“I learnt by getting to know the forest as a being, feeling its breath in the stillness of days, filling my lungs and my whole being with the freshness it inspires.”
It was partly one of those periodic urges to run away from the world, and partly the wait for monsoons that found me flying on a Saturday morning to Guwahati. Mumbai had been sweltering hot during the previous couple of weeks and even though the lack of sleep the night before should have dragged me down, I found myself wide awake, looking at the crimson shadowy morning, eager to keep moving.
I couldn’t keep up with the running white strands of the clouds, and dozed off peacefully. I was woken up by a sudden turbulence in the bus. Everyone was rushing out and their gaze made it very clear that it would be the opportune moment for me to do the same. The bus that I took to be going to Shillong dropped me at Paltan Bazaar, a busy market in Guwahati. It was 9 in the morning. The clouds had conspired for a showdown while I was asleep. The sky was dark brown, the clouds steady as a rock, refusing to move an inch. Full with anticipation, I continued onwards to Shillong in a shared taxi. The family sharing the taxi with me was not very keen for a conversation, and I too had similar feelings. We continued forward in peace, while the new landscapes ran past me. The brown urban mud soon gave way to green fields, marked by the colors of cattle and reminiscence of spring.
The afternoon is a busy affair for the traders and sellers in Police Bazaar, one of the two major marketplaces in the capital of Meghalaya. I was moving through the streets and stairs, twisting like a serpent through unsuspecting alleys, emerging in a new part of the market which gave me a feeling of Deja Vu. The street was full of fruit and meat shops, with small tea and garment stalls filling the buffer space between them. All these stalls were manned by industrious men and women, who could turn the shop around in an instant in case it rains. This hide and seek with Nature would continue for the few months, as the city will be washed anew every day. I had planned to travel to Cherrapunji on the same day, but I gravely overestimated the ease of commute in Meghalaya. Moving to Cherrapunji was not possible until I paid exuberant prices for the same. I decided to stay in Shillong and followed Google Maps for the nearest water source around.
Ward’s Lake in the heart of Shillong is a beautiful getaway. Bustling with colors, suspicious ducks and perpetually high parrots roamed aroundthe green carpet, fishes moving slowly near the surface of the water, the place was enchanting. Though a major attraction in the city, the compound was sparsely occupied. I took refuge here for a couple of hours, reading few pages from Meghdoot by Kalidasa – Story of a Yaksha who was cursed to be separated from his wife for an year. The Yaksha is talking to his brother, the clouds, requesting him to be his messenger to his wife. The literal transition of Meghdoot is “Cloud Messenger”.
The clouds which were threatening us a few hours earlier, appeared to have been subsided by then. It was 5 in the evening. The semi naked sky was blushing pink. I was strolling towards Shillong dormitory, the place which was to be my base for the next few days.
I woke up to find Sun shining proudly in my face. The clouds appeared to have thinned over the night and it promised to be a bright day. I decided not to judge the weather and rebooted to start the day. The plan was to move towards Nongriat, a village in the East Khasi hills, 12 kms from Cherrapunji. On my first trip to Police Bazaar the previous day, I had realized that moving around Meghalaya was not a cheap affair. Luckily, I met a couple of travelers in Ward’s Lake who were also planning to travel to Cherrapunji. Our itinerary differed a little but we decided to sort it out en route. Police Bazaar was a calm walk 20 minutes downhill from Shillong dormitory. I glanced at the copy of Meghalaya Guardian that I had picked up near dormitory. The first page was dominated by the news of local elections in Ampati. The main spot taken up by news of scuffles between fringe elements, while other subjects were pushed aside. At the bottom I spotted the news – Monsoons to hit Kerala 3 days early. The news was about South west monsoons. I wished the same for the other branch as well, which was more likely to be the first to hit Meghalaya.
I found myself sprinting towards the Police Bazaar main circle. The reason stood in front of me in form of breakfast stalls. It was 8 in the morning and the stoves were recently lit. As the butter sliced across the steaming black pan and I awaited my staple breakfast – Bread omelette, I went around trying to find my co-passengers. Without a lot of effort, I spotted them across the circle, sheltered under another one of the tea stalls. We discussed the alternatives, zeroed down a plan and hired a taxi for Nongriat.
The taxis were spread like snails 2 kms in and out of Shillong. The day being a weekend means a lot of influx of tourists. We left the density behind as the vehicle quickly zoomed into the hills. And as the landscape turned greener, the sky turned murkier. I had read a lot about Mawsynram and Cherrapunji. It was this anticipation that had me totally alive for the 60 kms of our ride. Not to forget the numerous waterfalls that seemed to be welcoming us to the abode of clouds.
The sky was promising to turn orange. I stood staring at the village downhill. A staircase descended like a python cutting across trees, before being swallowed by the valley. I saw a few locals nearby and approached them with the question which was at the top of my list – “Do you reckon it will rain today?”, and gave a meaningful look to the skies. The locals joined me in contemplation. One of them named Maggie replied, “It doesn’t look like it will. But you never know with mountains”, and gave the customary shrug. We nodded at each other and again started looking at sky in a philosophical way. Everyone in India, no matter the vocation, is a weather expert. There are few topics around which most of our discussions revolve around. In the month of June, the keyword “Monsoons” occupy the podium along with Politics and Cricket. Even religion seems to take a back seat as everyone participated in this festival in unison.
Satisfied that both of us reckoned the same thing, and empathizing over the fact that neither of us liked what we reckoned, we started moving down the spiral of 3000 steps towards the village of Nongriat
I stood facing two trails. The trail to Nogriat is straightforward and there are no chances to go astray, unless you are hell bent to be lost. The trail to the left takes you to Nongriat, while the one to the right is a pit stop. After about two hundred meters, the trail descends into a passing stream, shadowed by a root bridge. It was a single root bridge, the first out of dozens that I came across throughout the trip. At that very instant, I knew what I had to do. See a stream – Jump into it. Reboot.
When the cold stream runs into you, it pierces your body like needles. But if you listen to it closely, the stream will run around you. You become the one with the stream, and you start flowing.
I bid the bridge and stream goodbye and started moving towards Nongriat. It was around 2 in the afternoon that I reached the village. I rented a bed in a dormitory in Serene Homestays. It was still an hour before we could check in. I looked around for a bit, put my rucksack down, and started moving towards Rainbow falls.
I moved across a beautiful football field, a couple of root bridges, and a vintage iron bridge, painted across the leaves dripping water, blue tailed skinks flashing past, butterflies drunk with the ecstasy of the season, in the last hour. I was approaching a strong stream and though I could not see it, it’s sound that drowned the entire surrounding ensured that everyone noticed it’s presence. When I approached the source, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a waterfall. The most beautiful of all the falls that I had encountered till then. The most striking aspect of this fall was it raw nature, the force with which it imposed itself, choosing to rush along its path rather then flow with serenity. I stood by its side for some time, interacting with the surroundings, before starting to move along. I would meet it again on my way back.
Half an hour of twisting paths, soft crumbling root, vegetation mixed with mud, and I stood in front of Rainbow Falls. I had never seen a more beautiful waterfall before. I couldn’t see the rainbow, but it was not essential. While the waterfall that I met on the way was imposing, Rainbow Falls was completely assured. It jumped hundreds of feet before striking the huge rock that lies at its base. The impact between these strong forces of nature resulted in tiny droplets sprinkled all around the atmosphere, causing the rainbow to appear amidst all the serenity. My mind was completely at peace as it was occupied by only a single thought – The thought of mighty Shiva, in the form of Nature, that stood in front of me.
I still had the aftertaste of vegetable curry and rice. The warm food after trekking back from the Falls was delicious. I recall times when even the most sumptuous of meals did not give me as pleasure as this simple meal did. We miss so many things when our mind is distracted. And our senses are so sharp when we just live in the moment and untangle our thoughts, may be move away from them for the time being. A firefly appeared in front of me, followed my many others. I was sharing the dorm with a couple of second year students from IIM Raipur. They had an internship stint in Guwahati and were utilizing this opportunity to travel North East. “We are coming from Ziro Valley. It is a beautiful place”. I made a mental note to visit Arunachal soon.
A Bengali engineering student from Ahmedabad, and a Pune girl working with Teach for India were our other dorm mates. We cruised through entire evening talking about campus stories, travel incidents and our next destination. The evening faded away slowly, amidst the sound of the forest and falls. The place was stamped with peace and tranquility.
‘The difference between our weather and the weather in Europe is the difference between the poor man and the millionaire. European weather is the poor fellow. His habits are predictable, his movements restricted. Each day he will follow the same routine, taking morning coffee in the same restaurant, trudging off to a tedious job, going home to his bored wife. Indian weather, though, is extreme, wilful, fast-moving and wholly unpredictable. It’s the millionaire – the sort who will impulsively jump on a plane and fly off to London for lunch.’
– Chasing the Monsoons by Alexander Frater
I woke up to find rains splattering against the roof and the windows. The cat was curled up in a tight circle by my side. He came to our room last night and gave me his trust only after a couple of minutes of petting. He was fast asleep, and didn’t look to be in a mood to be disturbed. I took the cue from him and went back to sleep. If the cat thinks we got to sleep more, we got to sleep more. And let me tell you that there aren’t many things in life as blissful as going back to sleep when it is raining cats and dogs.
I saw a slight tinge of orange near the horizon. The entire sky was pitch black. I could not tell what time of the day it was. It certainly looked night, but the continuous chirping of birds was telling a different story. All those months I spent in my village in Ghazipur have taught me how to distinguish between night and day, even with closed eyes. Crickets meant night while Birds meant day. So what time of the day it was? Day or Night? Or both. Something was amiss. This is when I saw a massive crack appear in the strange sky. With a stroke, a mix of white and orange was unleashed on the canvas. The clouds parted to let in the Sun and there was a huge lightning strike to conclude this event. It was this strike that finally woke me up. I came out of my dreams to see Sun shining bright in the sky. The cat was gone. Apparently, he was much more attentive than me.
I went for a plunge into the pool near Double Decker bridge. The entire valley was overflowing with similar natural pools. The perfect natural remedy to detoxify your body and mind. I looked at the Sun and we buried our difference. Even the Sun appeared to be waiting for the elusive Monsoons. After all, who doesn’t like a day off.
100. 200. 500. 900. This must be it. We must be very close by now. We did not register the 3000 steps downhill when we came to Nongriat. Going back was a different story altogether. All the unused muscles and tendons in my legs were shouting in protest. But there was only one thing that had to be done. Take short steps, distract your mind, concentrate on your breathing, and move forward. 2 hours later, I was standing at the taxi stand, looking down into the valley. I thought the end of the staircase will come with a huge sigh of relief. Instead it came with a feeling of longing and nostalgia. The beauty of the falls, bridges and pools were magnified. Like all the good things, it also seemed magical and non-plausible once it was over. It is a happy memory that I will keep safe with me. That particular moment has all the emotions packaged into such a beautiful imagery that I cannot find enough words to express. I came here looking for monsoons, but I was going back with something else.
It was a cheat day. The students from Raipur had hired a Zoomcar and were driving to Shillong. With no plan in sight, I decided to join them and party in Shillong. Everyone from our dormitory joined as we made our way to Shillong. I would skip the details of the party for now. It was a little “controversial” but everything ended well that night. Drunk with ecstasy, flying through the cold breeze that was blowing across the town, I hopped my way to Shillong Dormitory. I went to sleep with a really wide smile on my face. It was yet another good day in Meghalaya.
“David Scott was a British Administrator and political agent to the British Raj. His operations lasted about 29 years (1802-1832) in the Khasi Hills and the surrounding low-lying areas. These areas are now part of Bangladesh and the Indian states of Meghalaya and Assam.
One remainder of David Scott’s legacy is the horse-cart trail that he built from Cherrapunjee, now also knows as Sohra, to Bangladesh.
This trail caused a war between the Khasi people, led by U Tirot Singh, king of the Khadsawphra Syiemship and the British. After four years of guerrilla-warfare style fighting, the Khasi forces were defeated by British muskets, artillery and superior military strength. U Tirot Singh was captured and deported to Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh) where he died on the 17th July 1835.”
I was reading the history of David Scott trail, while the cab moved out of the city traffic and sprinted towards Mawphlang, the village which marks the starting point of David Scott trail, a 17km hike through spectacular scenery.
My cab driver told me the stories about sacred groves in and around Mawphlang, warning me not to take anything back from the forest, lest I wanted the local deities to rain fury on me. I assured him that I am not visiting the sacred grove, and whenever I will, I would ensure to take the precautions as suggested by him. He seemed satisfied as he dropped me off. I bought some supplies from a local store and stood there waiting for Lakshay, an engineering student I met at Shillong dormitory a couple of days back. He had a habit of misplacing things, and I had already devised a plan in case he himself got misplaced somehow. At around 10 in the morning, we started into the lush green paradise. It will be best if I take you through this trail with the help of pictures I captured along the way, because words are not sufficient to describe the serenity of this trail.
The rains kept beating against the window, before calming down gradually. A small part of me was wishing for the rains to continue, so I can afford to be lazy for some more time. But as soon as the rain stopped, I was sprung into action by the sterner part of the brain – “Wake Up! Move! Have you come here to sleep?”. Slightly irritated, I made a pact with the Sun, and asked him what was his plan for the day. As for mine, I was still not certain – Google Maps came to the rescue, and Schnongpdeng (10 kms from Dawki) was chosen as the end point. Lakshay was still not lost (though his wallet went missing once we reached the camp) and we moved to Anjalee, from where we had to hire a cab for Dawki.
The sky was brown, while the river sprinkled as sunlight filtered through the clouds to occupy a part of the canvas. I looked at the long queue of Travellers parked by the river, as guides shouted to the incoming tourists to book their boats. A post I read on Internet a few days back flashed across my mind – “The Hidden Treasure of Meghalaya – Dawki”. I couldn’t see how this was a hidden treasure. Someone had really increased the brightness as the canvas was submerged in yellow. The bustling crowd around the river, Sun beating down and our hungry stomach conspired together to push us away from Dawki. Away from the hustle to the serenity of the beautiful village nearby – Schnongpdeng.
As the rains started blurring everything around, our tent stood completely unprotected, facing the full wrath of the rain strikes. Lakshay took refuge inside, while I found a little spot under a canopy of an unoccupied tent nearby. It was only after I had settled down that I realized how beautiful and perfect the spot was. An impatient river. The dancing hills. The song of rains. And the solitude of books – Time slowed down as we spent the next couple of hours in complete trance.
Everything is silent post such a gush. Birds contemplate if it is safe enough to continue with their daily exploration. The hens and ducks start foraging around for little bugs. The rain has ceased for the moment, but the mild breeze continues to refresh the surrounding with tiny droplets that it carries around. The fishermen are brought into action. Everything is silent. And everything is alive.
The night came with a blanket of silence. There were no stars in the sky. I kept looking at the vast canvas for a long time, hoping to find some random star peeking from the clouds. But they were too shy I believe. I retired with umpteenth thought in mind. Or were their none? I do not remember. I remember those butterflies and dogs. I remember that I came back with a promise to visit again. I remember that I slept night with a wide smile on my face.
31-May / 1-June
“I do not suppose you will get a bike for rent today”, said George, our host at Shillong dormitory.
“Why? Is it because of rains?”, I inquired (part of me was happy that there was no room for indecision now and I can roam around the city in the rains)
“No. There had been riots last night between Khasi and Punjabi community”.
So that was it. Out of nowhere (or may be the resentment built up sub consciously over time), there were riots in the city. It was all over the national news and the city stood in curfew post 8 PM. There were couple of guys from Bangladesh who were traveling North-east for few weeks. I met them the night before when I decided to skip dinner and regretted it immediately as the hunger crept in. Fortunately, they shared their Mutton rice with me (when you are hungry, everything tastes heavenly. And mutton rice – another level altogether). So these guys made it a point to take their passports along every time they left the dormitory.
“We were stopped by army last night. We didn’t know that curfew has been instated. We were roaming around Police Bazaar at that time”.
Curfew, I thought to myself. And there I was thinking that Meghalaya has offered everything to me and there ain’t much left to see. It was raining. And for a solo traveler, curfew is but another curious term. I took of in the rains and went straight to Dylan’s Cafe. Good food, Good music. And a view to die for. I have a certain weakness for places with many colors. I tend to stick around, turn lazy and refuse to move when I am around such places (what if the place I move to do not have such colors). Curfew helped me again in boiling down a decision. Why think about going to some place, when their is no place to go to? Rain kept adding the tiny droplets to surrounding. The Sun came out for a moment, beamed cheerfully at me. Birds sang. A cool breeze wafted through the trees and lifted the heads of the orchids, that were smiling and dancing gleefully, carrying their scent towards me. An insect droned past me to do whatever it wanted to do. In such a weather, I believe it was just happy to be.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and though to myself – Let me stay in this dream.