Until I arrived in Lunglei, it was going to be a mere pit-stop on the way to more appealing locales like Saiha and Phawngpui. Its billing as the second largest urban conglomerate in Mizoram didn’t sound very enticing. But I was so dazzled by the views from the Tourist Lodge that I lingered on for many nights.
A marker for how enthusiastic I feel about a place is how early it makes me wake up in the morning. In Lunglei, I woke up at the crack of dawn every day and went up to the terrace with a camera, a kindle and a cup of tea and spent hours sitting on its slat-roofed slopes watching the golden light fall on the city. On certain mornings, banks of clouds would envelop the building generating a momentary illusion that you were suspended in the air. It was both beautiful and scary because when the fog began thinning, little holes in its layers revealed not just the azure sky around but also the steep fall into the misty hills hundreds of feet below.
There wasn’t an awful lot to do here but stroll around in peace and take in the views from the vantage points that offered them. Of the city’s urban cluster capping the cliffs to the south, some of the most phenomenal glimpses could be had from the path down to the road below. Here, stony platforms at the edge of a wide, cobbled footpath lined with flowering shrubs provide an unrivalled look at the sunset. It was a languid place for the people who lived in the vicinity to sit and converse.
Of the wilder, timbered hills beyond, perhaps the best view could be had from the Baptist Church just a few meters below the Lodge. Here, steep curvy slopes led down to the tin-roofed dwellings on the hillsides. Here, I spent an entire afternoon speaking to an inquisitive pastor who wished to know my views on everything from politics to sport to the movie business while remaining stubbornly noncommittal on his opinions on the same. Tourists seldom made their way to Lunglei, he said, let alone linger long enough to walk down to the church. He himself had never been out of Mizoram in his entire life and had no desire to go anywhere. Since God willed him to be in Lunglei, he was perfectly content with his life there. He was disappointed to know that I was a bit of a godless person but since he had found me labouring under his roof (taking pictures of the hills i.e.), he felt I would find Him soon enough.
I wish more of the guests at the Lodge were as amenable to conversations as the pastor. The ladies at the reception were friendly enough but kept a studied distance at being probed further than a request for a cup of tea or a glass of water. It wasn’t a particularly busy place either with a majority of the rooms going unsold. Much of the clientele was from other parts of India and one particular gentleman, who appeared to be a regular visitor going by the chummy way he behaved with the cook, just spread himself out in the lobby and watched Hindi serials on TV all evening.
At breakfast and dinnertime, I was usually the sole person eating in the hall. The only other person I had for company one morning was Chandru, a doctor from Chennai who was working in remote areas of Mizoram for an NGO. He too was surprised to find me traveling in a far-flung district like Lunglei and was taken aback to hear that I had been enjoying my journey so far. He didn’t find anything particularly beautiful about the region and urged me to visit Shimla and Darjeeling if I wanted to see beautiful places.
Work in Mizoram wasn’t as difficult as some other parts of India, he said, as people had a better regard for hygiene, discipline and cleanliness. It only became a problem in the more malarial towns bordering Bangladesh like Tlabung. He felt the bigger challenge was getting through to the people because while they were friendly, they were reticent to trust outsiders. He often had to count on help from the religious fraternity to gain trust in remote villages.
His biggest issue with living in Mizoram was food. Hankering for curd rice might sound like an attempt to stereotype a Tamilian but for Chandru, the fear of its deprivation was very much real. Often, he had to wander for days on end in the rural hinterland far from a city like Aizawl, the only place in Mizoram where he could find food to his liking. His troubles were compounded significantly by the fact that he was a strict vegetarian as well. The Indian restaurants in Aizawl and Lunglei, of whom he had an encyclopaedic knowledge having trawled their alleys far and wide in search of edible herbivorous meals, served him well but beyond, he had to starve for hours until he reached a government tourist lodge to find himself food that he trusted to be meat-free. He was suspicious of anything he was served at the homes he visited in the rural areas partly because of the language gap and largely because he was fearful he would be served meat either out of mistake or mischief.
Apart from the slat-roofed terrace, sweeping vistas could be had from a machan in the Lodge premises. They weren’t entirely unobstructed by the foliage around but offered a higher lookout than the road below. One evening, as I was waiting for a sunset here, I was ambushed by a group of Mizo boys and girls from the city. It was a Saturday and they had come to hang out with snacks and drinks in tow. Mizoram had for long been a dry state but prohibition was repealed in 2014, a contentious decision that led to protests by the Church. So while wine shops had opened in bits and spurts, liquor consumption was still frowned upon and consumed clandestinely with like-minded folks.
While many in this particular group were cheerful and friendly with one of the boys even offering me a drink that I politely refused, two of them were inebriated beyond control and became quite rowdy after a few rounds of drinks.
“What are you doing in Mizoram?”, bawled one them while I was perched on the ledge trying to get an angle on the hills with my camera.
“Just traveling around”, I said.
“So you have no job or what?”, shouted the other guy.
“I do my job while traveling.”
“You work for government? Why you take pictures?”
“I’m just a tourist and I love taking pictures.”
“Why you come to Lunglei, huh?”
Realizing this was getting a bit turbulent, I put my camera in my rucksack and climbed down. Then the friendly guy who had offered a drink followed me down to apologize. But up there, I could hear the two guys calling after me in Mizo and laughing boisterously with the girls perhaps gloating about scaring away the non-local. The boy looked at me sheepishly and said, “They’re good people. Just a little bit drunk.” I said I understood and moved to the road below where the people appeared to be friendlier.
There, as I was shooting the golden light falling on an Indian Tortoiseshell, an old man in a white t-shirt stopped on the trail to watch me work. He wanted to know what I was doing in Mizoram as well and wondered if I worked for the National Geographic. I said I didn’t but because I wanted to deviate from my usual boring story of being a nobody who roams around, I told him I was working on a travelogue.
“Oh, so you work for magazine, huh?”, he said, smiling expectantly, as if he hoped that were the case.
“No, not a magazine,” I said, “ I’m working on a book which talks about the people and places I’ve seen.”
“Like a guidebook?”
“Yeah, like a guidebook”, I said. It was futile trying to explain a hypothetical idea that even I wasn’t entirely certain of.
“Good, good, very pleased to meet you”, he said with a wide smile, as if this bit of trivia made his day.
“So what have you seen in Lunglei so far?”
I told him I had just been lingering around the tourist lodge for the last 3 days taking in the views.
“Why? You sick or what?”, he asked mockingly.
“No, I’m not sick. I just like the views”, I said.
“So you didn’t go to the city?”
“Many good places to eat in the city. Come with me tomorrow. My name is Jimmy. I’ll take you. Tourist lodge food not good.”
So I went with Jimmy to the city the next morning. It would serve a dual purpose because I had to book a jeep out of Lunglei and I had no idea where to go. And, I thought Jimmy, being a local man, might be helpful in getting me one.
The moment we entered Lunglei city, all traffic and dust and noise swirling between perilously tall structures, I was happy to have stayed away for so long. Like many urban landscapes, it looked more presentable from a distance. After 10 days of peace and quiet in Hmuifang, Thenzawl and Zotlang (where the Lunglei Tourist Lodge was located), this was a bit of a shock.
Jimmy took me to the Ono Restaurant where he said the burgers were the best in all of Mizoram. So I ordered one and found to my profound displeasure that the meat in the burger was so raw that I couldn’t chew through it. I also ordered a coffee which looked like a cup of milk with a sprinkling of coffee powder. I told Jimmy that I could neither eat the burger nor drink the coffee to which he reacted with much amusement. He said he couldn’t do anything about the burger but got the woman at the bill counter to pour a ton of coffee powder into the milk. It had the effect of making it among the strongest coffees I’ve ever had but owing to the poor quality of the powder, not a particularly good one either.
I was still pretty hungry having had to abandon the burger, so Jimmy took me to Classic Restaurant, a place he alleged was the best in Lunglei. From the curtained windows of this top-floor restaurant, there was a pretty fine view of the vertiginous urbanscapes of Lunglei below. The restaurant was done up nicely with a few tables having draperies to give them privacy. I ordered some momos and while they were strictly okay, it was edible unlike the nightmare burger before.
My hope that Jimmy would aid me in finding a mode of transport out of Lunglei were quickly dashed as we blindly walked up and down the steep lanes of the city trying to find the MST bus stand. Jimmy hadn’t travelled anywhere in 8 years and this was as much a journey of discovery for him as it was for me. When we did eventually get to the bus stand, I was told that no buses were going to Lawngtlai. There began another long-winded search for the sumo stand which had jeeps going in the direction I wished to go. Jimmy went about this like an amateur forensic detective would, asking the cobbler in a corner for directions and then corroborating this information with a shop another block away and just to be perfectly sure, asking everyone at the teashop next door if they had any thoughts about what we had learned. Not all the details tallied and we walked the length and breadth of Lunglei in this eternal search.
Every once in a while, I would interject with my own ideas about how we ought to go about things. I would tell him, maybe we could just take a rickshaw or a taxi to where the place was since they would perhaps be more knowledgeable in these aspects. But he would quickly shoo it away saying that would be a colossal waste of money because he didn’t think they were trustworthy. I let him lead the way because his labyrinthine course gave me the sort of elongated tour of the city I wouldn’t have had otherwise. We walked up mighty steps, climbed down to markets, crossed high footbridges and stopped for cups of tea at myriad tea-houses.
While we were meandering thus, Jimmy told me about his life. He lived alone in one of the tin-roofed houses around Serkhawn. His wife had passed away long ago and all his children and grandchildren lived in Bangalore and Delhi. They kept inviting him to live with them but he was too set in his ways and wouldn’t dream of leaving his idyllic life here. He spent his time reading magazines, watching TV and playing music. His governing concern at this stage in his life (he was a little over 60) was Baptist Christianity and I only had to needle him a little bit to extricate some very strong opinions against the Catholic Church. He was clearly well-read on the issue and a lot of his theological explications flew right over my head.
Finally, perhaps tiring of this routine, Jimmy sauntered to a policeman to make enquiries. The policeman whistled for a lanky young boy to take us to the main market circle where there were a line of shops with sumo counters selling tickets to everywhere in Mizoram. Here, Jimmy took money off my hands and haggled ferociously in Mizo with the lady at the counter. The boy sitting on a chair outside was watching this scene with much amusement and came up to me and said, “He wants to go for 50 rupees. That was the rate maybe 20 years ago.”
Jimmy’s protestations were to no avail as we had to pay the regular 2017 rate for the seat to Lawngtlai. After snatching the ticket off the lady’s hands, Jimmy stormed outside, shook his head and said, “Thieves, I tell you. All thieves! 200 rupees!” Jimmy then met some of his old acquaintances on the street and got so distracted with conversation that he wandered off with them disregarding me entirely. I walked back to the Lodge all alone in the crispy foggy air of the evening stopping at every turn to shoot Lunglei’s ethereal landscapes.