Friday, 22 August 2014

Loitering in Meghalaya- Neha Singh

learning journey
I decided to dump my numb existence as a 9 to 5 employee in an office in Bombay and the drudgery of trying to earn some money every month.  As a fine birthday present to myself, I wrote down a short and articulate resignation letter, handed it over to my superior, quietly received my life back and walked out.
Everyone I know had dreamed of leaving work life to travel. Predictably, I too embarked upon what I like to call my ‘learning journey’. I discovered that being a ‘tourist’ is largely separate from
being a ‘traveler’. A traveler looks at every place she visits not with an intention of being an outsider
who will quickly buy everything he desires, but as a person interested in local ways of living, art,
culture, language, food, and people. Traveling and loitering are mutually exclusive.

Early memories of the North-eastern states of India
The Northeast is a part of our country that most people have an image of, whether they
have ever visited the place or not. Most often used adjectives are “beautiful”, “unsafe”,
“political turmoil”, “detached”, “ ULFA, BODO”, etc. The northeast part of India
consists of seven states:  Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Sikkim, Tripura and Nagaland.
I had often visited Guwahati, the capital of Assam, in the years 2001 and 2002. This was because my father, who was serving in the Indian army at that time, was posted at the Guwahati Cantonment. I was studying in Delhi University and the first time I visited my parents, the train reached Guwahati station at mid night. It was my longest train journey (36 hours), alone. Immediately, eight armed and uniformed soldiers entered the compartment I was in, and started picking up my luggage. I would have screamed if I hadn’t noticed my Dad
walking in behind them, with a grin on his face. I was put into an army convoy that stopped for breath only when it reached the cantonment, a fair distance away from the city. I realized soon after that I would be trapped inside the cantonment till the end of my visit, when I would be taken to the train station in exactly the same manner that I been brought in. There were times when we visited Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya and the Tenga valley in Arunachal Pradesh, but the security paranoia and the grimness in the air
took away any kind of pleasure I could have squeezed out of the trips. These trips only
left me with a longing to visit this beautiful part of my country as a loiterer, a free bird that roams
about unsuspecting of fellow people, fearless and happy.

The loitering journey
I boarded a train from Mumbai to Guwahati, alone, which took three days and two nights filled with second class compartment joys like ‘jhal mudi’, pineapple slices, khichdi, salesmen selling digital watches, cameras, neon toys and pocketsize umbrellas and of course, talkative copassengers. My friend who had just finished shooting a documentary in the Garo hills of Meghalaya wanted to spend more time visiting the North easterm states and asked me if I would join him. I jumped at the offer. There was one added interest, we would be staying with the local people wherever we went and engaging ourselves with their daily chores and farming, not in any way a barter, but more to learn about farming and leading an eco friendly and sustainable lifestyle, aspects of rural life that are of great fascination to me. After spending one night at a friend’s house in Guwahati, I boarded a packed Sumo car early the next morning, from one of the many lanes in the Guwahati market, that would take me to Tura, the capital of the Garo Hills. I sat next to an old lady chewing betel nut
and carrying different coloured threads that she would take home and make yarn out of . Meghalaya consists of three tribes, the Khasis form the largest tribal population, the Garos and the Jayantias. After a three hour long ride, and hopefully the last leg of my journey, I reached an old world type market place, with three book shops interspersed with bakeries and coffee shops. I had arrived in Tura. My friend, Shammi rode there on a rickety green scooter and informed me, much to my dismay, that our destination was still
35 kms away.I was already beginning to like this little market place. On the promise that our final destination would be far better, I decided to go along.

Final destination
We reached Sadol phara, a remote village set in the thick of the dark green and mysterious looking hill forest by afternoon, and I was greeted by several women and children wearing wrap around skirts and spaghetti strap tops. The village didn't have more than forty homes, all built on bamboo stilts and decorated with various bamboo objects. I was invited by the oldest woman there, for a cup of chu, which i presumed to be chai, but eventually realised that it was a home made rice beer that is popular in most Garo homes.
So, the two of us sat in her bamboo balcony, gazing at the orangepink sun that was setting behind the dark hills and the twinkling fire flies that were slowly creeping into the night sky, while sipping on chu and smoking home made bidis; tobacco wrapped in corn leaves. I didn't know whether to owe my intoxication to the beer and bidi combination or to the ethereal beauty of the place.

The families in the Garo hills are matrilineal, matrilocal and matriarchal. The property is passed on from mother to daughter, whether its the house or the farm, and after marriage, the husband shifts into the wife's home and works on the family farm. While in college, I had read about the Nairs in Kerela and the Khasis and Garos in Meghalaya as being the only societies that practice matrilineaty in India, It was almost like a dream to imagine a society like that, after having lived almost all my life in the northern states, where patriarchy is the only way of life and one can experience its effects in almost every aspect of daily living.
Early the next day we left for Chhipang Michel, another village set even deeper into the forest, where we were going to live with Chekzak's family . I stayed with her, in her home for the next one week. She has a large family, with her husband Ponjan, two daughters, their husbands, children, babies, dogs, cats, and hens.It was the first time in her home that I met a pet owl, with yellow eyes and a red beak. Honestly speaking, the animals in her house should ideally be called livestock, since the Garos are well known for eating almost everything that moves! No wonder we couldn’t hear any birds in the forests, the lucky ones must have flown off to safer skies long ago.

Farming adventures
I was pretty much on my own with the villagers since Shammi was involved in other projects like learning how to weave and learning the local language. My  usual day began at 5:30 am, since the sun comes out at that time. Farming is done in a unique fashion. Millet seeds are just sprinkled all across the land while vegetables like pumpkin, brinjal, radish, lady finger are all planted in the same farm, randomly across the large land called Abba, and cultivated. Recently, monocropping has been introduced and there are cashew nut and tea gardens. Interestingly, the traditional abbas are owned by the matrilineal families, while the newly
introduced mono cropping estates are in the name of the men. After the planting is done, the major
work involves weeding, since it is an area blessed with excessive rain fall and fertility. Any piece of
land in the area belongs to anyone who can weed it. There is no individual ownership of land and
families move from one piece of land to another, after every few years. The west likes to
call this traditional practice the 'slash and burn' cultivation. During one of the conversations that my
freind Shammi was having with a scholar who was doing his Ph.D. dissertation on 'The impact of
slash and burn cultivation on the schooling of Garo children', asked him why he never thought of a
dissertation on 'the impact of schooling of Garo children on the slash and burn cultivation'? The
scholar stood there, stumped!
The Garos believe in keeping their tools very sharp. They spend an hour sharpening the tools and this greatly reduces the amount of effort required to weed the field. They also take smoke breaks after every twenty minutes of work, and farm at a leisurely pace. My city bred greed of wanting to finish a big patch of weeds as quick as possible resulted in boils on my thumb, two aching arms and a near fainting situation because of excessive perspiration, within an hour of work. Chekzac gave me that look that mothers often give their impatient and foolish children. Gauging my failure at weeding, I was given a simpler task of planting rice in the water filled field the next day. I wasn't too bad, though I could see a sizeable chunk of the plants floating in the water aimlessly when i had finished 'planting' them. Obviously, i hadn't put them deep enough. On my way back, I realized that the inevitable had happened, LEECH! I was immediately taken to the nearest house and a little salt at the mouth of the vicious creature did the trick. Very often, while taking a walk back home after a day's work at the farm, one of the children would go into the forest and bring back a huge chunk of bamboo shoot. Dinner!
The food is simple, organic and delightful. The staple is rice along with one curry, it could be, bamboo shoot, pumpkin, dal, chicken, etc. Fish, or at least its flavour, is a must in every meal. Chekzac had a long bamboo vessel in which she fermented fish and put small helpings in any curry she had prepared. Mid day snacks consist of juicy pinneaples, guavas, and corn which you can pick from anyone's farm. It is only recently that the villagers have started using salt and oil in their food, their sole dependence on the market that is 35 kms away from the village. After dinner, all the neighbours would collect in the courtyard, called kachahari, and smoke bidis, catching up on each others' lives, singing and asking what the others ate for dinner, the most
popular question in the village. One of the neighbours' had stopped coming for these
afterdinner chats. Apparently they had recently bought a television set that ran on

The kachahri day
The day of the kachahri was a happy one for everyone, because traditionally, anyone who calls the kachahari (the village panchayat), also has to arrange for a beef and pork feast for all the villagers. Shammi and I were invited to come for the kachahari, along with everyone, including the children from the villages.The man who had called the kachahari wanted to know what action to take against his wife who was having an affair with a neighbourhood boy. I saw the three of them standing there in front of the village elders, none of them looking very guilty or remorseful. I had met a young woman earlier who was an unwed mother and living comfortably in her own house with her mother, looking out for a prospective groom. Chekzac's husband is her second husband, she his first wife. The elders reached a decision that wasn't in favour of the young boy, which was obvious in the way he threw his hands up and walked off, as if to say 'I care a damn about your decision'. The villagers kept calling him back, like how a mother calls after her child who is angry with
her about something. Two things really left a mark on me that day. One, that children are part of what in
urban parlance would be considered an 'adult' issue and two, that the young man had been given a space where he could express his anger. Of course, the consequent beef, pork and rice beer feast left quite a mark, too.

Zero waste zone
The sub tropical evergreen forests that form a backdrop to the innumerable, small waterfalls jutting out of the hills where the villagers bathe, wash and bring back drinking water from, the fields with criss crossing mud paths that lead to the bamboo homes make the Garo hills a splendid place to be in. The Garo hills are devoid of any plastic littered around. The few plastic bags that are there are valued possessions that are used to store expensive items. The villagers make their own homes, grow their own food, make their own tools, educate their children as they go about doing their daily work, and largely heal themselves with thinnumerable herbs that grow around them. They require to go to the city only for clothes, salt and cooking oil. Zero city, zero waste!

I must admit, at the cost of sounding immodest, that by the fifth day I had become so efficient at any task that was given to me that Checzak offered me a sizeable piece of land that I could cultivate and live off. I almost accepted her offer. The leeches played a pivotal role in me declining my first wouldhavebeen
land aquisition.
The day we were leaving she gave me the only family photograph she had, so I could remember them. Her ten year old grandson Raka, my best friend in Chhipang Michel, ran a temperature because he was sad we were leaving. Were these the people my father and the Indian army were keeping me protected from? I know its not as simple as that, but I wish it was. I haven't yet needed that photograph to remember them, I just look at it when I want to smile. The tribal villages of the Garo hills in Meghalaya were one of my first long loitering trips and I would recommend them to all my co loiterers as safe, friendly and highly hospitable.

P.S. Have recently found out that after 50 years of trying to 'develop' the Garo region, the
government has suddenly accepted it unconditionally, ever since the UN declared that its a
'biodiversity region' and should be 'protected'. So, now there are government officials who come to

research the varieties of millet that grow, and how they can make them grow in the metros!

posted by: Neha Singh


  1. Resigning from your old job and getting your life back is such a brave thing to do... Your stories here sound incredible, and how cool that you got to live alongside the Garo people and learn from them!

    I find it hard sometimes to just relax (or, loiter) because it's so hard to enjoy the moment and stop worrying about whether this is "a good use of my time" (as if there's ever a right answer.) I feel like I have such a strong urge to always be working that it's hard to slow down and enjoy the present moment. Is that something you've struggled with? How do you cope?

    1. Sorry to have read this only now. It is always a battle, and I know exactly what you are talking about. This constant urge to keep working. But I feel (now more than ever) that this notion/value attached to always working is very artificial and something that we have been conditoned to believe is best for us. If you look at any other life form, plants, animals, insects...they work only when they have to, for meeting their basic needs. Even tribal societies across the globe attach value to work only for sustainence, not as a way of life. If you read Fukauka's 'Do nothing' ideology, he says the less we do the better it is for everthing. For the environment, for us. He talk of do nothing farming, where the less you do the more natural ways to farm, are best for everyone. he opposes chemical usage in ariculture (of course) but also opposes mono cropping, use of machinary and even tilling of the land. I think the do-nothing theory goes well for other things to, like cooking, the less you cook food, the healthier it is. Or art and architecture, the minimalist it is, the better it is. If you look at Gandhi, he led a very 'do nothing' life in his ashram and stepped out only when crucial. You get the best ideas when you have not done anything for sometime. It is important to hibernate, just be left alone with your thoughts and when you emerge, you have something wonderful to offer. I wish people reaized the importance of doing nothing and that it is much much more imporatnt than doing things all the time, almost like a robot.