I don’t remember the day, but it was in 2015 – a year I had travelled much, without any plans- that I embarked on a journey to discover the countryside towards south of Shillong in the East Khasi hills. Back then Meghalaya hadn’t been explored much by tourists, and places like Dawki were only beginning to be recognized as eco-adventure tourism destinations. Most travellers preferred exploring in groups rather than alone just to be able to endure the disconcerted suspicious looks of some locals, wondering what loomed ahead. Many wouldn’t even dare go to some places without having a local guide or a friend from the region. It was vice-versa. The locals, who were not yet accustomed to seeing many outsiders, were wary of tourists. After all, all of nature on earth might be ours to tread on, but nature is home to some, and uninvited we are seen as trespassers rather than guests.
Although I did my graduation from Shillong and knew many people from Meghalaya, I had lost touch with them over the years. So, we – my husband, who was back then my fiancé, and I – decided to hire a local taxi with a young driver who could guide us and started off towards Smit – the destination in my mind. I had my own apprehensions because we heard about many cases of witch hunting in remote regions of Meghalaya. Sensitized news has the capacity to instill new fears in people, as if there were already less!
Still, why Smit? Everything that leaves behind an overwhelming memory in us, a
memory that is happy or pleasantly poignant and never fades, also leaves behind a sensory longing – the longing of a particular sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. Smit had such an effect on me when I first came across the name in the story – ‘Even they climbed the hill’ by the Assamese writer Xaurav Kumar Chaliha. Although the name didn’t carry any special significance in the story; although it was followed by the names of other places in and around, for some unknown reason the sound of ‘Smit’ was imprinted in my mind. I could never visualize the picture of Smit, but I always hear sounds of Spanish guitars and drums when I think of Smit. I end up visualizing its people in a celebratory mood, but felt sad instead; because that is how Smit came across to me in Chaliha’s story and lingered in my thoughts.
Shillong: its surroundings, the houses, roads, people, everything was familiar to me, but it is a place I can never get tired of. I am also familiar with the clouds that almost touch our heads at higher altitudes, the everyday drizzle, and the mild sun. And as I had travelled to places like Mawsynaram and Mowlynnong I thought I was also familiar with the topography of Meghalaya – the green hills, the valleys, which at times turned into brown prairie like grasslands, and at others into grey grounds of granite; that is, until I made this trip. This time I discovered the greens – the light greens, not the deep one of the dense forests, but light greens of the meadow grass.
Just like re-reading a book from our teenage in our thirties grants us new emotions, or make us discover whole new perspectives, travelling through the same scenic surroundings at different ages allows us an awe that is new each time. As we moved away from the city and the countryside began, I saw the never-endingly green rolling moors, like oceans of green so close to the skies. And then as I looked above, to see if the moors actually touched the skies, I saw the clear skies – the bright blue skies of Meghalaya full of gay clouds, as if some puffs of white candies were playing with each other. That is how I felt – happy; playful. I couldn’t help but spend some time just watching the green moors and the bright blues, wishing I can settle down someday in such a place.
As Smit came into view, the moors disappeared, giving way to terraces of farming, and wood industries, making me realize all life is an aspiration towards survival. Did I see anything special in Smit? Nothing particularly; there were the general occurrences: school going children, workers who didn’t have time to see who’s going in or out of their territory – a village buzzing with life.
I did see a man looking at us, but only with an innocuous curiosity. It was peaceful and simple, unlike the complex world I live in. Mayhap this peace was disturbed by certain rituals which appear barbaric and unjust in today’s world, but one needs empathy (and not judgement) to understand people like places from Smit will take time to let go their beliefs and traditions. Holistic institutional changes are imperative in such societies, rather than punishing wrong doers.
Smit is not magical, it is just another civilization among innumerable civilizations in the world, but is the real magic in the time that has been halted in space, in forms of tangible objects and subjects, or is it in those intangible moments which fleet through our senses to never return? Despite the ordinariness, Smit still fills me with awe: I find myself asking even today – “wasn’t the picture of that tiny peaceful village against those green moors and white puffs of clouds in the blue blue skies magical? Do we need to always remind ourselves that that is not the reality of that place? What are we searching for is what matters most.
We headed back from Smit towards Mawphlang as I wanted to see, even if from a distance, the sacred groves of Mawphlang. As we neared Marbisu, where one road went towards northern Meghalaya and another to southern, in a trice, the blue skies were replaced by an engulfing darkness.
The storm approached on us like a hungry savage in search of food. Nature has a way of reminding us of impermanence, and that often we weave far-fetched ideas about it. Why did it not occur to me that the days wouldn’t always be sunny and gay; that the green moors might be replaced by wild vegetation or by the golden sand of desert someday? Yet, those thoughts couldn’t dampen my happiness. I felt as if my wild spirit was being summoned. I liked the dark cloudy sky as much as the blue clear one.
I wondered if those who often saw this side of nature enjoyed it as much as I was enjoying. I did not have anyone to answer that question of mine. At least, the driver – a local – who had been driving us, and uncomplainingly yielding to my requests of halting wherever I wanted to, appeared to relish the weather too, albeit it was difficult to drive on. There was something oracular about the air. The dense forests of Mawphlang appeared enigmatic and unapproachable.
I left feeling rather overwhelmed. On the way, as we closed in on Shillong, we were again greeted by a happy evening sun, and an enthralling view of the city from the Lumpdeng view point.
Smit is a memory; Mawphlang a fascination. I had a chance to visit both on the same day, and encounter the brightest of moods of a day to its darkest. Seldom such days happen in one’s life. So, even if we left behind some ecological footprint, we have to be empathetic with the likes of us as well, and not just the locals, because the love for the unknown keeps us alive and we have to get a drop now and then somehow.