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.
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.