Haflong. The name would make me and my friends guffaw. Is it half or is it long? Where on Earth was this place? Why were we moving there?
It was April 1999 and we were packing our bags for Haflong, a remote town in the hills of Assam, where my father worked. Having lived in Guwahati all my life, the biggest city in Northeast, I couldn’t understand the logic of moving to a small town and rebelled with all the might of an 11-year-old. Yet, one Saturday morning, we loaded our Maruti van and left. One of the first things to strike me when we entered Haflong in the evening was how deserted the streets were. I would later learn that everything in Haflong wrapped up by 8 pm.
That night, as we prepared to go to bed in my father’s secluded government quarter, he told us in all seriousness: “If you hear a knock on the door at night, do not open”. My bowels almost opened at the thought of something sinister lurking beyond the walls of the house. And, I prayed that I can sleep peacefully. The only hill station in Assam, Haflong is the district headquarters of Dima Hasao, an autonomous region in the state. This lush, wet region is home to 13 indigenous groups, chiefly, Dimasas, Kukis, Baites, Zeme Nagas besides a few non–tribal Nepalese, Bengalis and Assamese. This multi-ethnicity manifests in distinct languages, festivals and art forms — the diversity is immense, given that Dima Hasao is the least populous district in the state. Like the rest of Northeast in the 1990s and early 2000s, it struggled with insurgency, though in these hills terror groups multiplied by the day. Train lines were blown up, people in power were abducted, extortion was rampant and development work was often brought to a standstill.
Yet, Haflong was a paradise for its inhabitants. After the initial weeks of scowling my big-city-girl face, I fell in love with the charms of a small town. It started with learning and loving the common tongue, Haflong Hindi. It was far easier and jovial to say: “Kya korta?” instead of “Kya kar rahe ho?” and “Hum idhar boitha” instead of “Main yahaan rehti/rehta hoon”.
I quickly took to the slow life of hearing the sound of wind and rustling leaves instead of honking cars. I found delight in quiet afternoons and relished the evenings walking around Haflong Lake in the heart of the town. The well-laid streets, under a canopy of trees, were part hilly, part flat. Haflong bazaar, the town’s nucleus, was a mish-mash of concrete buildings and makeshift cane and bamboo shops, standalone hawkers elbowing between them. Come Saturdays, the bazaar hustled with smallholding farmers travelling miles with fresh produce for market day and people bargaining the already low prices. In this “original” farmers’ market, one could buy country chicken in bamboo cages, jhum-cultivated rice and vegetables, multi-coloured corn, tribal chillies, edible insects, and homemade liquor, among others.
I loved the freedom of walking around unescorted. As in all small towns, walking was a way of life. But the sight to behold was when students, from around town, in smart uniforms (with matching jhola bags), walked to and fro school. Come rain or shine, in that colourful march, teenage crushes blossomed, love letters were exchanged, friends from different schools met, gossip circulated, and lessons were discussed. People lived under the constant shadow of terrorism, but life carried on.
My reverie was jolted in 2003. A bloody confrontation between two tribes brought the district to a lockdown — murders, curfews and torching houses became the order of the day. I had hoped to go back once things settled down but years passed before I set foot in Dima Hasao again.
I recently visited Haflong and walked down the streets under the same tall old trees. Some things have changed — there are now more houses and cars, even the bazaar has added some glitzy shops. But like then, even as now, there isn’t much to do. Malls and multiplexes haven’t found their way here yet, young people hang out at each other’s homes or drive off to nearby places instead. The lake still stands pretty, and, after a bout of rain, the sun still breaks through, shiny and strong, to turn the evening sky into an indescribable mix of colours. Saturday market is still going strong, only the prices have doubled.
Restaurants are cropping up. The peaceful, easy feeling of two decades ago still lingers in the air. Having lived in big Indian cities with all their chaos and craziness, my senses found a relaxing retreat in Haflong’s fresh air. I met up with an old friend, Avantika, and her husband Daniel Langthasa. They took me to Jatinga village, a short 45-minute drive. We ate a delicious meal of pork with bamboo shoot and rice. Later, we sang along with the birds and to Daniel’s guitar, in the middle of a forest, sitting next to a clear stream. The beautiful and raw Haflong is ideal for “travellers, not tourists’’ seeking slow tourism, Daniel told me. True enough, the nearest airport (Guwahati) is 360 kms away and one has to navigate bad roads on hilly terrain to reach Dima Hasao. Although the government hasn’t made much headway in promoting the region’s tourism, many villages are willing to host those who want to know more about these hills.
So far, people have visited Dima Hasao through word of mouth, and that’s okay for the locals as it keeps the place pristine, revealing its charms only to those looking for genuine experiences rather than traveling for the ’gram. Having said that my Instagram posts from the trip were a smash hit.
Kastoori Rai Dewan is a writer based in Delhi. This article appeared in print with the headline ‘All those years ago’