Encounter of a Different Kind
On a fine summer morning of 1975, I landed at Kumbhigram air port at Silchar, the southern tip of Assam. I was on my way to Serchhip in Mizoram, to join my first job as a lecturer. That day there was a private airlines flight for Aizawl the capital of Mizoram. But the travel agent said: ‘I have to ask the pilot whether you can be accommodated’. What!! This was just the beginning of surprises on entering a new world.
The Jam Air flight arrived. The pilot in a multicoloured bush shirt came out. I paid the fair of fifty rupees and hopped into the Second World War vintage Dakota, belonging to Biju Patnaik. Was this the one he had used for escorting out Sukarno from Indonesia. (For the new generation: Biju Patnaik who became Orissa Chief Minister later, was an ace pilot and when Sukarno of Indonesia was in trouble, he was sent by Indian Prime Minister Nehru for the rescue mission.) No tickets, no checking, no boarding pass! The entrance was at the rear end. The floor of the plane was at a twenty degree angle to the ground. The passengers occupied the front part and the baggage was tied to the rear seats by strong ropes. Won’t they get dislodged when going through air pockets? Thankfully, that thought didn’t occur to me then. A steward came around with some stale tea in a flask. After a smooth take off, we entered the land of the hill ranges, where one acquires a new sensibility for things beautiful and simple.
Soon we were at Tuirial air-strip, a hundred metre long, four lane highway sized tarmac tucked away in the middle of high hills. The ground control, one man squatting on the side of the tarmac with a small radio set. Looking around I wondered, how on earth we managed to land there! Every time I landed there in later years, it was a thrill.
A mini bus with ‘pilot’ boldly written on the back of the driver’s seat was waiting. We got in for our twenty kilometre ride to Aizawl – the city on a hilltop. Occasionally one saw a bulge on one side of the road. Only much later, I realized the significance of this. As the roads are narrow, two vehicles cannot pass each other. So on seeing another vehicle coming from the opposite direction, whoever came to the bulge first moved in there for the other to pass. It was a common sight in later years to see the drivers of the ‘Indian’ Armed Forces, not used to the ways of the hills studiously keeping to the left and causing traffic jams.
Passing through the uninhabited jungle road, the bus suddenly stopped at an unexpected place. The conductor, who looked like a thug with his head-band and well built body, got out and gave a yell. There was a reply from somewhere in the jungle. A cold shiver went through my spine. Were they signalling some ‘Mizo rebels’, the infamous head hunters? Soon the mystery was solved. A lassie came out of the jungle with a basket, full of fruits and vegetables, dangling on her back. How effortlessly she carried the weight! She was coming back after the day’s work in the farm. Because of the insurgency, the villages were re-grouped by the armed forces. This kept the farmers far away from their farmland and effectively destroyed the Mizo economy. These bus drivers were probably the saving knights of the people.
The bus continued through winding roads by the side of deep gorges and at last reached Aizawl. Got down near Aizawl Lodge, where many non-Mizos were staying. As night approached, many looked scared. A stout Mizo man staying in one of the rooms had got drunk the previous night and made a ruckus.
In the evening, a fellow lodger asked me: “Have you got your pass?” What pass? In my own country? Every non-Mizo, Indian or foreigner, entering Mizoram needs to get an inner line permit. This system introduced by the British to protect the outsiders from harm is now used for protecting the local people from outside exploiters. With my appointment letter, I could proceed to Serchhip and apply for a permit later.
My destination was another 110 kms away. But being a Sunday, no transport was available the next day. All roads lead to the church on Sundays. Monday morning I got up at 4-30 in the morning for the two km walk to the bus station. So bright at 4-30! The place is so far east that the Indian Standard Time is irrelevant here.
It is not only the IST that is irrelevant, but much of the Indian mind set and even Indian-ness. Culturally, linguistically, racially, historically, or politically, Mizos have nothing in common with mainland India. A fiercely independent people, they are part of India by a quirk of history. Brought up in schools where we adored ‘Chacha Nehru’ and sung Jana Gana Mana lustily every morning, I was entering a world where going to Silchar, the nearest town in Assam, meant going to India. For Mizos, India is a place of dirty beggars, bullying rickshawallas, and cheating businessmen.
The last stage of my trip took me once again to Tuirial area. My heart once again missed a beat; not for fear of guerrillas this time but the breath taking scenery. The tops of the dark green hills were brightly lit. The clouds which were nestling in the deep valleys for the night slowly came up to meet and embrace us, causing a thrill in my heart. But this brought along a deep longing for the home down south I had left a week earlier. Just as the dark thoughts came, someone started a hymn. Soon the whole bus was singing. A whole choir in a moving bus! I hadn’t realized then that any four Mizos formed a choir! The tune was familiar though the words sounded like gibberish.
Revived by the hymns, I was once again looking forward to the life in my new adopted land. Soon a large stone quarry was in sight. No way forward! The Border Roads people had just blasted the quarry and it would take hours to clear the road. But not for the Mizos! The passengers got down and cleared the road in fifteen minutes. The only men who did not pitch in were the two vais (plains-people). Shamefully, yours truly was one of them. Since then I have seen the whole community including ministers and top bureaucrats joining in church or school construction, or cleaning drains. Not for the photo session, but doing real labour!
Life is hard for the average Mizo; a daily fight against great odds. Unfriendly terrain. Water, hard to get. Farms not very fertile. Communication with the outside world difficult. But they are undaunted. From an illiterate head hunting tribe at the turn of the 20th century, they have emerged as one of the most literate states in India. When Mizos put their mind to doing something, they just do it. In later years when they decided to put an end to insurgency and to go for development, Mizoram became the most peaceful state in the region.
Soon we were at the village square of Serchhip, my ultimate destination. It looked like one of those towns in the cowboy stories. Houses and shops made of wood, bamboo and tin sheets, and a well maintained market place with notice boards and urinals at various parts of the village. To my disappointment, the horses were missing.
Where was I? In a dream or dream-come-true world?
Labels: Travel's Travails