‘So you think we are lying?’ asks the bus operators blankly. He is claiming that to get to Shillong I have to go to Guwahati first. It’s seems a roundabout route to get to Meghalaya’s capital. I have been told previously that I can go to Jorabhat and change there for Shillong.
‘I don’t know. You are keen to sell me a ticket to Guwahati,’ I reply plainly. I have learnt not to trust these operators. My reply offends the guy and his companion.
‘Okay you go and find out but we will not sell you any ticket on our bus,’ he retorts in anger. This little tiff is going to cost me an entire day. I don’t realize this yet but as the fate plays out its little cards, my journey to Shillong is not going to happen today.
I make enquiries. There is not a single bus going to Jorabhat. I am being told repeatedly to go to Guwahati. The fact is that in the whole of North East, Guwahati is the only significant place of connectivity. Finally, I take a bus bound for Tezpur but get off at the turn off. I get a slow local minibus from here to Nagaon which I reach at noon. I started the day at six.
I have a vegetarian thali lunch at a restaurant next to the bus station at Nagaon. For everyone else, a meal never seems complete without a piece of fish. It is the single most popular dish in West Bengal and Assam.
There is a bus waiting to depart to Haflong. I have read that it is a hill station but I don’t expect it to be commercialized for tourism. I might actually like it. I book myself on the bus to Haflong. It doesn’t look all that far in my map. I should be there by five. Appearances can be deceiving. What is a thin red line on my map is in fact a messy muddy track. Worse still, the track winds up slowly from the plains into hilly regions bordering Nagaland to the east.
En route we stop for half an hour at a place named Lanka. The bus stops at a couple of other places further on but hygiene is a real issue for me. I am unable to persuade myself to eat at any of the stalls in these places of rural remoteness. I stick to sealed packets of cakes or biscuits.
The route to Haflong is a beautiful one. The hills are green and full of forest cover. Small villages appear here and there with terraced fields of cultivation. In time, the sun sets. Darkness surrounds the hills and forests. We are still winding slowly by hilly tracks. There are just six of us in the bus to Haflong and I am the only tourist.
All of a sudden the full moon appears. It is a magical moment for me. The tree tops are moonlit. The clouds catch the light in passing. I am looking up from my seat and enjoy for many minutes this serene scene pass by the frame of my window. When we arrive at Haflong it is nine at night.
Someone tells me there is hotel just round the corner. I enquire. Yes, he has a single room that will cost eightly rupees. I take it without further questions. The room is just a shed. It is one of those spaces made with wood, bamboo and asbestos. It is the kind of building I have been seeing all over Assam and this night is my chance to stay in one.
This morning I take a four-hour walk in and around the hills of Haflong. Though the place belongs to Assam, it has an autonomy of its own. The region is called North Cachar Hills or NC Hills in short; but for the people of NC Hills even this autonomy has not been enough. There has been much unrest and violence in this region and the presence of the army is a common sight. I learn that just ten days ago a new chapter has begun. The region has carved for itself a new district, now named Dima Hasao. The name reflects the majority weilded by the Dimasa tribe. The potential for further conflict exists because there are many non-Dimasa tribes living in these hills.
Peace here is under the shadow of recent violence. For the first time in my travels through the North East I feel a little uncomfortable walking on the roads. Men stare at me with suspicion and mistrust. Women on their way to the forests to collect wood, suddenly fall silent and look down more out of fear than shyness. Only after they have passed me they whisper to each other about the stranger in town. The Dimasas have a language of their own, called by the same name. However, Hindi is also widely spoken but with a mix of words from local dialects. They call it Haflong Hindi.
I arrive at Haflong Hill, one of the two train stations at Haflong. The other station is Lower Haflong. Before arriving at Haflong, I didn’t really know that it had a railway track. I find out that this track was built by the British in pre-independence days. The railway served to transport goods to Kolkata via what is today Bangladesh. Today the track has lost its once glorious days. Like the rest of North East, no development has happened since the British left.
For no particular reason, I start walking along the train track in the direction of Jatinga, the next station. The track winds between hills covered with forests. Some trees are objects of worship in Assam. A red cloth is wrapped around the trunk and offerings are made. After passing a small tunnel, I meet a villager in search of firewood. He has a wicker basket slung on his back and a machette in hand. His face has a certain roughness and tells of an uncouth character. The machette only makes him look more tribal, backward and even dangerous. I address him with a ‘namaste’ and his face lights up instantly with a smile. It is amazing how wrong we city folks can be about tribals and how much our prejudices can come in the way of understanding them. I walk with him for a while.
‘These days people have become lazy watching TV. They go for gas instead of firewood,’ he complains. ‘Gas is okay for a couple of people but to cook for 10 or 15 people it is too expensive. Forest gives me everything I need.’
‘Do you come here everyday?’
‘Yes. This is what I collected yesterday,’ he points to a stack of firewood by the sidelines of the track. As we walk in silence he carefully scans the forest, looking for possible tracks that can take him to a source of dry wood. I keep a couple of paces ahead of him. When I turn, I find that he has almost miraculously disappeared. He has found his path and taken it.
I arrive at Jatinga station, a place with no platform and just a single building. Four soldiers are patrolling this part of the track with automatic weapons. I don’t want to return the same way and I enquire for alternatives.
‘You have to go back the same way,’ tells me a soldier. ‘We know of no other way.’
I am quite certain there is another way but it might a longer route.
‘You want to go to Silchar?’ queries one of the soldiers. ‘You can take the goods train which will be here soon. Many people travel on it.’
‘I can’t. I have to pick up my luggage from my room in Haflong. I have to go to Haflong first,’ I tell them and start my return by the same train track. I would loved to travel in the goods train though.
When I get back to town, I shop around the market. Lychees are excellent here at twenty rupees a bundle. Carrots are more expensive than in Darjeeling or Arunachal Pradesh. Karelas, brinjals, gourds and eggs are common items. Arecanuts are sold in many varieties in gunny sacks full to the brim. Fish of all sorts, small and big, are dried to the bones and sold with their overpowering potpourri of smells. Then I find three women wrapping something in large plastic bags. I approach them for a closer look. The bags are containing tiny beetles. Each bag possibly has a few thousand of these beetles.
‘What do you call this?’ I ask one of the women.
‘Sangnang,’ she says with a smile. The others giggle. There is a story in these smiles and giggles. They are a natural response to a foreign curiosity into local cultures. There is in them a mix of embarrassment, jest and joy.
‘I suppose you eat them,’ I ask. Everyone nods. Meanwhile, the beetles are hard to contain. They keep jumping out of the bags and flying away. Many are clinging on to dresses. I leave the women to their busy tasks of returning disobedient beetles back to where they belong.
I look around for a bakery. I find one and pick a loaf of bread.
‘Is it fresh?’ I ask. It certainly doesn’t look fresh.
‘Yes. Abhi abhi aaya hai,’ he tells. I doubt it very much.
‘There is no date on this,’ I point out.
‘Local bread mein date hota hai kya?’ he questions back. I return him the loaf, get back to my room, pack up and check out. I move on to Lower Haflong and wait for the train to Silchar.
Silchar supposedly has some temples ruins. I have no idea if these ruins are in town or some distance out of town. Anyway, this slow passenger train sounds a good way to travel with the locals. It is a crowded train. Many people are sitting on top. The journey is dead slow. Often we stand still for many minutes. The places where we stop are places of charming views – peaks, valleys, rivers and bridges positioned in their right spots to make beautifully balanced perspectives. Other than such scenes, what keeps people busy is a constant stream of vendors. Most of them sell food – channa katcha or boiled; boiled egg; cakes and biscuits; tea or coffee.
A wandering musician comes along. He sings in a language I don’t understand but the song is beautiful. He has a long beard. He wears a saffron dress. Beaded necklaces hang on his chest. He plays an instrument that is some sort of a primitive lute. It has four strings. He does not play the instrument as well as he sings. The strings are not properly tuned. Yet, it is a better pasttime than listening to loud songs on mobile phones from people who like to show off.
Getting to Silchar is a nightmare. It is nine at night. We have just reached Badarpur. It would probably take another half an hour to get to Silchar but it might as well take an hour. I get off at Badarpur. Silchar would have to be skipped. I take a room. The market at Badarpur has many fruit vendors. It is the season of mangoes and almost every shop is piled with ripe fruit. Unfortunately, most of the mangoes are soiled, bruised or rotten. It is true that best mangoes are exported but what is worse is that even good mangoes suffer greatly from bad packaging and transportation. Why should I buy such bad mangoes for sixty rupees a kilo?