As I enter Meghalaya, it lives up to its reputation. There are clouds everywhere. One moment the views are clear to the far valleys. The next moment they are shrouded in fog. Trees weaves in and out of the fog. A quick shower gives way to brighter weather. The moods are changing all the time. For weather buffs, there will never be a moment of boredom in the Abode of the Clouds.
The journey to Jowai, the only significant town other than Shillong, is slow and uncomfortable. I have just entered Meghalaya but I am convinced that Shillong is the only place that has seen some development in this state. I buy a bus ticket at Badarpur but the fellow is a middleman. He takes me in an auto-rickshaw to a turning where we wait for any bus going to Guwahati. Though there are seats in the bus, they are meant for passengers to Guwahati. I have to either pay twice as much or sit uncomfortably in the cabin. I prefer to stand instead. This irritates the conductor but I can’t be bothered. I sat for a while at the back but the roads are so bad that it is an open invitation to spinal injuries.
Indeed the route to Jowai is treacherous. An oil tanker has gone off the road and is careened on a slope few yards from the road. Ten men and a crane are attempting to get it back on the road. Later I see a lorry collapsed by the roadside, its metal mangled in many ways. The paints have peeled off and the framework rusted. The lorry has been here for quite some time. It will probably not make it to the scrapyard. It will probably waste here for years and wait for nature to do her clean up. Later in the journey I find a bridge collapsed into a river below. Thankfully there is a newer bridge for us to cross. Down below in the river is a truck lying alongside fragments of the bridge. More than half of the truck is submerged in the river. Its wheels are pointing to the sky in a last desparate measure to find asphalt. It is a simple case of overloading the bridge.
Jowai is a pretty town. It is neither too big nor too small. It has that ambience of a market town bordering surrounding tribal villages. It provides the passing traveller with good food and decent accommodation. The streets are clean and the people well-dressed. In replies to my questions, I find that people are more comfortable speaking in English than in Hindi. Old buses ply on the streets. Taxis are common for local commuting. Children play in the evenings on small playgrounds at street corners. When Sunday comes, almost every house displays long lines of washed laundry swinging in the breeze and the warming sun.
The houses of Jowai are delightful. Since the people of Meghalaya are mostly Christians, the architecture has been influenced by the early missionaries. The colonial touch is to be seen in entrance porches, verandahs, gables or decorated eaves. The colours are tasteful and befit the coolness of its hilly climate – muted pinks, fresh greens, bright blues and dark maroons. These houses are not just a matter of cultural curiosity. I can very well imagine living in them. I can imagine reading a book sitting on a rocking-chair in the verandah as the afternoon sun slants the shadows on these wooden boards. I can imagine watching little water drops clinging on to old glass window panes as it rains outside. I can smell the woodsmoke in the kitchen as a pot of porridge is cooked for dinner.
Saturday evening is a busy day for the town’s main market. Almost anything can be obtained here but I find that fruits are limited in range. Dried fish of all varieties is typically local. It is not something I find in Bangalore. Some women are selling rain covers made of cane and dried leaf. Such rain covers are worn in paddy fields to keep head and back dry.
‘How much is this?’ I ask one of the vendors as I take a picture of the scene.
‘Sixty rupees,’ she replies with a smile. She probably knows that I’m not going to buy one but is amused by my curiosity.
By seven in the evening, the vendors pack up their stuff. Either on their own or with the help of porters, the unsold goods are carried back to their villages. As darkness settles, the market falls into silence. It stays that way for all of Sunday.
It is difficult to find shops opening up on a Sunday. It is a day of rest for all Christians. Worse still, I find the ATMs in town empty of cash. I have to make do with just five hundred rupees. That’s for today’s meals and my way up to Shillong. At quarter past seven this morning I visit a local church for the Sunday morning service. It is quite a sight. At such an early hour, the service has already begun. The church is packed and spilling over. People are standing in the side aisles, in the entrance porch and in the forecourt outside. Families turn up well-groomed, neat and crisp for the service. Men are in neatly ironed trousers and polished shoes. Women wear fine traditional dresses or modern suits. Girls in little red shoes and white frocks, looking almost like angels, come to church without any fuss.
Youngsters and old folks alike, everyone is listening intently to the proceedings. I sit on a railing outside and watch. Most people bring their own books. What they bring is probably not the Bible but some sort of a book of psalms, hymns or prayers. They join in chorus when led by the pastor in song. The service is in local tongue. I don’t understand a word of it. I sit outside for half an hour, take a picture and move on.
A common dress among women in Meghalaya appears to be a checkered cloth wrapped around the body with a long running slit on one side. It is knotted on the open side at the shoulder and sometimes at the waist as well. The design is always checkered and extremely plain. The cloth is perhaps useful in carrying things at the back. I have seen even babies carried in it. It is wrapped over a top blouse and a bottom sarong, both of which are more elaborate in fabric and design.
I take a shared taxi to Ialong Park. It is quite a distance but I pay only ten rupees to get to the village. From here, it is a lovely morning walk to the park through a winding deserted road. I have never seen hills so green as in these parts around Jowai. The hills are mostly covered with woods but sometimes a green clearing breaks the monotony. A brown path slopes through such green pastures and disappears into the thick woods. The hills are inviting. One can spend an entire week walking these hills without getting enough of their beauty.
Ialong Park is located on a hill. The park itself is not all that interesting but the views from it are magnificent. The most enduring view from here is of the Myntdu Valley, named after the river that flows through it. The river meanders gently, comes to the base of Ialong Park, takes a sharp turn, winds away between plots of green cultivated fields before disappearing between ranges of hills. Fields are separated by grassy bunds. Where pastures take over from paddy fields, cattle and goats graze freely.
If I had previously thought that Arunachal Pradesh was heaven, I am having to revise my statement after such a scene at Ialong Park. Arunachal is home to magnificent mountain scenes but mountains are difficult places to inhabit. They are untamed and dangerous. Mountains remind us of human frailities. Heaven on the other hand is a place of repose, calm and quietness. It is a place of bliss with nothing to trouble the mind. At Ialong Park we have the union of nature’s grandeur and man’s cultivated beauty.
I thing I will climb down from the hill to the other side, enter Myntdu Valley and walk by the river all the way to Syntu Ksiar. From there it is a short climb back to Jowai town. Just outside the boundary fence of the park are stone standing in loose groups. Some stones are laid flat while others stand around it like dwarapalakas. At times, I think they are like altars. More commonly, I think they are evidence of ancestor worship. They are some sort of primitive cenotaphs. These ruins are quite historic, perhaps even prehistoric. There is no one around to point out the facts about them. Meanwhile Myntou Valley beckons from below.
I descend through the woods. The sound of cicadas pierce the air. If not for these little fellows of the insect kingdom, there might have been an absolute silence in these woods. The cicadas seem to proclaim with their calls their supremacy. Their combined calls bring the woods alive. By chance I spot one of them on a tree trunk, just three inches long. Its call breaks out. It starts as short shrill pulses. Short bursts of sound are interlinked with pauses as each sound dies out. As the call continues to increase in volume, the pauses are shortened and the sounds lengthened. Soon the cicada gives its everything to reach a high cresendo. It wants to be heard above everyone else. Without a break in breath its call reaches a pinnacle. It suddenly falls silent and flies off. Soon a new call breaks out somewhere. Is it the same cicada? Is it a beautiful call or simply a noise of the forest? Perhaps, the beauty of a cicada’s call comes from its place within the cacophony of sounds that make up the voice of the woods.
The walk by the river to Syntu Ksiar is heavenly. Paddy fields bring freshness of colour on both banks of the river. I pass about thirty workers in an enclosure. They are plucking shoots of paddy from neatly laid beds. The workers are women, little girls and boys. No one understands Hindi or English. Their initial stares give way to delightful smiles. To my every question, they make some comment amongst themselves and burst into laughter. I am the laughing stock.
‘What are these? Paddy?’ I ask.
A man who is supervising the group responds, ‘This is a paddy nursery. We are going to plant them in the fields.’ He points to fields some distance away.
‘How old are these?’ I ask pointing to the saplings.
‘About a week to ten days.’
I try to take pictures of the workers but they are shy. The girls hide their faces while their companions laugh away. I thank them and move on. A little later I pass a shelter where a man is shredding and cutting bamboo into little strips.
‘What do you do with these?’ I ask. One thing I have found in my travels is that curiosity about local cultures is always rewarded. I have learnt something in every interaction. Locals are always open to sharing what they know. It is not often that someone takes interest in the little things they do.
‘This is used in the paddy fields,’ he tells me while continuing to split the bamboo. He looks up and explains, ‘Helps to keep the paddy straight.’
I look around. A dog is looking up at me with interest but without threat. Two other villagers are sitting around. One of them has unloaded a basketload of paddy saplings. I take a look at this wonderfully constructed wicker basket. On the wall hangs a fishing trap made of cane. Then I spot a wicker rain cover I had seen in the market at Jowai. I try it on. The workers are amused. I pull out my Sony-Ericsson mobile, slide the lens open and teach one of the men how to snap a picture. He learns the simple process. All he has to do is to press the button and hold the camera still. I pose with the rain cover. A snap is taken. It comes out well.
The villagers open up to my curiosity. One of them brings out more such items woven out of cane. He shows me different types of fishing traps. I look at a basket for storing fish. Next the guy demonstrates another device with a winnowing action. More rain covers are brought out. I admire them all. I thank them and take my leave.
A little later I pass workers in the field planting the paddy saplings. A portion of the field is reserved for the nursery. Two men are pulling out the saplings. Two others carry them in baskets to other workers who plant them in neat lines.
‘How long does it take to mature?’ I ask one of them. He doesn’t reply. He doesn’t understand my question. I walk around the field by the hard bunds and repeat my question to another group of workers.
‘Four months,’ replies a guy who knows a little English. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Tourist,’ I reply. I have learnt that this is one word that does a lot of magic in Meghalaya. You don’t have to explain yourself. People know what it means and will welcome you with a smile.
As I continue my walk by the river I see lots of people fishing along its banks. There are tents or makeshift shelters. For some it is perhaps a weekend affair. They set up camp and perhaps spend the entire weekend in this relaxed manner. A group is starting a small fish. A pot is laid ready in this open air kitchen. Fishing rods with line in wait curve towards the river with expectation. I take a seat under an umbrella next to Ricko.
‘You like fishing?’ I ask him.
‘Yes. My father got me into it. He is too busy these days but I come here often.’
‘Caught any today?’ I ask.
‘Nothing yet,’ he tells. ‘I got one right here yesterday. It is my lucky spot.’ Meanwhile, he attaches a fresh bait to the hook and throws out the line. The bait is some sort of a paste, thick and red.
‘What’s this? You get this in the market?’ I ask about the bait.
‘No. This is something I make myself. It is a combination of many things. Atta, channa…’ he goes into an elaborate description of the bait. It smells a bit like old-style pinkish chewing gums I used to relish in my childhood days.
‘Yes, the smell is an important aspect of the paste. It is a secret,’ tells Ricko.
‘What do you do?’
‘I am doing Automobile Engineering. I will be finishing this year. Then I will go to Kolkata for training,’ Ricko explains. He offers me some paan masala but I decline. All across India, without excepting the North East, there are two things in the countryside that reinforces the brotherhood of men – paan and beedi. They have the power of make friends out of strangers and conversation out of silence. I have always missed out on this experience. I have to only blame my good habits.
There is a ripple on the surface and a struggle somewhere below. The line moves quickly midstream. The reel unrolls rapidly. We have got a bite. Ricko gets into action. His friend some yards upstream joins us. Ricko picks up the rod and starts to carefully bring the line in. Amidst much splash the unfortunate fish is brought out. Fish don’t die the instant they are pulled out of water. The sharp hook is cutting into its bleeding lip. I handle the line with the fish wiggling desparately at the other end. Ricko pulls out the hook, threads a cloth strip through the gills and mouth, ties a knot and drops it in the river. The fish will stay fresh until Ricko is ready to go home. It will be fish for dinner tonight.
‘How much will this get you in the open market?’ I ask.
‘About two hundred.’
I take leave of Ricko. Downstream, near a metal bridge a different scene is playing out. Three women are fishing in the shallow waters of the river. They are knee deep in the river. With nets strung over metal loops, they are walking upstream with the nets before them. After every few paces, they check their nets. Whenever they catch little fish, they pull them out of the nets and put them away in wicker baskets on their hips.
The whole sky is covered with patches of clouds with frequent breaks in the cover. Light filters through to give different shades of greens on the slopes and the valley. There are bright pleasing greens where the sun shines. There are rich dark greens under the shades. Clouds have a character of their own. Some are pure white and fluffy, bordered with a blue sky. Others are dark and foreboding with a silver lining behind the dark body. Clouds in this valley are rarely solitary travellers. They are part of a family.
I leave the river scene and walk up to a monument in honour of a local hero. Just as I leave the place, I see a man trying to kill birds with a catapult. He gives up. The birds are too quick. He takes to collecting little berries which he says make a good bait for fish. I start my climb uphill and make my return to Jowai. Cicadas sing my return.