Mizoram Memories: Walking down the memory lane can be the best pass time in these testing and trying times.
June 3, 2020: Written below is an account of Aizawl in the ’70s through the eyes of a gentleman, a resident of Kolkata who had visited Mizoram for business.
Today is the 20th of May, 2020 and I am still observing STAY at HOME as suggested during the lockdown, imposed by the Authorities to contain the novel coronavirus disease, or COVID-19 as it is called.
There is a lot of spare time to walk down the memory lane.
It was during the era of 1974-75. I was then working with Ms Escorts Ltd at Kolkata ( previously Calcutta).
Mr P.P. John
One day a tall and handsome middle-aged man whom I had not met earlier walked in and introduced himself as a businessman from Aizawl, Mizoram. His introduction serves as an important aspect of this narrative, without which this would be largely incomplete.
His name was Mr P.P. John, a Keralite Christian married to a lady from Mizoram and conducted his business living happily in Aizawl with his family. His purpose of visiting my office was solely business.
In those years we faced a shortage of electric power in several parts of the country and Mizoram was no exception. There was, hence always a provision for business propositions. The company headed by Mr John would be highly obliged to help us set up a diesel powerhouse at Aizawl.
The process of setting up such power stations as a utility service is quite lengthy as it requires proper planning. Hence, a trip to Aizawl was required. I agreed and soon got a final administrative clearance. It was also decided that my colleague Mr H.P. Singh from Escorts Bombay office will accompany me.
The nearest airport from Aizawl in those days used to be the Silchar airport (Kumbhirgram Airport). Indian Airlines operated direct flights from Kolkata. It took about two hours for flights to reach the destination compared to present-day as flying over Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan) was not allowed back then. The aircraft in which we travelled was a Fokker friendship F27 propeller aircraft. Flights to the North-Eastern part of the country were generally operational in early morning hours and such flights would usually return by afternoon because of the prevailing turbulent weather conditions. Evening flights did not operate till Boeing 737 aircraft were put into service. We left Dumdum at around 6 AM and reached Silchar around 8 AM. Indian Airlines served a very good breakfast which was included in the cost of the ticket.
Journey in the aircraft
After getting on board, we had to face a turbulent weather for a short period, the effects of which made us feel uncomfortable possibly due to the comparatively small size of the aircraft and lower flying altitude. The captain advised all the passengers to fasten seat belts.
A middle-aged lady sitting one row in front on the opposite bay from me was thrown up and she fell on the aisle between the seats as she had not fastened her seat belt. Air hostesses couldn’t help her immediately as the aircraft took some time to stabilise. The lady kept sitting on the floor till the flight stabilised. That was a lifelong lesson for me. I have made it a point to keep my seat belt fastened as far as possible at all times.
Mr John’s younger brother met us at the Silchar airport. We were disappointed to learn that we would not be able to proceed to Aizawl straightaway. Instead we would have to spend the day at Silchar awaiting for the inner line passes to travel to Aizawl. We were informed that the formalities would take almost about half a day to complete. By the time we received the permit, it was quite late to start the journey. We were put up in a nice, spacious hotel which had a garden and large spacious rooms. I remember Hotel Ellora where food was also delicious.
Going to Aizawl
Aizawl is connected with Silchar by road and State Transport Buses run regularly to cover a distance of about 173KM.
Next day we started for Aizawl early in the morning at around 7 AM in an AMBASSADOR car arranged by Mr John with our Inner Line Passes ready with us.
In those days SUVs and vehicles like TATA SUMO were not available in India. Ambassador cars and Fiat cars were mostly in use in addition to Jeeps. Mr John’s brother who operates the Silchar office of the business accompanied us. It was a great help.
On our way through the plains of Silchar, I could see the distant hills driving past us. After some time we reached a place named Vairengte where our inner line permits were checked. We started our journey once again thereafter and after some time reached the town of Kolasib.
Along the roadside, we could see residential houses as well as shops. Our driver needed a break after such a long drive. We decided to stop for a tea break. The stall in front of which we stopped was run by a Mizo lady. The tea was hot and refreshing. It contained a lot of sugar and milk. We enjoyed the locally baked biscuits with the tea.
During my stay at Mizoram I tasted similar tea several times at the offices I visited for work. I must mention that in all the government offices which I visited during different subsequent trips, the officials were courteous and helpful. Our team and I tried our best to build up the Power House to the required standards and we earned the confidence.
The journey of 173 km took us 9 hrs due to hilly terrain and worn patches on the road, despite proper maintenance and regular scrutiny. At some places, even the tar was missing. I learnt that it was due to recurring landslides and rains. The Border Road Task Force Wing maintains the roads and it is a continuous process. (Later on, I learnt from my uncle that he had gone to Aizawl to open a Post Office when he was working with the Postal dept. and he had to travel two and a half days partly by bus and partly on foot. My uncle, Late P.K. Mukherjee was then posted at Silchar as an Inspector and later retired as Director of Postal services from Bombay in 1954.)
However, the landscape was beautiful. The paddy fields on mountains in steps at several places added to the scenic beauty of the place. I was told that this system of cultivation that was being practised is called Jhum cultivation. In many small villages we got similar tea as the one we had on our way. These tea shops are run mostly by ladies. Men folk go for cultivation and work in the fields.
The journey seemed to be getting longer and tiring by the hour. Due to several and near-continuous travelling upwards which led to change of gears from third to second and at times to first the Ambassador car engine was getting heated up. We stopped for filling water. The North-East part of India has an early sunset and we were keen to reach Aizawl before dusk.
Finally, bigger houses and shops appeared describing a cityscape and we realised that we had reached Aizawl.
To our surprise accommodation was arranged in a room in the extension wing of Mr John’s house. He felt we would be more comfortable and safe at his house. The family had four school-going children and Mrs John was a caring mother and a very kind hostess. During my subsequent visits, I learnt that she also had good knowledge of business and helped in the family business activities. It is interesting to note that in Mizoram men are referred to as ‘PU’ instead of the popular honorifics like ‘mister’. So, Mr John was addressed as PU John there.
During subsequent visits, I would stay in the Government Circuit House and Assam Rifles transit places. The stay at Mr John’s house became a memorable experience for me especially due to Mrs John’s generous hospitality.
Subsequent visits to Aizawl, Religion & Christmas
During my second visit, I was accommodated in the old circuit house as the new one was not yet ready. The room had three beds and one toilet for two rooms i.e. six persons sharing the bath cum toilet. Running water was not regular. However, during my subsequent visits, I was given a room in the new circuit house where normal facilities were available.
I noticed that all shops remain closed on Sunday mornings and people are expected to go to the church. It is a practice that has been followed for years.
During one of my longer stays, I joined my host Mr. & Mrs John to attend Church. Having studied in Christian schools I am quite familiar with prayers and the Holy Bible. Initially, at the church, I felt a bit lost because here in Aizawl the Holy Bible had English alphabets and the words were in Mizo language. Christian Missionaries had reached Mizoram many years back and done the work of translating and preaching the Holy Bible was done accordingly to reach out to the masses.
Not attending church on Sunday is not quite appreciated in Mizoram.
Christmas is celebrated in a big way. Celebration lasts for weeks and festive mood up to January end. During this period people visit each other’s homes to greet each other. Variety of meals are served. I was told food was offered to anyone who came to the home during the occasion even if the person was a stranger. Families keep stocking and preparing for this period. No distinction is made on the occupation or status of persons and every occupation is respected.
The fly invasion
During certain periods of the year, Aizawl faces fly menace. Mrs John had found out a unique method of tackling this. A thick coir rope immersed or coated heavily with Jagerrine (gur) was hung in the verandah outside which attracted the flies. Once they sat on the sticky jaggery they could not fly out and stayed there.
Meal with a Mizo family
I would be served bread, eggs, tea and at times meat like ham for breakfast. Afternoon lunch would comprise rice, dal, meat and sometimes vegetables to our normal taste. However, a meal at a Mizo family house is usually without salt.
Dress code in Mizoram
The men going to office would wear trousers and shirts and jackets too! But the local dress for men as we saw during the road journey was different. They wore a cloth to cover the lower portion of their body and a colourful woven shawl on top. Ladies at shops and streets wore colourful dresses. On top would be a blouse or shirt type clothing but the lower part would be covered fully in a gown made of colourful woven material. The dress and headgear during festivals are colourful even more than the usual. I learnt that every woman would weave her dress. Mrs John was no exception despite having a career in nursing and managing her family business at the same time.
Mizoram at that time also faced water shortages. Rainwater was harvested at homes. During our drive to Aizawl, we had seen at several places, water is collected from natural mini waterfalls running down the hills. Many were children helping their families. (I remember I had done the same at Nagpur during summer months when no water came from the taps for some days though that was from the large lake-like reservoirs).
Children, usually small boys used small platform trolleys with handcrafted wooden wheels to collect water. Small drums would be placed on these trolleys which would be filled up with water. The trolley was pulled while going up the hill whereas it rolled during the dissent. During the dissent, the young boy sat on the trolley which had a lever to control the front wheels to keep it running on the road. Vehicle drivers had to be extra careful when such makeshift water carriers were seen coming down.
The town of Aizawl also had a water shortage but the government was taking measures to step up the system of water harvesting and use available resources for distribution through pipelines.
Respecting each other!
The drivers in these mountain regions respected each other. It is an accepted practise to allow the ascending vehicle from the opposite direction to cross over safely. They are also quite helpful to each other.
The road journey from Silchar to Aizawl and back is a mixture of enjoying nature’s beauty and experiencing great fear at the blind turns on the Ghats especially for people like me from the plains.
Roads have improved considerably since then and on my last trip to Aizwal, Mizoram, I found that I had completed the trip in 6 hrs instead of 9.
Aizawl now has an airport which has flights from Kolkata with a flight duration of about an hour.
Return memories and an adventure
I would like to share a memorable incident in this regard. I was preparing to return to Silchar by road and fly back to Kolkata. Mr P.P. John was also planning to come down to Silchar on some business and it was decided that we would travel together in Mr John’s car which was pretty new. Though we planned to leave Aizawl around 11 AM, work kept Mr John busy and we could start only around lunchtime or slightly later.
As we started our journey the driver realized that the brakes were not working properly. Luckily we were still within Aizawl and could drive to the local mechanic. A leakage of the brake cylinder was detected and the repair was undertaken with new parts. Thanks to the strong and excellent spare parts networks for HM Ambassador cars in those days.
Though we were losing on time, we anticipated to reach Silchar by 8 PM or so. Mr John had his business set-up at Silchar and a flat for residential use where his brothers used to stay. There were extra bedrooms too where I could spend the night if I didn’t get a hotel accommodation.
As we proceeded beyond we faced drizzles and then rains. Speed of driving in such conditions is low. There was a full moon in the sky and in a short time after driving up on the hills we could see the moon and it felt as if the moon and us were at the same level but at a distance.
The wipers worked continuously and at times we drove through wet and soft patches due to the absence of tar and some amount of rainwater accumulation. Unexpectedly the car got stuck at a soft patch. The rear wheel rotated freely and there was only a creeking sound but the car wouldn’t move an inch. Mr John and I got down and we tried to push the car, but in vain. While we were wondering what we should do next, standing in the rain, completely drenched with mud on our shoes, a streak of light appeared from the bend. It was the jeep carrying passengers whom we had overtaken some kilometres back. They were kind enough to stop for our help. Some of the passengers were young. They came to our rescue, pushed our AMBASSADOR out of the soft soil. People in MIZORAM are very helpful. We could only say ‘Thank You’.
As we drove a few hundred metres or so we faced lightning and before we could settle back, a second lightning struck our car on the bonnet. A stream of spark travelled away on both sides of the bonnet and disappeared in the ground.
A conclusion to this Mizoram Memory!
Had this happened while we were pushing the car I would have not been here to write this note. We reached Silchar around 9 PM and the first thing I wanted to see was the effect of the spark on the car paint. There were no signs.
Static Electricity remains on the outer surface of a hollow conductor (in our case the car) and electric charges are grounded through the tyres which are filled with carbon black.
Aizawl today has also developed like other cities with city taxis and hotels. I look forward to another visit to the place – this time to visit the educational Institution which PU. John has built at Aizawl for local students to stay at home and get an education.