Jiri to Imphal

By Yaiphabi Thoudam *

Winter months in Jiribam are time for celebrations. Mainly because of the varieties of fresh vegetables available in the local market, which otherwise is not to be seen during other months or seasons. During this time, commuting in the National Highway No. 53 is not an unpleasant a task as compared to any other seasons/months. Rightly said, highways are lifelines of a nation. People from Jiribam use this highway to reach the capital city Imphal for various reasons- business, education, recreation and work to name a few.

'If all goes well in the road, we can reach Imphal by about 3 0'clock in the afternoon', announced my aunt with glory who arrived in Imphal from Jiribam to attend to a family wedding. She continued, 'These days, the Sumos or Tata Winger services does brilliant businesses'.

That's like, the time of travel cut short by at least 3 to 4 hours. Sometimes under extreme circumstances, buses reach their destinations as late as 9 o'clock in the night. Some other times, one may have to hold overnight somewhere in the highway.

My thoughts paused for a while as I wondered about in the old National Highway. I had travelled in this highway many times- each time I accumulated a different experience. Personal commitment and situation demanded us to be in Jiribam so I said, 'Oh great! We can drive down to Jiribam in the car as the road seem to be in a good condition now'.

To this my elder sister snapped, 'You better be kidding!' There was an interesting pause and then, she took the charge of the microphone. She continued her lecture. I can only give you a summary of the imprints that has coloured my mind.

Firstly, it was the figures that startled me. She casually started the story, 'For a Maruti 800, be prepared to spend at least Rs. 1,000.00. If you still fancy taking a fancier vehicle, the likes of Swift, be prepared to spend at least Rs. 3,000.00. Still want something fancier, like a Bolero, then be prepared to spend as little as Rs. 8,000.00'.

By the way, these monies are expenditures exclusive of petrol et al, or any other personal expenditure that may come up in the course of the travels.

'Why do we need to spend that much money anyway?' I inquired.

'Road taxes my dear! Or in fancier words, 'highway tax!' she replied.

Few months back, she had been to Jiribam travelling through the same old highway- the National Highway No. 53. It was on her car- a Swift. She had thought, 'So what if the roads are a little too dusty? Or there are no any broken bridges- at least the ones that were broken are temporarily fixed. We shall be able to save just a little bit of money if we go by road'.

Dusty NH 53. [See more pictures of the trip.]

So, they drove along - she, her husband, her two little boys, another man and another woman. Passed the police check posts, past the villages, past the open fields, past the army camps. They drove along, up the hills, down the mountains, up the road, and past the armed camps.

Across the rivers, towards the bridges, and towards the armed check posts where they stopped to a strange man standing and waving his hand in the middle of the road. The car stopped, they stopped.

Sleepy eyes of that of the little boys and the women woke up to the sound of male voices arguing over the car key.

'You will not get your car keys and papers back, until you give us the money! You have already violated the rules, by not stopping to pay road tax. One of our guys asked you to stop in the previous check post, but you drove past. They had given your car number and the colour of your car already in the mobile' (Yes, yes, mobile networks are quite reliable in the highways too), the strange man in the road spoke aggressively at the two other men seated in the front seat of the car.

To which the husband lied hopelessly, 'There are sick women and children, it is an emergency, so had to move quickly. Must have not noticed your check posts...' The argument had continued for a while.

'What road taxes are you talking about?' my sister wanted to snap back at the strange man, but all she could do was gather enough strength to cuddle up her two little boys, who were scared like little kittens.

So, the father heard his wife soothing her children's cries, and reached out for his wallet. He exchanged his cars keys and papers for the money, and drove along. Past the 'armed' check post, past the tiny road.

A little further down, they were stopped yet again in another 'army 'check post. This time they were wearing proper uniforms. They too wanted to search the vehicle. Search to see if the vehicle carried any things illegal. This time they didn't take the car keys, or asked for road tax etc.

This time my sister wanted to snap at them, so she did. 'There are people just few yards away seizing people's car keys and demanding 'road taxes'. Why are you even here trying to look as if you care?' And all she heard back was, 'There is nothing we can do. The ceasefire is still very much applicable in this part of the world. This is the season of 'ceasefires'.

So, my sister chewed some words between her cheeks, mumbled some in her own ears as the car drove along, in the dusty road, past the trees, past the white cloud, and past the stone mountains.

At this point my sister muted the microphone for a second.

My argumentative aunt broke the flow of the story, 'It only happens that way, if you take your personal vehicles. The businesses vehicles are fine (by which she means the buses, sumo's et. al). They let go of them. The passengers pay nothing as the Sumo (read vehicle) owners pay the road taxes'.

Thus, after few days, we hired a Tata Sumo and drove along- the same highway. The young driver was one busy man. He had to hump in and out of the vehicle at least 50 times. (Yes, I am exaggerating). That's approximately equivalent to the number of police/army/armed check posts we came across in the journey. Each check post cost him about Rs 50.00 to Rs. 100. At one time, he got off to pay his tribute to a check post to which he was told, 'Okay for today, pay a lump sum amount for one or two months when you can'. (Just so that he doesn't have to stop by every day. It's a nuisance really to stop the vehicle every one hour or so).

'Oh that's just one of the perks I get for being friendly with them', he declared with childish pride. Then he went on, 'I spend at least Rs 1,500.00 anyway on all these check post. So, going for reservation service (which is about Rs. 2,500.00) is actually a loss to me. I can take 12 passengers on board under a normal trip, each for Rs. 250.00. That way I can earn more money'.

This time, none of us said anything back to him, as the vehicle was covered in a thick cloud of dust that had entered the inside of the vehicle. Miles after miles, the metallic junk ventured fearlessly into the depth of the forest, in the rugged tiny road. It passed through breathtaking landscape, beautiful streams and places that looked so close to heaven. Just that this part of heaven was a little too dusty somehow.

Typical of this highway, one of the bridges was not in working condition. It never had been anyway. It was not strong enough for vehicles to pass through with the load of the passengers on board. It was something in the line of, 'Unload and cross at your own risk'.

So, we took the risk, crossed the bridge and drove past as fast as we can. Say at about 40 miles/hour. I was paranoid, as the curves of the road looked way too mysterious. And that other driver (who stopped for few seconds and chatted with ours as the two vehicles drove past each other) had eyes as red as fire. 'He probably is as high as a drunken horse' our young driver described.

'Drunk? Why would anyone drink and drive anyway, leave alone at a road like this?' I argued. But I quickly remembered, 'This is how most drivers drive in our place. Drivers and daru are like synonyms'. So, I shut up and continued with my lazy daze.

We had travelled enough for the day. Our body was becoming exhausted. It was almost 4.30 p.m in the evening and Jiribam is not too far away. Just when we turned one of the curves, we saw some people- some women, men, no children, sitting in the road side. And at a distance a toppled Tata Sumo and a bike became visible. They had collided somehow, and people were injured. There were people who needed urgent medical attention. They had been waiting for a vehicle to pass by so that they can ask for a lift. We had turned up at the right moment. We were the God sent Sumo.

We took few of them with us in the Sumo, and drove as fast as we can, in the National Highway No. 53 towards a place called Jiribam. We drove past the toppled vehicle, past the eager faces, past the beautiful mountains, towards the place where the sun was setting down in a maroon sky. To the place, where the injured got urgent medical attention, well not until the next one hour's time though. Indeed, highways are like lifelines of a Nation.

See accompanying gallery of pictures taken by the author.

* Yaiphabi Thoudam is a State native presently working in the UK. This short travelogue is the writer's personal experience of the trip she took while visiting Manipur during the month of Feruary 2009.
This article was webcasted at on 27th March 2009.

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