Wednesday, July 16, 2008
TO most people outside Cherrapunjee, it is the place with the world’s highest rainfall. But for the people who live here, it is the land of kwai. Kwai is betel nut, and the kwai tree provides sustenance to the local Khasis in more ways than one. Everyone here chews betel nut, enveloped in betel leaf with a dab of white lime paste. Any house one visits, one is greeted by posters of Jesus Christ on the walls and a tray of kwai on the floor. It is an intrinsic part of the rich, sometimes eccentric, folklore of the Khasi hills in Meghalaya. “If you ask a Khasi the distance from one village to the next, he will estimate it not by minutes, but by the number of kwais you eat on the journey,” jokes Denis P. Rayen, owner of the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort in Laitkynsew village. No wonder kwai is the major cash crop in this valley of clouds, carpeted with thick tropical forests. Kwai plantations have sustained families for generations. But now, the kwai tree is losing its juice. “The yield per tree is falling,” says Bud Sing Bynnud, a farmer from Tyrna village, 14 kilometres downslope from Cherrapunjee town. “A decade earlier, we got 200 betel nuts from four trees. Now, we get only 100. With each passing year, the yield is declining. The early rains in March destroy the kwai tree’s tender leaves. Earlier, it never rained much in March, but now everything is changing. The rains are not regular.” If there is one thing that was regular in Cherrapunjee, it was the rains. The south-west monsoon supports the region’s thick tropical forests and small farms with their crops of pepper, betel nut, bay leaf, mustard and vegetables. But of late, the changes in the timing of the rains and the pattern of rainfall have harmed crops in villages around Cherrapunjee. The original Khasi name for the town is Sohra. The British, who annexed this region in the 1830s, called it Cherrapunjee. Alarmed by the torrential rainfall here, the Catholic Mission in the region started measuring it. That is how Cherrapunjee became famous as the wettest place on the earth and how the colonial name stuck. The State government recently changed the town’s name to “Sohra” officially. But it has not been able to erase the distinct colonial influence. Most Khasis are Christian, and the Khasi language is written in the Roman script. The log-cabin-style houses with their lace curtains, the churches, the tartan wraps that the women wear are all remnants of the British Raj. Walk through a village and you will hear rock music blaring from the small houses. The Khasis have a matrilineal culture, so women here are relatively empowered. The culture is very different from the rest of India. Cherrapunjee gets such heavy rainfall – the record is 11,952 mm a year – because of the Khasi hills. The Khasi hills are the first barrier in the way of the monsoon winds after they blow over the Bay of Bengal and the plains of Bangladesh. When these moisture-laden winds hit the steep slopes and valleys in the Khasi hills, they ascend rapidly, forming huge clouds. (That is how Meghalaya got its name, which means “the Land of Clouds”.) Many villages along the slopes are actually engulfed by clouds. During the peak monsoon season (June to September), the skies unburden sheets of water. Mobility is restricted. Nothing is spared. “The humidity destroys everything – books, photographs, clothes, and so on. It can get so damp that water condenses into droplets on your face. Some days, it rains more than 500 mm, which means that we can get almost as much rainfall in a day as Paris gets in a year [642 mm],” says Rayen.
Wet desert And yet, Sohra has an acute water shortage. It has been called a wet desert. People here have to walk miles for water. Deforestation and mining have made the town, situated on a limestone-rich plateau, bare. The heavy rainwater flows rapidly down the steep slopes of the Khasi mountains into Bangladesh (40 km from Cherrapunjee). The strong flow has eroded soil fertility, making it difficult to revive agriculture.
Most people in Sohra earn a daily wage either through trade or by working in the limestone and charcoal quarries along the hill slopes. Sohra is mainly a market town, where people from surrounding villages converge twice a week to sell their produce. But now supplies from the villages are dwindling. Harvests are destroyed by unseasonal rains. “It rains even before the pre-monsoon showers, normally in April and May. We must harvest before these showers. With the rains arriving early, we lose part of the harvest. The flowers and fruits or nuts get damaged or fall off the tree. Bay leaves get wet and are destroyed,” says Bud Sing Bynnud.
Earlier the rain came on time. Now, we don’t know when it will come. It has become difficult to time the planting or harvesting of our crops and trees. The crops don’t grow well and we get less than half the quantity we got around 10 years ago,” says the elderly Dhesto Sa
Around 20 years ago, the roads leading to Laitkynsew were lined with people selling oranges. “This region was known for its oranges. Now, no one sells oranges and you rarely spot an orange,” says Joy Rayen, co-owner of the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, who was born and brought up in the village. “Around 30 years ago, there was a disease that killed all the orange trees. After that, we have not been able to grow oranges, no matter how many times we tried. The oranges from our villages were famous in the market for being sweet and plentiful. Now, we have to buy oranges from the market. I still have around 10 trees, but none of them gives any fruit. Citrus fruits normally ripen in October, but now they fall in July or August before they ripen,” says Kojen Wansai, headman of Lum Soh Phie village. Yet, he is lucky to have the last few orange trees growing in his yard. They are now a collector’s item.