November 5, 2018
Twenty-five years ago, an airline strike forced my wife Nazima and I to undertake a 68-hour bus drive to reach Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, the 21st state of India. Our journey from Siliguri in North Bengal, the gateway to North East India, turned into an accident-prone nightmare, bordering on torture. Aboard our third rattletrap bus, with seats as hard and unforgiving as fossilized wood, our drunk driver inconveniently forgot to fill up his petrol tank, stranding us in the middle of nowhere. In the dead of a pitch-dark night, knee-deep in muck, all the passengers had to get out and push. Luckily, the handiboy discovered some kerosene, enough to get us to the next petrol station in an inebriated state due to the mind-bending fumes. Finally, with a straining of gears, our bus escaped the heat, dust, and pollution of the plains.
Wettest Place on Earth
Nazima and I could breathe again as we negotiated a winding road into the heart of Meghalaya, literally the ‘Abode of Clouds,’ veiled in its climatic phenomenon: the southwestern monsoon that originates in the Bay of Bengal, beginning in May and continuing until October, bringing torrents of rain to its mountainous terrain. Mawsynram Village in the East Khasi district is the world’s rainiest place with a yearly average of 11,871millimeters/468 inches; Cherrapunjee is second at 11,777 millimeters/464 inches.
Meghalaya, bounded by Assam to the north and east, the plains of Bangladesh to the south and west, is one of the ‘Seven Sisters,’ an appellation for India’s seven northeastern states that share common bonds. An offshoot of the Himalayan Mountains, Meghalaya is a supernatural land of evocative memories and extreme beauty. Living root bridges (jing kieng jri) and ancient monoliths (palong) – memorials for ashes of the dead deposited in cairns or for cenotaphs that commemorate memorable events – dot this magical landscape.
Meghalaya is inhabited by three ancient tribes. Many scholars theorize that Khasi and Jaintia are ethnically identical, their origins in Southeast Asia, tracing their descent from common ancestors called the Ri Hynniew Trep (the Seven Families). The Garos, meanwhile, migrated from Tibet. All three tribes follow a matrilineal social system with the family lineage taken from the mother’s side; women rule the roost in Meghalaya.
In Shillong, Nazima and I took a few days off to recuperate and recharge. During the British Raj, Shillong was described as a ‘mini-Scotland,’ its idyllic surroundings and salubrious climate considered suitable for sanatoriums and holiday homes for British civilians suffering from the sweltering heat of the plains. According to one myth, the name Shillong originated from a handsome youth called Shyllong, born under mysterious circumstances to a virgin human who became Shillong’s deity. The phrase khot shillong means to bring peace in times of catastrophe, danger, or personal misfortune.
We played a round of golf at the challenging 18-hole Shillong Golf Links. Before independence, golfers from all over the world came here to test their skills on its greens once considered the best in the world. We also visited the Entomological Museum, a treasure chest of prismatic Meghalayan butterflies, moths and insects, some bred and reared by naturalists, then preserved.
The Sweet Addiction of Betel Nut
Known as kwai for Khasis and Jaintias, gue for the Garos, all three tribes are equally passionate about chewing tasteless betel nuts, either on their own or wrapped in a quid of peppery betel leaf (Piper betle) smeared with a generous dose of calcium hydroxide, slaked lime extracted from the Meghalayan hills rich in limestone. We had been commissioned by the state government to produce and publish a photo book. So on this particular trip, one out of twenty, we traveled to a bri (plantation) in Nongri owned by Nazima’s friend Chippel Wallaphang Roy’s family to investigate how betel nuts (not a true nut but rather a fruit categorized as a berry) were grown.
After a short jeep drive through the East Khasi Hills, we arrived at the starting point for our sweat-staining, humidity-draining, heavy-breathing, thirst-inducing, knee-crunching six-hour steep downhill hike navigating flagstone steps and rough path; our trip back up took seven hours. Once we had reached the bri, Nazima and I found ourselves surrounded by acre upon acre, row upon row of cultivated, tall, slender areca palm trees reaching up to 15meters/50feet in height which thrive in Meghalaya’s humid, wet climate with steep hills providing continual drainage and cloud shade aiding luxuriant growth.
Prodigious clusters of fleshy green fruit pods, which ripen into bright-orange in May and, hung from the trees ready for harvesting; each profitable tree could yield 500 or more nuts.We watched a dozen or so men shimmy up the trees to knock down the pods for the women workers to pick up and sort. In the middle of the bri was a 3.5 meter/12 foot-deep man-made pond stocked with dozens of round bamboo basket corrals where a number of men, up to their necks in muddy-brown water, were immersed, filling each one with betel nuts, then covering them with banana leaves weighed down with heavy stones to soak for a fortnight—a procedure to remove the biting heat from the nuts, rid them of their smell and ensure a steady, fresh supply throughout the year.
Women sat besides huge piles of nuts, slicing off the husks with sharp knives to reveal mature, wood-like, cream-colored, speckled kernels which varied in potency and size. One woman with red-stained-lips and a perpetual smile, sliced the nuts with a special scissor-like contraption. Unconsciously pulling a kwai from a pouch tied around her waist, she popped it into her mouth and chomped on it. After she spat it out, she brushed her kwai-blackened-teeth with a piece of husk. When we looked surprised by her actions, she exclaimed, giggling, “In Meghalaya, kwai is as common as cand…a gift from the gods…enjoyed by man, woman and children alike.”
In concert with an uninitiated drinker who over-indulges in alcohol for the first time, betel nut can be poisonous to virgin systems; with novice chewers receiving more pain than pleasure (betel nut can even cause death if over eaten). I retold Nazima about my first few experiences with betel nut. How, in Saipan, I mistakenly swallowed the juice, which took a stranglehold on my throat and produced heart-attack-like symptoms; how, in a remote Ifaguo Village, deep in the Philippine rice terraces, I chewed betel nut mixed with tobacco, a six-cup-of-coffee-like rush that made my cheeks flush blood-hot-red and my head spun like a Whirling Dervish in full communion with God; how, in Bhutan, the super-potent, fermented nuts (doma) that smelled like poop, paired with extra-strong alkaline paste of slaked lime, cut my tongue and practically burnt holes through my cheeks. Nazima teasingly reminded me that, as a veteran chewer, the doma hadn’t affected her in the least.
According to archaeological evidence, areca/betel nut consumption dates back at least 4,000 years, habitually chewed by estimated one tenth of the world’s population, making it our most common and popular mind-altering “lift,” even exceeding caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. The majority of the users live in India, the largest consumer of betel nuts, used in ayurvedic medicine and enjoyed as paan, a digestive.
The primary active compound in betel nuts, arecoline, is a mild central nervous system stimulant, intoxicating and addictive, technically in the same cholinergic alkaloid group as muscarine, found in Amanita muscaria, the poisonous mushroom known as fly agaric. Chewing betel nut keeps users awake, with slightly-heightened awareness (especially popular among working-age men who drive, fish or work on construction sites for lengthy hours). Besides a sense of well-being and euphoria, betel nut increases respiration while decreasing the workload of the heart, builds stamina, aids digestion, kills pain, alleviates boredom, generates body heat to stave off the damp winter chill. Poor people chew it to fight hunger. It is also a supposed cure for impotence.
Chewing the nut with lime releases the stimulant, increasing salivation. Regular use may lead to dependency or withdrawal symptom – even Meghalayan children are addicted. Since betel nuts destroy the taste buds, chewers can eat the hottest chilies without feeling their devilish effects, leading to an increase in stomach ulcers. Betel nut can cause potentially toxic reactions when used with herbal medicine or pharmaceutical drugs. While betel nuts have anti-cavity properties, heavy chewing results in deleterious effects like permanently stained, worn teeth as well as gum irritation from the lime. Luckily or unluckily, even the toothless can enjoy a crushed form of betel nut which is a proven carcinogen.
Folktales of a Forgotten World
Driving back to Shillong, Nazima and I stopped at a flourishing market where Khasi women sold kwai out of wicker baskets, a common sight across the state. One vendor, named Pullan, who had just finished selling her supply, invited Earl and I into her humble village home.
Pullan narrated a Khasi and kwai folktale about a poor couple who had committed suicide after being unable to treat a rich friend visiting their home. As per custom, Pullan offered us a tray with kwai. We partook as she explained, “According to Khasi folklore, ever since the tragic event, kwai, of special significance to our tribal etiquette, has become a symbol of hospitality, a mark of respect and honor, an integral part of all gatherings, an equalizer between the rich and poor bringing people together regardless of their backgrounds.” Chuckling, Pullan added, “Besides, kwai is so important, my villagers and I use it as a unit of measurement, gauging the distance we have walked by the number of kwai we have chewed.”
Before departing, we thanked Pullan profusely for her kindness who surprised us with her parting statement. “According to a popular Khasi proverb, even people in heaven chew kwai!”