Monday, 4 July 2005

Travel log - 12

Most of the notes for the Guwahati-Lumding-Haflong-Silchar leg of my trip have been chopped and pruned into the Outlook Traveller piece (archived here). These are some of the bits that were left on the cutting room floor.

The Retiring Room at Lumding is musty. And the bed linen does not bear close inspection. But this I notice only in the morning. I am greedy for sleep, after the late arrival of the Inter-city Express from Guwahati, thanks to some truly ludicrous delays at the starting point. As I drift off to sleep, burping the evil egg curry and rice I had on the train, I notice that the sky has begin to lighten, and the birds in the trees are already rasing a ruckus - it's not even 4 a.m., fercryinoutloud!

I am woken earlier than I want to be, because the other occupant of the room has an earlier connecting train to catch. There's a nip in the air, thanks to the rain that had been falling all night, and I treat myself to a rare hot bath.

All things considered though, these retiring rooms are a bargain. Just ninety rupees, and you get a bed, a washbasin, an attached bathroom (with heater!), and a wake-up call.


I tarry so long over my bath that I barely get into the train before it starts moving. No time to find breakfast. The Bong family next to me has a cavernous tiffin basket. And they proceed to chomp their way through its contents in methodical, determined fashion. I have to swallow drool and concentrate on the landscape very hard when they break out a box of mishti. Argh.

Salvation. Tea and sweet buns. The elderly gent selling chai on the Barak Valley Express is evidently a freelance operative. Either that, or he's a Railway employee who hasn't heard of Lallu Prasad Yaday. No khullars here; he's using environmentally unfriendly plastic which people are pitching out of the window when they're done. My green heart is aghast - the landscape we're passing is so breathtakingly beautiful.

I stow my used cup under the seat, intending to take it to the compartment's rubbish bin later, but when he comes around to collect his three rupees, he spots it, picks it up, and chucks it out of the window.

I'm not a major channa fan, especially when it's served with huge lashings of eye-watering masalas, but that's about all the food that gets sold on this line. Except for the tea and sweet buns, and boiled eggs (called "dim" - it took me a while to figure out what the singsong "dim-bun" the vendors at the stations were hollering meant). And fruit. delicious, juicy, sweet pineapple slices at almost every station. Thick yellow bananas. Some kind of berry that I forgot to sample.


A tunnel. There are no lights in the train. The blackness seems unending. My eyes struggle to get used to it, but there is nothing to get used to. It just stays black.

Birdsong so loud that you can hear it above the train noise.

I remember the travel chap at Guwahati telling me about Jatinga, near Haflong, where I'll be staying the night. Folklore says that birds commit suicide there, diving into fires, blundering into trees. The truth, he tells me, is that tribespeople light fires to disorient the birds as they fly through the mist. And club them out of the air as they bumble past. Attempts are being made, he says, to "educate" the tribes into not doing this, but the practice is too deeply entrenched in their way of life.

He also tells me that former Bodo militants are now employed as wardens in the wildlife sanctuaries. They know the jungle, have poached those very areas, and so know excatly how to protect them now. Wonderful idea, whoever thought of it.


This line is one of the last of the metre gauge lines in India. It's diesel locos now, but they do run a few tourist specials with steam engines a few times a year. Those would be the Brits, I think. A train-loving people if ever there was one. I have been told the line will convert to broad gauge soon, but a journo I met in Haflong tells me that it will be more than a decade before the work is complete. Barely a tenth of the money needed has been sanctioned by the powers that be. I certainly see no signs of work in progress except towards the end of the second leg of my journey, near Silchar.


Haflong is HQ for the North Cachar Hills district, and most of the buildings I pass seem to be either some form of goverment office or army billets. The market area is full of taxis, rickshaws and busses. And STD booths.

The Circuit House at Haflong is British built. (Next to it is the New Circuit House, which is a two-storeyed, concrete box.) Its angled roof is high, the verandah is broad, and the little garden in front is lovingly tended, a riot of flowers. Chrysanthemums so huge that N&D's neighbours in Nizammudin would go quite green if they set eyes on them. Shoeflowers in red and yellow. Many others I cannot name. The property sits on the crest of a hill and has a picture post card view. Clouds caressing green hills, a river - which must be the Barak - threading its way through the valley, a distant bridge along which a goods train the length of my little finger is making its way. And the air is moist, misty, fragrant. It occurs to me quite suddenly that I am very literally head in the clouds.

The service here is wonderful. After some initial confusion (from my name, they were expecting a gora), the staff lead me to a "VIP" room. It is huge, and the carpets carry musty memories of the clouds they have shared the space with. The bathroom is larger than most of the hotel rooms I've stayed in. And it's the only one I have ever seen that has a western style commode, an Indian squatter and a urinal, all in a row. And a huge, elderly water heater.

The room has overstuffed armchairs, and mosquito nets above the beds. I sink into a chair to wait for the tea and toast the cook was rustling up for me, and doze for a few minutes.

The tea arrives. And the toast, is buttered on both sides. Really.

I am asked what I'd like for dinner. Anything, I tell them. Whatever you are eating. I am rewarded with a delicious fish curry with a soft, thick-grained rice, brought to me in a large hot-case. Yum. The blues - they always come to me when I'm in a really beautiful place on my own - vanish, and I polish off every last grain. I am very definitely not one of those people who will waste away when I am sad.

There is no one I can talk to here. The staff had retired after the standard polite exchanges of information about ancestry, community, employment history and marital status that are so much a part of Indian conversations with strangers. My Nokia is just an alarm clock on this journey: The only cellphone signal one gets after Guwahati is BSNL, which does not allow customers of private networks to roam on its frequency. The STD booths in the market would be closed. Email is out of the question. So I write poetry instead.


There is a storm. It is a wild, alive thing. From the spill of light from the verandah, I see the wind whip the trees in the compound into a frenzy. The rain falls in fat, heavy drops. I walk out into it, and am drenched in a few minutes. Lightning flashes - and I am in a flat area on top of a hill. I scurry back indoors. There is no electricty. I write up my notes by candlelight, and with the mosquitos kept at bay by slathers of repellant and mosquito nets, I go to sleep with the windows open, and do not miss the fan at all.


I am woken by hammering on my door at 7 a.m. I had forgoten that I had met a young man from ETV the previous evening and had promised to give him a sound bite in the morning. Cup of tea in hand, I step out into the bright sun (takes getting used to, this early sunrise-sunset thing), and proceed to pontificate for his camera on tourism in the North-East, from the vast perspective of a day-and-a-half in the area. (I did tell him this was my first visit, and that I knew very little about the region, but he brushed that aside. I suspect that the exotica value of having a chap with waist-length hair blowing in the wind in his viewfinder outweighed the ignorance I displayed.)

We chat a bit after he gets his footage, and he makes delicate inquiries about any editors I might know who would give him writing work that he would do for free, for the exposure. The lack of opportunity in the hills is something that he feels deeply; he tells me of the two day journey to Calcutta he had to take to the interview that got him his present job.


They are erecting a new covering for the platform at Haflong Hill station. The platform curves through thick vegetation, and you can hear the train chugging up the slope from miles away.

The journey to Silchar is marred by a selfish old bitch who stretched out asleep over three seats. After a while, when she finally shows signs of stirring (she was faking the sleep, I'm sure), I am able to get the middle birth up and lever myself into its confines (meter gauge trains are way smaller in every respect, including the space between bunks, and there's way too much of me). Fifteen minutes later, she demands that I lower the berth, because she wasn't getting enough breeze. We spend the rest of the journey in a state of cold war. And she looked like such a dear old thing.

About half an hour from Silchar, she reaches up to pull down one of the bags that she has spread out over the complete upper berth. I rise to help her, she politely refuses my help, but a tacit truce is declared.

When I pull out the notes with the hotel names and locations that the young TV journo had given me, I notice that she is peering at them, trying to read them upside down. I grin to myself. Finally, I give in, and ask her advice about how to get to them. She replies in great detail, and then proceeds to Make Conversation. The usual - community, work, reasons for stay, etc.


At Silchar, I stop to buy smokes. A voice from a passing rickshaw yells my name. It is the young reporter. He had been looking for me on the journey (he was in the same train), and he berates me for my elusiveness. He had called a hotel in Silchar and booked a room for me from the train. Verily I say unto thee, bretheren, somewhere in my youth or childooood...


Then hotel is a bit of a dump. The kitchen is closed. The bellboy is concerned that I have not eaten. I send him in search of some food. He returns with a packet of bread and no change from a fifty. Ah well. Expensive bread and bottled water for dinner.

There is another storm. And the lights go out. I stand by the window, looking out on a town lit only by passing headlights. Nearby, in another hotel, there is a wedding. The loudspeakers blare Hindi film songs. Ooh, local culture.


The airport is a long way away. The flight is late.


Just outside, a cafetaria is open for business. Assam tea, and parathas is all I can get. I'm not complaining. Delicious.

1 comment:

Fadereu said...

Did you not go further to Jatinga?