photo: Seven Sisters Falls, Cherapunji; books by Frater, Binu K John
Guwahati was a cauldron when Air Asia’s direct flight from Kochi touched down on Assam’s Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport with thermometer reading 40 degree Celsius. But most of the passengers from the Seven Sisters of the North East did not mind the searing heat even though many of them were lately attuned to the temperate climate of Kerala, their adopted homeland.
Soaked in Sohra’s monsoon fury
In fact, almost half of the 180 passengers of the Airbus A320-200 emanated from Kochi and its hinder lands where they earned sumptuous sums to afford an air ticket instead of a three or four-day gruelling journey by train. While many of them earned Rs 1000 a day, their wages in all the North Eastern states hovered around 350 for men and 200 for women.
.Thomas Menamparampil Guwahati’s Archbishop Emeritus
I had re-read Alexander Frater’s Viking classic of 1990 ‘Chasing the Monsoon’ and journalist writer Binu K John’s absorbing modern travelogue ‘Under a Cloud’ (Penguin 2004 and Rupa 2013) before embarking the latest adventure. Both writers had traversed the country from Kanyakumari to Cherrapunji to see for themselves how the South West Monsoon nourished the granaries of India or left them parching if it arrived late or discharged fewer rains leading to food shortage and starvation for millions.
Dawki where the Megha river flows into Bangla; trucks on way to border
The three-hour journey to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, was surprisingly soothing as the temperature went down when the Innova we hired at a cost of Rs 5000 cruised effortlessly through the hazy mountainous country. During the nights the temperature dipped to 13 degree when we had to put on woolen pull overs and crawl under heavy mattresses.
Feets away at the Tamalin border post
Shillong, the summer capital of East India Company, is a hill station with a mix of colonial edifices like the century old Arch Bishop’s House and a polo ground turned into a golf course and modern scourges like prolonged traffic jam. You need more than guts to get away from the Police Bazar shopping avenue where tens and thousands gather every day. Trattoria at the very entrance offers exclusive Khasi indigenous cuisine of rice and pork in a variety of shapes and tastes.
Archbishop House in Shillong, diocese est’d in 1889
The city suburb of Mawlai had a unique seven storey Don Bosco Museum that showcased the best of North East in 56,000 sq ft of floor space and 15,154 sq ft of display wall space. Created by the DBCIC--Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures and mooted by the late Salesian stalwart Dr. Sebastian Karotembrel, the museum was opened by Sonia Gandhi in 2010. Its multiple galleries adorn photos, paintings and life-like sculptures of the different tribes of the region with insights into their colourful but individualistic life style.
Tura Auxiliary bishop Jose Chirackal; Navati greetings to rtd bp Manassery
In the seventh floor mini theatre we were treated with an 8 minutes video show Mist and Magic—India’s North East. The musical tribute was so captivating and evocative that we bought a few copies of the CD. Based on the lyrics by Thomas Menamparampil, Guwahati’s Archbishop Emeritus, it was conceptualised by Salesians Joseph Pulinthanath and V.M Thomas and composed and sung by Tarali Sarma and Simanta Sekhar. Beautiful.
NEHU academics Binu Mathew and wife Lolly at Tura campus.
I remember meeting Archbishop Dr. Menamparambil, 85, many decades ago when he mediated between the government and the extremists and brought peace among the warring communities in the North East. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011. ‘Attempt the Impossible’ and ‘The Challenges of Cultures’ are among his notable books.
Shillong from the terrace of Don Bosco Museum
We hired two cars for self-driving from Guwahati and drove to Tura on the western frontier of Meghalaya, some 222 km away. We were pleasantly surprised by the beautiful National Highway that we took to reach Tura in a leisurely pace of 8 hours but to our shock the government owned BSNL had no connectivity anywhere. There was an airport in Jenjal 35 km before Tura but was non-functional. We took a different more circuitous inner line to return to Shillong. The entire route was National Highway with much less traffic but lush greenery all along.
Visiting writer flanked by teacher couple Sindhu, Justy in Jowai
In Tura we stayed in the Old Bishops House built in 1931 as guests of the Malayali Auxiliary Bishop Dr. Jose Chirackal from Karukutty, Thrissur. He graciously invited us to join him for breakfast before attending the morning Holy Mass he celebrated. He just had come back after a 12 hour gruelling road trip to Afrunachal to rerturn to attend the 90th birthday of the retired Bishop George Mamalassery. We found diocese's Procurattor Fr. Kurian Padijarayil from Pala too busy with accounts for the next morning's audit team. But he was ready to accommodate us in the Old Bishop's House.
We also met the professor couple Dr. Binu Mathew and Dr. Lolly S. Pereira who taught horticulture in the department of Rural Development and Agricultural Production (RDAP) Tura campus of NEHU-North Eastern Hill University headquartered in Shillong. It is a Central University.
Born in Aalo erstwhile Along in the West Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh, Binu has his roots in Kottayam. His father Mathew and mother Mariamma were government servants in Arunachal. Father is no more but 76-year old mother lives in a retirement home run by the church in Kottayam. They are three brothers, with the eldest in Itanagar, and the second in Dubai. “For us reaching our mother is easier for the Dubai brother on a 3- hour flight to Kochi and then by car. For us, from Tura it takes a minimum of four hours to arrive at the airport in Guwahati. Then it is another 10-12 hours in the least,” Binu explained. It was a revelation!
In Jowai, headquarters of the Jaintia Hills, 65 km from Shillong, we met Justy and Sindhu, the last of a Malayali couples teaching mathematics and computer science in two secondary schools one of which was an HSS. Justy from Manathavadi arrived in the North East some 30 years ago. However, their two sons are studying in Kerala. With three more years to go before retirement, Justy wants to build a house in Kozhikkode city and name it Jowai or Jaintiya instead of Kallarackal as a tribute to the place where he spent most of his productive years. Gone are the days of Malayalees in Meghalaya because sons of the soil are now preferred to for employment. Garos, Khasis and Jaintias queue up to do nursing courses as they know that Malayalees have made it to the riches of the Gulf, Europe and North America after doing nursing courses in Meghalaya.
From Jowai it was another 5000 rupees for an up and down Bolero trip to Dawki, a border village, and the model village of Mawlynnong, 30 km away that boasts of a ‘root bridge.’ Dwaki on River Umgnot that flows into Bangaldesh has crystalline waters where you can paddle to the Bangla sandy embankment to shake hands with the fishers there, buy fresh catch paying the price in Indian Rupees. We also went into the Tamalin check post through which Guwahati-Dhaka bus inaugurated by the Prime Ministers Modi and Hasina in 2015 plies every week. BSF which mans the border allowed us to go the extreme point where one could shake hands with a Bangla security personnel.
On the way to Dwaki, we watched at least a thousand trucks loaded with coal and lime stone quarried from the Jaintia Hills inching their way towards the border. They were meant for the cement factories in Bangladesh, particularly the one at Chhatak near Sylhet. There are more than 30 cement factories in Bangla.
Cherrapunji was the last but not the least. Overlooking the water logged paddy fields of Bangladesh, the world’s wettest place in East Khasi district has many Falls but we selected the most splendorous—the Seven Sisters Falls in Mawsmai village that plunge more than a 1000 ft into Bangladesh in seven stages. Sohra in local parlance, Cherrapunji offers many educational institutions. We saw buses with names of St Antony’s and Sohra Government College painted across them busily fetching students in colourful uniforms. Their parents stood unmindful of tourists that flocked Sohra for 161 years ever since it entered the record books with 1,042 inches (26,467 mm) in August 1860–July 1861, and one of the greatest recorded one-month total rainfalls, 366 inches (9,296 mm) in July 1861.
There is a strong contender for the top honour. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Mawsynram, a village 15 km away on a straight line but 80 km away by circuitous mountain route, received 26,000 millimetres (1,000 in) of rainfall in 1985. It also received 745.2 mm of rainfall on 19 August 2015. However, Mawsynram’s claims have not dented the fame of Cherrapunji that earned the distinction more than one and a half century years ago.
According to a statement from India Meteorological Department in New Delhi, dated April 23, Meghalaya received “large excess rainfall” (473. 88 mm which was 99 per cent more than the normal rain fall during the season. “Under the influence of strong south westerly winds from Bay of Bengal to north eastern states at lower tropospheric levels, North East will get widespread rain fall and thunder storms in the coming days,” IMD predicted.
“Are you from Sri Lanka?,” asked a tourist from Kolkata who graciously offered to click our camera phone with a backdrop of the Falls. In the company of a tall turband Sikh, he was so fair and tanned that we mistook him for a Euresian. The pavement tea seller who made two delicious omelettes for us for Rs 80 in two minutes asked the same question. Do we look like Sri Lankans? Obviously Malayalees rarely visit Cherapunji though Assamese, Bengalees and Mumbaikers are in the beeline.