Published: May 28th 2012May 28th 2012 IN SEARCH OF MY ROOTS – ROAD TRIP TO WAR JAINTIA Bikika Laloo Tariang
IT'S CLEAN. PERIOD
I may have gone against my matrilineal culture in taking my father’s surname (mom felt it was the right thing to do, seeing as dad was the head of the family and was also provider and protector), yet my Tariang (mom’s War surname) blood does not just course through my body but it manifests itself in my looks and my shrewd mind (many Wars have sharp features, perhaps owing to the proximity of their land to Bangladesh, the shrewdness may also be attributed to the same reason. Or not.). As per my culture, I am War (pronounced as in car) – both of my maternal grandparents having had their roots there. Despite having visited War Jaintia ( a group of villages in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, near the Indo-Bangladesh border) only about twice in my childhood and having very little memory of those visits, yet my maternal ancestors have been beckoning me back all along. I love the strange sounding language (of which I know about seven words) and I’m proud of the intelligence(the Wars are among the most highly educated in the state),
the hardiness (most portions of War Jaintia are on steep hills and mountains) and the resourcefulness of the people. Their voices were floating in the wind – “come, come” “come home.” More realistically (and less dramatically), I was finding it harder and harder to ignore the urge to go there what with that region cropping up again and again in family conversations and in the print and electronic media (in the form of features on War Jaintia’s uniqueness and cleanliness.)
Leaving freezing and dreary Shillong that January of 2011, I set off for Jowai (my birthplace), which is about sixty kilometers away and which would be my base for the trip, with my ever reliable cousin Joh-hi-ki, who, (poor kid) had to come from Jowai in a taxi to pick me up. We were going to do the trip in my trusted Maruti Alto. So we set off mid-day and reached Jowai about two hours later. An afternoon of the usual warm reunion with my numerous cousins and their children and I was off to bed in delighted anticipation.
I had carefully handpicked the people who would occupy space with me for the two days round- up of
the main villages in War Jaintia. In a confined space, I didn’t want any bad energy – only people who I loved and loved me right back would travel in that car. My late maternal uncle’s wife, Nia Shain was indispensable, being as she was one of my favourite aunts, a mother figure , who was well travelled and most importantly had firm roots and close family in War Jaintia. The rest of the group comprised my goofy cousins Emily, Dally and his brother Joh-hi-ki, who of course was driving. My favourite people all. Sweet Emily was mostly quiet throughout the trip leaving the cheerful banter to the rest of us.
It was an early start for us the next day. The first leg up till Amlarem, a sub-division of Jaintia Hills District, was bumpy and dusty. Small villages along the way. Delightful, as all our villages always are. We stopped at Jarain village where we got down to stretch our legs and eat. Little food stalls. We entered one owned by our ‘Kur’ (clan member)- a Tariang of course. Curious glances from other diners. Nia Shain was in her element introducing me to the owner – “Iah Risa’s
NIA SHAIN'S FAMILY HOME
THAT ADORABLE COTTAGE ON A HILLOCK
(moms pet name) daughter.” After many oohs! Aahs! and curious questions from Kur in between serving us glorious Jaintia food (meats and fish mostly cooked with ground black sesame seeds, dried fish chutneys, fresh salads), we were off again.
One of our first and main destinations was going to be Mawlynnong a quaint little War village (closer to the Khasi Hills than the Jaintia Hills) that was recently catapulted to international fame by the media for (of all things) its cleanliness. Its interesting and sad even, that cleanliness would be anyone’s claim to fame. But this is India.
So we drove right past Nongtalang and Dawki, two big villages, which we intended to explore on our return trip. We stopped once just because I wanted to take pictures of ourselves by the betel nut groves and then again to take pictures by the famous Dawki bridge that runs over the Umngot river. Having the liberty of stopping anywhere we wanted was one of the reasons we decided on a road trip in our personal vehicle and also on being driven by a gentle and expert driver like my cousin Joh-Hi-Ki. Nia Shain (the pure native), Dally and
Joh-Hi-Ki (both of whom work in Government offices in Amlarem) took it upon themselves to point out interesting spots to me. There was cheerful banter, peace and ease, throughout the trip. As we progressed into the warm and humid interiors of War Jaintia , we had to peel off our heavy winter wear.
Again the road got bumpy just ahead of Mawlynnong– seriously bumpy and very very dusty. They were constructing a new road. But expert Joh-Hi-Ki carried on driving uncomplainingly. We then took a left turn down a narrow semi-tarred road that was flanked by broomstick groves. I had my doubts about this tight little road leading to a world famous village but Joh-Hi-Ki and Dally assured me that it was the right road. And sure enough we finally set foot on those spotless little lanes interspersed with green trees, shrubs and tin dust bins with the graceful and smiling villagers going about their lives as normally as they could. One leisurely walk and we had done Mawlynnong. Its clean. Period. An artificial ‘sky bridge’ made of bamboo, from the top of which one gets a bird’s eye view of Bangladesh (after a precarious climb- some of us
even having to crawl nervously), is the villager’s idea of an added attraction. Aside from that, its like most other War villages.
We took a short walk outside Mawlynnong to check out one of the world famous tree root bridges. This walk is for the sturdy. After traversing the many many steps down the tree covered path, we reached the bridge. Its one of the smaller bridges and its over a dried up stream(it was
winter). Not worth the effort, we concluded. And the strenuous climb back those steps only rubbed in that conclusion. The poor huffing and puffing tourists we met along the steps must have concluded the same. We bought some cut pineapples and sour fruits at the gate and were off again.
Munching on fruits, we reached the border village of Dawki where we halted for food. It would have been great had it been market day when foreign goods from across Bangladesh could have been had. But it was not, so we ate and left.
Next destination- Nongtalang. One of the bigger War Jaintia villages with a predominantly Non-Christian population. We did a drive by of this nondescript village, with Dally and Nia
Shain pointing out important landmarks from the car and we left.
On to the more interesting portions of the trip. It was getting late so we were moving towards our halt for the night – Nia Shain’s village – Sohkha. But Nia Shain wanted me to see Shnongpdeng which was near Sohkha first. And she decided right. For this village is among the more touristy of the War villages standing as it does by the famous Umngot river. However, for a well known tourist spot, the road leading to it was scary, to say the least. Potholed and narrow and quite dark. The same story as Mawlynnong. Talk about a government’s misplaced priorities. But Shnongpdeng is more clean than Mawlynnong. The villagers went about their lives as tourists (there were barely any that day) climbed up and down the steps that cut through their village. At the bottom of the village was the mighty Umngot river – not so fierce that time of the year. We were going to do the tourist thing – take pictures on the large boulders and leave. But the boys broached the idea of getting into a boat and floating on the
river awhile. I thought why not. I had already crawled up the bamboo sky bridge in Mawlynnong. Life is short. So we hailed a boat and we ‘Kids’ got in while Nia Shain, for whom it was not a novelty, decided to wait for us on the banks. We wiggled into the narrow boat and were soon floating smoothly on the green river. With my cousins near me, I wasn’t too afraid and boy was I going to gloat about this to my family and friends back home! It took about six minutes but felt like a lifetime. Okay. Boat ride done. Tick. On our way back to the car, Nia Shain came upon a distant relative who invited us in for tea. The usual introductions, tea and we were off.
On to Sohkha village. And what a village! It kicks Mawlynnong and the other villages to way down the list in beauty and cleanliness – at least in my book. We of course couldn’t get to explore it that day for we had arrived late and tired. But the enthralling experience started from our resting place - Nia-Shain’s sister’s cute cottage perched on a hillock which we had
Never never land
to climb a few steps from the main road to reach (we had left the car by the roadside below). An adorable village house with village colours, large rooms, a wood fire burning in the kitchen, outdoor toilets and fruit trees all around. So cosy and scrupulously clean. The bedclothes and blankets smelt really fresh. The memory of that cottage and all it possesses still warms the cockles of my heart. After good hot baths, we went down the steps to Nia Shain’s elder sister’s (Big Nia) house for dinner. Needless to say, I slept very well that night.
We had unanimously decided at the very start that we wouldn’t rush the trip and we stuck to that rule obediently. Except for Nia Shain’s sister, nobody in that house stirred the next morning until well past 8 a.m. The cottage was fully utilized by our troupe of five. While some of us got on with our ablutions, others who had woken up before us decided to explore the fruit laden garden, while still others decided to just loll about the very sunny verandah with its view of the road below. Bliss!
I wanted the full experience. This village had stolen my heart and I hadn’t even seen most of it. I lazed about with the others on the front grassy lawn, from where we could see the villagers attending the Church opposite. Then it was off to lunch at Big Nia’s house. They told me the actual village (at least the Christian part – for the village was divided into different parts) was behind the church across the street. Come to think of it, Nia’s family’s homes and a school were the only buildings, this side of the road. I promptly asked Joh-Hi-Ki to get the car out for us to explore the village while I put my sneakers on. Nia’s family laughed at the suggestion of entering the village by car. For one, they told me, there were no roads at all, just steps and tiny lanes (people with vehicles parked them on the roadside near Big Nia’s home). Secondly this part of the village was so tiny, one could explore it in a jiffy.
So we crossed the road, me in my jeans and sneakers and Big Nia in her home clothes and bathroom slippers ( the others who had all seen the village umpteen times had decided to stay back and loll on Big Nia’s verandah this time). We walked behind the church and there it was! The cutest little village ever! Like most War villages, there were no boundary walls or fences. One can get to one’s house, walking across the neighbours’ gardens and verandahs here. It is the done thing. There were pretty cottages and even concrete double storied houses clustered together, all neat and clean with even the stones around the flower beds, whitewashed. The village was quiet, owing to most of its inhabitants being in church. The few that were outside in their verandahs greeted my companion in that incomprehensible garble that is the War language – many non-Wars like to describe the War language as sounding “mah mah, miah miah.” Of course I received curious glances from all. Big Nia happily told them who I was, most times not actually introducing me to them or telling me who they were. They simply spoke about me among themselves in War, that much I could decipher since mom’s and papun’s and my name were interspersed in the conversations. I was too enthralled by the beauty around me to mind. And before we knew it we had reached the bottom of the village where flowed a stream which Big Nia told me would be roaring during the summer months. Old and frail looking as she was, Big Nia surprised me with her childlike hopping from one boulder to another on that almost dry spring bed. We then returned to her home, taking another set of steps across the village.
I never wanted to leave, but leave we did, with me promising to visit every winter ( a promise I haven’t been able to keep) and to someday spend my retirement years there. A brief stop at Nia Shain’s brother’s house in the new part of the village (Sohkha Model), and we officially left Sohkha.
The Myntdu Leshka Hydro Electric Project near Pdengchakap, was not on our itinerary but Nia Shain and the boys felt it was worth a look, since we had come all this way. The road was pretty smooth and comfortable and ahead of the project, it was downhill all the way, with broomstick groves and orange orchards flanking the road. Leshka, as almost everyone calls it, is a dam whose construction has been going on forever (owing to sundry problems like prices of commodities going up and natural calamities, which we get to know from the press). Perhaps that’s its claim to fame. Other than that it’s a dam, roaring machines and all, as most dams are. People just seem to like to have it on their list of things to do. One hasn’t done the Jaintia Hills if one hasn’t done Leshka. So we posed for the mandatory pictures and left.
I was in search of my roots but thus far in the trip I hadn’t set foot on my grandparents’ villages yet. So Tarangblang (grandpa’s or papun’s village) it was. Our only link there was Nia Shain’s late brother’s family, or so we thought. En route, she told us how papun’s two sisters had passed away and how only their children, who weren’t very close to us still lived in Tarangblang (his two brothers still live in Jowai). I said it didn’t matter as long as I got to see the village. To my eye, the village didn’t seem to have the charm of other War villages. Clean, yes but the coziness was missing. Still, I was finally here. And was promptly given the shocking news by Nia Shain’s sister-in-law that papun’s youngest sister was still very much alive in the village. Nia Shain had been misinformed. A direct relation, still alive, how about that! So of course we had to meet this dearest of people, my ‘Mu’.
Nia’s sister-in-law led us to meet Mu, walking confidently across her neighbours gardens and verandahs. This was a historic moment for our family, and we knew it. From amongst our group, only Nia Shain had met Mu, so everyone else’s heart was pounding in anticipation. Fairy tale like as the situation was, it was made more otherworldly when we sighted the house where Mu lived and where she, papun and their siblings had grown up. A pink cottage peeping through trees and flower shrubs – talk about ethereal! Nia Shain’s sister-in-law knocked on the pink door and informed the relative who opened it about the arrival of Mu’s descendents. The relative excitedly went in to inform Mu. She came out, that dear dear matriarch, peering through the darkness of that ancient house. Neat and tidy in her blue jacket, Mu looked like papun and her other brothers. She lived alone there with her differently abled son. There were hugs and then reminiscences on her part about our parents. She showed us sepia toned pictures of a young papun and reminisced some more. Then she went on to give us ‘youngsters’ the expected grandmotherly advice. Oh! How many years ago had I had that privilege and honour (I never saw my paternal grandparents and my maternal grandparents had passed away when I was in my teens). We declined her offer of tea knowing she didn’t have help, (the other relative also looked quite ancient), took some pictures and then left with her parting shot, “Don’t forget to come for my funeral,” ringing in our ears and hearts. Historic and surreal!
Next stop Thangbuli , beipun’s (grandma’s) village. This was also going to be a drive by like Nongtalang as we positively didn’t know anyone here, and also because the village was small. This village, which is the very ground from which my clan rose (ours is a matrilineal society) was even more disappointing than papun’s village. I didn’t feel the connect, and no it wasn’t because I ‘experienced’ it from the interiors of a car. It certainly didn’t have that Gaul (Asterix’s village) like quaintness that the other War villages I had seen, did. It seemed cold and distant. I didn’t feel like getting down to explore, but just let Nia Shain and Dally do the pointing again. Perhaps if I taken the trouble to get some contacts beforehand, I might have altered my opinion. Or perhaps not. Well, so much for roots. Before long we were off to Jowai from where I left for Shillong the next day.
But I wasn’t disappointed overall. For more than belonging to just Thangbuli and Tarangblang, I belong to War Jaintia and War Jaintia is advanced, clean and very beautiful - altogether unique. And certainly worth the trip and many more trips.