Exploring a village in Meghalaya

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by Chitra Ahanthem

Mention Meghalaya, and there is almost a cloud of romanticism over its idyllic town, Shillong the capital with its legacy of neat cottages, colonial structures and the never ending lines of taxis that dot the narrow winding lanes.

It took me a few days beyond Shillong to make me see more: this, after huffing and puffing across two villages (literally) under an assignment under which I was called in to look at how underprivileged Khasi children were benefiting from informal education. The first stop was Rangmudi village, followed by Pingwait, both of which fall under the Mawkynrew Development Block of East Khasi hill district.

To reach Rangmudi village, one must travel to Smit, the cultural center of the Khasi Hills, which is situated 11 km away from Shillong on the Shillong-Jowai Road. Buses and taxis then ply from Smit to Mawlyngnot but often, buses are not a regular feature and mostly, people cram inside Maruti cars that ply as taxi service. From Mawlyngnot, one has to trek down a one metre broad steep path made of stones lined one after the other. It is already post noon when we start out as the person who has to pick me up from my hotel has got stuck in a sudden shower. Hailing a taxi with my guide from Smit, I count 12 passengers inside the Maruti car!

By the time we reach Mawlyngnot, it is about 3 in the afternoon: the skies have opened up and we are one umbrella short. Looking up at the grey wet sky above and the trail that leads below makes me more and more miserable but I refuse to let myself feel totally down and out. There is the small opening to the trail, there is the main road and it’s dripping..tip..tap tip. There is no one about on the road and almost like a convenient scene from a Hindi film, we are standing huddled along the sides of a dilapidated building structure that looks like some office but it is difficult to say… the place was haunted by indifference and neglect: dark, bare, no roofing, broken window panes and furniture that we see through the broken window panes. I gave my best to wait it out for the gloomy rain to go away while I will the clock not to race away too much for I know that dusk will set in soon and there is the trek downwards.

My guide tells me that the villagers who are habituated to the trek take about an hour to go down the steep path to Rangmudi but for first timers, it can take anywhere from two hours or more (going up takes more time obviously). The rains meanwhile do not stop and it gets to 4 pm. The mood changes: from a patient wait, there is an element of alarm. There is no movement on the main road and thoughts of being stranded by the road-side with the strange building as the back drop do not help. I see-saw between hope and despair when suddenly we saw two women with cane baskets and their frame covered by blue plastic sheets walking on the lonely road. They ask what the matter is and one offers to go to a kind of place where she keeps her things (for transit) nearby, loan us an umbrella and continues her trek as light as a gazelle, her age and the load on her back notwithstanding. Seeing her pace (she soon disappeared from view: that was how slowly I could get by), I was a bit ashamed but defended myself in my mind: I had come without knowing I was trekking and though I love walking, I wasn’t used to walking for longer distances.

It doesn’t help seeing people run down the stone steps: mossy ones at that. I fell down a couple of times and am very close to tears: the knapsack is heavy, I have an umbrella in hand and there is no railing, only the sounds of greenery: crickets crying, birds warbling, the sound of water that I cannot see. I have one fall that could have been nasty: at a bend that was on the edge to God knows what and so I decide on a walking stick and picking up a small branch I am on my way on the trail. My guide tells me that the villagers clean off the fungi and mosses on the stones from time to time so that commuters on the trek do not fall down. Villagers trek this route to bring in supplies from the outside world…and I shudder thinking: what would happen if the salt ran out while cooking? My mind boggled at the thought of people running up and down the trail for basic amenities: there are no shops in the village, none at all; just 12 houses on bamboo stilts scattered across, 3 of them with one electric bulb each.

It takes me 1 hour 50 minutes to reach my host’s house on account of the numerous stops (vertigo partly), very hungry (had missed lunch) and tired. The fire at the hearth is welcoming after the chill of the spring water I had washed my feet with before entering the house. My mind is blank due to hunger and the sight of cucumber being cooked and the jack fruit that gets steamed by default (maize, jack fruit seeds, spring onions are kept on a loft over the fire hearth) suddenly makes me grateful. The ache in my limbs cries for rest, BUT the villagers come in batches of 4-5 people to check me out. Fortunately for me, the language barrier comes to my rescue (since they know only Khasi, which I dont) and I get to sleep on a “mattress” made of sacks stitched together. I drift off with vague conscious partly of a lamp being brought near to the mattress I am on but too tired to inquire or protest. The next day, my host would tell me that many people had come in wanting to look at me and had done so literally by taking the lamp close to my face!

End-point:
Watch this space next week.

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