Their destination was Cherrapunji or Sohra, as it is now called. But as they made their way to what was once described as the wettest place in the world, they stopped at a remote anganwadi centre where they were greeted by the sight of bawling children, who mistook them for the doctors who periodically visited for immunisation; they went to a Khasi village where nearly 200 families are engaged in creating beautifully carved bows and arrows for archery, a sport that is larger than football and cricket in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. In this excerpt Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda share the “pure magic” they experienced as they traversed long distances in the pristine Khasi hills.
The next day, we headed to Cherrapunji, which we knew from school days as the wettest place in the world. Nothing ever dries here; ‘dampness,’ to misquote Shakespeare, ‘is all.’ On the way, we stopped at an anganwadi in the village of Mylliem. The centre was built next to a school. It had a neat toilet and a few swings. As soon as we entered, to our great embarrassment, all the children started crying. We were shocked. ‘What happened?’ we asked the young ICDS worker who was trying very hard to quieten a three-year-old boy. She gave us an embarrassed smile, picked up the child whose nose had started running, and took him out. Meanwhile, her helper took a few other children outside but the collective crying only got louder and hoarser.
‘Will someone tell us what is happening? What have they done to the kids?’ We said to the accompanying officials in a whisper, afraid of scaring the children any further.
‘They are afraid of strangers,’ an official explained.
‘We have visited anganwadi centres in every state. Never before did the kids start crying like this.’
By now, the young woman had come back after herding the kids outside. ‘Just a couple of days ago, we have an immunization drive. When the children saw you come in, they were afraid of being poked,’ she said simply. ‘Just look outside.’ We looked out of the window, the children were indeed laughing and playing on the swings. It was a happy sight. …
Our next destination was the village of Nongkynrih. This place is known all over the state for its beautifully carved bows and arrows. We had heard that it wasn’t football or cricket that caught the imagination of the Khasi; their favourite sport is still archery. In fact, Rong Biria, as the game is known, is also a religious tradition. When a person dies, arrows are shot in three directions. According to Khasi lore, Eve (Ka-mei-ka-nong-hukum) gave birth to two sons. She taught them to shoot arrows but warned them against fighting over the game. Since then, the hills and valleys of the area have echoed with the twang of bows. Between January and May, in many Khasi villages, weekly competitions are held where men – young and old – line up to display their shooting skills. The bows and arrows for this sport are made in this village – Nongkynrih – where we stood on a crisp August morning.
Climbing the rickety flight of wooden stairs, we entered a home where bows and arrows were being made. Feathers were scattered everywhere. An elderly man was busy slicing bamboo shafts. He got up to greet and talk to us about his work. ‘There are 200 families here that make bows and arrows. We buy vulture and eagle feathers from hunters, it costs as much as Rs 1,200 for a pair of wings from which we can get 200 arrows. The women make the arrows and the men, the bamboo shafts,’ he said. His hands continued to slice the bamboo deftly. ‘My family manages to make one hundred arrows and seven bows in a week. Each arrow sells for Rs 15 and a bow for Rs 60; our weekly income is Rs 1,400.’ As he spoke and sliced, his wife cleaned the feathers and glued them onto the arrows. By the time we left the house, our hair and shawl had tiny black-and-white flecks of feather. …
It was pure magic; on one side of the road was a lush green growth, on the other billowing powder-white clouds. The road ahead was invisible. This journey into the unknown was nothing short of mystical. As we turned back to look, we noticed that even our tyre marks had disappeared. We were moving from nothing to nothing.
Finally, we reached Cherrapunji or Sohra, as it is now called. Besides its rainfall, this town is famous for its limestone caves and orange honey. Here we learnt that though 90 per cent of the tourist traffic to Meghalaya visits Cherra, it hardly benefits the local economy. …
Traversing large distances on foot and carrying heavy loads is a necessity here and the Khasi have perfected the skill. The villagers told us that they do not enjoy living under such difficult circumstances but are unable to shift to more accessible places as local durbars do not give them land or allow them in. in Meghalaya, most property is community owned and so the writ of the durbar runs everywhere. Ironically, while the Khasi are matrilineal, their traditional institutions like the durbar still do not include women.
As we were getting back into the car, an elderly Khasi woman stopped us. ‘The weather is clearing. Look there,’ she pointed towards mountains in a distance. ‘That is Bangladesh. Our limestone and boulders go there over a conveyor belt. They have set up a big cement factory that side, but what about us?’ She was talking about the $255 million Lafarge Surma cement factory that had been started in Chattak in Bangladesh. At the time of our visit, large amounts of limestone were being transported to the plant from a mine near the village of Nongtrai in the Khasi hills across a seventeen-km-long conveyor belt. However, in early 2007, the Ministry of Environment & Forests put a ban on this in wake of the environmental degradation and damage to surrounding forests. Later, the Supreme Court allowed operations by the company, but NGOs and local bodies continue to demand the ban. It is a tough decision to take, for the factory has provided livelihood to many in Bangladesh. For the people of Meghalaya, however, it has brought nothing.
(Excerpted from Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India By Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda; Published by Harper Collins; Pp: 365; Price: Rs 399)