In Meghalaya, strangers interact with a gentle familiarity, villagers blare out Boney M in the middle of the night and utensils in tea stalls are scrubbed to shining perfection. And Swachh Bharat? Meghalaya has been doing it forever!
A road trip from Shillong took us past charming villages as we visited Dawki (where you can view the river bed through clear waters), Mawlynnong (which won the title of Asia’s cleanest village in 2003), Shnong Pdeng, popular for watersports and Cherrapunji. The tongue-twister names take a little getting used to, but it doesn’t take long to feel at home with the unhurried hospitality, which can teach you a thing or two!
We stopped for breakfast at one of the many tea stalls that lined the streets, not having found any restaurants yet (and thank God for that!). The woman put the kettle on, started humming, and then brought out a box for us pick our snacks—mostly cake. As an afterthought, she went out and brought out flat rice pancakes and some potatoes for me, a vegetarian. The reception was similar to what one would expect if guests arrived home without notice! It was something I soon came to expect at the various tea stalls, some advertising “tea and rice” and others serving cream buns and biscuits, along with sparkling utensils and squeaky clean environs. The lack of social hierarchy is refreshing, with locals greeting you with friendly smiles and stories (if you can get someone to translate the Khasi), marked by an absence of probing curiosity. It’s also common for relatives and friends to be greeted with a hug and kiss on both cheeks.
We spent one night at Nohwet village, near Mawlynnong, walking distance from the Living Root bridge at a homestay called Na I Mei, which translates to “For My Mother”. Owner Hali Burton Nohwet, 38, inherited it from his mother, a rarity in a matrilineal society. He almost tore it down, since his wife, whose village he relocated to after the wedding, lives nearly 130 km away, but an architect friend advised him to convert it to a homestay. So, that’s what it became – a comfortable, modern homestay, built by Hali, who has never set foot in a hotel, except once when he was a child but has little memory of it. Soon after settling in, I asked my Khasi friend and Hali both if they were sure this was a village! The kids were clean, neatly dressed and friendly, and though one could hear roosters crowing, there was Boney M’s “By the Rivers of Babylon” playing in one of the homes, followed by Christmas carols. What next, a village disco? I was assured it was all quite normal (the music, not the disco!).
Hali’s story is similar to Drongwel Khongkrom’s, who has also been changing the village’s fortunes with his bamboo balcony in the sky, called The Viewpoint, which offers a sweeping panorama of a mountainous expanse. Drongwel’s story is truly amazing, as translated from Khasi by my friend. As a child, he climbed the tree on the land, which belongs to the family, and put up flags for his friends on the other side to see. As a young man, he decided to build a bamboo installation, complete with a walkway and perch on a treetop, with an endless view of forests and a towering wall of stony mountains. But, it was not an easy task. Before he went ahead with construction nearly three years ago, the land was used as defecation ground by the villagers and to throw rubbish. He persuaded and even bribed the villagers to throw their rubbish elsewhere, paying for their plastic rubbish bags.
As we traversed the villages in east Khasi hills, we could see kids playing football, with sticks and stones, making a car using a plastic bottle, a makeshift bow and arrow or sorting betelnuts with families. In more than one village, such as Mawkdok, we saw a Christmas procession underway, children and families singing carols, led by a man dressed as Santa Claus. In the villages and in Shillong too, it’s commonplace to see women wear the traditional cloth (“Jain Kyrshah”) over the actual dress, pinned up on one shoulder, traditionally meant to cover one’s modesty, but practically doubling up as an apron and making a fashion statement as well. It’s also common to see infants being carried on their parents’ backs, safely wrapped up in shawls.
Demonetisation seems to have affected business, but the state mostly seems to run on cash. As you go into the interiors, the cellphone signals dry up and there’s little or no data connection. Anika Dora Thangkiew, who runs the RBP Synod mission school with her husband Reverend Sanshonbor Muksiar at Bhoilymbong in Ribhoi district, 45 minutes from the city, has been trying for a BSNL connection for the last two years. She also needs an internet connection for meritorious village students from her school to apply for scholarships online. We hope Digital India doesn’t keep her waiting too long!
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for tips on Swachh Bharat or Atithi Devo Bhava, visit Meghalaya’s villages!