Rock concert in Meghalaya

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On a really wet day we drove out from Shillong to Mawsynram, a village in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. The village is known as the rainiest place in the world. We couldn’t see a thing because of the rain.

On the drive back The Family remembered a rock concert which was supposed to be held in a large ground on the way. There was no way we could miss it: the highway was jammed with cars going to the concert. Eventually we made our way there. The music was pretty much what local rock bands produce: okay most of the time, dipping below now and then, and soaring sometimes. The rock concert attracts a lot of young locals, and the major politicians. Between songs there were occasional speeches in Khasi.

Since we didn’t know the language, we felt free to walk over to the food and drinks stalls. It was late and they had run out of dohneiiong: pork cooked with sesame seeds. We got some jadoh: the basic rice and meat, with some wonderful soya chutney. Raju, our driver, told us that the rock concert was held every year, and was started not too long back by the local member of the Parliament. That explained the speeches.

We walked back to listen to the music again. We’d spent a long time on the road, and the traffic had not improved. Listening to the music was a better option than spending time in the traffic, we thought. Raju was sure that staying longer would not help. He was right. We spent a long time stuck in traffic on the highway afterwards. But we had all eaten and enjoyed the vigourous music.

The festival season

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After the end of the monsoon till the beginning of winter, the time that would be called autumn in the north temperate part of the globe, is the time of festivals in India. In Mumbai the season opens with Ganapati. In most of the rest of the country it is Navaratri, or Durga Puja, which is the beginning of the series of festivals which end with Diwali.

I took the photo above in one of Mumbai’s famous Durga Pujas. It is organized every year by a family which is closely connected with movies. The Mukherjee clan was established by a film producer who started working with a famous director in the 1940s, before founding his own studio. His family remained in control of the studio he started. His grandchildren include one well-known star and an up-and-coming director. I thought that this place is popular because one can gawk at film stars and other people known for being known. But the person in the foreground is praying, his whole attention on the idol, and not on the celebrities.

Fossils in language

I’m familiar with words for relations within the large extended Indian families, the single word that expresses whether your grandmother is from your father’s or mother’s side, the clear difference between your father’s elder or younger brother, the lack of such a differentiation for his female siblings, the lack of differentiation between an older sibling and cousin of the same sex, and so on. When we got married, and The Family and I slowly learned these words in another Indian language, we also found the interesting occasional differences. For us these relations are living and important, they affect our social ties.

grandfatherWhen I started learning Chinese I was not surprised that there is an equal variety of words for elder and younger sisters and brothers, for uncles and aunts, based on the order of their births, for grandparents. But in China these are linguistic fossils. For two generations there have been no siblings. A lost taxi driver in Wuhan will call out Meimei (meaning younger sister) to a passing woman to stop and ask for directions, in startling contrast to one in Kolkata who will call out Didi (meaning older sister). But these are synthetic uses. Very few in China have siblings: gege, didi, meimei, jiejie, or uncles and aunts: bobo, jiujiu, guzhang, gugu, yima, or cousins. On the other hand, walking in a park you will keep hearing the words yeye, gonggong, nainai, laolao as children call out to their grandparents. Changing the structure of families is a genuine cultural revolution, a complete break with China’s own past. But language is tenacious, the fossils of these relations remain.

India: one of the safest countries in the world

A newspaper report tells me that one out of every 13 cancer patients in the world is Indian. I feel cheered immediately.

There are 1.2 billion Indians, and 7.5 billion humans all told. So, one in every 6 humans is Indian. This means that if Indians had the same chance of getting cancer as anyone else in the world, then one in 6 cancer patients should have been Indian. That amounts to a little over 2 Indian cancer patients for every 13. But the fraction of cancer patients who are Indian is less than half that much. So Indians must have a little less than half the chance of getting cancer than the world average.

So that’s the big story. If you live anywhere else in the world, come to India to double the chance of leading a cancer-free life! Of course, if a large number of people took my advice, then the probabilities would change, and the temporary advantage would be lost.

Flying near the Everest with a crappy camera

The great thing about Air India is that the Mumbai-Shanghai Dreamliner skirts the southern edge of the Himalayas at an altitude of 12 kilometers in the mid-morning. In October, when the skies over north India are crystal clear, you could have a great view of the high Himalayas from the flight. The names rolled off my tongue on the taxi to the airport: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Sagarmatha (Everest), Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga. They might appear in that order as I fly. The taxi driver looked in his mirror quizzically. I told him about the 8000 meter peaks. He seemed to understand; he said he is from near the foothills of the Himalyas.

The bad thing about Air India is that you can never predict what they are going to do. I’d booked myself an aisle seat on the port side, forward of the wing, on my flight out to China. My boarding pass specified a completely different row, one which turned out to be smack over the wing. This was a pity, but not as much as the fact that the gentleman two seats behind me plonked a huge suitcase on top of my backpack before I could take out my camera.

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So when we glided past the bulky silhouette of the Everest on the horizon all I had with me was a phone which specializes in taking fish-eye landscapes. I can’t make out whether I also got Cho Oyu in the photo. The sight of the mountains brought out the romantic in many of my fellow travellers. The aisles were suddenly crowded with people looking at the bulky shape of Everest. My neighbour was ecstatic. I must go to Nepal, said the young man to me in Hindi. We compared photos, and stared out of the small port at the mountains we drifted past. I told him about the 8000 meter peaks, the ones I know I will never reach, but which I dream of scaling. We talked about the continental collision which form these heights, and the movement which causes frequent earthquakes in the region.

The rest of the flight was, well, downhill. We flew into Burma, then over the rice fields of south eastern China to Shanghai. China is a thin spot in the global map of the internet. This time I was not surprised, merely inconvenienced. No blogging for a week, no maps, restricted mail. From the top of the highest mountains, back to reality. It hit hard a few days later, when the government of Nepal put new restrictions on who can climb the Everest. Most of the time I think the restrictions are good, but there are the Walter Mitty moments when I plant my feet on top of one of these peaks, and raise my rime-encrusted face to look at the dark blue sky.

The Indian Garden

As I sit and complete the last few jobs on my laptop, I can smell the fragrance of the night-blooming parijat (shefali in Eastern India) from a bush below the balcony. This has a made up name in English: night-flowering Jasmine. I can easily distinguish its smell from that of the Jasmine (mogra) which grows in a pot in my balcony. I love these, but they are so close to where I’m sitting that they drown out the milder fragrance of the champa (frangipani) from a tree a little further away. There is no rajnigandha (tuberose) in the neighbourhood, otherwise this fragrant duet which I’m writing about would have been overcome by its heady smell.

The traditional Indian garden is a place you can enjoy even with your eyes closed. All these flowers are white, and not very photogenic, so they never appeared in the old Bollywood movies where the hero and heroine would run through a colourful garden (except in the 40 year old hit called Rajnigandha).

Its time for me to shut down the laptop and pack it up. My next post will either be from China, or after I return.

The Despoliation of Sohra

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
–Ogden Nash

Some of the most beautiful sights in Meghalaya are to be seen in the Sohra region of the East Khasi Hills. The road between Shillong and the town of Sohra (aka Cherrapunji) skirts wonderful valleys and passes tall waterfalls tumbling over the limestone cliffs. There are times when you feel you could just sit there on one of the high meadows, among the wildflowers, and watch the play of light through the clouds. I sat on just such a meadow and recalled the descriptions of the forests of Sohra from the early 19th century. Now there are no trees. They were the first things to go. The hills are next.

The evening before we left for Sohra we’d got a little lost in Shillong. We wandered into some roads which turned out to belong to one of the more famous schools. As we tried to find our way, we ran into one of the senior teachers. When he found that we were from Mumbai, he invited us home for a tea and reminiscences of his days in Mumbai. He was a Telugu married to a Khasi. Eventually the conversation turned to Sohra. He seemed to speak with anger about the state of Sohra: how it was being destroyed by people who should have taken care of it. His wife was quiet, but jogged his memory with an occasional word. It seemed to me that they were in agreement, and perhaps some of his vehemence came from their shared experience. I learnt from him how the very hills which make up Meghalaya are disappearing.

The next two days gave us more and more evidence of this despoliation. We passed a place where two streams merged (photo on top). One had clear water, the other was white with the residue of crushed limestone. Near the merger of the streams another hill was being quarried, and trucks were carrying away the limestone. We saw hills being cut away, the residue looking like a half eaten apple (photo above). The limestone is crushed right there before being transported. There are also larger industrial units devoted to making cement using the limestone. It is a matter of time before the hills themselves go the way of the trees which once covered them.

I don’t know enough about Meghalaya to figure out how all this happened. I have no stake in Meghalaya, I was just a visitor. But it would be good to understand how land which is held by the tribe can be treated like this. Is it the tragedy of the commons, or a >subversion of tribal democracy?

An evening in Shillong

Meghalaya is famous for nature: the rainiest valleys in the world, numerous waterfalls, large tracts of forests. They are the reason that tourists go to this state. But the capital, Shillong, is also an interesting place, especially after sundown. A sense of humour is just one feather in its cap. The shop in the photo above made us all crack a smile. The strange juxtaposition of a tailor’s shop with one selling smoked hams is something that you should be prepared for in this town.

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Music is a constant in the north-eastern states. Cafes and restaurants often have live music, and quite a few of the singers are talented. This duo here played classic acoustic rock extremely well. They seem to have a regular gig on at the Shillong Cafe. I wonder how long they will do this before they move on to some thing else. It’s a happy thing that in other parts of the country little places are slowly beginning to support live performances; but still too few for a country of over a billion. Take a close look at the photos behind the musicians. Football is the other great passion in this area. The combination of football and music recurs at the other end of the country, in Goa.

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Momos are a staple roadside meal, not just in Shillong but all over the north-east and the eastern Himalayas. The bland steamed momos are served with a slap of terrifically spicy chili sauce on the side. I can’t deal with the chilis, but a few of these momos can keep me going between lunch and dinner. Shillong had something about motorbike helmets. People would do all kinds of things while wearing them. I even saw someone parking a car with a bike helmet on.

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A night market is a must so far to the east. The uniform time across the country means that it is already dark by 5 in the evening, while many people are just about to leave from work. Night markets have great atmosphere: while it is dark and rainy outside, the inside is warm and bustling. There’s a variety of vegetables and fruits on display, sacks bulge with fish, and there are the tiny red killer chilis on every counter.

The town winds down by about 9 PM. After that there are only a couple of late night restaurants open. The traffic comes to a halt, and the city slowly darkens as shops turn off their lights. A couple of hours later the roads are empty except for a occassional bike, or a car full of late night partiers. In spite of appearances, late nights can be busy in Shillong.

Many farewells

gbIt is impossible to miss the Ganapati festival if you are in Mumbai. Apart from the household poojas which you might be invited to, there are public festivals at every other street corner. Everything about the festival is photogenic: from the artisanal workshops where the idols are constructed, to the final immersion. A couple of years ago I went to see the immersion again with a colleague who was visiting in India. In the thirty years between my two visits to see the immersion at the Girgaum chowpatty, the event had become highly organized. In the eighties the scene of the immersion was a chaotic sea of people, often bunching up into fearsome knots on the verge of becoming a crush. It is more crowded now, but well-marked lanes for seaward and landward movement make it much easier to visit this incredible Mumbai event as a tourist. There are even tour operators who offer to work it into your itinerary. That’s such a wonderful development!

I didn’t do that today. But on day of the full moon, Ananta Chaturdashi, you cannot be on the roads of Mumbai without passing the large idols starting off on their journey to the sea. Sometimes you see them in passing on deserted streets (photo above, Ballard estate), sometimes the truck with the idol is part of the traffic on narrow roads (photo below, Colaba market). The traffic management has become slicker over the decades. Our taxi breezed past dozens of these clumps of people without getting stuck. Traffic police were on the spot, making sure that no jams develop. Apparently every idol is given a time at which they should start the journey, and a deadline by which to reach the sea. An interesting development which I’d not noticed in previous years is the presence of an “FX truck” in front of the truck with the idol, whose purpose seems to be to light up proceedings.

gcThe Ganapati (aka, Ganesh) pooja was a household affair is many parts of western India before it became a public festival under the Peshwa kings of Pune in the 18th century. The public festival was converted to its present form by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who used it as a vehicle to arouse public sentiment against British colonial rule in India. Household gods are immersed in the sea after one and half, three, five or seven days. Although the immersion of these smaller idols is not spectacular, I like to see the little knots of families reach the sea. If you watch carefully, you will notice many with a slightly lost look on their faces as they leave: it is the end of a festival, after all. The major immersions were done today, on the eleventh day. There is only one major idol left now in Mumbai, and that will be immersed on the fifteenth day. That’s definitely the end of the festival.

Kaas: the plateau of flowers

Kaas is a highland plateau about 6 hours’ drive from Mumbai, famous for its monsoon flowering. Ever since it was declared a UNESCO biodiversity heritage area, the number of visitors has grown so much that maintaining the biodiversity has become even more difficult than it used to be. We’ve admired photos of the place, and have wanted to go there for many years. The Family was very keen on it this year, but I couldn’t go, having committed my weekends to learning Chinese. She went there last weekend with a wonderful nature group we have traveled with before.

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In a normal year, the monsoon would have receded by now; but this year the weather is a little mixed up. It rained very hard during the weekend, both in Mumbai and in Kaas. The plateau is part of the Deccan Traps, the largest volcanic feature in the world. 66 million years ago, a series of volcanic eruptions lasting perhaps 30,000 years, built the landscape which contains the plateau. The topsoil is less than an inch thick, and the low herbs and grasses form a dry mat holding it together over most of the year. But during the monsoon little pools of water gather in hollows, the ground turns marshy, and the plateau comes alive with glorious flowers. The Family did not gauge the weather properly, and got pretty wet several times a day. But she came back with great stories and photos.

kaasdThe strange ecology has bred strange flora. The soil lacks various nutrients, so a pretty impressive fraction of the plants feed on insects. The Family did not have photos of these. Instead she came back with this photo of the famous Ceropegia vincaefolia. The five petals of this flower (see photo on the left) form a trap to keep in flies which arrive to feed on the nectar. As the trap snaps close around it, the fly frantically buzzes around, so managing to pollinate the flower. Once the pollination is accomplished, the flower droops down so that the trap can open to let the fly out. You can see a drooping flower to the left in the photo.

kaascAnother famous plant is the Karvi (Strobilanthes callosus). Although the leaves are poisonous, they are crushed to treat inflammations by the locals. It flowers once every eight years (but some bushes are reported to flower even as infrequently as once in fourteen years). Fortunately different plants are not synchronised, so The Family saw a clump of plants which were all flowering together. Some distance away was another clump which had no flowers. It is claimed that the fruits may hang on the plant for a year, bursting to release seeds only with the arrival of the next monsoon. Elsewhere in the region these plants can grow taller than a man, but the ones she saw came no higher than her knees, and she had photos to prove it. I don’t know whether the thin soil of the Kaas plateau is responsible for this stunted growth.

kaaseThe Family was very impressed by the large number of wind-power devices. It is interesting in many ways, the chief reason being that local farmers are bothered to put these up. It probably means that there are subsidies involved. Moving from coal generated electricity to greener methods will involve subsidies (even if the WTO disagrees). A question which came to my mind when I saw the photos on The Family’s phone is whether the move to install these windmills also has an effect on the outlook of the farmers towards the environment. Do they become more conscious of the surroundings, more caring of the natural environment? I hope so, otherwise, as another blogger says, the flowers may be gone in a few years. I hope not, but I fear they will.

[All photos in this post taken by The Family on her phone]

Note added

I talked about the windmills with a couple of people who know the area, and they threw cold water on my suggestion. Apparently putting up these wind generators is big money in the locality. This drives people to put them up even in fairly eco-sensitive spots. The rush for short term gains trumps long term sustainability again. If only the sustainable was also profitable in every short run.