We dropped down from the sky on a sun-kissed Friday afternoon in November. Below us we saw fields and lakes in between the spurs of green giant-knees of mountains - and snaking rivers.
Our white bird pulled up on the tarmac of Imphal airport and we walked out into the warm air of a new land for Sheba, Asha and Enoch. It was one that I was returning to after 17 years.
We had boarded the plain through the gleaming airbridges of Kolkotta airport. Now we were walking down and out of the plane and over the tarmac to the cheery little aerodrome that serves the capital of Manipur was clear. There was no need for a bus to take us to the terminal - the plane had pulled up right in front of it. I wonder if there are more than 10 flights a day from this state-capital airport.
We were greeted by Jacob - my dear friend from the days in SHALOM. During my second stint I was staying with his uncle Lalremthang Tusing - in the same compound as his father Dr. Lalzukung Tusing. What a big smile and a bear hug I got! Being an officer with the Central Reserve Police Force - Jacob had access to the main hall and was right there.
As we entered the Terminal, a small sign stated that all foreigners should report to the foreigner registration desk. I knew that I had to make an appearance at least because of my european appearance. And sure enough, the officials were quizzical. But I had my magic document with me - a freshly renewed Indian passport - and after my Mere joothe hai Japani, mere patloon Englisthani, sir par lal topi Roosi, phir bhi dil hai Hindusthani spiel (my kids now react the same way I did when my Dad pulled that one out) - I was waved on with slighly amused looks by the powers to be.
And powers to be there certainly are.
As our jeep which Jacob had kindly arranged for us drove a high speed down national highway towards Churchandpur I saw something that I had almost forgotten. A heavily armed patrol of soldies - spead out in single file. Vigilant. A few kms away we passed another. Then another. Party after party of heavily armed soldiers / paramilitary on foot patrol. My memory of 17 years may be dimming, but I certainly don't remember seeing more than 3 at a stretch in those days. We must have past at least 8 patrols.
And along from the other direction come busses and minivans ferrying passengers from Moirang to Imphal and other points. The stream of traffic is punctuated by the occasional cavalcade of important people. Usually it starts with a white Maruti gypsy in front with the label 'Pilot' vehicle on it (with armed men inside of course). Then another 1 or 2 cars before a vehicle passes with a designation on it CM of Bishnupur, DM of Churachandpur or something of the sort - and then another 2-3 armed vehicles behind - all being driven at incredibly high speeds.
The golden afternoon sun. Its only 2 PM but if feels like 4. We are on the very eastern part of India - a nation very much in need of at least 2 if not 3 time zones.
And in between the sheer beauty of the central Manipur plains. Wide fields of rice ripening in the golden afternoon sun. The rim of green mountains dotted with villages climbing up their slopes. Each village with a football ground and a school. School children walking back from school, spilling out of gates, bright uniforms and beautiful smiles.
Our escorts - paramilitary folks in mufti - mention that the state is very underdeveloped. We see it from our quick recce. The markets are tiny. Small amounts of vegetables being sold. Tiny little mom and pop stores.
When we finally get to Churachandpur it seems to me that time has stood still. The same dinky houses. The same deserted streets at night. A few more concrete buildings - but not a 5-6 story building in sight. 17 years ago and today have not brought the difference that 2 years brings in Thane and the frenzy of buildings and malls that is the rest of India...
Absolute silence in the night. You can run a knife through the darkness. All shops boarded up by 7 PM. Hardly a soul on the streets. Totally, totally different from the madness of Thane at night.
And that's what it is right now. We continue to sip electricity from our hosts' inverters - power is a sporadic thing in these parts. And in the coldness of the dark starry night out side, we snuggle under soft Chinese blankets with books and sleep claiming our senses.
Its good to be home. More tomorrow.