cigarettes, tea and the wild wild hills

am putting this up in response to saurabh's testy comment on the last post. an old piece, but maybe he'll like it. i am looking for one called "rahul and i" that i had put on, but the site seems to have closed down. if anyone has a copy lying around, do pass it on?

Mizoram. The land I was born in, left when I was 6, and am returning to after 17 years. I was prepared for the journey: the dramatic change in scenery, the extreme change in food. What I wasn't prepared for was the colour of the sky.

It is all Rahul's fault, really. He has been hankering to go back as long as I can remember. Now it is I who cannot leave.

We start at mid afternoon from Guwahati, 'gateway' to the north east. You can immediately feel the difference as we leave the river plains of Assam and head into the hills of Meghalaya. Meghalaya, where the clouds come home ... but that's another story. We stop at Shillong, the state capital, for the night. What a relief, after the dust and the heat and the flies and the mosquitoes ...

'Mizoram' literally means land of the Mizos (in Mizo). They are a small group, living in the southernmost state of India's northeastern region, and some parts of Myanmar (Burma). Of Mongoloid extraction, they are supposed to have a close affinity with the Thais and the Burmese. Originally headhunting animists, they were converted to Christianity by Welsh missionaries about a hundred years ago.

Rahul is madly in love with the hills, and extremely impatient with anyone who is not. Thank goodness we are on a bus, he would have us cycling in! He may have the will and the spirit, but the body is after all, mine; and it certainly couldn't take such a trip. He says he wants to go to Samlukhai, my grandfather's ancestral village. Samlukhai literally means 'head hanging by hair'; and if the inhabitants are anything like the name of their village, I would rather give it a wide berth. Anyway, it is a night's journey before we reach Aizawl, the state capital, and I am glad to leave decisions till then.

We catch the sunset bus from Shillong. Though this means we are going to miss a lot of the scenery, I am happy. For one thing, I like travelling at sunset. And I'll be able to sleep. Rahul was so excited about the trip I didn't get a wink last night. As we pass through the rolling hills on top of the Shillong plateau, a bit of Rahul's enthusiasm infects me. He is taking photographs of every damn thing ... most of them won't even come out. I manage to catch some sleep after midnight, but Rahul stays wide awake as usual, listening to the drone of the engine and laughing gently with every twist and turn of the road.

We reach Mizoram early in the morning. I am woken up by the conductor gently shaking my shoulder. We troop out of the bus, bleary eyed and bushy haired. This is Vairengte, the border outpost. The police check the passengers and the bus for liquor. Mizoram has banned liquor, and smugglers try hard to supply a consistent demand. A bunch of students returning home for the Christmas break are pointedly carrying water in liquor bottles, but the policeman is unfazed, refusing to get provoked. Soon we are on are way, but all sleep is gone now. Just in time for sunrise.

The roads are narrow, the hills are steep, but there is a freshness, a feeling of space, a wildness that ... but no. Let Rahul sleep. Breakfast in the small township of Kolasib (I don't know what it means) and I come face to face with the food. Rice, with boiled mustard leaves and smoked pork ... interesting. The Mizos don't like spicy food, though green chilies are served with all meals. They seem disappointed when I don't take a second helping of rice. First time I saw the hospitality thing at a commercial eatery. The food is simple, but filling. Rahul is too busy looking around to eat. The people seem poor, but hardworking and happy. Rahul laughs at all the jokes, whether he understands them or not. I understand enough of the language to carry a conversation, but some of the subtleties are beyond me. Not that the jokes are very subtle ...

It is a few hours before we hit Aizawl, and I find out that we are behind schedule. No one really seems bothered, though, least of all Rahul. Most of the passengers are heading home. The old lady in the seat next to mine occasionally smiles at Rahul's enthusiasm. I smile back. Finally, Aizawl. We enter the town through a steep pass cut into the hill. There is a large cross at the entry, built in memory of the many who have died there. Sombre. But Aizawl lies below us, tin roofs sparkling in the sun. I have come home.

We will be spending Christmas in a small village called Nisapui, and Rahul and I looking forward to that. But first, family. Hello, hello, hello, howareyou, finethankyou.... oof! But the wind is fresh, the day is young, and it is almost Christmas. All the makings for a spot of magic.

Rahul is getting philosophical on me. Squatting on the roof with his mug of tea ("the colour of sunset, always the colour of sunset ...) and a cigarette, he tells me of kings and empires and the wild wild hills. The stars look very close, almost too close. We'll be leaving for Nisapui tomorrow. It looks like we can't make it to Samlukhai after all.

Nisapui is not far from Aizawl, and will not take much time to reach. The taxi driver has to fill up the tank, and we buy petrol off the black market. Even though there are plenty of vehicles in the town, petrol is a scarce commodity, as it has to be transported all the way from the plains. We pass the cross, and are soon in the countryside. A couple of bumpy hours later, we are in Nisapui. I didn't have any particular expectations, and so wasn't surprised by much. The first thing you notice is the silence. No traffic, no shouting, just the quiet sounds of a village preparing for Christmas. And, of course, playing vaguely on the wind, Eminem.

The entire village seems to be gathered in the kitchen of the house we will be staying in. The life of the Mizo community revolves around the kitchen, which is normally large, and in the villages appears to be separate from the main house. Faces, faces. I stare, they stare, Rahul stares. Introductions, unpacking gifts, I am glad to sit for dinner.

The evening meal is normally around sunset. After that, the older people sit around the fire and talk. Young men go 'nula rim'ing, courting girls in groups. At any given time there will be about half a dozen young men in a girl's house. It is a matter of embarrassment if a girl's house is empty after dinner. Though this practice is not very popular in the communities outside Mizoram, in the villages it is definitely alive. In the Mizo custom, when a girl likes a young man, she rolls a cigarette for him, tying it with a strand of her hair. This is a quiet mark of special attention, amidst the clamor of half a dozen people. The young man then makes a visit with his friends, formally asking for the hand of the girl in marriage. Not ever having received such an honor, I am not too sure whether the practice is still around. Must find out.

We sit outside after dinner. Someone brings out a guitar and starts singing. A small charcoal stove is lit and we all sit around the fire. Tomorrow we will visit the site of the old village, though there is only jungle there now. At night we will attend the zai khawm, where the youth get together and sing carols the whole night. The Mizos are wonderful singers, and I am looking forward to it, as much as the trek into the hills. But all that is tomorrow. Tonight we just sit here and listen to the stars.

There are times when life just rears up and hits you in the face. Everything suddenly looks different. Suddenly you are happy. Rested. Things don't really matter; the only important thing is being totally absorbed by the moment. Not going anywhere, not doing anything. Just being. I think that is what is happening to Rahul right now, as he squats on the ground with the dancing madness in his eyes. And as I watch him, I wonder.

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Anonymous said...

now that's more like it.

loved it!

Deepthi said...

Nostalgic... picturesque... magical notes to oneself and strangers...Mizoram... ah! when will I get to see her beauty for myself?

roshini said...

That was awesomely written baruk. Felt like i was there. In fact now i wanna go there. BUDDY, DEAR DEAR FRIEND OF MINE!! can we huh huh huh?

Anonymous said...

Well Well Well, I see someones been writing. Good job me pal!

Send me some AVAST jokes please...

Anonymous said...

could picture everything as I read ... brilliantly written ...

Anonymous said...

brilliant piece, as are all your other posts - the poems, especially

feddabonn said...

@everyone: thanks! in retrospect, there seems to be a lot of teenage breathlessness to this piece. maybe that's not always a bad thing!