Inspired: Personal Reflections on a Journey to Mizoram
As I looked down the beautiful scenic view below as we approached Mizoram’s Lengpui Airport, I was thrilled to be back to the place where I spent nearly two years. It was not exactly my place of birth or the country I grew up in, but it felt like being back in the Chinland after spending almost a decade away from it. As the 737 Boeing aircraft touched down the single runway of Lengpui airfield,
I was finally relieved to be on the ground after being in the air for what felt like forever. My legs were stiff and stretching out was what my nearly numb body was desperately needing. As I exited the airport, an eager group of taxi drivers asked me to climb aboard their cabs, each of them wishing to earn 500 Rupees for the one-hour journey to Aizawl. My baggage was heavy, filled with all kinds of gifts from Canada for my brother and his family, and friends still living in the city of Aizawl.
I got into an old Maruti, a small four passengers car used mainly for taxicabs in Mizoram. The temperature was hot and humid and sweat started dripping from my head. As we drove down the narrow tortuous mountain roads towards Aizawl, the excitement of meeting my brother and his family and other old friends grew. But soon I realized that my driver was driving so fast for a road so narrow and curved. And my excitements were soon overtaken by unease and discomfort as I looked down the rugged terrain below from the car window. The car was constantly manoeuvring through the narrow road to avoid traffic coming in from the other direction. Unable to contain, I asked the driver to slow down and jokingly told him I didn’t fly half away around the world just to die of an accident in those terrains. Any mistake on the road would have had led to a disastrous end and the car would have rolled down the steep mountain until it has nothing left for salvaging. With laughter, the driver slowed down the speed and we continued our journey on to Aizawl.
From within several miles, parts of Aizawl were in clear view, majestically hanging on the side of what looks like a cliff. But before we could get into the city, we would run through several police check points. Any car passing through that road and heading towards Aizawl would be stopped and searched by law enforcements for prohibited substance. Mizoram was made a dry zone several years before and carrying or consumption of alcohol has since been criminalized.
There were a few cars, mostly taxicabs, queuing up for search as we neared one check point. From several yards away, I could see a number of uniformed police tossing away locally distilled rice wine that had just been seized from a bootlegger transporting his goods on a hired taxi. The booze had been carefully packed in small plastic bags. The paved road was all soggy with spilled wine with tattered plastic bags everywhere, and I could pick up the smell of alcohol from a distance. Only with a short scan of my baggage from outside of the car, we were let go when my driver told the police we were coming from the airport. Only very rarely had those coming from the airport had their goods searched by the police, I was later told.
We entered Aizawl from down below, from Vaivakawn, and as we drove up into the city, I immediately noticed how narrow the roads were. I had been familiar with the roads in Aizawl, but it was nothing like I had remembered. It seemed like the roads were getting smaller and smaller as they lead up into the city. I had known my way around Aizawl pretty well and had a very clear idea of where I was supposed to disembark, but I was taken by surprise when the car suddenly came to a stop and the driver told me we had arrived.
It was mixed emotions. The excitement of seeing my brother’s family again and a feeling of discomfort from my congested surroundings overwhelmed me. And I quietly remarked “What a transformation!”
Aizawl has transformed remarkably in just a short span of time. Multi-storied buildings have occupied much of the free space that I had remembered seeing just several years back. If anything remained unchanged, it was the narrow streets that now look narrower by the day with the torrents of traffic flow. A cabbie told me there are nearly three thousand taxis servicing in a city with a little over half a million residents. New York has only about eleven thousand taxis, I later discovered.
The rapid pace of development and urbanization has caught Aizawl somewhat off-guard. Poor urban planning, or the lack of it, is partly to blame for traffic congestion, unsanitary environments and inadequate water supply for city residents. Various proposals have been put forward to ease traffic congestion, which certainly is an issue of important concern for citizens and policy makers alike. Some of such proposals include the relocation of governmental department buildings to new locations outside of the city and the construction of a subway system that would connect the city’s north and south ends along the mountain ridge. It is unsure how viable or practical the plan is, but many people think it’s the only way to go. But there is much skepticism about the success of such plan given that Aizawl is a city ready to crumble under its own weight.
My first week in Aizawl was a pleasant but odd adjustment. I had gained quite a few extra pounds since I was there. When in Canada, after a period of not seeing each other, one acquaintance commented about how different I was from the first time he saw me. It took me a moment to respond knowing that we was commenting on my weight. Such kind of comment from a stranger would have been taken as an offence by any North American person. But after a moment of pause, I jokingly told him I might as well ‘develop’ since I was now in a developed country. He laughed so hard that he had to pull over the car by the roadside so he could laugh more. The most difficult adjustment by far was the toilet. It would take me a few days to get myself re-accustomed to it. Another big adjustment was having to climb up flights of steps each day to get around. I would be constantly drying myself off of sweat.
Coincidetally, my first week in Aizawl was also the last week of the sitting of the Mizoram Legislative Assembly. It was the annual budget session and was telecast live on local TV. I watched the session on TV as the debates unfolded. I noted that the total annual budget for the State of Mizoram topped 200 crore Rupees. (1 crore = 10 millions)
Being in Aizawl for several days now, I had noticed many changes. But the most striking change I had noticed thus far was the change in people’s attitude. It was to be the most pleasant adjustment I had had to make. Because it was only so many years ago that people who spoke a different language other than the “Mizo” or Duhlian language or anyone speaking Mizo with an accent would be discriminated or labelled as a foreigner. To speak loudly in a different language in public places was the most certain way to attract the unfriendly gaze of people, or sometimes the police who often preyed on foreigners for arrest. I felt like I was suddenly in an unfamiliar territory. My sense was that people have become more accepting and tolerant. Certainly, there has been greater awareness about the diversity within Mizoram State itself.
The attraction of urban economy, like most other developing urban centers, have brought a stream of migrants from other remote areas to Aizawl. More than about half of the entire population of Mizoram live in the city and the number is growing by the day. But urbanization also means increased diversity and the need for adjusting to new social realities. Accompanying these realities are a change in people’s attitude and increased tolerance for diversity. Minorities such as Mara, Lai, Paite or Hmar people now feel increasingly accommodated and accepted in the urban social mainstreams.
But these changes cannot be attributed entirely to the natural evolution of urbanization and modernization process. To a large degree, Mizoram’s public acceptance and tolerance for people from the East, or Chin people from Burma, was shaped by the principled policy stance of the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) or Mizoram Student Union, one of the most influential organizations in the State. Amidst serious opposition from some extremists, the MZP has been mounting an aggressive campiagn on behalf of Chin people living in Mizoram, whom its leadership considers their closest ethnic kin.
But some of that credits should also go to Chin Students Union, based in New Delhi, which was instrumental in convincing the leadership of the MZP to take up the Chin issue. But there are also other contributing factors for increased tolerance of Chin people’s presence in Mizoram. The warm reception of Daduhi and Liandingpuii, two of the top celebrated Mizo vocalists by Chin communities living in the United States was greeted with tremendous gratitude and echoed positively in the ears of the Mizoram public.
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By Salai Za Uk Ling