Gertrude Lamare’s road trip to the peripheries of the Khasi Hills
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters
Roads arrive with an announcement of some form of modernity. Roads arrive with the spirit of the State. Roads arrive with the echo of the law. We traveled for more than 300 km from Shillong, going into the depths of Ri Bhoi District and finally reaching Jagiroad in the Morigaon District of Assam. The journey was made on the various types and standards of roads as displayed in the picture above. These roads cut through fields, forests, and hills and climbed over streams and rivers. We started on the recently-redesigned Guwahati-Shillong highway (National highway 40) which allowed for smooth and swift movement; a highway, like most others, whose existence is deeply entwined in the mess of property transactions between the government and people who own land along the route. And typically, like any highway,it is kept alive by the presences of petrol stations, dhabas, tea stalls, restaurants and resorts (recent development) and make-shift shops of vegetable and fruit vendors, particularly those selling produce endemic to the region. Up until a year ago, the GS road was known for the plethora of wine stores along the way, some of which had very creative names; two of them were Wut Wut (which loosely translates into “Quick Quick”) and Dih Beit (which basically means “Just Drink”). However, all of this is gone thanks to the State which imposed an order in Meghalaya in March 2016, allowing for the sale of alcohol only 200 metres away from highways, educational and religious institutions. Interestingly, there are a few businesses which have survived by moving shops 200m into the interiors. On the day we drove down, which was a Sunday, we stopped near one of those only to see that it was visibly shut (shutters closed etc.). However, we got off the car just to know for sure if we’d have to spend the enter day under the hot sun without a beer. And this was how the conversation went between us and a random man in the vicinity: Us- Oh the shop is closed, is it? The person- Yes, of course. Us- But can we get some? The person- Of course! And he goes to some shed where a fridge is kept and takes out some cans. Outside the bounds of the law, we were safe.
Traveling on, we moved into narrower village roads, which had paddy fields on each side and pockets of thick bamboo. The smell of sun-beaten leaves permeate the air. The paddy had different shades and I was told that the darker patches were indicative of the sticky-rice paddy and the lighter, the regular breed. A few kilometres off the highway from Nongpoh, we entered the Marngar community’s domain. The Marngar are a unique people who have over the years assimilated with surrounding communities like the Bhoi-Khasi, the Karbis and other Assamese communities. They are however, known to still speak a different language and also to maintain a few cultural practices specific to them. It is interesting to note that it was only in 2011 that the Meghalaya Government recognized these people as Scheduled Tribes, that too, not without the objection of the Khasi Students’ Union, which is known for its desire to capitalize on tribal identity in the state. Soon, we were going through villages which see the co-existence of the Bhoi-Khasi and the Tiwa communities. In fact, at this particular historical juncture, due to wide-scale inter-marriages and particular rituals which actually ensure the conversion from one tribe to another, there’s really no point in trying to identify who is strictly Tiwa and who is strictly Bhoi.
And then came the muddy road- orange, fresh and inviting. Yesterday’s rain had just moistened the surface and we drove on, rocking in the car, with a mixture of nervousness, hope and doubt- doubt mostly because we were not sure if we’d make it maneuvering through the boulders, the mud-clogged depressions and the changing topography. The paddy fields were gradually replaced by hills covered in a variety of tree species, from sal to rubber to pine to a number of fruit trees and of course, stretches and stretches of bamboo. It is important to understand that in these areas, bamboo forms a crucial part of the food culture, features in much of the folklore and is identified as an essential element in many rituals.
The many villages we drove through were mostly of fifteen to twenty houses. Most did not have schools or health centres or proper grocery shops but all had huge churches. We encountered many folks along the way, men, old and young women with children either on their backs or holding their hands, all carrying little black hymn books. Sounds of the church choir echo in the surrounding forests.
Almost reaching Assam, the road took us to a bridge suspended over the Umsiang River. This was our first meeting with the river, one I was looking for admittedly for research purposes but of course, one’s experience in the field goes beyond the parameters of academia. At this location, the river was roaring with rapidity and energy, splashing and beating over rocks and soil. It was beautifully wild. Our next encounter with Umsiang was exactly at the Meghalaya-Assam border, where another bridge going over the river served as a boundary-marker. On the Meghalaya side of the bridge was an Inspection Bunglow, known to be terribly haunted, and on the Assam side was a Reserved Forest and some houses, surprisingly inhabited by Nepali people. How did they get there? Not even god knows. As I entered the Reserved Forest to view the river from the other side, the abundance of chips packets, plastic and liquor bottles strewn all over made me realize that the place also served as a regular tourist spot. It is a sad correlation, that between plastic and tourism, but one which is a reality. However, the forest remains visibly thick. Perhaps the “reserved forest” status does it some little amount of good, for the moment at least.
Before reaching the border, the vegetation of the hills was slowly changing. The diversity of tree species was declining. Now, the hills started to look uniformly; they were all mostly covered with rubber trees. Whether the huge rubber tree covers have always existed, I’m not sure but common knowledge about the immense fertility of the soil of Ri Bhoi and the sudden change in vegetation without much change in landscape makes me doubt so. What came to view all of a sudden were seemingly dilapidated structures of timber mills. I got off the car to check one out, only to find an old worker named Feroz Ali sitting all alone, cutting small pieces of wood. I asked if the mill was functional, to which he said “yes”, but it was Puja time, so people have gone home. I learned that the owner was an Assamese person and that the raw material for the mill came from the trees in the surrounding areas. Feroz Ali’s smile is stuck in my memory. Being where he was, doing what he was, under the cruel sun, his smile radiated loneliness, yet a staunch resignation to the space and situation that he inhabited. Feroz Ali is an Assamese Muslim, living alone, amongst labour and in the midst of the painful echo of the silence of the hills.
We drove on and soon we hit National Highway 37, also known as Jagiroad. Jagiroad is a place historically known for the many huge paper mills in the area. The air was reeking with a horrible smell emitted from the factories. The sounds we hear are of engines. From 20km/hr, our car was now zooming at 70 km/hr on this straight, smooth and broad road. We were amidst developing territories of real estate and commercial buildings. However, there were still remnants of local cultures in small tea shops and also small markets surviving intermittently along the highway. While stopping to ask for directions, I observed that people here, even though most were Assamese Hindus, still responded to us in Khasi. These areas, like most border areas in the Assam-Meghalaya region are culturally and linguistically porous. Identities here are relatively fluid and people have historically co-existed in peace. Remember, the Meghalaya-Assam border is only 44 years old and people have settled in these regions for centuries.
As we moved into Meghalaya and towards Shillong that day, away from peripheries and plunging into the centre,we were carrying the weight of boundary lines and feeling the thickening of identity- all of this, alongside the fading of a confused landscape and a chaotic explosion of cultures we left behind.