I have always enjoyed my visits to Ri Bhoi ‘the land of the Bhois’. It is located to the north of Shillong with the NH-40 passing through it. I would often travel on this highway on my way to Guwahati, whether it is to go to the other states in the region or to the mainland. During these occasions it was the return journey to which I would often looked forward. This is especially so when I am coming back from the mainland. Entering Ri Bhoi is the first sign for me that I have reached home. It is not just the low hills and the wide valleys nestled within them that elevate my heart but the sight of the shops littered along the highway and the people sitting inside them. Stopping and having tea and jingbam in these shops is one of my favourite moments of the journey. However all this while, I was just a traveler passing by fascinated by the people with whom I share an ethnic bond but having no knowledge about their lifeworld. This changed a few years ago when I starting getting involved in capacity building initiatives in the area. This was in the form of promoting learning and education (establishing community libraries) and organizing traditional games for the local people in the area. In the process I made some wonderful friends whose compassion and bigheartedness have always warmed my heart.
One of the fascinating people I had the good fortune of making friend is Bah Ranee. He is a farmer from Pahambir and one of the most talented person I have met. He is a genius with wood and bamboo and can make almost anything out of it, ranging from musical instruments to household items. But apart from being a master craftsman he is also a wonderful musician. He has traveled throughout the country with his band singing and playing traditional music.Of these instruments my favourite is the traditional violin which is played during funeral. The sad and melodious sound it produces can bring sadness and lament to anyone who listens to it. [perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Of these instruments my favourite is the traditional violin which is played during funeral. The sad and melodious sound it produces can bring sadness and lament to anyone who listens to it. [/perfectpullquote] Maybe one day someone will play the same song for me. Being hugely talented however has not made him arrogant, something I have experienced countless time. Instead, his sun-burnt skin, cracked feet and old clothes convey kindness and generosity. And this is an account of a day I spent with him and his friends in his beautiful land.
It was on a bright and sunny Friday morning that I left Shillong with my friend, Avner Pariat to meet Bah Ranee in Pahambir. Our plan was to go a bat cave located deep inside the forest to record their sounds. We had planned to start early but the traffic jam in Shillong meant that we reached Nongpoh only after 10 am. From there we took a cab to Pahambir passing through paddy fields and clusters of houses lying on both side of the road. Despite the large forest cover (almost 90% of the area), Ri Bhoi is one of the most fertile regions in Meghalaya. The low hills found in the area have long elongated valleys where people cultivate various kinds of crops while broom and pineapple are mainly grown along the slopes. Of these, commercially, broom is the most important crop. One senior researcher told me that people’s lives in this area changed drastically after the introduction of the broom cultivation in the area with thatch houses giving way to Assam type houses with corrugated roofs (symbol of improved standard of living). I don’t know about the veracity of the statement but the thatch houses are still found in plenty around the area and broom is now considered to be a villain. After the crop is harvested the land becomes unusable for many years and there is an attempt to wean people away from its cultivation. I prefer the pineapple which is very tasty and can be harvested twice a year. And as we were being driven to Pahambir I saw heaps of pineapples growing all around the area.
We reached Pahambir and went straight to Bah Ranne’s house where we found him engaged in giving shape to a duitara (local stringed instrument). He was being assisted by his son and a couple of his friends who were busy with the bom (large drum). He greeted us and asked for two mura (stool made of bamboo) on which we sat and watched him work his magic on the wood. Avner was busy clicking pictures of the task while I went to inspect a new bee hive that was recently brought from the forest. Suddenly I saw Avner waving his hand around in air trying to chase away a bee which was hovering around him. And then came the sting. We all had a good laugh about it while a swollen finger was what Avner got for standing up to a bee. Bah Ranee then called us into the house to have some food before we started our trek to the cave. We discussed our plans over tea and local rice. Avner had been working with Bah Ranee for some time so he could understand a little Bhoi. I on the other hand, could only understand the Sohra dialect (standard Khasi) and was completely lost when they spoke in Bhoi. The discussion though was mostly in the Sohra dialect and I had no problem following it. One thing that I have noticed while working in this area is that the local people try to speak in the Sohra dialect in front of the non-Bhoi Khasis. I find this gesture very beautiful. My experience with many of my friends who come from different ethnic backgrounds has been one of frustration on account of linguistic difficulties. When I am with one of them we speak in English or any other common language.But the moment another member of his/her ethnic group joins they start conversing in their own language even though they can speak in a common tongue which I can also understand. So to find people who try to make members from other groups feel comfortable was a very nice gesture. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]But the moment another member of his/her ethnic group joins they start conversing in their own language even though they can speak in a common tongue which I can also understand. So to find people who try to make members from other groups feel comfortable was a very nice gesture. [/perfectpullquote] After finishing the meal and our discussion we checked our bags and started on the journey which would take us around two hours to reach the spot.
Since the journey was long I requested Bah Ranee to tell us something about the area and the stories surrounding it to make the walk enjoyable. He was happy to oblige and began by narrating the existence of a rock feature which had the form of a female’s breast. The feature was the part of a rock face of an underground river system. The whole valley was full of huge stone boulders that had collapsed into each other to form underground caverns. It was through these caverns that the water which had seeped through the soil flowed and emerged as a river downstream. One could hear the roaring of the water as it flows and fall over the rocks below the surface. The sound is as fascinating as it is scary. At one spot this underground river is exposed and a small waterfall can be seen. On the wall of this waterfall is the feature that Bah Ranee described. It did look like a breast with one being smaller than the other. It was, Bah Ranee told me, the breast of a Nepali woman! Because of some reason this woman had decided to come to this spot and commit suicide. After she died she turned into a rock and the feature are her breasts. But someone did not like her so he broke one of the breast by throwing rocks at it. The other though remained. This story was fascinating for many reasons.
It was quite similar to the Noh Kali Kai story (the theme of suicide) but what struck me was the presence of a non-indigenous (i.e., Nepali) person in a local folktale. Ri Bhoi is a highly diverse area with the presence of many indigenous groups, viz., Khasi, Karbi, Tiwa, Bodo, Garo, and Assamese. In fact there is a village which is called Paham Bordoloi (Assamese surname). During my field work in Umden I remember coming across a locality called Manipur. This diversity is reflected in the name of the most dominant group ‘Bhoi’ which simply means ‘people of the border’ and in such transitional areas multiple identities often get merged. The Karbis claim that the Bhoi are in fact the Karbis who had adopted Khasi custom. Whatever the case maybe Nepali are different from all the groups mentioned above in that they do not even come from the larger region, i.e., the North-East. So to have a folktale having a non-indigenous person as the main character who has left an imprint on the land is very surprising. When I asked Bah Ranee he told me that Nepalis had been living in the area for a very long time. They were present during his youth but the disturbance of 1990’s was what drove most of them away. Now the few reminders are their khukri being used by the local people and the memory of an unfortunate woman. The Bhoi people have taken that memory and incorporated into their own history thus keeping her alive for posterity.
The other stories that Bah Ranee told us were about animals who were previously human, e.g., hillock gibbons, birds, but not reptiles. There was in fact a spot in the forest where the animals would gather for their durbar (community meeting). There was no way that we would not ask to be taken there after hearing it. Bah Ranee, as expected, obliged. That however meant that we had to go away from the trail and later create a new trail to reach the bat cave. That didn’t deter us and after more than 30 minutes of climbing we reached the spot. It was a cluster of rocks with an open space in the middle that resembled the seating arrangements in a village community hall. No wonder the people believed that the animals had their own meeting there. After spending sometime in that spot we started searching for a path to the bat cave. We were on the upper reaches of the hill while the cave was on the lower slopes with thick bamboo groves lying between us. Twice we took the wrong path and ended on the edge of a deep gorge. But something remarkable happened while we were searching for a path. Bah Ranee pointed to some tracks on the ground.
“Those are deer tracks”, Bah exclaimed. They looked like small holes to us but somehow he could make it out. His son and one of his friend who accompanied us showed some more tracks. Something was chasing the deer along this very steep ridge. Was it a dog? Then we heard a gunshot in the distance. And then one more shot was fired. “Hoi Kiw” came out the cry. We couldn’t see anyone of course. It was a deer after all and the thing that was chasing it were the hunters. “Don’t forget to share with all of us” shouted Bah Ranne. That reminded of a story Avner told me of his childhood. A deer had somehow reached the forests of Mawlai. When the news broke all the men in the village ran towards the forest to capture it. The cry “Hoi Kiw” could be heard on that day as well. The deer was of course caught and everyone in the village got a piece of the meat. Even those who didn’t take part in the hunt got some meat. So are we going to get some deer meat later? I smacked my lips at the prospect. But sadly we didn’t get any. Maybe those men are from some other village. I was disappointed.
There were more pressing concerns at the moment though. We still hadn’t found a safe path. Walking along the slopes we kept moving down but were blocked by thick undergrowth and intertwined bamboo groves. Luckily one of our companion (Bah Ranee’s friend) had carried a dao and he cleared the obstructions. The path though was still slippery and we were sliding and falling as we made the way down. Holding on to the leaning bamboos and negotiating the ones that had fallen we finally reached the river which flowed around the bat cave. I was completely parched and therefore I was so relieved to see water. I took off my muddy shoes, waded into the river, washed my face and had a gulp. I had asked Bah Ranee if the water from the river was safe but even if he had advised against it I would have still drank from it. I was so thirsty. Avner though was a bit skeptical. So Bah Ranee’s friend collected took a bamboo stem, cut it and filled it up with water from a nearby pond for him. The water was much cooler and even I had a sip out of it. But going towards the cave when we saw the pond we both go worried. The water was dark and had fallen branches and leaves floating on it. From my PhD on water quality in Cherrapunjee I had come to know that such unprotected water bodies are vulnerable to contamination especially biological. Avner especially was worried that we might get cholera. Such a wimp!
After over three hours of trekking we had finally reached our destination. We crossed a small bridge and after climbing a flight of stairs were standing outside the cave. Because of the bat droppings the cave gave a putrid small even before we entered it. The cave was formed by the collapsing of huge blocks of rock onto one another and the bats were hanging from the ceilings. On the floor were their droppings that gave the foul smell. Avner did some recording and after spending around half an hour we left the cave. This time we decide to take the familiar route instead of being adventurous. That still would take almost two hours.
It had already fallen dark on our way back. And as we were back I saw black shadows flying low over us. These were the bats who must have emerged from the cave to hunt for their food. On the way we met a cowherd guiding his cattle back to the village. “The cows like salt” said Bah Ranee “and if you are sweating they like licking you”.Even I like cow, but on my plate and I wasn’t going to let them lick me. I walked ahead of the cows wary of them smelling my sweat.[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Even I like cow, but on my plate and I wasn’t going to let them lick me. I walked ahead of the cows wary of them smelling my sweat.[/perfectpullquote]
In the meantime the moon had arisen on the sky and in the distance we starting seeing lights from the nearest village. After walking for another 30 minutes or so we finally reached the village. Of course this wasn’t our village. Ours was the one after another village. As we walked along the dirt road we heard a song being played in one of the houses and saw some children running on the road. Suddenly the lights went out and the song stopped. There was now only moonlight and the place looked very serene under its soft light. It had been a long time since I was out at night under the moonlight. I was enjoying the ambience. Then I heard Bah Ranee telling us that how inconvenience it is for the people to lose electricity at such hours. After a hard day’s work they would like to relax and have their meal. All of this gets ruined because of the darkness. I suddenly realized how much urban people romanticize the life in the villages. How the rural people would love to have the 24 hour electricity that we take for granted while we crave for some moonlight. We bought some biscuits from a shop, drank some water from the common tap and continued on our way. Avner though was not drinking any water anymore.
After walking for another half an hour we finally reached our village. We went straight to Kong Jai’s house (another of Avner’s acquaintance) where we got rice beer to relieve our fatigue. Avner drank, I think around four-five glasses, and had starting becoming tipsy by the moment we left her house. He justified it by saying that it would kill any virus that we might have ingested with the water we drank from the pond! After the drinks and some food (consisting of rice, and some chicken curry) we said goodbye to Kong Jai and went to Bah Ranee’s house. We sat for a few minutes chatting with him and his friends. Bah Ranee arranged for a cab for us back to Shillong. His son would accompany us. The driver was from the village.
After saying our goodbye to Bah Ranee and his family we got into the cab with his son sitting on the front seat. We reached Shillong after 9 pm. We first dropped Avner and then they took me to my locality. The shops had already closed in my locality when we arrived. The only people around were the few central forces personnel holding their automatic weapons. I had always resented the fact that while Shillong needs more land for its residents the armed forces have been encroaching on the land of the villages around the city. From a friend who works in one of the armed forces camp as an electrician I was told that they in fact wanted more land to accommodate more personnel. I was fed up with the few I kept seeing around Shillong and I definitely didn’t want any more coming in. Someday I hope we will get our land back.
I got down from the cab, thanked them and walked home. I washed and although I had already eaten dinner in the village I still took some rice. No matter how much I ate outside, whenever I returned home I always try to have some food. And then I got into my bed hoping I would dream about the day I spent in that beautiful place among wonderful people. My eyes started drooping and I was asleep.