“Maidam, aapko pata hai, mor pankh kyu failata hai?” asked Totaram, as his namesake, a parakeet, flew by. I answered enthusiastically, “Girlfriend attract karne ke liye.” “Naheee!” he replied, visibly glad that he was about to impart a valuable trivia to an urban babe in the woods, “phemale ko rijhaane ke liye.” Well, okay then.
Our trip to the the Keoladeo National Park, formerly Bharatpur bird sanctuary, a World Heritage Site was full of such amusing moments and more.
Situated four-and-a-half hours away from Noida (180km), this is a good weekend getaway. The journey is made easier by the fact that Yamuna Expressway connecting Noida to Agra is your road for most part. The worst begins once you get off that road at its Mathura exit and make your way to Bharatpur. Upon crossing the chaotic town followed by its cantonment, you will be greeted by the 40km-long State Highway 33 to Bharatpur. It is preferable to cover this in day time since the flyovers, roads are ridden with potholes and random speedbreakers that people have erected. The average speed drops to about 20kmph. A pitiable condition given how famous these two destinations are! We could not even see a single decent dhaba on that route.
Coming to Bharatpur, we had booked a two-night stay at Hotel Sunbird. At first sight, we were troubled by its proximity to the main road. But once inside, we felt adequately insulated from the noise and chaos. Our room was tastefully done, and the hotel owner was kind enough to offer us weary souls hot cups of masala tea. The place was just 5 mins away from the park. We had an early dinner (greasy as most Rajasthani foods are) and retired. We had to be up at 6 to start on our birding tour next day. Our hotel staff was accustomed to this and ensured breakfast was packed and ready.
While Masai Mara has hot air balloon safaris, Bharatpur has cycle rickshaws. 150 rupees an hour; rickshaw puller doubles up as guide; stop as many times; ask anything – too good, right? Old man Totaram was our ride and guide. Armed with a packed breakfast and a pair of binoculars – a last minute crucial decision – we jumped into his cycle rickshaw. Totaram gave his pedal a shove and off we went with many other rickshaws into the wilderness.
For the more serious bird watchers, there are guide services available. Totaram was a knowledgeable fellow but incoherent. We couldn’t quite grasp most bird names but it seemed like he knew most of them (or we knew nothing at all). Teal Duck, Saras crane and Snake bird are a few birds I can identify if I really strain my memory. But the excitement of spotting a rare bird through the binoculars, hearing their calls and cries and seeing the world’s tiniest bird – tailor bird – in front of our eyes are experiences that I will cherish.
Keoladeo National Park is recognised as one of the world’s most important bird breeding and feeding grounds. The royal hunting reserve of the Maharajas and the British – where Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India from 1936 to 1943, famously shot thousands of ducks with his hunting party in a single day – was declared a national park in 1982. Today it is home to over 370 species of birds and animals such as the basking python, painted storks, deer, nilgai, hyenas and more.
Birds fly in from places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Central Asia, China, J&K, Mongolia and Russia; some to escape the harsh winters of their regions and others in search of food. According to UNESCO, the park was the only known wintering site of the central population of the critically endangered Siberian crane. But, mysteriously, Siberian cranes have stopped visiting since 2002, locals inform.
One has to traverse 12 km to be able to see the park in its entirety. We managed to cover 6 km in 4.5 hours. With the sun beating down hard, we decided to head back from the mid point – which is what most people do. Despite the influx of tourists, the park is clean, boundary walls in place, there is no untoward traffic. If you buy a packet of chips from one of the inside shops, it will be served on a plate, so there’s no chance of littering. Garbage bins are actually used diligently.
Winter has started and birds too have begun arriving. However, planning a trip in January is a better idea as, by then, all the migratory birds come in and the weather is perfect, too. While planning take into account the fact that you’ll need at least two trips inside to get a somewhat complete picture of the park. Also, located very close to the main gate is the interpretation centre named after ornithologist Dr Salim Ali.
The Right To Information (RTI) Act 2005 turned 12 this week.
It carries a different meaning for different people.
To the poor, it is a way to ensure the government delivers what is entitled to them. To the activist, it is a tool to unearth what is wrong. To the politician, it offers a chance to play the victim and strengthen his defence. To a cheat, it grants an opportunity for blackmail. To a journalist, it remains the easiest access to a scoop without putting one’s source in discomfort.
How popular the act is can be gauged by the fact that over 6 million (and counting) applications seeking information are filed annually with authorities at the centre, state and district level. As activist and former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi told me, “At least on three occasions, the government tried changing the Act and failed. It speaks of how strongly the citizenry and civil society upholds it”. Few are aware that RTI Rating which analyses the ‘quality of world’s access to information laws’ ranks our legislation as the fifth best in the world. Mexico tops the chart and our neighbour Sri Lanka is a close third.
Let me stop you right now if your chest is swelling with pride.
The RTI Act is choking. Or as Nikhil Dey, a senior activist from the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said, “The Act has been able to withstand a lot but will it not be injured?”
At play is a devious scheme, a quiet and cunning stifling of the act’s implementation. The players remain faceless, beneficiaries too obvious to state.
The ailment can be identified by reading the superbly documented report, ‘Tilting the Balance of Power: Adjudicating the RTI Act’ by RaaG and Satark Nagrik Sangathan. Some of its points:
Of the over 6 million applications filed every year only about 5 per cent reach the Information Commissions on appeal. Citizens either lack awareness or resources.
Not more than 45 per cent of the applications seeking information are successful. Less than 10 per cent of the unsuccessful 55 per cent end up file an appeal.
Collective backlog of unresolved application (where data was available) as of December 31, 2015 was 187974 cases. Pendency is rising implying the time taken in attending to your appeal is growing longer. In Assam, where no State Information Commissioner was appointed from January 1, 2012 to December 2014 and not a single Information Commissioner from March 2014 to December 2014, the waiting period for an appeal is 30 years! Not too long ago, even Madhya Pradesh had a waiting time of 60 years! It didn’t really reform – it stopped sharing data on its site.
How has it come to this?
“Unfortunately, Act gives the govt of the day a big say in who it wants to appoint as Information Commissioners,” stated Dey.
That is when the government wants to.
In the national capital, in 2015, the centre was shamed into appointing a Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners after activists knocked the doors of the Delhi High Court. By then, the Central Information Commission was headless for over ten months.
And what happens when the government, whether at the centre or in the states want to make appointments?
Section 12(5) of the Act says ‘persons of eminence in public life’ and belonging to a wide variety of fields can be appointed as Information Commissioners.
Here is what really happens.
The report cited earlier says, “A 2014 survey says 60 per cent of the Information Commissioners (ICs) across the country and 87 per cent of the CICs were former civil servants. 77 per cent of the CICs were from IAS cadre”.
The commissions have power to punish by penalising erring government servants and ordering the release of information. But, “Only in 1.3 per cent of the cases where penalty on erring civil servant was imposable did the Information Commissioners impose the same”, says the report.
Gandhi’s experience from the time he was a commissioner made him state, “Commissions use penalty very rarely as if it was death penalty. The total number of penalties levied by all the commissioners since beginning in 12 years is 1211. Out of these I alone had levied 520 penalties”.
Dey said, “This govt at the centre came in reaping the benefits of RTI act yet a pro-disclosure approach is hardly seen”.
I’d like to end on a positive note but the story shared by the tireless retired naval officer, Commodore Lokesh Batra, who also is an RTI activist, is difficult to overlook. Worried over growing vacancies in the Central Information Commission, Batra wanted to examine how the issue was being dealt with. In a reply dated September 29, 2017, the CIC told him, “The said subject has not been dealt with in any file”.
Since President John F Kennedy told us ‘sincerity is always subject to proof’, I ask – what do you see?
Speaking at Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the media for its coverage of the first anniversary of the surgical strikes. These strikes were conducted in the aftermath of the Uri camp attack which led to the death of 18 army personnel on September 18 last year.
Incidentally, even as the PM was speaking, security personnel in Srinagar were responding to a boisterous attempt by three terrorists to script another Uri-like attack. They targeted the battalion headquarters of the Border Security Force (BSF) where close to 200 personnel and their families were present.
In the year gone by, several such attempts have been made by the terrorists. The surgical strikes, one can say, have neither deterred them nor their Pakistan-based handlers.
Yet none of this came in the way of ‘celebrating’ the operation.
Did anyone ask if all measures to prevent such Uri-like camp intrusions had been implemented? If yes, why are they still taking place? If they haven’t been implemented then why so?
These strikes were meant to be yet another option in deterring Pakistan from aiding and abetting terrorism in Kashmir. What are the other options? How have we implemented them? What happened to the question of delivering better governance in the state which to my mind is the biggest step in coming closer to solving quagmire?
For one, Delhi claims it has refined the counter-terror mechanism in Kashmir because of which it has achieved more terrorist kills in comparison to previous years. Adding to the argument, those on the ground insist the present year is a calmer one (167 violent incidents recorded till June 30, 2017) coming after 322 recorded incidents – highest in the last five years – in 2016. A senior officer in Srinagar reasoned, “We are controlling better, more tightly than before.”
Along the Line of Control (LoC), the surgical strikes were followed by a severe intensification of cross-LoC firing. The 449 ceasefire violations in 2016, bulk of which were recorded in the aftermath of the surgical strikes, consumed the lives of seven security personnel (not to speak of those 29,000 who had been temporarily displaced or the civilians who’ve been hit, killed or lost property). Interestingly, if you are to keep the casualties in the months of October and November of last year aside, data between April 2016 and March 2017 shows India only lost two service personnel in the firing.
But this isn’t all that happened.
A PRS Legislative Research Jammu and Kashmir Budget analysis of 2017-18 tells us that investment in the state which amounted for Rs 4866 crore from 2009-10 to 2014-15, averaging Rs 973 crore a year, slowed down to Rs 267 crore in 2015-16. What does that mean on the ground? Rate of unemployment for persons between 18-29 years of age in the state hovered at 24.6 per cent when the national average was 13.2 per cent. Among persons between 15-17 years of age, it was at 57.7 per cent when the corresponding national average was 19.8 per cent.
State’s Finance Minister Haseeb A Drabu, on January 11, 2017, made an insightful comment when he said, “Unemployment is a social issue of serious magnitude in the state. Even as the rate of unemployment is supposed to be very high in the state, we do not have actual figures” (http://jakfinance.nic.in/Budget17/speechEng.pdf)
Two recent news reports from Srinagar caught my eye.
The Indian Express reported on October 4 that ‘schools, especially higher secondary ones, have been open for a little more than hundred days throughout the 11-month session so far. It is the second consecutive year that schools in the valley have remained shut for most part of the academic session’. Day after, Hindustan Times quoted, ‘Combined cases of drug abuse and related psychological issues also went up from more than 14,500 cases in 2014 to 33,222 in 2016, a staggering 130% increase in two years. This year till April alone, this number is 13,352’.
Did Delhi and Srinagar face any questions over this?
When I tried finding out a voice on the ground to understand the human story from these numbers, I bumped into Muneeb Mir (37), a businessman operating from Pampore. He said, “We see the iron fist of the government, we see a return to the cordon and search approach we thought we had last seen in the 90s. We understand it helps the rightist agenda of the government to be seen as muscular but what really worries us is this – earlier the narrative of the government was one thing and the narrative of the people the other. Today that line has blurred and this dominating rightist narrative worries us.”
Speaking of anniversaries, it was in October 1947 that Jammu and Kashmir’s erstwhile ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh signed the instrument of accession, paving the way for the state to become a part of India. An undated letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to Hari Singh published in Ramachandra Guha’s seminal ‘India After Gandhi’ carried the following text:
“Even if military forces held Kashmir for a while, a later consequence might be a strong reaction against this. Essentially, therefore, this is a problem of psychological approach to the mass of the people and of making them feel they will be benefited by being in the Indian Union. If the average Muslim feels that he has no safe or secure place in the Union, then obviously he will look elsewhere. Our basic policy must keep this in view, or else we fail”.
On the 15th of March at 7:05pm I sent my wife Sapna a screenshot of the medical report I had received. She responded, “What the fuck”.
The day had gone by rather smoothly.
My request for a documentary profiling the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Garud commandos had been approved. Thus I spent the day at Chandinagar, an air force base in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, lost in what unfolded before my eyes. (See photo)
Later in the day, a call I missed from the hospital reminded me of the unfinished agenda.
The lady at the other end wouldn’t tell. She’d rather email.
When she did, we had an explanation for a lump on the left hand side of my neck which ordinary medication couldn’t shake off. I’d read up and suggested to my doctor the worst-case scenario only to be chided for ‘over-enthusiasm’. However, my guess turned out correct. Mine was a case of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, they ruled.
At Sapna’s reply, I smiled. On my forehead was cold sweat. The mind was agitated. And my day still had work left in it.
After realising that this no longer was a nightmare from which I would wake up to a ‘normal day’, I wrote in my diary:
“We will deal with this and deal with this well. There is one thing I promise now – my zest, my love and my humanity is only going to grow stronger. And I swear to whomsoever it may concern that I am going to beat the shit out of this. Cheers”
Over the next few days we worked with doctors to understand the full picture. It was heartening to see my organisation standing by me. The leadership granted me concessions I had not granted myself.
Of everyone, I was most nervous about informing my mother. Living on her own in Mumbai, I did not want her alone and worried at the same time. But her response, when I informed her in person, left me relieved.
As television journalists, our acquaintances see us even if we don’t see them. It also is our job to stay in touch with as many as possible. This ailment forced upon me a hiatus from which I did not know when I would emerge. Some who were concerned began asking why they weren’t seeing me. Every time someone asked about my health, I told them the truth. People offered assistance, advice, personal stories or simply their best wishes. That so many felt so strongly was almost therapeutic.
I was also lucky in that I did not suffer a single symptom associated with my ailment. The disease was at an early stage of its existence revealed the tests and consultations.
A slower but testing experience was to begin.
By the middle of April, I embarked on six cycles of chemotherapy under the soft-spoken and tireless Dr Dinesh Bhurani of the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre in the capital. Those undergoing chemotherapy are warned about multiple side effects which include but are not limited to pain, sleeplessness, mood swings and nausea. For me, it was a period of observing the resilience of one’s body and mind. I was impressed how well my body faced up to regular doses of controlled and targeted toxicity. There was discomfort yet it never got quite as bad. It also was a period of seeing oneself in a new light quite literally as chemotherapy took most of my hair away!
With time on hand, I read, wrote, saw and learnt as much as I could. Sleeping without an alarm and meditating daily helped restore my health.
News about cancer fatalities broke my heart. They also filled me with fear. The words, ‘what if’ never really left my side. In many ways, struggling with cancer is akin to climbing a difficult mountain. Sad as it may sound, not everyone who begins necessarily completes it. I came across many whose situation wasn’t as comfortable as mine. I hope they experience a turnaround soon.
Fortunately by the middle of September, scans could no longer find cancerous cells in my body.
This would not have been possible without the person I, even before my cancer, referred to as my ‘Rock’, my wife. If one moment she was my loving companion, the next she could be a cop knocking sense into me. She went to maddening lengths so that I ate the right food and stayed away from infections. All of it came at a price – her stress levels were peaking and it showed. I’ve promised to not make her worry about my health. Also, being a far better writer than yours truly, she has penned a perceptive (and shorter) piece on this experience which I’d urge you to read (https://goo.gl/Szzf7C).
Cancer can make one’s knees buckle, to begin with that is. It’s a dreadful disease but one from which we are at a safe distance or so we all would like to believe. Cancers associated with habits aside, the disease can affect anyone. After all, it is a cell which goes rogue and increases its tribe. Having said that, I must add that cancer is weak in its early days. It is made weaker by a spirit that is both, happy and strong.
Why did it happen to me?
Science does not offer an explanation. But the fundamentals for a healthy and stable existence were not in place in my case.
Forget others, I used be extremely harsh on myself. No matter what one did or achieved, I’d always be unhappy, unsatisfied. In seeking more and better (not your healthy, motivated way, mind you), in punishing myself, I stand guilty of having caused my mind and body immense and undue stress. As someone who believed that life is all and only about work, I used to look down upon the very thought of sleeping beyond five hours a day. While I did find time to exercise but my eating habits and what they call ‘work-life balance’ consistently left a lot to be desired.
While stress is common, its impact on individuals is not.
My journey, for what it’s worth, has made me realise that our body and spirit have in them the keys to our wellness. We only need to cultivate the right environment.
Cancer came to me as a pause. Thankfully in leaving, it gave me the opportunity to reset.
WRITER WORKS WITH INDIA TODAY TV AS A SPECIALIST ON CONFLICT AND SECURITY ISSUES
The background score of The Dark Knight has graced many of our drives. Although it is a bore fest for me, for my husband it is exhilarating every time. In hindsight, I’m grateful for that; grateful to Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer, too, for that was the background score of our lives for the past few months.
My better (more resilient) half was detected with Diffuse Large B-cell Lymphoma – a form of cancer, neither peculiar nor familiar – in March this year. He was just 32 years old then, and was basking in the glory of having flown in two fighter planes, bracing and acing all its manic manoeuvres. He was on a high until curiosity got the better of him and he decided to get the seemingly harmless lump in his neck investigated. Ignorance is not a virtue for good journalists, impatience is.
I remember being not too bothered when he said the lump wasn’t decreasing in size despite the medicines he’d been taking. Our physician suspected TB or some sort of infection which may have just flared up the lymph node. But we pressed for a clearer diagnosis. An FNAC procedure was done on March 14. Report was due next day.
On the evening of March 15, while at my desk in office, I received a message from my husband. He had been out early morning doing what he loved – working his ass off on a short documentary for his channel. “The report is out,” it said. The cells had tested ‘positive’ for malignancy; ‘likely non-Hodgkin lymphoma’. My first reaction (and I’m not proud of it) was ‘WHAT THE FUCK’. That’s also my first reaction every time someone breaks a queue. But this broke my heart and my spirit. There was no time for a discussion or a false show of strength. He had a meeting scheduled with someone important.
I rushed to the loo to regain composure. The word ‘malignant’ kept playing in my head. I was bogged down by doubts and fears. All I wanted to do was hug him and never let go.
It was frightening… it hit me that our world was about to change for the worse. Having lived an extremely protected life, I had little courage or conviction to face what lay ahead. Or so I thought.
When we met at the parking lot, both of us had awkward smiles, tears hiding behind them. I had to revoke my ‘no PDA’ policy and crash into him right there. It’s amazing what a hug can do, especially a big, bear hug.
“It’s got the wrong guy,” he said, when we were back home, in his filmy demeanour, which is usually irksome. He said his body is Gotham, the cancer is Joker and he, Bruce Wayne. I sagely took on the role of Alfred.
What followed left us flustered. Myriad appointments with doctors, innumerable tests, hospital visits – a web of medical maze. We had put off informing family until the PET-CT scan was done, specifying the exact nature of the disease. There was a hint of happiness on our faces when our oncologist informed us that the cancer was in Stage 1A, and the probability of a cure was high.
Informing family about it was emotionally draining. Sounding confident, aware and in control – when the reality was a far cry from it all – was difficult. All of them gave us unstinting love and support. Our parents were especially pained by it, but remained positive throughout.
It has been six months since. We are six chemos down. The latest PET-CT scan has given us reasons to cheer. Our oncologist is satisfied with the outcome. Although one is aware of the fragility the disease brings with it, having emerged stronger is a great accomplishment.
The Dark Knight has risen. The Joker has fallen. Gotham is getting back on its feet. Meanwhile, Alfred continues to give unsolicited, albeit valuable, advice.
Many are surprised, some are shocked and the rest are silent.
In October 2015, DK Pathak, the former Director General (DG) of the Border Security Force (BSF) remarked how the ‘elite’ force he was ‘proud to lead’ had ‘very less’ number of corruption cases. Within 20 months, things have a turn for the worse or so it seems. In a two-page order issued last month by the current DG, KK Sharma’s office, almost all posts and appointments in the force ‘have been identified as sensitive posts and corruption prone areas in the BSF’. No justification, further explanation or course of action has been provided in the said order.
The order was issued by the Pers Section of the Pers Directorate which deals with personnel-related issues and can be equated with the Human Resource (HR) wing in other organisations. The order has been ‘approved by the competent authority’ (a reference to the Director General himself) and goes on to list six formations which it believes are corruption-prone and sensitive. Beginning with all appointments and directorates within the Force Headquarters, the order goes on to list Command Headquarters, training institutions, Frontier Headquarters all the way to the Sector Headquarters and Battalion Headquarters. A closer reading of the order reveals how even junior and functional offices have not been spared from the taint of being ‘corruption-prone’. For example, those dealing with ration and welfare at the battalion headquarters have been placed under this order’s ambit. Those dealing with recruitment, postings, construction, cash and accounts and even vigilance matters will have a tougher scrutiny over their work thanks to this order.
The exercise to identify such posts is a routine one but the broad sweep with which almost the entire organisation has been identified has led to raised eyebrows.
“The length and scope of this list is unprecedented since it almost covers the entire organisation. Some posts in the procurement department, because they involve dealing with external suppliers, may be considered sensitive and corruption prone. But how is the motor transport department for example being seen with the same lens? As I see it, pe
ople have failed in applying their minds”, said SK Sood, former Additional Director General of the BSF. It was believed that this list could also be used to justify transfers before the completion of tenures. Interestingly while the order states ‘all appointments’ for nearly all the formations, it also contradicts itself and specifies posts which have been brought under this order.
Many within the force are seeing this as a measure of the panic in the wake of the controversy involving Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav who had earlier this year alleged corruption leading to poor nutrition for lower functionaries of the force. To prove his point Yadav had uploaded on social media video clips in which he was seen displaying the allegedly substandard food being served on duty. Yadav was dismissed from service on April 19 this year by a Summary Security Force Court which heard the case from April 13. Serving BSF men who spoke to this correspondent on the basis of anonymity said the force was trying to improve and tighten its vigilance component.
Despite sending a questionnaire neither the BSF Headquarters nor the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) presented their viewpoint on the issue.
A discussion involving a trip to India’s north eastern region often stalls on two grounds – poor connectivity and the lack of availability of vegetarian food options. If you read this piece, perhaps you will raise your hand and beg to differ the next time you find yourself amidst such talk.
Meghalaya is known to most Indians as the Sanskrit term for ‘the abode of clouds’. Flanked by the state of Assam to its north and east and Bangladesh to its south and west, this cool, clean, calm and captivating destination needs no endorsement.
Our story begins differently. For us, Meghalaya was never the option.
Troubled by the unending strife in Jammu and Kashmir, we began looking for alternatives as the date came closer. While most destinations were ‘out of bounds’ because of the rainy season, Meghalaya was ‘open’ exactly on that account.
Since Meghalaya has no full-fledged airport (Shillong has one which does not operate regular flights), we took a flight to Guwahati. Upon landing, we hit the National Highway (NH) 40 which connects the city to Silchar (also in Assam), poking in and out of Meghalaya along the way. The joy in driving on a road like this was soon upon us – Assam was on one side of the highway and Meghalaya on the opposite. While at the former’s end there was nothing but homes and wilderness, the latter’s side brimmed with activity, petrol pumps, liquor shops and commercial enterprises to which people were flocking to. “Thanks to the lower taxes in Meghalaya, the Assamese cross the highway to make purchases,” explained our driver.
As the highway snaked out of Guwahati, chaotic streets, bogged down with vehicles gave way to a well-made, four-lane highway dotted with a sheet of tall, slender and distinct-appearing betel nut plantations on both sides. Cute, colourful stalls set up by locals selling organically-grown pineapple, banana and home-made pickles jostled for space in the lush landscape.
For those who may want to schedule a meal along the route, wait for Byrnihat, a town along the NH40. Our driver led us to a restaurant called ‘JIVA’ which served palatable fare and hygiene standards were impressive. We’d happily recommend it to anyone.
As the sun was receding, we were inching closer to Shillong.
Whatever little we saw of it, we did not like. Narrow streets, endless traffic, littering and a town appearing quite worn down, it definitely was anything but love at first sight.
Meanwhile, our destination was a place few haven’t heard about – Cherrapunjee.
With the altitude rising, the road thinned out. The low-hanging clouds reduced the visibility. Does that cause a worry? Peek out of the window into the neatly-built colourful homes and the abundant fruit-bearing trees. For a ten rupee note, the locals will even allow you to pluck a few, juicy wood apples.
The chill was setting in. The rainfall, however, was nowhere around.
At the end of a seven hour-long road ride, we broke the journey 15km from Sohra, the name the locals use for Cherrapunjee. At the base of the town is a hamlet called Laitkynsen and in the wilderness there is the simple yet serene Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort where we stayed. All we needed was a warm wash, a simple meal and a bed to call it a day.
The next day was slated for ‘sight-seeing’ (not a term we fancy too much).
Sohra, by the virtue of its heritage, by now has a list of places to see which includes waterfalls, vantage points, caves, churches dating back to the 19th century and gardens. If you find yourself interested in these, make sure you do not venture out around the weekend as the rush can be immense as we found out. Of all the places, we enjoyed our time at the sprawling Arwah Lumshynna cave complex the most.
We gathered that the villagers in Laitkynsen were developing a bridge by entwining trunks of betel nut trees or bamboos with living roots of the Indian rubber tree (botanical name: Ficus Elastica). It isn’t as easy though. Apart from leaving matters undisturbed, it can anywhere between ten to fifteen years for even a small section of those roots to firm up. However those in Meghalaya aware of the state’s rising tourism profile are realising it is an investment worth the wait.
The locals, from the Khasi tribe are gentle though largely inward-looking. From our discussions with the resort owner (a Tamilian born in Meghalaya), we learned how they were initially against the idea of letting tourists come closer. “They were happy selling potato chips and waving good bye to tourists but we are trying to make them realise the worth of what they have here,” he said. He began his resort after fierce opposition in 1998 and has employed several villagers in full and part time roles.
We welcomed the cool evening with some wafers and coffee. As the colour-changing sky darkened and the rains arrived, we shifted indoors this time in the company of a shy lot of local musicians who strummed up some wonderful melodies only for us.
The next morning we bid the staff farewell and began our journey for Tyrna. This village was the starting point for a trek up to the wonder called the ‘Double Decker Living Root Bridge’. As the name suggests, it is a two-tier bridge made of living roots which spans a waterfall. Located in a village which goes by the name Nongriat, the route entails a three hour trek involving ascent, descent and a lot in between.
The villagers have built wide steps out of concrete which is good and bad – good since it is easier to navigate and bad because the rains can make the surface slippery. Along the way, we touched some homes which served us the local brew, witnessed butterflies of countless hues, felt our weariness disappear by sitting next to rivulets and waterfalls before starting again and crossed some mighty, roaring rivers by walking over a swinging bridge, made of metal strings! Our companions, apart from each other, were bamboo sticks – a must for hikers – which we rented from the “Bros N Two Sis’s Shop” for Rs 20 each. (This shop is closed on Sunday, by the way).
Once in Nongriat, where the locals utilised their time in making and selling honey, we couldn’t help but wonder at the spectacle before us.
To our advantage, we learnt our home-stay was hardly ten steps away from the double decker! Some hot ‘chowmein’ into our bellies, we spent the next few hours swimming in the gentle pool of the waterfall or reading and relaxing by it. The comfort and facilities on offer were minimal. There was another couple in there with who we exchanged notes about our exploration hitherto.
For all its allure, life in Nongriat was hardly as good. With no roads, no market or even a medical facility, just about everything in the village meant trekking nearly 5-6 hours in and out of Sohra. “Everything has to be carried on one’s back. If someone falls ill, things become really difficult”, said Charlie, who owned that home-stay.
There are trekking destinations further from Nongriat however our schedule did not permit us to undertake them. So we lazed around longer and then started back to Sohra. It was drizzling and it made our journey muggier. However, we were back where we started this time completing the route in less than two hours!
We were definitely hungry by now!
An ever-smiling Uttam Koch was the manager at Nalgre’s restaurant, a by-the-road eatery in Sohra. The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food. Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to. Mr Koch, on the day we were leaving Sohra, told us he was building rooms to stay in which would be ready soon.
Mr Koch’s staff dished out their standard egg and chicken thalis with hot rice, dal and potato fry which we devoured and the next minute, looked forward to.
The first time we went in there was because it seemed clean and less crowded. The next time, in fact the next three times, we went there for its simple yet delightful food.
Our journey thereon turned eastwards.
Heard of Mawlynnong? A Google search will tell you it is a known destination in Meghalaya because of the tag it earned – that of being, “Asia’s cleanest village”. None of the locals could explain the antecedents of this tag but more on that later.
Brightly-coloured bungalows, both big and small, neat streets, roads lined by pretty, flower-bearing plants – it looked like a postcard. We checked into a home-stay by which flowed a quiet stream.
About 2-3km from Mawlynnong is Riwai and its living root bridges. The reason Riwai stands out is because that is where we learnt that the locals would charge us money to enter the village and funnel a major chunk of earning into beautification and maintenance. “The government doesn’t come into the picture. The better we maintain, the more tourists come and better we earn,” said a villager.
The manager of our home-stay, a college drop-out named Khrew was a talkative fellow. At our request, he called in the newly-elected village headman of Mawlynnong. “We have 502 members here and sanitation is something we have believed in since over a hundred years. There cannot be a household built without a toilet, it’s our rule. While most people clean their homes and surroundings, everyday a fixed number of us also do community cleaning,” he said. When we quizzed him about the title of cleanest village, he replied, “Ah you can do Google search. Even I am not sure”.
It no longer matters.
Mawlynnong, which even found a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio talk in 2015, already has its hands full. There aren’t enough home-stays to accommodate tourists. The road, Khrew told us, “Needs to be widened for so many vehicles coming everyday”.
Dawki is a border town on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border and located at an hour’s drive from Mawlynnong. Nestled within the Jaintia Hills, this town has nothing remarkable to offer. We particularly recall the pathetic state of roads, the resulting dust and catching glimpses of the people in the corresponding town across the border. Of interest to us was a village, 8km from the town, which went by the name Shnongpdeng. The village is located on the banks of the Umngot river which we heard flowed with crystal-like clear waters. The bumpy ride turned out fruitless as heavy sedimentation in the river ensured we did not see anything like what was told. It was the wrong time of the year to visit. Anyway, we hired a boat and the 30-minute exploratory ride even though under the 12 noon sun, turned out an enjoyable experience.
On our way back we crossed many posts manned by personnel from the Border Security Force (BSF). The name of one such post struck me and we stopped our car. Pyrdiwah was the first in a series of Indo-Bangladeshi border posts involved in skirmishes in the summer of 2001 which led to the loss of 16 BSF men. Back then Bangladesh forces walked in and claimed the post. Happy to report that today not only does an Indian flag fly atop but also the BSF reported very cordial ties with their Bangladeshi counterparts. One point to ponder about though – the BSF, raised in 1965 and stationed there for decades, still operates out of tin roofs and shanty-like structures. The government hasn’t been able to acquire land for them or build decent facilities. When we were around, the temperature in those tin-structures felt way higher than outside. Couple this with the earlier-mentioned condition of the road in such a sensitive region. Questions our nationalistic netas must answer.
Back in Mawlynnong, we noted the sun’s descent from the confines of an open to air wooden gallery, a part of a tree house where also greeting us were gentle strokes of cool breeze. To our amazement, the owner of our home-stay very casually shared with us how it was locals who’d built those tree houses.
Those in Mawlynnong have always lived a quiet and compartmentalised life, we were told. Notwithstanding the influx of tourists, six days of the week are alike even today. On Sunday, time is devoted to the church and community issues.
Something we had not encountered before – the place of our stay, (a home-stay by the name ‘Ilajong’ which means my own), had a lake in the middle. “Anyone can come, pay us Rs 100 and fish in this water”, said the owner.
Our stay in rural Meghalaya came to a close. Before we reached Guwahati for our flight back home, we wanted to closer look at the capital, the hill city we’d earlier crossed en route Sohra.
Rejecting the ‘to-do’ list, we gave Shillong Peak and Elephant Falls a miss and headed to the shopping zone of ‘Police Bazaar’, located in the heart of the city. The prices are negotiable especially where handicrafts are concerned and for about Rs 2500 we purchased a hell lot of material. Lots of restaurants offering varying cuisines, including the local Khasi, are co-located so the meals were taken care of.
Once done, we checked into an old, large bungalow in a quiet corner of the city. In addition to an affable air about it, Bo-ville also had a small garden and a fireplace.
At sundown on that Saturday evening, some research online showed Café Shillong Heritage, perched atop a hill overlooking the hill town, as the place to be. We did enjoy the fare but the ambience, the live performance left a lot to be desired.
Our last morning was meant to take us to a village by the name Laitlum outside of which was said to lay the most breathtaking place Shillong had to offer – the canyons of Laitlum. An hour’s drive from the city, we reached early in the morning, thanks to the humble staff at Bo-ville who packed in some hot parathas and tea for us.
Green, vast meadows, views of endless mountains emptying into a splendid valley, low-hanging clouds, plants and insects of a magnificent variety and a tiny village at the bottom as our destination, the trek at Laitlum could not have been more welcoming. The descent was thrilling at first. However, we were soon engulfed by clouds. A slight sprinkle made the rocky surface extremely slippery. A couple of close calls and mounting pressure on our knees, we decided to call of the trek. That was not the time.
Of course the villagers used that route daily for supplies. There was in fact a rickety pulley from bottom to top so as to lug their heavier items.
In a state known for its spices and condiments, a visit to Shillong’s Bada Bazaar, howsoever damp and filthy a place it may be is a must. And thus when we reached there, we returned with lots of spices and of course the famous Khasi red rice.
On our final evening, we did not want to leave the quiet environs of Bo-ville. Sitting in the porch with coffee and the puttering of raindrops on the roof punctuating the conversation, we relived the minutes, the hours and days we’d spent in the lovely state of Meghalaya.
This journey was made in August 2016
The essay you read is based on handwritten notes made along the journey
We’d reached out to GREENER PASTURES for organising this trip for us. Their service we found was reliable and flexible even to last-minute changes. Mr Bornav was our contact. (+918404002125/+919435747471/www.thegreenerpastures.com)