh ek number ka kameena insaan hai. Par uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (So as I was telling you, he was a scoundrel. But his wife was even more dangwrous…)  It was a long, repetitive monologue where Mr. Oblong was bragging about his time as a goon for a local politician in a town in Haryana. This man and the “scoundrel” had once gone to collect bribes from a shopkeeper in the town of Jind. They got drunk that evening on all the commission they’d made when the scoundrel revealed to him that he had also been working for a rival gang.

Mr. Oblong swiftly relayed this news to his boss the next day. The boss was unhappy to hear of it but instead of punishing the scoundrel, he sent Oblong on a mission to investigate if the scoundrel had divulged any information of his affairs to his rival and if he could get some scoop on what’s going on in their camp. So on the next bribe-collecting mission to Jind, he got the scoundrel drunk once more and told him he wanted to shift his loyalties to the rival gang. The scoundrel gave him the lowdown on the people he could meet and the things he could do to gain more trust. Oblong was dismayed to know that some of these people were those who claimed to work for his boss.

Two days later, the scoundrel being the scoundrel, greedy to curry some favour, went up to Oblong’s boss to relay the scoop that Oblong was willing to shift allegiances. But the boss knew Oblong would do that because Oblong had confessed his entire strategy to him and had provided him a neat list of people whom he had to get rid of thanks to his awesome spying game the other day. So the boss played along and said he’ll take care of Oblong and ordered the scoundrel to keep an eye on him. 

The scoundrel, in a casual lunchtime chat the day after, relayed all this information to his wife. The wife suspected a rat immediately because the husband of one of her best friends, who was one of the scoundrel’s acquaintances, had been missing since the previous evening. She asked the scoundrel if he had told anybody about his double-timing ways. When the scoundrel told her he might have rambled a bit too much to Oblong after a night of intoxication, the wife joined a few dots and feared the scoundrel might have been had. Her suspicions were confirmed when she rang up all her friends whose husbands were working for Oblong’s rivals and found that they were all missing and many had been locked up in jail on charges of extortion and thievery.

Here, the jeep had to stutter to a halt because a Police Officer had stopped the vehicle to do a random check. All of us had to get out and while the constables were doing the search, Oblong walked up to the Officer with all the swagger his inebriated body could muster and namedropped some political bigwigs he claimed to be on first-name terms with in a drooly slur to convince the Officer to the vehicle go. The Officer looked at Oblong with extreme contempt and then hit him in the legs with the baton which made Oblong stagger to the floor. “Sharam nahi aati Police ke saamne sharaab peete hue?” (Aren’t you ashamed of drinking in front of the Police?), he said in furious anger. Oblong stood up, garbled some apologies and walked back to the jeep. The two weather-beaten faces looked at this scene with their droopy eyes like they’d seen it one too many times.

The Police didn’t find anything objectionable in the jeep but fined the driver for overloading it with people and goods. As the jeep moved on, Oblong regained his composure and continued the narrative as if the humiliating break in between never happened. “Toh mai keh raha tha ki uski biwi usse bhi zyaada khatarnaak…” (Like I was telling you, the scoundrel’s wife was even more dangerous.)

Oblong and the boss had been having a long and fruitful drinking session and they were pained to find themselves shocked out of this pleasurable activity by an unfriendly knock on the door at midnight. A police constable in plain clothes had come to give them the message that if they didn’t do something by the next morning, both Oblong and the boss would find themselves in jail. The boss then promptly called to wake up a superior officer who was supposedly “neutral” in the whole affair to confirm if they were due to be questioned the next morning. After this distressing news was validated, he told the officer categorically that the winds were changing and that there was no shadow of a doubt that the politician who had his back would win the elections from the seat he was contesting. He ran up demographic data, floated a list of powerful people who were on his side, told the officer that if he had his back this one time, there’s no telling how rich he could get but none of this was to any avail because the next morning, at 6 a.m., both Oblong and his boss found themselves behind bars.

It turned out that the scoundrel’s wife’s uncle was a veteran politician in another district and the people Oblong and his boss usually worked for were his rivals. The politician generally never meddled in these petty affairs but because his niece had incontrovertible proof that these people were involved in some nefarious activities, he made the only phone call to a police station that mattered. Then he put all the lawyers at his disposal to the task and made the two cool their heels in a dank prison for 10 years and it was only after he had died and the issue was long forgotten that they were set free. Oblong noted, not without a hint of sadness, that none of the politicians they had worked for moved a finger to help them even though they had been the most loyal foot-soldiers.

A gentle smile wrinkled on the sullen cheeks of one of the men with the weather-beaten face as he said, “Toh bahut zindagi dekhi hai aapne. Wohi hum pehle keh rahe the ki aapko dekhkar toh koi nahi kahega ki aap kumaoni hai.” (So you’ve seen a lot of life. When we saw you, we thought you didn’t look like a kumaoni.)

Oblong replied saying what he had told them was merely a scratch on the surface of the life he had seen. Then, as he began narrating more adventurous events from his life, the driver yelled at his passengers asking if anyone wished to get off at Almora. I took my rucksack off the roof of the vehicle and stepped out. As I got down, Oblong looked at me, smiled and said in his drawly voice, “Aapko shaayad acchi nahi lagi humaari kahaani.” (You perhaps didn’t enjoy my story.”)

I said, “Aapki kahaani itni mazedaar hai ki us par film ban sakti hai aur agar mere paas paise hote toh mai hi bana leta.” (Your story is so interesting that one could make a film on it and if I had the money, I would make it myself.”)

Oblong said, “Toh chalo humare saath Bareilly tak. Sab bataa denge aapko. Paison ka bhi intezaam ho jayega.” (Then come to Bareilly with us. I’ll tell you everything. I could also arrange the money.)

I politely declined his offer and watched the vehicle go away. But, even though the next few weeks would be action-packed, beautiful and adventurous, a part of me wishes I had taken his offer and gone to Bareilly instead.

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Hanging out in Kolasib

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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.

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