Travel: Exploring India’s little-known Assam

Cycle rickshaws at Mangaldai, Assam
Cycle rickshaws at Mangaldai, Assam
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Far away from tourist hotspots, author Anjali Joseph finds the wonder in aimless wandering of small, overlooked, towns in Assam, India

Mangaldoi,” said my landlord in Guwahati, Assam. “But why Mangaldoi, of all places?” Since our first meeting, when he asked me, only half in jest, if I was a terrorist, and I, in apologetic explanation of my eccentricity in moving to Assam and wanting to live in his apartment alone, proffered a copy of my first novel, my landlord and landlady, both retired doctors, have grown to be fond of me and my peculiarities.

Anjali Joseph in front of a fairground ride, Kolhapur

Anjali Joseph in front of a fairground ride, Kolhapur

I didn’t know a lot about Mangaldoi before I went there. I knew it was about 60 kilometres from Guwahati; a while earlier, I’d met a young doctor who had been stationed there, which he wasn’t particularly enjoying; and, my friend Pratyush told me, the bakery chain Repose, popular in Guwahati, had its factory in Mangaldoi. In Guwahati, Repose is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, which somehow makes it sound both more relaxing and more frequently available than mere rest.

I had a friend staying. In the morning, we threw a few things in a couple of small bags, and set off. I’d thought we might try to find a cab. No no, said the auto rickshaw driver. Take the bus. He dropped us at Macckhowa ghat bus station. Not long after, the bus crossed the Brahmaputra via the Saraighat suspension bridge, a moment that always brings a sense of occasion. We went through North Guwahati, past small road-side restaurants, and into the countryside. After some time, around Sipajhar, the landscape became radiantly beautiful: autumn sun lit up golden fields and flashed on oblong fish ponds.

In Mangaldoi, a small, dusty town filled with candy coloured bungalows and low-rise buildings, we went to what the internet seemed to think was the only hotel. It was full. We went to another, smaller one. The desk clerk looked surprised, even suspicious. Two girls asking for two rooms? What could they be up to? There was one room. We could share it. In the hotel restaurant, we ordered Assamese thali – and it was good. I looked around at the other patrons, and realised they were either men who’d come in largish groups to drink and gamble, and/or men who were there with women who weren’t their wives, but whom they would, when their drinking schedule permitted, drunkenly cajole. All well and good. What should we go and see?

I asked the desk clerk. Go to Khatara satra, he said. Satras (pronounced more like xotros) are Vaishnavite monasteries established according to the teachings of the 15th and 16th century saint Sankardev (or Xonkordeb). Born in the middle of the 15th century, he lived for almost 120 years, and changed the face of Assamese Hinduism and culture by introducing the practice of singing devotional songs to Krishna as the main form of worship, rather than goddess worship that included ritual and animal sacrifice. He also invented a host of art forms, including dance, theatre, and songs, all of which remain important parts of Assamese culture today. Khatara satra isn’t that far from Mangaldoi, but, the taxi driver said while we haggled about how much to pay him, the roads were bad. Just a second later, the desk clerk from our hotel appeared on his motorbike. He’d come out just to help us negotiate the rate.

The drive to the satra might have been the most beautiful part of the visit. The roads were tiny, not always concreted, and wiggled between fields, walled gardens, and houses in small villages in the last, golden light of afternoon. Colours were vivid; all the scenery was careless with beauty. And yet it wasn’t a sight I could have directed anyone to. It was just there, on the way to another very minor sight.

At the satra, we walked under a grand gate, then into the pillared prayer hall, looked around a little, came out, met a rather indignant calf waiting for its owner, and crossed the road to have some tea. I took a cup out to the taxi driver. This is bad tea, he said gracelessly. When I looked at him, he growled, What? You think it’s good, do you?

But as we drank tea, the teashop owner came over to ask if we’d seen the ‘mandir’ (temple) inside the satra. I was a bit confused; many satras have no idols at all. No no, he insisted: there’s a mandir inside. Did you see the inside room? No, I said. He called over to a passing man in white dhoti, kurti, gamusa: one of the priests at the satra. These people have come from Guwahati, he said. You have to show them the mandir.

The priest said he would be back in a little while. Agile, he swung a leg over his bicycle and pedalled off. We sat on, drinking tea, watching evening set. The owner of the calf, a young girl, came and fetched her charge. The calf, who’d been throwing a tantrum, mooing and charging around, calmed down at once and was led away.

After some time, probably enough for the priest to have gone home, had a bath and eaten dinner, he reappeared and took us across the road. At the back of the new, rebuilt satra hall was a locked room. We went in and the priest lit lamps around an altar where there were doll-like images of Ram and Sita. We said a few prayers and were on our way.

Strangely, the enforced wait seemed to have sweetened the temper of the taxi driver, who made sardonic but friendly conversation with me as we returned to the town in darkness, passing the very large, illuminated Repose outlet redolent with the smell of vanilla and baking. We did not visit it. But we did repose.

Why do I like visiting smaller places, in this impromptu, almost accidental way? There can be a sweetness and innocence to the types of encounters, the kinds of pleasures that these trips offer. Destination towns have in place a machinery by which one must appreciate them; nothing you will do there will be new, and in a way, the whole experience can be quite forgettable.

There’s little friction between you, the traveller, and the place. Aimless wandering in small towns is different. In Maharashtra, the other side of the country from Assam, I visited Kolhapur and Miraj, one a small city that feels like a mid-sized town, and the other a charming, courtly town filled with shops that make the instruments used in Hindustani classical music. I was doing research for my third novel, in which one of the two narrators makes the traditional Kolhapuri chappal, a handsewn sandal. The research had its own satisfactions, but the trips were also attended by the same feeling with which I’d gone to Mangaldoi: a willingness to drop much attempt to control things, an attitude that in itself has so often invited serendipity and kindness; and the ability to be easily pleased, amused, interested, or touched.

On these trips I find myself entering a charmed state in which wonder is close at hand, whether brought by a surprisingly good, home-style lunch eaten in a nameless tiny restaurant that I go to on the recommendation of a rickshaw driver, by spending a quiet afternoon sitting in the shade of a Muslim saint’s tomb in a small town, or taking by chance a tiny turning off a small road to find a temple in a cucumber field, and near it, a well whose pump is gurgling under open skies.

This release from the usual push-and-pull of cause and effect, from the apparent need to try to get somewhere, is the gift of small town travel.

• The Living by Anjali Joseph is published by 4th Estate, at £12.99, available now