Between sex and religion, it’s a difficult choice, muses Malawma. Both sell well, he adds.
As the owner-artist of a tattoo shop a few steps ahead of the busy Treasury Square, the administrative hub of the Mizoram capital, he should know. At his shop, a dugout accessed through wobbly wooden steps, I first encounter the pact of the two: Jesus and the generic “sexy girls”, merging uncomplainingly with recognizable rock stars in one long piece of tattoo art on Malawma’s left hand.
Rear window: (from top) Inside the epitaph studio. Photograh: Shamik Bag; from afar, Aizawl looks like any other hill station. Photograph: Dinodia; and rain clouds over Mamit. Photograh: Shamik Bag
After the mandatory exclamations, Malawma walks me down the road, past the blind street-singer peddling local pop confections, to a shop where epitaph writers use the Roman script to sum up the life of a Mizo departed.
Epitaph writing, evidently, is just one of the shop’s specialities: The basement studio bears manifest signs of life, particularly buxom Caucasian women in various levels of undress, etched on the same granite slabs used for eulogizing the Mizo dead. There’s a portrait of Jesus tucked in between, and scenes from the Bible as well. The tattoo artist grins abashedly. “I think they, too, need to make some extra,” Malawma explains. Money here, as anywhere else, settles the issue.
My earlier visit to Mizoram had coincided with a statewide general strike against “outsiders”. I, too, was an outsider, but I was shielded by my Inner Line Permit. The shutdown defined “outsiders” as those who did not possess that vital piece of paper: the Gauhati high court had just restricted the Mizoram government from arresting or deporting them.
This is one issue that sees no conflict. Everyone agrees that Mizoram, born merely 22 years ago after two decades of violent struggle, still needs to be protected from outsiders. “Stay in your room. You never know what might happen,” Mina, employed with the state information and public relations department, had warned me.
I was only too happy to heed her words. My aching limbs were crying for a day off after a 25-hour bus ride from Guwahati, the worsening road conditions after Silchar offset by the magnificence of nature in the hill tracts of Mizoram. There were miles and miles of rolling hills, deep gorges cutting through opaque green forests and vast valleys, and the air was much cooler after the sinister heat of the Assam plains.
In tandem, the vibe in the bus changed as the Mizo passengers sat down to an impromptu picnic, sharing food and laughter all the way up. The landscape, language, dress, custom and food all underline the message: Welcome to Mizoram.
From a distance, Aizawl looks like any sprawling hill station. Till you notice the proliferation of spires and church towers, standing out like sentinels among the concrete spread—a sort of Christian response, if you want, to the saffron and trident iconography of Varanasi. With more than 80% of the population practising Christianity, the collective influence of the Church is enormous, so much so that the state’s official website notes that “their (the Mizos’) entire social life and thought process have been transformed and guided by the Christian Church Organization and their sense of values has undergone drastic change”.
The truth of it all plays out on local television. On seven consecutive evenings at prime time, a local channel dedicates itself to relaying live the Revival Crusade at Vanapa Hall. Local youth, dressed in flowing white robes or in suit and tie, accompanied by the throbbing sounds of guitar, bass, synth and drums, sing and sway for the Lord in a carefully synchronized effort. The hall is packed with young people, eyes tightly shut, humming and moving with the spreading-love music.
Given time, Aizawl draws you in. On the way, though, one can be forgiven for feeling like a rank stranger, even unwanted. Women, who largely run local enterprises, might answer a long question with a single, indifferent nod of the head. Just about every printed word uses English letters—but in the Mizo language. The local language is also widely used for communication: in daily newspapers, glossy lifestyle magazines, original music and street talk. At an NGO office, I meet a young writer who translates the Hindi scripts of popular television soaps into Mizo, working through the first telecast to catch the next day’s newspapers ahead of the rerun. “Though acceptability for Hindi has increased, Mizos aren’t Hindi-literate enough to understand the serials directly,” Mina explains.
On the streets, youngsters wear clothes and hair that might draw admiring stares in south Mumbai. There are bundles of South Korean film and music DVDs for sale on the pavements: Korean life and style is the latest rage among Mizo youngsters, along with local professional boxing.
In the vibrant Barabazar area, business institutions with names such as Israel Store, Israel Electricals, Moses Snack Bar and Zion Front encircle a roundabout called Israel Point. Near the Gandhi statue crossing, I enter one such shop overlooking a misty valley. Other than a peeling poster of Alicia Silverstone, Jerusalem Photo Store has little to do with photos or photography. So I settle for a glass of sugar cane juice.
The lady finds it difficult to explain if the store’s nomenclature is linked to a group of Mizos who, some years ago, claimed to be descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The group pleaded to be settled in Israel, without much success. Later, she refuses to accept payment for the juice, mustering up all her English to shout, “Guest…guest…no pay… go… go…”
“But where does one go in the evenings?” wonders Atea, the charismatic singer-songwriter of local rock band Boomarang which has, through many high-profile concerts across Indian cities, tasted “the other life”. Choice, and the lack of it, is a recurring motif in his songs, says Atea, shaking his Rastafarian dreadlocks.
With the government, backed by the Church and the all-powerful Young Mizo Association—all Mizos are obliged to be members—subscribing to prohibition, Aizawl evenings are all about video game parlours, a couple of coffee shops and private get-togethers.
As we hang around the town square around midnight, Aizawl, unlike many North-East towns, seems remarkably at peace with itself. There isn’t a policeman in sight, no sound of marching army boots, no macho brawls, no frisking, no questions.
Then they come, preceded by the soft rustle of silk gowns and the strains of soft, choral singing—the audience returning home from the Crusade. As they pass, I hear what sounds strikingly similar to Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire, redone in Mizo in praise of the Lord.
From my hotel window, a startling view grabs me. A heavy rain cloud is gliding down the nearby hill, spreading itself like a veil across the valley, gently blunting out Aizawl’s vast expanse of electric lights, lulling the town to sleep.
Directly below the window, a man makes his way through the wet, empty street, knees softened by either the easily available cheap country liquor, or the easily available overpriced whisky. And he’s singing on his way home too.
Trip Planner / Aizawl
Aizawl’s Lengpui airport is connected by regular flights to Kolkata (Kingfisher Red, upwards of Rs5,500 for return) and Delhi (upwards of Rs15,000 for return, with a change in Kolkata). Aizawl can also be reached by bus from Guwahati or Silchar.
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
The Inner Line Permit is available at Mizoram government offices in New Delhi (011-26145360/26145401), Kolkata (033-24757034) and at Lengpui airport for Rs140. See www.mizotourism.nic.in for details.
The best option would be the Tourist Lodge (0389-2341083), which offers a commanding view of the city. Berawtlang Tourist Complex (0389-2352067) allows you to stay in any of its seven cottages. Hotel Ritz (0389-2323358) is in the heart of the city, though somewhat overpriced for the standard of the rooms and service. Hotel Arini (0389-2301557) is a nice little property in the secluded Upper Khatla area. Its top-floor rooms offer good views of the valley. Hotel Clover (0389-2305786) in Chanmari has deluxe rooms and a popular multicuisine restaurant. Located in the heart of town, Hotel Chief (0389-2346418) offers great night-time views of the city and good food.
Mizoram has its share of natural bounty; there’s a waterfall at every other bend. Among them, the Vantawang Waterfall, close to the handloom hub of Thenzawl, falls 750ft. There are a number of wildlife parks, including Dampa, in the beautiful district of Mamit, Ngengpui, Murlen and Tawi, many of them claiming to host the elusive tiger. Then there are the many dils (lakes), including Tamdil and Palakdil, the latter located inside a reserve forest. Just a drive around the rural districts of Mamit, Champhai and Kolasib, with their dense vegetation and distinct culture, can be rewarding in itself. The influence of West and Korea notwithstanding, Mizos rigidly maintain their own traditions. Some of it can be seen during the Chapchar Kut (in March) and Pawl Kut (November/December) festivals. Keep an ear out for local Mizo music. Even buskers around the city centre command loyalty.
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