Central issues and long walks on the periphery
The knick-knacks placed on my Palio’s dashboard swayed like a group of enthusiastic teenagers at a boy-band concert, as the car wove its way around a winding tarmac highway that led towards Shillong. The plains of Guwahati, with its heat and congestion, had by now receded into the distance, and up ahead and were tallish hills, bamboo groves and the threat of a classic North Eastern downpour.
It was around one a.m. on a balmy morning that I reached Guwahati, after nearly three days of agonisingly delayed rail travel across the isthmus. And as I scouted for a place to stay, I could hear private Sumo and bus operators calling out for passengers to Dimapur, Kohima, Agartala and Shillong.While the temptation was there to head off deeper into the North East with my Palio (I would pick it up early that morning), the uncertainty associated with the region, specially if one is driving alone, made me stick to my original plans.But in Shillong and its surroundings I sought to find and understand, as much as it is possible within a week, reasons for the angst and the mistrust towards the mainland, and the validity of the same. All that I knew about the North East came from national newspapers and news mags, with space devoted to the region depending on the number of people killed in encounters between the army and the insurgents.
As for the Indian government, it was all propaganda – an image of Rajiv Gandhi dancing with a group of Mizo dancers after his accord-signing spree in the mid-to-late 80s is still fresh in my mind. In essence, it was a fairly obscure picture I had about the region. It was also a shame that I knew more about the Balkans than about the North East. The government’s stance was already known, but I also hoped to find somebody to talk to; people who would be able to give me both sides of the story.
And so here I was, making my way towards Police Bazaar, a little after I had checked into a hotel. Shillong’s high street was filled with shops hawking MNC goods and ‘Bombay’ and Punjabi food, and besides these, there were a number
of hawkers peddling Chinese goods – from cameras to slippers to battery-operated toys – in the series of narrow bylanes that constitute the bazaar. An armada of clouds, like a floppy belly, had stationed itself over the city, and producing an ever so slight muggy effect.I turned around the corner and walked, on a lark, into Shillong’s vegetable and fruit market, a maze of congested lanes lined on both sides with Mandarin oranges, brown areca nuts,and thick, nearly flat bananas. It was crowded inside, and for the first time since I entered Shillong, I thought about ethnicity. Around me, flitting by at a rapid pace, were a sea of facial characteristics owing allegiance to the Orient.
There were women behind mounds of areca nuts, wearing loose-fitting, full-sleeved blouses, which were covered by dull shawls. Below the waist were what looked like sarongs, though these ones were less colourful. Most of them were fair, with that attribute bordering on the pale.
While most men wore denims and T-shirts, the overall effect was such that I could have been nearly anywhere in Malaysia or Laos or Vietnam. What contributed to this feeling of being an ethnic outsider was also the language, starkly different, and as farther away as one can get from the Sanskrit-derived Indic languages.I’ve always seen India as a status quo, of
religion, ethnicity, peoples, and cultures. A land that has every right to splinter into numerous little well-defined pieces, but is still amazingly and inexplicably whole. The glue that makes us all Indian is a vague thing, but it, I guess, is there.
Anywhere else in our country, I would have gone on to contemplate the diversity – racial, geographical and cultural – but up here in a little vegetable market in Shillong, I didn’t know whether I was right in doing that.
The Khasis, Jaintias, Bhois and Wars from Eastern Meghalaya, collectively known as the fantastic-sounding Hynniewtrep people, are known to be one of the earliest ethnic group of settlers in the sub continent. Then there are the Garos who inhabit the Garo hills and belong to the Bodo family of the Tibeto-Burman race.The composition of the people in Meghalaya is perhaps representative of the character of the ethnic make-up of the most of the North East, of a people belonging to a region situated betwixt the two great traditions of Indic Asia and Mongoloid Asia. While Hinduisation did occur in a significant manner in the North East,especially in the plains, the region remained, according to most sources, closely connected with Bhutan, China and Burma. Partition in 1947 and the realigning of international boundaries changed the situation irrevocably.
As a newly independent India struggled with the after-effects of partition and the subsequent threats from its neighbours, feelings of neglect and deprivation, which continues to this day, grew among the people of the NE. The end result was insurgency and demands for secession in the region, justified by political movements triggered on the basis of ethnic identity or ethnonationalism.
It is not possible to cut this long story short, but for brevity’s sake, various accords and measures by the Indian government, such as the granting of statehood, have dimmed the secessionary fires in most states. But the general apathy and myopic policies from independence onward have created deep wounds, too deep to be healed just by the passage of time and half-hearted placatory measures.I got out of the market with a packet of bananas, and drove to Shillong Peak, a very hill station ‘spot’. It still hadn’t rained, though the clouds kept gathering right up to the very horizon. It was afternoon, but a gentle curtain of mist hung over the green valley.In the evening after another round of the bazaar, I returning back to my hotel with a magazine called the Grassroot Options, which dealt with the environmental and developmental issues in the North East. I read the magazine’s sincere, concerned and informative articles late into the night, and called up its editor, Sanat Chakraborty, in the morning.
The voice at the other end was a frail, disembodied one, of what I presumed was of an elderly, greying writer. Visions of a perfect character to either end or start the story floated around in my head; an erudite, worn out man helping the world, in a small way, in making sense of the complexity of the problems in the NE, and flailing the government’s haphazard policies.
At noon that day, when the skies had just begin to open up, I made my way to LowerLachumiere walking along narrow lanes, bordered by new concrete houses. Sanat Chakraborty turned out to be a trim man in his late 30s, with a very ‘in’ goatee and a disarming smile. The ghost of a voice I heard in the morning was due to a very sore throat. We walked into a little, tin-roofed, very ‘Shillong’ house that served as his workplace. Journalists with prominent national newspapers, Sanat
and his friend Linda Chhakchhuak edited and published the bi-monthly which I had read yesterday.
The post-rain air was crisper, and the sunlight, which entered the room via its huge windows, had a fresher feel to it. As we got talking I asked Sanat to consider as an archetypal mainlander, whose perceptions and knowledge about the North East is vague at best.“The problem of the North East is the problem of the periphery,” said Sanat. “People on the peripheries anywhere in the world are bound to feel insecure, and disconnected from the mainland. There are cultural differences, of course, but what makes the problem even worse is that we are nowhere connected economically. I’ve always believed that a strong heart makes for a strong periphery. But India has identity problems of its own, which makes
ethnonationalism on part of the states here pretty valid. Moreover, the image of India is predominantly that of the army. Right from independence, this constellation of seven states has largely been ignored. The perception of the people here is of a Centre that takes advantage of the natural resources, Assam and its oil, for example, but never does anything in return. And that isn’t entirely untrue.”
Violence, kidnappings and abductions on part of the insurgent groups were definitely not the solution, though they did attract attention and forced the government to come to the table a decade or two back. Sanat also told me that the insurgent movements had simmered down to a large extent after the granting of statehood to which happened through the 60s to the 80s. The situation was much better, for sure, but the move to accord statehood to the dominant populations would always have to contend with the fact that there are over 200 tribal groups and subgroups in the region, many of whose historic rivalries continue today.
“To a large extent, there are no ideological or political movements today. Insurgency in the North East has now just become another way to grab money. And what contributes to this is the appalling lack of governance in most states in the region. Nearly each and every minister is corrupt, funds allocated for developmental purposes just vanish and the condition in the rural areas is abysmal. While the Centre’s inept handling of the situation is a factor, what really rankles is the blatant corruption in the region. Jobs are nil, education is non existent, and in spite of the Indian government announcing developmental packages, insurgency and trade in small arms and narcotics will still be attractive options for young people.”
Early the next day, I drove out of Shillong towards Cherrapunjee, on a road that passed through a terrain with a constant shade of green. The surrounding hill sides, and the gentle valleys that make up most of Meghalaya were a kind
of green that made it seem as if it had just rained. While a million shards of sunlight rebounded off the hillsides, creating a white haze in the distance, close to the Palio’s window were little villages, with a hardy people, their rotund babies, and the occasional steeples of white-washed churches.
A lot of people visit Cherrapunjee, and unlike Rome, which has had visitors for ages, this little village, once the capital of Meghalaya, is one of those places whose prominence on the tourist map has a lot to do with the meteorological label attached to it – that of being the rainiest place in the world (Mawsynram is now acknowledged as the rainiest, but with 12,063 mm of rainfall, Cherrapunjee is nearly as wet and more importantly, well entrenched in popular imagination. Mumbai, for the record, gets around 2,300 mm, while Kolkata’s average annual rainfall is recorded at 1,600).
But even without any kind of meteorological figures highlighting it, Cherrapunjee is a charming little place. I reached there just before noon, and walked along its narrow, rutted paths, past the oldest Presbyterian church in Meghalaya, old British structures, and a very peaceful Ramakrishna Mission. Like it was during the drive from Shillong, the landscape comprised of tall hills, and silvery-white waterfalls plunging from great heights. Towards the west, lay the plains of Bangladesh.My Cherrapunjee outing was rather uneventful and obviously so, since it was April. The waves of bloated clouds rising out of the Bay of Bengal that blanket the sky and lash Meghalaya for five continuous monsoon months were still being conceived. It would be quite an experience to stay in one of those tin-roofed houses and listen to the trot of rain almost always for five continuous months, day in and day out.Getting back to Shillong, I got down to doing what my hotel waiter had suggested a couple of days back and enquired about the scores of lottery-like ticket shops that appeared nearly everywhere in the town. “I think even you should try it. It’s a good way of making money. My friend’s friend just won over Rs 5,000 day before yesterday,” he told me. The waiter was referring to an institutionalised form of gambling that has been a way of life here for the past two hundred years. Every evening, crack archers belonging to different teams gather near the Polo Bazaar and fire arrows at a specific target. The ones that manage to strike deep into the target are then counted, with the last two numbers of the figure being your ticket to a cosy sum of money.
I purchased a ticket from a nearby counter and quoted a random number, paying special attention to the last two digits, and the hastened to the archery venue. The muddy clearing was packed with people, and an air of expectancy hung around the ground. There were shacks around the place that sold momos, savouries and all kinds of liquor, and nearly every person.I spoke or passed by had this very spirity effluence riding on their breaths.
I took my place at the far end, hoping to get some good pictures, and was immediately joined by a couple of the local youth who told me about the finer points of the sport, and also the ‘big’ money they were putting into it that day. People got on their cellphones as the time for the first round neared and took bets, while the archers, most of whom I presumed to be Khasis, took their positions with their wooden bows and quivers.A dishevelled, balding and slight man came up and stood next to me. I smiled at him while I adjusted my camera. “Are you also putting your money?” he asked me, in a mixture of slurred Hindi and English. The question slip-slided off his tongue. I told him I’d just bet a fiver. “Never gamble. It’s such an addiction, look at me. I am a boy of Shillong, but just take a look now,” he said as he straightened out his torn shirt.
The archers were by now prepared to shoot and at an official’s signal, let loose a flurry of arrows at the target; some hitting it bang on, while others fell by the wayside. The steady stream of arrows continued to fly towards the target for, what I guessed, was around three to four minutes. Once the shooting was over, the officials gathered around the target to pluck out the arrows from the target and count them, placing an equal number of each in pegs in squarish trays. The drunk was still with me. “I’ve been to Mumbai. Colaba Causeway, Fort... have seen it all. But gambling is bad, I tell you. Just yesterday, these people you see here hit me so badly...
In a few minutes, the winning number – the last two digits – was announced and after a lull of about half an hour, when the parties gathered inside the shacks to reorient their strategies and gauge the marksmen, the second round began. The whole procedure was repeated again as the grim-looking marksmen fired off their arrows. At the end of it, the
enthusiastic crowd gathered again, each one hoping that the eventual number would be the one they’d bet on; praying hard that the illogical, errant and entirely arbitrary ladyluck would put an arm around their shoulder. The final number was announced, and soon the ground was almost entirely empty, with the few winners celebrating with another round of whisky. The others all filed out, praying for a better tomorrow. Only my drunk friend sat there, looking dazed and whispering resignedly to himself. Very much like a man who has nothing to lose, and nothing to look forward to either.
It certainly is a long way from the mainland, but Meghalaya makes for an interesting excursion, especially if you are anywhere in Bengal or in the North East itself. Green, hilly, cool and pleasant, Meghalaya – Abode of the clouds – is peopled by the Khasis, Jaintia, Bhois and War, collectively known as the Hynniewtrep. The state is divided into seven administrative districts which include the West and East Khasi Hills, Garo Hills, and the Jaintia Hills. Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, is 100 km from Guwahati, and located at an altitude of 1496 metres above MSL. Shillong is a pretty little town, surrounded by wooded, rolling hills and almost always, has clouds looming over it. Like many of the hill station established by the British, Shillong too has its spots – Shillong Peak, Ward’s Lake and the Botanical Garden – which are worth a look-see, but we suggest you head to Cherrapunjee, situated in the one of the rainiest belts on earth.
Cherrapunjee is 56 km from Shillong. While it is famous for the rain clouds that it attracts, the little town is also famous for its limestone caves and orange honey. Cherrapunjee is acknowledged to be the centre of Khasi culture and literature and also has the oldest Presbyterian Church established in India.Other notable villages and town within easy reach from the state’s capital are Mawsynram (currently the rainiest place in the world), Jakrem (64 km, a popular health resort with sulphur hot springs) and Ranikhor (140 km from Shillong and an angler’s favourite.)
Routes & Rooms
Shillong is 1,251 km from Kolkata, and 100 km from Guwahati. Take the NH 34 up till Dalkola, and the NH 31 via Siliguri, and past Koch Bihar into Assam. Once in Guwahati, NH 40 will take you on to Shillong. Experience tells us that road conditions in West Bengal are just about average, but the scenery will generally not disappoint. From Guwahati to Shillong is one short blast of about three hours, along gentle hills and on winding roads.
Siliguri is 606 km from Kolkata and has decent acco for the first night halt. While at Guwahati, try the Raj Mahal (A T Road, Ph: 0361 522478-83, 511602-64, firstname.lastname@example.org). Regular rooms at the Raj Mahal start at Rs 1400, while Super Deluxe rooms come for Rs 1900 (doubles).Shillong has a fair number of good hotels. The gorgeous Pinewood Hotel (European Ward, Rita Road, 0364 2223116, email@example.com, doubles Rs 1200 and upwards) is surely the best, but Centre Point (Police Bazaar, Ph: 0364 2225210, 2229839, 2504006, firstname.lastname@example.org, doubles for Rs 750 (regular) and Rs 1400 (executive) too is worth a look-see. Orchid (Polo Road, Ph: 0364 2224933/2222664, deluxe doubles for Rs 900) is another option.
Cherrapunjee makes for a great place to stay for a day or two, and if you do intend to do so, head for Cherrapunjee Holiday Resorts (Village Laitkynsew, 03637 264218/19, 264220. Shillong office: 0364 2226706, Synrem Compound, Don Bosco Road, Laitumkrah). This newly set-up place, which also organises treks, is increasingly popular with tourists, hiking enthusiasts and cavers.
Fiat Palio Sport
Distance covered: 220 km