The streets of Agartala I

I’m starting a new series here to rewire the blog while I work on the more time consuming long-read pieces. Here I post black and white pictures of the places I’ve been to and hope to update this more frequently than I normally do.

I’m beginning this with a series of pictures I shot in Agartala, a street photographer’s haven. Agartala is a city that smacks of the old world with a distinct texture in its streets and markets that’s fast disappearing from other more heralded urban areas of India.

Many of these shots have been taken using the Samsung Galaxy S7 phone and that’s part of the theme of this series as well – the fact that your camera matters less than the shots you take.

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A month in Mizoram

IMG_5911First of all, if you’re going to Mizoram as an Indian national with no local sponsor and wish to travel for anything more than 10 days, it’s a pain and a half to get your permit extended. I can name at least a dozen foreign countries where my visa process and extensions have been easier than what I experienced in Mizoram. I was under the impression that as an Indian traveler, you get a 15 day ILP at the Mizoram House in Guwahati but what I got was just a 7 day permit extendable for no more than 3 days. I wanted to travel around for at least a month as I like to travel slow and long and after several point blank refusals at the DC Office in Aizawl and much begging and pleading and furnishing my instagram profile as a traveler, I was allowed a month long extension as a “Photographer” because mere tourists can’t have the luxury of such a generous permit extension.

That being said, I totally loved my time in Mizoram. The people were friendly and the hills are absolutely tourist-free and beautiful.

Getting in: If you have the time, I totally recommend the overland approach by train from Guwahati to Silchar. I took the 4.30 a.m. Kanchenjunga and after taking a nap for a couple of hours, got to enjoy some of the most gorgeous scenery I have seen from an Indian train. The route goes through thickly forested hills, wide valleys and green fields of the Barak valley on the way. 

Silchar was an unavoidable pit-stop as no jeeps left that late in the evening for Aizawl. Stayed at Hotel Center Palace, which had okayish rooms for 700 odd rupees. Had biryani at Nawab restaurant next door, which I highly recommend if you need to bunk here for a night.

From Silchar, I took the 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl (400 Rs.) on a bumpy road that got steadily worse as it went along, getting better only a few kilometers before Aizawl.

Aizawl – There wasn’t a lot to do in Aizawl but walk around and take in views. The airbnb place (Vanhmingi’s house) I stayed in had the most spectacular view of all the viewpoints in Aizawl. It’s one of the only two places in the city listed on airbnb and is on top of Laiputluang hill near the PWD office and is, I was told, on the highest point in the city. The view here, I thought, was even better than the one from the Presbyterian Hospital which was fantastic as well. It’s a short but steep walk up and down from the place to the market but worth the effort to stay there to take in the morning and sunset views.

Apart from this place, I also stayed in 3 other hotels in Aizawl because I had to track back to the city to go to Champhai and Reiek. Chawlhna Hotel was a cheap hotel with dingy, tiny rooms that are just about OK for a night or two and the price I paid. Walk-in rate – 730 Rs. (online aggregators tend to offer a decent discount for this place) There’s a common balcony looking down to Lower Bazaar which is nice for people watching.

Hotel Elite was on the other end of the town about 3 kms from Zarkawt market. Again, got a great discount online which made the place tolerable. I would have been very angry if I had paid the rack rate here (2000 Rs.) for the room I was in. My room was boxed in and the only view I had was of the two building walls ten inches away.

Decided to luxe out for a night at Hotel Regency, supposedly Aizawl’s most fancy address. I don’t know how the expensive suite rooms are but my room was merely OK, with a decent bathroom. It was exorbitantly overpriced for what it was. The restaurant here was pretty good and inexpensive considering this is as fine dining as dining gets in Aizawl.

The best Mizo food apart from my homestay was at Red Pepper which had humongous Mizo thalis and some local rice wine to go with it. The Indian food at Jojo’s was great as well.

Hmuifang: Mizoram doesn’t have an extensive bus network but there’s a bus that leaves every morning at 6 a.m. to Lunglei with an unreliable 10 a.m. service on alternate days. Hmuifang is on the way to Lunglei and I stopped at the tourist lodge here for a couple of nights. The rooms here were somewhat dilapidated (the caretaker assured me it was because of the severe monsoon) but I thought they were decent for the location and the price.

The best views in Hmuifang apart from the top of the hill itself is just down the Lunglei road where there’s a clearing from which there was a 180 degree vista of the mountains beyond. Perfect place for the sunset.

Opposite the tourist lodge, an extremely friendly ex-army guy runs a restaurant which was my go-to place for chai and breakfast. The bread omlette and chicken pulao there was amazing.

Thenzawl: Caught the Lunglei bus and got down here to spend a couple of nights. Again, not much to do but walk around. There’s a sizeable handloom industry here with every house having an old-style weaving mill. The tourist lodge here was perhaps the best maintained of all the lodges in Mizoram. Lots of government functionaries and officers seem to stay here. There aren’t any views from the lodge itself but the church at the top of Thenzawl town had some pretty vistas.

The Vangtawng Falls were about 9 kms further down the Lunglei road. Got a seat on a shared sumo to Lunglei and got down at the falls. Beautiful falls, especially because I had the whole place to myself. Hitchhiked back to town and got down on the way because the landscapes just before Thenzawl on the Lunglei road were beautiful. Walked around 5 kms back.

Lunglei: I did not want to stop in Lunglei. It’s billing as the second biggest city in Mizoram did not appeal to me at all and I was impatient to move on to Saiha and Phawngpui as quickly as possible. But the road from Thenzawl to Lunglei was so horrible (it took 3 and a half hours to do less than 50 kms) that I had to spend a night to rest aching bones. Lunglei won me over though. From the tourist lodge here which is a few kilometers before the town, the views of the city and rolling hills to both sides were just gobsmackingly beautiful. The 600 Rs. I paid for the room here was practically a steal. Did nothing here for 4 days, except eat, sleep, take in the views from the road below, have long conversations with the pastor and stare at the valley on the other side from the church below. Spectacular place. I didn’t like the city itself so much but had to make one trip to book my seat to Lawngtlai.

Lawngtlai: Probably my only disappointment in Mizoram. Maybe because Aizawl, Hmuifang, Lunglei and even Thenzawl were so awesome, wasn’t so taken in with this grubby small town in the south. Probably the best thing about the place is that the lodge here is friendly and food was a bit better than some of the other lodges.

Saiha: Another beautiful town to land in Mizoram after a backbreaking sumo ride. The road from Lawngtlai was just horrible but the views from Saiha and the easy-going laidback nature of the place was just the right kind of balm for aching bones. The people here were the friendliest I encountered in the state. My Vodafone network disappeared as soon I landed in Saiha district but I spent 3 nights here just soaking up the atmosphere.

Twisted my ankle here, so decided not to go further to Vawmbuk and Sangau as I had planned earlier. A big disappointment, especially considering the fact that to come all the way back here, I’ll have to beg and plead at the DC Office again for a permit extension.

Broke the journey at Lunglei and reach Aizawl the day after.

This stretch itself had exhausted 17 days of my permit. To heal my ankle, which the doctor said would take 2-3 days of rest, spent a couple of days in Aizawl and headed to

Reiek – Caught the 12 a.m. sumo from the Bungkawn stand. Don’t go to Reiek on the weekend unless you want to party. I didn’t mind the Aizawl crowds here though and I was amazed that most of them were coming to this awesome place merely 30 kms from the city for the first time. Was thrilled that I could do the hike to the top and the views were just spectacular. Spent 3 nights here and did climbs to some of the other peaks around too. Beautiful trekking country.

The lodge in Reiek was run by a very friendly guy and couple of ladies. Apart from myself, there was only a group of labourers staying at the property. They were building something at the Children’s Park and we hung out over lunches and dinners every day.

Saitual – The share jeeps to Saitual run from the sumo counter on a flight of steps adjacent to the Millenium Center at 6 a.m., then hourly from 12 a.m to 2 p.m.. Saitual was a laidback place but not one worth hanging around for long. The tourist lodge here had been “privatised” but the place was friendly and well-kept enough. Took a taxi from here to Tamdil and back and while the Tamdil Tourist lodge was at a great location right at the edge of the lake, it looked quite desolate and uncared for and I was glad I stayed at Saitual. The lake itself was merely alright and I have a feeling it’s been touted about as an “attraction” only because Mizoram doesn’t really have that many “tourist” attractions. There are spectacular views wherever you go and look, but very few “attractions”.

Champhai – The road to Champhai was less a road than a rocky trail punctuated by landslides. Took 8 hours to do the 100 kms from Saitual, the most obscenely difficult road of all in Mizoram. Since my permit would run out in a week’s time, decided to stick around in Champhai for 3 nights. Loved the town, which had a different landscape of the Mizo hills compared to other Mizo towns. Lots of green fields, beautiful evening light and rolling hills. I wanted to go further to Farkawn and Murlen but just didn’t have the time. The perils of a stringent permit regime and a slow, relaxed travel routine.

Kolasib – Since I had two days left in my permit, decided to break my journey in the little-visited town of Kolasib on the way to Silchar. There was a wedding at the tourist lodge on the day I landed here and since I like social evenings when I travel alone, it was good fun with lots of alcohol and 80s rock music. The lodge here doesn’t have any views but there’s a school at the back which had a little clearing (infested with mosquitoes) that gave a nice view of the sunset over the hills.

The best view of the hills is from the viewpoint just after Thingdawl on the Aizawl road with a jawdropping view of an entire range of hills. There are also nice views of the lake from some of the shop terraces on the way to the market who were nice enough to let me in to take pictures from the rooftops.

So that was the account of my first tour of Mizoram lasting 29 days.

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Phusachodu continued…

“Tonight, we’ll have squirrel for dinner”, announced V gleefully as we sat by the fire drinking tea.

“No, we will not. What do we have for lunch, though?”, said I, in equal parts repulsed at the thought of the dead squirrel with bullet wounds being discussed as a prospective meal and squirming with hunger having not had anything to eat since a 7 a.m. breakfast of boiled eggs and toast.

“Lunch?”, he asked puzzledly to the ladies of the house. This question was discussed at great length in the (to me) incomprehensible local dialect and when I saw that no solution seemed to have arrived at, I thought I would throw in a few options of my own.

“Any bread? “No.” “Dal and rice?” “No.”

“Maggi?” “Of course.”

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After I gorged on bucketfuls of Maggi to whet my voracious appetite, V employed one of his cousin brothers, B, to take me around the village. B did his MA from Pune and had chosen to come back to his village to work in the school. His big regret about the many years he spent in Pune was that he never made it to Mumbai. I tried consoling him by telling him that he wasn’t missing much but that didn’t prove to be much of a consolation. After spending all his youthful years in the Naga Hills, he had missed that one glorious opportunity to see what a (Juhu) beach looks like. Now he was a primary school teacher here and with his characteristic calm, quiet reserve showed me many an interesting Phusachudan sight like big chunks of beef hung out to dry on the roof of a house, a massive log drum used to store rice beer that had to be carried by the villagers every time a festival was on, the house of the oldest man in the village who lived alone with all his family gone, an eerily carved village gate that opened up to the jungles beyond, the big village community “pond” that holds pure drinking water despite having a covering of algae on top and many more that I forget for lack of pictures or scribbled notes. What I do remember though is that I shook hands with many men who introduced themselves as “Deacons” and a squadron of hunters with home-made muzzle guns who were on their way back from an unsuccessful day of hunting.

Beef put out to dry
Beef hung out to dry
The massive log drum
The massive log drum

Phusachodu was unforgivably cold once the sun gloriously set on the horizon of Naga Hills. So it made sense for everyone to huddle around a fire in the kitchen. Other than B, no one spoke a language that I could decipher, so most of the time it was me staring into the fire and taking pictures of people chatting over the fire. Every once in a while, I would rudely interrupt the conversation and pester B with some inane questions like, “Are there any animists here?” or “Does anyone have a collection of human skulls from your head-hunting days?”, answers to all of which were a resounding no. Just to prove how resounding it was, our somber gathering was interrupted by a deacon who had come to collect the “10 percent” that every family had to contribute to the Church and made them do so by making them pray around a fire and hurl incantations from the Bible. Everyone (except for me) passionately got into the act which was fascinating to watch with the whole prayer session resembling an otherworldly neo-rap act with the lines flowing into each other at high pitches said at break-neck speeds.

Dinner by the fire
Dinner by the fire

Dinner, thankfully, was not squirrel but a delicious combination of rice, squash curry and chicken (cooked the naga way). V and another of his cousin brothers, A, joined us later. Although V’s earlier luck had deserted him on his evening hunt, he looked in high spirits, cracking everyone up with (judging by how everyone was falling over their chairs laughing) his hilarious jokes. He later turned to me and said, “Okay, let’s make tomorrow’s programme now. You want to go for a hunt?” I had to walk a line here. I was emphatically against hunting wild animals and birds but I didn’t want to offend the sensibilities of my highly generous hosts by emphatically refusing the offer either. While I was puzzling over the reply, B pulled a rescue act by telling me that if I wished to, I could go with him to the “miracle stream” deep in the valley.

The grumpy little girl
The grumpy little girl

When I woke up the next morning and went to the kitchen to have my breakfast, I saw the young girl of the family being dressed up in traditional attire. This gladdened me immensely because I thought there was going to be some kind of a festival in the village, so I went up to BC and asked him what this was all about. What he said distressed me. She was being dolled up for me, the tourist, so I could take her picture. This was weird on a few levels. One, a tourist usually has to pay extortionate rates to get a chance to snap local exotica to show off back home (and this is true of places in North Nagaland, particularly the Mon District where some of the villagers have become so savvy thanks to whole armies of foreigners visiting them that they cover up their faces whenever an opportunistic “outsider” shows up with a camera, uncovering it only when the demanded fee is paid) It certainly wasn’t normal for a family to willingly dress up their little girl for someone like me to take her picture. The second thing that distressed me was the fact that I am quite terrible with kids and this kid was no different. She was grumpy and angry and certainly didn’t want her picture taken by someone she didn’t want to know. She defiantly refused to pose for me and I had to hand over my camera to her father who couldn’t make her smile but managed to make her stand with a grumpy look on her face for a few seconds.

The miracle stream
The miracle stream

We then set off to the “miracle stream”. A, who had volunteered to drive his car also carried his home-made muzzle gun because he wanted to hunt. So down we went the stony, slushy, dusty road and after we reached a point on the road, B tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Now we walk.” I was in my chappals and completely unprepared to hike down a steep gradient to the bowels of the valley but was too proud to say “no”. The trail was knee-twistingly steep and my chappals were entirely ill-equipped to deal with the scree and the incline. Nevertheless, I made it unscathed to the fields below from where we could see the stream and just as I was feeling happy at having made it without embarrassing myself too much, I slipped and fell down a moss-laden stretch that I had ignored in my self-congratulatory reverie. My clothes were caked in mud and some of my companions were howling with laughter leaving me red-faced. Thankfully, the only thing that broke was my ego, my bones seemed intact. I took the last little stretch to the stream painfully slowly wiping all the dust and grime I could off my clothes in the process. The fall had a deep psychological effect on me as I felt positively terrified at the sight of the put-together wooden bridge over the “miracle stream”. But I could muster up enough courage to walk over it, join my fellow companions, taste the saline water of the stream (supposedly used for treating gastric ailments) and huff and puff my way back to our vehicle.

We picked up an old lady who had a mountain of luggage on her back. During the journey, I became responsible for the only bird A managed to hunt that day. I saw a bulbul perched on a branch and in my excitement asked them to stop so I could take a picture or two. A, of course, immediately went for his gun, ran to a point where he could get a clear view and shot the bird down. When A and B displayed the dead and bloody bird to me, I felt gutted to the core. For the rest of the trip, I remained glum and depressed and while I tried not to show it, I didn’t try to intrude in any of the Nagamese conversations that were going on in the car. The car hit a ditch a little while later and while I should have been lending a helping hand, I just strode ahead wuth my cameras trying to counter my guilt and sadness by distracting myself with butterfly photography.

The perilous wooden bridge
The perilous wooden bridge

But who was I to judge them anyway? This has been the Naga way of life for eons. They may have hunted birds to extinction and may continue to do so in the future but what right does any man from Mumbai (conservationist or not) who has gadgets dangling from every pore (the manufacturing of which, incidentally, is far more harmful than what these Nagas do to their wildlife) have to judge people who have been living a different way of life in these forests? After all, isn’t the fact that the Youth Council of this village had imposed a ban on hunting that was rigorously observed for the rest of the year glorious enough? How many cultures go away from their traditional ways of doing things of their own volition without other people telling them to do so? Is it even remotely imaginable that people in the big Indian cities would say “no” to coal and hydel-based power that’s more environmentally destructive than anything else in the world?

Later in the evening, I felt like a celebrity when people were queueing up to meet their “guest”. First, a secondary school Hindi teacher (who curiously spoke broken Hindi), then the Youth Council President, then an old man in the neighbourhood and so on and so forth. The next morning, when I was about to leave, B waited for me. Had I known he was skipping his school duty, I would have tried to leave earlier. The school exams were on and B should have shown up on time. As I was sipping chai and urging him to please go to work, he got a call from school. He sounded distressed on the phone but once the call got over, gave out a loud laugh. The question papers for the exam were in his house and he had completely forgotten about it. The exams won’t start until he shows up with the papers! He apologised saying he had to leave, I said he had no cause to and we parted company.

I will always cherish my time in this little Naga village because its people made me momentarily believe that I was having the greatest time of my life.

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A comfortable bed in Phusachodu

Thanks to Nino Zhasa (who runs Explore Nagaland) and her extensive contacts in the villages of Nagaland, I decided to take the plunge and travel to a few villages not many people visit or, hell, even know about. V, who was my contact from the village of Phusachodu, rescued me from the dusty bowels of the N.S.T bus station at Pfutsero where I had spent many an hour drinking tea and having monosyllabic conversations with the owner of the N.S.T Hotel. V was a small, young, wiry and an extremely enthusiastic man who worked as a school teacher in Phusachodu and had previously done a course in Tourism from an institute in Sikkim. Phusachodu was 8 kms from Pfutsero, an hour’s drive through steep hills, thick jungles and terrible roads, ample time for V to fill me in on everything that he felt I had to know about his village.

Villages around the village
Villages around the village

The first thing I learnt (and this delighted me no end) was that I was to be the first ever home-stay guest in the village. People had visited the village before but they ended up staying in the cushy confines of the Speaker’s House. No one had ever stayed in an actual home there and V wished for me to experience “the raw everyday reality of life in the village”. I replied guardedly pessimistically that “we don’t have to go that far”, a sentiment that was greeted with mocking laughter.

The second thing I learnt was that there was a hunting ban in effect in the village, but (and this distressed me no end) that it had been lifted for the week I was visiting because of a “Children’s Feast Day” where all the children in the village would go to a house of their choosing and be served the animals and birds hunted by that household over the course of the week. As a result, the whole village was out hunting in the thick jungles surrounding the village.

Our first stop was V’s house which was close to the entrance near the top-most part of the village. His was a modest 3 room house, with one kitchen, one living room and one bed-room which, he declared very proudly, was built all by himself. While we were drinking tea and eating wild apples that he had knocked down from a tree in his courtyard, he showed me his “lucky hunt” of the day – a white-cheeked barbet and a squirrel. I had been traveling and hearing about the legendary tendency of the Nagas to hunt everything non-human that moves but this was the first time I’d actually seen a hunt and a part of me died inside. I try not to judge people while traveling and have a “to each his own” attitude wherever I go but watching a colourful blood-soaked dead bird hunted not for lack of food but for some cultural sport did spoil my mood greatly.

Mithun horns welcoming visitors at the house I was staying
Mithun horns welcoming visitors at the house I was staying

We stopped by the local ground and the cathedral on the way to my “home” in the village. Christianity came here on 10th December 1948 and “achieved” full conversion on 9th August 1989, said a plaque on a monolithic stone here. V was highly proud of the Church and I tried to feign enthusiasm to keep him happy but didn’t have to try to feign anything when we climbed to the awesome views of the village and the hills beyond at the top of the Church. The village was a cluster of tin-roofed houses, many of them beautifully traditional in all their wooden finery, some adorned with colourful verandahs surrounded by eye-poppingly colourful flower gardens. Concrete was slowly but surely creeping in, though, with some ugly tenements dotted among the splendidly crafted houses.

The view of Phesachodu from the Cathedral
The view of Phesachodu from the Cathedral

My hosts lived in one of those traditional wooden houses and had a gallery of mithun horns at the entrance to welcome its visitors. In the “hall” adjacent to the kitchen, V pointed towards an elongated wooden board with massive circular holes punctuating its length and said, “This is your bed tonight.” I laughed, patted him on the back and complimented his sense of humour to which he stared incredulously back at me and said, “I’m serious. This is where you sleep tonight.” As we sat by the fire in the kitchen drinking copious amounts of tea, I asked him, very nervously, “But don’t they have a ‘bed’ here?” “That is the bed. You can keep your luggage in the room and sleep here”. “Ah!”, I said, perking up, “So there IS a room I can sleep in if I don’t want to sleep here?” “Yes,” he said, “but I want you to sleep here to show you how we people really live. I want to give you the genuine experience of life in a village. I want you to feel how difficult life is in Naga villages compared to big cities like Mumbai. I want you to go through the hardships we go through.”

The "bed"
The “bed”

I took a few steps towards the wooden board to test my prospective couch, which I learnt was not a couch at all but an instrument to grind millets and grains. I lay down on it and found my terribly out of shape spine getting entangled in one of the holes and crying for mercy. When I turned to the side for a demo of how uncomfortable it could possibly get, I found my lips sticking to the board and the attendant dust and grime with it. This wasn’t a place to accidentally find your tongue sticking out drooling in the middle of the night. I went up to V and said, “I’m okay with this trip being not all that authentic. Can you show me my ‘room’ please?” We went up a concrete one-storey building right next to the wooden house, one that I despised earlier for being ugly, walked into a room to find a splendidly clean and comfortable bed provided with acrylic blankets and a little bathroom at the back. “Wonderful”, I said, “So what’s for lunch?”

Lunch and beyond shall be chronicled in the forthcoming posts set in the quaint, old village of Phusachodu.

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