Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Multani hours

It must be the warmth. Every afternoon these days, after the meal, eyelids weigh down, the nerves go numb. I take out my white white sheet, still cool from the cupboard, bring out the afternoon pillow and snuggle in.
A few weeks later it will be impossible to sleep - the hotness will whip in our faces and as soon as we have managed to sink a few inches deep, the power will go. So now to make the most of this. Good afternooon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Listen, mother

It is customary for traditional poets, those who lament in Punjabi, Sindhi, Urdu, to bring in the mother somehow. Questions, rhetorical questions, are asked of the maae, exhortations are made - tell him, mother! where do I go, mother? how shall I bear this, mother? I have befriended a hawk, mother!
It is a poetic device, I tell myself. But there is no denying that I have come across an inordinate number of such laments today. Here is one by Shiv Kumar Batalvi:

माये नि माये,
मेरे गीताँ दे नैणा विच
बिरहों दी रडक पवे...
अधि अधि रातीं उठ
रोण मोये मित्राणु
माये, साणु नींद न पवे...

Listen, mother,
My songs are eyes
Stinging with grains of separation.
In the middle of the night,
They wake and weep for dead friends.
Mother, I cannot sleep.*

*Translation: Suman Kashyap

And you must listen to this man sing it:

Monday, February 15, 2010

In Which We Go Back to the Basics

Gather around, children, for Baba Sheetal has some advice. She will share pearls of wisdom wrought from her own experience.

Once in a way, you will feel that the world has gone wrong, or worse, that you have gone wrong in it. The impulse is for the mind to run hither and thither examining various probable reasons for the malaise. If you are like Baba Sheetal and many of her girlfriends, this will induce a prolonged analysis of the life sitution - one's motivations, one's desires, one's success, one's energy; questions on where one is and where one wants to go and what one must do about it.

Far be it for me to criticise such an exercise! It is important and must be undertaken by every thinking female once a week, or at least once a fortnight if one is in a particularly healthy emotional frame of mind.

However, I suggest to you that there might be other ways to tackle these little crises. If time is short and there is no time for a full analysis, to call friends and talk till ears on both sides of the conversation are hot and red from the phone being pressed so close, do not worry. There are a few emergency measures.

1) The minute you discover that you have been feeling out of sorts for a couple of hours, go immediately to the water dispenser and down three large glasses of water. After an interval of half an hour, down two more.

2) Sit down for five minutes. Sit straight, take off footwear, let the feet touch the ground. Take in 20 deep and long breaths. Take, if you can, 20-30 seconds for each inhale and 20-30 secs again for the exhale. Remember to breathe right into the stomach.

3) Take a tub. Put in one palmful of rock salt, two fat drops of oil (cooking/gingelly/mustard/olive) and any essence you like, if you like. Fill it with hot water and soak your feet for 15 mins. Pour water down the drain.

These three should hold you in till you can get help or get over the issue. Remember a well hydrated, well aerated and decontaminated (subtle) body equals a happy person! I shall now sit back and wait for your fervent thanks.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ketaki, gulaab, juhi...

Shivaratri has come and gone, and like my Bapa used to say, the cold has retreated on a 'siva, siva!' I'm being fanciful but the cold was distinctly backfooted this morning. Spring-Summer smells are rising, summer light has started to stream in, the bulbuls are pichkuing with renewed vigour. Much as I enjoy winters, I'm feeling very cheered by the strengthening sun.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Season of Mists

I have been behindhand in uploading my travel pieces but I've really been wanting to. My travel to Meghalaya was memorable. I've said before how some places, some views force the mind open to other worlds, other possibilities. There were many such scenes here. Scenes that sometimes bubble up from the murky depths of consciousness, if you're sitting quiet for a moment, vacant.
This piece appeared in the July 2009 issue of Outlook Traveller, the monsoon issue. The link is here.


A Walk in the Clouds

On the subject of entrancing places, M.M. Kaye talks of names “that possess a peculiar, singing magic in every syllable; like Samarkand or Rajasthan, or Kilimanjaro…” In that list she should include Meghalaya, the ‘Abode of Clouds’. Round the vowels a touch full, stretch the ‘a’ that links ‘megh’ and ‘aalaya’…The name presages dream-like vistas—a magical land with its head perpetually in the clouds.

It is best said at the outset so you can paint them into your mental frames: Meghalaya’s colours are white and green. The white of cloud and mist is “a shining and affirmative thing” but the green—the green annihilates everything “to a green thought in a green shade.” The colours form backdrop to everything – the roads, the landscapes, the ubiquitous waterfalls. The verdure is not surprising, of course, given that the small state gets an awful lot of rain. On average it receives 12,000mm each year – more than any other state in the country.

I was hoping for rain – some vigorous showers would add much-desired verisimilitude to a monsoon travel story – but not too much. In the event, it rained quite precisely to plan. So here I was ensconced in the beautiful resort Ri Kynjai, sitting out in the balcony overlooking the equally beautiful Umiam Lake, watching clouds gather. They were light-hearted at first, and light-coloured. But the grey seeped in, darkening the skies, darkening the lake and the clouds burst all over with unabashed drama.

I drove that evening along rain-drenched hill roads with no very particular destination. I peeped into a nearby Jesuit monastery, stood at spectacular vantage points everywhere. I passed through villages, where, with only a small concession to the rain in form of something held over their heads, people continued with chores outside. You cannot, I suppose, put off your tasks till the downpour has exhausted itself if you’ve known it to last 20 days.

Shillong was a slight surprise. A hill town, with narrow winding roads meeting big city with its buses, choked traffic and teeming office goers. I hadn’t known it to be such a centre for education, that it attracted students from all the Northeastern states; hadn’t expected to be caught in traffic jams. Local Khasi women manned the shops everywhere, their manner a nice mixture of brisk politeness. They are a matrilineal tribe and tend to produce independent women. In the business centres of the city, women sped about wearing the traditional two-piece Jainsem. I was very taken with the garment – it fell so gracefully, seemed to afford ease of movement and, going by the variety on Shillong’s streets, could be very smart indeed. When I walked about Police Bazaar, I looked for Jainsems at the wonderful shops there. The salesgirls have coached me on how to wear them – one of these days, I mean to dazzle my friends by turning up in it.

The morning went to some tourist activity – waterfalls and peaks that make for cosy picnic spots, and I was fascinated by the sacred grove near Smit. A group of trees standing together in a stately manner, conscious of their dignity and their hallowed status. Meghalaya’s landscape is dotted with such delicious significances – there are over 80 such groves or law kyntangs dedicated to forest spirits, and several ancient stone circles and monoliths that supposedly serve as memorials.

There was a rare treat in store that afternoon. Everywhere in Shillong, I had noticed small box shops, all prominently displaying a slate with four numbers chalked out on them. The significance was lost on me till Amar Rai of Ri Kynjai led me with a grin to Siat Khnam, introducing me to a lottery by archery that Meghalaya is obsessed with. It was an amazing scene. What happens is this: some 50-60 archers stand in an arc and shoot at a haystack for four minutes. The number of arrows is counted and the last two digits are announced. Bets are placed daily on what the numbers might be: your investment could be as little as one rupee, which could earn you eight if you’re a good guesser; the second round of shooting yields a little less — six rupees to one. There is, of course, no upper limit and bets are often placed to the tune of thousands of rupees. Fortunes are made on the teer, I was told, and the gambling is both compulsive and, as I found, terribly infectious. I placed modest sums on a clutch of favourite numbers and stood back. The archers took aim, the start was announced and a rain of arrows shot across the field, most embedding themselves in the stack. It was spectacular. It was over a few minutes later, and some of the watchers rushed over to the betting booths, quite certain they had the right count.

The counting began, with proper transparency. I moved in front to take a picture and was hastily shooed away – I had briefly blocked the view of investors who waited like hound dogs for the verdict, keen-eyed, alert and noses aquiver. 81 and 20! Alas, one more arrow and I would’ve made a tidy sum. Phone calls were placed, SMSes went hither and thither broadcasting the numbers and I could imagine men in box shops all over the state, reaching out for their placards and writing out the fresh results – dashing hopes, making fortunes.

I made my way to Cherrapunji the following day. It has for long held the record for being the “wettest place on earth” but the record is now regularly tossed back and forth between Cherra and neighbouring Mawsynram. I was going to stay not in the town proper but at Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, 17km away. The route was incredibly picturesque – the plains of Bangladesh lay below, obscured by swirling mists and small waterfalls gurgled here and there. Cherrapunjee Resort does not have too much by way of competition, but it does not believe in resting on its laurels for it made its presence felt throughout the 17km-stretch. Boulders advertised the joys to come – the living-root bridges, the caving adventures, the wonderful treks and went on to become increasingly ambitious “Tourism to conserve top soil” and “Tourism for sustainable development”. There was no doubting the earnestness behind all this.

The resort turned out to be a pleasant place – modest but nicely located, with clear views of the hills around. The owner Denis P. Rayen is an interesting man with a fascinating history. Married to a Khasi, this banker from Madurai has established himself here against many odds. It was he who worked to bring the now famous living-root bridges to the attention of the world, and he relentlessly plugs Cherrapunji as a place “every meteorologist should visit at least once in their lifetime.” His agenda in two-fold: one, purely scientific, for the phenomenon of excessive rain in Cherrapunji enthrals him; the other, he wishes to help the Khasi people with alternate livelihoods.

There are a few living-root bridges around the resort – the most interesting one, a two-tiered double-decker at Nongriat would take all day to trek to but another at Ummunoi could be reached in half a day. The forest plantation engulfed us as we made our way down the steep mossy path. “The green part is slippery, madam,” my guide said helpfully. I had to bite back a laugh and the urge to ask him to show me one square inch only that wasn’t ‘green’.

The bridge itself was fabulous. About 200 years old, the roots of the Indian rubber tree on either side have been trained by local tribesmen to grow across the stream, and they hold strong in a glorious organic network. The first one was made in Cherra, I learnt, and later duplicated all over the region.

As we sat outdoors that evening, munching on roasted cashews with fireflies darting all around us, I tried to understand why exactly it is that Cherrapunji receives so much rain. The explanation involves moisture-laden clouds travelling unhindered for over 400km before they crash into the Khasi Hills. The orography of the region adds its twist and Cherrapunji gets rained on – a lot.

Leaving behind the mist-kissed cliffs of Cherra with a trace of regret, I made my way to Mawlynnong, a village almost on the Bangladesh border. My choice wasn’t random: Mawlynnong has a reputation for being the “cleanest village in Asia”. The Meghalaya Tourism Development Forum (MTDF) has worked hard to position the village as a rural tourism destination, going to great lengths to create tourist-friendly conditions. They have succeeded very well indeed, perhaps too well.

The guesthouse specially created for overnight guests is an utterly charming place. Raised on stilts, the hut is built with traditional materials and overlooks a thicket and small waterfall. The larger of the two accommodations has a machan propped on the uppermost branches of a tree – a childhood dream come to life. The village is pretty – flowers bloom in every hue and in great profusion. Also, there is no denying Mawlynnong is extremely clean – the roads are metalled, a large parking lot accommodates visiting cars, a teashop does brisk business and visitors line to clamber up ‘Sky View’, a tall, bamboo tower that affords a view of the Bangla plains yonder.

For the people of Mawlynnong, I suspect, this is a balancing act. They are proud, justifiably proud, of the ‘clean’ tag. Indeed Khasi households everywhere are impeccably kept. More than half the times I saw a Khasi woman throughout my stay, she would be out washing or drying clothes, or sweeping out her yard. On the other hand, they are very private. They seem to dislike being photographed and they are a subtle people, their manners complex and full of nuances. Every gesture is significant; their need for politeness is very high. To be viewed as they are, like fish in a glass bowl, must surely annoy them? Their urban visitors bring in money but they are also occasionally boorish, certainly brash by Khasi standards.

Deepak Laloo, the MTDF man behind Mawlynnong’s tourist thrust, is also concerned about how the constant interaction may change the villagers’ traditional way of living. He took me along to visit a family – friends of his – in the village. I was led hospitably indoors to sit by the kitchen fire and offered tea and slices of pineapple. The children came in from play and one ran across as Ba Laloo and I sat talking. He was summoned back by his elders to have his ear pinched: he had broken our line of gaze – unacceptable behaviour!

I touched down in Delhi to find that only six days in Meghalaya had altered me. I blinked at the grey, flinched at the honking and felt more than a little bewildered. The culture shock I hadn’t felt going in showed up coming back.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010