We have been enjoying new friends and experiences on board a little river vessel on the Brahmaputra River. Our dinner table conversations were especially interesting.
For example, there is always a lot in the papers about Kashmere. As you probably know, it is supposed to be very beautiful, but it continues to be a “hot spot” and problem area between India and Pakistan. This topic brought us to Partition, which has surprised me because of the sense of immediacy about it, even though it happened more than 50 years ago. It reminds me of visiting England 30 years ago when people talked about “the war” as if it had just ended a week or so in the past.
There is hardly a family that has not been affected by Partition — just mentioning the word will unloose a tale about having to leave Pakistan for India. And, I’m sure if one were in Pakistan, it would be the same way regarding leaving India for Pakistan. Of course, we were aware of the event, but we were not aware of many of the details — the terrible loss of life, terrorism, etc., which resulted. Thousands and thousands of people were killed; both Hindus and Muslims, and so many people were forced to leave their longtime homes.
We visited a village while we were on the Brahmaputra located on the mainland. There were 100 to 150 houses spread around a fairly large area, and the people were very industrious. They had a large flock of chickens in a “caged egg” house. In addition they raised sugar cane and ground it, made molasses, and from molasses, made sugar or “jiggery.” One enterprising man had purchased a big tractor that he rents out to others on the island.
School was out, but many of the children were wearing their uniforms —navy blue shorts or jumpers and light blue shirts. The children “out of uniform” were very ragged and poorly dressed. The school has a midday meal “scheme,” which provides a good lunch for all the children and encourages parents to keep them in school instead of putting them to work. Many of the children proudly brought their schoolbooks to show us. One little boy who stuck to me like glue had a ballpoint pen fastened to his shirt. He was very proud of it — he had won it at school as a prize!
The village has electricity and several wells with pumps located around the place. The houses are huts of various types, some with thatched roofs, others with roofs of sheet metal or palm. They are mostly plastered with wattle, although there is heavy use of woven bamboo screens or shades. We saw several handlooms looms working, as well as the agricultural work. The money crops are bamboo, mustard seed, and wheat. And in addition to chickens, they raise cows and goats. The cow dung is very useful to them. They use it in building their houses and also on “shish kabobs” — 4-foot sticks with lumps of dung attached. When these are dried, they can conveniently be used as fuel. The little wood they have is not used unless it is dead.
Wild ride to wildlife
We took one more side trip while still on the boat, to Orang, a national park famous for the large number of bird varieties. We must have seen at least 50 different kinds of birds as we drove through in our jeep. The next day we departed for the Manas National Park, a wild and rough ride. This is on a main highway, but it is very poor. We experienced narrow roads, potholes, “diversions,” and the ever-present traffic — bicycles, people, buses, horse-drawn carts, push carts, motor bikes, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, freight trucks, and, of course, cars. The trucks here are not huge ones like our “semis.” They are not nearly as long, but the beds are very high to hold the maximum amount of goods—which is of every kind.
Rajiv was our driver, and a good one, except that he had a very “heavy foot” and took unbelievable chances in passing. We came up on a traffic delay that lasted about 10-15 minutes, and when we finally got through, the army was there “directing” traffic. The last few miles were through a crowded market town with busy stalls and shops on both sides of the road. As we came to the end of the market, the railway appeared, blocked by a very long train. Rajiv quickly made a right turn to go around the train to another crossing, and along the rail line we saw numerous trucks loading bamboo onto the train for shipment to the cities. I think I have probably already mentioned how much bamboo is used here in building and for practical purposes, such as ladders and furniture. In this area of India we saw many crafts as well — bamboo screens, a huge variety of baskets, rugs, and closely woven sheets used as walls of huts.
Across the railroad we drove through what seemed to be a wholesale vegetable and fruit market. This was the first clue that the area we were entering provides a large amount of produce. A few more miles, and we were out in the country, finally approaching a large tea plantation and our next destination, Manas National Forest.
The lodge was of concrete construction (as most buildings are) with simple furnishings and a decent bathroom. All the furniture was made locally (we had seen a large number of furniture-making shops along the way). The downsides were no internet connectivity at all in the whole place, very cold rooms and dining room, only basic amenities, and heavy metal room doors that made a huge noise when opened or closed.
However, there was a “full house” of people who had come to visit the “jungle”—what I would call the forest. About 25 young people from IBM had come for a break (they sat outside around a campfire every night to much hilarity), there were several Indian families with little children, and a very interesting climatologist who is a professor at George Mason University in Virginia but who works at a research center in D.C.
The jungle, or forest, is home to more than 1,000 elephants (wild), domesticated elephants, eight tigers, some 60+ rhinos, and miscellaneous species such as small deer, wild boar, etc. as well as many birds. We took two jeep “safaris” and an elephant ride into the wild, managing rhinos at a distant and close up, lots of smaller game, but no wild elephants.
In addition to the “jungle,” we also visited a village of the Bodo tribe, one of the protected groups in India. The village was very substantial — regular houses instead of huts. They had electricity, and every house had a TV satellite dish. Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists all live in the village, which is very clean with nice flower gardens. The village school left much to be desired, however. It was a bare building of one room with dirt floors, no furniture at all, no electric lights, no desk or chair for the teacher. It was not in session, so I couldn’t see how classes were conducted.
On to Shillong
After four nights, we were on our way to Shillong, nicknamed “The Scotland of the East.” Once we got there, it was worth it, but oh, what a trip! There is only one north-south highway, and it is terrible — much construction and the same problems I have mentioned before. However, once we turned off to Shillong, it was much better. This was one of the hill stations the British used for breaks from the terrible heat, and the town has a colonial flavor with narrow hilly streets with distinctly English names, Tudor-style buildings, etc.
We stayed in a lovely place, “The Tripura Castle Hotel,” not a castle at all, but the former guesthouse of a maharajah who “discovered” Shillong and built a home there, along with this guesthouse. (This maharajah, like a number of others in the 1930s, was an admirer of Fascism. Mussolini presented him with a bust of himself, and a photograph of the maharajah and the bust is prominently displayed. The maharajah’s rule lasted over 20 years. His son’s, however, ended after only two years with the coming of independence.)
There are three main tribes in this area, with the Khasis being the largest. Our local guide, “Rocky,” was superb. He was a Khasi and was able to explain much about the region. If you have time, read about the Khasis. They have a matrilineal system, and the luckiest person in the family is the youngest daughter, who is guaranteed land in the clan’s native village. According to Rocky, however, although the land is in her name, all the family can share it. The majority of the people are Christians, with the strongest groups being the Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.
We visited the oldest church in Shillong, an Anglican congregation, which could have been picked up and put down in many an English village and been right at home. Shillong also has a very high literacy rate, almost 90 percent, and Rocky told us that the Khasis are much sought-after as teachers because of their English skills. His family has education in its blood — his grandfather, his mother, and two of his sisters are teachers. He took an education degree, but he was too restless for the classroom and now has a career as a guide and also at the All-India radio station in Shillong.
Shillong is the site of many boarding schools because of its favorable climate. The novelist and Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy was born there. Swami Vivekanada, also from Shillong, is credited with introducing the Hindu philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the West. Shillong is a charming place, but since it is reachable only by car or bus, I would never venture there again. When helicopters become more common in remote areas, I would go again, but I would never willingly get on the road again!
Our drive back to Guwahati was just as harrowing as the one into the mountains. We went directly to the airport, where we had a bit of a wait for our plane, which deposited us back in Delhi right on time, about 7:15. Now I am busy working on presentations for a conference in Doha, Qatar, and Gwalior.