The Good Old Pumpkin

Remember the pumpkin coach built by Cinderella’s fairy godmother so that she could attend the ball? And, which had turned back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, to be trampled by the palace horses?

Like many little girls of my time, Cinderella used to be my favourite childhood fairy tale. It was her glass shoes and the pumpkin coach that fascinated me. There was another favourite too, Rapunzel. Her long tresses allured me, and I would dream of having the same long golden plait. That was probably because my thick glossy jet-black hair was trimmed to the shortest, so that it could be easily managed. I can clearly remember the glossy feel of the pages of those childhood books. I have no idea if children today are still fascinated by these fairy tales. I only hear of Doraemon, Shizuka, Nobita, Elsa, Barbie, and so on. These characters never existed during our childhood.

My childhood memories of Cindrella’s carriage was rekindled by a pumpkin – a very special pumpkin. Not the orange-red Cinderella pumpkin but the green one with scattered spots of yellow.

We have a small little kitchen garden in our Shillong home. It’s an extended part of my father’s garden that he tended with a lot of love and care. The kitchen garden boasts of a variety of produce. Some of these are chayotes, beans, colocasia, chilies, lemons, tree tomatoes, corns, and the good old pumpkin. The pumpkin vine happened to be his eternal favourite and he nurtured a special attachment to it. His bias towards the vine and the pumpkins would sometimes reach unreasonable heights. The full-grown pumpkins would never be allowed an immediate entry into the kitchen. They would be safely kept, carefully guarded and shielded on the terrace. They would often be smeared with a dash of lime. Probably to ward off insect attacks – I really don’t know. Never asked him. The pumpkins would grace the kitchen only on special occasions.

When I came home in August, I did notice the yellow flowers of the pumpkin vine. It’s quite a common site during this time of the year and I didn’t pay much attention. One day I spotted a tiny little round ball popping out of a flower. It was way too adorable and impossible to ignore. There on, I would take stock of it every single day and watching it grow was sheer delight. In the meanwhile, several other tiny green rounded baby pumpkins made their appearance, but my eyes remain glued to the first one. I was partial in my love and adulation. And, I think I now understand my father’s over-protective attitude towards his pumpkins.

It does surprise me significantly to think that the pumpkin vine was always there, but I never ever bothered to take a close look. The garden was my father’s arena. I loved the greenery all around and admired his passion but never really participated alongside him. My father is surely smiling watching his pumpkins grow.

Now for some Google-gyan, attributed to my new-found pumpkin interest. Pumpkins or Cucurbita, as they are known scientifically, have originated from Central America over 7,500 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. Green pumpkins come in two varieties – Japanese pumpkin or ‘Kabocha’ and Italian pumpkin or ‘Marina di Chioggia’. It’s the sweet-tasting Asian pumpkin that grows in our kitchen garden. The Italian counterpart is small, dark green with a very warty outer rind. There’s also a pear-shaped variety, known as Lakota squash. Pumpkins possess abundant vitamins and nutrients besides being anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antifungal. Pumpkins are high in protein and fiber. They are an excellent source of iron and vitamin A.

Pumpkins are extraordinarily versatile when it comes to cooking. They can be cooked in a variety of ways on their own and also in combination with other vegetables. Pumpkins make great combination with fresh-water fish and dry fish too. Pumpkins make for great desserts too!

Here are two simple pumpkin recipes from my mother’s kitchen.

Midnight Drama

Awakened from deep sleep, I lay on bed for a couple of seconds trying to figure out what the commotion was all about. The rest of the family was already up, and their buzzing voices came floating into my room. Everyone seemed to be talking together and I could not make out a word. Stumbling out of bed with half open eyes, I stepped out. The noise was coming from my parents’ room, where everyone seemed to have gathered. Had mom fallen ill? The thought was immediately put to rest as I saw everyone perched on her bed, looking out of the window that is situated just adjacent to the bed. The window curtains were drawn open.

I looked at the watch and was surprised to see it was just 12.30 AM. Oh! Not all that late. On second thoughts, it is quite late for Shillong. The sun sets earlier in the hills and consequently the evenings are longer, unlike Bangalore.

“What’s going on?”, I asked. No response. People were engrossed peering out of the window. I joined them. All the drama was happening in our neighbouring house. Several people had collected in their open garage that had three cars parked. As the scene unfolded before my sleepy eyes, I was finally able to make sense of the confusion.

A petty thief had broken into their compound, smashed the window of a van, and had tried getting his hands onto the car stereo. The thief had also filled a sack with things like toffees, chips, and biscuits. Those were things stacked in the car to be taken to the grocery shop owned by one of the tenants living in that house.

The thief wasn’t smart enough and was nabbed by the people in the neighbourhood, while he tried to flee. We could clearly see the thief through the window. He was petite and frail. His demeanor quite effectively drew our collective sympathies towards him. A lot of people from the neighbourhood had collected around the thief, who in turn was held tight by two other people. We wished they would let him go with a warning. Our neighbours, however, called the police and the thief was handcuffed away in a matter of time.

The commotion died down and we went back to bed. My sleep had disappeared by now and I continued to feel sorry for the thief. My thoughts drifted towards my home in Bangalore. There I live in a flat in an apartment, which is very different from my parents’ home in Shillong. They live in an independent house surrounded by other independent houses in the neighbourhood. There are striking differences between the two set ups. The petty thief drama is a case in point. A petty thief may never be able to break into an apartment with all the security paraphernalia – security guards, CCTV cameras etc. Robberies or other complicated crimes do happen but not petty thefts. At least, I haven’t heard of any.

My thoughts took off into comparing life in big cities with that of small towns. What one has, the other lacks and vice versa. I dozed off speculating the hits and misses while trying to decide which one is more preferable than the other. I think I know my preference though.

The Much-Needed Nature Therapy

Nature’s such that you can visit the same place a hundred times but each time it looks new and completely different. The best part of being in Shillong has always been the impromptu drives I undertake, either with my cousin or with my brother-in-law. I have written several such posts in the past on the various places we have explored.

My being home this time is, however, not the same as other times. My life has been turned upside down in the last one month and I am not sure if those carefree days of being home will ever be back. My personal circumstances coupled with the pandemic makes for a very tumultuous situation this time.

Pic 1: The characteristic clear blue Shillong sky. Potatoes, cabbage, and cauliflower cultivation seen here.

This Sunday we woke up to a gloriously bright and sunny morning. The surprising part was it remained that way for the rest of the day. The light breeze that complimented the bright weather made for a heavenly day. And, if you know Shillong, you can tell that such days aren’t in plenty.

My cousin wouldn’t let such a day go wasted, especially with me being around. Like most people, she loves to drive around the countryside, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Getting away isn’t an elaborate affair in a place like Shillong. A 15-20 minutes’ drive is often enough to escape to tranquility, away from city traffic. Shillong has been under very strict pandemic protocols. As a result, cousin wasn’t able to indulge in such drives for quite a while.  

Pic 2: A romantic afternoon of soft Sun, Pine trees, wisps of floating clouds, rolling hills, and green meadows.

My initial reluctance stood no match to her insistence and I just had to give in to her coaxing and cajoling. Glad I relented.

So, late afternoon, well after lunch we drove towards Upper Shillong to one of our favourite spots. We’ve been there multiple times and really enjoy the drive all the way up. Especially that section constituting narrow and winding well tarred roads with forests and meadows on either side. The huge ferns that sporadically hang out right onto the roads is something else that allures us. We are never tired of seeing these ferns, so what if we have seen them hundreds of times.

Pic 3: The fluffy clouds continuously changed shape forming amazing patterns.
Pic 4: The day was so clear that we could see Umiam Lake, which is located in the Guwahati-Shillong National Highway. Do you spot the lake in the picture?

I had been here last year in the month of May and had enjoyed an amazingly resplendent sunset. The sunset this time was good too but not as gorgeous as it was in May. This time, however, there were myraids of flowers in pinks and yellows and whites and purples. These weren’t there last time.

We were quite surprised to find more people than we had expected. Sunday afternoon must be the reason. However, the place didn’t feel crowded and maintaining social distance was easy.

Pic 5: The sky just before sunset.
Pic 6: The sky at sunset.

Basking in Shillong’s unparalleled beauty, we found a place for ourselves in the green meadows where we lay down in solitude watching the bright afternoon slowly and steadily dissolve away.

Once upon a time…

My previous post was on my hometown, Shillong, described in the context of Hindu Sylheti Bengalis – the community that has been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam, more than seven decades ago. It’s a tragedy that most of my fellow countrymen don’t know about. I had mentioned that I would share few stories written by other bloggers. These are my stories. Stories that I would have told. My aim is just to raise awareness about this marginalized community through these posts.

Today I share Sharmistha’s story. Her story reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s family. They lived in Shillong for generations. My grandmother and her siblings were born and brought up in Shillong. Every single person from that family has now moved out of Shillong. The last member left just 2 years ago. Same is the story of an aunt (father’s younger brother’s wife) and several other relatives and friends.

Sharmistha writes, “Not in his wildest dreams did Baba think he would one day have to leave his home and hearth and become a refugee in his own land. There was no other place we could call ‘home’ and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we felt dispossessed, displaced, homeless and uprooted. No matter how many words I use to describe our plight, nothing can truly express how traumatized we were.”

Read on….

Shillong: Reflections and remembrances

A book that I like to read time and again, specially in these troubled times, is Rahul Pandita’s “Our moon has blood clots”.Browsing through this memoir of emotional turmoil in strife torn Kashmir took me to disturbed times in my hometown,Shillong.

The year was 1979 ; it was the month of November. Although I cannot recall the exact date, I do remember that something happened on that day which changed our lives forever.For the first time in our lives we heard words like “outsider”, “non-tribal”, “curfew” – words which made the air heavy with hatred , animosity , confusion and uncertainty.

Schools had shut down, final exams were cancelled (We were in class 8 then ) and only ICSE examinees reached school amid heavy security . Curfew was imposed in the city and there was tension all around. The desecration of an idol of Goddess Kali in the Laitumkhrah locality…

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Some Mornings are Magical

The morning sun mildly breaks through the cracks and lights up the dirt path. Dry Pine needles scattered on the ground crackle under our feet. We don’t feel any wind but the tall Pines swish-swash compelling us to stop intermittently to gaze up and look at their canopies. A distinctive aroma fills in the air – the sweet organic fragrance of Pine forests. Colourful butterflies hang around our way as well-orchestrated bird songs flow in from every direction.

Even today I can clearly feel the unparalleled soul soothing peace of those mornings in the Pine forest.

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Pic 1: As we enter the forest.

Morning walks and Pine trees are things that I associate with my Shillong home. Shillong mornings are synonymous with morning walks. I had written about that before. (here)

Last year, this time I was at my Shillong home. I was there for the whole of May and a part of June. Every day would inadvertently begin with those ritualistic morning walks. Most of the days those walks would happen in the Pine forest, just about 1-2 Km. away from my home. The forest has always been there, and I have passed by its periphery countless times but had never ventured into it. Back in the years Shillong was consumed by ethnic violence and such kind of adventures were unthinkable. My cousin, who introduced me to this enchanting place, had discovered it quite recently.

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Pic 2: Somewhere on the trail, we would cross a fallen tree trunk.

There was a simple routine to our Pine forest ritual – I would walk to a certain point where my cousin would join me. We would then walk into the forest, spend about an hour or so and then go back to our respective homes.

In the forest, we would leisurely walk through the undulating trail for about 3 Km. upto a certain point. Thereafter, we would retrace our path and walk down through a narrow passage to a bowl-shaped glade that was cordoned off in one part of the forest. There the forest floor would be blanketed by a thick carpet of crisp brown Pine needles. Could we resist laying down in a place like that! Time stood still as we would gaze into the deep blue sky that was visible in patches through the oscillating canopies of the lofty Pines. The forest felt mystical and spellbinding as the swishing canopies rustled gently, nudging, and coaxing each other. Breathing in the sweet aromatic fragrance of Pines needles, we often felt a sense of kinship with the elegant Pines. We and the Pines and everything else seemed to be in a perfect harmonious blend.

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Pic 3: As we watched the swishing canopies laying on the forest floor.

Sometimes we would play some light music on our phones while watching the trees rhythmically dance away to our music. My cousin would often come up with her own theories of how the trees might be gossiping about us – humans, maybe they are chit-chatting about their families, or maybe discussing the well-being of their kids – the Pine cones, maybe they’re just chilling with our music. Those were freeze frame moments when life felt flawless, moments where we could remain forever and ever.

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Pic 4: At the bowl-shaped glade with cousin and a friend from Bangalore, who had visited Shillong during that time.

Some days, we would climb up a steep slope in the forest. It wasn’t an easy climb by any means as we would keep slipping through the dry Pine needles strewn all over. However, all the trouble was worth it for our sweet spot on top, which was a huge rock shaped in a way that gave the feel of a couch or a bean bag with the perfect backrest. We would sit there listening to the birds as the trees would dance away in a world of their own. Down below through the thick foliage of greens and browns, we could spot tiny roads and tiny houses. The forest felt like where we belonged, it comforted our hearts, and it would take quite an effort to get up and leave. This we usually did on weekends as it would take up more time.

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Pic 5: Our sweet spot, the huge rock with the perfect backrest.

If things would have been normal and there would be no Covid-19, this is exactly what I would have been doing every morning at this time, this year too.

Kyllang Rock – Got to Go Again!

Lum Kyllang and Lum Symper are brothers who fell out with each other and fought with such animosity that they have parted ways forever. No ordinary sibling rivalry this is! The two brothers here are hills and not humans. [I have outlined the local folklore at the end.]

BIL (brother-in-law) and I were once again on a long drive in the countryside when we had an opportunity to meet with Lum Kyllang. It was the first day of the year 2018. A bright and sunny January day ushered in additional joy and cheer to our New Year celebrations. This was rare as the month of January is usually associated with gloomy weather in the cold winter of Meghalaya. BIL, the happy man, was happier today – not because of the weather but because his wife (my cousin sister) had joined us too.

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Pic 1: The bright and sunny day was a huge mood lifter – what better way to start the new year!

We headed from Shillong towards West Khasi Hills district to go to Mairang. Shillong is in East Khasi Hills district. The sparkling tarred road was an absolute pleasure to drive and BIL was enjoying every bit of it. It was a newly inaugurated National Highway connecting Shillong-Nongstoin-Tura. Our intention was nothing more than a long drive by the countryside – indeed our way of celebrating the new year.

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Pic 2: The perfectly tarred road was a driver’s delight!

We passed through undulating winding roads amidst green hills dotted with Pine Trees, brown meadows of dried grass, villages with pretty houses of tin roofs, lace curtains, and playful children. Somewhere during the drive, one of us mentioned Kyllang Rock, which is also located in Mairang. We had heard stories about the peculiarity and uniqueness of Kyllang Rock but had never visited it and this drive presented us with the perfect opportunity.

We enquired for directions from a local tea shop and got to know that Kyllang Rock is locally known as Lum Kyllang. Based on our enquiry, we diverted onto a broken road from the National Highway. The narrow dusty road was lined with Pine forests on either side. As we approached, after a drive of about 20 mins, the massive dome shaped single rock of granite was clearly visible from a distance. With a girth of more than 1000 ft., the monolithic Kyllang Rock stands tall at a height of 5400 ft. above sea level. It is situated 12 Km. from Mairang and about 78 Km. from Shillong.

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Pic 5: As we first set our eyes on Lum Kyllang 

Kyllang Rock is several million years old and it is believed to have a magnetic field. It is believed that the magnetic field makes it easy to climb and once on top nobody falls off despite the very strong winds. The dense forest around the rock is home to age-old red Rhododendron trees and Oak trees. I had all plans of climbing up to the top as friends had told me about the breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape from the top and also that the climb was fairly easy.

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Pic 6: The narrow lane that leads upto the rock.

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Pic 7: Do you see the tiny dots on top of the rock? Those are people up there.

However, I had to rest my plans of climbing up the rock as the place was immensely crowded with local people from the surrounding villages. Villagers revere the rock and were here to pay their obeisance on the occasion of new year.

I sure have to go back again to feel the massiveness of Lum Kyllang and experience the power of its magnetic field.

Local Folklore

Khasi folklore has it that Lum Kyllang in Mairang (West Khasi Hills) and Lum Symper in Weiloi (East Khasi Hills) are brothers. Kyllang was a mischievous God known for his mood swings. Symper was a calm God and always disapproved Kyllang’s violent and destructive ways. Kyllang did not like Symper’s interference and this led to a battle between the two brothers. Symper won the battle as he was blessed to have boulders while Kyllang had only sand. After the battle, Symper stayed in the same location in East Khasi Hills and Kyllang moved to Mairang in West Khasi Hills.

Another folklore talks about a man, his wife and child, who due to certain circumstances got transformed into one whole rock.

An Afternoon at Mattilang Park

Some memories never fade…

If you’ve ever been to Shillong, you would have visited Elephant Falls. It is one of the most visited tourist spots in Meghalaya. I haven’t been to Elephant Falls in recent times and had visited only once after it acquired its current cosmetic look – well defined steps, painted railings, cordoned off water area, dozens of shops at the entry way, and so on. I would rather preserve memories of the rustic Elephant Falls that I had seen during my childhood. The other day I was interacting with a fellow blogger about how I had seen Elephant Falls, when I remembered another place very close to it. I had promised him that I would write about it and here it is – I. J. Khanewala, this post is for you.

And if you want to read about Elephant Falls, visit I. J. Khanewala’s post at Don’t Hold Your Breath. He has been there very recently.

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Pic 1: A sneak peek of Elephant Falls from Matiilang Park

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Pic 2: A closer view of Elephant Falls from Matiilang Park

The first time I visited Mattilang Park was when it did not exist – I mean in its present form. That was several years back, when a Khasi friend had taken me to this place that not many people knew about. At that time, Meghalaya hardly existed on the tourist map, perhaps it was jostling to make a slot for itself. Many were not even aware of its existence. I still remember people rephrasing Shillong as Ceylon to clarify they heard correctly when I would mention my hometown outside of the North East. Well, that’s another story for another day….

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Pic 3: Somewhere inside the park, the water here flows from Elephant Falls

My second visit to Mattilang Park was a year or two after my first visit when I had taken my cousin and a friend there. At that time, we had seen the beginning of some construction work happening. Back then we were too naïve to be bothered about such things and the phrase ‘concrete jungle’ didn’t exist in our vocabulary. Much later that very place became Mattilang Park.

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Pic 4: The gardener clicks a picture for us

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Pic 5: And, I cant believe I have with me an analog photograph of the two us, clicked when the park was in the making

Three years back my cousin and I revisited the park on a gloomy October afternoon when she took me out on a drive – something she religiously does each time I visit home. Located in Upper Shillong, the park is run by a regional self-help group. Just on the other side of Elephant Falls, it provides for a great view of the waterfall. The luscious greenery around the park has a charm of its own and since not many tourists know about it, the chances of finding a swarm of people is pretty slim. That afternoon was no different, there was nobody other than the two us. The dull weather might have also contributed to that. We did find a gardener though, who was busy tending to the flowers and also cleaning up the place.

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Pic 6: Hydrangeas in the park, don’t know why I don’t have picture of the other flowers

After having walked around in the park for a while we found ourselves comfortably snuggled in the tiny quaint little tea shop located in the park. We spent the evening indulging in harmless gossips about everything and everybody while sipping endless cups of sha (tea in Khasi). Meanwhile, the clouds were descending and in a matter of minutes all the surrounding greenery was whitewashed.

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Pic 7: Just look at those ferns…..

We remained engulfed in the nothingness of the fog refusing to budge an inch from our respective positions. Instead ordering some more sha, this time sha-saw (black tea) with a tinge of lemon and some biscuits to compliment it. A few minutes later the fog cleared slowly revealing the refreshing greenery all over again.

Evening was drawing in making us realize that we had to get going before it became totally dark.

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Pic 8: The water keeps flowing slowly and we can’t see beyond this point.

If you visit Shillong, you would surely go to Elephant Falls. Do visit Matilang Park too as it is closeby. Not a ‘must visit’, but you may just like the place.

Those Morning Walk Rituals

It’s pretty late in the night and I should be in bed, yet I am not. Here I am lazing on my couch doing particularly nothing – shuffling between Instagram posts, pages of a book, and Whatsapp messages. Indiscipline makes occasional visits and tonight is one. Of late, such visits have become more regular than occasional. Walking from the living room to the bedroom becomes a herculean task requiring a huge amount of effort and will power.

“If I am to reach office at a decent time after maneuvering the crazy morning traffic, I need to be up early and leave home latest by 7.30 AM….”  – The mind blabbers, as it always does, but I pay no heed and continue wasting my time on the couch.

Promises I make to myself every so often are just broken, procrastinated for another time, or easily replaced by another ambitious and taller promise.

It wasn’t like this always though. There was a time when early to bed and early to rise was the most normal thing to do.

A quick rewind to my hometown days in Shillong and I never remember being awake beyond 10.00 PM and even that was considered late. In Shillong, and in all of North East, evenings set in early – around 5.00 PM during summers and 4.00 PM during winters. Consequently mornings break in very early too.

Talking about mornings in Shillong, my mind is transported to those times when our days would start with idyllic and therapeutic morning walks. Morning walks was like a family ritual for us, not necessarily done together as a family though. Sometimes we did walk together, but mostly everyone would do it on their own time, in their own way.

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Pic 1: I do not have many pictures of our morning walks, never really thought of clicking. Feels good though to think that these were morning walks done mindfully. 

Everyone, however, took the same route. The perfectly tarred road that snakes through the neighbourhood houses sometimes climbing up and sometimes climbing down. The green hills, mildly illuminated with dawn, overlook the road as it nonchalantly passes by two government schools and into a Pine Forest towards the Sericulture Farm.

A large nursery on the left announces the onset of the forest through which the tarred road continues, occasionally broken by tiny cemented bridges over unassuming brooks and streams that melodiously gurgle happily breaking the morning silence.

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Pic 2: Somewhere along the way

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Pic 3: Inside Sericulture Farm

Further ahead, there is a graveyard dotted with some more Pine Trees and then the road continues right up to a locality known as Lawshohtun. At times, we would turn around from the gate and retrace our path through the hillocks or the tarred road. At other times, we would go right into the Sericulture Farm and look around the already known places before walking back. Again, sometimes we would continue walking right up to Lawshohtun, much beyond Sericulture Farm.

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Pic 4: I just love ferns, these are some I had clicked last time I went that way.

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Pic 5: The administrative office of Sericulture Farm

Most of our mornings would start with this mandatory walk, the only exceptions were when it rained heavily and when we had exams as focusing on studies was considered priority.

Thankfully, much of this route remains the same even today and is still popular with morning walkers. However, a large part of the forest now belongs to the armed forces and access to the hills, meadows, and streams are restricted. One can only walk through the tarred road.

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Pic 6: Clicked somewhere inside Sericulture Farm

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Pic 7: Clicked a few years back during one such morning walk spree

In today’s context of chaotic mornings with mad rushes and traffic stresses, those unhurried morning walks are like unbelievable wishful tales. The hazards of metro living! The prices we pay for a livelihood. Small cities and towns do not offer jobs but offer quality life.

Back then, I never thought those casual morning walks would one day become luxuries, affordable only during vacations and that too in exchange for a considerable sum of money.

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Pic 8: Those are staff quarters inside Sericulture Farm 

Well, morning walks are warmly greeted and indiscipline shooed away at least once every year when I visit my hometown. I am indeed lucky to be able to revisit those morning walks. So what if its just once a year!

Chasing Frost on a Cold December Morning

It was 4.00 AM on a cold December morning just two days before Christmas. Groggily my hand reached out for the phone to switch off the alarm, which just went off threatening to wake up the entire house. The intense December cold hit my bare hands as the rest of my body was warmly tucked inside two layers of quilt and blanket. Not giving in to the temptation of drawing my hands into the warm layers, I gingerly dialed my brother-in-law’s (BIL) number as promised the day before. BIL and my cousin sister live a couple of miles away in another part of the town.

“Good Morning! Will be there in 30 min!” BIL announced energetically, indicating that he’s been up for a while now. I called out softly to my sister who was in the next room, careful not to wake up the rest of the family. I found her already peeping into my room with her half-closed eyes. “We’re leaving in 30 min”, I told her.

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Pic 1: That’s us – BIL, my sister, and I

I was in in my pretty little hometown, Shillong for Christmas. Fondly known as the ‘Scotland of the East’, it is the capital of the North Eastern state of Meghalaya. Christmas has always been special in Shillong, given the majority of Christian population. However, the magnitude of Christmas celebrations in this quaint little hill station has drastically changed over the years.

I recall Christmas being a very quiet affair during my younger days when I lived there. In recent years, Shillong has evolved to be one of the most sought after Christmas destination in India. And, this time it was no different. The tiny little town brightly illuminated with yuletide decorations, smiling Santas, and carol singers, was brimming with Christmas fever. It’s no wonder that the hill town was throbbing with tourists despite the cold winter season.

This December, however, the cold was less than usual, which was not only surprising but a little strange this being the Christmas season. Back in the days, I remember waking up to frost in our home garden at this time of the year. The winter temperature falls below zero degree Celcius but it never snows in Shillong. This drop in temperature causes a layer of frost to form over the leaves and grass and can be seen during the early hours of day. This time the temperature wasn’t that low and consequently no frost formation happened. What else but Global Warming at play!

BIL had informed that we can see frost at Mylliem if we are game to wake up before sunrise and go there. And, we were completely all for it. Mylliem is a village Panchayat located at a distance of 17 Km. uphill from Shillong. It did feel a little strange that we had to travel that distance to see frost but the freshness of the early morning drive more than made up for it.

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Mylliem looked gorgeous in the early morning light. The entire area was covered in a thin sheet of white as though it had wrapped a blanket around itself trying to wake up in the cold winter morning and soak in the first rays of the Sun.

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Pic 7: Mylliem looked gorgeous as dawn breaks in

We reveled in the beautiful scenery around us for a while. The sun was coming up and we decided to go further ahead and enjoy a little more of the early morning drive.

So, we went up to River Umtyngar. ‘Um’ means water in the local language. The river with its greenish water had a layer of mist over it. The mist was slowly moving as the Sun’s rays tried to reach the river though the canopy of trees around. This unexpected delight made for a splendid view and we were absolutely thrilled.

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Pic 8: River Umtyngar – note the layer of mist over it

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Pic 9: The mist disappearing slowly and steadily as the Sun’s rays fall on the water.

Waking up early in the cold December morning was completely worth it. What made it even more fascinating was that there was nobody other than the three of us. We watched the mist disappear slowly and steadily being replaced by the Sun’s rays that caused the emerald water to sparkle and glisten as though it was pleased to finally feel the warmth of the sun.

The early morning drive turned out to be heavenly and when it comes to views like these, I can even stay awake the whole night!

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Pic 10: A pond enroute, note the layer of mist over it.

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The Humble ‘Kwai’

A Symbol of Hospitality in the East Khasi Hills of India!

The humble Kwai made a very special appearance at my Bangalore home last week. Preciously wrapped in banana leaves, the Kwai had travelled all the way from East Khasi Hills in the North East to the Deccan Plateau in the South. Kwai is nothing new to me and I have my usual rendezvous with it each time I visit home, but seeing it perched on a ceramic plate atop my dining table made me nostalgic and evoked special sentiments in me. My mind immediately took off on a virtual tour of my homeland, Meghalaya – the abode of clouds. Everything associated with Kwai flashed before my mind like a continuous slideshow and I started missing my pretty little homeland with renewed vigor. It suddenly occurred to me that Kwai was such a unique aspect of the culture of Meghalaya and I wondered how many people know about it.

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Kwai is the combination of a neatly folded betel leaf (paan) smeared with a generous dose of lime and areca nut, which is chewed with the optional tobacco leaf. While chewing paan is common place in India, the state of Meghalaya has a very special relationship with their paan and areca nut. All the three tribes of Meghalaya – Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are equally passionate about it – ‘Kwai’ for the Khasis and Jaintias, ‘Gue’ for the Garos.  An integral part of the traditional tribal culture, Kwai brings people together regardless of their backgrounds and is considered to be an equalizer between the rich and the poor. People irrespective of their age and gender are literally addicted to it. Chewing paan by young children may be frowned upon in other parts of India but not in Meghalaya where even school children can be spotted chewing Kwai even though most schools have it banned. Associated with red lips and a constant chomp, Kwai is of special significance to the tribal etiquette in Meghalaya.

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Kwai is an integral part of all formal and informal gatherings – official, social, or religious. Whenever you visit a Khasi family, you will be welcomed with Kwai and it is considered to be a mark of respect and honour. Women carry Kwai in pouches tied around their waists, while men have it in their pockets. Sometimes, Kwai may also be carried in small tin boxes made specifically for this purpose. It is fairly common to greet each other by offering Kwai, which in turn indicates offering a hand of friendship and honour. Refusing Kwai is associated with bad manners. Besides Kwai is a boon during the cold winter months as it gives an instant boost to the body temperature. The humble Kwai can be used for many other miscellaneous purposes as well. Such as, Kwai-chewers use the coir of the betel nut to clean their teeth and scrub off Kwai stains as it leaves deep red stains on the teeth and tongue.  The importance of Kwai can be gauged from the fact that in earlier days it was used as a unit for measuring distance – how many Kwais are chewed to cover a distance!

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An elderly Khasi woman with lips and teeth stained from chewing Kwai.  (Pic Credit: A.D. Roye)

Scientific researches over the past decades have evidences to indicate the carcinogenic effects of areca nut. Notwithstanding, Kwai is deeply rooted in the culture of Meghalaya, the symbol of hospitality and its significance will not wane away any time soon. The significance of areca nut spreads out to the neighbouring states of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram as well.

Over the years the traditional Kwai has seen quite a bit of change with the addition of ginger and coconut as other ingredients, surely influenced by the common paan. But most of the local people swear by their traditional Kwai.

But, the one thing that I am most proud of is, despite its obsession, people in Meghalaya manage to keep the red stains of the Kwai on their ever smiling lips. The land is untainted by smear marks, characteristic of the paan chewing habit in other parts of the country. This is probably because of the cleanliness obsessed native people or because tobacco is not usually used in Kwai – a detail that perhaps makes this hill tradition a safer addiction than its counterparts.

I missed mentioning how the Kwai landed into my second home, Bangalore. A Khasi friend was staying with me while on a visit to the garden city. Addicted to Kwai, it was like her lifeline. It baffled me to see that she had gotten 200 rolls of Kwai for a period of four days, which amounts to 50 per day. The sheer number of Kwai neatly stacked in my refrigerator amused and astonished me. It got me thinking about the importance of Kwai in her life and I decided to write about it. 

Kwai Khasi FolkloreThe story behind Kwai, tympew, shun, and duma (betel nut, betel leaf, lime and tobacco):

It’s a tale of friendship between a wealthy woman, Ka Mahajon and a poor man, U Baduk who grow up together. Baduk moves to another village after marrying Ka Lak. Whenever Baduk goes to his ancestral village, he makes it a point to visit his rich friend. Mahajon  in turn would give fruits and vegetables to Baduk to take back home. Baduk and Luk feel they should return the favour and invites Mahajon to come over some day and have dinner with them. Then, one day Mahajon goes to her friend’s house. Baduk and Lak are overjoyed to see her. However, on that day there is no food in their house. Lak goes to the neighbours to request for some food but gets none. Disappointed and ashamed, the couple kills themselves as they cannot bear to face their friend. Mahajon, who was waiting for the couple in the courtyard, wonders what happened and enters the home only to find her best friend and his wife dead. Disheartened and shocked,  she feels her life is useless without her friend. Mahajon too kills herself. In the meanwhile, a thief enters the home while running away from people who were chasing him. He hides for a while in the house and discovers the three dead bodies. Scared of being accused of murder, he too kills himself. The villagers are aghast when they get to know of this unfortunate incident. They pray to God that something like this should never happen again and even the poorest man should have something to offer to visiting guests. God answers their prayers by transforming Ka Mahajon into betel nut, U Baduk into the betel leaf, and Ka Luk into lime. That is why betel leaf and lime are always served together. The thief is transformed into tobacco. The place between the lower lip and gum where Khasi women keep the tobacco is the thief’s hiding place. The humble Kwai was born making the lives of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo tribes incomplete without it.  

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