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Michael Scharf | Essays

Rainfall Is Likely to Occur

Smoking a pipe in the Shillong fields, post-harvest. Photo: Maneesh

The weather forecast invariably appears in the bottom left-hand corner of The Shillong Times's front page, always in a little green-tinted box, always with the same lack of specificity: "Rainfall is likely to occur over most areas in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura in the next 24 hours."

It does rain a lot in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, one of seven "hill states" in North-East India, and the beginning of a looping chain that becomes the Himalayas. Cherrapunji, known as "the rainiest place on earth," is 50 kilometers to the south of Shillong, and the rain on the windward sides of the Khasi Hills, which can reach 6,500 feet, comes in sheets.

Shillong itself is a steeply hilly city, broken into blocky localities by cliffs and ravines, criss-crossed by twisty lanes and above-ground water pipes, cut by 14 or so always-jammed main roads. The bourgeois quarters have their own hybrid neo-Tibeto-Hokkaido-Kashmiri-Brit architecture — tin-roof Tudors with peaks — yet "paddy" (i.e., rice) is still grown within the city limits, if in just a few spots. The last census puts the population at around 250,000, but it's probably more like 400,000, given the number of seasonal and undocumented workers who come through, and stay.

Meghalaya, for its part, was carved out of Assam in 1970 at the instigation of the Khasi, the Jaintia (cousins of the Khasis) and the Garo — local ethnic and linguistic majorities known in India as "Scheduled Tribes." The Indian constitution lists 645 such indigenous, non-Aryanized peoples across India, all of whom get certain tax breaks and affirmative action-type reservations. It's generally accepted that the Khasi, for example, are the first inhabitants of the area now known as the Khasi Hills, but that the Khasi themselves came from somewhere else. The Khasi language, of which there are several mutually unintelligible dialects, is a Mon-Khmer language. Some say the Khasi came through Burma, possibly from Mongolia — a full study hasn't been done. In all, there are maybe a million-plus Khasi in the world, almost all of whom remain in Meghalaya; most live in agriculture-based villages, with maybe some 20 percent in Shillong. The Jaintia and the Garo, with smaller populations, have similarly migratory stories. LIke most people of the North-East, all three groups typically have features associated with East Asia.
Meghalaya's three major tribes all get rained on relatively equally, as do the people from the "Indian plain" who have settled in Shillong — mostly Bengalis, Biharis and Marwaris, as well as other groups from along the Himalayas, including Nepalis and Sikkimese.
Hot skies over Shillong. Photo: Mohanraj.net

It's cosmopolitanism, Shillong-style: no such mix exists elsewhere in the state, which is almost wholly rural and underdeveloped: Meghalaya has the second-lowest average level of education in India, with public schools that largely don't function. Paradoxically, Shillong also has the highest concentration of colleges in the North-East. Most had already been founded when Shillong was the capital of Assam — and before that, the summer capital of what was the British Bengal Province. The colleges draw the children of the North-East's aspiring middle class, and their money, into the city's mix. Coal money from the Jaintia hills finds its way here, too.

Most of the time the mix works, but the city has been known to erupt into violence. There are districts of Shillong where people from the Indian plain, Nepal, Bangladesh — places from which outside or illegal workers might arrive — cannot walk safely, let alone live. It's a little like 1970s New York that way. When people from the North-East venture to the Indian plain and try to move in, by the same token, the results are often entirely reciprocal. And like New York, most of the friction occurs where the competition for jobs and livelihoods is greatest.

Travel up and down the hilly roads is difficult, but regardless it is unlikely that an outsider would be admitted to neighboring Nagaland or Manipur if arriving by road or by air: the groups that agitated for independence from Assam continue to exist in various nationalist permutations, some of which are violent. Even if one did get permission to enter from the union and state governments, there are still routine kidnappings by local groups, which are constantly on the lookout for new funding sources. They're called "secessionists" in the press as opposed to the tribal "Maoists" or "Naxalities" of mainland India, who have land issues with the Union.

The fact that the North-East continues to be "sensitive" in this manner adds to the challenges that my wife faces in working for an agricultural advocacy NGO in the East Khasi Hills. Connections among regional NGOs are difficult to forge and maintain, often having different aims and populations to serve, and most of the other North-Eastern states, as I say, are off limits. Most of Meghalaya's own secessionist factions have largely subsided, but we do experience some bandhs, or shadowy organization-backed curfews and travel bans. Some the bandhs have to do with getting the local government, generally passive and largely bereft of transparency, to function. Others have to do with Bangladesh.

The East Khasi Hills are bordered to the north by Assam, to the east by the Jaintia Hills coal belt (and beyond that, Nagaland and Manipur), to the west by the West Khasi Hills (and their soon-to-be-tapped uranium deposits) and to the south, via a border that stretches 443 kilometers, by Bangladesh. The illegal Bangladeshi worker problem is enormously complex, and not limited to Meghalaya. Though better than those with Pakistan, relations between India and Bangladesh are not easy, and the weakness of Bangladesh's currency is a big draw. In Shillong, unemployment is high, and Bangladeshis will often work for half the going rate for Khasi labor. One can imagine the results.

The Khasi Hills themselves, however, remain beautiful. A few weeks ago, we drove to the village of Nongeitniang in the southernmost part of Meghalaya, where the hills give way to the plains of Bangladesh. The road ends at Mawlynnong village, which has a very unusual early-20th-century English church at its periphery. Churches are ubiquitous in Meghalaya — which, along with a decent chunk of the rest of the North-East, has been pretty successfully Christianized by missionaries of all stripes — but this church, which is Anglican, is built, atypically and handsomely, of sandstone.

Even more unusual, Mawlynnong and Nongeitniang are surrounded by the kind of landscaping that I haven't seen in Meghalaya, or really anywhere else in India: manicured trees, flowering hedges, clipped lawns, orchids, kitchen gardens — all with a precision that looks decidedly English, plus what may be best described as a Christopher Alexander–style organicism. The whole may be a legacy of the intensity of the Anglican mission to Mawlynnong. I have to admit, it was working for me.

Realizing the value of the Anglican Mission Church at Mawlynnong, the Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum, a consortium of private Shillong-based interests, has built one of the more successful tourist ventures in the state at the village, busing people in from Shillong for the day, showing them around and then either putting them up in one of their own guest houses, or spiriting them back to Shillong, with the profits tending to funnel back to Shillong.

The intensity of the Christianity in Meghalaya, part of what drives intrastate tourism to the area, generally surprises most first-time visitors. (Apparently, Nagaland and Mizoram have been even more thoroughly Christianized.) The oversimplified and speculative account of how it happened that I trot out goes like this: encroachment from Hindi India goes way back. The hill tribes had a patchwork of native beliefs, some of which are still practiced in pockets. They were, nevertheless, for the most part, willing converts. The Khasi, for example, are generally thought to be the first people to inhabit the hills in which they remain, but they almost certainly migrated to the area from somewhere else, and the skills they brought with them may not have been suited to the climate they found here. When Welsh missionaries arrived in 1840 (in the form of one still-revered Thomas Jones), most Khasi were subsisting on a very limited diet of millet and sweet potatoes in the hills, and wild rice in the less altitudinous regions. (Some still do.) They had no written script; the missionaries came up with a Romanized system. Schools were opened; building practices were introduced. By the early 20th century, Christianity — along with a more benign version of British rule than was imposed on the rest of India — was well under way, to the point where American evangelicalism is piped in via the local cable operator because there is a demand for it. On any given Sunday, one might hear that old John Ashcroft favorite, "On Eagles' Wings," sung in a Shillong Presbyterian Church by 12 adolescent Khasi girls clad in goldenrod sateen.

And there you have part of the reason for the phareng-friendly environment: the various churches, in their former and present incarnations. Hollywood, 1960s and ’70s rock, and Friends also play a role. At Christmastime, our locality's PA system plays Khasi pop Christmas tunes all day long from metal bullhorn loudspeakers strung up along the roadside, courtesy of the local government.

I accompanied my wife to Nongeitniang to stay in the village's ecotourism guesthouse, which her NGO had had a hand in getting built, with the idea of developing a community-based alternative to Mawlynnong at Nongeitniang. It may not have the Church, but it has truly spectacular views from the hills over the plains of Bangladesh.

The proposed plan will be the largest-scale undertaking that my wife's NGO will have attempted. The plan calls for Nongeitniang to be the culmination of a winding trek through 10 remote villages in the East Khasi Hills: scattered in valleys and crevasses, they are unreachable by road. The treks will start in the market town of Smit, and end at Nongeitniang. The trekking route will use existing, if often extremely steep, footpaths, and would make use of local guides. Extensive training would have to be involved: aside from Smit and maybe one or two other stops, the route is entirely rural, and almost exclusively Khasi-speaking. Most NGOs within Meghalaya that manage to do large-scale projects do them via FCRA, or the Foreign Contributions Registration Act, which allows Indian NGOs to accept funding from outside India. This project, if it happens, will be no different.

The Nongeitniang guesthouse itself is a bamboo structure on stilts, down a long path from the village, dead-ending at the jungle: 5,000 feet up, windward-side, on the top of a particularly steep hill. Beneath the slats of the bamboo floor, the air stirs, and the land falls dramatically away.

The back "terrace" supports two benches that look into the distance: past the brush, palms, hardwood trees and large bats that wing past; down slopes impassible without a machete; and boarded on top by a blue-white cirrusy glare — there are endless, absolutely flat, stream-rising paddy fields: Bangladesh. A call to prayer somehow, as we sat, rose all the way up and reached us from the plains. It sounded very real — not like the border pomp of a place like Amritsar.

The late afternoon was hot and sunny, with the altitude intensifying the burn factor. Then, almost imperceptibly, the breeze started to come up. As we sat on the terrace, we watched as, in Spielbergian slow-motion, a black and gray storm rolled in from the distance. Degree by degree, it obliterated the horizon for tens of kilometers in either direction. Slowly, biblically, it subsumed the small bamboo house, and the rain fell. Meghalaya, in Hindi, means "the abode of the clouds." The house swayed a bit with the bamboo's tensile give.

I'm told it's not always like that, but I, for one, was sold on the idea of tourism at Nongeitniang.

After the rain, which passed after 20 long minutes, we headed back up the hill for dinner. We were soon sitting on a worn but spotlessly clean pine floor in the large kitchen of a villager's snug house. We talked as dinner was cooked off to the side of the room, over a concrete-and-plaster Khasi hearth (with logs sticking out horizontally and pushed in to regulate intensity). Some chewed kwai, or areca nut plus betel leaf, the latter rubbed with a little lime. (The most often-seen warning sign in Shillong is "Do Not Spit or Rub Lime.") Their teeth turned alkaloid red.

We waited for the Seng Kynthei, or Khasi Women's Village Auxiliary, to come talk to us about their plans for operating the guest house. Khasi society is matrilineal, with surnames passed down from the mother, and the youngest daughter inheriting property. While the Dorbar Shnong, or Village Council, is almost always wholly male, there are some areas where the Seng Kynthei has (or assumes) jurisdiction. There is virtually no female infanticide among the Khasi. The Jaintia and Garo are also matrilineal.

A cat that looked like a mini-panther walked in, sleek white and orange: a Tom. My wife showed me tiny red chilies picked off a bush by the porch: sohmynken knai. She pointed as the hens also came up to the porch and craned their necks, vigorously tearing the chilies off the viney bushes with their beaks. They looked like dogs, like a dog that's got a rat. Hens really like chilies; they may help kill parasites. We sat sweating in the nighttime humidity, drinking very sweet tea in tiny chipped cups. I dozed, my head against the wall.

I could tell you what happened next at the meeting, but negotiations are still going on. Suffice to say that the usual difficulties in organizing people are in play here. I'd rather, however, that you come and see for yourself, even if, for the present, you make Mawlynnong your destination. And don't miss Cherrapunji, which in Khasi is known as Sohra: it's beautiful. Just don't go during monsoon.

Posted in: India

Comments [4]

While it took some paragraphs to make a 'design' connection, this essay is a worthy introduction to the complexities of the northeast of India (land of complexities, pick your layer). It reminded me of a month I spent in the area, teaching at a new Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Guhuwati, Assam (where they have a graphic/industrial design program). Michael mentions bamboo structures. One of the specialties of the design program is to exploit this abundant, sustainable and local material by imagining and demonstrating all the ways it might be treated and what it can be made into. There are local craft organizations that, to my mind, need more design input on the artifacts directed to the tourist trade. The craftsmanship is amazing (I have a working lock and key of bamboo). I also went to Shillong (and was hoping for a photo of the charming architectural hybrids he mentions) and we had to use a local car and driver and be back before dark so as not to become valuable hostages. On the way there were wonderful houses with bamboo pole structures and walls made of woven bamboo panels. After your trek you should also go to Kazarangi National Park to ride elephants to see the last one-horned rhinoseruses.
Martha Scotford

Hi Michael,
It was really nice to read your article here. The description is really easy and pleasant and simply excites me to visit Meghalaya. This one seems to cover a lot the aspects of a place, its architecture, history, people, nature and traditions. :)
Dwarka Nath Sinha

Dear Michael,
It is great to see a description of Shillong quite well written and a simple essay providing a glimpse of the real life there. Many a times, other writers tend to write what I would refer to as the commercial or outsider aspect of things. But you have written what I have seen and experienced as a local myself (now living in the UK)....,. Don't forget the warmth and hospitality of the people there.
I smile at the typical khasi words used....As I took my Mum sightseeing around London the last few weeks, she still uses the word phareng and Mem(white lady...normally English in those days) or Saheb(White male).
Would love to see your reason why a phareng is more welcome than a dkhar...I guess the dkhars normally look at what they can grab and the Khasi's way of life as you said is more anglicised.
Hope the tourism picks up but the way of life maintained as it always have been. The people there do need tourism to grow...to enjoy the beauty and not spoil it though....
Parari Kharbuli

hey Michael,

I have not visited shillong which is also home for me for the past four months , i'm currently in kolkata studying in satyajit ray film and Television institute of India.

just wanted to say that i thoroughly enjoyed your writting, beautiful insigths, i had a smile on my face when i came across words like phareng and dkhar. i have been called a dkhar many a times also, even though my father is a khasi and my mother a Naga ( Ao ),
but anyway that is a totally different area.

So long,

steven ao

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