What the hell was I doing all this while? – is what you think if you are from the Northeast and haven’t visited Kohima.
I was on a reluctant official trip to Nagaland, after a fulfilling 10 day vacation with friends and was in less than a cheery mood when I boarded the train to Dimapur from Guwahati. Top it up with a dirty Indian Railways ambience and a creepy fellow sitting opposite me at the 3-seater chair car carriage, staring gingerly, when not listening to shrilly songs blaring on his phone with headphones on, and things seem not likable at all. The only saving grace was the company of my ever anecdotal colleague – Shamim, who would be the quintessential helpful gentleman at times and thoughtfully conversational otherwise. 4 hours down, we reached Dimapur and after a quick lunch, took a cab from the station to Kohima.
For all the promise that Kohima holds, leaving Dimapur doesn’t make you regret at all, not because the capital is capital after all, but because Dimapur is, pardon my language, “ugly”. Yes it has sassy restaurants, designer stores, one of the coolest musical instrument shops and handy flea markets, but that’s that. You go there and come back, you don’t stay there.
But Kohima, and even the way up to it, is a fairy tale. As you leave the dust at Dimapur and go higher up, the air becomes lighter and the terrain takes a hike. Its greener on the right side, because the left of your cab, would be walled by the mountain. I kept my window open, to take in the air, as my eyes smarted to the spectacle before me. Shy, sun-kissed mountains on the other side, with a valley below that undulates into jhum cultivation, far off huts and puny farmers – a picture of peace. With that view, you would bet 1000 bucks to not believe on the politically turbulent reality that the city lives in. I nonchalantly noticed all the way up that the names of the places mostly ended in ‘-ma’ – Piphema, Medziphema, etc.
The Kohima Check Gate is lined with fruit shops on both sides, perhaps to entertain the security personnel who spend the whole day checking cars, ILPs (Inner Line Permits) in hand and eyes on the newcomers. Shamim and I had hurriedly got our ILPs done at Guwahati, so nothing gets messy later. For the five minute issuing at the ILP counter in Guwahati, we went through the gate Scott-free. “Happy journey,” the security person said, looking comfortably at the 3 Naga people seated with us at the shared cab, perhaps assured by our faces that we were up to no trouble.
The pressure was slightly building up as we went higher and I noticed a sudden change in my breathing. That’s why I don’t travel uphill. BP goes down, breathing gets sparse and all the romance for the hills goes for a toss. I closed my eyes to sleep, all the way up from there, till we reached Kohima city, occasionally looking up to see what divine natural vision of the hills I had missed. Once we reached the city and got out of the cab, we got a local taxi to the Kohima Circuit House where we were supposed to put up. Thanks to a close friend fortunately placed in the government services, we could avail a wonderful yet cheap accommodation at the otherwise pricey city.
Either they didn’t understand or we couldn’t explain, but for all the head-nodding, they took us to a hotel under renovation, called Millenium Hotel, much ahead of the downward route that should have taken us to the Circuit House. I was a little dizzy and Shamim was also too tired. We excused ourselves for not reaching the right place and quietly got another local taxi back. This driver knew the way and was rather helpful; so we didn’t really mind the stench of local liquor that seemed to pervade throughout the interiors of the rundown van.
The Kohima Circuit House was perched on a hill, with a viewpoint offering the cityscape. We logged in and were ushered to two large suites that soothed all the weariness we came with, all the way up. Official as it was, our meeting with a bureaucrat was scheduled around 4, an hour and half short of Kohima shutting down for the day. Of course, we didn’t know it! We went up to his place, as the day transitioned into darkness, wrapped up in warmers and jackets, and thankfully got dropped off later, saved from the cab-hunting in the cold. We laughed at our usual daily routine, when our dinner arrived at 7:30 pm. People in Guwahati might be just about getting back from office, or carrying the shopping cart to the cash counter in a supermarket, or maybe even booking tickets for the 8pm show at the cinema – we were getting ready for bed, heater on, double quilts, warmers and socks saving us from the chill! There is also a certain mystery as you go around the city and talk to people. They say Naga people are good storytellers and love their legends. You could feel that in Kohima.
The next day was also filled with meetings and interviews, interspersed only with possible cab-getting, meals and tracking the way up and down. I understood why there was a board on the way up towards Kohima, saying something Foxtrot. We, literally fox-trotted our way around the city, in the two days that we stayed there. Interestingly, most of the meetings were scheduled at people’s homes. Perhaps, this trait came from community living and a homely attitude among the Nagas; but for us, it was a generous gesture.
One such meeting was scheduled at Kohima Village. The village, named as such, as it is located in the city itself, looked nothing like it. We went to one of the khels in the village for the meeting, all the way looking around like awestruck tourists, as pretty people sauntered past. And that is another thing. You will hardly come across anyone in Kohima who is anything less than pretty or was-pretty-at-one-time. The women can easily go without blushers any day; have straight and healthy, flawlessly long hair and a strikingly shy smile on their faces. Backdrop it with walls of tiny flowers and quaint wooden houses or double-storied buildings with colourful Impatients hanging out of balconies, and you would sit down with an SLR. But we had a job to do. One of our interviewees lived in Cherry Land at Kohima Village! I mean, who lives in Cherry Land in this era? Fairy tale it is for sure! While talking to her we noticed and later mentioned it to her that most houses didn’t have gates. She replied, “Neither do our doors have locks!”
We stopped at markets as well, especially the tourist friendly Mao Market, which started with clothes and shoes and ended with dry fish and king chillies. Be ready to bargain of course, because most of the stuff is highly priced as much as they are ‘cool’. We also noticed that around the city, there were very few pharmacies, and almost no liquor shops. But flower shops are in plenty. Dry, fresh, in bouquets or baskets, customised or readymade – you just name it. Of course, prices are high even here, but you either have to carry a local with you or be an Indian and bargain smart. We did neither and sheepishly window-shopped around, while waiting for the next meeting schedule. The only takeaway I came back with is an umbrella!
The two days definitely weren’t enough, if Kohima is to be seen from a traveller’s perspective and also if you are to understand how such a remotely located city is so up to date with the latest Hollywood fashion. You need time, some good woollens (not just warm but stylish if you want to remain contemporary to them), an SLR, some local contacts, a good appetite for chillies and a readiness to accept a day’s end by 6pm. If you’ve ticked off all of them, what are you waiting for?