Thursday, 22 September 2016

Parental Pressure


                                                              
 The machines manage to furrow my forehead which, under abnormal conditions of life without them, are quite capable of remaining crease free and taut ( Well! Almost. Baring aside the faint hints that reveal the number of years on this earth). The more apps, and social platforms and connections announce their arrivals with much fanfare, the furrows constrict till a headache comes blazing down. 

As if that was not enough, I now find myself in a serious identity crisis dragged in by the pinging deluge crashing through the smarter one. Of all the failed roles in life, the one role I thought I had managed to barely scrape through with passing marks, was that of parenthood. That feeling of relief lasted for as long as I could remember, raising my two with complete autonomy over their academics. I felt liberated hanging on to the mantra "your studies are your responsibility. I am done with mine."
And with that one stroke, I bought my freedom from hovering near their study table in the evenings, checking their notebooks for missed work, projects, assignments and all the paraphernalia that comes with schooling. Of course, they would find me around for serious doubts or discussions on ideas that made them wonder. But I drew the line there. 

Then the school decided to have Whatsapp groups for parents. And that's when I lost my confidence coming under serious 'parental pressure'. I wallowed in the fact that I had failed my children. The best mother award certainly would not come to me.

 A small voice inches its way forward,

 Was I even competing for it?

I push it aside.

Go away, silly! The fact remains that I did not do enough.

The voice is a leech, hanging on by the skin.

And what did you not do?

 That voice asked for it.
So I turn around and lash at it like a cyclonic storm  in the Bay of Bengal would hurl the waves onto the unsuspecting shore.

I barely lifted a finger after my child was absent for a day while the others were frantically pleading for the missed work to be whatsapped. Every evening there is symphony of pings, of mothers in a choir looking for the right answer for particular questions. Did I even bother to find out, what was in the syllabus? 
When the rest of the parental world, (some of them or all of them, I don't even know the ratio), was worried stiff about how much pressure the children came under when they had to submit homeworks twice or thrice a week, was I even concerned enough to voice my alarm?

The voice persists .

Were you alarmed?
No I wasn't, I agree, my voice dropping a notch lower. 
 I regain steam and continue flailing.

 I hadn't even noticed that I was supposed to be running a parallel school at home, noting down extra information, setting question papers. And then lamenting children have it so tough in life!

You did not? the voice asks in disbelief.

And the last straw that broke my camel hardy back was when the school sent out a consent form to be signed in the month of August for a school trip in December. It was to be their first out station trip! After seven years in school! ( If you are counting from prep, that is) It was a trip for three whole days!

You did not sign! the voice is excited.

No! I did worse. I was one of the first to sign!
So?
The voice is a little tired by now. Seems to be exhausted battling the pressure running in my vessels.

Where was my maternal instinct? My mother hen protection cackle? I did not bother to voice any apprehensions of the 'bachchas ' going without their mommies and daddies! And in a bus!

Er...it's okay...they are grown by now, the voice attempts to console but the tiredness clearly audible and its grip loosening over my skin.

How would they lug their trolley bags? The little ones! And it didn't enter my thick skull, the numbskull that I am, till someone pointed it out in the group.

The voice has gone silent.

And then like Tinnu's mother, my final wail goes up, WHY DID I NOT VOLUNTEER TO GO ON THE BUS TO KEEP A LOVING EYE ON THEM!

There is silence.The voice slumps and drops off as far away as possible from my skin.




Monday, 18 July 2016

Beltola Bazaar



                                                 
   

 A woman who was selling raw turmeric and fiddlehead fern, shyly smiled away from telling me her name. It was the strange string she had around her neck that caught my attention. It was a string made of bits and pieces of dry roots, she said, to cure her of jaundice that she was ailing from. She was confident of this remedy advised by the village quack. The others in the village had been cured when the string that was stuck to the neck loosened and expanded till it slipped down from the body in three days time. It was necessary for her to come to Beltola Bazar, jaundice was just a minor irritant, she said.

                                                   


    Stepping into a local market is like slipping into a wonderland. From the cloistered,organized shiny shelves of departmental stores, stocking all the exotic ingredients and food products that money can buy, it is disorienting at first to find oneself in the sounds and sights of a bazaar. For some unknown affinity, Beltola bazaar in Guwahati has always been my bench mark for markets. During a tenure in Leh, my mind harked back to the greens of Beltola bazaar; chancing on  farmer's market in a few European spots, I wondered about the simple mechanized display and wrap up of the market as compared to the manual lugging of vegetables at Beltola; or the visual blitzkrieg of Bangkok markets and discovering a nieghbourhood market that was so similar to the ones back home; or the roadside ones that spring up on a designated day; the mounds of onions at Devlali , the list is endless.

                                                 

Beltola bazar dates back to the days of Ahom rule when it was a trading hub for all the ethnic communities in and around Guwahati. Beltola was a protectorate of the Ahom Kingdom whose ruler assisted the Borphukan ( title given to the Governor of Ahom Kingdom stationed towards the west of Kaliabor river looking after Lower Assam). Once, this part of Assam was briefly occupied by the Mughals but who were sent packing by Lachit Borphukan in the Battle of Xaraighat. Since then Beltola was a protectorate kingdom under the Ahom rule and then the British till India gained independence. The present Beltola Rani's residence is very close to the Beltola Bazar. Rani Lakshmipriya Devi who died in 1991 played a pivotal role in keeping the traditional market alive emphasizing on the need to encourage the multi ethnicity presence and trading relations that had been continuing since ancient times.

                                                         

   Beltola Bazar never fails to amaze me with its people, the friendly banter with the vendors, the array of fruits and vegetables and the ones reminding me of childhood that are said to be disappearing from the face of this earth. There is a bond between the seller and the regular customers borne out of familiarity. In every trip of mine, I make it a point to visit this market, ostensibly to pick the special lemon (Kaji nemu), the fiddlehead fern and the ghost chillies to carry back to Delhi. But that is just an excuse. I love the rows of vendors displaying the vegetables  in neat piles. More than that I love coming across unfamiliar items that give a glimpse into the food culture of a community. On a couple of occasion , I've picked up these ingredients to try out the recipes these women have parted with. And they have led me onto interesting culinary journey in my  kitchen.

                                                       

    These vendors are mostly women who travel all the way from the Garo and the Khasi hills and nearby small towns, bringing with them the produce of their back yards, farms and little vegetable plots. Sometimes a few  of them collectively ferry the village's or their neighbourhood's fruits and vegetables to the big city. They bring in some of the best green vegetables, a variety of colacasia, bamboo shoots, banana flower, rattan shoot, pineapples, oranges, poultry and eggs and whole lot of indigenous ingredients.

                                                       

    Their journey begins a little after midnight, starting from their villages to the nearest transport hub and then to Guwahati. Many a times, they travel precariously perched on a heap of sacks through the night in small vans. The moment they arrive at the crack of dawn, the middlemen hover around them offering them as low price as possible. Some of the gullible are taken in and succumb, while the seasoned ones can hold their own.

The market begins as early as five in the morning and used to continue till late in the evening until a few months back. However a recent administration order requires them to wrap up by ten in the morning on Thursdays and by noon on Sundays. Ostensibly to ease the traffic, this direction from the local administration is causing considerable discomfort to the small sellers. They now have to wrap up right when the business picks up. The administration, in fact, with a little imagination could play up the multi ethnicity role and it's historical context to turn this into a tourist attraction.

 There can be space for all, both the aseptic malls and the vibrant local markets. I have always felt that it is a local market that gives a true feel of the place, its people and their lives. Beltola Bazar being no different.

   






Friday, 15 July 2016

Sonoka Hamlet



                                           
 

I left the others behind while they stood there discussing the condition of the road. The rocky hillock had a blanket of thick vegetation. A large rock rested precariously against a much smaller one threatening to roll down a bald spot. The uneven path beckoned with an eerie silence. From where it took a bend I could see a natural gateway of two boulders. There were tales of rocks hurling down all of a sudden. Or stories of cruising in air like missiles. We were in the Mayong region of Assam, famous for tales of black magic. And Sonoka is a village, tucked away that is accessible through a narrow dirt track ridden with pebbles and stones. The village opened out to the silvery wrinkled sheet of the Brahmaputra on  one side. And on the other side a bow shaped hillock stretched out, shielding it from an outsider's gaze.  


                                       



Last evening a friend had suggested Sonoka, a picturesque village here boasting of the perfect sunset. Amidst all the boisterousness of a school reunion, we decided to explore it on our way back. Walking through the gap between the two rocks now, I found a narrow dirt track snaking parallel to the silently flowing Brahmaputra. A lone egret watched from the periphery of an ancient forest. The room waiter last night had sworn that the people here no longer practiced the ancient art of black magic. Such spectacles were last seen almost sixty years ago. But there were whispers of sorcery.

                           





If I hadn't been listening to stories, I would have found the nook perfect to spread a mat and watch the river endlessly or tread into the forest that held back from a distance. The silence was deafening. It was hard to believe that a city was growing helter-skelter, spilling over from its limits just forty kilometers away. The others had caught up with me by now. Just as I got into the first car, two men on bicycles appeared on either sides of the car. I had not noticed them before. One of them discouraged us vehemently from going ahead citing a dangerous ditch. The other stopped by my side and whispered not to listen to him saying no one trusted him in the village ahead. A scene from a comic book flashed. Two tiny creatures perched on either shoulders. One with a halo over its head and the other with a pitchfork.

                                           



Unheeding we drove down the dirt track confident of reaching that elusive Sonoka. Suddenly the cars  almost bumped into each other. A wide deep ditch yawned from where we had halted. Heads with confused voices poked out of windows. It was going to be a while for the seven vehicles to reverse and turn around on the narrow lane. The sun was fast slipping into the waters. The cyclist who had cautioned us, stuck around to guide us through. I looked at the path on the other side of the ditch. Far away in the distance was the faint promise of a homestead of Sonoka. And a cyclist rode on without once turning back.


                           




This post was written for TWTFOW#5



                

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Sunrise and Xihu




      

           
We beat him to the spot today. In the last two days, Mita mahi and I have found him  swaying and dipping the fishing net into the brown  water of the Brahmaputra. We were a trio in companionable silence, waiting patiently to be obliged. He, for fish. And us for the perfect sunrise on the Brahmaputra. In our last two attempts,  we arrived a little late to find the sun a few notches above the horizon.

                           
Today we watch him silently walk down the slope towards the water, with long poles over his shoulder. Putting his things down, he assembles his fishing gear. Two poles are positioned as a  cross with a string holding the middle. A net comes out of his bag and its four corners are deftly looped to the four ends of the poles. Holding the third pole from the center he gently dips the billowing net into the water.On the first day he had shown us his catch. An assorted lot of small fish, enough for one meal.

                                         

It is a favoured spot by the circuit house on the bank  of the river. We had arrived in the dark today, hoping to catch the sun emerging from the water, almost chased by stray dogs manning their territory. Sitting on the rocks with cameras ready, the sight of the river is soothing, almost tranquilizing the weary soul. The sinews relax and the edginess of anticipation dissolve and seem to be carried away by the water. Some debris float down in the distance. A crow flies and perches on it. Soon a few more join and enjoy an early morning free ride in the river. And just when they seem to have moved far away from their nest, they fly back to the bank till another one comes carried by the current. Like children running and climbing behind vehicles that come into their village.
 

                               


                                                         
The sky lightens a little towards the east. The horizon has a thin layer of grey. We keep our fingers crossed. Both Mita mahi and I. The fisherman continues with the dip and the sway. A boat comes in from the other end with two men precariously trying to balance it along the shore. It comes quite close to us and then moves away to the other end. Looking out at the vast water the mind expands to let in the thoughts along the time line. Of the past and the present and what the future holds. Mita mahi fills me in as to how these waters abounded in river dolphins when they were young. Ferrying in the country boats, it was a delight to see this lovely mammal jump around. Until only a few years ago, it was possible to buy fish from the fishermen right in the middle of the river while one commuted across the river. Who would believe those stories now, she asked.

                                 

The fisherman patiently continues  his motions with the net. He is yet to catch any today.
Do you get to catch Hilsa now?
No, he replies, I get them only in October when they swim up from the sea to lay eggs.
That's quite a distance they swim upstream from Bay of Bengal to spawn, I note .

The horizon doesn't look too good with the thin layer darkening. The dawn has brightened further and our apprehensions are confirmed. The sun emerging from the water remains hidden behind the layer of clouds. On my last day at Goalpara, I missed the perfect sunrise yet again. I look around to take in as much as possible of this quiet spot. The silver grey water is faintly rouged up. And suddenly there is a sound of parting water. A grey body juts out tossing and turning in the water quite close to the rock where we sit.
" Dolphin!" I squeal.
Mita mahi whips her head around just in time to catch another jump of this lovely animal. We are speechless. Even the fisherman grins looking at where it had splashed.
"Xihu!" he says quietly. There is not a single fish in his net. Mita mahi smiles, so they are still here she says. We wait for some more time. The sun peeps out from behind the clouds. The perfect sunrise eluded yet again. But the Xihu gave us hope for another time.



This post was written for TWTFOW#5 


Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Umkar - Living Root Bridge In The Making






                                                  

The road seems to be having a hard time staving off the rapidly growing  thick vegetation straining in from both its edges. Given an ounce of earth on the tarmac they would probably spurt the next length of grass. There isn’t a soul in sight save the birds and the thickets on either sides. By now we have pretty much adjusted ourselves to sudden sighting of little streams behind dense foliage or a small waterfall gushing down the sides.  Albeit poorly. We are on our way to Siej village in Sohra to marvel at what this area is best known for.  The Living Root Bridge. And the Umkar Root bridge is one in the making ever since the original one was washed away in torrential rains.

                                                     

We park the vehicle near the village school as instructed by the resort we are lodged at, and get ready to walk down a few steps to where the bridge is. A lone pineapple grows by the long steps that go up from where a matron materializes and descends to collect the fee . “ Camera? Mobile?” she asks, her lips stained with kwai. Having paid the nominal amount, we descend  the flight of steps on the other side while she goes back to wherever she came from. A teenager sits in her verandah watching us go down. Wet soggy leaves lie strewn on the wide steps and  we need to be careful lest we reach our destination in humpty dumpty style. It is the season of jackfruit ripening and as if to prove a point we come across  a few splattered on the steps. The trees are shaking off the last of the rain till the next lot pours.

                                                     

                                                 
         

The walk down to the Umkar bridge takes just a few minutes in contrast to the superstar of its ilk, the Umshiang double decker root bridge . We hear the water gushing down much before reaching the point. And there it is.  Roots twisting and turning , entwining and braiding across a stream that is jumping off the rocks. They are trained over the rocks midstream and for the rest of the way have a bamboo scaffolding to support the new roots, pushing them into the required direction.
It is an eye opener to see the roots of the Figus Elastica, a type of rubber tree, first dig deep into the ground on the bank taking shape so as to find support. The villagers  guide the secondary roots,  across and all around to lend a strong support and also to create the bridge. Bamboo poles are tied  and positioned horizontally overhead leading the tender root to the other side. The villagers of Siej aim at engineering a double decker. It would take them another two decades or so before it is fully functional.

                                                       
                                                       

A still photography team from Singapore is positioned on the concrete bridge running parallel to the natural one.  A root bridge ideally takes 15 to 20 years to grow and survives for many years. There is a wealth of wisdom in the Khasi forefather's  understanding the quality of the tree growing by streams helped by the heavy rainfall. It took a considerable time of their life span to see their project fructify and yet they continued to build bridges for the future generations. Bamboo or wooden bridges would rot and give away in a few years time but a living root bridge would only grow stronger and sturdier.

The first few  tentative steps on the Umkara bridge we take soon gives way to happy and delightful paces. But only till a little more than halfway. The roots are still tender and in the process of growing and reaching out to the other side helped by a bamboo frame underneath.
Buoyed by the world waking up to these bio engineering marvels, villages in Sohra are creating these bridges to cash in on its popularity. Like the one in Siej, where the aspiring double decker project is looking at more tourist inflow when it is ready. At least what they are exhibiting has not damaged nature in any way. They have only shown to the world how nature gives for generations if handled well.

                                                     

On our return the girl in the verandah asks us where are we from. Her brows rise when she understands Delhi. We have a little language problem trying to share a conversation. She keeps hollering for her father and brothers, who are busy slashing the undergrowth and caring for the fruit trees on the slope beside her home. She is looking for the right words. It’s a humble home she lives in. A flight of steps leads up a high plinth and disappears into the dark doorway. There are many more bridges to be built.


This post was written for TWTFOW#5

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Mayong And Black Magic



                                         

   

  "Don't look  anyone in the eye neither should you throw your gaze left or right. I for one, am not going to risk that" advised Mintu who was driving us down to Pobitora famed for dense population of the one horned rhino.
"If I am turned into a cat, I assure you, I will still find my way back home to Goalpara, even if I have to drag myself  through" he jested. Pobitora was an hour's drive from Guwahati in the Morigaon district. Mintu's concerns stemmed from the countryside we were driving through which was Mayong, the cradle of India's black magic practice.

Turning people into animals and plates stuck to their back to cure aches were a few instances of  normal occurrence of Mayong, according to the whispers. But then what else would one expect from Mayong, touted to be the capital of Black Magic of the country. I remembered little tit-bits of how people referred to Mayong in an oblique way in their conversations. That if anyone partook a bowl of tea in any household of Mayong, chances are that he would leave with the peera, a low wooden stool stuck to his rear. This was one of the most common sayings.  There was a time when it was said that every household in Mayong practiced magic and people from far and near came here to learn the art. Rumours are that it included PC Sorcar Jr. Even in the annals of history there are references to Assam as the land of sorcery and black magic. Raja Ram Singh when directed by Aurangzeb to march towards east, sought sufi saints and Guru Tegh Bahadur to accompany them as protection against sorcery. There is an interesting note of previous encounters by Shihabuddin, who chronicled Mir Jumla's march to Assam province.

"...No one who entered this country ever returned and manners of this country were never known....the people of Hindustan used to call the inhabitants of Assam sorcerers and magicians....They say that whoever enters this country is overcome by charms and never comes out of it." (A History Of Assam by Sir Edward Gait)

It is the vagaries of time then, this magical aura submerged never to rise again. Ironically the present generation, who are well in the clutches of JK Rowlings Hogwarts, Voldemort and Harry Potter, remain ignorant of a magical past of their land. Mayong remains a vague idea and not a real existence on the geographical map.

Mintu cruised ahead on the road, his aim being to reach the resort well before darkness fell. Vague stories floating down from memory coloured  the landscape we crossed. A beautiful thicket lining one side of the road had many teak trees and dense undergrowth. Rocks and boulders jutting out from within made me think of possibilities rising out of the stories. Suddenly they seemed eerie and I looked hard for any evidence of the past. The villages we crossed seemed normal with people going about their everyday chores. Nothing magical there. Quite a disappointment actually!


The resort organized a magic show that evening, probably cashing in on its lost history. Nothing extra ordinary there. I asked the staff, who were locals, about any occurrence that was out of the ordinary ambit of life. They were quick to wash off their hands.One of them smiled sheepishly, “ Frankly, our generation has not taken it up seriously. There are very few of us who would have taken the lessons of this craft. There are strict rules to be followed which becomes difficult to abide by, in the present conditions when there is a family to be fed.”

And as if to compensate for the disappointment writ large on my face he hastily adds,” I’ve heard stories from my uncle who says he has been a witness to some of them. On one occasion there was a duel between two wizards and they saw fireworks and balls of fire as they tried to counter each other’s spells and hexes. But we haven't seen magic here as far as we can remember.”

Stories again. And yet there is proof of a magical past. A museum put together by local effort displays ancient scripts bearing chants, charms and hexes. These have been collected from the homes of the people here in  order to preserve them. One suspects that people haven't really given up all that they inherited. 

Sitting there amidst the lush paddy fields, in a nicely done up resort right next to the Pobitora sanctuary, very few seemed interested in the formidable past of Mayong. It's glory and tales of enchantment eluded the present and remained amorphous in the real world.


This post was written for TWTFOW#5 




Monday, 11 July 2016

Sohra




                                                     


 Sohra is a place that will play peekaboo  as you drive along the road ribboning down Shillong for almost 60 kms. The hills will ensconce you now or suddenly disappear behind a thick layered veil of clouds and tease with just a portion of the road visible ahead. But you know you are on safe grounds because the journey is through a table top and the edges are way off the road. Snaking through the  meadows in multiple shades of green, the clouds welcomed us into their folds and showered us with rains. In any case this was what I had come for, chasing the rains. 

Through the rain washed window panes, blurred landscape rushed by. I could make out a stream flowing or jumping off a rocky ledge in the meadows. A settlement passed by, people moving around unhurriedly with colourful umbrellas, an integral part of their existence. The rains had stopped as suddenly as it had begun as if to let us have a good look around. We passed  pretty Khasi homes with just one or two little windows on either side of the front door. No matter how humble the home was, there were no compromises on two aspects. Cleanliness and curtains. Every window, whether it was of a roadside kiosk, a shack, or a home had pretty curtains on their windows. And cleanliness? There was not a piece of wrapper within sight even within the compounds of their homes. Woven baskets hung from tree trunks or placed by the road was a common sight. And the roads forever had a washed look.  A string of laundry was staked up on a bamboo pole, left to dry in the breeze. Even from the distance I could make out they had been scrubbed clean. I wonder how do they dry the clothes with rain pouring in every now and then? And then I see some women attired in Jainsen  walking down to a stream with yet another pail of clothes. 

The owner of the resort we stayed in, claimed that entire Sohra once had an abundance of fruit trees and probably that's where the name came from "Soh" meaning fruits. And then came the British who couldn't quite get it right ( as is evident from the spate of renaming them throughout the country) and referred to it as Churra. The Bengali babus who assisted the British in administration further added 'punjo' to indicate a cluster. The local name Sohra changed to Cherrapunjee. The slopes of the south Khasi hills looks out at the vast watery Bangladesh. For the people of the adjoining Bangladesh plains, it made sense to   turn this side rather than trudge a long way to the nearest city. Sohra was a hub of fruits market and the local people  had trade relations with  neighbouring Bangladesh. "People here flourished then. But now they have left for distant places in search of livelihood" she claims. Tracks that connected the hills with the plains are overgrown with years of disuse. Strangely even the fruit trees started disappearing and the locals were looking at a grim future.

For all its lush greenery and rainfall, Sohra doesn't yield itself to cultivation. The traditional practice of jhum cultivation has robbed the land of its green cover. The incessant rains have added to the woes by washing away the precious top soil. A dark rocky surface juts out in many places from the greenery, lending a heightened contrast to the verdant cover. 

This region stands on a rich deposit of limestone. And soon cement factories sprung up to extract and utilize this resource. It provided respite to the locals in terms of employment and stable livelihood. Although, there are many who continue to sell off the produce from their homestead to supplement the wages earned here or at distant land. I crossed a cement factory and on the other side was a small wooden bridge that led to a row of buildings in the distance. The sky was overcast taking a respite before the next downpour. The undulating landscape was lush and fresh as only the rains can bestow. And for an instant, I wondered if the women were going to step out of their homes and wait for the men to return from the factory shift. would they hand over their earnings to the women before walking in to take a bath and sit down to a hot meal? Strangely,  Richard Llewyllen's How Green Was My Valley surfaced. But that was South Wales and the coal mines. This is Sohra and cement factory. And yet there is an echo. Probably my imagination of a Welsh countryside coincided with what stretched before me. 

Sohra continued to charm me  with it's quietude and clean air. The only sounds were that of the breeze rustling the leaves, bird songs or the rain falling in a steady pour. When the shower stopped for a while, I sat on the bamboo bench and looked out at the ridge opposite. Wisps of tinged low clouds hovered over the valley. 
"They have taken away our title" the owner of the resort had said. The ridge on the other side under the clouds was Mawsynram, wearing the crown of being the wettest place on earth. Did it make Sohra any less beautiful? Did it rob it of its quiet charm? Did it make the numerous waterfalls plunging down the cliffs any less majestic? 
I made a promise to myself, I shall return to Sohra once again and again. For that is what it does to you. Seeps into your heart with all its simplicity and stays on as a warm thought.


                                                 















This post was written for TWTFOW#5