On the road to Silchar

The jeep from Kolasib to Silchar clattered to a halt at an utterly desolate section on a jaw-toothed road made of sharp stones and pebbles. We were only four passengers and the driver laconically suggested something in Assamese to all of us and ran away. As we got out, a gusty wind blew from the mountains of Mizoram and swirled all the dust lying on the road into our faces. Before I could find out what the driver said to us, my fellow passengers had formed a group, hailed a passing vehicle and left leaving me stuck on the road all alone.

I felt sad and angry at this situation. At having to leave the hills, at being back in the hot and dusty plains, at the jeep breaking down miles before the town, at the dust clogging my windpipe, at having to either walk many miles or negotiate a fare if I do find some mode of transport, at having no signal on my phone so I could google where I was, at being lonely in the middle of nowhere. There were no chai stalls, no shops, no one to ask around for help and there weren’t any rickshaws or taxis moving in my direction either. The nearest settlement I remember passing by was miles behind and the only sign of humanity around me was the broken down car and the green fields with their farmhouses surrounding the area. I couldn’t see anyone working in those either.

Some trucks passed by but none answered my frantic waves of the hand. When one vehicle stopped and asked what the problem was, the people in it had a non-verbal meeting of the eyes, gave a suspicious glare and moved on. I had been in such situations before and like always, my nerves were doing a panicky dance and my mind joined nightmarish threads as it tried to figure how the end was going to be, starvation, kidnapping, torture, a sudden attack of a disease. It also wondered about those novels I hadn’t written, the films I hadn’t made and how I had wasted so much of my time watching silly youtube videos. If only I could somehow get myself to an inhabited town, I would get some discipline into my life and get to work at everything I hadn’t been doing.

As my mind was entertaining such fatalistic thoughts, its reveries were broken by the entry of a mongrel in the middle of the road. Now I have nothing against dogs but I had been bitten before and the aftermath was extremely painful and this dude was snarling at me for no reason. I looked around helplessly and stayed as still as my nerves would allow me  but the mongrel was intent on having a staring contest with my eyes.  I looked at it, looked away, looked back to see if it was still looking at me and when it turned out its gaze hadn’t shifted in the least, looked away again.

This game was broken by the arrival of an old man walking with his hands folded behind his back and dressed in a white undershirt, a white dhoti and a white towel wrapped around his neck. He brandished a stick tied to his dhoti and tapped it with a thud on the floor. The dog, startled by the noise, took its eyes off me and ran back into the fields. The man, after staring at me in puzzlement for a few minutes, came up to me, laughed and said something in Assamese. I nodded and told him in Hindi that I didn’t understand his language. His reaction to this was to launch into a long monologue in more Assamese and the more I nodded politely, the more elongated it became.

Once he had finished monologuing, he walked away, then looked back and beckoned me to follow him. I held my hand up to suggest I was okay where I was but the man was insistent. So I walked up the narrow tracks in the fields to a little shed with a tin roof and an assortment of farming equipment lying in a dusty, cobwebbed mess. The mongrel that had caused me distress earlier was there too but it appeared to be subdued and came over and sniffed my hand. The man went inside and came back with two wooden chairs and when I volunteered to help him, he sternly asked me to stay put.

I sat there staring at the fields while he disappeared for a few minutes. The slow breeze of the wind, the bucolic atmosphere and the view of the hills in the distance calmed me a little. The man then resurfaced with two hot, steaming cups of chai and began monologuing again in Assamese. I kept nodding my head politely. It was comforting to be in friendly human company again and I thought in a worst case scenario, I could crash here in this rustic farmhouse.

After we finished the cups of chai, the man asked me to follow him back to the road. Once we got there, he stood in the center of the highway and began waving maniacally at every passing vehicle. I feared for his life and tried to dissuade him from this crazy hitchhiking spectacle but to no avail. He didn’t stop until he had successfully managed to wave a biker down.  When the biker stopped, he pointed to the broken down car lying by the side and mumbled something to the biker who nodded sympathetically. The man then came up to me and asked me to sit at the back.

I asked the biker where he was going. He was on his way to his village nearby, he said. I asked him if he would drop me to Silchar. He said I must be mad to ask him to do that. He muttered something angrily to the man and moved on. The man then shook his head disapprovingly and walked back to his farmhouse.  I was all alone on the highway yet again.

Just as I was beginning to wallow in another despairing fit, I saw a familiar face on a shambolic three wheeler cantering towards me. It was the driver who had abandoned his sumo by the roadside who was now back with a litre of oil and some tools to fix his engine. He laughed in disbelief and asked me why I hadn’t taken a ride to the town with the other passengers. I said it didn’t matter because now that he was here I felt so ecstatically happy that it was only right that I didn’t go when the others did. He looked at me like I had gone insane.

It took the driver an hour to fix the jeep and he dropped me in front of the Center Palace Hotel in Silchar. The indifferent staff and the crummy room didn’t bother me. Neither did the staff’s inability to make a cup of chai. I treated myself to sumptuous biryani at the Nawab’s restaurant next door and then quickly booked a seat in the train leaving for Agartala the next morning.

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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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