The bright blue rubber floor was empty at the Hawla Indoor Stadium.
Situated roughly in the center of Aizawl, Mizoram, the stadium’s court was drenched from the intense 90-minute practice. Soaked to the skin, the Zarkawt BC players huddled at one end. Just two seasons removed from avoiding relegation into a lower division, the team was now a step away from a potential championship - their maiden trophy.
The next day they would be taking on Tiukual South BC in the finals of the Mizoram Super League (MSL) - India’s first professional basketball league.
I stood at the centre of the court and looked all around me. I could almost hear the chants, see the excited faces, and feel the incredible energy that I had only seen on Youtube videos so far.
Like the thousands in the city, I couldn’t wait.
As a travelling writer and certified basketball junkie, my family acquaintances worried all the time, “How will you make money?!” I could only ever grin and deflect this seemingly well-intentioned query which actually tore me up from inside. ‘Why am I doing what I do?’
I needed reaffirmation, and my answer would lie eastwards, in India’s remotest state of Mizoram.
Getting to Aizawl, involved taking a three-hour flight to Guwahati, then a bus ride just as long to Shillong, and another 17-hour bus drive through hilly terrain, on narrow, dusty, crumbling, back-breaking roads to Aizawl. It is, by any measure of endurance, a tiring journey.
A journey that, I would learn a week later, was worth making for the story that unfolds ahead.
North East India is enthralling because it is different from the rest of the country. The people, the culture, the couture, the cuisine and the topography.
The capital city of Mizoram is situated on a steep ridge with houses sprouting up haphazardly, seemingly one on top of the other.
“Aizawl is weird that way dude,” says Raymond Colney, an aspiring local filmmaker, and one who calls the city, home. “Usually people construct houses in the valleys. Here they built them on top of the hills to prevent attacks from rival tribes/kingdoms.”
Young men, children and women carrying their babies in colourful cloth sheets securely wrapped around their backs, populate the streets. A series of shops, medical stores and tiny restaurants rounding up the only easily accessible commercial establishments.
I took a cab from the local bus stand - a Maruti 800, the most common car on the city’s roads. The driver, a skinny young chap with crooked teeth, was wearing a NBA star, Dwayne Wade’ Miami Heat T-shirt.
He didn’t speak a word of English or Hindi.
We inched our way into the heart of the city. Our cab joined a series of other identical Maruti 800s that were in perfect alignment one behind the other. Meanwhile, scooters and bikes whizzed past on the inner lanes. Despite the bumper to bumper traffic, there was an eerie quiet thanks to a no honking policy voluntarily followed by the people of Aizawl.
The cabbie broke the silence.
“You want smoke?”
“Naah man I don’t smoke.”
“You want girls?”
“Just take me to Zarkawt.”