|A view of Ruonglevaisuo (Tipaimukh). Photo: Robert L. Sungte|
I still remember that sun-softened afternoon with my maternal uncle who guided me from Khangbor village to Taithu and then to Parbung village in 2006 during one of my many visit to Tipaimukh as part of my PhD fieldwork and the first of many visits later.
We started out from Khangbor at 6:00AM passing through lower and upper Kharkhuplien, Zaikhan, Kangreng, Ngampabung, Phulpui and Patpuihmun on the Vangai range of Tipaimukh and then down down down towards the Tuiruong (Barak) River under a heavy downpour. We tied our sleeves and trouser tips with a piece of cloth; put my camera, tape recorder, notebooks and other perishable (off course not forgetting my Wills Flake Cigarette boxes and matches too) safely. We trudge towards the Barak- the only obstacle before crossing over into the Hmar Biel side of Tipaimukh.
The rains literally came along with the leeches that day (The stretch between Patpuihmun-Sartuinek and Patpuihmun-Taithu is infamous for the high population density of leeches called "Vawt Sai" in Hmar- a striped leech found abundantly in the bamboo groves of South and South-East Asia. Their suckers can sometimes be infected with a bacterium that has been the cause of much near-fatal and fatal blood poisoning). Inspite of the cool wind that blew after the rain, we were panting, perspiring and gulping for air like a fish that has accidentally strayed into land. Constantly checking our bodies, even the innermost part, for any leeches that might have found their way in, we reached the bank of the Barak, a stretch known to the people as “Taithu Kai” or “Taithu Crossing”.
To our dismay, we found no boatman or “Kheva Pu” to ferry us over to the other side. We shouted, called, roared, trumpeted and at last, having no options, we cut some bamboos, tied them together with some vines and made ourselves a nice raft big enough to carry us to the other side or that was what we thought. I’m a good swimmer and so is my uncle. We went in into the water settling down as comfortable as possible. The Barak looked calm but it was definitely not when we got in. We were caught in a current, tossed about some, got 99% wet and were hanging on for dear life! Our rocking and swaying in the raft holding on for dear life might almost be akin to try riding a wild horse that has never been ridden by the strange two-legged creature called “Man”. Our bags and packs remained as impassive as the trees we could see on the other side of the river. We really tied them down I guess...
Caution for future travellers- Never trust a river calm just after the rain, especially in the hills.
Almost like a miracle or like the magical wand of Prospero guiding the drowning Miranda towards shore from her tempest wracked ship, we reached the other side panting but thanking our stars that we got hands skilled enough to build that sturdy raft. We untied our bags, left the raft securely tied on the bank for others who might need it, we continued onward Taithu village. By now the sun was a wee-bit shorter than a half-a-pestle length. With the sun heating up the rain water, it was stiflingly hot but good Lord, the lush green hills, washed by the rain and dazzling under the sunrays were a sight for sore eyes... It was pure nature’s therapy! Alas, the beauty of the newly washed hills almost ended from about one foot above. The ground and paths were wet and slippery like stepping into a full-grown river eel locally called “Nga-Nul”.
My uncle who was more than 55 years old at that time was in his element. Unless the lights were playing tricks on me, he actually looked younger and was smiling with nostrils flaring as if afraid to miss even the tiniest bit of deep-jungle fragrance, made sweeter by the rain. And me? Just about 28 years old and in my prime- I was running after him, panting and turning red, turning almost purple and then red again! I was putting on a good jungle boot with one of the finest leather straight from Woodland and he wasn’t even putting on any shoes but a Horse Star sleeper- the worst kind to walk with on slippery ground and he was practically gliding on it!
It was around 5:30PM when I caught the first glimpse of Taithu village. It was with mixed emotions- the welcome sight of Taithu village bathed under the gentle enigmatic rays of the setting sun and the hopeless desperation on seeing the steep approach road just before entering the village (actually, when I checked the next morning, it wasn’t that long or steep though. I was just tired and so exhausted that my body atlas played me I guess). Memories of the hornbills- both capped and common hornbill, squirrels, Civet, Barking Deer, Slow Loris, Pig-Tailed Macaque, Gecko, Hoolock Gibbon, et al that we saw, glimpsed and encountered throughout the journey coupled with the majestic but mysterious beauty of the Vangai, Hmarbiel Lushai, Tamenglong and Bubon hills, the Barak and other numerous rivers, were almost not enough to neutralise the miseries of the heat, leeches, rain, water current, the exhaustion, wet and slippery paths and eventually the last bastion- the steep path just before entering Taithu village.
Such is the mystery of life and the self itself. I heard a whisper deep inside me saying that I can’t climb that steep hill anymore but as if in a trance, I went up the path and easily enough scaled it to enter Taithu village. On reaching the village, my uncle and I separated. He went on ahead to Parbung, a few miles ahead and I stayed behind in Taithu- to recuperate and let rest my aching bones and muscles for awhile.
I went inside the first small tea hotel I saw and asked people there the way to Pa Hmingthang’s house, father of Revise Pachuau (The story of Revise Pachuau and me- of how we became friends and of our several wild and not-so-wild escapades in the hills and valley of Manipur, Assam, Nagaland and Meghalaya- have to be shared some other time). They pointed it out to me and one youth helpfully offered to drop me there. I was a stranger but people knew my grandfather, my grandmother or my father from the old days so, I was warmly welcomed and gladly assisted. I totally didn’t mind both, especially the latter.
On entering the dimly lit kitchen (It is normal for guests and visitors among the Hmars to go directly to the kitchen as there is no concept of “Sitting room” or “Common room”. These are just new inventions not even 50 years old!), put down my bags and flopped down on the split-bamboo floor. Revise’s mother (May her soul Rest in Peace) came running to me, gave me water and boiled tea. She called my friend Revise who also happens to be in the village for his vacation and I asked where Pa Hmingthang is. Revise told me that he’s down somewhere in the school area. The village playground was just beside the school and there was an inter-village soccer tournament on and it seems Pa Hmingthang stayed behind to watch the game till the very end after class. He was a Hindi teacher at Taithu Lower-Primary Government School. He was more than 60 years old that time but Revise’s mom told me he’s just starting to age!
Unable to stay put in the house and wait for him and eager to meet him, I took some rest and then went down to the football ground with my friend Revise.
We met, shook hands, came up to the house, sat beside the hearth, had a tea brewed by Revise’s mom which was as ‘black as night and as hot as hell’. We started swapping stories- the threesome- Revise, me and Pa Hmingthang under the lamp light. While we all were having the best evening of our life- discussion on diverse and varied topics ranging from Culture to politics to development to education to health to livelihood and finally to the state of development, politics and governance issues in Manipur, Churachandpur, Tipaimukh and the village. Pa Hmingthang was one of the most widely read, knowledgeable, informed and best conservationist I ever met. His knowledge about the environment, of cultures, of zoology and botany was astounding- and he was just a Hindi teacher who stayed in his post, takes regular class in an almost forgotten and barely functioning government school. Indeed a very rare case of dedication!
The evening went and passed before we knew it and all the while, Pa Hmingthang was smoothly and deftly rolling out cigars with raw, untainted hill tobacco and old newspapers. Endless more black tea (made from the tea plants that the family grew for domestic consumption... and I may add much much better than the much flouted Assam or Darjeeling tea) saturated with puffs of home-grown tobacco. I asked him why he chose to stay in Taithu while options like staying with his children in Shillong were available and open. The simple answer was “Taithu is my Shillong and Tipaimukh is my Meghalaya. I have heard that Meghalaya means the abode of the clouds. What is so special about that? Tipaimukh is also the abode of the clouds and Taithu for one is definitely among the clouds. All the youngsters wants to go out and if old people like us start doing the same, who will be here and with whom will the clouds play and speak with if we are gone? Who will look after the land of our ancestors? No! I will stay and more people should stay.” With a mischief-tinged smile, he added “You yourself should come over and stay here. Make the sacrifice. How can you hope to make things better here when you are far away in some place? Just pointing and wagging your fingers from a safe distance won’t work! Only when one is willing to sacrifice the things most desired will there be any hope of real change!” Well.....that, with the smiles, the tea, the smoke and the knowledge so kindly shared to me stayed with me ever since that beautiful evening in a village among the clouds.
I stayed for some more days at Taithu...met many more wonderful peoples there. I wish I could remember their names and mention them here, in this sorry excuse of a memoir, one by one!
It’s time to move on to my next destination- Parbung. My friend Revise offered to keep me company and I reluctantly took leave of Pa Hmingthang and his wife. He came with us till the road to Parbung and waved me off with a smile that could charm to calm the fiercest of storms.
I bade him goodbye and whispered in his ears “You have to teach me how to speak with the clouds, the hills, the forests and the animals when I come back. You need to keep well or else I would feel very much betrayed”. He smiled; I smiled back- a secret that would be known only between the two of us until our next meeting.
We trudge on through the lonely road towards Parbung. My feet felt heavy and felt it dragging while at the same time assailed with the expectation of what awaits me in Parbung. The Cicada, known as “Thereng” was singing its high-pitched melancholic farewell song for me from somewhere in the nearby trees.
It was late in the afternoon when we left for Parbung. The hills and the forests were bathed in the golden rays of the setting sun tinged with orange. Revise and me, we walked, as if in trance- spell-bounded by the sheer beauty of it all! I thought- “The Spanish did wrong in searching for El Dorado somewhere in the Americas. Here is El Dorado in all its majestic beauty undressed!”
May the wealth of nature that I saw and encountered continue to deck Tipaimukh in beauty and splendour. May their spirits continue to roam the hills and valleys.
May you Rest in Peace Pa Hmingthang. We shall meet again somewhere among the clouds and when we do, you shall teach me the language of the clouds and the plays you played with them.
* Note: No part of this story should be published/reproduced/cited or referred without the prior permission or acknowledgement of/to the author as the case may be.