Sohra or Cherrapunjee—which we still fondly call the wettest place on earth—is my birthplace, where my ancestral home is, and though only tenants live in it now, two rooms have been left vacant for us to use whenever we visit. I usually spend my winters there because it’s slightly warmer than in Shillong, where I live now. But that’s just something I used to say to myself; the truth is that I love everything about Sohra, for it was there, to use the words of Welsh writer John Owen of Morfa Nefyn about Anglesey, ‘that [I] was born and raised, it was there that [my] mother taught [me] to talk, it was there that the paths were which [I] had walked as a child’.
But most of all, I love the pure, wild rain of Sohra, which has baptised me over and over in its holy waters, linking my soul forever with its cloud-tending wind and its cherubic mists floating among, and hanging from, verdant summer trees in sanctified woods. As the rain of Chile was to Neruda, the rain of Sohra is to me “an unforgettable presence”. I never tire of reading poems and writings on the Sohra rain:
This is the famed rain,
making a fool of sorry umbrellas!
Zooming in like swarms of fighter planes!
Bouncing back metres high to the sky!
Now it sprints with the wind!
Now it turns waltzing round!
Now it’s a million whips
for the gale to lash at pretty legs!
And now, it’s a violent downpour
to whitewash the ditches and the roads
till at last, the fog comes cloaking all.
It is because of this multifariousness and its divergent nature that Khasis have so many names for the rain:
Slap (rain), lapbah (heavy rain), lapsan (immense rain), lap-theh-ktang (pouring-from-bamboo-tube rain), lap-lai-miet (three-night rain), lap-hynriew-miet (six-night rain), lap-khyndai-miet (nine-night rain), lapphria (hail rain), lap-erïong (dark-wind rain/black storm), u kyllang (stormy rain), lapiwtung (smelly rain, because it continues for many days, causing clothes to stink), lappraw (light rain), lap-boi-ksi (louse-swarming rain, because it looks like lice when it settles on hair and clothes), lap-ñiup-ñiup (soft, flaky rain, very light drizzle), lapshiliang (partial rain), laplynnong (rain confined to certain locales), lapkynriang (slanting rain), lapmynsaw (rain of danger, which has both literal and metaphorical meanings) and lap-bam-briew (human-devouring rain, because it does not stop until some human has fallen victim to a rain-triggered disaster).
If you read the statistical handbooks, you will know that Sohra gets an average of more than 12,000 mm of rain per year, and often as much as 450 mm in a single day. On 19 August 2015, for instance, it shattered a ten-year-old record when it received as much rain as 471.7 mm in twenty-four hours. However, the 1964 record of 853 mm within the same period, which also made Sohra the wettest place on earth, still stands. The highest recorded total annual rainfall was 24,555 mm in 1974. And, typically, all this rain falls within a period of six months, from April to September, although it can continue right up to October and even into the first two weeks of November. But again, this is hardly the complete picture. The fact is, we often get the first rain of the year as early as January or February. This early rain, however, is intermittent and does not become fierce and big and heavy and incessant till about April. From this you can easily see how silly the claim is thatthe rain in India is born in Kerala. While Kerala gets its first rain in June, we get it in January or February.
The rain, coming from the hills and driving with fury through the land, used to scare people out of their wits. Those with tin roofs used to spend sleepless nights intoning mantras and saying, ‘Mab Blei, Mab Blei’ (‘God forgive, God forgive’). There was no saying when the rain would suddenly switch to the terrible Sohra erïong, the dark tempest. When the erïong came, corrugated sheets flapped like wings, making deafening sounds the whole night through—sometimes they flew right off. Forests spun around and swung violently from side to side in a mad rhythm; trees collapsed; hills growled; the overhanging rocks tumbled down precipices as the rain poured into roaring waterfalls to wreak even greater havoc in the plains of River Surma in Bangladesh. This is the kind of rain that poets have described as the season of continuous darkness, when:
The sun too is not there that rises or sets;
Only now and then would it peep from the cloud that is dense,
At the sea frothing white and the gleeful waterfalls.
Many of my friends do not share my enthusiasm for a Sohra that is all water, wind, cloud, darkness and terrorising tempests. Why, they wonder, would I experience a hiraeth, a heartrending longing,for such a land? And why should I take so much pride in the relentless rain? Had it not—according to well-known Welsh writer Nigel Jenkins, author of Through the Green Doors: Travel Among the Khasis—dismayed even the “web-footed Welsh” missionariesand driven “many a demented Company wallah to suicide”? But how will people who fear to get their feet wet understand that we used to jump for joy when it rained, that with cries of ‘Yahoo!’ we would tear off our clothes and rush out with bars of soap to bathe naked in the downpour? And bathing we would sing:
Ther, ther lapbah lapsan,
Ban dup pait ka maw ka dieng,
Ban dup tat u kba u khaw,
Ther, ther lapbah lapsan.
Strike, strike big rain, great rain,
That the stone, the wood, would break,
That the rice, the grain, would be cheap,
Strike, strike big rain, great rain.
Or this song:
Ah, ah, ah, ba la ther u lap Sohra!
Syngit ki jaiñ ngi pynjyndong,
Shong kali kulai tom tom.
Ah, ah, ah, that the rain of Sohra is pelting!
We tighten our clothes and make them short,
We ride on horse-drawn carriages.
We had never seen horse-drawn carriages of course, for the British who drove them were long gone, but we sang about them all the same.
Sometimes we dashed naked to the playground near our house, where rainwater gathered in deep pools among the tall grasses, to roll on the ground and engage in fierce fights of kynshait um, water-splashing. This is one of the most enjoyable games I have ever played, one with no losers and, thus, no hard feelings. When we were tired of the game, we used to take out our knups, which are carapace-like rain shields made from bamboo and leaves, and get into the fast-running water, to create waterfalls with split bamboo poles and large leaves. Or we would float our paper boats among the pools and play with the tadpoles that were spawning everywhere. Our parents never chided us since the water was always clean (there was no mud in Sohra, only sand and pebbles), and the rains were considered therapeutic. Even now, it is said, ‘U slap Sohra u long dawai’; the Sohra rain is medicine. I do not know if this is a fact, but our frolicking never made us ill.
Rain time in Sohra was also story time. Mother used to say, ‘The perfect time to tell a tale is a rainy night.’ And so, she would choose one of those dark monsoon nights during the black month of June to tell us about all the famous places in Sohra, behind every one of which is a tragic tale. As blinding flashes of lightning and ear-splitting crashes of thunder tore the dark sky asunder, as the wind shrieked with mad fury, lashing the houses with rain and hail, she told us about Likai and how her horrible fate had endowed the waterfall with its unhappy name, Kshaid Noh Ka Likai (the plunge of Ka Likai Falls). It was also in this way that I learnt about Kshaid Daiñthlen (Daiñthlen Falls), where Thlen, the legendary man-eating serpent, was killed. And about Ramhah, the giant who terrorised the people of Sohra so cruelly that they were forced to kill him by feeding him jadoh, a local delicacy, mixed with powdered iron filings. I learnt, too, about Kshaid Noh Sngithiang (the plunge of Ka Sngithiang Falls) and Sngithiang, who committed suicide because her parents did not approve of the man who loved her. And Ka Lyngknot U Ïar, the stool of Ïar, the man who married an infant-eating nymph and was killed by his brother-in-law for protesting against her inhuman habit. I learnt about U Suidtynjang, the deformed demon who abducts people and puts them on ledges in the middle of a precipice if they cannot scratch his sore-covered body without pause. If it had not been for the rain, I doubt if Mother would have had the time or the inclination to tell us all those stories.
It is the fog which is a real nuisance, not the rain. After each violent downpour, it creeps out of crevices and chasms, cloaking everything, so that all of Sohra seems to be wiping itself dry with an immense white towel after being drenched by the rain. It is thus also known as lyoh khyndew, land-cloud, creeping and crawling over the earth and spreading across the sky:
through tall trees—
It seeps into homes through chinks and cracks in doors and windows, making everything wet and damp and stinking. It fills spider webs with minuscule diamonds, clings to people’s hair and eyebrows and seeks to lay claim to everything:
my sister’s eyebrows
dotted with crystals.
The fog is a blinding white gloom, and when it floats up from the ravines, you can see nothing. Cars on the road, with their lights glowing eerily, crawl like caterpillars, following a thin black thread and blaring their horns at regular intervals:
wind, rain and fog—
my car crawls
to a Cherra welcome.
Sometimes it is so dense that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. On the streets, you bump into people; you watch their ghostly silhouettes and listen to their voices as if they were disembodied souls.
my sister nearby,
a bodiless soul.
The dense fog was a big hit with us children. We loved playing hide-and-seek in it, and the denser it got, the happier we were. When I grew older, the fog was even more wonderful: I could kiss a girl right under her friends’ noses. Most adults, however, dislike it because of the physical discomfort it causes, and associate it with evil. Perhaps because it encourages a sort of dangerous freedom.
The fog in Sohra is probably most spectacular when the rain has stopped, the sky has cleared, but the ravines are still choked with the pure, impregnating land-cloud. The deep gorges that yawn like fiendish mouths suddenly vanish and the tableland becomes one gigantic expanse of rolling green-and-white. This spectacular vista, almost a seascape, has an enchanted quality. It makes you feel like you would ‘float on rapture’s charmed carpet’—as someone put it—if you jumped into that enormous mass of whiteness. Perhaps that was what Jiei, a Pnar from Ri Pnar in eastern Meghalaya, had also felt a long, long time ago.
According to the story, Jiei, who was visiting the traditional state of Sohra for the first time as the carrier of his king’s tidings, found himself beset by the rain and could not leave for many days. He stayed on as a guest of the Sohra king, but he turned out to be a vainglorious, loutish sort of man who bragged about his adventures and the power and glory of his king. His king was richer and more powerful than Sohra’s. His statewas bigger, it extended to the plains of Sylhet. His nation’s women were more beautiful and gracious than anyone he had seen in Sohra. His people were taller and stronger. Like him, they were also more skilful and more capable, be it in the art of war or the art of peace. Since he had lived in the lowlands of Sylhet, he could do anything that a plainsman could, and better. He could do things that hill people could not even dream of. He had swum in big rivers, even in the ocean. He could swim anywhere; he could do anything.
The people of Sohra, who were generally polite and gracious to others, did not like the boorish ingratitude of the fellow, who ran them down at every opportunity even as he enjoyed their hospitality. One of the elders, who had suffered his arrogance and condescension in silence for many days, decided to teach him a lesson. He took Jiei to the edge of a vast ravine, which at the time was filled with land-cloud, and said, ‘Look at it! You said you could swim anywhere and that you have swum in big rivers and even in the ocean, which we have not even seen. Can you swim here?’
‘What is this?’
‘A river of land-clouds. Can you swim here? It’s at least a thousand feet thick, so it should support you easily.’
Jiei, who had never seen such a thing before, replied right away, ‘A thousand feet! Why, haven’t I told you I have swum in oceans thousands of feet deep? This is nothing! Of course I can swim here! Are you mocking me?’
With that, he threw himself into the white emptiness and became a legend.
Taken aback, the Sohra elder exclaimed, ‘Waa, khun ka mrad! Son of an animal! She jumped! I was only playing a prank, and she really jumped!’
When Khasis are angry or in shock, they have this tendency to address a man as a woman. As the story spread, a new ridicule was born. Anyone who behaves arrogantly is now simply dismissed as ‘U Jiei jngi lyoh’; the cloud-swimming Jiei. Even I have been called that once or twice, not because I am arrogant, but because my father, who died when I was still in the womb, happened to be a Pnar from a village called Nangbah.
If, however, I was to analyse my fondness for the Sohra of water, wind, cloud, darkness and terrorising tempests, I would say, as I have said before, that it was because I was born and brought up there. It was there that my mother taught me to talk; it was there that the paths were, which I had walked as a child. My years of growing up among the sacred woods, panoramic hills and clear rivers of Sohra, among warm and compassionate neighbours, were the best part of my life, despite our poverty back then. And though we left for a better life in Shillong, I find myself going back to that time again and again. My roots are still buried deep in the soil of Sohra; my trunk and branches still draw sustenance from its rugged terrain; my love for it extends to everything else that is in it. That is why my only hiraeth now is for Sohra, for I still consider myself a true son of the wettest place on earth, baptised by its wind-driven rain and its impregnating fog. Do you wonder then that I fondly call it the land of time-warped legends, the rain, the fog and the poets? It is only my mother—who wants to live in Shillong, to be close to my two brothers and sister and her other relatives—who is keeping me from my Innisfree now. A time will come, however, when, ‘After I have strayed around the earth,’ I too will say, ‘To my house, to my Bower, / The vanished land of tears, let me depart.’