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They say a journey becomes more interesting when the destination is a mystery or mysterious. We were told that Mawlynnong, in East Khasi district, 100 km south of Shillong, is a must-see. It’s the cleanest village in Asia. But we kept wondering what’s so special about this village to get this tag. It sounded quite mysterious to us, and heightened our excitement to be at that place.

We started off from Shillong at 7 am, and passed through a number of villages. Virtually the entire journey is beside hillocks with green-carpeted steep precipice on the other side. It’s a breathtaking view of green landscape some of which in captivating formations. It’s amazing the way Nature presents itself.

It’s hills all over, either we are going up, or going down, moving from one hillock to the other. There are just no plains on the way. As we go, we realise that green hills have been chipped to create roads. From afar the road looks like a step.

At a number of places we could see waterfalls, big and small. At some places there were just the trails of water on dry rocks.

The cleanest village is… indeed clean, very clean. People are obsessed with cleanliness. Don’t be surprised if you see people always cleaning the premises.

Adjascent to this prestigeous village, there is a bridge across a stream. It’s an unusual bridge: it’s made of live roots of a rubber tree! Then nearby there is a balancing stone — a natural marval: a huge rock balanced on a much smaller rock.

Since we had to catch the 10.30 pm train to Dimapur, we were in a hurry to return to Shillong. We reached back around 3 pm.

Big or small, any city is congested. Shillong’s city Centre is choc-a-bloc. Narrow roads, lots of people and cars all over the place.

We reach the Meghalaya Transport Corporation bus stand around 3.30 pm. Chances of getting a bus looked really dim. Since taxi operators were still on strike, we had to hunt around for a private car to take us to Guwahati.

Finally, reached Guwahati railway station at 9.15 pm. Now, in the train heading to Dimapur, Nagaland, where we will spend the next two days.

BITING COLD

It’s awfully cold here in Shillong. Temperature around 17 degree Celsius. We were warned about this, and we did bring adequate warm clothes. We are told only in Shillong it becomes this cold, mainly because it’s in such high altitude of about 1,500 metres above sea level. To the credit of White Orchid Guesthouse, where we are staying, it has top-quality blankets. You wouldn’t like to get out of it!

ELEPHANT FALL

After breakfast, around 9 am, we set out for Cherrapunji, the name we are familiar with since school days, as one of the wettest places in the world. More of that later.

On the way to Cherrapunji, we went to Elephant Fall. The legend goes that the Khasi people here called the place ‘Three Steps Fall’ since the water falls in three steps. Later the British called it Elephant Fall since one of the rocks beside the waterfall resembles an elephant. But this rock was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897.

Here tourists were lining up to stand on a few small rocks for a photoshoot with the fall in the background. Never found such a rush to pose in front of a waterfall!

I have, of course, taken pics, lots of them. They all will be put up next week, when I am back in Bangalore.

CHERRAPUNJI

After Elephant Fall, we stopped at a number of places, popularly called here as viewing points. They are nothing but vantage points that offer a tourist breathtaking views of waterfalls or of the lush green subtropical forests of Khasi hills thickly covered with diverse vegetation.

This area — Cherrapunji and nearby Mawsynram — is among the wettest places because it receives both southwest monsoon and northeast monsoon. And not surprisingly there are a number of waterfalls, big and small, bringing the Meghalaya Tourism Board lot of revenue.

But I only wish some part of that revenue is invested in tarring the roads and bettering other infrastructure. Roads are pathetic in many places. I simply don’t understand why something as important as roads are so low on the priority list of our officials and politicians.

VIEW OF BANGLADESH

Immediately after Elephant Fall, we stopped at Duwan Sing Syiem View Point. Then we went to Nohkali Falls. Here at one point we could see the rainbow in the waterfall. Then we went to Mawsmai Eco-park. There were a few swings and see-saw; but couldn’t quite understand what was eco about this place. From there we can see barren fields of Bangladesh.

CAVE AND RESTAURANT

Then we headed for the Mawsmai Cave. We can walk through it. Not quite recommended for people who are claustrophobic. A portion inside the cave is narrow. So fat people will also have to step aside.

After the cave visit, we got into one of the many restaurants there for lunch. It has a peculiar system of placing the order. We go upto the desk, tell the lady what we want. She writes that down in a book, along with our name. She copies that on a piece of paper and sends it to the kitchen. A few minutes later a boy or girl with the food comes out to the dining area calling our name. We raise hand to attract his or her attention. Never have I found the customer’s name being noted down while ordering food!

We then went on to Thengkarang Park. It’s just that, a park and a well mainained garden and fountain. And then to Khoh Ramhah, from where one has a better view of Bangladesh.

NEED FOR DIFFERENT TIME ZONE

One aspect about this region that’s difficult to get used to is the shortness of daylight hours. Dusk sets in around 4 pm, and by 5 pm it’s darkness. It’s quite a task to convince hourselves that it’s not 8 pm and only 6 pm! The region does indeed need a different time zone.

Retiring for the day early as we need to leave for Mawlynnong, some 100 km south of Shillong — widely known as the cleanest village in Asia.

A delay of more than an hour in our departure to Shillong proved to be a bit costly, at the end of the day. Why, you will learn later…

We had booked a taxi and we were supposed to leave at 9 am. Shillong is around 130 km from where were staying and it takes around 4 hours. But we later came to know that taxis aren’t plying between Guwahati and Shillong.

The strike is in reponse to a call given by the Greater Shillong Tourist Taxi Association in protest against the district administration’s decision to shift the taxi stand from in front of the crowded Police Bazar and allot the place for parking private vehicles.

So yesterday the taxi operator had arranged for a private car to take us. He charged Rs 500 over and above the Rs 1,500 that was agreed upon, with the excuse that strike has made their jobs really difficult. Since we were short of time and thus the option of bus wasn’t viable, we agreed. But as there was some delay in getting the car, we could leave only at 10.25 am.

The weather was mildly warm, the terrain dry and air dusty. The road wasn’t as bad as I had been told. There is plenty of greenery. Could spot plenty of coconut trees. The landscape at some places reminded me of Western Ghats.

I noticed that petrol price per litre was only Rs 38.69 at Dharapur. In Bangalore it’s at least Rs 21 more.

We didn’t get into the Guwahati city, saw a portion of Guwahati University though as we passed in front of it. At Chalukbari junction we took a right turn to Shillong, going straight would have taken us to Guwahati city. From Khanapara, it’s mostly uphill and hair-pin curves to Shillong which is 91 km from there.

As we crossed the bridge over Byurnihat river, we entered Meghalaya. At Nongpoh, we stopped to have coffee at Zen Cafe, which had artistically laid out seats with thatched umbrella shades over them. Small road-side kiosks and even small houses were made of wood.

Barapani Lakeside, a beautiful expanse of water, is a must stopover for all tourists heading to or from Shillong. It’s some 15 km from the capital.

We reached Shillong around 2.30 pm and checked into the White Orchid Guesthouse at Malki Point. Rs 1,600 for a spacious and neat triple occupancy room was very reasonable. After lunch we went straight to Shillong Peak. At 2000 metres, it’s the highest point in Meghalaya, and from the peak one gets a breathtaking view of the city. The spot has some historical religious significance.

Next stop was supposed to be Elephanta Falls. But we had got late. By 4.30 pm it was dusk and by 5.30 pm sun had set and it was darkness all around. The place would have closed by then. This is when we regretted the delay of over one hour. Now we hope to see the place tomorrow.

Putting the rest of the time to some good use, we went to Gloria Plaza and Vishal Market for some shopping.

Shillong is a town with narrow roads in most places and a few congested localities mainly shopping areas. It’s a hilly terrain. There are no glitzy shopping malls or highrise apartment complexes. The hilly terrain doesn’t allow any archetectural exhibitionism.

The city virtually shuts down by 9 pm. In fact, the Chinese restaurant we were in at that hour had downed its shutter at 8.30 pm and we were the only customers there. The food there was very economical for the large quantity they offered.

A full day of sight-seeing tomorrow.

A delay of more than an hour in our departure to Shillong proved to be a bit costly, at the end of the day. Why, you will learn later…

We had booked a taxi and we were supposed to leave at 9 am. Shillong is around 130 km from where were staying and it takes around 4 hours. But we later came to know that taxis aren’t plying between Guwahati and Shillong.

The strike is in reponse to a call given by the Greater Shillong Tourist Taxi Association in protest against the district administration’s decision to shift the taxi stand from in front of the crowded Police Bazar and allot the place for parking private vehicles.

So yesterday the taxi operator had arranged for a private car to take us. He charged Rs 500 over and above the Rs 1,500 that was agreed upon, with the excuse that strike has made their jobs really difficult. Since we were short of time and thus the option of bus wasn’t viable, we agreed. But as there was some delay in getting the car, we could leave only at 10.25 am.

The weather was mildly warm, the terrain dry and air dusty. The road wasn’t as bad as I had been told. There is plenty of greenery. Could spot plenty of coconut trees. The landscape at some places reminded me of Western Ghats.

I noticed that petrol price per litre was only Rs 38.69 at Dharapur. In Bangalore it’s at least Rs 21 more.

We didn’t get into the Guwahati city, saw a portion of Guwahati University though as we passed in front of it. At Chalukbari junction we took a right turn to Shillong, going straight would have taken us to Guwahati city. From Khanapara, it’s mostly uphill and hair-pin curves to Shillong which is 91 km from there.

As we crossed the bridge over Byurnihat river, we entered Meghalaya. At Nongpoh, we stopped to have coffee at Zen Cafe, which had artistically laid out seats with thatched umbrella shades over them. Small road-side kiosks and even small houses were made of wood.

Barapani Lakeside, a beautiful expanse of water, is a must stopover for all tourists heading to or from Shillong. It’s some 15 km from the capital.

We reached Shillong around 2.30 pm and checked into the White Orchid Guesthouse at Malki Point. Rs 1,600 for a spacious and neat triple occupancy room was very reasonable. After lunch we went straight to Shillong Peak. At 2000 metres, it’s the highest point in Meghalaya, and from the peak one gets a breathtaking view of the city. The spot has some historical religious significance.

Next stop was supposed to be Elephanta Falls. But we had got late. By 4.30 pm it was dusk and by 5.30 pm sun had set and it was darkness all around. The place would have closed by then. This is when we regretted the delay of over one hour. Now we hope to see the place tomorrow.

Putting the rest of the time to some good use, we went to Gloria Plaza and Vishal Market for some shopping.

Shillong is a town with narrow roads in most places and a few congested localities mainly shopping areas. It’s a hilly terrain. There are no glitzy shopping malls or highrise apartment complexes. The hilly terrain doesn’t allow any archetectural exhibitionism.

The city virtually shuts down by 9 pm. In fact, the Chinese restaurant we were in at that hour had downed its shutter at 8.30 pm and we were the only customers there. The food there was very economical for the large quantity they offered.

A full day of sight-seeing tomorrow.

OLD-WORLD CHARM

Kolkata airport may lack the swanky look of Bangalore airport, and the first thoughts of a tourist from India’s tech capital would inevitably be that it could easily do with some image building to get rid of that ‘old’ look.

But step back a bit, and the old-world charm would start sinking in. The plaster of Paris on walls, deep grey cemented floors and steep steps, fans perched on thick pillars — you begin to realise this is Kolkata, a repository of rich heritage. Soon, those sepia images begin flooding the mind, in a flashback as it were.

FLIES, NOTHING UNUSUAL

Had lunch at one Saptagiri restaurant outside airport. Flies were a major put-off. There was this no-fly zone, the air-conditioned enclosure for which there is a 20% extra charge. But surprisingly, there were few takers for it. Almost everyone, including well-dressed staff of well-known airlines found flies just a part of the Kolkata ambience. In fact, in the airport lounge too, there were a few flies marking their presence.

TAXI MUDDLE

The 6-hour transit halt at Kolkata did tempt me to step out of airport premises to get a feel of this world-renowned metro. Did briefly contemplate rushing to Dakshineshwar temple, on the suggestion of a friend. But quickly abandoned the plan as taxi fares being demanded were as much puzzling as exorbitant.

The first cabbie spoke of Rs 500. Then, a person sitting at a desk under a tree, who we were told is a ‘pre-paid counter’ said the trip would cost us Rs 700. Then, a few cab drivers followed us, with each of them slashing the others’ fare by Rs 100! The whole thing sounded quite funny and scary in equal measure.

To be fair, there is indeed an authorised, well-designated pre-paid taxi counter, where I am sure we would have been offered a reasonable and straightforward deal. But, Kolkata wasn’t a part of my tour itinerary at all, and there was no plan to see any place. Also, there was this highly inhibiting thought about massive traffic jams. Many of my friends discouraged me from going out to the city.

THE BIG SURPRISE

In a way, it was good I stayed put in the airport, for it enabled serendipity to play out in a glorious fashion. After lunch, at the lounge I was killing time with the mobile. And momentarily I looked up and around. I noticed a very familiar face, and I couldn’t believe myself when I realised it was the very same person I’d have missed on my trip to Shillong.

We were travelling in opposite directions, and Kolkata was the transit halt for both of us; and never did we realise that we would run into each other in this crowded airport.

‘DIFFERENT’ GUWAHATI

Touched down at Guwahati airport at 7 pm. What a contrast in comparison to Kolkata. Much smaller and virtually deserted. I was quite impressed by the sensor-operated taps in the washroom; Kolkata had the very ancient variety.

Tomorrow we travel to Shillong. There’s a lot to look forward to, I am told.

Sir Mark Tully, who worked as the correspondent for the BBC from 1965 to 1994, was in Bangalore on October 7 to deliver the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road.

Sir Mark is a celebrity in India. He is sometimes described as more Indian than Indians. Not without reasons. Unlike many other foreign journalists, he contextualized and interpreted better the socio-political and economic events he covered. His reports resonated with deep understanding of the country, and he played a huge role in demystifying India to the world. And he become  easily one of the most acclaimed correspondents, not just in Delhi but in the BBC itself. He has written a number of books, and still does programmes for the BBC. He resides in Delhi.

 

Sir Mark Tully at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, Bangalore.

 

He was gracious to grant me an interview the next day, at the Bangalore Club where stayed overnight. He is a very down-to-earth person, totally bereft of any vanity.

The following is the full text of the interview, an abridged version of which appeared in The Times of India, Bangalore, on October 9.

Sir Mak, you came back to India to start your career in 1964. You have seen at close quarters Indian democracy evolve. How do you compare Indira’s India with Sonia’s India?

Indira’s India was tightly controlled in many ways particularly economically. Indira herself exercised tight control over politics and country. Today there’s much more freedom, particularly economically. That’s one reason the country is flourishing. And politically, Congress party is not as powerful as before. And certainly, Manmohan Singh and Sonia together are not as powerful as Indira was.

The middle class has changed, has become more westernized. More people now have cars and are more mobile than before. Poor people also have changed. They are now more willing to claim their rights. There’s more migration to cities. There was a recent survey that showed that Dalits are not prepared to accept traditions even in rural areas that keep them in subjugation and humiliation.

 

Sir Mark Tully delivers the 9th Dr Stanley Samartha Memorial lecture on religious tolerance, organised by the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue, at the Rotary House of Friendship, Lavelle Road, on Oct 7.

 

 

You spoke about how India has been developing, especially getting westernized. There are people who think this is not the right way forward, and at least some of them think the current Maoist troubles are a result of rampant western commercialization of Indian society…

One of the biggest problems of India is the government’s inability to deliver. India was recently described by an American academic as a “flailing state”. What he meant was that you have many bright people in the IAS, but the machinery for them to implement what they want to is simply not there. So, there are two factors in the tribal areas: One, neglect and inefficiency. Then there is the problem of land acquisition: it becomes an easy issue for the Naxalites.

There’s a policy vacuum, particularly with regard to acquisition of land of poor people in rural areas. And why does it take so long to start thinking of the possibility of people — whose land has been taken away — having some form of share holding in the new projects? Why is it taking so long?

The other problem of land acquisition is the antiquated and inefficient court system. Land disputes are getting stuck in courts for ages. Just as the government machinery is in urgent need of reforms, the courts are also in urgent need of reforms.

Talking of courts… we recently had the Ayodhya verdict. What has not gone unnoticed is the remarkable equanimity with which the people of India accepted the verdict. There was not even the slightest spark of unrest, leave alone major violence, anywhere in the country. Do you think this is symptomatic of the dawn of a New India, an India that is fed up with violence, an India that is eager to move on…?

I am very wary of expressions like ‘dawn of a new India’ etc. India has been changing gradually. I just want to take you back to the days of the telecast of Ramayan on Doordarshan. There was this huge outcry over how it’s a breach of secularism and all. And when I argued that it’d be a great pity if India couldn’t broadcast one of its great epics, I was accused of being pro-Hindu etc., and now you look at the television and you have a whole lot of channels devoted to people preaching Hinduism. This is one of the changes that came about; and now there’s a mature attitude towards religion in India.

And we should also realize that the whole Ayodhya thing was whipped up for political reasons. There was more of politics than religion, actually. If we are not whipping it up this time, it shows that BJP also realizes that the form of extreme Hindu politics does not pay.

Coming back to the verdict, as you’d recall, the judges relied on faith to decide an aspect of the case. All three judges in concurring judgment said the disputed site was the birth place of Lord Ram. Now this was seen by many as a dangerous precedent, wherein the judiciary instead of going by incontrovertible evidence invoked the article of faith to decide a contentious issue. And, it’s also feared that this could be a dangerous precedent for deciding some other similar cases pending in courts… What’s your take on this?

My own position is that the judiciary should have restricted itself to who owns the land legally, and left to the government the decision on whether or not a temple or mosque could be constructed. To bring in the matter of faith, raises a lot of questions. And I am sure the Supreme Court will look into the question.

 

Sir Mark Tully talking to yours truly at the Bangalore Club on October 8.

 

 

The religion of Islam has been going through a troubled phase. Though it’s said that terrorism doesn’t have a religion; it’s a fact that perpetrators of violence have been using the word Islam and Muslim, for reasons they think are legitimate. How do you see this linkage between violence and religion?

What’s important is for religious leaders to stand together and tell very clearly that terrorists are defaming the religion. So it should be possible for Islamic leaders and the local clergy as well to make this clear to everyone.

9/11 brought in a new dimension to Kashmir problem. Some commentators have seen it as a widening of the conflict zone. They feel the insurgency there is now a part of what is called the “wider terror network”….

I think irrespective of 9/11 and related issues, Kashmir is purely an India-Pakistan issue. India has genuine concerns of the message that will go out if the state with the largest Muslim population is cast away. On the Pakistan side, its army is very powerful. It needs the Kashmir issue to justify its existence. If there’s no Kashmir issue, if there’s no enmity with India, what do you need the army for? Now, of course, there’s another need, in the northwest of that country.

It needs two hands to clap, and during Musharraf’s time, it looked as though the two hands were willing to clap. Both India and Pakistan should be willing to make concessions if this problem has to be solved.

Just to take you back to the time you had to leave the BBC… What exactly was then Director-General John Birt trying to and why was it disagreeable to you, forcing you to leave the organization?

He was trying to create a revolution in BBC, whereas I believe in evolution. He denigrated the BBC, he poured scorn on all work the BBC had done previously. The denigration was unjustified and also very damaging. He bureaucratized the organization. He changed it entirely from a position where the responsibility was held at producer/editor levels to where it went to the hands of managers.

Are you aware of the Facebook page in your name, which has over 1,000 fans? How do you see the emergence of online journalism?

No I am not aware of that… Well, there are going to be changes. But I don’t think any media will die. When TV came everyone said that the radio will die. But that hasn’t happened. I don’t think newspapers will die.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

December 6, 1992 will never be forgotten, for all the wrong reasons.

September 30, 2010, will never be forgotten for all the right reasons.

Yesterday’s verdict of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad high court on the Ayodhya land title suits will be remembered for many reasons; and one of them is that it was not an escapist verdict, an easy-way-out-of-a-difficult-situation verdict.

The court addressed controversial issues head-on. One of them was that of faith. All these years, Hindu-leaning parties and organisations have been saying that “matters of faith can never be decided by a court of law”. It was a dangerous proclamation. But luckily all their leaders, most prominently, L K Advani and Narendra Modi, said as loudly as they could, that they would accept the court verdict.

A matter of faith was indeed decided by the court. And now, post-verdict, some commentators — most ironically those not sympathetic to the Hindu viewpoint — are saying that the court shouldn’t have decided on a matter of faith.

It was incidental that in question here was the faith of one community. It could have been the faith of any community.

We all believe in something,
may be something rational,
may be something irrational,
but we all believe in something.
And it’s here that faith comes in.

For a moment, let’s forget the temple and the mosque. Take something very ordinary.

Would we have travelled in a train if we didn’t have faith in the train driver? No, we wouldn’t have. We buy a car because we have faith in the car manufacturer. We go to a doctor because we have faith in his ability to cure us. We approach a teacher because we have faith in her. We live because we have faith in everything that the future holds. Faith is all over the place. Faith does play a big role in our everyday life.

Imagine for a moment if the court had ordered: “Let there be no temple, no mosque; forget 2.77 acre or whatever, get all the land people are fighting over; and let there be a childrens’ playground or a library or an educational complex on it.” That would have looked such an artificial compromise. We need courts to settle disputes; not to cover them up.

It’s a matter of great pride for India’s judiciary that despite all fears being raked up, the issue was addressed, settled and a solution offered. It’s for litigants to agree or disagree. There’s a higher court of appeal. And, it’s such a music to the ears to hear that aggrieved litigants will treat the matter closed once the Supreme Court pronounces the final verdict.

It’s a matter of great pride for Indians that we all exhibited remarkable amount of patience and understanding post-verdict. This was unprecedented. There were no loud, animated, partisan, emotional, discussions and arguments, or fraying of tempers.

September 30, 2010, would also hopefully be remembered as the day India came out of its adolescent years. The day India quietly but powerfully broke off the beaten, dirty path, cut a new lane, on to a new, brighter tomorrow.

Finally, one request to Sonia, Advani, Lalu, Paswan and every other politician on whom the success of our democracy rests: Hope you all politicians saw the way we people reacted. We expect the same maturity from you. Please don’t play politics with this high court verdict. Let’s look ahead and move on. We have had enough of the past.

India has woken up to a new world on the first of October. Tomorrow is Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary. For once, he would have had a reason to smile.