Roads, Public Transport and Life in Mountainous Northern India

Written by Heid Jerstad

The brake-screeching and flinging-of-the-bus-around-corners school of driving is made much of by those new to it, but for most passengers this is no more than the gentle massage of the road, especially if you have a seat. The speed bumps between Chandigarh and Paonta Sahib seem like a somewhat misguided innovation, especially given the many natural undulations in the road which encourage slow driving. But after all, in undulating parts of South Asia roads are a relatively recent phenomenon and for those who have been used to having roads around, the provision of these in places where there have been none is, I would claim, life-changing. The access a road provides compared to walking and the speed of motorised vehicles compared to the bullock-cart (itself requiring at least a track) shortens old journeys and makes possible many new ones. Mules and donkeys are used for moving milk cans and rocks, not for riding (I think this goes for yaks as well).

Women carry bundles of fodder (dry grass, leafy branches or green weeds) on the easy flat roads. Children dawdle home from school. Older men sit around and smoke bidis (small pungent cigarettes) and read newspapers, keeping an eye out for what is going past. Young men haul impossibly huge bundles of blankets, cloth for women’s suits or steel utensils up the ladders to dump them on the roof of the bus. These peddlers take the shop to the village, so women too busy with milking buffaloes and fetching water can spread out the wares in their courtyards and consider and bargain at leisure, amid much discussion of whether the cloth is from Saharunpore, Dehradun or further afield (the further the peddler has gone to get it, the more value attached). There is enough regularity that women will not plan to go into town, saying they will buy cloth for the next wedding or spring festival from a peddler.

There is a sense of humanity along the road as the bus waits for those rushing behind (though complaints about how the bus will be ‘late’ from the conductor in chivvying people onboard – ‘sit down!’ he shouts optimistically at those slow to board when there are no spare seats), unlike bus culture in somewhere like Oslo where the bus will sail on past if you are not actually at the bus stop and sticking out your arm. Ladies are given priority, especially ladies with babies. A lady stopped a goods car and wrinkled her nose at space in the back (outside, where you stand, full of men) and a young man in a red checked shirt got out to make space for her. You can’t tell who is on the roof until the shadow shows up on the rocky side of the road and there are the shadows of the men sitting up there. I did it once on a goods transport car – amazing view – but I’d like to go on the roof of a bus one day. Maybe when travelling with a male relative.

Ribbon development – which my mum explained to me at an unscheduled overnighting in Belgrade – means that when you build a road people set up shop and build houses along it. Dehradun seems structured along these lines, and the patch of protected wilderness on the Delhi-Dehradun road highlights the degree to which roads all around populous mountain areas are regularly lined with clusters of built-up areas neither village nor town  and postdating the road. As mountain villages predate roads the effects of a road can be irregularly felt. A house which was well situated with regards to fields, the temple and water can become remote with the building of a road far from it. Roads in the hills encroach less on fields than they increase the general steepness quotient – to be flat they require an approximation of a cliff above and below. Thus they erode the possibility of a path crossing the road in another direction and funneling movement through the road itself. Those cases where there is flat space level with (on the drop side) the road are the result of landslides – roads slowly move the mountain down (along with the extensive mining/quarrying – the explosions of which sound like thunder from ‘my’ village). Building pakka (cement) hotels and shops can be risky, as there is less of a bedrock on these steep slopes below the road and more of a mass of undecided earth and rocks. The alternative is to carve out a chunk of the hill above the road, creating an even higher cliff behind the building.

Buses and the regular cars (which carry crates of tomatoes and other goods in the open back) operate as a postal service too, taking milk to town to sell, a packet of cloth from a brother to his married sister, a toy for a child. People wait out by the road on the drivers side and he reaches down to somewhere near his feet to pluck out what was sent for them, or says no, I don’t have that, it must be on another bus. Village families send soured buttermilk (lassi) to relatives in town in large plastic bottles (like the ones the driver keeps an emergency stock of petrol in). This morning I got up early to send 350 rs for the sewing of a Jaunsari dress (reminiscent of English late Victorian) with our local car – the driver is to meet with the shopkeeper who will interface with the tailor I gave the fabric to. Then when the car comes back in the afternoon I’ll go up to the road again to pick up the finished item (blouse and heavy long skirt). All you need is a person at the other end who will pick the thing up, and even then chances are that if you have the drivers number you’ll get whatever it was back if not picked up.

There are fewer buses in wedding season – they are hired to take the groomsparty to fetch the bride – but they are remarkably prompt and regular. The green and white HPTC government buses are more comfortable than the private ones (more cushiony seating, a bar to rest your feet on), except the deluxe type which frequent very particular routes – Rishikesh to Dharamsala, Delhi to Jaipur. These latter are very various, some terribly shabby and with shiny patches where the seat cover has worn through and some which incline well. These will stop for meals and loo breaks at fancy fast food spots or upmarket dhabas (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms – I mean cleanish and not openly doubling as a brothel).

The bus is an enabler, for married women to visit their natal home, for young people, husbands and (rarely) wives to study and work elsewhere, for shopping and pilgrimage and to hospitals to have operations and babies. And there would be no bus without the road, no matter how basic or worn down by the mining trucks. New roads are being carved out of the soft clay with tractors to connect up more villages and hamlets, though the coverage is still incomplete. People strap fridges to their backs and trek up the steep winding path from the road, or half-carry an old man with a broken arm to where the ambulance can drive to in the middle of the night.

Soft white choking dust comes in the windows of the bus. The warmth of many bodies in winter translates to slipperiness of handholds in summer. During the monsoon the constant risk of landslides and actually having to walk keeps things interesting. On the plains perhaps the mud could bog a vehicle down. In the heat the movement gives a pleasant breeze (which coats and lines you with black particles), it is only when stopping (for the driver to have a glass of refreshing sugarcane juice, for instance) that the heat hits home. Petrol pumps are few and far between – petrol prices are said to be rising, but then they just went down by one rupee yesterday (16th April).

The bus is a new kind of public space – sometimes tragically so – but a low level of harassment goes on both on roads and in buses. A man may walk past and say ‘hello’ in a low voice, but be gone too quickly for you to slap him. A young man in a pale turquoise t-shirt moved to sit next to my friend and was quietly asking her what she was from and what her name was. On the face of it, pretty innocent stuff. But it she didn’t like it and it made me uncomfortable and get that powerless feeling that comes when this happens to me. Since it wasn’t happening to me I was able to disapprove of the conductor sitting just ahead and not saying anything, and loudly advise the young man that there were free seats in the back (the bus was half-empty). He immediately scuttled away to the front of the bus, and the conductor laughingly commented to my friend that I had scared him pretty badly. Trying to think about what I could have said that would have been constructive (in the UK it could have been something about joining a sport or hobby to meet girls) the only thing I could think of was ‘shaadi kar lo!’ – ‘get married!’ Ideas?

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Learning to Sing-Speak in Nagaland

By Michael Heneise,


IN MY FIRST REAL lesson in the Tenyidie language, my tutor suggested I drop my jaw a bit  while saying the word merü.

“Use the lowest tone on the final ‘ü’”, she said, “otherwise you’re saying ‘I am vomiting’ or perhaps something else.”

I assumed merü, unlike dzü (which has something like eight meanings) was one of the safer words in my limited Tenyidie vocabulary. However, depending on how one directs the last vowel, one might unknowingly say ‘hope’, ‘axe’ or ‘breast’. ‘Hungry’ was what I meant to say, but ‘vomit’, it seems to me, is what I have been saying – nonchalantly – since I first took an interest in the language back in 2002.

Sung-spoken by about 140,000 people throughout the south-western areas of what is presently the Indian State of Nagaland, Tenyidie is one of the more developed languages among a whole host of distinct Naga languages spoken by communities that inhabit the mountains along the India /Myanmar border. And like most tonal languages it poses some very unique challenges for learners unaccustomed to controlling intonation in every syllable of every word.

“I want you to learn these five tones…are you familiar with Sol-Fa?” she asked, taking a short notebook and carefully drawing a series of symbols and labelling them with various solfeggio indicators.

/ = Sol (high tone)

˅ = Fa (mid-rising tone)

˗  = Mi (mid-tone)

˄ = Re (low-falling tone)

\ = Sol1 (low tone)

“Yes, sure,” I said. I had spent the first two years of college studying ‘moveable Do’ – a type of solfeggio that was useful in analysing the tonality and structure of a piece of music as one could shift ‘Do’ to a new tonic every time the piece modulated into that new key. “Well, I’ll give it a try,” I said confidently.

“Ā mêrǜ báté”, she said. “Say it once, slowly”

“Ah mehrrrr-uh bawww…teh”, I managed to get out.

“Ok, you are still saying ‘I am vomiting’. Try to reach for your lowest tone on the ‘ü’ here.”

I quickly learned that this was not so much ‘moveable do’ as a system of tonal relationships that covered the full vocal range in just five general registers, and ‘fa’ and ‘re’ were sliding tones.

“Ah mehr..” At this point I reached for my inner ‘Commendatore’ (the creepy ghost guy at the end of Mozart’s Don Giovanni), and just slid down from the r to the funky ‘ü’ sound – a sort of nasal schwa. If I recall correctly, the umlaut was a bit of a compromise as the early American missionaries that reduced the oral language to the Latin text had no equivalent in English.

In any event, my tutor seemed quite happy with the operatic exaggeration, and was quite pleased to go to the next phrase.

“Bazo! Good! You sound like a native speaker now!”

Over the months, I have gradually mustered enough confidence to just exercise my Tenyidie around the neighbourhood – with the children, adults, and any passers-by. Most seem quite happy to play along, and do their best to stick to easy words in a quick exchange.

“Nô rēmà?” I’ll say often. It’s one of my absolute favourites, as it elicits an immediate response from anyone, and quite simply means ‘you are out and about!’ It is also a simple ‘Do-Re-Sol’ tune…the traditional bell chime at the top of the hour (minus the first ‘Mi’ tone, of course).

One of the areas of interest to me as a social anthropologist is the way language is used in relationship to space. I recall a gentleman telling me he can communicate with his daughter simply by whistling the tones of the syllables he would employ in normal speach. Sure enough – and to his daughter’s disappointment – he asked her to make tea for him by simply whistling a simple tune from another room. He suggested hunters would communicate in a similar way when they were spread out and perhaps closing in on unsuspecting prey.

More-to-the-point, however, Tenyidie seems closely linked to the spatiality of the traditional village. In Angami areas, as is true among many other Naga communities, villages are traditionally set up in defensible positions relative to their surroundings. This spatio-linguistic link – if I may call it that – is somewhat lost in the neighbouring Kohima Town – the administrative centre of the State. This is due to its entirely ‘random’ layout across an uneven topography of ridges and mountainsides with no clear centre or point of reference.

When a person visits a neighbour in the village, for instance, he or she will greet everyone on the road with the phrase ‘on my way’ but stated in such a way as to specify the traveller’s trajectory at any specific stage in the journey (unless he or she meets close kin on the road – in which case they would be more precise). Here are a few examples of ‘on my way’ phrases that would be said to random acquaintances one meets on the road:

–          Vâpuô hākîâ kiétuò (‘I’m going’ [downhill , some distance] )

–          Vâpuô hākîâ lêtuô (‘I’m going’ [downhill, close by])

–          Vâpuô hākîâ khótuò (‘I’m going’ [uphill, some distance])

–          Vâpuô hākîâ pâtuô (‘I’m going’ [uphill, close by])

–          Vâpuô hākîâ phiêtuò (‘I’m going’ [straight, over there – as in, not downhill or uphill])

There are also words for ‘sideways, just there’; ‘sideways, down there’, and so on. If you are not traveling, but are just sitting in your courtyard, you would expect to hear exactly in what direction people are headed. You yourself would greet a passer-by by describing what you are doing at that very moment: ‘hello-brushing my teeth’; ‘hello – combing my hair’; ‘hello-eating rice and pork’; ‘hello- having an argument with my child’ – all examples I have heard used in the two or three seconds’ time one makes eye contact with a passer-by.

As I continue to stumble along, ‘sing-speaking’ my way through tutorials and around my neighbourhood in the village, I am also quite cognisant of the fact that it will take me many years to feel confident enough to converse freely the way I can in English or Spanish. In the meantime, however, I’ll just keep my notebook with words, phrases and accompanying musical notes, and try to sing-speak precisely what I mean.

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