I was here just yesterday,” I spoke out loud as I saw the sunlight filter through the dense beetle nut trees. I heard Halli, my host, ask if I was speaking with him. Noticing his kwai-stained lips, I smiled to remind myself that every day in Meghalaya is like a déjà vu.
In the peak of December winters, I decided to show a friend around my hometown, Shillong, and its peripheral towns — Umiam, Umsning Laitlum, Smit, Sohra and Nongriat. Of course, it was an excuse for me to travel to my backyard and to soak myself in nostalgia. But that is what Meghalaya does — it etches the most sacred memories in your heart and then challenges you to free yourself from them.
We were about 73 km from the capital Shillong, in Pynursla’s Pomshutia village. After walking an endless flight of steps through a dense kwai (locally grown beetle nut) plantation and crossing a clear stream, we reached a silent, mystical cove. The Byrdaw Falls gushes in all its might in the rains. On that winter day, I saw thin channels of water seep through the rocks’ cracks. At certain angles, where the sun’s rays kissed the surface of water, a rainbow was formed.
As we walked back to the car, I asked Halli where we were headed next. He grinned and replied in his sharp Khasi accent, “You will see.” Accompanied by some locals of Lapalang, another village in Pynursla about 4 km away from Pomshutia, we walked down another unbelievable flight of concrete stairs to Rymben river. Built only in 2003, the footbridge intersects the river, giving a breathtaking panorama of the area. Since I met the river in its off-season, the riverbed was dry. I strolled along the footbridge, enjoying my vantage point — villagers were washing their clothes on the porous rocks, children played along the water, and families opened their picnic baskets under the shade of trees.
Owing to the sweet exhaustion from the walks, I strained to keep my eyes open as we drove through the rich forests of Pynursla. We saw the first glimpse of the Umngot river, better known as Dawki river, about 14 km away from our next stop in Lapalang. Once there, we couldn’t help but admire the clarity of water, and I pointed at the invisible border in the river that runs between Bangladesh and India. We continued driving towards the Dawki-Tamabil border crossing. Only two kilometres from Umngot river, this is a well-defined border between the two nations. Visitors are permitted to walk a few metres beyond and buy Bangladeshi quick bites such as sliced cucumber, sweet-and-sour jujube and tamarind. As I bit into the cooling, salted cucumber, I read ‘Sylhet-54 kilometres’ — the town in Bangladesh where my family finds its roots. Someday, I will bridge those kilometres to live the stories that my grandparents have shared with me.
We reached Nohwet as the sun set, where we were spending the night at Halli’s homestay. After tea, we walked to a bamboo machan maintained by the villagers of Nohwet, and witnessed the gradients of dusk give away to the diamonds in the sky.
After a dreamless night’s sleep, I woke up to the village buzzing with morning chatter. I promptly got ready and, as I stepped out, Halli asked me, “Do you want to take the car to the living root bridge or walk through the shortcut?” I smiled, because there was always a “shortcut” trail to take around Shillong, and we always prioritised walking over other forms of transportation.
Nohwet is a village of 480 houses, with the oldest house dating back to 1872. Halli told me that it had survived the Great Assam Earthquake of 1897. The estimated magnitude was 8.3 and it struck the northern ridge of the Shillong plateau. The aftershocks were felt as far as Peshawar and even though the mortality rate was not too high, the damages in Upper Assam, Meghalaya and parts of West Bengal were frightening.
After a 10-minute walk, we reached the living root bridge of Riwai. The bridge is approximately 30 metres in length. In 1840, the Indian rubber tree was planted on both sides and in course of time, they wove around each other over Thyllong river to connect the villages of Riwai and Nohwet.
I sat facing the bridge when Halli climbed on it and started intertwining the open roots with the existing ones. At that point, I realised that on a previous visit, I had wandered off to Nohwet, mistaking it for Mawlynnong. I distinctly remember telling myself that I would return to this charming village.
As I sat staring at Halli, it occurred to me that I had just actualised a memory.