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.
The Mizo couple accompanying Rajesh had to return to Aizawl because of an emergency. One of their relatives had suffered a stroke and was on life support. They were terribly apologetic that they couldn’t drive Rajesh to Lunglei to inspect the petrol pump they owned. However, they did arrange for a taxi to take him to the junction in Thenzawl where share taxis plying to Lunglei from Aizawl stopped to pick up passengers and since we had broken bread the previous night as fellow outsiders in Mizoram, he allowed me to accompany him in the taxi.
We were dropped at a restaurant which appeared to be the de-facto hang out place for anyone looking for any mode of transport going anywhere. Here, looking at the row of big vehicles lined by the roadside, we were confident that we would find a seat in one of them. But alas, all of them were full and as they rumbled away, we were left stranded all alone.
We ate some noodles at the shop to bide our time. After an hour of protracted wait, Rajesh was getting nervy and tense. He went up to the lady at the counter asking for assistance in finding a vehicle to Lunglei but she just shooed him away with a flick of a hand like he was a cumbersome pest. Rajesh was infuriated at being dismissed so contemptuously. But he couldn’t take it out on the lady, so he came over to my table and began blurting a litany of racist abuses directed at the state of Mizoram and its people. The faces in the restaurant turned to look in our direction in consternation and the panic-meter in my head was going off the charts thinking of the repercussions of this outburst. The easiest way to get into trouble in a place you don’t belong is to vilify a people while you’re among them.
I asked Rajesh to shut the fuck up and went outside looking for anything that would take us to Lunglei. A taxi driver had been watching me flailing about from a distance and he came over to offer a ride for 2000 Rs. in his Alto. I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for an 80 km ride on some of the worst roads in the country. So I went up to Rajesh and told him we could get a move on because I had found a taxi to take us to Lunglei.
Rajesh reacted to my pragmatic move with fire and fury. He castigated me for getting into such a ludicrous deal without his consent as if I had filched his hard-earned cash out of his wallet. He was a family man, he said, and couldn’t afford luxuries like a private cab ride through the hills when he was on duty. Every rupee saved was a rupee that would put his son through college. We should be looking for the cheapest mode of transport that would help him finish his work and get back home in one piece, he bawled.
This angered me immensely and I stormed out of the restaurant with my rucksack to see if I could make the cab driver shave a few hundred rupees off the fare and get going. But the man appeared to have run away, possibly riled by Rajesh’s caustic attitude towards his generous offer. So I waited glumly by the roadside for any vehicle to arrive. At that moment, I didn’t care if it was a milk van, a truck or a school bus or a pony cart. All I wished to do was hit the road. It was then that the lady at the restaurant, perhaps stirred by the despondent look on my face, sent a little girl with a message.
The message was, “Wait 10 minutes. Bus is coming.” This was sweeter than honey to my ears. For a moment, I deliberated on delivering the good news to Rajesh who was morosely staring into space from the restaurant window. But recalling his disrespectful attitude from before, I chose not to.
The Mizoram State Transport doesn’t run an awful lot of buses in the state but there is one that goes from Aizawl to Lunglei early in the morning. On certain days, there is another that leaves Aizawl at 10 a.m. to reach Thenzawl by 1 p.m. And it was on this 1 p.m. bus that I found a seat by the window of the last row. As the bus moved, I saw a figure running behind banging vigorously at its hindside. It was Rajesh.
Rajesh took the only space vacant in the entire bus, a gap of a few inches between myself and an elderly Mizo woman sitting next to me. He had also bought a carton full of diminutive guava juice bottles for the road and handed me half a dozen of them as a friendly gesture of peace and harmony.
Over the course of the 3 hour journey, perhaps to overcompensate for his rude behaviour earlier, he battered me with questions about my life in Mumbai, my college days, my views on religion, food habits, family life, lack of a family life, marriage plans, career prospects, Salman Khan etc. I indulged him initially with questions of my own to keep the conversation going but soon, it became exhausting as his thirst for the knowledge of intimate details of my private life knew no bounds. But my disinterested monosyllabic replies only seemed to make him try harder at framing more probing questions. So I put earphones on to hint at my desire to end the conversation. But this measure too was to no avail as he plucked one of them out of my ears to find out what I was listening to. King Crimson’s Red was understandably incomprehensible to him and I had to spend an awful amount of time listening to his disapproval of my taste in music and his romantic ideas of what they should be. He whipped out his own playlist and made me listen to some of his favourite songs from the 90s, all of them overflowing with melancholic self-pity, like “Kitna Haseen Chehra”, “Jeeta Tha Jiske Liye”, “Bhari Barsaat Mein Pee Lene Do” etc. He insisted on singing passionately along with these songs drawing stares from the passengers around. At this point, I realised that to put up any fight would be futile. So I let him have his way and endured his shenanigans for the rest of the journey.
The final 10 km of the road before Lunglei had been decimated by the year’s monsoon and the resulting landslides. Work was on in full swing with labourers caked in the dirt of monstrous toil attempting to smoothen the bumps as well as they could. This was a torturous stretch where the road was less a road than a rocky, marshy gloop and seated on the last row of the bus, my spinal cord could feel every little inflection of the route twisting its tissues to the brink. There wasn’t an awful lot of headroom in the bus either, so every big bump on the trail meant a knock on the head. It’s a minor miracle that Rajesh and I survived it without any debilitating concussions.
Rajesh departed at a petrol pump on the way while I got off at the point where a steep road curved up to the Lunglei Tourist Lodge. It was strategically located on top of the highest hill in the vicinity and while the climb up was exhausting, the first thing I wanted to do when I reached the lodge was to drop my rucksacks in the lobby, take out my camera and click pictures because the views from here were so stunning that I had to pinch myself to see if I wasn’t dreaming.
It was 4 p.m. in the evening and to one side you had a cascade of green hills ornamented by low clouds and on the other, yellowing wisps of fog alternately revealing and obscuring the urban cityscape on the hills in the distance, a quintessentially Mizo landscape. I’ll let the pictures do the talking because no vocabulary (that I possess) can do justice to its beauty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.