Moreh – Surreal and Sparkling (2002)

Moreh – Surreal and Sparkling (2002)

He hangs a lantern on a hook suspended from the bamboo rafter above and disappears into the gloom.  The reluctant illumination reveals a freshly-washed dhoti spread on a charpoy. And then he re-emerges from the darkness with a small cloth parcel. With a flick of his wrist, he scatters the contents of the parcel on to the white dhoti. Thousands of glittering gems – mostly pink Mogok rubies, but also some emeralds and blue sapphires wink back at me in a blur of sparkles. I am mesmerised.I can hardly believe my eyes. The setting is surreal. Unfortunately, I did not have a camera on me then, thinking there would be nothing exciting to shoot in these boondocks on the edge of the earth! And these were days prior to the advent of the ubiquitous camera-phone.

Rowther scoops a handful of similar-sized rubies and arranges them into a necklace on the dhoti. “Take the lot, its only 6500” he says. He also tells me about Sonal Mansingh who had come recently – he mentioned an army helicopter, although I am not sure – and picked up gemstones worth more than a lakh of rupees.

I am in a bamboo and thatch cottage built on stilts somewhere in the marshy backstreets of Moreh, the border town in Manipur.  This is Rowther, a Tamil Muslim who has been a Moreh resident for over 40 years now and dabbles in everything from dosas to gems. Actually, I came to order a dosa at his roadside eatery, lured by a board in Tamil. The dosa is unremarkable, but our conversation is not. 

Rowther briefs me on the Tamil population in Moreh which numbers a few thousands. They even have five Tamil schools and an equal number of Tamil temples. They trade in ginger mostly, but also do a bit of smuggling on the side – mostly of Chinese blankets, thermos flasks, torches and the like, Then he asks me tentatively, what my business is and whether I would be interested in looking at some gems.  After my dinner, he leads me to his home, a three-storeyed thatch affair where his family and many kids occupy the lower two storeys and third storey doubles as a showroom with a single kerosene lamp for illumination.

I had travelled from Imphal to Moreh on a rickety Sumo crammed with a dozen other passengers, not mention baskets of fowl and bundles of clothes and household items. After a five and a half hour ride during which we are repeatedly stopped in numerous checkposts and our vehicle inspected with exasperating precision by all manner of uniformed men, at times from Assam Rifles, at times by the local police or BSF and god knows who else.  I had reached Moreh the very last town on the Indian side of the border.The border check post looked very much like those cattle gates in parks back home- a half swastika of concrete walls that would make it impossible for a cow to pass through, but would let in humans easily.  There was a counter in the no man’s land where I had to first obtain a day pass to Burma – it was not yet called Myanmar those days. The pass cost me whole ten rupees. 

There were tuktuks waiting to ferry you to the village. Burmese girls with high cheek bones draped in drab sarongs squeeze together in the tuktuk and we were rattling our way to Tamu town – through paddy fields and banana plantations. Tamu is an undistinguished border town.  I had  shot some pictures of a distant pagoda on the hill, gawked with awe at the 29 jewellery shops – that was the number I had counted, there could be more –  in this tiny town, admiring their ruby bracelets and rings.  I had even bought a pair of ruby earrings set in gold, the only purchase that my meagre wallet allowed.  And returned in the evening  to Moreh to my lodge to stay the night. Imphal is 5 hours away by road and I would need to start early the next day.

Everything about this trip seems surreal.  The Tamil population came here during the Second World War. Others were traders from Penang in Malaysia who during wartime, evacuated their town and undertook the most arduous foot journey all the way through the jungles of Burma, but decided to go no further when they crossed the border.  Over the years, they got entrenched into Manipuri landscape, building their own temples, schools and clubs.  Garishly painted Aiyyanars  guard the entrance to a temple and brightly painted assorted gods and goddesses perched on gopurams.

As i gape longingly at the gems, Rowther suggests I go back to Imphal and arrange the money and come back, if I liked.  I take his leave reluctantly, but am not sure if I’d make the trip again. This has remained an unfinished journey.

(published as a chapter in my book titled The Travel Gods must be crazy)