A New Home, Wild Bears and Smiles on the Road: Stories from India’s North East
Yesterday, my Khasi friend Jonathan checked in to see if I was fine. It turned out that he’s actually enjoying his quarantine days. He wakes up and goes fishing. For Khasis, fishing is their ultimate hobby. Jonathan—or, Jona, as we call him, lives in Shnongpdeng, a small village in Meghalaya. He has a beautiful campsite on the other side of the river. The last time we went fishing together was in December. It was when we escaped the CAA (India’s Citizenship Amendment Act is a long story. Here’s a link if you want to learn about it) riots in Guwahati. It was a beautiful time. And yesterday, when we talked, I wish I was in that small village again.
And I realized how privileged we were to travel, to sleep under a starlit sky, to breathe the crisp mountain air and to bathe in gushing rivers. We’ve taken travelling for granted. I don’t think we ever quite appreciated the freedom some of us have to travel, to cycle in the tea fields, and to camp on hilltops waking up to a blissful sunrise. Did we ever take a moment to sit back and appreciate the beauty of the earth we were unravelling? Did we take a moment to appreciate the piping hot cup of chai a chaiwala made for us in a December morning?
So today, I’ve tens of thousands of beautiful memories. I can fill many empty journals with them. And today, I’m taking a moment to appreciate them, to write about them. I’m bringing you some of my unforgettable days from Northeast India. A region often overlooked but begs to be explored.
Northeast India is eight states in India, often sharing borders with neighbouring countries such as China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. These eight states are Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim. So today, I’m sharing you some stories from the region.
1. Dzongu Valley—A week in the land of the Lepchas
Last September, I ventured out solo to Sikkim. After five days in the charming Sikkimese capital Gangtok—where it mostly rained—I arrived in Dzongu. This picturesque valley is the native land of the indigenous Sikkimese, in other words, the Lepcha Tribe. Today, it’s an environmental conservation area and anyone outside Dzongu needs a permit to enter.
I lived my days with a family in the village Lingthem. I remember walking aimlessly in the terraces of paddy, green in color. Men and women spent their mornings there. I remember walking uphill to see the village monastery. A boy from the village joined me and showed me around. My host family walked to the stream in the morning, plucked fern, sun-dried them to make beautiful dishes at night.
In the morning, I’d wake up to millet roti Yanzay made. They were filled with fried fern and crushed homegrown walnuts. Often in the evening, slowly sipping my chai with homemade pakoras, I’d ask my host Sangdup about the organic way of farming. “So you never use any chemical pesticides,” he’d look at me, smirk and chide. “No. We let the rats eat the paddy.” I’d laugh only to learn that Lepcha’s philosophy, similar to many other indigenous people in the world, is to live in harmony with nature.
Today, Lepchas are Buddhists. But their primitive philosophy aligns so well with what Lord Buddha preached—a kind, compassionate life. Lepchas also believe that Mount Kanchenjunga is their deity.
One night, I met a group of Sikkimese friends in Lingthem Lyang Homestay. I remember that night so well. We would sip millet beer—or, chi—offered in a bamboo cup, from a bamboo straw, only to get a bad hangover the next day. I remember meeting a five-year-old and giving him all the fridge magnets I had. I carried magnets as gifts for people I met. Days after I left, he’d come to my host’s house and look for me.
Yanzay told me that. The same Yanzay who cried when I left Lingthem.
2. The other side of the river, with fishermen in Majuli
We drove to Majuli after a night in Orang. It was after we saw two rhinos—a mumma and her baby—in Orang National Park. Majuli is the largest river island in Asia. We got onto a large ferry with our car, which took us to the island after a 20-minute ride. In December, Majuli looked stunning. It was layered in bright yellows of blooming mustard flowers. We drove past streams and houses of the Mising Tribe to arrive at our school. We were staying in Vivekananda School in Majuli. A small private school run by community funds.
As soon as we arrived, we were welcomed with strings of laughter and garam chai. Everything about this place screamed rural, rustic and full of life. If I could go back, I will, and I will laugh, dance and cry in joy. But that December, I wasn’t able to enjoy it. I was stressed with a delayed draft for my next article. We stayed there for two nights. On our second day, our principal sir took us around the village.
We walked past Mising houses. They are 100% eco-friendly structures. They resemble tree houses made in bamboo. The house is made on a raised platform and one has to climb up using a wooden ladder. Below each house, pigs and chickens gather and feed on leftovers thrown by the residents.
At the river, a group of fishermen were busy with their daily work. Hundreds of fish—little, big, different species, some full of bones and others not—tangled in large fishing nets became their newest catch. At once, 4-5 men would jump to the large body of water and gather each and every fish, not leaving even one. The next day, they’d be on the way to the market.
On the other side of the river, I sat by the grass banks, under a large tree providing me shade from the winter sun. There were also two other Assamese Majuli residents. “Where are you from?” they asked me.
“Sri Lanka,” I told them with a silly grin. The fishermen were still at their work. A boat sailed on the muddy waters. Mustard fields expanded over the horizon, like carpets of yellow. The air was silent, except for the rustling sound of the leaves and the fading hum of fishermen screaming in excitement as they gathered for their next catch.
“Lasith Malinga?” One replied with a smirk. “Ha. Yes.” We all laughed. The sun shone for another hour that day.
3. Being home, in Aizawl
Aizawl is in one corner of India. It’s a long journey from everywhere you can think of. My friend Sahid dropped me at the taxi stand in Silchar. He waited until the taxi left. I was nervous. I was going somewhere that the world knew little about. For nine hours, I sat, sandwiched between an old desi uncle and the driver inside a sumo jeep. The road was bumpy. It was covered in dust. The sun shone brightly through the glass windows of the jeep and tanned my brown skin. At 5.30 in the evening, when the chilly mountain air embraced my soul with late monsoon rain, I arrived in Aizawl. The capital city of the Indian state Mizoram.
I remember Kenny gave me painkillers to cure the severe migraine I had. When I starve without proper meals, migraines happen often. I remember walking upstairs to join my host family for dinner. There was a beautiful chicken curry, mildly spiced, delicious with chunks of oil. I loved the lentils—boiled with water to make a mild, yellow curry. Mizo style, perfectly local and offered with love. I felt at home. I was home.
I stayed four nights in Aizawl, sometimes taking taxis to far corners where mountains dressed in layers of green. I sat inside local joints and devoured traditional Mizo dishes. One thing I didn’t like was the tea. Mizo tea was nothing like the desi chai. But when everything else makes you smile like a little kid, lack of chai is something you can try forgetting. And I did. My host family looked after me like I was part of them. And I was.
I also met Rema. He was Sahid’s friend. After his office hours, I rode on the back of his bike, wearing a thin jacket in a drizzling evening in the hill capital. I met Rema’s friends and had many cups of sugary tea and biscuits. One of them had a daughter who was the winner of an all-India modelling competition. Her father was a poet. They were a family of artists.
On the third day, Zol, my host took me on his bike to reserve my sumo ticket to Silchar. That evening, my host Zol, his wife Kenny and their son accompanied me to a nearby park. We spent the evening watching the setting sun and munching Lays chips. The next morning, Zol dropped me at the taxi stand. I was on my way back. Clouds rolled over the carpeted hills and I smiled. “Come back again,” Zol told me before I left.
4. Two cups of milk tea, please! Somewhere on the way to Kongthong
In January this year, I had to report an assignment from Kongthong, Meghalaya. It was probably three days after the arrival of 2020. Sahid was driving the car. Dusk fell early that day. We were on a small deserted road leading to Kongthong. We needed tea, a cup of warmth to fuel us.
We stopped at a small shop—named ja and sha, meaning rice and tea in Khasi. A group of Khasi men, about twelve of them, sat on small benches by a fire, looking for a temporary escape from the bitter cold, covering themselves in thin blankets. Their small figures squeezed in that tiny room. They sipped chai. Some smoked a cigarette or two. We ordered two cups of tea. We had a packet of orange cake we bought from a cute café the day before in Guwahati. I sliced it and offered cake to everyone.
Some of them, denied, shyly. Others offered me a coy smile. It’s quintessential Khasi male behaviour, something so commonly observed among the Khasi men growing up in a matrilineal kingdom. “Please take it,” I would tell them. And they would take one slice.
“Where are you going?” One of them asked. Sahid was able to converse with them in a mix of little English, little Hindi and little Khasi. “Kongthong!” We told them and smiled. The next moment, they paid for our two cups of chai. Twenty rupees. Two coins of ten Indian rupees.
It’s little but it’s not little. It’s big. A bucket of kindness and warmth and love in a stranger’s smile. An act of kindness felt big like the guardian Khasi hills. And even after my sixth visit to Meghalaya, I yearn to return. Again.
5. A Christmas feast and a wild bear in Mokokchung
“It’s a bear.”
“A BEAR!!!” I looked at the large animal skin lying on the cement floor, quietly drying in the afternoon sun. A clew of worms hung onto it. It was a bear. He lived in the jungle. He was a wild animal. The bear became a prey to a group of hunters, including a Konyak Naga guy, who lived with an Ao Naga family.
We were at Imna’s house. She’s Sahid’s friend. She’s an Ao Naga. Known for their higher degree of literacy and the organized, structured lifestyle, Ao Nagas are native to the Mokokchung District. They are one tribe of the Naga ethnic group who call Nagaland their territorial home, just like the Konyaks, another tribe owning parts of the Nagaland.
We were at Imna’s for Christmas. On the day celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth, we sat on wooden chairs to feast on a feast prepared by the community for the community. I wasn’t well and suffering from diarrhoea but saying no to a community feast was considered rude behaviour, just like how it would be back home in Sri Lanka. So I sat there with others. All of them were Nagas except for me and Sahid. They were all dressed in coats, polished shoes, vibrant red tops, and heavy makeup.
One large family funded this community lunch. They gathered for a ceremonial photograph. Their dog, a playful golden retriever was the spotlight of the occasion, goofing around with everyone at the event. I decided to say hi to him. He did and laughed like a big ball of fur overflowing with happiness.
I don’t think I’d ever willfully return to Nagaland. For some reason, Nagaland didn’t speak to my heart. I didn’t bow down to her mountains dotted with shrubs and roads lined up with the last blossoms of cherry. I didn’t laugh like a little kid in the alleys paving way to beautiful Naga houses. It didn’t reach my heart with both her hands. It didn’t whisper to my ears, to tell me that I should give her a second chance. And I would not.
But I wouldn’t forget the feast, the doggo who played with me and the Konyak Naga guy who once rescued an old uncle from a house set on fire.
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