Despite the State: Lalhlimpuii and all those like her

Six years on, I cannot forget Lalhlimpuii.

It was March, 2015. I had reached Lunglei, the second biggest town in the north-eastern state of Mizoram, the previous evening. The plan was to stay here for a couple of days, visit villages to gauge how the state government’s flagship rural development project, something called the New Land Use Policy, is working.

An inverse correlation holds in India. The farther one goes from administrative centres, the more weakly the state functions. And so, I wanted to travel out for twenty or so kilometres before starting at stop at villages. Which meant I needed an auto-rickshaw. In these interior reaches, I need to do my interviews in Mizo. And so, what I really needed was an auto-rickshaw with a driver who speaks English and can double up as a translator.

The first auto I meet the next morning, while walking to the auto stand, is driven by a tall, fair young man nearing thirty. We are still struggling to understand each other when he abruptly waves me into his rickshaw. I do. He putters off, drives for a couple of minutes and then stops in front of a wooden house and gestures: I should follow him in.

Like most houses in Mizoram, this house stands off the road on stilts driven into the hillside. As I will find, his in-laws live on the first floor – which, given the steepness of the slope, is almost level with the road. For now, I walk down the steps to the left and enter the house of Pu Lalchhanhima, the young man, and Pi Lalhlimpuii, his wife. These are early days for me in Mizoram. And so, while the two talk, I look around.

A large central room that contains a dining table, sofas and a cooking area running along the wall to my left. And beyond it, a bedroom. The house is messy in a way houses with a young kid are.

The two finish talking. Lalhlimpuii turns to me and asks me to explain again what I want – she studied in a convent and her english is immaculate. I do my spiel. I am a reporter. From Delhi. I am here to understand how land use policy is working. I need to go to a village twenty kilometres and I need help with translation.

She helps me and Pu Chhana, as his nickname goes, identify a village. And then turns to me again. We have never done anything like this before and so, she says, her husband will go ask a neighbour what to charge and, in the meantime, have I had breakfast?

She is pregnant and so, she settles down at the dining table a tad gingerly. We eat while I ask her about life in Lunglei. And then, Pu Chhana comes back. He and Lalhlimpuii chat a bit. And then she turns to me and says: “Our neighbour says we should charge Rs 400 one way. But that will be Rs 800 and that is too much. Can you give us Rs 600?”

She also wakes up her brother, a freshly-minted postgraduate in economics from Mizoram University, who agrees to come along and translate. The three of us head to Vanhne village, located on the ridge running parallel to Lunglei, with Lalmuanpuia and me chatting about his plan to set up a food processing company because he wants to do something for his people.

That was the first month of what would become a 33 month long journey across India, living in and reporting from six starkly different states of India in a bid to refamiliarise myself with the country — and eventually culminate in Despite the State.

“That will be Rs 800 and that is too much. Can you give us Rs 600?” I am unable to forget that interaction, not because it was an outlier. It wasn’t. Through my travels, I received nothing but trust and generosity from those I met.

And so, this page. On the people of India.

Who are they, these people, in whose name television anchors, politicians and assorted members of India’s moronic commentariat push their worldviews and agendas? They get called the ‘nation’, the ‘aam aadmi (common man)’ — deliberately broad labels that obscure the incredible heterogeneity of the country, per ethnicity, religion, caste, class, not to mention their quotidian struggles and goodness, and make it easier for the State to reduce them to boilerplate categories that serve its ends, not to mention help it evade questions on how its policies affect individuals.

And so, on this page, some of the folks I met while tramping around.