Sunday, January 31, 2016

ONE HELLUVA RIDE!

This is a short post.

We're lost in the mountains amongst thick foliage all around, drifting in & out of a fatigue & cold induced snooze on a very bumpy mud road that should make sleep impossible altogether. There is not a soul in sight for miles around and although the near full moon illuminates everything, it slowly dawns on me that we're all afraid. Each one of us has a different reason to be scared: possible wild animals in this overtly dense forest, naxals, ghosts, getting trapped in the mud pits on the non-existent roads, falling off the edge of the cliff or not making it to our destination and spending the night out in the wilderness in bone chilling cold weather with no mobile network and a vehicle with a malfunctioning heater.

Sound ominous? Well, that's what this road (or rather off-road trip) turned out to be. I'm not always particular about comfortable, luxurious journeys. When you set out to see the world, not every sojourn will be a bed of roses and I have done quite a few long, gritty road journeys in the past. In spite of those experiences, nothing could've prepared me for this.

I and my team left Mumbai in a sleepy but upbeat mood early in the morning. Our eventual destination would be the quaint town of Seppa in Arunachal Pradesh where I was to be the headliner for the Kameng River Festival. The audiences in North East India are hugely appreciative & might I say, I have a huge fan following there. Plus, the region is mostly unexplored & beautiful and the people kind and well-meaning. To add to the excitement, Seppa is also known for its trekking, river rafting & paragliding. Needless to add, I'd been looking forward to this for months. However, the North East is not very well connected yet and one has to take multiple modes of transport to get there. We first landed in Guwahati to take a helicopter to Seppa. I was pleasantly surprised that we would be traveling with the (now former) Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Mr. Nabam Tuki, who I'd briefly met during a previous, immensely fulfilling concert at the Tawang Festival, Tawang. After he disembarked at Itanagar to flag off a marathon (and to the political imbroglio that followed), I stepped out for a quick lunch of pork momos when I was intimated that the chopper would not fly any further due to inclement weather. This put all the plans into the spanner. The only other way of getting to Seppa would be by road; an unspecified unknown for us. From my past experiences of traveling by road in the North East, I was expecting the worst. On previous occasions, I had been vacationing and wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. This time I was, and the multiple miscommunications at various levels only made the confusion graver. We hurriedly took the road in the hope of getting to our destination in 6 hours. The audiences in Seppa had been intimated that I'd be delayed & that they should wait at least until 11:30 in the night. What followed was an 8 hour long nightmare, surpassed only by a 13 hour road journey from Gangtok to Yumthang Valley taken a decade ago.

Since our driver Nirba was driving at break-neck speed to get us to our destination, the vehicle bounced about violently on the mud roads, showing us the true meaning of break neck, and within 90 minutes we were feeling very sick indeed. Not even a bobble-head could have survived this kind of physical assault! The body had been thrown in all possible directions, I must have hit my head on different parts of the car many a times and we had no option but to stop. After an hour, some rest & serious deliberations about whether we should continue or not, I was on my way again, for the love of my fans. We passed through a "short-cut"; some of the densest forests & the narrowest mud roads I've come across. Although the thick, gorgeous forest was a thing to marvel at, the car swerved dangerously in some of the morasses & almost got stuck in one. There was also the perceived risk of running off the track or being encountered by wild animals or naxals. Surprisingly, I was mostly in good spirits & none of this really worried me. What did scare me was when we reached a large clearing for future roadways construction and Nirba lost his way. The construction work had closed off the road that led to Seppa and after this already 6 hour long journey, I was mortified at the prospect of returning down the path we'd taken so far. In drastic contrast to what our minds were going through, melodious songs were playing on the stereo system and would you believe it if I told you that these songs played in quick succession: Jag Soona Soona Laagey, Jadoo Hai Tera Hi Jadoo & Hum Jo Chalney Lagey Hain. You'd appreciate the irony, like I did, if you pay attention to certain lyrics in these songs. It seemed like God had set them up to accurately narrate our plight. Sample this:

"Ye kya hua, pehle na aisa hota tha. Main hoon kahaan, main jaanu na. Koi mujhe itna bata de, ghar ka mere mujhko pata de" (How did this happen? I have no clue where I am. Someone please guide me home) or "Aao kho jaayein hum, ho jaaye yun hum laapta. Aao meelon chale, jaana kahan na ho pataa." (Come, let's get lost. Let's go missing. Let's travel miles without any idea of where we're heading) Or "Roothi roothi saari raatein, fikre fikre saare din. Veerani si Veerani hai, Tanhai si tanhai hai" (the nights are angry & the days are worrisome. It's so bad that even the desolation is desolate & the loneliness is lonesome!) Although the songs themselves are mostly optimistic ballads save one, my frame of mind was having a field time interpreting them as prophecies of doom! Hahaha :)

Fortunately, there was some trace of humanity there in the form of some construction workers who were toiling late into the night and they set us off in the right direction; an alternate path that had been cut into the mountain. The extensive roadwork was nothing short of impressive, knowing how immensely difficult it is to carve a way through the mountains and hopefully, in the years to come, travel in the North East will be much smoother & less time-consuming. Nevertheless, cut to the present, some more forest, mud roads, morasses, bumps & hours later, we finally reached Seppa in the dead of night, long after the last of the audience had waited in vain, and left. Obviously, I was upset, not only at the futility & roughness of the journey but at the disappointment of not having performed for the fans. Apparently, the crowds had waited till 12:30 AM and the fact that we reached just an hour later only made the disappointment even more acute. I was literally sulking when we alighted at one of the organising committee's members house for the night and in moments, my anger melted away. They were so kind & apologetic and had suffered so much more than we had in pacifying the disgruntled crowds that it seemed inappropriate to be cross with them anymore. They stayed up late so that we'd be received & fed well and taken good care of. This is one of the hallmarks of most Northeast Indian families; they welcome you into their fold and make you feel like one of their own, and this comes naturally to them. When I left by helicopter the next morning, clicking a gazillion pictures with the locals, mingling with them and waving at the students gathered in the field for Republic Day parade practice to a rapturous response, I had only one thought on my mind. If only I could've taken the stage the night before as well...

For now, I have the love of the Arunachali people & these memorable snippets to take back home and a hope that I can come back to the next Kameng River Festival to finish what I started :)

The gorgeous Kameng river

The sleepy little hamlet of Seppa

This gentleman also performed hours before I was supposed to take the stage. Credited with reviving the traditional music of the Tangkhul Naga community of Manipur, it's a pity I missed Rewben Mashangwa's performance.

*****

An amusing thing happened on the way back home when the cabin crew of one of the connecting flights doubled up as literal wingmen for their Manipuri colleague and tried to set us up! I'm sure both of us were suitably embarrassed but full points to them for helping a fellow out. She's cute and we're bound to bump into each other sooner or later. Now, where could that lead to? ;)

2 comments:

  1. Sir, sorry for the inconveniences. Crowd would have loved so much to see you perform. Everyone went back home disappointed and disheartened. Hopefully next time when you come to Seppa, same road would be completed and I am sure, experience would be totally different then. Anyway, you saved the faces of organisers by arriving at the town, though late.
    Hoping to see you perform here soon.
    Thank you so much sir.

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  2. Anonymous9:05 PM

    Indeed, it was one hell of a ride....more of a rough adventure to an unknown destination where no one was certain of its end in sight in darkness, and getting almost lost in the wilderness than going to a proper venue to perform to a huge welcoming crowd of your fans anxiously looking forward to your singing and charismatic performances in the festival.

    Well, at least you have arrived safe and sound in one piece, better late than never. Surely, there was that disappointment from all sides, the organizers, the performers and the hungry audience - waiting to quench their thirst to see their idol performing in stage. To them, it was initially never too late with patience for the wait but then it went far beyond to the early hours unexpectedly.

    Do make up for this trip next year or at another time when things work well for all. Hopefully the roads would be clear and smooth and the journey time can be reduced with better transportation. Good luck.

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