Every time we went back to Guwahati, we felt dejected. There is an air about some cities that draw you to it. Guwahati doesn’t have it; maybe it isn’t a city meant to keep visitors interested. But somehow, something contrived to demoralize. Naga was sure it was Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathusthra which was causing the problem. He had been reading it for quite some time and it had grown increasingly torturous.
Our return from Barpeta Road late in the evening meant that there was no way we could get the Inner Line Permit (ILP) from Arunachal Bhavan, for traveling inside Arunachal, on that day. In fact, the possibility of getting it the next day wasn’t great either, as none of our local contacts in Guwahati knew about the ILPs. If we weren’t able to get it the next day, we were doomed, as it was a Friday and like all good government offices the Arunachal Bhavan shut shop on the weekend.
As luck would have it, the Tripura Bhavan was 100 metres away from where we stayed and no one knew where the hell its Arunachal brother was. Amazingly, it wasn’t a local Assamese who gave us the answer, but a call to Bangalore made the difference. A friend who had earlier traveled to Arunachal was kind enough to tell us that the office was at a place close to Commerce College and closer to some Uncle and Aunty shops. Thank god, he was dead right!At the office, a place as inconspicuous as one can have, we were told to come back in the evening as the Deputy Commissioner was away. Regardless, we needed to fill two forms, one each for the Bomdila-Tawang sector and the Pasighat-Along-Ziro-Itanagar sector. The forms cost Rs. 5 each and since we weren’t there for business, they approved us for a 15-day tourist visa. This cost Rs. 30/person for the two sectors. Naga, meanwhile, was convinced that there was a faster way to get the ILPs. So he set about setting up the official. After hearing, “Dekhiye na sir, kuch ho sakta hai toh,” multiple times, the babu relented and asked for chai-pani.
Eureka! But we were dealing with Arunachal, a state so different from the rest of India. He took the fifteen rupees that Naga gave and said, “Shaam ko aa jayiye, miljaayega,” and went back to work.Disappointed at wasting fifteen rupees, we began walking the streets. It was such a depressing walk that we were to be overwhelmed by a nauseating attack of home-sickness. We searched shop after shop for an English newspaper, and found one after ten or so failed attempts. There was a zoo on the Barua road which we didn’t want to visit, but given the boredom, we thought we might just as well have a look. It was closed. And then there was the creepiest part of the walk. A guy was selling something on the roadside. I was accustomed to fish, chicken and animals far bigger than us, but a live snake? It was brown and had no texture worth remembering. It wriggled slowly around the constricting, shallow, circular container. It wasn’t dead but nothing much was alive in it. It was that one significantly yucky moment when I felt terribly empty in my stomach and flooded in the throat. Thankfully, the throw up was avoided, or rather as I would find later, postponed.
The only place everyone suggested us to visit in Guwahati was the Kamakhya temple. Urban myth or mainland ignorance, all I knew about the temple was some exotic black magic story. But given the window of time we had in Guwahati, we simply had to give it a miss. That whole day, we had roamed the streets of the city and at each street realized there was nothing much of interest. This only added to the pain, literally, in the leg, back and figuratively, in the neck. We hadn’t seen the Kamakhya either, and if we failed to get the ILP that evening, it would be one lousy weekend. The tiredness, the sickness and the pervasive depression, when we came back to the guest house, brought out the desire to return, if nothing else happened.
For a trip like this, it must be said that more than the travelers it is the people they meet who chart the route of journey. At various points on road, we were diffused and empty, but someone from somewhere would come along and boost us up. This was one of those days and what transpired in the evening left us elated.It started with Mr. Bora at the guest house. He not only assured us that we’d get the ILP in time, but he also painted an inviting picture of Arunachal, a place where he lived eleven years. He, like many other Assamese we had met, was extremely polite and friendly. He was also the only one among his colleagues who didn’t look incredulous when we mentioned our tour plans to him. And as we were to find out, his information was true and up-to-date.Slightly refreshed, and after bidding goodbye to Mr. Bora, we optimistically carried our baggage to the Arunachal Bhavan at around 4 in the evening. We were told that the Deputy Commissioner had been in the airport for a long time as his Chief Minister had been visiting. The good news though was we would get the ILP by around 6. So what do we do for the next couple of hours at that nondescript hencoop? “Chat and have fun,” Devi Kamakhya herself must have blessed.
It was one of the most enjoyable parts of our stay in Guwahati when more and more people gathered around the building to get their respective ILPs, and with nothing else to do, they began to chat. The first to speak to us was an Assamese marketing executive who had spent his childhood in Nagaland and was a regular visitor of Arunachal. His wry sense of humour was a delight as he made fun of the government and when he was serious, he was pertinent. He was the one who gave us the idea of visiting Aizawl and Shillong, the first of which we had to shoot down for lack of time.
Then there was a Cipla employee who, maybe because he was of our age, came across as an unbelievably level-headed guy. He was not just forthcoming with views on everything north-eastern, he was the only guy we met who would ask us to visit Majuli, the river island near Jorhat. “You will understand Assamese culture there,” he said. And as I and Naga were talking in Kannada, a nun excitedly stood up, “Oh! Kannada maathaadtheera?” She was a Mangalorean who was working with jail inmates in the north-east. Having been in Nagaland for seven years she had learnt Nagamese, a language very similar to Assamese, and had presently been stationed in Assam.
Quite immediately, we realized an undercurrent of tension. The north-east has seen an alarming rate of conversion to established religions, mainly Christianity. The businessman had spoken intensely about this trend and next to him was a woman who had left her family in far-off Mangalore to play an indirect part in missionary work. However, the bigger tension for everyone was the ILP, and thankfully, there were no moments of discomfort over religion there.
As everyone chatted, they also kept a close look at the cars that would come down towards the office. This wait was at least enjoyable and when the officer did come at around 6:30, there was a sense of satisfaction. We got the permits in a jiffy, two each for us, and we bidding farewell to all the others hoping to find a bus to Dibrugarh, the port city of Assam. If we’d thought the drama had ended for the day, there was this young lisping man who wouldn’t let us off so cheaply.Among the people waiting for the ILP was a young man in his twenties who spoke to nobody but had been listening to our conversation. Since we had enquired about buses to Dibrugarh, he had taken special interest. He was working for a travel office and had been sent by his boss to get a permit for one of the customers. While we were leaving, he offered to get tickets for Dibrugarh in one of his buses, only because he wanted to escape the ire of his boss for taking so long to get the permit. There seemed no reason for us to be tentative and we went with him.
He took us by a mini-bus towards Paltan Bazaar, but not exactly to Paltan Bazaar, and this was the problem. With our luggage hanging around our shoulders, we followed him through narrow lanes and shady characters. Naga spooked. He thought we were going to be mugged. Even though I wasn’t nervous, I was beginning to get tired of walking with the luggage. Sensing our worries, the fellow would occasionally stop and say, “Darna mat! Main aapko bus ke paas leke jaaonga, tab aap bologe kaisa seat diya hai,” or “aapka dost dar raha hai na, mujhe maalum hai.” The reason why I was confident that his worst crime could only be idiocy was because in the mini-bus, he had cleared his seat for an elderly gentleman; a sign I always felt suggested good upbringing. But the idiot could have taken an auto at some point instead of letting us carry the heavy luggage!
Finally, we were there, at another narrow lane crowded with private buses. The boss predictably lambasted his employee for being late, but mellowed when he saw the two of us. We got a decent bus and at around 9 in the evening, we left for Dibrugarh.