Sunday, November 28, 2010

DAY 58 – Dergaon to Kohima

The Police Training College in Dergaon is home to nearly 600 trainees from all over the North East. Direct recruit SIs and DySPs undergo a full year of training at the PTC, when they are moulded from a civilian into a police officer. In addition, in service training is also done at the PTC. The campus boasts of 4 training institutions and is likely to become an Academy in the near future. The surroundings are well maintained and disciple, naturally, is the watchword. The stay in the PTC Officers’ Mess, Dergaon was most comfortable in a homely environment. The sincere hospitality of Surinder Kumar, the Principal of the PTC, made the last two days doubly enjoyable. This morning, we met for a brief while before ‘marching’ for Kohima. He suggested that I travel to Dimapur via Golaghat, Garampani and Deogarh.
Very close to the Garampani River is a pond where there are Hot Springs. Bathing is not permitted in the pond and hence people fetch water from the pond and bathe outside. It would have been a good idea to pipe the water from the Hot Spring into bathing cubicles so that people could bathe in relative privacy. The drive on the road through the thick jungles of the Deogarh Forest Reserve is an exhilarating experience. The air is quite refreshing and invigorating. Khatkati is the border town of Assam with Nagaland. For a good 5 kms wine shops line either side of the road; an indication that you will die of thirst for the ‘madira’ due to prohibition in Nagaland. I was stopped by the Assam Police before entering Nagaland wanting to know the history of the vehicle. I mouthed some connections and slipped by. Nagaland is considered to be the haven for stolen vehicles. I had a similar experience while entering Assam from Koch Behar at Boxirhat. All along the way, on the Assam side, there are prominent sign boards warning road users of possible vehicle thefts using ingenious means. Dimapur is a busy and congested town; understand the Hong Kong market in Dimapur is a good place for good bargains of Chinese made footwear, blankets, clothes, watches and electrical items. The Inner Line Permit is checked in Chaukidema, which is also the centre for Mithun breeding. The hill road begins from this point.
The NH39 is quite good and I did the 120 km Dergaon to Dimapur stretch within 2 hours. In patches the road is bad as it nears Kohima. About 8 kms from the capital city there is a location where a huge landslide happened last year. Work is still going on and I got delayed there for about 45 minutes. I came directly to the Circuit House, where I am booked for two days. There was some confusion about the availability of room; later I found that I am the only occupant of the entire Circuit House, which offers fabulous views of the city and its neighborhood. As I entered the Circuit House I thought that some high level meeting is on since there were more than 25 Maruti Gypsy vehicles belonging to the Government of Nagaland lined up in front of the building. When I neared them I realized that they are all in various stages of repair and breakdown; gathered from the Circuit House staff that the vehicles have been ‘parked’ here for auction.
After parking the luggage in the Circuit House I set out to see the ‘Kohima War Cemetery’. I decided on hiring cabs to go to the various tourist locations, instead of wasting energy driving through maddening traffic hold ups, and I discovered that they are ‘bloody’ expensive. A three km ride to the War Cemetery cost me Rs.60 and I almost became part of the cemetery landscape when the cabbie told me the fare! The War Cemetery is at a critical junction of the Dimapur and Imphal roads and this location saw intense fighting for 64 days between the Japanese and British troops in April/May 1944. It is a poignant reminder of the sacrifice of young men of the day for us to live a better tomorrow. The maintenance of the cemetery is impeccable and some messages engraved on the plaques that mark out the graves are very moving. The highlight of the War Cemetery is a monument overlooking the crucial fighting zone, with these immortal words engraved on it:
From the War Cemetery I took another cab to the State Museum and discovered that it is on an unscheduled holiday! I chatted up the Nepali cabbie hoping that he would be soft on the fare; it was just wishful thinking. The Central Market was busy; there are bargain hunters in footwear and textile shops. After a lunch of Chicken Curry and rice in the Circuit House I went to the Catholic Cathedral, which is quite close to the Circuit House. I was amazed by the structure. The Cathedral is at a height of nearly 7000 feet above MSL and offers magnificent views of the city. It was built between May 1985 and April 1991 on a 9 acre plot. The Cathedral has a covered area of 25000 sqft and can seat 3000 with standing space for 15000.  The wooden crucifix is massive with a 16 feet by 8 feet figure of Christ on it. Rs. 3 crores was spent in building the Cathedral – 98% of it was foreign funds with some of it coming from Japan. Some parts of the inscription on the plaque at the entrance to the Cathedral are worth reproducing here:
“…Since then the world has grown smaller, and world peace is essential. We believe that we must all do our utmost to live and prosper together, regardless of national frontiers. It was with thankfulness that we heard that a Catholic cathedral was being built at Kohima, where mass would be offered every morning in memory of the fallen. If the people of Kohima, along with priests, keep the thoughts of the dead soldiers in their hearts for all the long years to come, and pray for the peace and prosperity they desired, there could be no better prayer for the souls of the departed.
As Japanese survivors of the battle, and bereaved families who lost their dear ones, we have given much thought to this and have collected contributions to this end : we herewith offer these towards the building of the cathedral.
Our hands are clasped in prayer.”

DAY 57 – At Dergaon

Arrangements were made by the Principal of the PTC through the SP, Jorhat to visit Majuli. I was accompanied by the SI in charge of the Neamati Police Outpost to Nimatighat to take the ferry to the Island. There was just enough space to drive the car on to the 8.30 am ferry, which was filled to spill with passengers, over 50 2-wheelers, provisions, light cargo, et al. I was warned by a senior colleague that the ferry services are operated by rickety, dilapidated boats. The one I was on was okay. The fact that it requires skill and good knowledge of the currents of the river was brought home by the sight of a ferry stuck on a mud bank. The Brahmaputra is an awesome river. Majuli is the largest river island in the world and is densely populated. The formation of the island is attributed in different legends to the propitiation efforts of King Arimatta and Saint Parashurama. The shifting course of the awesome river erodes the banks constantly; some residents claim that 30% of the Majuli landmass has fallen prey to the vicissitudes of the river in the last 50 years. This statement is proven by the fact that there were about 65 Satras at the time of Independence, which is now down to less than two dozen, due to the erosion.
The ride to Majuli took slightly over an hour. There were two sets of commuters totally focused on their game of Rummy. Watching a couple of hands being dealt, I could make out that these were hardcore card aficionados playing for low stakes. Not many on the ferry were tourists, even though this is the peak tourist season. I was also told to look out for passengers jumping off the ferry as it nears the berthing ghat. This habit of the locals prompted a senior bureaucrat to record on file that if an airfield is provided in Majuli the locals will jump off the aircraft before it lands; the proposal to provide an airport in Majuli was shelved on the basis of this record! (This story was provided by my railway colleague and friend, JD Goswami). Driving the car out had to wait till all the 2-wheelers were taken off the ferry. The crew members provide the ‘value added service’ of driving out the motorbikes from the ferry over the steep and slippery incline at no extra cost. These guys do it very skillfully and competently. Off loading the bikes from the roof of the ferry is a sight to watch.
The SDPO of Majuli spared the services of two constables to visit the Auniati and Uttar Kamalabari Satras. The Auniati Satra was the first one established in 1653 by the Ahom King Jayadhwaja Singha upon his conversion to Hinduism. A Satra is a monastery for Vishnu worship (in his avatar as Krishna) and a repository of art and culture. A form of neo-Vaishnavism was formulated by the 15th century Assamese philosopher and social reformer Sankardev eschewing the caste system and idol worship. The Satra combines the twin elements of religious instruction and residential formal schooling. The monks in the Satras remain unmarried and each Satra is a self contained community that looks after its requirements. The Auniati Satra is the largest and the richest Satra in Majuli. It boards nearly 450 monks. The monks come from among orphans, relations of monks or those who get the ‘calling’, between the ages of 5 and 12. The Auniati Satra has been a trailblazer in many respects. In 1871 the second Assamese newspaper, ‘Assam Bilashini’, was published from this Satra, using a printing machine brought to the Island by the Satradhikar Duttadev Goswami. The present Satradhikar (head of a Satra), Dr Pitamber Dev Goswami, is the first Satradhikar in Majuli to be awarded a Doctorate. Just outside the Namghar (prayer hall) of Auniati Satra is a huge log of wood that is said to have come floating in the Brahmaputra more than 250 years ago when the monks prayed for a suitable support for the Namghar. The Satra also has a well kept Museum with Ahom artifacts and a few rare manuscripts. The Auniati Satra has been relocated 5 times in the past years due to erosion.
One of the original inhabitants of the Majuli Island is the Mising tribe. Their main occupation is fishing and weaving and the houses are made of woven bamboo mats and put up on stilts. In the space below the house, in the vacant area of the stilts, they either rear pigs or use it as storage. I took the return ferry at 1.30 pm, which was overcrowded and took 2 hours. I am sure some bright spark will soon find an opportunity for entrepreneurship to sell refreshments and snacks during the long journeys back and forth on the ferries. While returning to the PTC I tanked up fuel to facilitate an early morning start for Kohima tomorrow.

DAY 56 – Kohora to Dergaon

Sanjay Sil is employed in the DRDA Lodge, basically to liaison with foreign tourists. He is extremely polite, knowledgeable and conversant with English. This makes him a unique asset of the Lodge. Chetry had detailed him to conduct me around the Kaziranga NP. He did this with √©lan and filled me with nuggets of information about the Park, the locality and Karbi Anglong. He was insistent that I should leave only after breakfast and he ensured toast and omlette with tea at 6 am. However, I will never forgive him for ‘guessing’ my age as “over 60”.
Dipak Choudhury, SP Dhubri had told me that I should visit Sivasagar if I am in the vicinity of Jorhat. Since the arrangements were to halt in the Police Training College Officers’ Mess in Dergaon, I confirmed from Mr. Surinder Kumar IPS, Principal PTC that it would be feasible to visit Sivasagar in the forenoon and return to Dergaon for the night halt, if I started early from Kohora. He was also kind enough to liaise with the SP, Sivasagar to detail a ‘guide’ and make available the Police GH for lunch and rest. At 6.15 am the roads were free and I made good time to reach the Sivasagar Police GH at 8.30 am, after a drive of nearly 160 kms.
By the time I had a cup of tea Pulin Dowarah, of the Assam Police, arrived to conduct me around the ancient sites of the Ahom dynasty. The Ahom dynasty spanned the years 1228 to 1826, when 42 Ahom kings ruled over Assam. The first king of the Ahom dynasty, Chao-Lung Siu-Ka-Pha, is reported to have migrated from the Yunan Province in China (or from the Shan State of Burma – historians are divided on this) across the Patkai hills in 1228 and established the first capital of the Ahoms in Charaideo in 1253 AD. Over 6 centuries the capital was relocated to 5 different locations, all within the present day Sivasagar District. The Ahoms are credited with unifying the peoples of the hills and plains of Assam culturally and linguistically into one nation. The Ahoms used ‘impermanent materials’ till the 17th century for construction. It was only in the latter half of the 17th century that bricks and stones were used. It is no surprise, therefore, that vestiges of monuments of the 17th century and later alone have survived to give us a flavor of the power of the Ahoms.
The Sivasagar Pukhuri (in Assamese ‘tank’ is called ‘pukhuri’) is the most remarkable landmark of the town and is located in the heart of the city. [I picked up this story from Pulin Dowarah: There are seven Pukhuris like Sivasagar, Gaurisagar, Joysagar, Rudrasagar, Borpatra, Tengapukhuri, etc. The Ahom kings reportedly bathed in the waters of the seven pukhuris every seventh day.] The Tank, dug in 1734, was the brainchild of Queen Ambika, the second wife of King Siva Singha – hence, the name of the tank. Around the majestic rectangular Tank are administrative complexes of various departments and District Administration. The three temples on the southern bank of the Tank, the Shivdol, the Vishnudol and the Durgadol hog the limelight. The Shivdol, at 33 metres, is the tallest Shiva temple in India. The trident atop the Shivdol is perched on a golden, egg shaped structure. The British were unsuccessful in pilfering this despite an honest try in 1823! It is understood that a powerful earthquake in the 1950s brought the 80 kg golden structure down and it took a chopper to place it back in position. The lingam in the Shivdol is inverted; it’s just a hole in the ground.
The Rang Ghar is arguably the first Royal pavilion, from where the King and other dignitaries watched outdoor sports like buffalo fights, wrestling, bird fights, etc. A feature of the Ahom structures is the high ceilings due to which the rooms in the buildings remained cool throughout the year. The Talatalghar is a seven storeyed palace, which has four storeys above the ground and three below. This beautifully maintained palace ground is the venue of the Bihu festival every year. The Golaghar, near the Talatalghar, was the Royal arsenal to store arms and ammunition. The main palace of the Ahom kings in Gargaon, when the capital was located there between 1540 and the 19th century was substantially damaged by the Assam Tea Company (of the English East India Company) when they removed bricks and stones to build their offices. The Joysagar Pukhuri is the biggest man made tank, and as with the Sivasagar Pukhuri, there are three temples on one of its banks. The finest example of Ahom legacy is the Maidams at Charaideo. This is the sacred burial ground of the Kings and Queens of the Ahom dynasty. The Maidams are our own Pyramids – the kings and queens were buried in coffins with valuables and trusted henchmen for their easy and safe passage into the next life. The size of the Maidam indicates the importance and power of the person concerned. Unfortunately, the ownership of the Maidams cannot be established. Moreover, the tombs were pilfered by the British and all valuables were removed through a hole at the top of the mounds. The ASI is now involved in the restoration and beautification of some of the tombs. The Namdung stone bridge, built in stone in 1704 over the Namdung River, was decommissioned only recently due to the movement of heavy vehicles engaged in oil exploration. Only a visit to Sivasagar and its neighborhood can educate a keen tourist about the spread and power of the Ahom dynasty that withstood many incursions and attacks during its time. More modern is the Dikow Bridge built in the 1800s by the British, which could be lifted to permit the passage of steamships with high masts. A boat, built in iron, recovered from near the Dikow Bridge is on display near the Maidams in Charaideo.  The present day importance of Sivasagar is on account of it being an oil town.
The PTC Officers’ Mess is just the right place to rest a tired body. Beautifully maintained and with service oriented staff to look after you, I could not have come to a better place to halt for the night.

DAY 55 – Guwahati to Kohora

I started for Kohora by 6.15 am, slightly earlier than planned. The road condition surprised me. It was the best I have motored on in Assam so far. I reached Nagaon in slightly over two hours. Despite the 4-laning works the road condition was quite good. From Nagaon I took the Jorhat highway. Kaziranga is about 100 kms from Nagaon and 60 kms short of Jorhat. The National Park straddles two districts, those of Nagaon and Golaghat. The Kohora Police Outpost is near the National Park. After a heavy brunch in a Dhaba close to Kohora I reported to Mr. KB Chetry, the Sub Inspector in charge of the Police Outpost. The Outpost premises were full of damaged vehicles, all of them involved in recent accidents. Chetry felt that his area has the most number of accidents in Assam.
Arrangements were made for my stay in the DRDA (Department of Rural Development, Assam) Lodge. The Lodge is located beside the River Kohora. Kohora in Hindi means ‘fog’. I understand that the entire area becomes very foggy throughout the winter months and hence the name of the place. The Lodge is approached by a temporary bamboo bridge across the river. The Lodge seems to be much in favor with the tourists as the rooms were fully booked. I took a walk by the side of the river and climbed a small hillock and came to a government owned rubber plantation. The trees are huge, but they do not seem to be tapped regularly. I have seen rubber plantations in all the NE States that I have been to so far and it is being actively promoted by the Government. There are Rubber Research Institutes in Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
I had originally intended to do the Jeep Safari this afternoon and the Elephant Safari tomorrow morning. Till the last season Elephant Safaris were only done during the morning. However, Chettri found out that this season onwards Elephant Safaris are done at 3 pm also. This gave me the opportunity to squeeze a day out from the schedule by doing both the Safaris one after the other. So I did the Jeep Safari from 2 to 3 pm and the Elephant Safari from 3.15 to 4.15 pm. I did the Safaris in the more popular Central Range, with has better possibility of sightings of animals and birds.
The preservation of the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga is attributed to Lady Curzon, who prevailed upon her husband to outlaw poaching of the species that had been reduced to just 5 in 1905. In that year Kaziranga was declared as a Reserve Forest. Later it became a Game Sanctuary that was opened to visitors in 1937. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985. Thanks to the efforts of Lady Curzon and others who followed the plan to preserve the endangered one-horned rhino, the National Park today boasts of more than 2100 of them in over 800 square kms, which is over two thirds the world population of the species. In 2007 the Kaziranga National Park was declared as a Tiger Reserve too. Outside of the Sunderbans it is Kaziranga NP that boasts of the maximum number of Royal Bengal Tigers. The other wildlife in the National Park are Water Buffaloes, Asian Elephants, Swamp Deer and over 500 varieties of birds. During the Safaris I came across large number of Rhinos, Water Buffaloes and Swamp deer. The Elephant Safari affords close up views of the Rhino. It was fascinating, though both the rides can be tough on the body.
KB Chetry is completely wedded to his job. He starts his day at 5 am and reaches home late night. His grandparents and parents crossed over into Assam prior to 1945 from Burma and settled in Diphu, the capital of Karbi Anglong. Chetry’s father saw action in WWII and leads a spartan life even today, which keeps him healthy. Chetry was a teacher in a private school in Diphu before he entered service. His wife and children stay with his parents in Diphu. Chetry has been posted here for the past two years, which is some sort of a record. His policy of ‘engaging’ the youngsters every evening in a tough game of football pays rich dividends wherever he is posted. He buys them T-shirts, trousers and football from his own salary. He believes that youngsters, tired after couple of hours of playing football, will go home and not fall prey to smoking, drinking other anti-social activities. When you talk to Chetry it is his commitment and concern for society that often surfaces. It is people like Chetry, in their own disarming ways, who contribute to move society in the right direction.
I insisted on ‘desi’ food for dinner. Accordingly, a feast of local cuisine was served up, including a small fish from River Kohora which was fried. The fish curry in elephant apple was what I liked best. The juice mixed with rice was yummy. The veg dish of potato and fern was so tasty that I finished a plateful of it. Normally, breakfast is served after 8 am. I requested for a 6 am serving, which has been promised, to facilitate a visit to Sivasagar in the morning. 

DAY 54 – In Guwahati

So powerful is the internal body clock that I woke up at 02.30 am for an 8.30 appointment. I used the time to redo my NE schedule and readjust the rest to complete the journey in 120 days. The left over portion of the blog for day 53 was also completed. I hit the sack again at 4.30 am and woke up at 8.15 and panicked, as I had to reach the car at the service centre at 9. I managed to get there, after breakfast, a half hour late. After a test drive and complete inspection the works to be done were identified. I was told that the car would be ready in the evening.
The next visit was to the Nagaland House. The ILP I had obtained was no longer valid for the dates it was issued for. Not wanting to take any further chances, I got two ILPs issued for 14 days. The staff at the ILP counter was extremely polite and co-operative. I had hired an auto from the service centre to the Nagaland House. The driver asked for Rs.350 to drop me at Maligaon! I decided to seek alternative transport and asked around. The private mini bus emerged as the best bet, which charged Rs.12 for Maligaon – a saving of Rs. 338.
The bus was jam packed and the roof of the bus was low too. I felt that I would either be decapitated or emerge from the bus as ‘The Hunchback of Maligaon’, if I did not find a suitable place to sit or stand. As it is, the option of finding a seat was immediately ruled out. I discovered a premier location close to the driver. There was a small square opening to let in light and air, which was slightly open. I opened it further and stood there, much like the gunner in a Tank. It helped me with views of the outside others in the bus were not privy to. Besides, it helped air and decongest my olfactory sensors that were assailed by odors, not so pleasant. While the conductor worked really hard to realize fares, from even people who were not so keen to pay, he was not enthusiastic about issuing tickets. While he collected tickets from a booth en route I did not see him issuing any tickets at all and not one passenger demanded it from him. Thus, the owner of the bus will never know the correct collection and one can be sure that the ‘booty’ will be shared among the three crew of the bus. This, then, is a universal problem.
From my vantage position in the bus I noticed that an elderly gentleman pointed to something written over the window of one of the seats and a young man promptly got up and made way for him. I could not make out what enabling statement acquired the seat for the gentleman, and he kept massaging his knees after he sat down. I surmised that the seat is either reserved for the aged or the handicapped. After standing for nearly three quarters of an hour I was keen to sit down. I saw a young person sitting in the seat from where another had made way for the elderly gentleman some time back. I caught the attention of the young man and pointed to my head. He got up reluctantly from the seat and I promptly plonked my rear end in the seat. I am not sure if the young man gave credit for the grey hair or to an unstable mind, so ambiguous was my gesture.
The bus wound its way through to Guwahati city. I saw the driver of the bus frantically gesticulating to drivers of buses going in the opposite direction. He got a loud response from one. Soon enough the conductor came to me and said that the bus has developed some trouble and that it will not be going to Maligaon. He asked me take another bus from the next stop and refunded me half the fare. All of us who were bound for Maligaon disembarked at the next stop. I took another bus for Maligaon and found that a short distance away from where I was off-loaded from the first bus the police was checking vehicles for documents. Either the driver of the first bus did not have the necessary documents or the bus was not authorized to do the trip.
In Maligaon I requested to consult an ENT specialist in the Railway Hospital. My batch mate and CCM, Nerwal, put me touch with Dr. SN Mukherjee, the MD of the Central Hospital, an effervescent person. Besides narrating his account of a recent visit to Tawang, he diagnosed my condition as a slight inflammation of the outer ear and prescribed medicines. I asked the good doctor to check my hearing. Using the Webber Test he determined that I have reduced ‘Absolute Bone Conduction’, a nerve condition, which is non-reversible. This arms me adequately to ignore the inconvenient! During a test in the Perambur Railway Hospital in 2001 the ENT specialist informed me that I have 16% hearing impairment. The number strangely coincided with the number of years of marriage. Going by that record I must have 25% loss of hearing now. The consoling factor is that the impairment is uniform in both ears; it proves that I do not play favorites.
The car was delivered, as promised, in the evening. The guys at the service station said that the car is in decent condition. All the oils and filters were changed in keeping with the requirement or major servicing. I headed from the service station to meet the IG (Administration), Mr. Chandranathan, a Keralite who has never lived in Kerala – his father migrated to Delhi in 1939 and he says that they were there before even the Punjabis. We ‘discovered’ a common thread – we both studied in St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. He was kind enough to make the necessary arrangements to visit Kaziranga and Jorhat. Later in the evening the SP, Golaghat confirmed my accommodation in a GH and promised that he would try his best to organize an ‘Elephant Safari’. Ajay was not very happy when I told him about the ‘Elephant Safari’. I will not be surprised if he informs the SPCA to protect the pachyderm from this ‘weighty self’.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

DAY 53 – Silchar to Guwahati

Anup told me that the trip to Guwahati can be done in 10 hours. I did not consider this possible as I had taken 5 hours from Guwahati to Shillong and a further 9 hours from Shillong to Karimganj. I set myself a target of 12 hours to reach Guwahati from Silchar, considering that the road condition for the most part of the journey is very, very bad. Starting off before 5 am, in blinding misty conditions, the weather cleared soon; the road condition remained awful. My tolerance level for bad roads has risen considerably after experiencing the road in Manipur. I do not yet know if I will experience worse road conditions. I guess not. I heard, in Shillong, that a Japanese tourist had recently done the Ngopa to Imphal trip in a Sumo. After completing the trip he called a press conference in Imphal and declared the Ngopa-Churachandpur-Imphal road as the worst in the whole world! Therefore, it is comforting to know that better days are here again.
Talking about rising tolerance level for bad roads I am reminded of what my father had told me about ‘bosses’. I was fortunate, in almost every job I held, to have extremely good bosses (with exceptions, of course); ones that tolerated me! When I came across a ‘deviant’ I discussed him with my father. He told me then that one must experience a bad boss to appreciate how good a good boss is. So very true of roads too – unless you experience the really bad roads you will not appreciate the good roads.
For practicing Catholics it is mandated that one must confess and receive communion at least once a year. The emphasis is on cleansing oneself spiritually. Part of the cleansing process is the preparation for confession, the actual confession, the Act of Contrition and penance. The penitential act is normally a set of prayers or some such which the priest who confesses you deems appropriate. I have a suggestion for the Catholic Church. The form of penance should be drastically revised. For ‘mortal sins’, the perpetrator should be asked to drive a Maruti Swift from Khawkhon to Sinjawl (on the Ngopa-Churachandpur section) road at 25 kmph without any assistance. The more heinous the sins the more number of trips he/she should be asked to do. For the perpetrators of ‘venal sins’ similar ‘treatment’ on the Kalain to Digorikhal (on the Silchar-Umkiang section) road is suggested. If the suggestion is accepted and implemented by the Church, I am sure that either the number of sinners will reduce or the roads will improve. In all probability, the latter will happen, for sin is as old as Adam!
Despite the hold ups in Shillong and other places I made it to Guwahati in about 10 hours. The Shillong to Guwahati stretch helped me save time with sparse traffic and good road condition. On the way I dropped in at the Service Station and made a booking for tomorrow morning. The service manager wanted a full day for the vehicle at the garage.  After reconfirmation of the servicing schedule I will reschedule my journey ahead. Tentatively, I have decided to drastically prune the Assam and Arunachal drive to catch up lost time.

DAY 52 – Aizawl to Silchar

With the idea of getting off early from the Circuit House I had settled the bills yesterday. However, the kind caretaker agreed to give me a 6.30 am breakfast to set me on my way - Eggs, toast and tea. I had a packet of sausages bought from Shillong. That was also polished off. The heavy rain of the previous evening and night had ‘washed’ my car clean. Last evening I was told to take the Durtalang route out of Aizawl instead of the Sairang route I had taken while coming into Aizawl from Silchar last week. I was thankful for that suggestion as I got good road till I reached Kolasib. The Durtalang road is a single road not meant for cargo transportation; it’s better maintained and surfaced. It passes through densely populated villages and hence, children and chicken winging their way across the road should be watched out for. The villages look so pretty and self contained; every village has its school, church, provision store, Tea Hotel, pig sties, etc. Most houses have pretty flowers and plants, cared for. In the past, a congregation of people in a village happened around the Chief’s house. The member of the village could stay there as long as it pleased the Chief. This concept has been replaced by modern systems of governance. I felt that the Chief’s role has been taken over by the YMA and the Church; except that people stay on their own free will. Between Sihphir and Lungdai, on the slopes of the hills, gourd is cultivated in vast areas. It was difficult to leave the hills of Aizawl, patterned with bright, yellow flowers. The drive up to Kawnpui was through misty, meandering roads, with clean air to breathe. One does not even feel like honking, least you pollute the environment. The villagers, with their sharp sense of hearing, can pick up and identify every sound – I experienced this with Suan that night in the jungle on the Manipur border. A person like me, corrupted by many years of city living and a quarter century of wedded bliss, can only recognize blaring horns and more disagreeable sounds ‘endearingly rendered’ by the spouse.
The Durtalang road meets the Sairang alternative at Kawnpui. This is the place where I had the accident last week. When I passed through Durtalang I was reminded of a story told to me by Fr. VA Paul of the Church in Aizawl. The Bishop of Silchar and his Assistant had come to Aizawl in 1979 for a meeting in an interior village. After the meeting they were to return by bus to Silchar by bus from Aizawl. Since the cassocks of the priests were soiled due to the visit to the village they decided to travel in ‘mufti’. However, Fr Paul insisted on their wearing their cassocks, for it was the height of the MNF movement and outsiders were unhesitatingly targeted; the missionaries and priests were spared. Fr Paul said that the decision to wear the cassock saved their lives. At Kawnpui, the bus in which the Bishop and his Assistant were traveling was ambushed; the Mizos were asked to get out and run. Then they saw the two priests and asked them to flee too. The rest were butchered.
Between 8.30 and 9.30 am one will find children, in their Sunday best, on their way to Church clutching hymn books and Bibles, probably for Sunday School instructions. I visited the St. Alphonsa’s Church in Thingdawl. It is a relatively new church, with very sparse facilities. The church was only latched and there was apparently no one in the vicinity. From the notice put up in the church it seemed that Sunday prayers are offered in the Church.
The road to Kolasib is not well surfaced. In Kolasib I noticed the elders decked up and going to Church. The women in beautiful, colorful wrap arounds and high heeled footwear and men in jackets gave a very Western ‘feel’ of the environment. In the next village, Bilkhawthilr, I noticed children playing with traditional toys such as rolling cycle tyres, pulling wooden wheels, etc.
A short distance from Vairengate I was held up for a half hour at the site of an accident. Trucks were queued up for miles. A truck had swerved off the road, hit a pig sty and leaned on a tree. The accident had happened the previous night and the restoration work was on. Had the truck swerved 10 feet earlier, it would have plunged at least 500 feet downhill, without any chance of relief for the vehicle or its occupants.
I reached Silchar without any further incidents, dropped in at the Holy Cross Church and found my way to the ORH. I found that the ‘temporary’ Caretaker did not have information of my booking. While I was trying to reach people in Guwahati, Anup Ghoshal came to my rescue. He works in the NF Railway Construction organization in Finance and he felt upset that a ‘senior’ officer is being denied his due and fired the daylights out of the poor caretaker. He got the VIP room opened and ensured that I am comfortable. He complimented me on my daring to do the trip all alone!
Later in the evening, I got some inputs from my college mate in Imphal and decided to check out with the Sumo operators about the road condition via NH 53. Anup accompanied me on a decent walk to the booking counter. I was told that the road condition will not permit the movement of a Swift on it in many stretches. I considered the option of traveling to Imphal and Kohima in a hired Sumo and sending the car to Guwahati with a driver. After a couple of beers with Anup, I found a speck of light; I decided to return to Guwahati, get the car serviced and travel to Imphal via Kohima. I checked that route and was told it is doable. And then Guwahati it is. I spoke to Sundar Ram and requested for ORH booking in Maligaon. The journey will require major re-routing. I will do it in Maligaon and make the necessary arrangements along the way.

DAY 51 – Ngopa to Aizawl

I had decided on a 5.30 am start to ensure enough time in Aizawl to procure a new tyre and identify a good service station. After taking leave of Kham I hit the Aizawl highway by 5.45 am. While I had thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Ngopa two days back, today’s trip was not at all enjoyable due to tension about the tyre and the rim. My only thought was whether the tyre pressure would last till next village where I can find a tyre shop to fill air. At Pawlrang, the first village after Ngopa, I saw a couple of the guys who had helped me through the ordeal of the previous day. They wished me luck onwards. None of them who had come to my assistance either sought money or cribbed – a feature of the hills people, unlike in the plains.
I reached Kwalkuln by 8.15 am. I stopped for breakfast and noticed that the air pressure was considerably less than what I had started with. The breakfast of Poori and namkeem with tea digested quickly when I considered options if I had a complete flat. I took the car to the village Tyre Repair Shop to be told that he needed a hydraulic jack to prop up the tyre and fill air. It took some convincing before he agreed to fill air without propping up the tyre. I asked him to put in 10 lbs more than normal. He warned me that it would not last even till the next village. I had no option than to take the chance.
I kept nursing the front left tyre and rim, the spare I had put on (no Pun intended), till I reached Kiefang. The potholes and ‘unnatural’ roads were done gingerely and at almost walking speed. An inspection showed that the tyre pressure was comfortable. I decided to drive to Seling, another 30+ kms away. The nursing of the tyre continued. At Seling also the tyre pressure held. I was then confident of reaching Aizawl. But some stretches to Aizawl terrified me. However, I reached Anil’s shop without any incident. Anil is the contact Thomas had given me yesterday. He and his partner, Binoy, helped me get a new radial at a reasonable rate. The new tyre was fitted and the spare tyre was put back in the boot. Anil told me that it is not worth getting any repair and servicing done in Aizawl. He suggested that I get it done in Silchar. Before taking leave of me Anil told me that my looks would be a handicap in the North East. I was surprised at this statement. He clarified by saying that I look like a police officer and that may not exactly work to my advantage while traveling to Manipur and Nagaland. In fact, just yesterday another person in Ngopa made a similar comment. The man in Ngopa said that I have ‘Fauji’ looks. With a grandfather who was in the army and a father who was a policeman, I seem to have inherited the right looks!
After settling in the Circuit House, where my accommodation was arranged, I called up my contact in Ngopa to say that I had arrived in Aizawl. He told me that I had escaped the rains that lashed Ngopa early morning. If I had delayed my start I would have had trouble navigating the bad stretches. Since I had to take the car to Silchar for repair and servicing, I changed my plans and decided to leave for Silchar tomorrow. I rang up a Railway Commercial Inspector in Maligaon to make necessary arrangements in the ORH in Silchar.
After a late lunch and some route planning for the next couple of days, I took a walk to the ‘Millennium Centre’, which is considered to be the premier shopping mall in Aizawl. I was in for a surprise. As I entered the mall there were more people leaving it than going in. By 5 pm almost all the shops in the mall were closed. Most of the shop owners and workers are women and hence, they close early to go home to cook/eat the supper.
Late in the evening I called up my contact in Imphal to tell him of the disastrous attempt to reach Imphal via Ngopa. I told him that I would now try the NH 53 via Silchar and Jiribaum. He warned me that nearly 25 kms along the stretch is reportedly unmotorable. I have to reconfirm this information in Silchar before I attempt this leg of the journey. If all else fails, I intend to hire a Sumo and travel to Imphal-Kohima-Kasiranga-Jorhat-Majuli before returning to Guwahati. In these parts, travel plans change virtually every hour. I was in a shop to buy some biscuits when I overhead a lady informing someone long distance that her flight got cancelled today and she may be stuck in Aizawl for the next few days!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

DAY 50 – NE Khawdungsei to Manipur border and back to Ngopa

Today was a day filled with Guardian Angels. It all started at 2.30 am. I was woken up then by Cheena saying that the Sumo taxis are ready to leave. Without a brush or a wash, I put on my sneakers and loaded my luggage into the car. I could not meet the Pastor to wish him. At the place where I met up with the Sumo taxi Cheena asked me if I could accommodate another passenger with me, and said that I would require his assistance on the way. I was reluctant, but a gut feel made me accede to the request. With this Cheena was my first GA of the day and Suan, the passenger, was my second.
I followed the Sumo through the last village on the Mizoram side, Khawkhon, and across the River Tuivi. Technically I was in Manipur territory then, which is when all the troubles started. There were no roads, only thick jungles with truck tracks with stones and dirt piled high in the middle of the road. With great difficulty, and with Suan walking in front of the vehicle guiding me, I drove about three kms when Suan reported the first ‘puncture’. And what a puncture – the tyre had come out of the rim. The place was slushy, pitch dark at close to 4 am and without any mobile contact. To my utter horror I found that the two jacks I carry in the car do not work. Despite that Suan tried his best to position the available equipment and get the tyre changed. Nothing worked and Suan was carrying a bleeding injury on his left heel. Suan suggested that we walk a few kms ahead when we would probably be able to get the mobile signal. I got a faint signal and was able to inform my contact in Ngopa of my condition.
Suan and I must have walked slightly over a km when his sharp ears picked up the sound of an approaching vehicle. It was a truck going to Ngopa. The helper of the vehicle jacked up the car and changed the tyre in less than 15 minutes and left – another GA. With the spare tyre fitted I moved ahead some more and I was confronted with the most impossible road condition. I tried to navigate it as best as I could and then I was ‘guided’ to take the most prudent decision I took today. I decided to turn back with the feeling that retreat is, at times, even victory. Within ten minutes of turning back I had my next flat. This time air was escaping from the edge of the rim – the rim had got slightly bent. There was nothing we could do but wait for the next vehicle to arrive. By this time it was daylight, around 5 am.
A convoy of three trucks arrived from the Manipur side, on their way to Aizawl. After inspection of the site and lots of discussion amongst themselves, it was decided to inflate the tyre temporarily to park the car to one side and permit the vehicles to pass. Suan suggested that he would go with the tyres to the village, fix it and bring it back. Instead I told him that we could go together with some of my luggage and the two tyres to the village, repair the tyres, find a mechanic and get back in a hired vehicle. The truck guys agreed to my proposal – a host of GAs. On the way to the village I found Kham on his bike, with a mechanic, on the way to the site. The mechanic got into one of the vehicles and Kham stayed back at Tuivi. Back at the village, the guy at the tyre shop repaired the bent rim and filled air in that tyre. He said that it would help to bring the car back to the village. The second tyre was useless – it was split in a couple of places. The mechanic, Muan Pu, and Suan left with the tyre after making me comfortable in Muan’s house – he said, “Use it as you would your own”. This Manipuri, who had lost a leg in the civil strife in 1997 and is fitted with one artificial leg, was my next GA.
When Muan left at 10 am he said he would be back by 1 pm and that I should not worry at all. He was only a half hour later than his promised hour. Frankly, I did not expect him to be back with the car in working condition. Not only that, he did further repairs to the suspect rim and one disc before he certified the car fit to move to Aizawl. He only wanted me to keep on filling air in the repaired tyre in villages along the route to Aizawl.
During the day time, when I moved around the village, I became an Uncle there. I had many cups of tea, boiled eggs, namkeen and biscuits in the ‘Tea Hotel’ in the village over the hours spent there. Cheena’s family took me to their house and we talked for a while. By 3 pm I was ready to leave NE Khawdungsei for Ngopa, where I had decided to halt the night before proceeding to Aizawl. Many goodbyes and photo sessions later I visited the Pastor to take leave of him and his wife. Kham escorted me back to Ngopa and I got diesel filled up at the same shop where I had yesterday.
While waiting for the diesel to be filled I met Thomas Mathew, a teacher for the past 22 years in Ngopa. He came to me, curious about the registration of the car. He later came to the house of my contact in Ngopa and took me to his house to meet his wife, who has also been a teacher here for the past 16 years. While Thomas, who belongs to Ranni, teaches Science his wife, who hails from Chengannur, teaches Maths. Mrs Thomas is the last non-Mizo to be employed as a teacher in Mizoram. This couple lives in a rented accommodation near the village square. Their daughter is in second year of Bsc Nursing in Hyderabad and their son is reading in the 11th Class in Kerala. A very unique couple, they are the only Keralite residents in Ngopa. But they maintain strong contacts with Keralites in Aizawl. I was shown a ‘Keralite Club Directory’, which listed 91 members in the last edition. Onam and Christmas are celebrated by the Club with fanfare.
Thomas confirmed that the Young Mizo Association (present in every village) and the Synod (in Aizawl) are the most powerful influences on society and politics. The YMA collects Rs. 30 as contribution from every family annually. When a member of the family passes away, YMA makes available the coffin and the burial is done by the Church without any cost to the family. The cemeteries are common; unlike the practice elsewhere, all churches provide a common burial ground. Every earning member in a village contributes a tenth of the earnings to the Church as tithe. The Church accounts, published annually, mentions all the contributions made. Besides, the Church also collects voluntary contribution of rice from families, auction it and replenishes the church coffers. Thomas and his wife are booked to go to Kerala, via Hyderabad, next week for their long vacation. In Mizoram, the school session is from the middle of January to the end of November. Thomas put me in touch with Anil in Aizawl, who could help me with tyres and servicing of the car. Despite the offer of the Thomases for dinner and stay, I returned to the house of my contact for dinner.
Dinner was with my contact in Ngopa and his comely wife, Rebecca from Pasighat in Arunachal. The conversation over dinner was about the social processes in the villages, tribal customs and traditions, etc. The quantity of rice that I ate was excessive as compared to what I normally consume. The hospitality was such. Islam, from Karimganj, who cooked the meal, and my hosts were upset with me for eating less than I should, according to them! The support and encouragement I received from my contact in Ngopa, his wife and Kham were exceptional, to say the least. I am most thankful to them. I was booked to stay in the PWD IB in Ngopa. The IB is located on a small hillock and the accommodation is quite comfortable.

DAY 49 - Aizawl to NE Khawdungsei

The assistance of Robin, the official driver of my contact in Aizawl, was invaluable in determining the route and the contact points en route. I had requested him last evening to come to the GH to pilot me out of the town so that I do not waste time navigating the spaghetti lanes of Aizawl city. Even then I made an elementary mistake – apart from confirming the first two villages I did not check on the villages en route. I only knew that my destination is Ngopa – no one knew the distance to it from Aizawl. A feature I found interesting in the hill areas is that distances are referred to in time and not in kms! My contact in Ngopa had told me that I would reach there by 3 pm, the latest, in case I start out from Aizawl by 6.30 am. Here I would like to narrate a conversation I had with an acquaintance in Aizawl about the time I would take from the Mizoram border to Imphal.
Me: How long will it take to reach Imphal from the border of Mizoram?
He: It depends, Sir.
Me: It depends on what?
He: It depends on how fast you drive, Sir. You will reach early if you drive fast, Sir.
Me: How long do you take when you drive to Imphal from the border?
He: It depends on when I start, Sir. If I start early, I reach early, Sir.
At this point I forced a smile and turned away for fear of losing either my sanity or temper, and in all probability, both.

Despite many stretches where the condition of the road was challenging, the drive was highly enjoyable in that it was through thick jungle studded with some of the most amazing landscape scenery. I had to drive through blinding mist even at 8.30 am, with headlights on. The flowers in the hills have shades of colors that are stunningly beautiful. Wild orchids are to be seen in plenty. Every house in the villages takes care to plant flowers and tends to them. Another feature of the villages I noticed was the provision of public sanitation. Right along the route, every village had a public bath, public toilets and urinals. In some villages there were public wells too. A pretty little village I passed through was Kawlkuhn, from where I branched off to Ngopa. If I had the time I would have halted at the village for the night. It is such a pretty village, spotlessly kept and with breathtaking scenery. The route I took from Aizawl was Seling-Keifang-Kwalkuhn-Tawitawkawn-Hliappui-Pawlrang-Ngopa-NE Khawdungsei – I understand that this is officially known as the NH 150 B, but I did not find this route in both the road atlases I have. During the course of today’s drive I completed 9000 kms on the road since 1st October.
I reached Ngopa at 1.30 pm and met up with Kham, who my contact had sent, after entering the vehicle details in the last Police Station on the Mizoram side. Having been told about the shortage of fuel in Manipur I wanted to tank up in Ngopa. I did not see any fuel stations there. Kham took me to a shop, where I secured 10 litres of diesel for Rs. 450, the highest rate I have paid during the journey. I am happy that I at least got it. As per the original schedule I was to have halted at Ngopa. During the conversation with my contact in Ngopa I thought it would be appropriate to leave by 3.30 am tomorrow in the company of Sumo taxis that cross the border into Manipur. Since the road condition is extremely bad after the border in Manipur and is a thick jungle without habitation, I thought it better to have some company for the drive. Hence, my contact suggested that I move to the next village, about 15 kms away from Ngopa towards the Mizoram border, and stay in a GH there. I was taken to NE Khawdungsei village by Kham. While checking out the GH to stay the night, I saw a Presbyterian Church close by. I walked to the Church and came to the ‘Pastor Quarters’. A few people were working in front of the house and a lady was serving them tea. I asked if I could meet the Pastor. One of them stood up and identified himself as the Pastor. I requested if he could help me with any church accommodation for the night. Without even batting an eyelid and asking me any further questions, he asked me to spend the night in his house, if it suited me. I was totally taken aback; a total stranger being offered accommodation in one’s own house! He asked me to park the car in front of his house and showed me to the room which I could use for the night. The ‘unseen hand’ guides yet again. In a place that is totally new to you, when you spent time with a family it gives you a lot of comfort. Kham introduced me to Cheena, a teacher in the local private school, to me to put me along with the Sumo taxis in the morning.
As soon as I put the bags in the room the Pastor asked me if I had had my supper – supper is normally had by 5 pm. Since I had a heavy meal in the house of my contact in Ngopa by 2.30 pm, I said that I am okay about supper. The Pastor confessed that he is not fluent in the English language as he and his family are most used to the local Lushai language. However, I managed some conversation with him to understand that the Presbyterian Church in NE Khawdungsei is more than 100 years old – in 2007 the new church was consecrated as part of the centenary celebrations. While the Presbyterian Church is the biggest in the village with 1000 members, the other churches like the Salvation Army and the United Pentecostal Church have smaller numbers. The Pastor has two daughters; the older girl, who is three, lives with her grandparents in Aizawl, and the younger one stays with the Pastor and his wife. Rev. R Lalsiamliana (he is called Siama, in short) has been a pastor for the past 4 years. I am beholden to him and his family for the kind hospitality. May God bless the Pastor, his family and his congregation.

DAY 48 - In Aizawl

The Young Mizo Association, the Mizo Students’ Union and the Church wield considerable influence on society. They maintain checks and balances to ensure that corruption and such other excesses are capped. Awareness among members of society is high due to the influence of these three agencies. There is tight monitoring of sponsored schemes of the Centre and flow of funds. It is often asked whether it is the YMA that runs the government or the elected representatives. As is for the other NE States, the citizens of Mizoram do not have to pay either Income or Property Taxes. Therefore, the construction business is booming; letting out residential and commercial properties makes excellent business sense, as the income from it is totally tax free. Another interesting thing is that the construction business requires the availability of non-Mizos, who are sponsored by the Mizos for temporary ILPs. However, when some incident happens involving the non-Mizos, the Mizos enforce what is referred to as “non-Mizo curfew”, for the duration they decide.
The Mizo society is virtually free of caste distinctions and women appear liberated; they smoke openly and are quite westernized in their preference for clothes. Women are also very visible in the work place, whether in offices or in shops. The Mizos have two main meals, the first by 9 am before they go to office and the second by 7 pm. During the ‘lunch break’ they have tea and snacks.
I wanted to visit the Mizoram State Museum to appreciate the Mizo culture and heritage better. However, all government run facilities remained closed due to the festival of Eid. Hence, I visited the Science City. This is primarily aimed at school children to teach them basic scientific principles and sensitise them to Mizo culture and Mizoram. A cafeteria is run in the premises that serve good food; only the food arrived nearly 45 minutes after the order was placed. Waiting for the food I witnessed a wedding reception; was a highly westernized affair.
The ‘Christ The King Catholic Church’ is quite far away from the Government GH where I was staying. After spending a few solemn minutes in prayer I went in search of the parish priest and I came across Fr. VA Paul. He hails from Manjapra in Ernakulam District. He said that he was very set in his mind that he would become a priest by the time he was in the 7th Class. After his metric exam he joined the Minor seminary and after his graduation in Philosophy from St Albert’s College, Ernakulam, he wrote to the then Bishop of Silchar requesting to be permitted to serve in the mission there. He joined the Silchar diocese in 1971 and was ordained priest in 1977. He says that the ways of God are wondrous and his dreams to become a priest and a teacher found fulfillment in the mission in Mizoram. He narrated many interesting experiences he had during the time of the underground movement. He told me that the genesis of the underground movement was the direct result of a famine, which was brought about by the flowering of bamboo in 1966; it is documented that flowering happens every 50 years. Apparently, the flower of the bamboo directly impacts the fertility among rodents and the increase in their numbers lead to destruction of crops and famine. The Mizo society was a self reliant one way back in 1966, living in far flung clusters and farming their lands for rice, millet and vegetables. They depended on the plains only for their requirement of Salt and Kerosene. In such an environment, the ‘neglect’ of the province by the State of Assam was exploited by Laldenga, who resigned his position as LDC from the Indian Army and rallied young people around him to start the underground movement. To neutralise the underground movement the population was relocated closer to roads for better monitoring; it is one of the reasons why Mizoram is so city centered with 40% of the 1.1 million people of Mizoram living in Aizawl and another 30% in Lunglei, the second biggest city in Mizoram. With Central funds pouring into the UT after 1972, the self sufficient Mizos adopted a ‘godown dependent’ attitude – today not more than 10% of the rice required is grown in the State. It makes you wonder if you gave the Mizos fish and made them a dependent community instead of teaching them how to fish by providing them the support infrastructure.
By 6 pm, I was taken to a view point near Thuampui. It is one of the most glorious night views of a city that one can see. From the view point, Aizawl looks like a city of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. I mentioned yesterday that the hills have been completely built upon. The properties are not less than three storeys high. I came across a building that has used the height between two roads to build an eight storey building. (The house owner normally retains the portions of the property that have road accesses and lets out the rest!) These properties look like huge skyscrapers in the night when the lights are on. Those of you who plan to visit Aizawl must definitely factor in an evening at the Thuampui view point close to the “Pushpak House”; it may not feature in most tourist guide books.

12 June - Whistler to Victoria - Day 39 of TCE

The room in the Pinnacle Hotel had been extremely comfortable. Last evening I was told that the 84 rooms that the property has are almost...