The clouds descend on you within seconds. A few kilometres out of Shillong, on the road to Mawsynram, a cluster of hamlets considered the wettest in the world, the first few drops appear on our windshield. Suddenly, visibility reduces from 30 metres, to 10 metres, to just five. And then we are driving on a highway glistening with a miasma of mist. “Welcome to Meghalaya, the abode of the clouds!” hollers Komsingh Swer, our stocky, cheerful charioteer.
What is it about the magic of the monsoon that keeps the world mesmerised? In India, it is the most awaited season because it rejuvenates millions of parched souls facing the wrath of the sun during our long summers. From Kalidas’s Meghdootam, to Tagore’s A Rainy Day, the magic of the monsoons has inspired brilliant literature and poetry. Between June and September, these moisture-laden winds rise above mountains, cool the air and bring bucket-loads of rain. Little wonder then that rain gods smile brightest over the Western Ghats, the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas and, of course, the Khasi hills of Meghalaya, where we’re headed.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Mawsynram, at 1,400 metres above sea level, is the wettest place on Earth. “By average rainfall, the wettest place is Mawsynram, with 11,873 mm of rain per annum. The second highest is Cherrapunji, with an average annual rainfall of 11,430 mm per year,” reads the record on the Guinness website.
On The Road to Mawsynram
Our driver Komsingh Swer smiles into the rear-view mirror through bright red lips stained by kwai, the betel nut-leaf-lime concoction everyone in the Khasi hills chews. The SUV hugs the curves and negotiates unpaved roads with ease. Still, the 58-kilometre stretch from Shillong to Mawsynram is easily the worst approach road in the state, he reckons.
The waterfalls en route Mawsynram are pretty, the foliage the lushest green you can imagine, and the people friendly. But when that unmistakable curtain of mist falls over the road, you know you are in the East Khasi Hills.
As if welcoming us to the block of villages, the downpour rises from a drizzle to a torrent. “Lapsohra!” announces the driver. In the Khasi dialect, it means ‘it’s pouring.’ Both my photographer colleague Raj and I warm up to the sight that awaits us.
WORK AND PLAY
In a mist-covered playground in the world’s wettest place, a crowd of about 100 has gathered to watch a six-a-side game of football, echoing the Khasis’ carefree attitude towards the rain gods. Crunching tackles, booming kicks, running through puddles or sliding through the slush – it is pouring in Mawsynram, but the group of 12 boys hasn’t let the blinding rain dampen their enthusiasm for the Beautiful Game.
Edmund Warjri, 16, a Liverpool fan, chants the club anthem: When you walk through a storm, Hold your head up high, And don’t be afraid of the dark, At the end of the storm, There’s a golden star (sky),…And you’ll never walk alone.” Meghalaya, like the rest of north-east India, is football-crazy and the people fanatically follow the English Premier League. With two clubs from the state, Shillong Lajong FC and Rangdajiad United FC, playing in the I-League, young footballers aren’t short on inspiration. “Whether it is raining or not, our parents never stop us from playing football. Everyone in Mawsynram loves it,” says Nasares Pdahkasiej, 16, flaunting a Manchester United jersey.
Other than a desolate signboard at the Public Works Department building which reads ‘Wettest Place in The World’ there are few indications that Mawsynram’s inhabitants are aware of its exalted status among tourists, explorers, geographers and monsoon chasers. “You are lucky to be here on Thursday, weekly market day,” Samuel Najiar, 35, a coal entrepreneur from Shillong, intrepid interpreter and our resource person for local intel, tells us. The downpour has little effect on shoppers haggling with hawkers over fish, potato and meat. The ‘market’ is an assortment of kiosks draped in tarpaulin and the buyers create a sea of umbrellas in all the hues of the rainbow and then some.
Since everyone is already armed with an umbrella, where do umbrella sellers find new buyers? Sales are sluggish, rues Bibel Rani, a petite 40-year-old businesswoman as she looks into the street through a sheet of rain. “On good days, we sell about four umbrellas, but on the market day, sales could go up to 10. This year, tourists have reduced to a trickle, it seems,” she says. Even the scroll of honour from the Guinness Book, calling Mawsynram the World’s Wettest Place hasn’t exactly brought in tourists by the bucketful.
And the locals, well, they don’t bother much about umbrellas. They swear by the knup, the innovative hands-free rain shield that lets them work in the fields, dig roads and carry out everyday chores without having to grip an umbrella pipe. The rim of the shield looks like an inverted tear drop. It extends behind the head and also keeps the rain off the knees.
Certain other urban inventions have little utility in Mawsynram, such as leather shoes. Arnest Kharmawlong, 31, principal of the St Francis Secondary School, says the relentless rain brings with it problems in enforcing discipline. “One can’t expect everyone to be shod in leather shoes in the rain. So, the students are allowed slippers. The rain affects attendance too, particularly in the junior classes.”
Most of the students in Mawsynram’s 17 schools walk about five kilometres on an average to get an education, says R Hiamdor Rapsang, a teacher with a lower primary school.
By the time we enter the class 9 classroom at the St Francis Secondary School, the students are getting restless since school is about to shut for the weekend. The umbrellas are out and the trousers rolled up when we quiz them on whether they know they study in the world’s wettest place. “But our textbooks say it is Cherrapunji,” says Beneto Marbaniang, a student. A look at the 2012 edition of A Textbook of Social Studies confirms this. So, what’s the toughest bit about coming to school in incessant rain? “Our uniforms don’t dry in time,” says Manosha Koynter, 14.
Rain Man of Mawsynram
The battle between Mawsynram and Cherrapunji for the world’s wettest title has piqued our curiosity about meeting Ram Krishna Sharma aka Pintoo, the rain man of Mawsynram.
In a flat stretch of green overlooking a foggy valley, we notice a balding, portly figure crouching beneath an umbrella, filling his measuring cylinder. “You must be the journalists from Delhi, I am Pintoo!” he greets us with a smile.
Sharma has been engaged in measuring rainfall for close to two decades, but he doesn’t have too many insights into meteorological trends. “As a peon, I take the readings and send them to the SDO office and the Met office in Guwahati,” he says.
Sharma suggests we meet Moonstar Marbaniang, the headman of Mawsynram Village, in case we want more information about the Guinness Record. The headman, 65, has a mop of grey hair, a crinkly smile and a laugh that sounds like pealing church bells. “Of course, I am aware of the Guinness Book. The entire village is proud of the world record,” he says. “But at the same time, we face a lot of difficulties owing to the rain. No crops can be cultivated in this terrain. There are just a couple of inches of grass and solid rock underneath.
“Therefore, most villagers have turned labourers or middlemen, acquiring farm produce from other parts of the state and selling it in the weekly market. In case you really want to see how the people weather the extremities of rain, you should go to Syntein Village, also in Mawsynram,” advises Marbaniang.
THE LAND AND ITS PEOPLE
The Khasis are a matrilineal society, in which inheritance passes to the youngest daughter and the children take the mother’s name. And women play as big a role in bringing the bread home as do men. Near Syntein, after the Khreng Khreng Falls, we meet a group of construction workers. The men, wreathed in plastic sheets, are part of the PWD road maintenance team. “The monsoon is the busiest time of the year for us,” says Broke Marnagar, 30, who earns R250 every day, clearing debris from landslides or working on a road.
After a long stretch of inactivity, the phone beeps: “You are logged in to Airtel Bangladesh. Incoming to India @R10 per minute,” reads the text on the screen. “Yes, it is just across the valley. Since the soil in the limestone plateau doesn’t absorb water, all the rain water flows down into Bangladesh,” says Najiar.
And the biggest irony gripping Mawsynram? The wettest place in the world faces an acute water crisis in winter. Jasuklang Dewsaw, 27, a chowkidar with a health centre, walks to work for seven kilometres every day. He earns Rs 11,000 per month and the household income is augmented by his wife Skhembhalang Disiar, 26, a teacher who gets R6,000. It is barely enough to feed the family that includes two toddlers and maintain their modest home comprising a drawing room, bedroom and kitchen. “We can’t keep the windows open, since water seeps in and makes the floor slippery. Drinking water is a big problem. There is no rainwater conservation,” says Disiar. “Still, despite all the difficulties, the Khasi people find ways to enjoy themselves,” she says.
Betting on arrows
Many of their leisure pursuits can be traced to the Khasis’ love for gambling. If, in older times, bets were laid on a chicken, pig or goat, these days, many youngsters and veterans alike gamble on archery competitions. The centuries-old tradition of Siat Khnam, or Shoot Arrow is still popular. The results are even displayed on Teer stalls in state capital Shillong.
Call it serendipity or good fortune, but we get to witness to an inter-village Teer contest the day we head from Mawsynram to Cherrapunji. A crowd of about 50 onlookers is crouching on a foggy maidan. The drizzle doesn’t deter them as they take shelter beneath knups and watch teams from opposing villages throw arrows like javelins at targets a few metres away. “The wagers go up to R10,000,” says Prasanta Borah, 35, a businessman and Teer enthusiast.
If any other leisure activity can match the popularity of archery-led gambling in rural Meghalaya, it is fishing. “Four out of five people in the state indulge in fishing on the weekend,” says Dr PM Nadon, a 46-year-old surgeon, even as he flaunts his catch of the day, a grass carp, to Wanban, his eight-year-old nephew.
The wettest place in the world isn’t getting as many tourists as it should because of bad roads. “Also, despite its caves and waterfalls, the administration isn’t doing enough to boost tourism in the block,” says Fabian Umdor of the PWD, Mawsynram.
Journalist and activist Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, says just statistics do not a tourist attraction make or unmake. “Mawsynram has never been able to dislodge Cherrapunji as the big tourist draw of Meghalaya. There are simply no tourist facilities as yet in Mawsynram.”
Marbaniang, the headman of Mawsynram Village, suggests two constructive measures. “The government should set up a meteorological observatory in Mawsynram. This will ensure its status as the world’s wettest place. Also, land has already been earmarked to create a ropeway between the two hills that separate Cherrapunji and Mawsynram. Perhaps this would set the rivalry between the two to rest.”
Like they say, where there’s a hill, there is a way!
Follow @aasheesh74 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, August 25
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch